This week in our digital edition, Little Star Weekly, we inaugurated an weeklong series, a correspondence on poetic means in the English of here and there (England and the UK) by Rowan Ricardo Phillips and Glyn Maxwell.
Here is letter #3. Incidentally, in Little Star Weekly this week we also have the third of three parts of a hitherto uncollected eulogy by W. H. Auden for Louis MacNeice, whom Glyn talks about below.
Blimey, I didn’t know that about Stevens. Two generations. The absurdity of the delay! I felt the converse, though, in the nineties. I had trouble finding Louis MacNeice or Edward Thomas in the Frost Library at Amherst. The Frost Library! Bob’s best friend Thomas! And at the time—and still, though I study the situation less than I used to—I felt that they were the two strongest British Isles poets that American poetry (well, young American poets, which was my business at the time) could learn from. This isn’t postcolonial mind-frame bullshit—Stevens mirrors that, Hart Crane seemed unknown to us and we’ve nothing like Whitman. Can’t fit them lines in our country. Anyway, I thought (and still think) that Thomas had a conscientiousness towards breath, and the relationship between light, breath, and thought, that surpassed even Frost’s. Frost is a genius, but he always will be learning me something, while Thomas can sound a mind simply moving through the air taking in oxygen who knows why. That’s not a better poetry, but it’s distinct. And of course America
isn’t missing Frost, even if so many cluelessly use him as a road not to be taken. I taught an MA student lately; he’d spent two terms immersed in the postmodern and was pretty much unreachable. I told him what I think about (I mean can hear in) “Acquainted With The Night.” He gave me this basilisk stare and said: “Oh you’re making that up.” I was trying to show him what meter does, vowels, rhymes, punctuation, how things actually affect the body. Nah, just making it up. Clearly I had no game, no key, no system, no wink or shrug. Anyway, our Thomas is distinct from your Frost and I still think poets need both.
MacNeice is distinct from Auden—by light years—yet he labors in Auden’s shadow. While Auden muses from above, MacNeice endures the mess below, the chaos, the detail, but you can hear him strolling,
swaggering, stumbling through it (that’s the “rough” jazzy meter and rhyme working), so it’s not the inanimate clutter of so much “free” American work. “Free” verse is always saying “look at me, I’m a different new animal, oxygen schmoxygen!” So let’s see how much of that survives. T=H=E=Y S=A=I=D W=H=A=T??? Literary Enron, the infinite hedge. There go fifty more campuses I’ll never see…
But I don’t care for most new poems I read because I want to hear how time feels to a living thing, and a living thing breathes in and out, walks up and down, the pupils change size, the bones start to creak. Old forms are that: natural realities made into writing. I love intelligent repetition in poetry. You do it in The Ground. The ludicrously overlooked wonder Schnackenberg does it, working away at an implacable form because the form is a form of grief. Alice
Oswald does it on our shores, astoundingly, in Memorial. Runs it by us again like bulletins, the terrible things run by us again like bulletins. I can only believe in a patterned discourse of that kind if I know—if I can hear—that the poet would give it to me straight if s/he could—but either beauty or terror bars the way, chokes the voice, sea-changes it.
Pointless saying I miss New York—take that as read, Rowan—but let’s make a date to watch Arsenal on some midtown big-screen next time I’m over. We now have eleven of the world’s silkiest midfielders, even in goal—why don’t we win everything? … Oh, I see.
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