Monday, 23 February 2009
A Touch of Vendler in the Night
Wallace Stevens as a young man
My previously mentioned birthday present the iPod touch has seen me through various journeys, switching from late Beethoven quartets, to Otis Redding, to Piazzola to Ian Dury to Billie Holiday to Brad Mehldau to Schubert or Bartok, or indeed Walton-Sitwell, which is all very good, but I like words so I have been downloading books too: two Raymond Chandlers (The Big Sleep and The Little Sister), Kafka's Metamorphosis, Eliot reading his poetry and a great mass of other poets on three albums, mainly early to mid-20th century Americans reading theirs.
But now there are podcasts too, some of them free. And the good of all this is that when I can't sleep or when I wake up earlier than 4 am I put on music or speech in the form of audiobook or podcast with the headphone plugged in and am kept interested until I am finally ready to sleep again.
I should say Chandler is very good to fall asleep to because everything about his writing is so familiar you think you could be dreaming it anyway. Kafka on the other hand is very bad, Metamorphosis being so vivid, so nagging and so logical it acts as a straight anti-soporific. Some of the poetry is OK to fall asleep to, which may or may not be a compliment to it.
Among other things, I have also downloaded some podcasts of well-known American critics talking about poetry. So, last night, having woken particularly early, at 1.23 am to be precise, I decided Helen Vendler was the thing, Vendler on Jasper Johns and Wallace Stevens. A good forty-five minutes of that and I should be both wiser and more rested.
Reader, it was awful.
Maybe 1.23 am is not the best time to be have Helen Vendler in bed with you, but I listened, and listened hard, in that haunted half-awake state, and I kept thinking: Vendler, you are a fool. Vendler you are a pretentious ass. Vendler you are making this up. Vendler, you must know that is perfectly ridiculous.
It was her take on Stevens's 'Anecdote of the Jar' that did for me. She had set up this completely groundless agon between an unnamed generalised English poet who was insisting Stevens write in regular metres, stanzas and rhymes, and Stevens wasn't doing it. Shut up, Vendler! I almost bellowed in my sleep. Get out my bed, you mountebank! And, reader, I switched her off in her prime. What is more she kept me awake another two hours, all but, fuming at her.
Here is the poem, and a magnificent thing it is too.
I placed a jar in Tennessee,
And round it was, upon a hill.
It made the slovenly wilderness
Surround that hill.
The wilderness rose up to it,
And sprawled around, no longer wild.
The jar was round upon the ground
And tall and of a port in air.
It took dominion every where.
The jar was gray and bare.
It did not give of bird or bush,
Like nothing else in Tennessee.
Look, Vendler. It's simple. It's about how human intervention, in the form of art, reorganises our perception of nature. Nature becomes focused on the jar. The jar gives the wilderness meaning. And there is that gorgeous eighth line, "of a port in air." The jar is very bare - it isn't surface art or decoration, it is a simple yet humanly conceived object, a jar of aesthetic intent. And it does all that! (Same broad thought in The Idea of Order at Key West. ) And yes, it is playful and sort of gaunt, and the last line is very odd, the way it sits, because you'd think it might say "Like everything else in Tennessee", putting you in mind of all those birds and bushes Tennessee is noted for.
But what makes you think, dumbass Vendler, that the 'English' poet you have in mind is an idiot without imagination. (I grow patriotic in my half-dream.)
So Vendler is banished from my bed. I'd sooner have a jar, any day, even a gray and bare one.
And sleep, of course. But there was none.