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

href=’https://nicholadeane.files.wordpress.com/2008/04/normal_bw_38.jpg’>complete with nimbus

 ‘Built from nothing but high hopes and thin air’: the line from the song ‘Dig Lazarus Dig’ sums ups the way that at least one fan seems to have felt about Nick Cave’s new album of the same name. Tim Russell argued on Facebook that Cave had made a flimsy album, the worst of his career, and that Cave should ‘dump the wife, give Blixa a call, move back to Berlin & buy a big bag of smack’ (Feb 28, 2008 at 4:59 PM). The album stinks, Russell has it, because the Bad Seeds have produced some unsingable melodies and have been ’emasculated’ (he accuses them of weedy instrumentation without the benefit of Blixa Bargeld). Russell also contends that Cave’s lyrics have gone all unfunny and banal (he quotes the line ‘We’re gonna have a real good time’ as an example). Russell’s piece is passionate enough but wrong on a number of counts.

Wrong, first of all, is the idea that this is somehow an upbeat album. It’s not sorrowful like No More Shall We Part or The Boatman’s Call but it is grimy, deliciously sordid, full of terrible jokes (my personal favourite is ‘I feel like a vacuum cleaner, a complete sucker’), crazed, desperate. ‘Shiny Happy People’ it ain’t. Russell claims it’s not fucked up enough. Not fucked up?

This is an album that has as its beating heart the ghost of John Berryman (1914-71), the US poet who committed suicide by jumping off a bridge and missing the water (1). Berryman’s subject-matter is all the kinds of things Cave revels in on Lazarus. This is from the first of Berryman’s Dream Songs:

What he has to now to say is a long

wonder the world can bear & be.

Once in a sycamore I was glad

all at the top, and I sang.

Hard on the land wears the strong sea

and empty grows every bed.

Berryman’s alter ego, Henry, is lascivious, drunk, violent…in other words, a bit like Lazarus in Cave’s song (‘Larry grew increasingly neurotic and obscene’).  In the lyric booklet which Cave publishes with the album, Cave’s words have the same manic intensity as Berryman’s, and reveal a similar penchant for the ampersand. Berryman uses the ‘&’ to abbreviate, to suggest speed of thought, jokiness, nervous exhaustion (incomplete ideas, jumpy intensities). If anything Cave’s ampersands are even more manic. Take this sample from ‘Moonland’ where

in moonl&

under the stars

 

under the snow

I followed this car

 

& I followed that car

through the s&

Berryman ‘s poetry and his biography are attractive to Cave for a number of reasons. There is the suicide (2):

                            Berryman was best!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

he wrote like wet papier mache/went the Hemming-way/weirdly

on wings & with MAXIMUM PAIN!!!!!!!!!!!!

But what’s also attractive to Cave is Berryman’s descent into madness and alcoholic indignities, and the lens which this creates, a lens through which Berryman sees America: ‘Seedy Henry rose up shy in de world/& shaved & swung his barbells, duded Henry up,’ writes Berryman in Dream Song 77. Macho, hopelessly pathetic, with a ‘ruin-prone proud national mind,’ Berryman’s antihero journeys restlessly through dirty America, ‘making ready to move on.’

But there are more layers yet to Cave’s album. If Berryman is its beating heart, the roadmap of Dig, Lazarus, Dig is Homer’s epic poem The OdysseyThe last track on the record,  ‘More News from Nowhere’, tells the story of Homer’s epic in miniature. In it appear Cave’s versions of  Circe, the Cyclops and the Sirens. In fact, it seems that Cave’s former lover PJ Harvey is the Siren he has in mind when he sings ‘I saw Miss Polly!!!singing with some girls/I cried,–strap me to the mast!!!!’. Other songs take on aspects of The Odyssey. The song ‘Night of the Lotus Eaters’ fishhooks an episode in book nine of Homer’s poem into a howl of junked up political frustration at our ‘catastrophic leaders.'(3) ‘Midnight Man’ retells the story of what happens to Odysseus’s wife when Odysseus is on his travels -Penelope’s suitors are forever ‘comin’ round’ to Odysseus and Penelope’s ‘place’, vying for the chance to be her ‘midnight man’.

If I’ve made Lazarus sound like a poem rather than a record, so much the better. Cave surely intends this to be a poem, a poem not set to music, but married to it. But to neglect the melodies here would be to do Lazarus a grave injustice. Heavenly murk characterises the sound of this badass Bad Seed musical journey through the land of the dead. Tim Russell asserts this isn’t singable record. Yet I find myself utterly possessed by snatches of melody–oh strap me to the mast Mr Cave, if you would. ‘Lotus Eaters,’ for example, has a very trippy sound, in keeping with the narcotic undertow of the lyrics; Warren Ellis on ‘mandocaster’ and ‘loops’ appears to be responsible for part of the effect here, but the vocal, too, is a siren-song on Cave’s part. Yes, we might miss Blixa on this or on any Bad Seeds production. But hell’s bells, Ellis is extraordinary. He and his merry chums conjure up a whole legion of exotic instruments, even the names of which sound like they’re capable of summoning up a few spectres: ‘mandocaster,’ ‘cuica’, ‘loops,’ ‘vibra slap.’ The viola on ‘We Call Upon the Author’ sounds like it’s been ectoplasmically rearranged; the flute on ‘Jesus of the Moon’ levitates, man.

I could go on. But I won’t, at least until I’ve seen the live show in May. Suffice it to say that this is a record with ‘eat me’ written on it. Be sure, however, to take repeated doses. Overdose if at all possible. If you do, I guarantee you’ll find much more Homeric (and other) dark matter in Lazarus‘s beguiling murk. Get out your Homer and your headphones and dig.

 

(1) go to this page for a biog/bibliography: http://www.english.uiuc.edu/maps/poets/a_f/berryman/life.htm

(2) The reference to ‘went the Hemming-way’ refers to the fact that the novelist Ernest Hemingway killed himself at the point where he felt he could no longer write. See http://www.ernest.hemingway.com/marywelsh.htm for more details.

(3)For the poetry anoraks amongst us, go to this blog which supports Barack Obama, and look at the use the blogger makes of Lowell’s poem ‘For the Union Dead’ which takes the idea of  the US state as an aquarium and compare with Cave’s lyric ‘they fishbowled me and toured me round the old aquariums’. Has Cave been reading Lowell too? –Lowell and Berryman were contemporaries and friends.  http://progressiveerupts.blogspot.com/2008/03/for-union-dead-robert-lowell.html

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.