“He mutter spiffy”

berryman

 

So Long? Stevens

He lifted up, among the actuaries,
a grandee crow. Ah ha & he crowed good.
That funny money-man.
Mutter we all must as well as we can.
He mutter spiffy. He make wonder Henry’s
wits, though, with a odd

… something … something … not there in his flourishing art.
O veteran of death, you will not mind
a counter-mutter.
What was it missing, then,
at the man’s heart
so that he does not wound? It is our kind
to wound, as well as utter

a fact of happy world. That metaphysics
he hefted up until we could not breathe
the physics. On our side,
monotonous (or ever-fresh)—it sticks
in Henry’s throat to judge—brilliant, he seethe;
better than us; less wide.

—John Berryman
—from His Toy, His Dream, His Rest

Dream Song

John Berryman’s brilliant “Dream Song” is a good way to end the Wallace Stevens’s birthday week.  He loves Stevens, but feels that something is missing.  Of course the “funny money man” mutters spiffy.  But Henry feels that something is lacking.  He cannot quite put his finger on it but wants to issue a “counter-mutter”.    I don’t agree with his idea that Stevens does not wound, for I have been wounded by Stevens as often as any other great poet.  Perhaps more.  Stevens can wound me.   But different sorts of weapons wound different readers and perhaps Berryman is responding to some of the late poems that can seem very solemnly intellectually and even a bit cold.   Henry, Berryman’s alter ego, ends up asserting that while Stevens is brilliant, he is “less wide” than Henry.   It’s possible that Henry’s trauma’s are more deeply personal than those which Stevens reveals in his own poetry.  The dream songs are a brilliant and cohesive and very project; Stevens worked, I think, more broadly and widely than Berryman.

 

grandcrow

“How he rolls the vocables!”

rouse

“A Rouse for Stevens”

(To Be Sung in a Young Poet’s Saloon)

by Theodore Roethke

 

Wallace Stevens what’s he done?

He can play the flitter-flad;

He can see the second sun

Spinning through the lordly cloud.

He’s imagination’s prince:

He can plink the skitter-bum;

How he rolls the vocables,

Brings the secret — right in Here!

Wallace, Wallace, wo ist er?

Never met him, Dutchman dear;

If I ate and drank like him,

I would be a chanticleer.

( TOGETHER )

Speak it from the face out clearly:

Here’s a mensch but can sing dandy.

Er ist niemals ausgepoopen,

Altes Wunderkind.

( AUDIENCE )

Roar ’em, whore ’em, cockalorum,

The Muses, they must all adore him,

Wallace Stevens — are we for him?

Brother, he’s our father!

theodore_roethke

This rollicking  burlesque for young poets in tribute to Stevens just adds to the accumulation of respect Stevens received from other poets.   The jaunty style, the setting, the word-play are a fitting tribute to Stevens.   The Great Man of Hartford inspired many light verses in his honor.  Why?  Because Stevens can be so much fun to read.  Stevens can be a joy to imitate.  “Er ist niemals ausgepoopen,” probably means that “he is never screwed up” to offer  a very mild translation.

Roethke is a poet I cherish more with each passing decade.  He has affinities with Stevens and even if he’s squeamish about the line “Brother, he’s our father” much of his verse seems to be engaging with Stevens–conversing with him or talking back to him.

 

Listening:  “Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis” by Ralph Vaughan Williams.  It’s somber organ chords and it’s repetitions make it a perfect autumnal piece.   And yet it’s also of a very English pastoral mood.  Like “The Lark Ascending” its aim seems to transcend the melancholy and lift the listening spirit.   I play this in tribute to Neville Marriner.  As my mother aged, the music of Delius and Vaughan Williams moved her more than any others and she reread Thomas Hardy with a fervency that I can identify with.

 

 

 

Saffron Ice-Cream

This is yet another part of my week-long tribute to the birthday of Wallace Stevens.  This short poem by British poet, Martin Bell (1918-1978) picks up on the gourmet/gourmand interests of Stevens.  It also reflects the variety of Stevens’s diction from the “Doggone” to the “rococo” and the dissonance between the praise and the bray.  “The Emperor of Ice-Cream” is certainly invoked.   It’s a nifty  six-line tribute to two men who toiled to illuminate the unconscious, the active imagination, and the many links between art and the human mind.

Martin Bell:

 

Wallace Stevens  Welcomes Doctor Jung into Heaven

‘Doggone, they’ve let you in at last, Doc! Gee,
I’m real glad .’ And indicated angels puffing horns
Rococo with praise and bray and bray,
And proffered to him saffron ice cream cones
Topped up with glacé cherries and chopped cashew nuts.
‘Ach! Horn of Plenty,’ the good Doctor said.saffronicecream

 

Notes on the day:  I’m currently listening to Haydn’s String Quartet Opus 76, number 5.  What harmonic playfulness!  He mixes his notes to achieve the “cantabile e mesto” attribution he gave it:  “singing and sad”.   I think 2016 can fairly be called the year of the string quartet for me.  I have had operatic years, symphonic years, years of concerti and ballet.  Years of all cello all the time and years of Maria Callas and Edward Elgar.

 

Reading:  I am currently reading White Trash:  The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America by historian Nancy Isenberg.  I am only one generation away from “white trash” so I find the book particularly intriguing.  I am also reveling in the opposition:  The Rector of Justin by Louis Auchincloss, the saga of the headmaster of a prestigious New England boarding school.

Arpeggios of Autumn: Happy Birthday, Counselor Stevens

Today marks the  137th birthday of Wallace Stevens.   I cannot claim that I understand his work, but I am swooped into his colorful aesthetic world of gorgeous peacocks and bananas and colorful language and sound-effects.   He’s a poet of jollity and melancholy.  He’s a poet of range and arrangement.  He’s a poet of euphony and cachinnations.  He’s a poet of sensuous and sensual arousings and carousings.

I cannot explicate the pleasures of Stevens for you if you do not get them at once.   Imagine you are in an exciting art museum full of canvases splashed with color amidst some that are solemn and thoughtfully grey and cerebral.  That is Stevens.  You may not understand it  all, but it’s exciting especially if you allow yourself to enjoy the experience.   And in the museum there is a zoo of colorful animals living an active life of grooming and bellowing and making mating displays.  rousseaupainting

Here’s a taste of Stevens:  “Tinsel in February,” “Mrs. Alfred Uruguay,” “Tom-tom, c’est moi,”  “apostrophes are forbidden on the funicular,” “Old pantaloons, duenna of the spring!,”,”In the Clear Season of Grapes,” “Soupe Aux Perles:  Health-o, when ginger and fromage bewitch”, “Dezembrum,” A sunny day’d complete Poussiniana,” “Jot these milky matters down,” “The plum survives its poems,” “The moonlight / Fubbed the girandoles,” “Floral Decorations for Bananas,” “Gloomy grammarians in golden gowns.”

Yes, it is not great to take things out of context but these brief snippets of Stevens will, I hope, convince you that entering his glittery and giddy world can be a pleasure.

Strange Ballet

strangeballet

 

Some of the greatest poems, like hugely magnificent oil paintings or like elaborate classical symphonies, are not easy to comprehend. Poems like Wordsworth’s “Tintern Abbey” or his “Intimations” Ode or the psychological work Browning does in poems like “Fra Lippo Lippi” or “Andrea del Sarto” are not the matter of a ten-minute read. What you can do, however, if you’d like more great poetry in your life is look upon the great long lyrical poems or the sweeping narrative poems as new friendships. Slowly, gradually, with regular visits, the poem will unfold its aesthetic splendors and its wisdom. Soon it will touch you. Perhaps you begin by appreciating just one phrase—“the still sad music of humanity”. “A man’s reach should exceed his grasp or what’s a heaven for?” “I have measured out my life in coffee-spoons.” “Death is the mother of beauty”. “Old age hath yet his honour and his toil”. “Postmen like doctors go from house to house.” “I could say elves to him, but it’s not elves exactly”.

I never much liked Beethoven’s cerebral late quartets when I was young; I preferred the rousing symphonies. I didn’t really see the point of Mark Rothko for years. I had to sit in sundry galleries and be with Rothko’s work for a long time before I could say that I had the fumbling beginnings of an “I’ve got it” moment that has made me want to sit with him again. And I love Beethoven’s late quartets now and cannot imagine how I failed to appreciate the deep comprehension of humanity within them.

I don’t require all the art in the world to be magisterial and profound. Poetry has delights comparable to light music or to a simple sketch. The hook for me can be an odd or intriguing image; a strange group of words that conjures up a response. Some great poems can be like an amuse-bouche, a sonatina giocosa, a sketch of a toucan or a small water-color of a purple fish. I especially enjoy the kinds of poems that I call “strange ballets.” These are poems with a bizarre verbal choreography. Poems that go herkimer-jerkimer. Poems that address the glory of the Triscuit rather than the Trinity. Poems that make sudden lurches, jetés, glissades, a pas de chat, a moonwalk, a dos-a-dos.

Some of the “strange ballets” I love include Gene Kelly in “Slaughter on Tenth Avenue” and Fred Astaire doing “Shine on My Shoes.” Similarly, a strange ballet of a poem is riveting if well-executed. It deserves your attention even if it’s just a glance.

I’m going to post a poem that is neither profound, nor great. It’s not brilliant. But it amuses. It’s playful and it’s strange.

==============
Earthy Anecdote (1923)
Every time the bucks went clattering
Over Oklahoma
A firecat bristled in the way.
Wherever they went,
They went clattering,
Until they swerved
In a swift, circular line
To the right,
because of the firecat.
Or until they swerved
in a swift, circular line
To the left,
Because of the firecat.
The bucks clattered.
The firecat went leaping,
to the right, to the left,
And
Bristled in the way.
Later, the firecat closed his bright eyes
And slept.

By Wallace Stevens

I enjoy the images and the language here. Why is this an “anecdote”? What is a “firecat” anyhow? Why “Oklahoma”? What kind of buck?” Is there but one firecat or do the bucks encounter a firecat wherever they go? Why “earthy?”
Asking such questions of the poem amuses me, but the most important thing is the image: the swerving, the circular lines, the majestic colors of a poem that never mentions color. This poem is indeed a fine and inventive amuse-bouche.

“And Were You Loved?”

And were you loved?

“And were you loved?”
“And did you love in return?”

I believe those are quotations from a poem by Raymond Carver, but I cannot find a copy. The words are simple, unspectacular but have that emotional “catch” that grabs at the gullet. The catch can expand like a bottomless canyon, but for me today the catch is quick to come: my mother’s death. It’s been a while.  It’s been 8 years.  It’s been since this morning; it happened yesterday; it happened decades ago.  She loved me–sometimes in a strangely childish way. Sometimes I felt that I was the mother; sometimes I felt that I was holding (metaphorically) a child who had returned from a day at school where she was laughed at or bullied. I had to comfort her. Comforting a mother or a child leads to that kind of deep emotional catch. The unexpected bump that trips you and suddenly you descend into cascades of emotion.

Yes, each person was loved. Each person had a mother, who felt and hoped and wished for something when the babe quickened. Each person was loved, even–perhaps especially–terrorists, murderers. All had someone who loved him or her.

And now…where has that love gone, that powerful force that pushes babies out of the womb and pushes people into the air? The perversion of love to the idea that, as Yeats put it, “the worst are full of passionate intensity.”

Musée des Beaux Arts
by WH Auden

About suffering they were never wrong,
The Old Masters; how well, they understood
Its human position; how it takes place
While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along;
How, when the aged are reverently, passionately waiting
For the miraculous birth, there always must be
Children who did not specially want it to happen, skating
On a pond at the edge of the wood:
They never forgot
That even the dreadful martyrdom must run its course
Anyhow in a corner, some untidy spot
Where the dogs go on with their doggy life and the torturer’s horse
Scratches its innocent behind on a tree.
In Breughel’s Icarus, for instance: how everything turns away
Quite leisurely from the disaster; the ploughman may
Have heard the splash, the forsaken cry,
But for him it was not an important failure; the sun shone
As it had to on the white legs disappearing into the green
Water; and the expensive delicate ship that must have seen
Something amazing, a boy falling out of the sky,
had somewhere to get to and sailed calmly on.
1940

Copyright © 1976 by Edward Mendelson, William Meredith and Monroe K. Spears,

Executors of the Estate of W. H. Auden.”

I turn to poetry, as I do more frequently as I age–for almost all occasions, including the most mundane (the poetry of shopping, the poetry of driving…it’s all there). And yet….

“The Death of a Soldier”

by Wallace Stevens

Life contracts and death is expected,
As in a season of autumn.
The soldier falls.

He does not become a three-days personage,
Imposing his separation,
Calling for pomp.

Death is absolute and without memorial,
As in a season of autumn,
When the wind stops,

When the wind stops and, over the heavens,
The clouds go, nevertheless,
In their direction.

All are soldiers, every one of us, soldiering on through life, never knowing when the expected death will come. We don’t usually think of it much when we get up and go to work; life does not seem too perilous on a simply grey January morning, yet to soldier on is, I think, to be willing to live without immediate answers. To risk each day knowing that loss can come from anyplace—from a hospital bed, down from the sky, from an intransigent worm within. To try to live without contemplating that risk, to go on going on, signing leases, paying earthly mortgages, preparing for an indefinate future that is finate indeed….

And yes, they were all loved, everyone of them.

 ‘And were you loved?’