On Poetry, Stone and “Dialectic Deceit”

IMG_3260Those of us who regularly (and not so regularly these hectic days) write about ideas know that oftentimes it is only in writing about some “thing” that we come to understand what we truly think about it.  We may start off writing with the idea that we are going to say one thing but quite often we find ourselves saying something altogether different. We undergo a transformation of sorts – even a conversion at times– as we wrestle to put into words what it is we want to say about the thing we are writing about. That, of course, is one of the main reasons we write: to understand.

The last poetry review here on Richard Hugo’s “Making Certain It Goes On” got me thinking about the relationship between poetry and stone. Four poems came quickly to mindd: Richard Hugo’s “Making Certain It Goes On” and Yeats’ “Under Ben Bulben,” of course… but also Robert Frosts’ “The Lesson for Today” and Shelley’s “Ozimandias.”

Frost’s lines from the final stanza of “The Lesson for Today” are as familiar as any that he has written. The long poem that they come from is not so familiar. But long poems tend to be that way: too taxing to be cherished by the masses. As with popular music, our ears tend to gravitate toward and hang onto the catchy choruses of songs. They can more easily carry us way… and hence be more easily carried away by us as songs stuck in our heads.

“I hold your doctrine of Memento Mori.
And were an epitaph to be my story,
I’d have a short one ready for my own.
I would have written of me on my stone:
I had a lover’s quarrel with the world.”

In one inspired line, the final one, Frost sums up his entire body of work. It becomes, in the way that only poetry can, a line more permanent than lines carved into stone.

That, of course, is the irony at the center of Shelley’s great “Ozymandias.” Words last longer than stone. The tablets Moses carried down from the mountain are gone… the words live forever.

I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: “Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown
And wrinkled lip and sneer of cold command
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed.
And on the pedestal these words appear:
`My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings:
Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!’
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare,
The lone and level sands stretch far away”.

In the famous final stanzas of Yeat’s “Under Ben Bulben” we see again a poet calling for a few words to be etched into stone at a final resting place, pointing to the most important reason that poets write: so they can live on forever.

Under bare Ben Bulben’s head
In Drumcliff churchyard Yeats is laid.
An ancestor was rector there
Long years ago, a church stands near,
By the road an ancient cross.
No marble, no conventional phrase;
On limestone quarried near the spot
By his command these words are cut:

Cast a cold eye
On life, on death.
Horseman, pass by!

Poetic “fame” is what all poets truly want. Not fame in the sense that popular culture thinks of it, something transitory and bright flaming on the night…. something everyone notices for a few moments but soon forget when the next distraction comes along. That is celebrity. That is not poetic fame, artistic fame.

No poetic fame is what Shakespeare and Shelley and Yeats and Auden have. Their words will remain as long as people can read and write and think. That in the end is what Frost and Yeats are writing about in writing their own epitaphs.

Which bring us again to Richard Hugo, a largely forgotten poet… though one now apparently being “rediscovered” to some extent. His poem seems like something different altogether.

In this dreamy summer air you and I
dreamily plan a statue commemorating
the unknown fisherman. The stone will bear
no inscription and that deliberate anonymity
will start enough rumors to keep
the mill operating, big trout nosing the surface,
the church reforming white frame
into handsome blue stone, and this community
going strong another hundred years.

At first glance we are tempted to say, “Hugo is obviously not talking about a stone and statue for himself like Yeats and Frost so clearly were.”  But I am not convinced that that is true.

God alone can create ex nihilo. The personae a poet creates to speak any poem is always one drawn from out of the pool of their own self. All poetry in the first person amounts to a kind of  dialectic deceit, simultaneously both about the poet and at the same time not about the poet at all but about some “persona” the poet has created.

This is part of what Harold Bloom means when he says all bad poetry is sincere. Sincere poetry– bad poetry– is really only about the writer of the poem. Without the “dialectic deceit,” it is flat poetry… totally without the subtlety and undercurrents that are at the heart of all “true” poetry. It is (again referencing Bloom) Maya Angelou at her sincere best.

The drunk fisherman in “Making Certain It Goes On” then is as much Hugo as it is not Hugo. The fact that he calls for no epitaph on the statue then, catches my eye and ear. It creates a poem with much subtlety and depth, one I like more with each reading.

And so here I am, as I am so often in my writing life, thinking I am going to write about one thing only to find I have written about something else altogether (and coined a new phrase for myself along the way, dialectic deceit!). But that is the nature of writing and poetry and poets as deep and wonderful as Yeats and Shelley and Frost and Hugo.


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