Celebrating the painter Elstir, the narrator of In Search of Lost Time suggests that for the great artist, the work of painting and the act of being alive are indistinguishable. "Certain bodies, certain callings, certain rhythms" may confirm our ideals so inevitably, says Proust, that "merely by copying the movement of a shoulder, the tension of a neck, we can achieve a masterpiece." The implication here is that art is not the product of the will. More than lack of ambition, it is the inability to surrender to our inevitable callings and rhythms that keeps us from fulfilling our promise.
The word surrender makes this achievement sound easy, as if the victory of each day were to wake up looking exactly like yourself. But even if we all possess certain rhythms, certain callings, not everyone is able to sustain the simple act of recognizing them. The surrender of the will is itself impossible merely to will, and we may struggle with the act of surrender more deeply than we struggle with the act of rebellion. "Now I may wither into the truth," said W. B. Yeats of this process of recognizing oneself, and the word wither seems just right, for the discovery does not feel like a blossoming. Nor does it happen only once, like an inoculation. Proust's Elstir does not inhabit his inevitable self truly until he has achieved great age.
Writers have withered into worldliness and excess; writers have withered into shyness and restraint. Why do the latter virtues so often receive bad press, even from artists who embrace them? In my own experience, plainness can be difficult to separate from dullness, restraint from lack of vision or adequate technique; a young writer may embrace the glamour of excess in order to avoid parsing these discriminations. What's more, the association of artistic achievement with heroic willfulness is endemic, and it is clung to in twenty-first-century America with a fierceness empowered by its fragility: American artists are called great when they are at the frontier, taking the risk, disdaining the status quo, but also landing the movie deal. What happens to the poet who is destined to wither into restraint, the poet whose deepest inclination is to associate risk with submission?
Listen to "The Fish," a poem written by Yeats in the final years of the nineteenth century.
Although you hide in the ebb and flow
Of the pale tide when the moon has set,
The people of coming days will know
About the casting out of my net,
And how you have leaped times out of mind
Over the little silver cords,
And think that you were hard and unkind,
And blame you with many bitter words.
That's one sentence made of sixty words. The sixty words contain seventy-one syllables, some of which receive more stress than others, and like every poet who has ever worked with the English language, writing either formal or free verse, Yeats wants us to hear the relationship of the stressed and unstressed syllables in a particular way; that is, he wants to add an unnatural pattern to the way we naturally pronounce the words. Yeats's pattern rests on his decision to have every line of "The Fish" contain four stressed syllables.
Although you hide in the ebb and flow
But having noticed the consistency of these tetrameter lines, we notice that the consistency exists in tension with an inconsistency. Often only one unstressed syllable precedes a stressed syllable: "Although you hide." This is the iambic rhythm familiar to us from so many English poems, but not one line in Yeats's poem is perfectly iambic. Sometimes two unstressed syllables intervene, making an anapestic rhythm: "in the ebb." In the third line, the second metrical foot is anapestic ("-ple of com"), and in the fourth line, the fourth is anapestic ("of my net"). In the second line, the first and third feet are anapests ("Of the pale"—"when the moon"), and the line is made even wilder by the lack of an unstressed syllable between "pale" and "tide."
Of the pale tide when the moon has set
Why do these variations matter? One of the great advantages of the English language, as a medium for poetry, is its multiplicity of roots: we are used to hearing our original Anglo-Saxon words nestled against imported French or Latinate words in our poetry. Shakespeare: "seas incarnadine." Blake: "invisible worm." If we find this effect in English translations of Baudelaire or Dante we are hearing something that poems written in French or Italian cannot easily do, since those languages are derived more primarily from Latin alone. But while it's difficult to write English poetry without taking advantage of contrasting roots, this is exactly what Yeats does in "The Fish." The fact that the poem contains sixty words but only seventy-one syllables means that Yeats employs shockingly few multisyllabic words. Almost every word in the poem is derived from the language's Germanic base (ebb, flow, tide, moon, set), and this restraint drives the poem's rhythmic sophistication. Without the subtle variation of the metrical pattern through which the poem's single sentence moves, the poem's almost unrelievedly monosyllabic diction would fall flat.
Yeats was a great Victorian poet who happened to live long enough to become a great modern poet, so we tend not to think of his early verse as an achievement in its own right. But when Ezra Pound looked back over the history of modern poetry in The Pisan Cantos, remarking that "to break the pentameter, that was the first heave," he was thinking of the rhythmic delicacy of the early Yeats. Notoriously, Yeats changed, but I hear that delicacy in middle-period Yeats.
The trees are in their autumn beauty,
The woodland paths are dry,
Under the October twilight the water
Mirrors a still sky;
Upon the brimming water among the stones
Are nine-and-fifty swans.
And I hear it in later Yeats as well.
Under my window-ledge the waters race,
Otters below and moor-hens on the top,
Run for a mile undimmed in Heaven's face
Then darkening through 'dark' Raftery's 'cellar' drop,
Run underground, rise in a rocky place
In Coole demesne, and there to finish up
Spread to a lake and drop into a hole.
What's water but the generated soul?
From the beginning until the end of his career Yeats delighted in stanzas (or complete poems) constituting one syntactical swoop. While the stanza from the later "Coole and Ballylee, 1931" is obviously two sentences, the final one-liner alerts us to the length of the sentence preceding it, highlighting its elegant attenuation. And while the stanza is cast in ottava rima (the stanza Byron used for Don Juan, rhymed abababee), Yeats's syntax retains the clarity of discursive prose. It travels through the intricate stanza as effortlessly as the underground river it describes.
In the stanza from "The Wild Swans at Coole" Yeats cheats a little, since the punctuation joins what could be independent clauses—clauses in which the syntax is shockingly mundane: the trees are, the paths are, the swans are. What's more, Yeats is working not with a highly literary stanza like ottava rima but with our most predictable stanza: the first four lines are cast in common measure, the stanza we associate with ballads and hymns—iambic tetrameter lines alternating with iambic trimeter lines. No great poem in the language begins by so dramatically relinquishing the means of verbal power.
The trees are in their autumn beauty;
The woodland paths are dry.
After hearing these two lines, you expect something like "This poet will write poetry / Until the day he dies."
The third line disrupts our expectations. Yeats flips its initial iamb into a trochee ("under"), then follows this inverted foot with an anapest, giving us three unstressed syllables in a row ("Under the October"). The final foot is also larded with unstressed syllables, making the whole line feel weirdly flat in a different way—not rhythmically predictable but lacking in tension: "Under the October twilight the water." The next line begins again with a trochee and ends with a spondee ("Mirrors a still sky"), but the stanza concludes with lines that return to the mostly iambic regularity (and flaccid predication) with which the stanza began: "Upon the brimming water among the stones / Are nine-and-fifty swans." Why did Yeats go to such lengths to keep the language of' "The Wild Swans at Coole" from taking flight?
The poem's diction is not as resolutely Germanic as that of "The Fish," but reinforced by the bland syntax, the bald repetitions, and the lost opportunities for rhythmic variation, it creates a soundscape in which even the smallest disruption will feel like a thunderclap. The storm breaks loose in the second line of the poem's final stanza.
But now they drift on the still water,
These Latinate words—mysterious, beautiful—are not in themselves terribly unusual or challenging, but the poem makes them feel that way. The sound of these two words, wedged together to make one elegant trimeter line, feels incantatory, revelatory, a release from the poem's almost relentlessly stolid verbal landscape. Yeats achieves the same effect in "The Tower," a sudden intrusion of Latinate diction conspiring once again with a trimeter line: "being dead, we rise, / Dream and so create / Translunar paradise."
When I was a student, I was taught to think of the plain style in English poetry as something epitomized in the Renaissance by Ben Jonson and championed more recently by poets like Yvor Winters and Thom Gunn. I was taught to think of Yeats as a poet of large-scale rhetorical effects. But no matter how arcane his cosmology, no matter how wild his thought, Yeats's sentences exhibit a restraint related to but different from the plain style. So do William Blake's.
O Rose, thou art sick.
The invisible worm,
That flies in the night
In the howling storm:
Has found out thy bed
Of crimson joy:
And his dark secret love
Does thy life destroy.
So do Andrew Marvell's.
What wondrous life in this I lead!
Ripe apples drop about my head;
The luscious clusters of the vine
Upon my mouth do crush their wine;
The nectarene, and curious peach,
Into my hands themselves do reach;
Stumbling on melons, as I pass,
Ensnared with flowers, I fall on grass.
What exactly do these poems have in common?
The poets I've invoked were influenced by the plain style, but each of them sits uncomfortably to the side of that tradition. Rather than fostering a poetry of direct statement, they employ extremely restrained diction in order to suggest something other than what the language of the poem also denotes, something spooky or mythic. Reading "The Sick Rose," we know immediately that this rose is an emblem for certain notions about human sexuality, though we also know it is a rose. Reading "The Wild Swans at Coole," we feel that the woods, the path, and the swans are luring us into a landscape at once physical and spiritual. The poems don't require any allegorical machinery to establish this effect: the restraint of the language itself—the immediate sense that we are being told far less than we could be told—establishes a decorum in which the clear sense of what is being said raises the mysterious specter of why it is being said.
Of the poems I've mentioned so far, Yeats's "Coole and Ballylee, 1931" is most self-conscious about this procedure: the one-line sentence that concludes its opening stanza is almost sly ("What's water but the generated soul?"), since by the time we've reached this line we've realized that, however brilliantly the poem is describing the intricate pathway of water, it's also conjuring a world elsewhere. The word soul rhymes tellingly with hole: the language of the poem rises to heaven because it cleaves to the earth.
Marvell's "The Garden" is more subtle, since its language accomplishes this heavy lifting while seeming not to flex a muscle. The very title of the poem feels at once satisfyingly concrete and at the same time immensely suggestive, and in the stanza I've quoted from the middle of the poem, we are treated to a cornucopia of sensuous detail—ripe apples, vines, nectarines, the curious peach—all of it delivered to us in lapidary couplets of seemingly effortless simplicity. But while we feel seduced by this sensual world, just as the speaker of the poem is treated to its solicitude, we feel simultaneously that we are entering translunar paradise. The wonder of the world's solicitude is unexplained, as if such gratification of our desires were utterly commonplace, and, as a result, the physical act of falling on the grass, sinking into its lusciousness, feels curiously evocative of a spiritual threshold.
The next stanza confirms this feeling.
Meanwhile the mind, from pleasures less,
Withdraws into its happiness:
The mind, that ocean where each kind
Does straight its own resemblance find,
Yet it creates, transcending these,
Far other worlds, and other seas,
Annihilating all that's made
To a green thought in a green shade.
The syntax of this poem could not be more perspicuous, the diction could not be more precise. But as in the lines by Yeats and Blake, the language feels inexplicably complex by virtue of its restraint, by virtue of implications the language raises but does not acknowledge having raised. The fifth and seventh lines are dominated by complex Latinate words (transcending, annihilating) while the sixth and eighth lines are made exclusively of simple Germanic words, the most important word in each line used twice: "Far other worlds, and other seas"—"To a green thought in a green shade." The diction of the final line is relentlessly monosyllabic, but its meaning feels at least as complex as the more obviously rich line preceding it. To be asked to consider the relationship of a "green thought" and a "green shade" is to feel the simple word green grow thick with connotation; the meaning of the line feels at once utterly plain and endlessly elusive. So does the sound. For while the Latinate word dominating the penultimate line nestles comfortably into a regular tetrameter ("Annihilating all that's made"), the final lines monosyllables disrupt it—not "To a green thought in a green shade" but "To a green thought in a green shade." Like the soul, to which the poem turns in the next stanza, this line luxuriates in the "various light."
Recently, when I happened to return to "The Garden" after many years, I discovered that everything I love about poetry is epitomized by this poem. It was as if the poem were a house I'd lived in all my life without knowing it. It was as if the poem (along with the poems I've associated with it) so determined the satisfaction I derive from poetry that the deepest act of artistic originality was inevitably an act of recapitulation, an embrace of otherness. If we all possess, as Proust suggests of Elstir, our inevitable callings, our particular rhythms, they are not original to us. The world makes us, but until we're able to wither into the limitations of ourselves, we cannot see the world.
Some of the poems that shaped me are metered and rhymed, while others are written in free verse of various kinds. In each case, what captured me was a quality of diction and syntax, a quality that our commonplace vocabulary of innovation and tradition is not well equipped to describe. In the wake of the various modernist disruptions of poetic decorum, stillness and restraint often became associated with the kind of poems we call traditional, while energy and excess were claimed by the poems we call innovative. Today, ambitious young poets write snap-crackle prose poems, while twenty years ago they wrote mordant quatrains. It's only a matter of moments before the pendulum swings back.
How crucial, then, the unprescribable exception, the poem that serves language rather than playing to taste.
Mary in the noisy seascape
Of the whitecaps
Of another people's summer
Talked of the theologians so brave
In the wilderness she said and off the town pier
Rounding that heavy coast of mountains
The night drifts
Over the rope's end
Brilliant beneath the boat's round bilges
In the surface of the water
George Oppen's diction is severely winnowed: only a handful of words derived from French or Greek (brilliant, barnacle, theology) disrupt this English seascape, which is dominated by nouns and phrases that sound like spondaic Anglo-Saxon kennings or compound words (seascape, whitecaps, rope's end, glass world). The syntax is similarly plain, its difficulties a matter not of subordination but of compression and juxtaposition. Prepositions direct us up or down. Mary is in a boat talking about theologians in the wilderness. Over the boat drifts night. Beneath the boat lies heaven. Over the land floats the breath of barnacles, and over the sea float hen coops—or at least we're tempted to see them floating there by the accumulation of unpunctuated prepositional phrases with which the poem concludes.
Breath of the barnacles
Like "The Seafarer," the Anglo-Saxon poem that Oppen inevitably invokes, "Inlet" is about finding the earth in the sky, the spiritual in the physical, and the poem's language embodies the discovery the poem describes. Working in the opposite direction from Yeats, Oppen makes the most ordinary Anglo-Saxon words sound like revelation.
The poet who rounds the "heavy coast of mountains" to see "heaven / Brilliant beneath the boat's round bilges" knows that the words heavy and heaven are derived from the same word, that heaven is an archaic past participle of heave. With its multiplicity of roots, English is one of the few European languages with different words for heaven and sky: in English, whatever is in heaven has been heaved there from the world below.
Each poem I've discussed has enacted this heavy lifting. Precision, these poems suggest, is not opposed to mystery. In fact, mystery depends on our attention to the particular nature of particular English words—on the way in which our language permits us to hear one kind of word (big, small) as strategically plainer and possibly even less interesting than another kind of word that means about the same thing (immense, minute). These kinds of choices are made in all English poems, not to mention everyday speech; but not all poems take strategic advantage of those choices, making what might otherwise seem like a retreat to stillness and restraint feel laden with connotation."Shepherds are honest people; let them sing," said the seventeenth-century poet George Herbert, Marvell's contemporary. Misquoting this line in "Inlet" ("Shepherds are good people let them sing"), Oppen knew as well as Herbert did that rustic shepherds are notorious for saying elaborate things whenever they show up in poems. Plainness, these poets suggest, is never simple.
Neither is the road on which a poet travels to this realization, inevitable as it might seem. Although he ended his life with the dignity of Proust's Elstir, Oppen waited half a lifetime to wither into the truth of himself. As a young man, he published the preternaturally sophisticated Discrete Series in 1934. Then commenced a silence that didn't end until almost three decades later with the appearance of Oppen's second book, The Materials, in 1962. Exactly what made poems return to him seems obscure; even the explanations Oppen himself provided strike me as insufficient, and I suspect that his late withering seemed as mysterious to him as it does to anyone else. Less obscure to me is the sense that Oppen's career magnifies what is at stake when any writer faces the empty page, then finds it full. More threatening is my suspicion that Oppen's complete surrender of the will to write was itself the fuel for his achievement.
Not everyone is by nature so stoic, nor does anyone need to be—unless stoicism distinguishes him truly. My point is not that anyone ought necessarily to strive to write like Oppen or Marvell or any other writer. Nor is it my intention to hold up the virtues of restraint as inevitably superior to any other virtues. "Idolatry of the forms which had inspired it," says Proust, "a tendency to take the line of least resistance, must gradually undermine an Elstir's progress." Which is to say that the virtue of restraint (or anything else) cannot be guaranteed, and neither may its inevitability be assumed in a poem that does not yet exist. Restraint will move you if such values distinguish the poems you must write—against your own will. Yeats, Oppen, or Marvell will matter if you learn to hear yourself by listening to them. The greatest poems we will write already exist, and the work of a lifetime is to recognize them as our own.
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About the Author
James Longenbach is the author of four poetry collections, including The Iron Key and Draft of a Letter, and six works of criticism, including The Art of the Poetic Line and The Resistance to Poetry, as well as numerous essays and reviews. He is Joseph Henry Gilmore Professor of English at the University of Rochester.
The Virtues of Poetry