American Poetry in the Age of Whitman and Dickinson

The Haughty Pile

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Still is the haughty pile erect / Of the old building Intellect
— “Monadnoc”

Since allowing two months ago that Emerson’s poetry didn’t speak to me, it’s begun to speak to me.

This happens all the time: opinions I thought written in stone become rewritten by wind when the stone turns to sand. In Emerson’s case, the stone turned to sand a few years ago, when I read his poetry notebooks and saw that the work’s more annoying qualities (greeting-card rhyme, Polonius-like advice) were softened in effect when I read the writing as improvisation.

In this state the sand lay still for a good long time. Only this summer did the wind rise, when I found myself restless at my father’s nursing home and Emerson was the only poet who caught my eye at the nearby bookstore. This was fortuitous: if you’re ever going to appreciate an awkward fit between process and product, a nursing home is the place. There too an imperfect project confronts you, and there too “process” can be rewarding even though the “product” tends toward failure.

The nursing home analogy could be drawn out at great length, with CNAs as textual editors (and some, oh yes, some much better than others), but it’s not the place I’m thinking of here, only the appreciation of everyday life it teaches. With my father, for example, after his stroke, even swallowing requires conscious effort; the effort makes me appreciate the complexity of the task, and this in turn makes me appreciate the result, even when the result is poor. Not that Emerson’s poems are efforts in that sense; their defining quality is probably ease, hence the greeting-card rhyme. But the notebooks show us that poetry was an everyday activity for Emerson, and that’s how I came to appreciate it this summer. A compositional mundanity with irregular moments of grace and insight, reminding me why I persevere.

I suspect that this appreciation is ultimately anti-Emersonian. Certainly it goes against the grain of what he says in “The Poet,” about melodies that “ascend and leap and pierce into the deeps of infinite time.” Or what he writes in the passage below, a definition that sets poetry beyond the grasp of those best situated to appreciate it, at least if what I wrote above has any merit:

Adequate expression is rare. I know not how it is that we need an interpreter; but the great majority of men seem to be minors, who have not yet come into possession of their own, or mutes, who cannot report the conversation they have had with nature. There is no man who does not anticipate a supersensual utility in the sun and stars, earth and water. These stand and wait to render him a peculiar service. But there is some obstruction or some excess of phlegm in our constitution, which does not suffer them to yield the due effect. Too feeble fall the impressions of nature on us to make us artists. Every touch should thrill. Every man should be so much an artist that he could report in conversation what had befallen him. Yet, in our experience, the rays or appulses have sufficient force to arrive at the senses, but not enough to reach the quick and compel the reproduction of themselves in speech. The poet is the person in whom these powers are in balance, the man without impediment, who sees and handles that which others dream of, traverses the whole scale of experience, and is representative of man, in virtue of being the largest power to receive and to impart.

To be balanced, without impediment, traversing the whole scale of experience is a lofty goal, I suppose, but what speaks to me now in Emerson’s poetry is not the loftiness he strives for, but the dailiness of his striving.

Here’s an example; a notebook poem from the 1840s. One could call it an intellectual exercise, of intermittent interest, but I can’t help but notice that the body is also involved in this exercise: the hand, writing; the arms, giving support on the desk; the eyes, reading back; the spine, supporting the head that considers; the mouth and tongue, testing sounds; the ears, listening. Imagining all that makes the high ambition and sweet joy of the writing even higher, even sweeter:

The patient Pan,
Drunken with nectar
Sleeps or feigns slumber
Drowsily humming
Music to the march of Time.
This poor tooting creaking cricket,
Pan half asleep, rolling over
His great body in the grass,
Tooting, creaking,
Feigns to sleep, sleeping never:
Tis his manner,
Well he knows his own affair,
Piling mountain chains of phlegm
On the nervous brain of man,
As he holds down central fires
Under Alps & Andes cold.
Haply else we could not live
Life would be too wild an ode
Sun & planet would explode
Ah! the poor Adamkind
Fault of supplies
From the fire fountains
We busybodies
Ever experiment
See what will come of it
Prove the faint substances
Prove our bodies, prove our essence
Fortunes, genius, elements,
Try a foot, try a hand,
Then plunge the body in
Then our wits characters
And our gods if we can
Analysing analysing
As the chemist his new stone
Puts to azote, puts to chlorine,
Puts to vegetable blues.
Ah my poor apothecaries,
Can ye never wiselier sit,
Meddle less & more accept,
With dignity not overstepped
Skies have their etiquette

We are faithful to time
Time measured in moments
Only so many
Share of Methusalem
Share of the babe
Hundredhanded, hundredeyed,
Fussy & anxious
We would so gladly
Serve an apprenticeship
Day by day faithfully
Learn the use of Adam’s tools
Fire & water, azote, carbon,
Gravity levity
Hatred attraction
Animals chemistry
Botany land
Have a right to our flesh
Know the honest earth by heart

Do the feat of Archimedes
If the earth reject her sons
Till theyve learned her alphabeta
None but Hooke & Newton dare
Cross the threshold when it thunders.
Life is all too short for farming
All too short for architecture
All too short to learnt he tongues
And for philosophy
Life’s done ere weve begun to think.
Solid farming haw & geeing
Drive uphill the loaded team
Bud the pear & dig potatoes
What time Lyra’s in the Zenith
That is wholesome as it makes
Man as massive as the glebe
Pricks dropsical pretension
Tames the infinite romance
Underpins the falcon turrets
High as fly falcons, fancy builds

Written by Ben Friedlander

August 10, 2009 at 10:02 am

Posted in Emerson

Tagged with ,

5 Responses

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  1. Hi Ben,

    Terrific post that got me thinking about the changing expectations that reading contexts bring to our appreciation of art. Where poems consistently thwart me, from other periods or from other languages, I often suspect it’s because the poem was put to different uses in its home context–carriage rides, holidays on fjords, etc. For the life of me I can’t read poems at airports; that air of enforced but alert waiting seems “poetry-hostile” to me. But maybe there’s a poet that would open up for me in a new way there.

    Hope the need for the context you’re reading in is only temporary.


    rodney k.

    August 10, 2009 at 11:30 am

  2. <>

    This is beautiful, Ben — you perfectly capture the yearning that can afflict one in these purgatories, poetic and otherwise.

    Rachel Loden

    August 10, 2009 at 11:56 am

  3. Thanks, Rachel!

    Rodney, sorry to have flown the coop for a few days. Someone should write a history of scenes of reading. Or maybe a phenomenology. Do share your thoughts as they develop!

    Packing my father’s books, I found one that had the stub from a parking garage tucked inside. It was from the National Institute of Health, where my father’s late wife spent her last days. And since the book was a collection of writings by one of her favorite authors (Margaret Bourke-White), I assume he was reading it aloud to her.

    Myself, used to read philosophy on bus trips, and holocaust memoirs at bedtime. No more! I surrender to fiction between cities, and avoid distressing things before sleep. Precisely because the body is involved. It’s like medication, right?

    Ben Friedlander

    August 12, 2009 at 10:16 am

  4. Dailyness is changeableness: I noticed it with my mother in her earlier dementia and with my kids always. Isn’t that an Emersonian thing? The very shift of the wind that blew you his way?

    Susan M. Schultz

    August 17, 2009 at 10:41 pm

  5. That’s true…whim. Written in lamb’s blood on the door. Or something like that. Emersonian dementia. What a thought!

    Ben Friedlander

    August 17, 2009 at 11:01 pm

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