April 8, 2010KR BlogKR

Nothing Impersonal

My friend Sam and I took a ramble through a re-winterized park. A Your lost purse is in the Conservatory gift shop note was frosted onto a bench in elm tree shade; eating an apple outside in that cold seemed perverse.

My crisis (I told Sam) is with giving up romance. I mean the Romantic temperament in poetry: the touchstone sensual absorption and verbal self-transfixing of John Keats, Wallace Stevens, Samuel Coleridge, John Ashbery, Dylan Thomas, into present poetry’s breaker-makers and satiety artists.


When did my feelings for the Romantics flutter half-out? When I got suddenly sick of the art of sensual-extremity-on-the-self, “the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings,” objects muddled by perception then catalogued for their interest.

How can I see? Is an impersonal discovery possible in the lyric?

To give “powerful feelings” their due–

O for a beaker full of the warm South!
Full of the true, the blushful Hippocrene,
With beaded bubbles winking at the brim,
And purple-stain??d mouth;
That I might drink, and leave the world unseen,
And with thee fade away into the forest dim…


All the sun long it was running, it was lovely, the hay
Fields high as the house, the tunes from the chimneys, it was air
And playing, lovely and watery
And fire green as grass.

–but this is only one way to see, not worth (since none is) privileging and not worth becoming a tic.

It took modern fiction, not poetry, to remind me of alternative ways of describing, ecological rather than phenomenological. What’s seen not a catalog of absorptions, but an array of forces way beyond us:

All around the cabin had stood white pines stretched to a cruel height by long competition, and the cabin itself had no windows, but broken screens.

Things at war and motion and decay, around but irrespective of the eye.

Funny that the first writer since to strike me as ecological in his observation was, in other ways, a huge narcissist: John Updike’s litanies of women (their cold-reddened knees, frightened solemn voices, untanned backs of thighs) are gender-essentialized, a stain on a way of seeing that’s otherwise rich. But later on in the same collection, Pigeon Feathers:

The window was open a crack, and a canted pane of glass lifted outdoor air into his face, coating the cedarwood scent of pencil shavings with the transparent odor of wet window sill.

Rich but not self-consuming. Maybe uneasy about the self. I don’t know why I loved this like I did. The art I want reminds me an environment contains the mind.

Is it that fiction writers get more practice at this way of seeing? Sure, but plenty of poets, too, strive for something other than reflexive nostalgia, self-regard and plain hunger.

How about, in Action, Yes, the considered outrages to Romantic dignity James Pate acts out? Or the chipped-away and half-blurred world of Joseph Massey’s poetry? Or the blooming ecosystems of James Merrill:

The shallows, brighter,
Wetter than water,
Tepidly glitter with the fingerprint-
Obliterating feel of kerosene.
Each piling like a totem
Rises from rock bottom
Straight through the ceiling
Aswirl with suns, clear ones or pale bluegreen,
And beyond“

And don’t forget the fate Marianne Moore leaves the Romantic gazer to:

Man looking into the sea,
taking the view from those who have as much right to it as you have to yourself,
it is human nature to stand in the middle of a thing,
but you cannot stand in the middle of this;
the sea has nothing to give but a well excavated grave…

the sea is a collector, quick to return a rapacious look…

and the ocean, under the pulsation of lighthouses and noise of bellbuoys,
advances as usual, looking as if it were not that ocean in which dropped things are bound to sink–
in which if they turn and twist, it is neither with volition nor consciousness.

Send the solar eye to the bottom of the sea!

Who are you reading?