Thursday, December 27, 2007

Edmund Wilson, "Is Verse a Dying Technique?"; Mary McCarthy, "Artists in Uniform"

Edmund Wilson and Mary McCarthyI read these two tremendous essays while I was home. Very little rests in common between them besides intelligence—which, I suppose, would be a fitting epitaph for the marriage of these two geniuses.

McCarthy's essay, published as a "story" in March 1953 in Harper's, documents her efforts to maintain both poise and tact while insisting on a bluff and fatuous colonel's prejudice and anti-Semitism. Overhearing a soldiers' conversation on the train, McCarthy leaves the car, standing on her principles. Not quite satisfied that her departure made the right kind of impression on the men, she allows the colonel to take her to lunch, where she proceeds to try to draw his venom in such a way that he recognizes his views' own toxicity. She does not succeed, however; the man leaves content in his views, and McCarthy is frustrated by her inability to negotiate the tricky path of the well-meaning liberal.

The essay, which unfortunately I cannot find online, is one of the finest illustrations of the ways by which "well-meaning liberals" avoid committing themselves personally to a cause or even to a strong sentiment, choosing, instead, to plump themselves to a disinterested height of pure and facile compassion. She also provides some keen insights into the frighteningly common phenomenon by which a racist or sexist adopts his views in the pursuit of what he assumes to be greater sophistication. The flabby art of drawing mean distinctions is, for the racist or the sexist, a leap in intellectual subtlety. "I don't mind women; I just hate bitches," would be like in form to many of the things said quite seriously about blacks or latinos or gays or Jews. I find this possibility of attempted sophistication-as-a-major-cause-of-racism more frightening to believe than some theories of racism which posit ignorance as its root, and fear of displacement as its stem. How does one talk to people who believe that racism is okay as long as you only hate a certain (nebulous) subset of the race? What does one say to them, except the obvious—that they are absolutely full of shit? McCarthy wouldn't quite say that to the colonel, but her reticence, so conflict-avoidant, challenges the reader to examine her own evasions and silences.


Distinctions are not, quite obviously, inherently evil or even, in a pejorative sense, discriminatory. And Edmund Wilson is perhaps the master (in American letters, at least) of the well-considered and aptly placed distinction.

If he draws distinctions that ring true, however, he rarely draws blood. Because his lance was never really lowered for a sovereign school or class of thought, it was rarely broken. Edmund Wilson's greatness lies in his being the highest level attainable for cultural introduction; he is, one might say somewhat cruelly, the zenith of a philosophically shallow approach to literature.

Well, not so much shallow as naïve, and not naïve as in ignorant, but as in unsure of the dimensions of the gaps in one's knowledge and of the relative weights and measures of the things one has acquired. Wilson's great talent was his ability to acknowledge the new for the power it contained, and while his erudition was also almost matchless, no one's education is exactly coherent. But Wilson never seems even to grasp at the coherence of something larger than his essay's target; and he is frighteningly good at this game of ad hoc analysis. Wilson's freshness—in his writing as in his tastes—depended on his free agency, his ability to address the material and not some favored theoretical apparatus or hobby-horsical notion of "what literature means or does." Thus, his adroitness at drawing distinctions—he finds the fault lines in the work or in his topic, and not in anything else. And as he says of his well-admired hero Saintsbury,* "He never takes merits for granted."

Which brings us to his unbelievably illuminating essay, "Is Verse a Dying Technique?" If only if only if only this were given to all literature and creative writing majors at the beginning of their studies; had it been given to me, I might have engaged with my studies quite differently. For the distinctions Wilson draws in the first few pages make so many things so very much clearer, I cannot imagine being confused about the place and history of prose and verse again.

Or not very much so, at least. Here is what Wilson says. Perhaps this is elementary to you, but it is a nutritive and necessary element:
The more one reads the current criticism of poetry by poets and their reviewers, the more one becomes convinced that the discussion is proceeding on false assumptions. The writers may belong to different schools, but they all seem to share a basic confusion.
This confusion is the result of a failure to think clearly about what is meant by the words 'prose,' 'verse,' and poetry'—a question which is sometimes debated but which never gets straightened out. Yet are not the obvious facts as follows?
What we mean by the words 'prose' and 'verse' are simply two different techniques of literary expression. Verse is written in lines with a certain number of metrical feet each; prose is written in paragraphs and has what we call rhythm. But what is 'poetry,' then? What I want to suggest is that 'poetry' formerly meant one kind of thing but that it now means something different, and that one ought not to generalize about 'poetry' by taking all the writers of verse, ancient, medieval and modern, away from their various periods and throwing them together in one's mind, but to consider both verse and prose in relation to their functions at different times.
The important thing to recognize, it seems to me, is that the literary technique of verse was once made to serve many purposes for which we now, as a rule, use prose.
And he's off. He offers examples of contemporary prose writers' projects which may have, in Pope's day for instance, been composed in verse. First, he points out, we must remember how unbelievably many were the uses of verse in the classical, medieval and even early modern worlds. Scientific treatises (e.g. Manilius), legal dictates (Solon), literary criticism (Horace) and metaphysics (Lucretius) were expressed in verse. Such work is now done in prose.

But we may see this as a natural progression—our association of prose with pedestrian, non-artistic, non-soulful functions is strong (hence the term 'prosaic'). But what about those higher callings of the poets of old—are they now written in prose as well?

Shaw, for one, wrote plays which a century prior may very well have been given in blank verse. O'Neill, he might have added, is Sophoclean, but in prose. And, Wilson asks, "would not D.H. Lawrence, if he had lived a century earlier, probably have told his tales, as Byron and Crabbe did, in verse? Is it not just as correct to consider him the last of the great English romantic poets as one of the most original of modern English novelists?" Of course, Lawrence did write poetry in the common sense—little lines dropped one by one down a page. But Wilson is ignoring his lyric poetry for a reason; Lawrence's contribution to poetry in the larger sense is in his novels, which, if we follow Wilson, would have been formatted in blank verse or heroic couplets had Lawrence been a Romantic in period as well as in temperament.

As for Flaubert (not quite a contemporary, but a critical juncture), "one who has come to Flaubert at a sensitive age when he is also reading Dante may have the experience of finding that the paragraphs of the former remain in his mind and continue to sing as the lines of the latter do. He has got the prose by heart unconsciously just as he has done with favorite passages of verse; he repeats them, admiring the form, studying the choice of words, seeing more and more significance in them."

This is easy to read as a simple equation of two greatnesses—Flaubert's nonpareil prose with Dante's incomparably fluid lines. But it is more than that—Wilson is saying that the search for spiritual perfection in literary art, once expressed almost exclusively in metrical feet arranged in ordered lines, is now continued by modern prose writers in paragraphs of rhythmic precision. "If, then," Wilson trumpets "we take literature as a whole for our field, we put an end to many futile controversies—the controversies, for example, as to whether or not Pope is a poet, as to whether or not Whitman is a poet. If you are prepared to admit that Pope is one of the great English writers, it is less interesting to compare him with Shakespeare—which will tell you something about the development of English verse but not bring out Pope's peculiar excellence—than to compare him with Thackeray, say, with whom he has his principal theme—the vanity of the world—in common and who throws into relief the more passionate pulse and the soldier art of Pope."

And where does that leave verse? Desiccated, Wilson says, dried out and crippled, at least after Yeats. Lyric poetry, Wilson affirms, was booming (and it still is, I think). And there are torchbearers who shield verse's flame from being completely extinguished—great poets still write in the old forms. But their great works forsake verse for the most part. Geoffrey Hill, I would say, is a contemporary exception; his conscious workings-against Milton are exquisite.

If this is not clear enough—and it may not be—I only gradually came to relinquish my stubbornly muddled distinctions between 'poetry' and 'prose' for his more rational (and historically correct) differentiations—I would recommend trying to find this essay. It is either in the volume of essays called The Triple Thinkers (1938) or in the new Library of America edition of his Literary Essays and Reviews of the 1930s and 40s.

Apart from, and more important than, the intellectual content of the essay, however, is the way it opens you up to appreciate writers like Milton or Virgil or Pope for what they are—masters of verse. One ceases to read them as if they were lyric poets who lack any principle of concision. Wilson's essay ended with a plea that the new masters of prose be read with the same kind of reverence as his audience read the old titans of verse. That is no longer the danger, but rather the reverse; we, as scholars or lovers of literature, could well abandon reading verse because we judge it by standards formed by a false dichotomy—poetry vs. prose.

I wish I had read this essay sooner; I could have enjoyed my brushes with those titans of verse more.

* He has this to say about Saintsbury in a much later essay: "he gave himself up to literature in a way that was very different from the way of the ordinary scholar, with his tendency toward specialization and his ambition for academic prestige. It was as if he had transferred to literature his whole emotional and moral life, so that presently he appeared as an artist whose contacts were all with books instead of with places and people. One may even say "athletic life," for he has travelled in literature, too, and climbed mountains and done long-distance swimming. Saintsbury must have come as close to reading the whole of English literature as anyone who has ever lived, and he knew French literature almost as well. Academic fashions and categories, conventional assumptions and beaten trails, meant very little to him: he had to explore every inch for himself, see everything with his own eyes and formulate his own opinions." If you do not read a touch of fawningly envious self-description in Wilson's description (and in my quotation of that description), I suppose you should read more Wilson.

Later [12/30]: This 1991 essay by Dana Gioia ("Can Poetry Matter?") addresses different points, but references and is in many ways indebted to Wilson's "Is Verse a Dying Technique?"

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