|Reviews: Lucille Lang
Day & Kathleen Raine
by Brad Bostian
On The Nature of Day and Raine
Infinities, by Lucille Lang Day. Cedar Hill Publications, 2002.
Collected Poems Of Kathleen Raine. Counterpoint, 2001.
I am easy to please. I want to read good poems. That is why I believe that poetry is at a crossroads. Were in a new century, with two divergent impulses. On the one hand, we have wonderful and even incredibly popular poets like Billy Collins who please their readers. And, we have a host of other poets trying to do everything possible except to write a poem. Their readers, and admirers, are other poets. For example, read Best American Poetry (a series I adore beyond reason) 2002. It is a marvelous collection of people displaying their talent in the art of doing and saying nothing. Of lounging about on poetic park benches, thumbing their noses at the passersby.
Of course, Im biased. I like poems. I like an art where the prime purpose for the artist is to produce a work of art, not to play with their materialssuch as language or paint, or critique our society, or show off, or make money, or get back at someone, or prove how much more worldly they are by making fun of their own art: such as art made of urine or urinals, feces and so on. Secondarily those things are all fine, but for me, a poet has to first set out to make a unique creation out of words in line form, one that is somehow beautiful and that changes the way the reader experiences the world.
Lucille Lang Days latest book, Infinities, intrigued me. Being a fan of the infinite, a fan of science and ideas, I wondered how those things could be brought to life in verse. Can she really go about making living poems out of abstract concepts: the birth of the universe, infinities, top quarks, the big bang, the fate of the universe? Can science and poetry mix? As the pages turned I came to love the book, and through it, the soul of the poet. This is my favorite of her books. It pleases me. These are good poems.
Day is a careful student of the natural world. She turns her macroscope upon anything that comes into view: astronomers, insects, sword ferns, sea slugs. Few poets can render the point of view of a malignant tumor, a nervous system, and a snow goose; but Day is a scientist and science educator.
A self-described sometime confessional poet, that aspect of Days voice shies somewhat from view in this volume. Sure, there are echoes of Sylvia Plath here. But Plaths poems seem more self-centered. Plath looks for foreign objects only to render the world inside herself. Here, Days reaction to the outer world is to try to live inside it, not bring it all inside of her own tumult. So Days Infinities poems are about the beings around her, and how they might speak of themselves, if they could. Compare Plaths Witch Burning to Days Tumor.
A black-sharded lady keeps me in parrot
If I am a little one, I
can do no harm.If I don't move about, I'll knock nothing over. So I said,
I crouch between cells
I begin to sing. I am
Oh how they love me!
Both poets throw themselves into character the way a suicide might dive onto a subway track, with no fear and nothing held back. But one is outward and the other inward. Plaths poem concerns her experiences with electroconvulsive therapy. Days poem really is about a tumor.
Still, it is not Plath or any other dead poet that Day brings to mind, but Kathleen Raine. Both women have the expertise to render clearly the world around them (including the natural world) in verse, though they do it in starkly different ways. This process of rendering (which in agriculture normally comes after slaughtering) is usually one of the more tedious and difficult traits of modern poetry, with its dedication to the objects, idioms and idiosyncracies of the average existence--yet neither poet suffers from that cataloguing of everyday things and meaningless routines. Instead, both write poems that are well-crafted, beautiful, and of a finer import, reaching for a deeper understanding of existence. Raine says, The poet stands in the world for spiritual values, and for spiritual values only. And these, as such have no place in Caesar's realm. The worst poetry of the last century was too given to Caesar, and Caesars shaving brush, and the number of bristles in Caesars shaving brush, and in the size of Caesars shoe.
Raine and Day respectively represent for me the poetic mindset of the past two centuries. And yet, they make me ask myself what is coming next. Born in 1905, and a passionate follower of Blake and Yeats, Raine represents to me the romance and Transcendentalism of the nineteenth century, while Day portrays the ideals of modernism: the autobiographical, the surreal, confession, scientific realism, dark experiences, language experimentation. But here we are in the twenty-first century. What will distinguish writing of this new era? What aesthetic ideals will rescue us from the non-poetry so often published today?
The challenge of nineteenth century poetry was to make symbolic, proverbial, idealistic fantastic and abstract verse live for the individual. The challenge of twentieth century poetry was to make the ordinary moments of everyday life stand for the universal. Poetry of that century gave us things in detail, realism and imagery: Louis Simpsons shark that contains a shoe, a stomach digesting rubber, coal, uranium, moons, other poems. Will the challenge of the new centurys poetry follow the current trends toward globalism, individual power and information saturation; will it center around accessibility? We can access nearly anythingexcept each other it seems. The challenge might well be how to make total accessibility interesting, meaningful and humanistic, something both Day and Raine do exceedingly well. Robert Pinsky speaks of it with some condescension: The styles of an often desperate, Anglophile urbanity or an amiable middlebrow accessibility conduct an equally heroicor at least embattledresistance to cultural dissolution, a breakdown into provinces and cults. (Oh no, hes not looking down from his throne, not at all). But I dont see why. The only reason we should be desperate for accessible poetry is because its the only kind thats good for most readers. With work, Shakespeares Hamlet is accessible to the average reader. With work, Ulysses is not.
In any case, common as it may be, its too easy to predict things after they happen. It may be risky beforehand, but much more fun. So, I cant help but wonder what Raine and Day have to show us, if anything, about the poetry that is coming next.
Here is a bad but somehow typical nineteenth century stanza, anthologized by William Cullen Bryant:
I loved thee once, Ill love no more,
Thine be the grief as is the blame;
Thou art now what thou wast before,
What reason I should be the same?
He that can love unloved again,
Hath better store of love than brain:
God send me love my debts to pay,
While unthrifts fool their love away.
Ones reaction to that can only be, Cant feel it. Here is a bad but somehow typical late twentieth century stanza, chosen as a Best American poem of 1998 by John Hollander:
I have this blind spot, a dark line, thin as a hair, that obliterates
a stroke of scenery on the right side of my field of vision
so that often I get whole words at the end of sentences wrong
like when I first saw the title of David Lehmans poem
The Difference Between Pepsi and Coke and I misread
Coke for Pope. This blind spot makes me a terrible driver,
a bad judge of distances, a Ping-Pong player that inspires giggles
from the opposite team.
The reaction here is more like, Who cares? The poems title by the way is The Difference Between Pepsi and Pope. James Wright once criticized some of his contemporaries for writing poems that told the reader the difference between a nutmeg and a squirrel.
Here is a stanza of Lucille Lang Days twenty-first century verse about a sea slug, and the gulf between us and it:
Oh, to be so unconsciously gorgeous!
Neither male nor female, but both
at once, clinging to a strip of eelgrass
in a sunlit pool on the mud flats,
with nothing to do except shimmer.
Here are two from her Islands, this time about connection and distance:
A man opens a letter
from a woman he has never met.
in underwater islands,
all the colors we cant see.
Her nerves ignite
when she thinks of the man,
because she is alone
while planets cool
and a plane drones overhead.
And two from Neural Folds:
The frog embryos spin,
a million tiny skaters
in bright sacs. Soon
neurons will web each body,
spreading fine mesh
through muscle and skin.
And when they finally meet,
melding together, cell by cell,
there is no explanation:
they know who they are.
I can almost hear them
yammering in strange tongues.
Inhabiting the other, including queens and kings, past heros, the other sex, a different age, or even another kind of beingthat is not new to poetry, if anything ever was. And poems will continue to do all the things that poems always did. But if there will be any distinct character to writing of the next hundred years, mightnt it be something akin to surfing the web? That is, accurate but not elitist, fairly easy to read, not privileging either reality or fantasy (unlike the past two centuries), bringing new and distant worlds into our focus, under our purview, and of course, connecting us if possible person to person? A poetry more whimsical than dense. An airy poetry of white space and short stanzas. A lucid, Billy Collins, Mary Oliver kind of verse. More like Robert Frost perhaps, in that it seems so simple, yet with an undeniability to its careful construction.
More than likely Im off on the wrong foot, and the next poetics will look nothing like all that. Still I appreciate much of those qualities in Day and Raine. There is no pretense; it is not affected, yet full of craft; the lines have not spilled like a popped water balloon, (it is not like listening across the door of a bank vault); nor do the lines march like soldiers drilling.
My mother loves Robert Frost, but as for most later verse, she just doesnt get it. She is the average reader, the one lost though still intrigued by poetry. Trite light verse will always exist, often read at funerals and graduations, as well as the etchings of the elite effete. I love Wallace Stevens, but does anybody expect the average American to appreciate the complacencies of the peignoir? What is a peignoir? (I tried Victorias Secret, but they didnt have one).
My favorite poem by Day is a series of dramatic monologues called The Evolution Of Passion, which moves from the love song of the female stickleback to that of the salamander, of the lizard, up the evolutionary ladder to the snow goose, the opossum, the mule deer, the orangutanand then of course to the female human in Dusk Song, a beautiful and passionate temptation. Here is a bit of it:
8. Dusk Song
I stand naked, covered with wet grass.
Light stripes the garden;
jays are sounding their raucous call.
All afternoon the sun has been sliding
past flat clouds. Now it sits like a Buddha
on the horizon, calm, indifferent.
I am not indifferent. My nerves
burn like billions of stars.
Far fields gleam and trees, flocked
with yellow blossoms [ . . . ]
has the simplicity of higher speech, and the
beauty of higher language. The best poems often seem as if any motivated person could have
written them, and yet that is obviously not true. He
gives his harness bells a shake / To ask if there is some mistake. / The only other
sound's the sweep / Of easy wind and downy flake. . . .
Here is the opening of Kathleen Raines Angelus:
I see the blue, the green, the golden and the red,
I have forgotten all the angel said.
The flower, the leaf, the meadow and the tree,
But of the words I have no memory.
Symbolism is another issue that has divided poets: common in the nineteenth century, symbolism all but gave way to the use of actual and individual things. But why should we prefer one way or another as we go forward? It makes no difference to me that Raine uses nature symbolically, where Day is realistic; for Raine, one flower stands for all flowers, one meadow for all meadows. If she has one particular meadow in mind, that is of no use to her kind of poetry. For Day, each animal or plant or place is real and exact, because she writes from a twentieth century perspective which is worldly and inspective, though not realistic to the point of dowdiness. It makes no difference to me which way each poet uses her understanding of the natural world, nor should it matter to any average reader.
Both poets seem to fit an ideal that emphasizes accessibility and beauty equally. I may be a poor predictor, but this is a direction I would like to see poetry going. Poems with more space, perhaps. Busy as we are, sonnets (which is what I mostly write) look like knots to us, whereas the short, airy yet vivid stanzas of Mark Doty welcome the minds eye. And shorter poems in general. There is nothing so dreadful as a lengthy lyric. The art of the narrative poem is gone, but not its length, unfortunately. And humor. In one poem, Day uses real suggestions she sent to Sky & Telescope Magazine in answer to their aborted challenge to rename the big bang. I love its simple whimsy: Big Bloat / Big Bloom / Spectacular Sprouting / Sublime Balloon / Ultimate Egg / Grand Hatching / Grand Opening of the Universe. And popularity. Billy Collins was criticized by many of his fellow poets for creating poems that were too easy. Jealous no doubt of his popularity, they were perhaps offering a critique from the vantage of their own difficult, stunted, or prosaic lines. Some of them prefer gobbledegook to poetry. Now Collins is widely admired. Perhaps those same critics have now given in, overawed by that same popularity.
When she was a young poet, Raines sensibilities also got her into trouble with the poets of the day. She quickly learned her lesson after making a fool of myself by confessing a love of Shelley and Keats . . . and of the Celtic Twilight . . . I soon learned not to mention Æ and Padraic Colum and, for that matter, Yeats, who was held in equally low regard. While at first attempting to conform herself to modernistic ideals, she soon realized that her heart lay elsewhere. Eventually she had to turn her back on the idea that the truth is a mere record of the flux of events, and concentrate on her own ideas of beauty. The claim to have seen sublime or beautiful things, because out of character with our common place selves, is seen as a kind of hypocritical self-aggrandizement; even though in fact it is only insofar as we all do transcend at moments those vulgar selves that we can see or know anything of value.
But in our time, in Ars Poetica, Dana Levin writes The idea, the teacher said, was that there was a chaos / left in matter----a little bit of not-yet in everything that was---- / so the poets became interested in fragments, interruptions---- / the little bit of saying lit by the unsaid----.
As I said before, Raine uses symbols, not fragments. Each leaf, each star, each face is complete and unbroken, standing for the whole of its kind. The spirit, for the time, is free, seeing the chairs, the flowers on the table, the curtains, the lamp and the dust, for what they are, an appearance on the surface of a continuous, living, single universe. The supernatural world is the world we ordinarily know and see and walk about it. There is no other. For any rose can be the mystic rose. So seen it is not less a rose, but more a rose.
Raine takes on some of the effects of modernism, by exploring ordinary life and the common man, by confessing her own state of mind, considering everyday objects to be worthy of study, and often writing with the rhythms of common speech. Comparative beauty, she wrote in Faces Of Day And Night, is as nothing at all. The poor, plain man, inarticulate and sinful, has the absolute quality, the absolute existence by which all greatness is measured.
Much more strongly you can hear the echoes of earlier symbolists, such as William Blake, but even more, Yeats. Like Yeats, Raine asks a multitude of rhetorical questions. From what treasuries are the floors of sleep sown, / And of the waking world we travel? To what far, fair land / Borne on the wind / What winged seed / Or spark of fire / From holocaust / To kindle a star? On what journey / Does the night-traveler go / In quest of what lost treasure? These interrogatives are especially important for a poet who wants to evoke a spiritual understanding of the world. Preaching would be resisted, but pointed questions are not as oppressive to the reader, since they give the illusion of freedom for the reader to come up with their own particular answer, within the carefully prescribed limits of course.
Another technique Raine uses is allusion. But as a symbolist, nearly every image is allusive. So perhaps a more accurate term would be echoing. In other words, familiar lines occur frequently. Consider: Not where we live but where we love Troubling dark leaves upon a starry bough To free the music of the spheres As in a glass we meet, / Darkly Into what strange land / Are you / New-born? Cast not before swine Sea-change Gather while you may How many faces have you worn, / life after life . . . all that has been / Is here and now, and is to come. There we hear Yeats, from Before The World Was Made, and then from Sailing To Byzantium, the line Of what is past, or passing, or to come. Raine's poetry is peppered with these echoes, especially of Yeats.
Another pleasing feature of Raine's poems is her aural sense. With the sometimes limited vocabulary of a symbolist, word-play can become increasingly important. Many of her phrases tickle the ear. In the vein in the sun in the rain / In the rock in the light in the night there is none. Unwoven unwound. Phrases are often turned around for effect, often having to do with the theme of interconnectedness of time and place, as in: All pray always, all ways are prayer.
Raine has many strengths, but also some weaknesses as a poet. For instance, a lack of specifics, and sometimes too great a reliance on abstractions. Words like love and pain occur over and over again, sometimes in the same poem. But she is always a soul desiring to understand Life, rather than simply to categorize it in verse and then make small meanings out of it accordingly. The meaning, for Raine, has to come first. There, among flasks and retorts, plant-tissues and microscopes and the bones of vertebrates I could still slip off my brave new persona and bathe in life's healing stream. In fact, she believes that the function of art is . . . to evoke the divine presence.
Both Day and Raine get across the idea that everything is connected. For Day, this is literally true. We're part of the biological world, every aspect of us including our emotions, our intelligence, our creativity-even art forms such as music, dance, and architecture-is found in the animal kingdom. We're all part of the universe, and we all came from the same place. Every atom in our bodies has already passed through two exploding stars on average before it got to us.
To Raine, the connection is spiritual, but every bit as real. We are all petals of a rose, leaves of a tree, but also stars. Why stars? Because a star is separated by vast distance, and yet it shines and can easily be seen and appreciated. Raine herself has lived a solitary life. Her children understood this, and so did the men in her life. She appreciates people the way we appreciate the stars, or the way one leaf appreciates another: we are all leaves on the same universal tree, but in the end, every one falls by itself. The number of poems in which she uses these same images seems extremely large (though I have not attempted to make an exact count).
The wonderful thing is that, for the most part, the simplicity of Raine's imagery can lead to some very individual and unique poetic situations. For instance, this poem from On A Deserted Shore:
At the last leap I shrink
From fall of black sea-cliff and moiling water, wake
To find in gray of dawn vague leaves and roses break
In foam of that far sea.
On lip of petal, margin of leaf, that brink.
Who else but Kathleen Raine could figure the margin of a leaf as the objective correlative of a death-wish? It may help to have the rest of Deserted Shore as a context, or even her autobiographies to know that she was mourning the death of Gavin Maxwell, or that she believed despair to be the greatest of all sins. I think the poem works without this context, because of the basic simplicity.
But she does not include Deserted Shore in her Collected Poems. Regrettably she leaves out many other works as well. Cataloguing her omissions, she comments that War, religion and personal love have all inspired great poetry, but only insofar as they have given wings to imagination. For myself they have impeded it. I disagree with her, yet when I think of Days earlier books, I cant help but admit the same thing to be true. There is fire in Fire In The Garden, and wildness in Wild One, but my imagination is stirred most by Infinities, which takes its inspiration from science and nature.
Here is one of my favorite poems from Raines collection, Living In Time, omitted in her Collected Poems. The Present:
Now, there is only now, ever and always
Time like snow slopes falling away and away down a mountain,
Like a rose opening about its crowned heart,
Like waves circling from the place where the pebble fell,
Like light radiant from the sun,
Like the blind drawn up in a room after night's pain,
Like opening eyes of the body from sleep to sight.
Now, after a lifelong time of waiting
Came pouring down upon me like a stream
Of water from the mountain, of water
Poured oh from high, from higher
Than the highest mountain, high as the bird
That hovers in God's ray,
High above light, water from heaven.
Like love, for it is love,
All round me rings the world
Like an encircling bell
Shuddering into music from this pang of birth,
The envelope of darkness rent from sense
By fire-flash, knife-stroke, bird's flight
And blinding light, when blinded to the earth,
New, like a child forgiven, sings the heart.
(Soon, lovers' lips promised, it will be soon
All will be soon, now will be soon, but never,
It never, oh never, for all the music promised
For all the heart longed for, waited for, was
That the flowers by the path led towards, and the bright eyes
That peeped from the woods before us following Eros
Whose soon, so sought for, is far, oh farther away than never.)
Now keep me, Love keep me now
Here, always, and still, no farther to go,
Only to stay where I have been, stay where these waters flow
From the sky, where the light breaks, where the heart
Reposes with her love, oh mystery
Greater than desire, covering the sky,
And yet, oh worshipped form, in body and soul, Man also!
This is Kathleen Raine at her happiest, when intimacy with a man seems like a doorway
into the divine. It is not seizing the moment, but taking the moment and using it to seize all the rest of time. For all its faults, this look at Raines poetic career is impressive and worth having, as is Days Infinities. Raine is old enough to have published a collected poems twicethe first time nearly fifty years ago. I hope Lucille Lang Day will live as long, and give us a body of work of the same caliber.
Brad Bostian is a contributing editor for ForPoetry.com. He teaches writing at Central Piedmont Community College in Charlotte, NC. His work has appeared in Triquarterly, Eclectica, Sow's Ear, Plainsongs, RATTLE, Crosscurrents, Xavier Review, Amelia, Long Islander, Poetry Now and others. Click here to read more of his reviews in ForPoetry.