Monday, September 10, 2007

The indifference formal

In part due to Greg's high recommendation, I reinstated Gwendolyn Brooks' Annie Allen on my list and read it today. And … wow, I'm super-glad I did. Not only is it a truly incredible book of poetry, it clarifies many things (for me) about the trajectory of certain Modernist influences in the 40s/50s. For one thing, the whole book, and especially its long centerpiece "The Anniad" which bears a clear resemblance to "The Comedian is the Letter C," seems like a giant receptacle for the influence of Wallace Stevens, a place where that influence could metastasize and develop in the fuzzy period between his early 20s vogue and his dramatic "rediscovery" by Harold Bloom and company in the late 60s and early 70s. I don't know for sure whether Brooks read Stevens, and I may be overstating the connection a bit: Brooks reminds me of all kinds of modern poets at various times in Annie Allen, including Cummings, Eliot, Hughes, Williams, Pound, etc. But Stevens is, for me, the most consistent and noticeable influence.

And yet she's not just a Stevens clone: she's Stevens with a subject (quite a few of them, in fact: childhood, sex, war, motherhood, and of course race); Stevens with opinions about other people, and experiences of pain and injustice from which to draw; even Stevens with an interest in switching her technique up, and often (in fact, the only other 20th century poet I can think of with comparable stylistic versatility is Auden); in short, Stevens with an emotional ambition and range — just a fearlessness — to match the obvious technical facility. And she's also (hoping I don't sound too reactionary here) the first poet to figure out how to use the Modernist idiom as a truly effective narrative/communicative tool: that is, she writes highly wrought, subtle, varied and ambiguous verse with an awareness of the previous 50 years of poetic history which is nonetheless not the least bit obscure, or only when she really wants it to be. (Robert Lowell, on the other hand, the most praised young American poet of the 40s, tends to lack the verbal rigor of the Modernists while keeping their obscurity — an unprofitable development.)

I read Brooks' book fast and delightedly, with the aid of some caffeine stimulants (as the tone of this post may make clear) but I know I will be returning to it in the future for a more careful analysis. I also don't know too much about its critical reception (I understand it won the Pulitzer), although this page looks like an intriguing place to start. And I may still be hung up on this Stevens Era question, and thus embroiling Brooks in a thought-process-in-progress when she really deserves her own. But right now, in the heat of the blog, I'd go so far as to say that critics like Bloom, who cream all over the Emersonian philosophical posturing in Stevens' late poetry while ignoring the enormous technical and thematic potential his early work opens up, a potential fully realized only in a poet like Brooks, are just missing the point of Stevens entirely. They are, ironically, falling for his authorial persona (albeit a highly impersonal persona) rather than responding to what Stevens, surely, would have considered his key contribution: to expand the possibilities of modern poetry.

In fact, reading the heartbreaking untitled final poem in Annie Allen, which describes the understated racism of Brooks' reception in the academic world of the 1940s, it's hard not to think of Bloom and his like, carefully expatiating on the way of the world, the weight of poetic history, and the sanctity of "the line":

Men of careful turns, hater of forks in the road,
The strain at the eye, that puzzlement, that awe —
Grant me that I am human, that I hurt,
That I can cry.

Not that I now ask alms, in shame gone hollow,
Nor cringe outside the loud and sumptuous gate.
Admit me to our mutual estate.

Open my rooms, let in the light and air.
Reserve my service at the human feast.
And let the joy continue.

Next, the indifference formal, deep and slow.

Comes in your graceful glider and benign,
To smile upon me bigly; now desires
Me easy, easy; claims the days are softer
Than they were; murmurs reflectively, "Remember
When cruelty, metal, public, uncomplex,
Trampled you obviously and every hour…"
(Now cruelty flaunts diplomas, is elite,
Deliberate, has polish, knows how to be discreet):
Requests my patience, wills me to be calm,
Brings me a chair, but the one with broken straw,
Whispers, 'My friend, no thing is without flaw.
If prejudice is native — and it is — you
Will find it ineradicable — not to
Be juggled, not to be altered at all,
But left unvexed at its place in the properness
Of things, even to be given (with grudging) honor. What
We are to hope is that intelligence
Can sugar up our prejudice with politeness.
Politeness will take care of what needs caring.
For the line is there.
And has a meaning. So our fathers said —
And they were wise — we think — At any rate,
They were older than ourselves. And the report is
What's old is wise. At any rate, the line is
Long and electric. Lean beyond and nod.
Be sprightly. Wave. Extend your hand and teeth.
But never forget it stretches there beneath." (Blacks, 139-140)