Thursday, July 22, 2010

Hardly Any Versions of Pastoral

I just got back from the country - Sewanee, Tennessee, to be exact. At times, looking out at the gently sloping greenish hills of my native state, I felt far away from city life, which is what I've been used to since leaving the Mid South at the age of 17. Yet even in Sewanee, things are not really what you'd call pastoral. Despite the sparse mountain roads, befogged in the morning and filled with stinging bugs and beat-up cars by mid-day, you don't have to go far to find Interstate highways and their barnacle-like fast food places; Nashville's an hour and a half away by gas-guzzler, and you can fly round the world from the airport there. Even cottages like "Rebel's Rest" on the Sewanee campus (more properly: University of the South) have Wi-Fi now. We're connected almost everywhere!

On my visit, I brought just one book, a small volume by Erik Anderson: The Poetics of Trespass, published by Paul Vangelisti and Guy Bennett's Seismicity Editions (which I adore, as you know). There is no author's note in the book, so I had to surmise things about Anderson, not knowing much about him beforehand. The book itself undulates, is mildly melancholic but not self-advertising. The most direct thing we can tell about Anderson from its pages is that over the course of several weeks during February and March of 2007, he "walked out the letters of the word 'pastoral' across a span of twenty blocks in central Denver." The book contains his reflections of these tracings, and includes tiny maps of his progress. It does not contain what Anderson calls "a second, unwritten text [that] runs parallel to the present one." That unwritten text is actually not a text at all, but a photograph, which depicts the author "lying on a gurney in a busy hallway of what used to be called Denver General Hospital." His face "looks like someone has taken a hammer to it: my nose is off of its axis, pointing down to the left at a 45-degree angle. A large gash runs from the middle of my forehead down into my eye socket, which is nearly swollen shut. I am covered in my own blood. I have been crying." That's as much as we'll know about the incident, except for a very small bit of underreporting that occurs later in the book.

Sound pastoral?

The OED unsurprisingly connects the word with land or country used for pasture; in connection with shepherds and their occupation, the word goes back to the 1400s, making it one of the oldest in English. Even in the sense of literary or musical work pertaining to the shepherd's life it goes back to 1581, with Sidney's verse; amusingly, the first citation they give in this context is his line: "Is it then the Pastorall Poem which is misliked?" I've always disliked the pastoral poem, at least as we're taught it; and have assumed that the pastoral in poetry has been pretty dead since Empson took it on in his famous 1935 book, Some Versions of Pastoral: a difficult and frustrating book, at that. Or maybe dead, in poetry itself, since the "Cold Pastoral!" of Keats's "Ode on a Grecian Urn." I'd be wrong, though; Northrop Frye in a quote that's older than I am, brings us up to at least the 1950s: "The pastoral of popular modern literature is the Western Story," etc., in his Anatomy of Criticism.

To linger with Empson for a moment: he says some interesting things. Writing of Gray's "Elegy," he says:

Many people, without being communists, have been irritated by the complacence in the massive calm of the poem, and this seems partly because they feel there is a cheat in the implied politics; the "bourgeois" themselves do not like literature to have too much "bourgeois ideology." And yet what is said is one of the permanent truths; it is only in degree that any improvement of society could prevent wastage of human powers; the waste even in a fortunate life rich in intimacy, cannot but be felt deeply, and is the central feeling of tragedy. Any anything of value must accept this because it must not prostitute itself; its strength is to be prepared to waste itself, if it does not get its opportunity. A statement of this is certainly non-political because it is true in any society, and yet nearly all the great poetic statements of it are in a way "bourgeois" like this one; they suggest to many readers, though they do not say, that for the poor man things cannot be improved even in degree.

He goes on to argue that the pastoral is permanent, because, as he shows (you may not be convinced, however) it's not dependent on a system of class exploitation. But it's striking that the pastoral seems to have disappeared from Anglo-American poetry in less than a century's time: since Empson wrote those words. (I also like that "place" is implicitly wrenched away from complacency in this quotation.)

So - what a surprise to discover Anderson's odd poetical project! He says about it:

In no way have I set out to alter the physical landscape - to erase or elide any wounds - only to see whether, in the mind's vistas, corners could curve, city turn to countryside, punishment to pleasure, or whether these dualisms mean anything at all.

I confess I started reading the book feeling dubious: it seemed all-too-conceptual. Picturing a guy walking in p, a, s, t, o, r, a, l shapes through the streets and alleyways of Denver didn't entice me. But I was curious enough to read on, and found the book to be humane, haunting, sweet, humble, and - though discursive, of course - nicely constructed. None of those adjectives convey what the book does, which I'll leave to you to discover.

Some damage is done by extraction, but here's a bit from the letter "r," my favorite (!) in the book.


As in the last letter of pastor, from the Latin, meaning shepherd.

Walking down the alley today, out of which space I made the spine of my "r," I saw a mattress and box spring set, baby blue, set upright against a dumpster, "Bed Bugs" in huge black spray-painted letters. My legs, psychosomatically, itched. Farther down the alley, a man in a gray Newport Beach t-shirt and light blue eyeglass frames was wielding a pickaxe like a lunatic, hacking the ice in the alley to pieces. Behind the former home of the Swedish Massage & Steam Baths, a man unzipped his pants and began to piss freely on the pavement.

Man, wrote Heidegger, is the shepherd of Being.


[What I love about this bit is that Anderson says his legs itch, psychosomatically... and then he describes a man who seems to have no legs at all! And how to resist that last line? Here's more.]


Sanity has long been equated with the country - in part because that's where the asylums are. It's all about a change in perspective, a fundamentally pastoral move...


[Anderson then talks about As You Like It, pointing out that the characters' escape to the woods is "charming... but insidious." He notices that the "unhappiest part of the play is the pastoral one: the shepherd, Corin, when he meets the asylum-seekers, has nothing to offer them. He himself has nothing to eat."]

So who shepherds the shepherd? Is there asylum from the asylum?

Distance, as Whitman observed, avails not. Sanctuary turns back on itself, refuge refuses to remain inviolate, and any inviolability retains the seeds of our violation.

Writes Williams: "Man alone / is that creature who / cannot escape suffering / by flight."

[Followed by a discussion of James Schuyler's writing in a kind of asylum, the Payne Whitney Psychiatric Clinic in Manhattan! Followed further by a rumination on a painting by Kitaj...]


[In "t," Anderson argues that "words are inherently a retreat" - and thus "'to be a poet,' as Raymond Williams writes, 'is, ironically, to be a pastoral poet' - one who retreats from the world to its symbols, as though all of language were the field in which, like shepherds singing to their beloveds, the objects of our expressions are to be praised but never touched."]

Francis Ponge's poem, "Notes Toward a Shelfish," begins with a retreat into the form of the shell," which Ponge says he prefers "to the temple at Angkor, Saint-Maclou, or the Pyramids." The shell, he writes, is "more mysterious than these all to incontestable human products." But there's a strange turnabout in the poem: after wishing that people would produce such shells - products more suited to the size of their bodies - Ponge writes that he admires "above all the writers, because their monument is made of the human mollusk's true secretion, the thing best proportioned and adapted to his body, though inconceivably dissimilar in form: I mean LANGUAGE." Writing or speaking, Ponge implies, we're in our most "natural" state: language is always already pastoral.


Language is such a shell. Distrust it though we may, once lived in - once cared for, cultivated, and loved - it will always bear the marks of our existence. No matter how far we run to hide from our names - our own or of things - our responsibility follows us. Spectral presences stalk us in words as in works. Because there is a kind of spell in a seashell, a stamp left on the made, and we operate under that spell. It is to those presences that our debts - which are our distances - must be paid.


[End of quotations.]

I took this lovely book with me to the landlocked and seashell-less country down in Tennessee where, of course, I didn't escape anything, and where, as it happened, I met with people who fool with language to write poems, stories, plays, and essays. This book was excellent and sane company. It will always stay with me. And though I don't find much of the pastoral in contemporary poetry, this book brings it back to life for me in a way no other has.


Joseph Hutchison said...

I haven't read Erik Anderson's book, but he could have "walked out the letters of the word 'pastoral' across a span of twenty blocks in central Denver" by setting foot on the following streets:


Doing so at night could easily land you in what used to be called Denver General Hospital but is now known as Denver Health.

In any case, it sounds like a book worth getting my hands on!

JforJames said...

Very nice what you have written to go along with the quoted passages from Anderson's book.