Friday, June 6, 2008

Nettles for the fire

Whilst birding (if you can call wandering around an urban bird sanctuary birding) with Gary Snyder, he and I chatted briefly about Bunting and Pound, which led him to remark in mock bemusement, "I'm just now discovering that The Cantos was a flawed poem!" And then more seriously that though many folks assume he got his monosyllabic prosody from Asian-language poetry (which he studied), in fact he got it from Pound. (I've always thought Frank Sinatra to be the twentieth-century master of monosyllabic prosody, but that's a subject for another day.)

Where poets get things from is not usually a great mystery. For about three years, I scrutinized the books we know that Basil Bunting had owned, and sure enough, they document that his influences were precisely what he said they were. Many poets are trickier than that, needless to add (though Bunting was quite a trickster himself in many ways), but even possum-Eliot isn't very mysterious. When he promulgated that business about the escape from personality, he was partly channeling his Unitarian roots - and his poetic ones, too: Coleridge, in a letter, assured a correspondent that he was the "first man, from whom I heard that article of my Faith distinctly enunciated, which is the nearest to my Heart, the pure fountain of all my moral & religious Feelings & Comforts - I mean the absolute Impersonality of the Deity." Of course, both Eliot and Coleridge changed their religious views, becoming more, as it were, conservative (or, you might say, traditional) - but their work records this as a struggle.

Amusingly, Eliot called Coleridge "the greatest of English critics, and in a sense the last." Like everyone else, Eliot had reservations about Coleridge - in Eliot's case, because "a literary critic should have no emotions except those immediately provoked by a work of art - and these ... are, when valid perhaps not to be called emotions at all. Coleridge is apt to take leave of the data of criticism, and arouse the suspicion that he has been diverted into a metaphysical hare-and-hounds." Coleridge, he says, is an example of "the pernicious effect of emotion." ("The Perfect Critic") Late in his life, though, Eliot concluded an essay by saying: "I am content to leave my theorizing about poetry at this point. The sad ghost of Coleridge beckons to me from the shadows." (I don't know what Coleridge was beckoning Eliot toward, but it appears that Eliot was by then suffering the pernicious effect of some emotion himself.)

About those "metaphysical hare-and-hounds" - well, as Coleridge wrote in another letter, "Southey once said to me: You are nosing every nettle along the Hedge, while the Greyhound (meaning himself, I presume) wants only to get sight of the Hare, & FLASH!—strait as a line! he has it in his mouth!—Even so, I replied, might a Cannibal say to an Anatomist, whom he had watched dissecting a body. But the fact is—I do not care two pence for the Hare, but I value most highly the excellencies of scent, patience, discrimination, free Activity; and find a Hare in every Nettle I make myself acquainted with."

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