FLannery O'Connor

Flannery O'Connor

Peacocks, crutches, a Byzantine Christ: when we think of Flannery O’Connor, whose dark, Bible Belt American brilliance surpasses William Faulkner’s, we need things on which to peg our thinking. Flannery herself hardly seems to exist at all. Her life, as any reader of Brad Gooch’s recent, measured biography will tell you, is short on dramatic incident:  no sojourns on other continents; no sex to speak of; no alcoholism or addiction; no mental breakdowns. In short, all the standard fare you might expect in a mid-century writer’s life-history (think Elizabeth Bishop, Robert Lowell, John Berryman etc) is conspicuous by its absence. In its stead is a relatively brief narrative comprising three main strands: aesthetic endeavour (or should I say struggle); the fight against Lupus, the auto-immune illness that killed her, aged 39; and her methodical and theologically driven Catholicism, always symbolized for me by the tattoo of a Byzantine Christ her character Parker decides to have etched on his back, like a giant stigmata-cum-icon, in her late, masterly story ‘Parker’s Back.’ Peacocks, crutches, and Christ; the emblems of a life.

Not much to go on, perhaps. But from those meagre materials came the peacock beauty of her first novel, Wise Blood. A weird perfection radiates from every page. Nothing about the protagonist, Hazel Motes, usually referred to as Haze, fits together. Nothing is likeable. He is emotionally skewered and skewed; a loveless old man in a twentysomething body. Yet I dare anyone to look away from the sour spectacle he presents. We stare at him, like gawping children, from the first page to the last. This is how O’Connor introduces Motes in the opening paragraph of her novel.

Hazel Motes sat at a forward angle on the green plush train seat, looking one minute at the window as if he might want to jump out of it, and the next down the aisle at the other end of the car. The train was racing through tree tops that fell away at intervals and showed the sun standing, very red, on the farthest edge of the woods. Nearer, the plowed fields curved and faded and the few hogs nosing in the furrows looked like large spotted stones. Mrs Wally Bee Hitchcock, who was facing Motes in the section, said that she thought the early evening like this was the prettiest time of day and she asked him if he didn’t think so too. She was a fat woman with pink collars and cuffs and pear-shaped legs that slanted off the train seat and didn’t reach the floor.

Humour, beauty, sexual disgust and suicidal despair are all in the lovely, fluid onrush of prose. Above all, there is movement. Read O’Connor and you wade into a river, where the writing feels as if it has the molecular structure of water. And like water, her prose has the ability to absorb all the taints and tints of the glorious, brutal world she describes. It happens through her knack of seeing every element as if contained within every other element. The trees seem to move away and not the train. The hogs are stones, the fat woman’s legs are pears, and later in the chapter Haze is described as having a nose ‘like a shrike’s bill.’ Haze is a bird-man, but with eyes ‘the color of pecan shells,’ he is food and hardness and emptiness too. His suit is alive and electric with anger, a ‘glaring blue’, but with the price tag ‘still stapled on the sleeve of it’ he seems like a beast going off to market or a slave or a mannequin. He is botched, odious and oddly beautiful.

O’Connor is like this. What Keats would have called her ‘poetical character’ is so complete that not only does her personality seem to have vanished into her work, the Thomist theology which fuelled her prose is also consumed within it, leaving no trace. Like Elizabeth Bishop’s iceberg, ‘it saves itself perpetually,’ cutting its facets from within. Parker cannot see his tattoo of Christ without the use of two mirrors, and the tattooist forces him to look at the bloody, newly-etched image. In this moment, art and deity are indistinguishable and become a burden and an affliction. For Flannery O’Connor, the skin and the flesh see and bear as much as the eye.

 

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Dreams do not readily lend themselves to theory, even though they are often theorised about: they are not a grand edifice on strong foundations. They are the house built on sand: ‘Þa com Þær regen and michel flod’–then came rain and a great flood. Always that line from Matthew vii, 24-27 in the Anglo-Saxon Bible arises when I think of dreams: it is a metaphor and an old rhythm that says what a dream is: a house where the walls wash away, and the floors and the roof.

Dreamthread is a series of miniature essays, dreambubbles on this inexhaustible topic. In future, you may find that I add other dreamthreads onto The Casket, or I may not (dreams are capricious in keeping promises) but here I at least make an idle start. Below are a few little reveries with their warped surfaces and dangerously alluring colours. And bring your lifejacket: there are sirens out on them there dreamseas.

i. Ted Hughes and the Manfox

Teachers aren’t allowed to teach dreams. We actively discourage dreaming in lessons, bullying the students to ‘concentrate’ and ‘get on with the work.’ But this teacher is a dreamer, and for dreamer read ‘anarchist of the imagination’;’ night pilgrim’; ‘disciple of Queen Mab’. My theories about pedagogy are few and simple, but one of my treasured ideas is that the closer a lesson is to seeming like a dream or beast of the mind, then the better that lesson is. To be a beast of the mind, the lesson has to be one where the imaginative boundary between teacher and pupils is blurred, and all share the dreamscape, all become the beast. Most of the lessons that happen this way (I do not teach this kind of lesson, incidentally; they occur without anyone’s conscious will) take poems as their starting point.

Only yesterday, I taught a lesson on Ted Hughes’s ‘The Thought Fox’ to my higher ability year 8 group. Before looking at the poem itself,  we chatted about Hughes’s ‘Manfox’ dream. I told them that, in the dream, Hughes describes how he is struggling with an undergraduate essay he is writing on Samuel Johnson. As he tries to write, in walks a fox on hind legs, looking like a small man. This fox, this Manfox, is on fire, his skin bloody, black and charred. Manfox walks to Hughes’s desk and places his bloody and blackened handprint on the paper of  the unfinished essay, and tells Hughes: ‘Stop this! you are destroying us.’

For my money, this has to be one of the most beautiful dreams I have ever heard described, and so seduced am I by it that a strange thing happens me when I tell its story. Hughes’s dream is such a powerful idea, of the poetic muse rising to the surface of the poet’s mind in order to save his poems and therefore the poet himself, that as I spoke to the students, I felt I was Hughes: Ted Hughes, now ten years dead, but, through the sorcery of his dream, fiery and alive. Thanks to his night-magic, even the most fidgety children in the group listened: they always sense when you are opening a door into a world they do not yet know.

ii. A Game of Cards

I had a great dream about Elizabeth Bishop once. We were playing cards on an old rickety blue-top card table I used as my first proper desk as a child. I gushed about how much I admired her work, and she said ‘Don’t imitate me. Change your hand.’ The conversation was so vivid, and the dark colours so sharp that I’m in the dream now and again now as I write this. Her face blended into the darkness but her voice was ashy, asthmatic and clear. This was years ago, but it felt like such a blessing at the time and still does: my Manfox dream.

iii. Charles Lamb Dreaming

‘Witches and Other Night Fears’ was on the syllabus of my Romantic Literature MA at Manchester, and I vividly remember the tutorial. My teacher Grevel Lindop read aloud Lamb’s description of the dream where Lamb starts off sporting with nereids and ends up being ‘wafted’ down the Thames to Lambeth Palace. Lamb tells us that ‘the poverty of my dreams mortifies me’ and Grevel commented: ‘well, if that’s poverty, I’d be quite happy to be as poor as Charles Lamb.’  Quite, especially when the essay closes with observations like these:

 an old gentleman, a friend of mine, and a humorist, used to carry this notion so far, that when he saw any stripling of his acquaintance ambitious of becoming a poet, his first question would be, —“Young man, what sort of dreams have you?”

The ‘notion’ to which Lamb refers is also lovely: ‘The degree of the soul’s creativeness in sleep might furnish no whimsical criterion of the quantum of poetical faculty resident in the same soul waking.’ The brain’s reservoir of making, a dream is colour and memory refashioned. Light like liquor.

iv. Dream-colours

Normally we know when a dream is important because of the type of colour it uses. If a dream looks like precious and semi-precious stones (but always including a very shiny jet colour somewhere to add weight and melancholy) then we should know of that dream that it is the mind is at its most wild, lovely and truthful. As for melancholy, I should perhaps have stolen from Byron and said ‘lemancholy’– his word for the sadness involved in love–as there is always an erotic element when those colours are present, even if the dream is not overtly sexual.

*

Dreams are never finished. You never hit the ground. You open a door and nothing lies beyond it. Think of the half-built sets in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Last Tycoon: the head of Shiva drifting on the flood.

Richard Wilbur is a poet who does not press his company on anyone. He does not prod you in the chest with a forefinger and insist on your undivided attention. Almost as modest as Elizabeth Bishop, his poems wait in the brain, outside the spotlight of conscious attention, until you see their sense–and hear it, as Wilbur’s St Teresa hears, pierced by ‘the spear which drew/ a bridal outcry from her lips.’ There is reading and there is this: the direct seduction by the speaking and singing voice of the poet. One is civilised: looking to like, if looking liking move. The other is not civilised–indeed nothing can tame it– a ‘did my heart love till now?’ moment. The first kind of reaction is of a Juliet who is offering a cautious assessment of how she might feel once she has met Paris. It is a rational reaction, an acknowledgement that feelings might grow over time. The second, a Romeo-seeing-Juliet response, is the kind of staggered gasp, the astonished inbreath that comes with a love that seems to obliterate everything else that came before it. Today has been that kind of day, a day in which Richard Wilbur has cast so many other poets that I love into the shadows. He, in my newly reconfigured mind, is teaching the torches to burn.

What has made the difference is hearing the poems. I have been reading them and liking them for years, but recently I acquired the Academy of American Poets’ 1989 recording of Wilbur’s poems, introduced by James Merrill, and as soon as Wilbur began to read his work, the  full-throated ease of the poems split me apart like a sharp thumbnail cuts a ripe fig. As I listened, I happened to be driving through a treacherous winter landscape: the car skidded and lost traction at times, but the poems never wandered from the path. Ecstasy escaped like odour from each poem, but the formal shape, the pattern of the metrical dance, was so exact that the ecstasy was never less than rational. Wilbur’s ‘Teresa’ again: ‘And lock the O of ecstasy within/ The tempered consonants of discipline.’

My Teresa moment in the car reminded me that metre, any poet’s metre, comes from the living organism that is the poet’s speaking voice. All rhythms that he or she is able to use spring from the musical rhythms of speech. And yet the great poets’ speaking voices are more than speaking voices. The rhythms used by the poet eventually come to use him: they order and shape his mind so that he is incapable of functioning without them. Indeed, he is those rhythms: falling and trochaic, rising and iambic, his mind moves as a poem moves. Many poets have this quality: when they give interviews and talk, their talk is spilt poetry. A sure test of a poet’s worth? The wash of rhythm rippling through apparently casual conversation, sufficient to make you imagine that rhythm undulating even through his dreams. 

Poets such as Seamus Heaney, Michael Longley and Kathleen Jamie, for example, seem to take topographical rhythms into their speech. Heaney’s peat-sharp consonants kick alongside bubbling lightness; Longley’s conversation is like the wind coming in off the sea at his beloved Carrigskeewaun in Co. Mayo, a wind that picks up the otter’s water-pulse as it swims offshore, a wind that seems capable of counting the starry sand grains on the beach. Jamie, on the other hand, talks like an Alder in thaw, with a ticking passion and impatience, as if willing the sap to rise again.

Yet some poets, such as John Berryman, do not seem to have any metrical smoothness in their conversation. Berryman’s speech is an odd mixture of explosions and quiet despairing gurgles. Listen to him read at the Guggenheim in 63 and you notice he can make the word ‘but’ bang like sniper fire, and the word ‘elaborate’ drift off upstairs, downstairs, somewheres… His poems have the same kind of nitroglycerine unpredictability. Metre is there but it is volatile, as the Berryman personae swim in and out of focus: Henry’s quiet conscience-voice, the voice who tells Mr Bones that there is indeed a ‘law’ against him, contends against the noisier ‘impenitent’ and ‘seedy’  Henry. Still, even in the case of Berryman, speaking voice and metre are connected: the poems have all the irresponsible anarchy of dreams, and all the loopy order of a fine and fractured mind. Berryman’s speech is that broken mirror too.

Robert Lowell’s poems always sound like the Atlantic battling Melville’s whale. Lowell is the big sea, the ‘brackish reach of shoal’ he evokes in ‘A Quaker Graveyard at Nantucket’–even when he is writing about ducks. Hear him reading  ‘The Public Garden’ at the Guggenheim in ’63 along with Berryman and he delivers the lines

the shedding park-bound mallards, how they keep
circling and diving in the lantern light,
searching for something hidden in the muck.

with a voice which seems to thunder like Jehovah. He has no offswitch for that Miltonic grandeur, a quality which gives even his weakest poems a kind of sonic weight, and in interviews, he seems always to drift towards a magisterial iambic: ‘their kind of protest and queerness has hardly been repeated’ he says of Marianne Moore and William Carlos Williams in his Paris Review interview, in ruptured hexameter.

Elizabeth Bishop, too, follows the same law of metrical overspill from her poems to her talk. Hear ‘The Armadillo’ on the website of  The Academy of American Poets (1) and all her conversational, epistolary modesty seems folded into every line. Her speaking voice crosses current with counter-current. Above is modesty and dignity, an elegant uninsistence; underneath is a struggle, almost with breath itself. What she says is beautiful, but her breathing hints that she can hardly bear to voice it: what poor things the lovely words are, she seems to say–words, as lovely and robust as those ‘frail, illegal fireballoons’ she describes.  Bishop’s speech also floats with a hidden, fragile fire. Below is a comment she makes in a 1977 interview with George Starbuck where she discusses the blue snails that appear in her poem ‘Crusoe in England.’

Perhaps — but the ones I’ve seen were in the Ten Thousand islands in Florida. Years ago I went on a canoe trip there and saw the blue snails. They were tree snails, and I still may have some. They were very frail and broke easily and they were all over everything. Fantastic. (2)

Now this is nowhere near as lovely as the description in ‘Crusoe’ where the snails are ‘a bright violet-blue with a thin shell’ and the shells of the dead snails ‘look like a bed of irises’ but the spill of enthusiasm and the joy of seeing is evident. Her rhythm comes from her eye, pulsing and receptive to the energy and fragility of the snails and everything else she encounters. Describing the snails in the poem hasn’t dimmed her enthusiasm for the snails she saw in Florida: that ‘and..and…and…’ gives a sense of the endlessly rocking eye within.

A final instruction: click on the link given below and sample some of the clips of an interview given by Richard Wilbur on The People’s Archive. In them, you will hear his exquisite poetic cadence in so many phrases of explanation, whether he is talking about the ‘excitingly exact concrete perceptions’ of Marianne Moore or the ‘rhythmic jags’ of Hopkins.  Interviews like this are valuable because they give the reader a kind of faith in poems as self-generating, self-seeding. To hear a poet talk is to sense poems rising from speech.

But there is a further benefit to be had from listening to poets in conversation. Their talk, whether it be Longley’s, Bishop’s or Wilbur’s, also helps us to think about the question ‘What is a poet?’ After listening to Wilbur being interviewed, a few images come to mind: a poet is a split casing, a discarded pod, content to be left behind by the disciplined ecstasy of the growing flower. Ego needs to cede to voice.

Richard Wilbur on The People’s Archive: http://www.peoplesarchive.com/browse/mpeg4_150k/5786/en/off/

(1) Link to Academy of American Poets and an audio recording of Bishop’s ‘The Armadillo’ http://www.poets.org/viewmedia.php/prmMID/15214

(2)http://www.pshares.org/issues/article.cfm?prmarticleid=420

lowelldd1.jpgWho reads Lowell these days? I pondered this question as I thought about my next wordpress essay, wondering if there was actually any point in writing about him. Googling him is quite a dispiriting process (no heavyweight fanclubs leap out at me from the search results); facebook yields no groups dedicated to his writing, not even any American ones. Byron has his ‘ardent admirers’ on facebook, Elizabeth Bishop has a tiny group of fans on there, but Robert Traill Spence Lowell? Nothing, as yet. This slightly melancholy fact could be down to Lowell’s rather tarnished reputation in recent years. You only need to glance at his biography to see that his treatment of the various women in his life seems to have been less than ideal (read about it, if you must, in the obits of his most long-suffering wife, Elizabeth Hardwick, who died recently). Reason enough, in the view of many readers, to let him slip off into literary oblivion (Lowell, along with that other poet with a lurid reputation for mistreating women, Ted Hughes, graces the front cover of Ian Hamilton’s excellent book Against Oblivion: Some Lives of the Twentieth Century Poets, as if Hamilton were suggesting that oblivion is exactly where such poets are heading without some kind of critical resuscitation).

But Hamilton’s shade might be relieved to hear I don’t want to let Lowell languish in that kind of hideous poetic limbo of the unread. Lowell’s biography is complex, his behaviour, or at least what one reads of his behaviour, frequently repellent. But his poems! Obscure, clotted, difficult as they often are, Lowell’s verse is a Leviathan, an alliterative, sonorous beast also capable of dextrous tenderness. Milton twists through his ‘brilliant bad enjambment,’ Hopkins too, and Donne the preacher. But there is also the counterpoint of Bishop there, plus Herbert, urging gentleness and restraint.

‘A Quaker Graveyard at Nantucket’ is a great example of the two voices at work.  The opening lines explode like a shell:

‘A brackish reach of shoal off Madaket, —

The sea was still breaking violently and night

Had steamed into our North Atlantic Fleet,

When the drowned sailor clutched the drag-net. Light’

I’ve deliberately broken off here because I wanted to show the onward momentum of the enjambment, the unstoppable force gushing through the poem. This is damnation. This is hell, and the light we see is diabolical; the light of suffering and death. But always, when I remember this poem, I hear, too, the quieter reaches of it: ‘Our Lady, too small for her canopy, sits near the altar…/Non est species, neque decor/expressionless, expresses God.’ As a war poem, there’s little finer, even if the syntax is a doubling, looping twisting thing. The music here is enough, more than enough.

And yet it is not enough for many to surrender to poetry like Lowell’s, without what Keats would call ‘an irritable reaching after fact and reason.’To feel a poem’s rhythm without chasing out the meaning is hardly a fashionable pursuit these days. But if you haven’t tried it, I recommend it. It’s where reading becomes a state of being, stimulant not sedative. You don’t think your way into the poem, the poem’s music instead releases thoughts. Or rather, it liberates a deeper thinking: something synthesized, something luminous, something resembling a secular prayer.