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The Speed of Verse, II

October 10, 2009

So, why is speed needed to say poetry? It is the sound of sense waking up the latent agility of the tongue: “speak the speech, I pray you, as I pronounced it to you, trippingly on the tongue.” It is attention to sharper contrasts, to multiplying facets, to a superabundant collation of angular things all at once–a big, strange and wonderful world: “whatever is swift, slow; sweet, sour; adazzle, dim.” It is also awareness of and ministry to the ebb and flow, sad and happy, right and wrong, the tangle and loosening of the soul: “and quick-eyed love, observing me grow slack / from my first entrance in, / drew nearer to me, sweetly questioning …”

A dream, a mere enjoyment won’t do. In Vergil and Dante, we have poets that gave themselves to the labor of it. Yeats’ wrote of their kind of poetry,

Better go down upon your marrow-bones
And scrub a kitchen pavement, or break stones
Like an old pauper, in all kinds of weather;
For to articulate sweet sounds together
Is to work harder than all these, and yet
Be thought an idler, by the noisy set
Of bankers, schoolmasters, and clergymen
The martyrs call the world.

Of the works of such laboring poetry, Pound writes: “They are good art in the way the high mass is good art.” They are, in this way, unlike “songs that are apt to weary you after you know them.” Their poetry “must be conceived and approached as a ritual. It has its purpose and its effect. These are different from those of simple song. They are perhaps subtler. They [continue to] make their revelations to those who are already expert.” Nevertheless, as Yeats suggests, all this long labor is to achieve a speed in verse equal to a moment’s gathering or dispersal of things, its climax, anti-climax, or perplexity; equal to “times trans-shifting” … and so, like the mass, able to sing a modulating song to different times and seasons of the heart, to different occasions of speech:

A line will take us hours maybe;
Yet if it does not seem a moment’s thought,
all our stitching and unstitching has been naught.

In Vergil’s poems of “low Italy,” the Georgics, he writes how “human usage, examining itself, hammered out, little by little, different arts” of cultivation, husbandry, care … “searched out a grass with grain, and struck from the veins of flint the hidden fire” that Zeus hid away from men. He writes that without the aid of assiduous labor, “all things rush to the worse, and, let slide, get borne away, just like one who with all his upstream-rowing can scarcely push his skiff along beneath him and, if he relax his arm, the boat will whip him headlong in the sheer stream.” The glory of farmer belongs to one “who having provided tools for every necessity long before will mindfully bring them forth” at the critical time. And it is just the varying crisis of every moment that Vergil’s verse accentuates: “at last, what the late dusk star may bring, whence the wind drives clear the clouds, what the wet west wind is thinking about, the sun will give you signs.” “Rain never brought harm on the unforewarned; either the flying cranes have gone and fled it rising from the deepest valleys, or the heifer looking up to the sky has caught its breezes in her wide nostrils, or shrill sparrows gone flittering about the lakes, and in their mud the frogs croaked out the old complaint. … Not even, at night, girls plucking their measures of wool have been unaware of coming storm, when, on the glowing clay, they saw how the oil fizzled, how crumbling snuff collected on the wick.”

At the beginning of our Canto, Dante likens himself to a farmer caught unawares by a false snow-fall “like some wretch ignorant of what can be done,” likening himself, perhaps, to those “rustics ignorant of the way” of the benighted age to which Vergil offered his Georgics. Vergil shows him what it means to “ponder as he labors,” to be

always ready for the step ahead.
So, as he lifted me up toward the summit
of one great crag he’d see another spur,
saying: “That is the one you will grip next,
but try it first to see if it is firm.”

Trying, testing what things are made of as they pass us by, the world gives us its edges and its contours and its cracks. … “This was no path for those with cloaks of lead”: the hypocrites, whose circle Vergil and Dante have just left, wear cloaks that seem gold, but inside are heavy with lead. Caring for and perpetuating the mere illusion of goodness is a thankless and life-sapping labor directly antithetical to the quickening care for what is real; here, there can be no pretending; only an actual, receptive, and bold contact with the surrounding world and the tasks it offers can ascend this path, contact that does not “spare one drop for dreaming.” Nor is it the escape of spirit from the “body’s heaviness,” but the translation of that weight into the life and power that already quickens it. It is as Jesus said, as if to the hypocrites, speaking to the unnecessary weight they carry, “the body is more than clothes.” And, we might add, life (and poetry) always also is and ought to be something more than dreams, which but “leave such vestige of themselves on earth/ as smoke bequeaths to air, or foam to water.”

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