08 November, 2011

Poems by Northerners

I wonder what it is about the American South and the American North makes the former pretty darn good at writing stories but mediocre at poetry (really, Tate?), while the latter produces relatively few magnificent story-writers, but plenty of really brilliant poets. North of the Mason-Dixon line (and in New England more than any other region) you've got Bradstreet, Emerson (a good poet from a technical perspective more than anything), Longfellow, the Lowells, Robinson,Whitman, Poe, Dickinson, Frost, Stevens, e.e. cummings, William Carlos Williams, Sylvia Plath, Richard Wilbur, and Elizabeth Bishop. And that's just to name the more recognizable ones. Heck, Maine alone has four Pulitzer Prize winning poets. And that's a state of barely a million people...one sixth of the size of the city in which I attended university.

Then you've got the expats and exiles. Marianne Moore and T.S. Eliot both were born in St. Louis but maintained strong connections with New York (Moore) and Boston (Eliot). However much the latter might have rejected the American Unitarian culture in the process of his move to England, conversion to high Anglicanism, and alignment with monarchism, the fact remains that a good deal of the imagery he resorts to in his less angst-driven poems is that of the New England coast. Walcott moved to New England. Even (ok, this is getting into fiction, I admit) Cormac McCarthy has roots up here.

Now, I really don't have any strong theory about what might be at the root of these differences. Population certainly has something to do with the numbers, I know. If one were to start listing novelists, sticking with the greatest, and then list the great southern novelists, the numbers would actually be similar. But that may be attributed more to the fact that the north has a much more highly concentrated population; I suspect that if you were to do a per capita comparison, the number of novelists of southern origin would turn out to be more impressive than an initial glance might indicate. In either case, the great novelists of the north remain very much overshadowed by the poets.

Someday, when I've read a lot more and have time to spare, I'll probably begin thinking about this phenomenon in earnest, evaluating my current hunches (isn't the word "hunch" a hideous one?) and comparing the numbers more carefully. What I'm more interested in observing now is that I absolutely love New England poetry, and that I think there's something to be said for reading works that have their roots in your home.

Before getting into that first observation, however, I should note that the fact that I and other New Englanders have a "literature" at all is rather strange, by American standards. I have learned since college that comparatively few people in America have strong local roots; New England and the Old South seem to be two of the only places where local identities have developed and actually become part of the consciousness of kids as they grow up. And hence there actually is such a thing as "New England" literature and there is such a thing as "Southern" literature, but barely a, say, Texan or midwestern literature, and even less a Californian one.

Here in Maine you still have town meetings and lobster fishermen, and people who make their living wading through knee-deep mud to dig for clams, and dairy farmers, and kids from The County getting off school for a few weeks to help with the potato harvest. You'll find the names of your neighbors on 300-year-old tombstones in the private plots dotting the roadsides. You might grow up, as my siblings and I did, playing in a bowl-shaped hill that is actually the ruins of the house that your neighbor's family used to live in. . .during the French and Indian war, and you'd know that one of them was scalped but survived and that the age and eventual success of the family is why the neighbors own all the surrounding land for several miles. You'll know why there's nothing quite like eating clam chowder on a cool August evening, and you'll recognize the smell of dying leaves and fresh apples in October. You'll know what it's like to canoe through the bog and come face to face with a moose.

Having experienced stuff like this first hand certainly makes a poem like Elizabeth Bishop's The Moose or Wilbur's October Maples, Portland resonate a little more deeply. Not that one can't understand and appreciate them without being from the region. You can still look at the meters and imagery and be quite moved wherever your origins might be. But the lovely thing about a line that describes autumn leaves "yield[ing] us through a rustled sieve / The very light from which time fell away" can be understood two ways: through intellectual recognition, a recognition that hinges on understanding the words and being able to compose of them a coherent mental image, or through empathetic recognition, hinging on having experienced roughly the same types of things, so that you barely have to imagine the "gravelly roads,. . ./ rows of sugar maples,/. . .clapboard farmhouses / and neat, clapboard churches, / bleached, ridged as clamshells, /. . . twin silver birches"--you see them quite clearly, and the scene resonates emotionally not only by virtue of its objective aesthetic qualities, but also because you have your own set of memories associated with it. 

Of course, it's pretty obvious that the line between the two types of "recognition" involved in reading poetry gets pretty blurred in practice. For one thing, we only understand language at all through empathetic recognition, as I see it. Intellectual recognition is possible because one can apply what one has understood empathetically to situations and settings that one has not experienced first hand. It's a very basic analogy-making process: yes, I know what "yellow" is from my memories of seeing yellow things, so I can make the "tincture," the "sanguine glow" of the maples a bit more concrete, and if I have any associations at all of yellow with beauty, I can have some idea of what Wilbur means when he says that the sight "cannot fail to leave a lasting stain." On the other hand, the "empathetic recognition" of which I speak will necessarily involve intellectual recognition to an extent: even if you happen to know the exact northern New England/ Canadian town of which Bishop writes, you still have never seen it at precisely the same time she did, from precisely the same perspective. And so the power of the intellect to supply what is lacking in the experience by means of analogy working to fuel the imagination is essential. Even for the readers whose cultural and geographical roots are most nearly identical to those of the poem.

The difference, then is perhaps technically no more than one of degree. One is more familiar with the imagery of art from one's own region, but the action of the imagination is by no means made unnecessary by the increased proximity. However, to admit that the difference between reading your region's poetry and the poetry of, say, Baudelaire's Paris is nothing more than a difference of degree, is not, I think, to deny that there is something peculiarly appealing about one's "own" poetry. It's rather like friendship in that respect: there's nothing about your friend per se that makes your acquaintance with him or her qualitatively different from your acquaintance with anyone else. But the fact that you're more familiar means also that you are more invested in the friend than in other people: you may sympathize quite genuinely when you hear of a tragedy it the family of an acquaintance, but that will not affect you nearly as immediately as would a tragedy in a friend's family, which can have almost the effect of a tragedy in your own. The more your understanding of a poem (or a painting, or a person) may be characterized by this empathetic recognition, the more you are invested in the object of understanding. And with that investment comes a much greater reward with each increase of understanding.

All of which is to say that while I appreciate the depth of Bishop's discussion of the nature of knowledge in At the Fishhouses, what I (not-so secretly) appreciate the most is the fact that the poem is so right when it says that:

"All is silver: the heavy surface of the sea,
swelling slowly as if considering spilling over,
is opaque, but the silver of the benches, 
the lobster pots, and masts, scattered
among the wild jagged rocks,
is of an apparent translucence
like the small old buildings with an emerald moss
growing on their shoreward walls."


Anonymous said...

It's not that I disagree--northerners certainly do have better poetry, and the south better fiction,and that is odd--but you ignore a few important facts about some of the writers you mention.

1. Robert Lowell left the north to study under Allen Tate and John Crowe Ransom.
2. Counting Poe as a northerner seems sketchy to me; he was born in Boston but spent his youth in Virginia and England, and he died in Baltimore.
3. Cormac McCarthy may have roots in Rhode Island, but come on, he lived in and wrote about Tennessee until he decided to live in and write about the Southwest. Insofar as Southwestern fiction is a thing he's one of the only major figures. Claiming him as a northerner is just silly.

I also feel like it should be pointed out that population, especially historical population trends, definitely has something to do with the lack of writers not from the Northeast or Old South. Those places have been settled for 300 years; the city of Dallas may have a million residents, but a hundred years ago it had 90 thousand, and a hundred years before that it wasn't even a city. By way of contrast, New York currently has 8 million residents; a hundred years ago had 5 million; a hundred years before that had 120 thousand... those numbers add up. Especially when you consider that to be a great writer today you're competing against a lot more people than you were 200 years ago, so we really ought to look at relative population differences over time not absolute population differences.

In other words: while I admit it's not irrelevant, I'm not convinced that a sense of rootedness is actually that important in the creation of great writers.

Therese said...

You seem to miss the fact that I have a tendency to litter my posts with fairly facetious, exaggerated suggestions; partly because the last thing I want to do is take this too seriously, and partly because such littering is too fun to avoid. Of course I don't remotely regard McCarthy as a northern writer, as evidenced by my repeated mentions of how much I dislike his cowboy-ism (personal taste, doesn't necessarily make him bad). Poe and Lowell likewise are sketchy suggestions, as are a few of the others (really, Marianne Moore?); again, exaggeration. The important authors on the list stand as such, however, and as you admit, there does tend to be plenty of excellent poetry coming from the north.

I actually did mention the population issue, if you notice, and with that, I explicitly turned away from the question of "why" the north produces good poets (since I think addressing it would require investigation into statistical matters, etc, that I'm not super interested in doing now) to the question of why I love New England poetry.

At this point, it becomes an evidently subjective post, though it draws on some of my thoughts about the way association works in enabling comprehension of language. I never remotely claimed that a "sense of rootedness is actually that important in the creation of great writers"; I simply am attempting to see why I like it so much. And I don't think that's remotely invalid.

I'm well aware that to start out with a slightly facetious observation and then to move on to an only slightly related but more serious discussion is not Proper Essay Form, but for me a blog is not a place to write essays. When I write here, it's informal.