Wednesday, September 11, 2013

W.B.Yeats on Joyce's Poetry:the purpose of technic

They met in Dublin in 1902.  Joyce had been angling for an introduction through AE. He admired Yeats and could recite some of his poems from memory.

There are various versions of what was said.

Yeats was King of the Cats and Joyce had published very little except an attack on the Irish National theatre.  Both Forster and Ellmann read the meeting as symbolic for modern literature (in different ways), but all the versions agree that Joyce was very rude and Yeats was not put off by his arrogance,  although he may later have commented: “Never Have I seen so much pretension with so little so show for it.”

So imagine an unpublished Undergraduate at Oxford wrangling a meeting with Sir Geoffrey Hill, and reading him her poems. He praises them and then she says:
”I really don’t care whether you like what I am doing or not. It won’t make the least difference to me. Indeed, I don’t know why I’m reading to you.” (Joyce qtd. by Yeats qtd. by Ellmann)  
Sadly I can imagine someone doing this in 2013. It sounds like the appalling lack of manners and tact that gets excused as “raw honesty” by posturing idiots.

Joyce also explained to Yeats: “All his objections to everything I have ever done.”  And left with the famous parting shot: “I am twenty. How old are you? I told him, but I am afraid I said I was a year younger than I am. He said with a sigh, “I thought as much I have met you too late. You are too old”.

Yeats doesn’t seem to have been offended and went out of his way to help Joyce find publishers.

Over thirty years later he included 3 poems in his anthology of modern verse. They come from Pomes Penny Each. Given the space he gave Ruddock, Gogarty and Wellesley and the praise and space he gave to Walter James Turner,  this is no real recommendation.

As I’m working my way through Yeats’ collected works, it’s increasingly obvious that Yeats as critic is at his best in his letters. Whatever lunatic claims he might make for Wellesley or Rudock, his letters to them balance praise with telling criticism. Yeats’ judgement when he’s writing about what he called ‘technic’ or giving advice about a particular poem, has so far been worth considering.  And on consideration always seems valuable.

He kept Joyce’s poems and Epiphanies to read more closely and then wrote Joyce what Ellmann calls,  “a long and complimentary letter”.  It’s complimentary because Ellmann only had a fragment and both he and Forster quoted the first half  (Ellman 108 and Forster vol 1 277) … Yeats wrote:

The work which you have actually done is very remarkable for a man of your age who has lived away from the vital intellectual centres. Your technique in verse is much better than the technique of any young Dublin Man I have met during my time. …However, men have started with as good promise as yours and have failed and men have started with less and have succeeded. The qualities that make a man succeed do not show in his verse, often, for quite a long time. They are much less qualities of talent than qualities of character-faith (of this you have probably enough), Patience, adaptability (without this one learns nothing) and a gift for growing by experience and this perhaps is rarest of all.

The Letter is given in full in My Bother’s Keeper (208) and after the praise comes the criticism Yeats was so good at in his letters…

I think the poem that you have sent me has a charming rhythm in the second stanza, but I think it is not one of the best of your lyrics as a whole. I think that the thought is a little thin. Perhaps I will make you angry when I say that it is the poetry of a young man who is practising his instrument, taking pleasure in the mere handling of the stops.  It went very nicely in its place with the others, getting a certain richness from the general impression of all taken together, and from your own beautiful reading. Taken apart by itself it would please a reader who had got to know your work but it would not in itself draw attention to that work

 Pound would say much the same thing about some of the poems in Chamber Music.

 Here, as in nearly every poem, the motif is so slight that the poem scarcely exists until one thinks of it as set to music, and the workmanship is so delicate that out of twenty readers scarce one will notice its fineness.

But for Pound, being that one who noticed was important: writing the kind of poem only one out of twenty might value was the mark of the “True Artist”.  True Artists did not write for ‘the mob’.

I prefer Yeats’ attitude. It’s not enough to be able to play the instrument. You have do something with it that is worth the price of admission.

Perhaps a neat antidote to all those formalist poets “Practicing their stops” and offering the reader little more than the spectacle of a would be virtuoso endlessly running up and down the same set of scales.

Friday, September 6, 2013

Ezra Pound on James Joyce's Poems. "Stuff them in the Family Bible".

I thought Pound told Joyce his poems were only worth stuffing in the family Bible. But tracing sources it’s not so straightforward. I must have got the phrase from:

Ezra Pound: The Solitary Volcano by John Tyrell,  Bloomsbury London 1987

‘His relations with Joyce had cooled since Joyce had showed him a manuscript of poems later published as Pomes Penny each . Condescendingly Pound had recommended that Joyce stuff the poems in the family bible or family photograph album. It was an example a new brutal insensitivity and Pound displayed a similar vein of it to Yeats a few years later'.  (P192)(M italics)

So Pound was trashing Joyce’s poems. Or was he? 

The use of the verb “stuffed” does sound like “brutal insensitivity”. But ‘stuffed’ is the biographer’s verb.  Going back to the letters, which are the stated source of this event, and checking with Ellmann’s Biography of Joyce, it becomes obvious that more was happening than this simple version allows.

Firstly, Joyce was responding to Pound’s criticism of “Work in Progress” which would later become Finnegans Wake… Pound had written: “Nothing,  so far as I can make out, nothing short of divine vision or a new cure for the clap can possibly be worth all the circumambient periperization”.  Pound letter dated 15th November 1926 (and that might be described as blunt or brutal depending on your preference.) 

Joyce wrote to Harriet Shaw Weaver: Feb 1 1927

It is possible Pound is right [about Work in progress]  but I cannot go back. I never listened to his objections to Ulysses as it was being sent him once I had made up my mind but dodged them as tactfully as I could. He understood certain aspects of the book very quickly and that was more than enough then.  He makes brilliant discoveries and howling blunders.  P249  Letters of James Joyce Vol. 1 ed Stuart Gilbert,  New York, the Viking press 1957

As Ellmann then narrates:

Joyce thought at first he should check Pound’s criticism by showing him the manuscript of the thirteen poems he had written since Chamber Music, which at the suggestion of Mrs. Arthur Symons he was thinking of having published. But this overture did not work out well. Pound handed them back without a word. Joyce pressed him for an opinion and Pound said: “They belong in the bible or in the family album with the portraits”. “You don’t think they are worth reprinting at any time?” Joyce asked. ”No, I don’t”, said Pound and began to extol the work of a young man he had just discovered named Ralph Cheever Dunning. Joyce read Dunning, and got Miss Weaver to read him. She agreed it was poor stuff. Joyce then, at the  beginning of March, asked Archibald Macleish to read his new poems and MacLeish sent him two letters so enthusiastic as to renew Joyce’s self esteem, confirm him in his opinions of Pound’s caprice, and encourage him to have his poems published under the modest title of Pomes Pennyeach.     Ellmann James Joyce. 603/604

Ellmann’s ‘they belong in the bible or the family album with the portraits’  gives Joyce’s version of Pound’s words. They lack the obvious 'brutality' of “stuff”. You might put things in either which are valuable keepsakes.

Joyce had only shown two poems to Pound. Not all thirteen. And what neither biographical version acknowledges is Joyce’s “worth reprinting”.  8 of the poems in Pomes Pennyeach had appeared in Poetry as long ago as 1917.  They were dated.  They were hardly going to strengthen Joyce’s reputation post Ulysses. In retrospect if they weren't written by one James Joyce they would have been forgotten years ago along with Dunning's. 

The stated source for this event in both biographies is a letter of Joyce’s to Harriet Shaw Weaver 18 Feb 1927 which clears up what Joyce showed Pound.

Tyrell claims it was “ a manuscript of poems”,  Ellmann says Joyce showed Pound “the manuscript of the thirteen poems he had written since Chamber Music, which at the suggestion of Mrs. Arthur Symons he was thinking of having published.”

Joyce wrote:

Some time ago Mrs Symons asked me (from her Husband) If I had not written any verse since Chamber music and if it would collect. I sad it would make a book half as big but I did not trust my opinion of it as I rarely thought of verse. There are about fifteen pieces in all, I think, and I suppose someone someday will collect them. I mentioned this to Pound and ask could I show him,  say two.  I left them at his hotel A few days after I met him and he handed me back the envelope but said nothing.  asked him what he thought of them and he said: They belong in the bible or the family album with the portraits. I asked: You don’t think they are worth reprinting at any time? He said no, I don’t. Accordingly I did not write to Mr Symons. it was only after having read Mr. Dunning’s drivel which Pound defends as if it were Verlaine that I thought the affair over from another angle. They are old things but are they so bad that Rocco is better than their poorness…Letters, Volume 3, Ed Ellmann (p155)

Rocco was a book of poems by Dunning which had won Poetry’s verse contest. William Carlos Williams didn’t understand Pound’s enthusiasm for Dunning either (Tyrell, EP Solitary etc p192).  Since Poetry Chicago’s archive is now on line, it’s easy to read Dunning’s poetry and share WC Williams and Joyce’s confusion. 

In retrospect Pound was probably right about the Pomes. In 1927 Pomes Penny Each, with the exception of 'Night Piece',  would have looked like refugees from the 1890s. A bad imitation of Young Yeats. A good example of the truth that formal skill does not necessarily produce worthwhile poems. 

See the next post for Yeats and Pound on Joyce as a poet.   

Thursday, September 5, 2013

Graves on the Poet's freedom and responsibilities.

In the first of his Clark lectures given in 1954, (Collected Writings on Poetry 134ff) Robert Graves discussed the freedom of the poet from institutional verification or professional associations as ‘The Crowning Privilege’.

Unlike stockbrokers, soldiers, sailors, doctors, lawyers, parsons, English poets do not form a closely integrated guild. A poet may set up his brass plate, so to speak, without the tedious preliminaries of attending a university, reading the required books and satisfying examiners. A poet, also, being responsible to no General Council, and acknowledging no personal superior, can never be unfrocked, cashiered, disbarred, struck of the register, hammered on ’Change, or flogged round the fleet, if he is judged guilty of unpoetic conduct. The only limits legally set on his activities are the acts relating to libel, pornography, treason and the endangerment of public order. And if he earns the scorn of his colleagues, what effective sanctions can they take against him? None at all. 

The Ugly Little Man's Version: Rewriting Rumpelstiltskin

New Poem in a New Journal.

The Journal is Meniscus, the poem 'The Ugly Little Man's Version.',%20Issue%201%20%5BFINAL%5D.pdf

My Aunt used to tell me this story. The bit I waited for was the end.  A list of increasingly ludicrous non-names:  "Is it Humbly Stumbly?". "No!".  The Queen's voice became more desperate as the names sillier: Rumple's became more gleeful with each wrong guess.  When he stamps his foot in rage and stamps so hard his foot gets stuck in the ground and he pulls so hard he pulls himself in half,  H who  was a good mimic,  made that final shriek worth the wait.

There's an early French version called Ricdin Ricdon which is anything but understated. The girl has a name, and the story's version of the father's famous boast, which is made a by a woman, is a sarcasm which is taken literally. Ricdin Ricdon gives the girl a magic wand on one condition. He will return for it in a year, and she must say his name...WHICH HE TELLS HER.  I know it's a fairy tale, but how hard would it be to remember "Ricdin Ricdon". Who is a demon, or the devil, and after her soul. It's very ..very ...long. And involves family histories and various other generic whatnots.

The House Hold Tales version is a masterpiece of compression. Nothing is explained. The Miller makes his stupid boast, the King puts it to the test. Each time Rumple saves her she gives him something, and finally promises him her first child. Why he wants the child is not explained. The Miller's daughter, who is never given a first name, becomes The Queen. We don't hear what she thinks about this. To parallel the three spinnings, Rumple gives her three chances to guess his name. Finally, she does so. He screams in rage and pulls himself in two.

I wondered what his version of the story might be.

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Kavanagh on Yeats..scattered notes

Moving from Geoffrey Hill or Christopher ricks as Critics to someone like Patrick Kavanagh there is a distinct shifting of gears. Downwards. What follows are scattered notes on Kavanagh's stated attitudes about Yeats.   References are to three books edited by Antoinette Quinn: CP  Collected Poems 2004, PK Patrick Kavanagh a Biography 2nd ed 2003 and APC A Poet's Country: Selected Prose 2003

Kavanagh's last printed poem.. (CPp259) first published in 1966

Yeats, it was very easy for you to be frank,
With your sixty years and loves (like Robert Graves).
It was thin and, in fact, you have never put the tank
On a race. Ah! Cautious man who no sin depraves.
And it won’t add up, at least in my mind
To what it takes in the living poetry stakes.
I don’t care what Chicago thinks; I am blind
To college lecturers and the breed of fakes;
I mean to say I’m not blind really,
I have my eyes wide open, as you may imagine,
And I am aware of our own boys, like Ben Kiely
Buying and selling literature on the margin.
Yes Yeats, it was damned easy for you, protected
By the middle classes and the Big Houses
To talk about the sixty year old public protected
Man sheltered by the dim Victorian public muses.

Kavanagh was invited to talk at a symposium in Chicago in April 1965 to celebrate the Centenary of Yeats' birth (Quinn PK 428 ff). Quinn wrote that Kavanagh "Had serious reservations about appearing to do obeisance to Yeats".  He decided to take the free trip but treat the event with contempt. 

Friday 30th April ‘All hell broke loose.’ Pk had asked to speak last.

By coming this long distance to speak about or around w.b.yeats it presumes that we think him a great poet and a great man. But I have always had reservations about Yeats. The fact he wasn’t Irish and never wrote a line that an ordinary Irish person would read is not against him. No true poet ever wrote for the ordinary man or woman…. (Qtd Quinn PK 430)

When asked in the ensuing debate what motivated his attack on Yeats Kavanagh replied:”Spite”. As insults were traded Stpehen Spender, the moderator intervened to say there was no point in continuing a discussion which amounted to little more than a trading of insults. (Quinn PK 430)

In his published writing Kavanagh was more ambivalent. Though the ambivalence may be a fault of style rather than attitude. 

From a Review of Joseph Hone, W.B. Yeats in The Standard, 26th Feb 1943 p.2 (qtd Quinn, APC p177)

The foundation of the Abbey Theatre, his reactions to 1916 and the constant delight of his poetry are rich compensations for having to suffer the crowds of silly women and charlatans in Yeats litany of saints. What a marvellous technician he was. He could produce magic in verse almost automatically. He was a brilliant poet yet somehow I feel that a truly great poet would not have been all his life the mere mirror of the phases of his time but would have spoken the unchanging beauty.

In an article called George Moore’s Yeats published in the Irish Times, Yeats centenary supplement, June 1965 after he had returned from Chicago, Kavanagh’s attitude is harder to pin down. He tends to ramble. He sounds like he’s talking to himself and can’t be bothered to go back and sort out exactly what is his opinion. Great critical literary intelligence he is not.

He reads as though he hasn’t got the material under control: has too much to say and in consequence never quite says anything clearly. And there’s a vein of sly spite which recalls the vindictiveness underlying ‘On Raglan Road’.

He begins with a fairly emphatic statement (182): I fear we are getting too serious about Yeats. There is no doubt now that he was a great poet and probably the last great poet the earth will produce. 

He then qualifies Great…It implies bad heroic art-like Rodin’s or even Michelanglo’s…I don’t think Yeats was great in that way, and that he had enough of small simplicity in him to be truly great.
And yet I wonder had he?
If I seem to be a bit wobbly about Yeats’ simple greatness,  it is not so much the detachment of his verse as his ability to integrate himself with Bourgeois society.  (184)

In presenting the grounds of his judgement Kavanagh reveals the weakness of his criteria and the limitation of his criticism.

 There is another defect in Yeats-his dislike of ideas. He maintained that ideas were for the pulpit, It may be that he knew his limitations. Reading De Quincey’s reminisces of the Lakers….Coleridge and Wordsworth and Southey-I couldn’t think of him as a man in the intellectual class of these.
Nor has the written a poem as memorable as the least of these-Southey’s Blenheim. (184)

Kavanagh doesn’t quote the poem, but it begins…

IT was a summer evening,
Old Kaspar's work was done,
And he before his cottage door
Was sitting in the sun,
And by him sported on the green
His little grandchild Wilhelmine.

She saw her brother Peterkin
Roll something large and round
Which he beside the rivulet
In playing there had found;
He came to ask what he had found,
That was so large, and smooth, and round.

To argue that Yeats wasn’t on the same intellectual level as Coleridge is to say little: very few people were or have been on STC’s level. To lump Wordsworth and Coleridge and Southey together as equally intellectual is ludicrous. To pretend Yeats never wrote anything as good as the verses quoted above is either evidence of stupidity or willful perversity.  

But then no poet writes for posterity except accidentally, And the worst one can say of Yeats is that he was a real man of letters. Real men of letters hardly ever produce immortal poetry, You could hardly call Shakespeare a man of letters, Pope was, in a an oblique sort of way, Not Swift.

Here the ground of the judgement has disappeared. In what way did Swift and Pope differ in their approach to writing, and how could their conditions compare with Shakespeare’s. What exactly is a ‘Man of Letters’ if  PK, who made his living from journalism of one sort or another, wasn't a “Man of Letters”? 
These are pub verdicts which might sound good over the Guinness but don’t stand scrutiny in print.

He finished by admitting his equivocation but he is certain of W.B.Y’s bad influence on Irish writers. “A common passport is not a common ground”
I know I have written equivocally of Yeats and yet I know that he was a nearly great poet.
He had compromised the ultimate integrity.”185
And what is the ultimate integrity we ask ourselves. And the statue refuses to respond: