Poetry Friday: 1929

I’m having trouble finding the poems I want for 1929 (the Countee Cullen was out of the library today….maybe next week)…it’s an interesting year for American poets.  So I’m going with H.D. for today—I have to admit, I’ve never gotten as into her work as I know other people have.  I can appreciate Imagism as a poetic style, but H.D. hasn’t connected with me emotionally so far.  I’m intrigued by this poem I’m posting today, but not sure of it: if anyone has thoughts about whether it’s even any good, or what the poem is attempting to communicate, I’d appreciate seeing them in the comments!  So, from 1929′s Red Roses for Bronze, by H.D., this is “Trance”:

The floor
of the temple
is bright
with the rain,
the porch and lintel,
each pillar,
in its sheet of metal;
silver flows
from the laughing Griffins;
the snows of Pentelicus
show dross beside
the King of Enydicus
and his bride,
outlined in the torch’s flare;
beware, I say,
the loverless,
the sad,
the lost,
the comfortless;
I care
only for happier things,
the bare, bare open court,
with circumspect wing)
the naked plinth,
the statue’s rare,
intolerant grace;
I am each of these,
I stare
till my eyes are a statue’s eyes,
set in,
my eye-balls are glass,
my limbs marble,
my face fixed
in its marble mask;
only the wind
now fresh from the sea,
flutters a fold,
then lets fall a fold
on my knee.

“The black people who live in the Quarters at Blue Brook Plantation believe they are far the best black people living on the whole ‘Neck’…”

“…as they call that long, narrow, rich strip of land lying between the sea on one side and the river with its swamps and deserted rice fields on the other.”

That lengthy sentence opens Scarlet Sister Mary, by Julia Peterkin, the 1929 recipient of the Pulitzer Prize.  I’m skeptical about this one.  Maybe it’s a sensitive portrayal of a portion of the African-American experience.  Maybe it’s at least sympathetic to the plight of those enslaved.  But the fairly casual references to slaves as being bred like race-horses and clinging to old superstitions make me suspicious.  I mean, here’s the second sentence in the novel:

“They are no Guinea negroes with thick lips and wide noses and low ways; or Dinkas with squatty skulls and gray-tinged skin betraying their mean blood; they are Gullahs with tall straight bodies, and high heads filled with sense.”

Even if I put the best possible spin on this, in which I focus on the positive portrayal of the Gullahs (who are, it seems, our protagonists?) and assume that the narrator’s negative comments about Guineas and Dinkas are from the perspective of proud and biased Gullahs, it certainly didn’t set me at ease.  If this novel proves to be really viciously racist, I don’t know how well I’ll survive it.  Peterkin does have a good way with words (not really evident in the above excerpts, so I guess you’ll have to trust me for now), but style won’t make up for bigotry, if it comes to that.  We’ll see, I guess.

1928: The Bridge of San Luis Rey, by Thornton Wilder

Literary Style:

I’ve gone on at some length in previous posts about what works for Wilder, and why I wouldn’t have guessed it would work.  He finishes the book in that in-between place, where sometimes I can see why what he does is brilliant and emotionally gripping, and sometimes I feel a bit distanced from his platitudes.  Marianne Moore (I think it was) once said “a poem should not mean, but be”.  Not bad advice.  And I think it’s a good flashlight to shine on this book, since it’s at its best when Wilder doesn’t make it obvious what he “means”, but instead paints the landscape with light and lets us ponder the mysteries that lie in the shadows, or what may rest behind that ridge.  The Bridge of San Luis Rey is good at this in large part because he sets out to explain the unexplainable—why do some people die and others don’t?  What can make sense of the death of five people who were unfortunate enough to be standing on a bridge at the moment of its collapse?  Meaning is too hard to draw out of the situation, and I think he mis-steps (but only briefly) at the end when he tries to soar a bit, and explain what this all might be about.

Wilder has excelled at many aspects of the novel that I’ve found lacking in some other Pulitzer winners: perhaps most critically, he’s very good at creating engaging characters.  All of the characters we encounter, even the crueler ones, feel alive to me, and I would gladly have spent more time with each of them.  The Marquesa, in particular, has a charisma that I can’t deny—I don’t know what it is I like about her, but I could have read a whole novel just tracing her life.

Life-tracing is a good term, perhaps, for what Wilder does well: certainly the plot isn’t complicated.  We know everyone’s end before they begin.  But Wilder takes us along with them, slowly drawing the corners of their life together until we can see the whole thing with one sweep of the eyes, and even though we cannot explain why they die on that bridge on that morning, somehow we know that it came at the right moment.  There’s something about these lives that integrates death intelligibly: even those whose lives seem “interrupted” by death, who would not have said they were “ready to go”, go to their deaths in a way that gives peace (with tears).

I think Wilder’s to be commended for many things—he’s bold enough to choose a setting outside the U.S., to talk rapidly about Spanish court life and 18th Century Spanish drama without dumbing it down for an American audience, to tackle a huge issue (the problem of evil) without resolving it neatly and pleasantly.  It may be most bold of all to tell a story with no central character (though many recurring faces appear), no real central conceit other than that every main character will die (in the same manner) and that we want to know why.  It’s a strange novel…if he’d written it 40 or 50 years later, I feel sure he’d have stepped into science fiction, since his choice of 18th Century Peru was, I think, an attempt to free himself from his readers’ preconceptions in order to focus on the ideas (something I think is now very common in the best sci-fi) and let them drive the whole story.  But unlike a lot sci-fi authors, Wilder’s not prescriptive…it’s not obvious who he’s rooting for, or even whether or not he thinks these deaths are just ends for wicked souls (most of them have something to be sorry for, at least) or terrible, tragic losses of innocent life.  In the end, as a literary talent, I don’t know that a lot of other authors could (or should) emulate his approach in this novel, but I thought it was excellent.

Historical Insight:

I can’t give him high marks here.  It’s not Wilder’s fault—he didn’t know that I’d come along 80+ years later and want him to give insight into 1928 in the United States.  Nevertheless, it’s a criteria and one I can hardly see how to apply: perhaps the character of the flamboyant actress, Camila Perichole, connects on some level with the New Woman of the 1920s, but even that is a stretch.  And the meditative, thoughtful pace of this book, and its fixation on the very humble reality of death, really seem light years from the decadent, devil-may-care, last call year of 1928, where the U.S., perched on the brink of a precipitous depression, careened blissfully through the night towards the iceberg of Black Tuesday.  I expect the next few novels to reveal those cultural currents really starkly (I hope they will, at least), but Wilder doesn’t seem to have cared to engage with his society—not in this book, at least.


My ratings system is hard to fine-tune, but here’s my considered opinion: “I strongly recommend reading this book, in the right mood.”  I think it’s great—I really do!—but I also know that I needed to get about 20-30 pages in before I could tell that it was worthwhile, and I generally had to read it in moments of real peace, usually in solitude.  It’s not a great book for dashing through as you jostle elbows with folks on a crowded bus.  I’d rank this my 2nd favorite novel thus far, though, so if you don’t normally read in places with peace and quiet, find the place, make the time, and get this book.  Please.  I think you’ll be glad you did.

The Last Word:

It’s becoming a frequent complaint of mine that it’s hard to pick this last excerpt.  Maybe doing so is a bad idea?  I’m not sure.  At any rate, in this book particularly, it’s very hard to choose something from late in the book, since all the principal characters are dead.  So I’m going to back track (if that’s all right with you), and supply a piece of the last character’s section, Uncle Pio’s section, that I’d considered excerpting from in my blog post about him (but cut for considerations of space).  I hope you enjoy this little view into Uncle Pio and Camila’s work on her skills as an actress (and perhaps the view also includes Wilder’s own feelings about his art?), and I encourage you to vote in the poll just below this post!  And now, in conclusion, take it away, Thornton Wilder:

“The Perichole would fling her face and arms upon the table amid the pomades, caught up into a tremendous fit of weeping.  Only perfection would do, only perfection.  And that had never come.

Then beginning in a low voice Uncle Pio would talk for an hour, analyzing the play, entering into a world of finesse in matters of voice and gesture and tempo, and often until dawn they would remain there declaiming to one another the lordly conversation of Calderon.

Whom were these two seeking to please?  Not the audiences of Lima.  They had long since been satisfied.  We come from a world where we have known incredible standards of excellence, and we dimly remember beauties which we have not seized again; and we go back to that world.  Uncle Pio and Camila Perichole were tormenting themselves in an effort to establish in Peru the standards of the theatres in some Heaven whither Calderon had preceded them.  The public for which masterpieces are intended is not on this earth.”

Poll: Your pick of the first ten novels

I’ve decided, as I approach the very end of the first ten Pulitzer-winning novels (review coming Thursday afternoon, I anticipate), to do a couple of retrospectives.  One of them is the following poll—I’m curious if I’ve made any of the novels sound good enough (or bad enough, for that matter) that you think you just have to read it.  If you have anything to add (especially if you’re intrigued by a novel I didn’t pick for the poll), I’d love to get some comments…as always, the blog is a work in progress, as I try to make this a more interesting reading experience for you, my few but faithful readers!

And the tally grows by one…

I’ve been at this long enough to be proud of my progress…and therefore a bit deflated to realize that my list has grown by one.  The 2010 recipient of the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction is Tinkers by Paul Harding.  Paul, congratulations….at my current pace, I’ll see you in about 2013!  But hopefully sooner than that.

“My dear, Uncle Pio is the most delightful man in the world, your husband excepted…”

“…He is the second most delightful man in the world.  His conversation is enchanting.  If he weren’t so disreputable, I should make him my secretary.  He could write all my letters for me, and generations would rise up and call me witty.  Alas, however, he is so moth-eaten by disease and bad company, that I shall have to leave him to his underworld.  He is not only like an ant; he is like a soiled pack of cards.  And I doubt whether the whole Pacific could wash him sweet and fragrant again.  But what divine Spanish he speaks and what exquisite things he says in it!”

This penultimate section of Thornton Wilder’s novel, The Bridge of San Luis Rey, focuses on the character of Uncle Pio, who I couldn’t possibly describe more succinctly or scathingly than the Marquesa just did in that excerpt from a letter to her daughter.

He is a delight.  His whole life is a poem, and I don’t want to say too much about it—I just want you to pick up the novel and read it.  The central aspect of his life is the complicated relationship he develops with the temperamental actress Camila Perichole (a woman who is woven in and out of this novel, beginning with her mockery of the Marquesa on stage and the subsequent astonishing apology), who he looks on with—what?  Love, yes, but what kind of love?  The whole question of love and humanity is present in everything Uncle Pio does, and Wilder soars to real heights in this section.  I haven’t quoted him extensively since he’s not normally turning phrases that demand to be shared, but he finds a rhythm and a style in this section.  Just look at this paragraph describing a social gathering he and Camila attend—

“All night they talked, secretly comforting their hearts that longed always for Spain and telling themselves that such a symposium was after the manner of the high Spanish soul.  They talked about ghosts and second-sight, and about the earth before man appeared upon it and about the possibility of the planets striking against one another; about whether the soul can be seen, like a dove, fluttering away at the moment of death; they wondered whether at the second coming of Christ to Jerusalem, Peru would be long in receiving the news.  They talked until the sun rose, about wars and kings, about poets and scholars, and about strange countries.  Each one poured into the conversation his store of wise sad anecdotes and his dry regret about the race of men.  The flood of golden light struck across the Andes and entering the great window fell upon the piles of fruit, the stained brocade upon the table, and the sweet thoughtful forehead of the Perichole as she lay sleeping against the sleeve of her protector.”

It’s not ornate like Fitzgerald (who would have taken far more words with this party, and forced me to the dictionary at least once), but it feels incredibly powerful to me.  I think I’ve discovered what makes Wilder work, and what makes this novel so different from the others I’ve read.  Wilder thinks that a person’s life moves at a much gentler pace than other novelists do.  Most writers tackle detail with a passion, revealing character in the thousand tiny moments that make up a day, a conversation, an encounter.  Wilder sees us as speaking our selves in the long cadence of our lives, an unbroken line of chant that arcs up and down over the course of years, of decades.  Some writers gloss past details that they can’t quite make work, hoping we’ll follow the plot past the speed bump, and for a while it seemed like that was Wilder’s M.O.—a long sloppy plot that hadn’t been worked out well.  But I see how this book works on me.  He reveals the details of a life carefully, stacking the dominoes gently and slowly, until when we reach those rare moments of dialogue (written dialogue occurs perhaps 5 or 6 times over 40-50 pages on Uncle Pio) we can see all the threads of his life weaving together in the simplest of sentences.  It heightens the tensions underlying every conversation because Wilder has established why that conversation matters.

There is more to say, but I won’t say it.  How Uncle Pio comes to the end of his life, and the shock I felt when I read the last vignette before his plummet from the bridge, need to be experienced directly, not through the filter of this blog.  The next post on this book will surely be the review—the last section is short, and will (I now trust) tie together these lives in a way that both clarifies and deepens the mystery.  Wilder’s trying to get a good hold on life, deep in the marrow, and see it for what it truly is.  I think he’s getting somewhere.  Go get the book and read it.

Poetry Friday: 1928 (part 3)

I’ve generally been featuring poets that were already pretty well-known by the time I get to them (with some exceptions), but I want to use today’s poem to call attention to a poet who, in 1928, was still starting out where friends of mine now are.  He was trying to get his start in poetry—he had a little book entitled Poems published by hand (and eventually by a tiny publisher), with so few poems included that, though I haven’t seen an image of the first edition (of which somewhere between 30 and 45 copies were made), I feel pretty certain it was a “chapbook”.  Nice to know W. H. Auden started out publishing chapbooks and trying to get noticed—I suppose most poets do, but I often don’t take the time to think about it.  Auden’s a great poet who, in 1928, is still finding his voice: I’m curious what you think of the following untitled poem from his debut publication—

Nor was that final, for about that time
Gannets, blown over northward, going home,
Surprised the secrecy beneath the skin.

‘Wonderful was that cross, and I full of sin.’
‘Approaching, utterly generous, came one,
For years expected, born only for me.’

Returned from that dishonest country, we
Awake, yet tasting the delicious lie;
And boys and girls, equal to be, are different still.

No, these bones shall live, while daffodil
And saxophone have something to recall
Of Adam’s brow and of the wounded heel.