Friday, November 23, 2007

Which poets should we remember? I mean, forget?

Charles Simic reviews the Edwin Arlington Robinson bio by Scott Donaldson, and the latter's selection of E.A.R.'s poems for the Everyman Library, in the December 6th issue of The New York Review of Books, and here's his opening line:

"How many readers of poetry today recognize the names of Edmund Clarence Stedman, William Vaughn Moody, Louise Imogen Guiney, Celia Thaxter, or Trumbull Stickney? There is no reason why they should..."

Um, I recognized 'em, and I'm no scholar. They're actually anthologized, and were rather important figures in early twentieth-century American poetry.

Just as an example, Stickney, whom yes, you should remember; it's not Stickney's fault he died young.

Try this one on:

by Trumbull Stickney

It’s autumn in the country I remember.

How warm a wind blew here about the ways!
And shadows on the hillside lay to slumber
During the long sun-sweetened summer-days.

It’s cold abroad the country I remember.

The swallows veering skimmed the golden grain
At midday with a wing aslant and limber;
And yellow cattle browsed upon the plain.

It’s empty down the country I remember.

I had a sister lovely in my sight:
Her hair was dark, her eyes were very sombre;
We sang together in the woods at night.

It’s lonely in the country I remember.

The babble of our children fills my ears,
And on our hearth I stare the perished ember
To flames that show all starry thro’ my tears.

It’s dark about the country I remember.

There are the mountains where I lived. The path
Is slushed with cattle-tracks and fallen timber,
The stumps are twisted by the tempests’ wrath.

But that I knew these places are my own,
I’d ask how came such wretchedness to cumber
The earth, and I to people it alone.

It rains across the country I remember.


Not bad, eh?

Simic figures it's ok to forget these poets, but not Robinson, and I imagine most folks wouldn't really disagree; I'm saying that's a shame. And even Robinson wrote much that Simic feels can be safely forgotten (he's still writing against collections of poetry that have too many pages in them, I guess). E.A.R. had said that "Poetry is a language that tells us, through a more or less emotional reaction, something that cannot be said;" Simic quotes it to show that Robinson didn't keep it in mind enough when he wrote those long poems that once helped make his reputation.

I can't say what or whom it's ok to forget, but why advocate a kind of poetry-amnesia? There's much to be learned from and enjoyed in the poets mentioned above. No harm in reading them even if they aren't contemporary enough for you, or don't keep you endlessly entertained and illuminated. You decide that they're bad and forgettable, there but for the grace of the Muses... go you. And me.

Addendum: see Al Filreis's blogpost on Moody!

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