Sunday, May 23, 2010

whose soul is not a clod has visions


I lie in the bath and I contemplate the toilet-paper.
Scottissue, 1000 sheets—
         What a lot of pissin and shittin,
         What a lot of pissin and shittin,
Enough for the poems of Shelley and Keats—
All the poems of Shelley and Keats.

—Muriel Rukeyser

My dear teacher and friend, Jan Heller Levi, introduced me to this Rukeyser gem a few months ago. This morning, spent in near-raptures with Keats' "The Fall of Hyperion," I couldn't help but think of Rukeyser's seeming-condemnation of Keats' work. I also couldn't help but wonder whether a 1,000 sheet roll would be enough to scrawl out the 530 lines of "The Fall of Hyperion" in my rapidly-degenerating script. (Note: will try this later. Rainy Sundays and railroad apartments were made for such tasks.)

I don't know enough about Rukeyser to say whether she despised the poems of Shelley and Keats, or whether this poem is more of a statement on the disposable, compost-able, ever-recyclable nature of poetries. This morning I lean toward the latter interpretation. For years I found Keats excessive, his lyric cloying in its enthrallment with sensuous beauty. Mayhaps—yeshaps—because I fight my own inner Romantic constantly. Like a man with a pretty mouth and pockets full of Goetze's caramel creams, Keats gave me the high I was most susceptible to—seasons of melancholy mists sweetened by mellow fruitfulnes, that chatty urn chanting, to the beat of my aesthete heart: "Beauty is truth, truth beauty [.]"

And then, "The Fall of Hyperion." I mean, SERIOUSLY, ya'll. This fragment-poem is described by Harold Bloom as Keats turning away from the "sentimentality" he felt drove earlier poems such as "Ode to a Nightingale." Yet, the question that ends "Nightingale"—"Was it a vision, or a waking dream? / Fled is that music—Do I wake or sleep?"—rings similarly throughout "The Fall of Hyperion," with a marked shift in the question's underlying anxieties. Keats' speaker in "Fall" takes the waking dream as a given—"Fanatics have their dreams" and "the savage too," but now the question is not whether the vision is to be doubted, but whether it can be written: "pity these have not / Traced upon vellum or wild Indian leaf / The Shadows of melodious utterance" (4-6). But most importantly—whether these visions may be written in ways that "save / Imagination from the sable charm / And dumb enchantment" (9-10).

The introductory stanza goes on to posit, in a surprisingly democratic manner (at least, in my shamelessly ahistorical reading), that anyone "whose soul is not a clod" indeed has the vision and drive to "speak, if he had loved" (in the way Keats thought love to mean something similar to Simone Weil's famous injunction, "Absolute unmixed attention is prayer," and the fruit of that prayer poetry). That is, "if he had loved, / And been well nurtured in his mother tongue" (14-15)—and what a tremendously important distinction that is!

Reading Keats in such a way takes me back to Rukeyser's riposte, and socially-conscious poems (such as "The Ballad of Orange and Grape") that ask difficult questions—and make grim insinuations—about what happens when one is not "well nurtured" by any tongue, mother or not. Do the "great" poems then become shit-smeared sheets because of illiteracy? Or is it the forward progress of poets, a progress Keats' "Fall of Hyperion" gestures to in spirit at least, that allows old visions to become fertilizer—that which, in their decomposition, foster the future?


Patrick said...

I'm not well read in poetry. So I really can't discuss. But as I have a rather literal mind, when I read the Rukeyser poem I thought she was just commenting on how much TP there is in a single roll. It never occurred to me that she was dissing Shelly and Keats. Just observing that you could fit a lot of words on a single roll and using those poets as an example. Do poets often dis each other?

mem said...

that's a good point, patrick. it is a LOT of toilet paper.

as for poets dissing each other...i'm not going to say it's not done. but i think the "age" difference between rukeyser and keats/shelley make it less of a personal dis and more of a poet of one era chipping away at the pedestal of another to make way for the "new" (whatever that is....).

mem said...

also, the title clues us in that this is probably not Rukeyser herself speaking, or even a poet—-but a publisher. the irony doubles back on itself--not only does a maker-of-books compare pages of poetry to butt-wipes, this publisher-speaker calls out two of the big names in Romantic poetry. it occurs to me now that perhaps this more of a statement on the industry of publishing's perspective on poetry (and the literal and figural death of romanticism at the hands of capitalism) than anything else.