American Poetry in the Age of Whitman and Dickinson

Posts Tagged ‘Poe

Remplissage

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Ezra Pound was no admirer of Poe. In a concert review of 1920 he praised a setting of “Annabel Lee,” dismissing the poem itself as “containing considerable excess verbiage and no little sentimentality.” This would be no remarkable opinion were it not expressed with a haughty disdain — and at great length — in a manner that forcefully brings to mind Poe’s own criticism. Like Poe, Pound subjects fanciful language to a rational reading, correcting flaws as if the poem were a newspaper story; and like Poe he spares disdain for those who inflated the poem’s reputation, throwing in a few untranslated words to inflate his own authority. It never occurred to me before to connect these two disturbed personalities, but now it seems natural. I won’t quote the entire review (which can be found in Ezra Pound and Music). But here are the choice bits:

This poem is evidently addressed to the senile, for it begins with a remark that “it was many, many years ago.” We are then told that “a maiden there lived,” “whom you may know,” ergo, q.e.d. age on part of auditor. The maiden who “there lived” in line three, patronymic Lee; arrives in fifth line sic: “And this maiden she lived.”

If anybody but a man with a great international reputation had written this first stanza our literary critics would tell us that it was very badly written, and full of remplisage, of words, that is, chucked in to fill up the metric scheme, and for no other reason; and that these words in no way assist the poetic intensity or any other quality of the poem; and that this remplisage displays no mastery whatsoever on the part of its author.

In fact, if Baudelaire had not translated some of Poe’s tales, and if Poe hadn’t been a tragic figure, and if the symbolistes in Paris hadn’t stewed about the matter, and if Mallarmé hadn’t translated the “Raven” into one of the worst pieces of arty prose extant in the French language (refrain “Et le corbeau dit ‘Jamais Plus'”), and if, above all, the poem weren’t a piece of sentimentalism, it might not have been set at all, or sung on January 10, 1920.

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Written by Ben Friedlander

June 1, 2017 at 10:02 pm

Posted in Poe

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Vizpoe

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Usher1dI came upon a curious fact by accident: E. E. Cummings had a hand in a silent-film adaptation of “The Fall of the House of Usher.” His name doesn’t appear in the credits, at least not in the versions that stream online, but his involvement is certainly evident in the film’s beautiful use of language. This begins with the opening sequence, in which Poe’s text crashes round, kaleidoscope fashion (evoking, of course, the crashing down of the Usher mansion). There are also three crucial words later in the film (beat, crack, scream), broken down into their constituent letters, captions dancing the meanings of the scenes they explain. The Cummings involvement also makes sense given the prominent roles of two friends: James Sibley Watson, Jr., editor of The Dial, and Watson’s wife, Hildegarde, with whom Cummings maintained a vigorous correspondence. Sibley directed the film; Hildegarde starred as Madeleine Usher.

Usher3But why is the Cummings-Poe connection so obscure? That’s one of the things I found curious. The Cummings-Harriet Beecher Stowe connection has received at least some attention. He created a ballet of Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1935); it was never produced, but the text appears in a book of his plays. “Usher” (1928) has fallen through the cracks. There’s no mention of the film in Cummings scholarship, and no mention of Cummings in The Poe Cinema. Yet his share in the film’s creation is mentioned several times online, most notably on the website of the National Film Preservation Foundation (NFPF) (link). There, a brief clip is paired with extensive notes; those notes led me in turn to a fine essay by Lisa Cartwright, which likewise mentions Cummings. That essay, it’s true, draws on unpublished letters in private hands, but it isn’t clear that those letters disclosed his involvement. How then did it become known? And why isn’t it better known?

Usher9The full film is available for download at Archive.org (link) and streams from several other sites. A scant 13 minutes long, it is emphatically an art film, visually indebted to The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, but with an aspect that looks forward to Kenneth Anger. Do I mean by this anything other than that the film invests its silliness with ritual significance? Poe too invested the silly with significance, but for Poe ritual wasn’t the point. Still, the film is true to Poe, in its way, caring more for effect than explanation. The film is weird.

Usher5The NFPF notes that Watson’s Dial “published groundbreaking reappraisals of Edgar Allan Poe.” I would like to read those. I like, in any casem how the film pays tribute to Poe the writer, not by making him a character in his own stories already a familiar tactic when this film was made but by figuring books as part of the story’s Gothic architecture, a source of its horror.

Usher1mSo much more to say, but not enough time. Perhaps in a few days.

Note: the online versions of the film have varied soundtracks and I haven’t sampled them sufficiently to give a ranking. This YouTube version (link) has an organ accompaniment that evokes tradition; no musician is credited. The score at Archive.org (link), by Lee Rosevere, is more fifties B-movie, which feels right too.

Written by Ben Friedlander

April 27, 2014 at 10:48 pm

More Lint

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Matted in my head, as in the filter of a drying machine.

Emma Lazarus, who wrote the most famous of all American sonnets, “The New Colossus,” made translations from Petrarch. So too did Thomas Wentworth Higginson, who domesticated the Italian form by inscribing it in an American landscape. In “Sunshine and Petrarch,” written for Atlantic Monthly in 1867, he describes a little cove set above a steep bank of buttercups and grass, then comments:

If Petrarch still knows and feels the consummate beauty of these earthly things, it may seem to him some repayment for the sorrows of a lifetime that one reader, after all this lapse of years, should choose his sonnets to match this grass, these blossoms, and the soft lapse of these blue waves. Yet any longer or more continuous poem would be out of place to-day. I fancy that this narrow cove prescribes the proper limits of a sonnet; and when I count the lines of ripple within yonder projecting wall, there proves to be room for just fourteen. Nature meets our whims with such little fitnesses. The words which build these delicate structures are as soft and fine and close-textured as the sands upon this tiny beach, and their monotone, if such it be, is the monotone of the neighboring ocean.

A beautiful tranquility. But sonnets are not tranquil by nature, if only because they are often occasioned by powerful emotions. Here are the last ten lines of one of the Lazarus translations; they enact as it were an argument within the sonnet against the placidity sonnets are said to exemplify:

This life is like a field of flowering thyme,
Amidst the herbs and grass the serpent lives;
If aught unto the sight brief pleasure gives,
‘Tis but to snare the soul with treacherous lime.
So, wouldst thou keep thy spirit free from cloud,
A tranquil habit to thy latest day,
Follow the few, and not the vulgar crowd.
Yet mayest thou urge, “Brother, the very way
Thou showest us, wherefrom thy footsteps proud
(And never more than now) so oft did stray.”

Petrarch’s straying footsteps work very well as a figure for free verse, and free-verse sonnets are the ones I know best from my own era  —  Ted Berrigan’s being the best known (though I have a special fondness for those of John Clarke). The prototype is Walt Whitman’s “Death-Sonnet for Custer,” published in the New York Daily Tribune on July 10th, 1876. Here is a reproduction of the manuscript, held by the New York Public Library:

Click for a link to the NYPL website and a larger image

Click for a link to the NYPL website and a larger image

The Walt Whitman archive reproduces the newspaper printing and gives a transcript here.

For a sonnet that takes issue with its own form, you cannot do better than Poe’s “Enigma” (1848): Read the rest of this entry »

William Cullen Bryant, Poems (1821)

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For a Library of Nineteenth-Century American Poetry
William Cullen Bryant, Poems (Cambridge: Hilliard and Metcalf, 1821). 44 pp.

Scarce less the cleft-born wild-flower seems to enjoy
Existence, than the winged plunderer
That sucks its sweets.

― “Inscription for the Entrance to a Wood”

The Bryant statue in Bryant Park, behind the New York Public Library.

The Bryant statue in Bryant Park behind the New York Public Library.

Bryant showed an early gift for poetry, “composing tolerably clever verses” by the age of nine and learning Greek while still a boy. His first book, The Embargo (1808), identified him as “a Youth of Thirteen” (his name did not appear until the second, enlarged edition of 1809), but it was only with “Thanatopsis” that his work really got going. Written in 1811, the poem first appeared in The North American Review in 1817; it was subsequently revised for its first book publication in Poems. Since he refused in later years to reprint “The Embargo,” “Thanatopsis” became the earliest work Bryant was willing to embrace; and despite his later prolificness (he lived until 1878), “Thanatopsis” was also the high point. Indeed, it remains the high point of Bryant’s era, roughly the quarter century between the War of 1812 and Longfellow’s rise to prominence at the end of the 1830s. Other poets more interesting to me were active in the same years ― Fitz-Greene Halleck, Edgar Allan Poe ― but “Thanatopsis” is clearly the era’s epitaph, a forecasting of the transcendentalism that would wash its memory away. This is ironic, perhaps, given the poem’s message: that one should cheerfully accept the erasure of one’s epitaph. But then, what better poem to remember a largely forgotten era in American verse? Articulating in advance the values of the rural cemetery movement, “Thanatopsis” (Greek for “vision of death”) sought meaning in nature, not monuments: Read the rest of this entry »