GERALD BURNS SOCIETY
|GERALD BURNS SOCIETY|
IMAGINARY PREFACE TO THE MYTH OF ACCIDENCE
A reader of these poems (if I can judge from a handful of reviews) is most struck by the litter or clutter of proper names -- too many, I know. It's probably provincial. I am grateful to the people who taught me to think and perceive, and name them. Their works are accessible, and stand by themselves. Yet it's the critics who can't read six lines of me without dismay who complain most. The suggestion is that if I were less quoteful they would read on. I doubt it. I know the references are a source of irritation and dismay. The last time I defended myself about them to a friend I said that I acknowledge them as a fault, look at them and say, "Drat." She liked that, and we left it there.
Taking a cue from Wallace Stevens I might have called this collection "The Whole of Boccherini's Minuet." That set of thirty-six poems (I have this on the authority of Scott Duddridge) is still, in terms of tutelary deities, where I'm at. In fact I started writing this in my head after looking at passages in Montaigne and Cervantes, and there they are, puissant and resigned, in the last Minuet. When will he have learned something? as the soldier said of the old man taking school notes. Likely never. The notions of learning differ, and that's why I'm writing this preface. The writers, both artists and scholars, I care for are a lost race, exiled to Laputa or Atlantis. The scattered readers -- not necessarily of me -- I meet whom I love read with something like ferocity. They prowl libraries. Their posture with a book is feral. Their living spaces are dens.
This is not new. Charles Lamb, Virginia Woolf, Samuel Johnson, were readers like that. The habit and the hunger aren't taught in schools, are not transmissible by teachers. It is an accident. What's changed is the pretense that everybody reads. We've given that up. Writing is produced by authors who would rather shoot themselves than mention the names I've already named. Chaucer and Dante would rather hang themselves than not name their favorites. Is gratitude out of fashion, or a medieval perquisite? Surely not. In the twenties and thirties Christopher Morley and A. Edward Newton could write about authors in The Atlantic and Saturday Review and find a general public. World War II seems to have wiped that out, perhaps by wiping too many of us out. Gertrude Stein wrote extraordinarily well before World War I; Marianne Moore did her best work before World War II. After that the journalists. Life became, I think, something you document. The writing was a record. You got "it" down on paper.
How dismal. The writer should be more than a clerk, or to turn a line by Frost the one who does our writing for us. I work sometimes in bookshops. Young people come in and their eyes light up when they see writers they've heard recommended -- Brautigan, Bukowski, the generation after Salinger, mostly, and Hesse. Here, it's as if they're saying, is at last an author who will understand me. Why they want to be understood, or feel understood, is a question they've not been raised to ask. (Keats loved to test things on his pulses, but probably didn't test his pulses on his pulses.) It's enough to put me off sentiment, or make me ashamed of my own gratitude, and that is a pity. But how American of them, to like things that are like themselves, because they are like themselves. Perhaps it's hard to think you're anything, and these writers solidify a shape. I wouldn't know. I don't read them. Maybe it helps to see your shabbier feelings compassionately expressed by a writer you've heard of.
Which, if so, means they're going around thinking all emotions have names. Absolutely untrue, unless "The Eve of St. Agnes" is the name of an emotion. It takes Christopher Ricks a whole book, Keats and Embarrassment, to show everything Keats means by a "blush." Studies of the sort hearten me. What should have been my readers, what in the thirties would have been my readers, are at the stage of "See Jane write." They love it that she sounds like Jane, as long as Jane sounds like them. She is their role model. They want to talk like her.
What would it be like if they talked like me? On the page at least Mei-Mei Berssenbrugge looks to my eye like me. Her lines are about as long as mine, and her diction looks like mine. She's a bit more abstract, but it's close enough to be unsettling. David Searcy has been reading me for years, and says it's a pleasure like no other to come on a paragraph or two he knows I'd like, and then finds I wrote it. What a nice test. Of writing.
So I write and think along, at present composing a 4,000-line finale to Myth, the same number of lines as Keats's Endymion, though it's taking me longer to write. He didn't have long. I may not live to finish "On Myth and Time," and don't know what leaving it unfinished would be for me. But it's what I'm doing now and I'm engaged with it. There are little narrative poems, I've forgot how many, in the first thousand lines. The next thousand, my current care, has none, and is trying to think about Symbolist verse, Baudelaire to Valéry, because it seems to matter. The spookiness of it sent me to M. R. James's ghost stories, and Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes series, and I took time out to write four intricate studies of what scholars used to call the latter. I read them as if they were Symbolist poems, and got results that startled me, anyway. But that close, maniacally close, a reading was to look at each word with (true) attention, but the same kind of attention. What was there was there always, always there. The letter liveth, Oscar Wilde once said, the diction giveth life, Mallarmé's swan, Henry Baker's goose with a sapphire down its throat, in the mud as it were. A black pearl (of the Borgias) in Napoleon's head, and why not. The times people interrupt each other in Valley of Fear. A night ago I typeset all four of them as a pamphlet.
This was "research" for my long poem. Symbolism was a prewar diction, and came out of the same pool, or vat, or tarn, as the best thrillers in the language. (Experts agree that Doyle's mummy story is a living source for that lovely film The Mummy.) If, for writers, the imagination liveth, down to little plastic statues of monsters beloved of children who are no fools, its compelling nature was firstly there in phrases. Symbolist verse needs both its phrases and the phrases it would have repelled. Milieu is all.
So in my poems you'll find references to horror films (and detective fiction) as well as Cervantes. I'm proud to have poems in The Faber Book of Movie Verse. Their inclusion is not to teach other people anything. They are there, "in" in my private slang, because I love them and find them troubling the way good prewar verse is troubling. Does this -- does this -- mean that reading is ersatz experience? Do I dine at Simpson's behind a screen? Perhaps so. But poets funded by universities must go to movies, and don't seem to write about them much. They also don't mention, as a rule, the books I read.
If I read Gloucester histories I could write about polis, badly. My political views are on a level with P. G. Wodehouse's, so I spared you that. In the sixties (I was faculty sponsor for SDS, which was sort of like imagining G. K. Chesterton as a Minuteman) people thought political engagement guaranteed relevance. I liked it when in a piece printed in Exquisite Corpse Eliot Weinberger said it's now a crime not to talk about trees, in context a fine remark. George Orwell is my model for political discourse -- what can you say plainly, and at what point do you feel yourself beginning to lie. For me, that's to say, the texture of his sentences is what he says, and it seems to be something about decency, a prewar virtue in him and Jacques Ellul.
That's what my poems do, write as if reading and writing and living were one thing.
* * *
In the last hundred forty-eight lines of The Passions of Being I was careful to mention no proper name. No one noticed, and I think no one would have if they'd been the first hundred forty-eight lines. What I might have done differently, how I might have built them, it's too late to say. Usually there's a philosophical thread, for which almost everything functions as example, a kind of post-Wittgensteinian Testament of Beauty. I find Robert Bridges' poem nearly impossible to read. He hadn't a philosophic mind. That he thinks he's doing philosophy upsets me. If I'm unreadable it's not quite that way.
What do we love? That's not quite the same as Gertrude Stein's "Do you like what you have?" And not the same as Charles Olson's confession somewhere or other that if an idea resonates inside him he's likely to think it true. That is too close, in my mind, to the young people breaking into a grin at the sight of Brautigan. Beat writing was necessary to me at the time because it was alive, but I've still not read On the Road. It was the poetry that got me. When Don Allen's anthology came out I thought it the best we had, and it was. I can't write like them. Drat. It's possible their example helped me wander away from colleges, or at least not try too hard to wander back. I miss the libraries a lot. It's odd, the little verse subcultures we have now. When I lived in Austin some nice people who read in coffee houses started an annual poetry event. At the first one I saw no university people at all. That boycott may work both ways, but I still thought it peculiar. Sparshott's The Structure of Aesthetics asks if aesthetics is one thing or a sprawl of things. Is poetry one thing? Is, as the academics would say, the word poetry at least potentially univocal? It looks as if we have poetries, and it's hurt me that what I write fits none of them. Say that G. M. Hopkins is more like Allen Ginsberg than he is like Richard Wilbur. Does it matter to say that, at all?
The people who used to read Latin, who sociologically speaking kept it current, now read French or German (or Russian) if anything. It keeps us nationalist, since aping the writers a street away is nationalist. Fashion or vogue have taken the place of Fortune. If that isn't true it's at least a sentence. I've nothing to say to people who take their theory from farther away than the kitchen. The readers who read me have some acquaintance with what's quoted in journals, but are passionately clear what they need.
Most of them write, some well, some ill. Most well. There are readers who read with writing in mind. I'd love to start listing the authors they read, but don't know enough to do it. Few names on the list are popular with popular critics, often because their writing resists any known means of attack. Yet these readers say wonderful things about them, wonderful to me. I talk to them a few minutes and want yet another symposium, so I can hear more. I suggest it, and get a quizzical stare or indifference. Talking well on a random occasion is enough for them, or more than enough. It's as if they're adepts at a critical discipline which doesn't exist. They make up what they need and forget it. The preface to Naive Set Theory says read this book and forget it, like that. Since I read a great deal of literary criticism (partly to read verse in snippets) I'm in awe. Such moves, from such wanderers. Some of them couldn't spell Fahrenheit 451 without looking it up, and you'd be proud to be read by them.
Perhaps the coming Underground is not writers of any particular slant but these readers. When they write it tends to be something genuinely unexpected and they aren't shortwinded, don't write on napkins. I'd love to say it's reading that matters now, not writing, because the preposterous nature of the current reading public, the one you hear about, is as unintelligible as The Masses as described by a French critic whose name I forget. One came to me and said how can I write until I'm clear about why I write. It took a while, but I began to see that as a possible problem, not a waste of time. It wasn't asked with sincerity but with a kind of agony. You would, you must, answer the question by writing. Until I heard it I thought a piece of writing would generate an ideal audience of a sort. Now I'm not sure. What if we are forced to write about what we lack, in a way Hemingway was not, or by forces of which he was unaware? The conversations with Popular Genres some writing has had (Jaimy Gordon, Ashbery, I couldn't say) may have been premature, each conceding the wrong thing to each. It's as sentences the new writing will shine, because these nourish the new readers. New sentences are new content, so novel they might not even be novels, but they might. They'll be riven or split, like the hailstones I saw once that looked like Kix. They will not (I think) be written on the assumption that we've all had the same experiences. Anyway, they'll be different with a difference, and the readers I begin to meet will love them at sight.
Copyright 1995 by Gerald Burns