November 2013

Nicholas Vajifdar

The Forgotten Twentieth Century

"World is suddener than we fancy it.": Reading Louis MacNeice

For years, the following stanza has been lodged in my head:

The sunlight on the garden
Hardens and grows cold,
We cannot cage the minute
Within its nets of gold,
When all is told
We cannot beg for pardon.

This is opening to "The Sunlight on the Garden" by the Irish poet Louis MacNeice. After examining it part by part, I have to conclude about it what a scientist would have to conclude about a perpetual motion machine: this is impossible. This should not be. A human could have written nothing so unassumingly perfect. How, for example, did MacNeice achieve the effect of following "garden" with "hardens," a rhyme that would have chimed too hard if not for that absolving s? How did he rhyme it again with "pardon" just before the echo of "garden" had faded? How did he know to shorten the second line of his only rhymed couplet in order to set up the blood-chilling last line? How did he arrange for a subtle n noise to hover throughout the stanza like a bass note from a church organ?

The answer to all these questions might be simply: he had talent. He had read and absorbed the sounds of English poetry from Chaucer onward and had a fine ear and the patience and grit required to bring his own writing into conformity with his tastes as a reader. And this would be an acceptable answer, too, if it weren't for this obstacle: the stanza also manages to clearly get across a haunting message. The carrying off of sonic effects is one thing; having a profound feeling and communicating it clearly is another; but to do both is impossible, like being in Asia and Antarctica at same time. But there it is in MacNeice's Selected Poems staring up at you, impossible but there.

The contrary pull of sound and sense is hard to overstate. Even the best poets are often forced to sacrifice one for the other. I love Keats, but I have to cringe every time I read the phrase "deceiving elf" from "Ode to a Nightingale":

Forlorn! the very word is like a bell
To toll me back from thee to my sole self!
Adieu! the fancy cannot cheat so well
As she is fam'd to do, deceiving elf.

The syllable "self" is be extremely common in English, and yet hilariously, there are only two rhymes for it: shelf, and elf. You can almost hear Keats's thoughts as he writes this quatrain -- justifiably pleased with himself for the first two lines, congratulating himself on his genius, and then as he turns his thoughts toward the rhyme, his face darkening like Oh, shit. His unenviable choice was to associate "fancy" with a shelf, or with an elf. Somehow I doubt he would have called fancy an elf in a letter.

Another way to say this is to point out that the words of a poem are both melody and lyrics. Most song lyrics are excruciating (then again, so are most poems, most fiction, most essays), but even the stupidest can become oddly moving when carried by a beautiful melody. Sometimes naïve lyrics even seem to intensify the beauty of a melody, while knowing lyrics make it sink. There's a strange difficulty in trying to read song lyrics as simply prose or verse after the melody is known, an effect that causes people to generally overrate song lyrics because they continue to hear the melody. As insanely challenging as it is to write moving songs, the separation of the planes of melody and lyrics affords a flexibility to the songwriter that's completely denied to the poet. Which once again makes the first stanza of "The Sunlight on the Garden" seem totally impossible, an outright gift.

Close reading, regardless of the intentions of its advocates, tends to reinforce the view of students that, in order to write a poem, the poet makes a list of themes and figures of speech and prosodic effects and then attempts to glom them all together, like wax balls, like a lawyer drawing up a contract dense and nuanced enough encompass the interests of the various avid parties. But of course the actual poet's guide is intuition, or sound, or smell, rather than a kind of analysis in reverse. The ancient association between poetry and priesthood must sprout from this.

In "Snow," MacNeice begins this way, showing that he was equally at home in both metered and looser verse, and that in the freer sort of verse he could bring the melody just as well as he could under the yoke of meter:

The room was suddenly rich and the great bay-window was
Spawning snow and pink roses against it.
Soundlessly collateral and incompatible:
World is suddener than we fancy it.

It's difficult not to hear Gerard Manley Hopkins and his Saxon music in that phrase "world is suddener," as if world were not the environment or the planet or the boundlessness of outer space but a kind of darting spirit -- "not what the eye sees, but that by which the eye can see," to quote the Kena Upanishad. MacNeice continues:

And the fire flames with a bubbling sound for world
Is more spiteful and gay than one supposes --
On the tongue on the eyes on the ears in the palms of one's hands --
There is more than glass between the snow and the huge roses.

The trouble with poetry that offers such an ineffable sense of recognition is that it should make critics hesitate. Isn't analysis really destruction -- or worse, isn't it sort of like replacing the authentic article with a substitute fake of your own manufacture? "We acted as though we had tried to find the real artichoke by stripping it of its leaves," wrote Wittgenstein. If a critic were to prosily pin down just what it is between the snow and the huge roses in MacNeice's poem, wouldn't it ruin the dramatic effect, like spelling out just who the fourth figure was in Nebuchadnezzar's furnace?

The counterargument is that poets have, at least in the past two hundred years, abused the priestly privilege of their form by making no sense and for no good reason. The truly scandalous thing to read now in a prestigious literary journal wouldn't be the typical cloudy hodgepodge that most novel readers recoil from but a completely lucid essay like Rochester's "A Satyr against Reason and Mankind" or Swift's "Verses on the Death of the Dr. Swift." Think how alien these lines from the Swift poem are to the current style:

As Rochefoucault his Maxims drew
From Nature, I believe 'em true:
They argue no corrupted Mind
In him; the Fault is in Mankind.

As a product of my own time, though, I can't help feeling more moved by the searing imagery of modern poetry  ("The moon has nothing to be sad about, / Staring from her hood of bone. // She is used to this sort of thing. / Her blacks crackle and drag.") than by the arguments and jokes of Swift. The greatness and impossibility of MacNeice's poems reminds us of the greatness and impossibility of poetry itself, the weirdest of all art forms, second only to music.