The collapse of artistic tradition in poetry is nowhere shown as clearly as in the USA. By tradition I precisely mean knowledge, craft, expertise. One doubts that a real feeling for the English-language poetry tradition can be gained even in colleges and universities any more.

Be sure: tradition is not a matter of pastiche and form is not a matter of metre and rhyme (bit and bridle). Tradition is as TS Eliot said it was, a changing body of experience that modifies the present and is modified by it:

It cannot be inherited, and if you want it you must obtain it by great labour.

Wilfred Owen

Form is the means whereby art achieves its transformation of reality and, in poetry, this means such considerations as length, verse or stanza structure, speakability, momentum, voice and register, drama and intensity, rhetoric and eloquence. With the systematic introduction of half-rhymes early in the last century (see Wilfred Owen’s Strange Meeting), poetry became a vast acoustic with long-held echoes. The accentual or stress-syllable patterns, characteristic of English, have made the iambic pentameter an unfailing harbour from which adventurous barks forever set sail, or to which they return, rather like the French alexandrine (hexameter) which is native to the different, syllabic prosody of the French language.

Free verse is a sort of poetry that walks by itself, very much a speaker’s voice and often appropriate and successful, but normally now a characteristic of the flood of illiterate adolescent outpouring that has become the steel-hard, inexorable convention.

Consider the following:[1]

Walking, you thumb the remote to scan news, watch the weather girl dance both hands, pivot, smile, and point to the other coast. So what does morning look like? What does the world. From this motel: an anywhere town, across the bay, shining. Elsewhere mountains. Miles beyond hills, the capital cities, their walls behind walls. Monuments to our lies, to our self-blinded lives. Above us now, two fishhawks, cheeping musical shrieks, the risen sun easing their wingbeats. Over us all, daylight’s invisible satellites, shamelessly bouncing back from space the emptiness we feed them.

In these 93 words of prose, one may detect some ambiguity in the first sentence: Is it ‘you’ or the weather girl who pivots, smiles and points to the other coast? Dance here is used as a transitive verb. Cannot ‘What does the world’ have the question mark it needs? Is the motel in an ‘anywhere town’ or is an example of the latter visible, ‘across the bay’, from the motel window? Cities are pilloried as Sodom and Gomorrah, emblematic of ‘lies’ and self-blinded lives’ (with no explanation). In keeping with this rejection of modern worldliness, satellites send and receive ‘emptiness’ (including to those who arrive successfully by SatNav after a complex journey). Perhaps thumbing the remote is evidence of the contemporary inanity of the poet’s companion.

The passage appears to be a mere grumble, confided perhaps to a notebook, to be taken up later and turned into a poem, or abandoned. Good clear prose obeys certain laws of basic communication and this specimen enables us to see its flaws readily enough.

But the passage has been rendered as prose by me! Let us reintroduce the line-breaks with which it was endowed at publication by its author:

Walking, you thumb the remote

to scan news,

watch the weather girl

dance both hands, pivot,

smile, and point to

the other coast.

So what does morning look like?

What does the world.

From this motel:

an anywhere town, across the bay, shining.

Elsewhere mountains.

Miles beyond hills,

the capital cities, their walls behind walls.

Monuments to our lies,

to our self-blinded lives.

Above us now, two fishhawks, cheeping musical shrieks,

the risen sun easing their wingbeats.

Over us all, daylight’s invisible satellites, shamelessly

bouncing back from space the emptiness we feed them.

Now we are certainly taking up more space and, for those readers lacking stamina, short lines enable more rapid breathing. But what exactly is added to the passage by thus inserting carriage-returns all over the place? Perhaps one ambiguity becomes clear: it may be the companion, because of the line-beak after ’girl’, who watches the weather girl, dances her (the companion’s own) hands, pivots etc. But in this case, why not resort to the humble comma? Line-breaks are the defining feature of poems; but here the final line-break seems to have been inserted after ‘shamelessly’, dividing up a verb phrase, simply, one feels, because the poet did not want a line that was too long. Here, he was obeying Ezra Pound’s asinine injunction, a century ago, to ‘Break it up! Break it up!’

Ezra Pound

We may think this crumbled prose, but the product is an authentic, paid-up, modern American poem, complete with an occasional grunt of disregard for ordinary punctuation. To remove this veneer of pretension certainly exposes the communicative fragility and argumentative poverty of the piece. How often is the main verb, that motor of the prose sentence, suppressed.

But, wait: we have not finished. There is another layer of varnish available to the poet, with a couple of flicks of his word-processor, by means of which he may strengthen his claims to be the right-on, modern American poet, a technique further redolent of The Cantos, that vast and popular[2] primer of illiteracy, the technique of indentation:

Views

Walking, you thumb the remote

to scan news,

watch the weather girl

dance both hands, pivot,

smile, and point to

the other coast.

So what does morning look like?

What does the world.

From this motel:

an anywhere town, across the bay, shining.

Elsewhere mountains.

Miles beyond hills,

the capital cities, their walls behind walls.

Monuments to our lies,

to our self-blinded lives.

Above us now, two fishhawks, cheeping musical shrieks,

the risen sun easing their wingbeats.

Over us all,

daylight’s invisible satellites, shamelessly

bouncing back from space the emptiness we feed them.[3]

Philip Booth

Now it even looks like a poem! In addition to completely arbitrary and superficial line-breaks, we now have a verse-array!

But I don’t want to be unduly negative about this still-born little slip of a poem. Let it be put back gently in the Museum of Literature whence it came and where it belongs. The point, surely, is that this poet hasn’t even begun to think about the form of the whole, the life that builds up from the line into the verse-paragraph, the suite or sequence, and the work as a whole. I doubt if metre-and-rhyme would improve matters (the mould improve the jelly?), although the extinction of the tedious autobiographical American poetic voice would be a relief (Whitman is the other unfortunate godfather of officially sanctioned American ignorance). On the other hand, the prose-poem is a perfectly valid, muscular yet stream-lined genre that has been too little exploited. Let all such poems be presented as prose. Their shortcomings will be exposed, but a natural weeding-out will leave the best standing beside those of Rimbaud and Baudelaire.

Walt Whitman

Let us have a little less lazy revolution and a little more dedicated apprenticeship.


[1] ‘Views’ by Philip Booth, the daily offering of the Writer’s Almanac for 30-Jan-10, rendered as prose.

[2] Pound hd invtd the txt msg half a century before the mobile phone.

[3] Philip Booth, from Lifelines: Selected Poems 1950-1999, Penguin Group, 1999.

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In the deep heart’s core

Mary (Baroness) Warnock has been issuing reports and pronouncing on overweight domestic issues throughout my professional life. In addition to this, she is a philosopher (I read her book on existentialism) and one of the current stony outcrop of the Great and the Good. I was on a Newsnight programme with her some years ago, when in the hospitality room Jeremy Paxman interrupted us obsequiously to solicit her opinion about his book, The English. She obliged, as I recall. Anyway, I happened to hear her in interview on the radio, enthusing about Robert Bridges’ The Spirit Of Man (1916), which was the main poetry anthology around in her girlhood and which influenced her throughout her life.

Robert Bridges, poet laureate

Robert Bridges, poet laureate

This aroused my curiosity and I obtained a copy which I read from cover to cover. Bridges was acknowledged in 1932 by FR Leavis in his New Bearings as a brave early patron of Gerard Manley Hopkins, though as I recall he chided him also for not exposing Hopkins more and interfering editorially with him less. It is true that a great many of the items in The Spirit Of Man have been fussed and fiddled with by Bridges, sometimes profitably, sometimes unnecessarily, including translations from the Latin and Greek which Bridges wanted to do all over again.

I don’t think anybody reads the poems of Robert Bridges today. His grandson (or great grandson) is a friend of mine and he certainly doesn’t read his ancestor. The Collected Poems is the sort of thing one could find quite easily in the little second-hand bookshops of yesteryear, like those of John Masefield and John Greenleaf Whittier. TS Eliot was still reprinting him in 1941, according to the cover of Harold Monro’s The Silent Pool. But De la Mare and the Georgians were rubbing shoulders with Ezra Pound, Robert Graves, Stephen Spender, WH Auden and Louis MacNeice, Edith Sitwell and Roy Campbell at this point. It is interesting that Eliot kept Bridges, Rupert Brooke and Edward Thomas in play. How time has sorted this list out, to be sure.

John Masefield

John Masefield

Nevertheless, the following short poem by Bridges seems to me both deft and intriguing:

The Evening Darkens Over

The evening darkens over

After a day so bright,

The windcapt waves discover

That wild will be the night.

There’s sound of distant thunder.

~-~

The latest sea-birds hover

Along the cliff’s sheer height;

As in the memory wander

Last flutterings of delight,

White wings lost on the white.

~-~

There’s not a ship in sight;

And as the sun goes under,

Thick clouds conspire to cover

The moon that should rise yonder.

Thou art alone, fond lover.

John Greenleaf Whittier

John Greenleaf Whittier

Bridges keeps all his 449 anthology entries anonymous, though he provides both a key and some scholarly notes at the back of the book. Many of the items are in French, some medieval French, though presumably this would not have troubled young Mary, at school in Winchester. The method of anonymity enables the reader to approach each offering with a modern but unglazed eye. Many chestnuts, to be sure, are easily recognisable but the playing field is surprisingly level.

I thus came to notice, as I read, that one figure loomed head and shoulders above the contemporary and now forgotten fustian of the likes of Dixon, namely that of the young WB Yeats. This seemed to me an essentially novel way of coming at the irruption of the talented and confident young poet in the years just before the First World War. I mentioned this to a friend who is a Yeats and Celtic Twilight scholar at Trinity College, Dublin, and to my amazement she obtained a copy of The Spirit Of Man and hunted up precisely the poems I meant.

Perhaps this is another example of Bridges spotting a significant winner. He was not entirely up-to-date with Yeats, since another two books had been published before he came to compile The Spirit Of Man, but he drew from the first four (1889-1904). The poems in question are as follows:

  1. The Lake Isle of Innisfree
  2. The Man Who Dreamed Of Faeryland
  3. The Sad Shepherd
  4. He Wishes For The Cloths Of Heaven
  5. The Lover Tells Of The Rose In His Heart (Bridges breaks up the long lines into two)
  6. The Ragged Wood (Bridges seems to have been working here from an early variant subsequently revised)
  7. Into The Twilight (Bridges extracts the first quatrain only)
  8. The Pity Of Love.

Bridges does not allow Yeats any of his titles, perhaps to enhance the anonymity. But the impact of these early poems, among the patinas of the museum and the featureless modern sawdust alike, is remarkable. They afford us a sidelong glance at an over-familiar eminence. Most of these poems are a century old, though Yeats seems distinguished enough now to be considered the foremost poet of the first quarter of the last century. If he is old, why so is Beethoven, whose youthful piano concertos also remind me of a young colt frisking in an empty Swiss meadow, running up and down, with mountains all around, tossing his mane.

The frisky young Beethoven

The frisky young Beethoven

Perhaps it is Yeats’s confidence. If ‘Innisfree’ is already familiar, and I want to come back to that poem, then we first meet an unfamiliar Yeats, like the Unknown Knight coming forward under a inscrutable gage at a tourney, in the following lines:

He stood among the crowd at Dromahair;

His heart hung all upon a silken dress,

And he had known at last some tenderness […]

Immediately, as sometimes with Browning, one comes across a level of unafraid emotional maturity. This poem consists of four 12-line stanzas, all purposefully but easily handled, and ends:

The man has found no comfort in the grave.

Yeats does a standard fin-de-siècle poem as well as anybody, as in the Dowson-like ‘The Lover Tells Of The Rose In His Heart’ (he dedicated his second book to Lionel Johnson of ‘The Dark Angel’), but one feels he is already beyond this. He works within an assumption of ─ not form: that has never gone away ─ but metre and rhyme, bit and bridle. But he handles classical models with an assurance bordering on sangfroid. Once again, the young stallion is tossing its head in the meadow. For instance, ‘He Wishes For The Cloths of Heaven ‘ opens:

Had I the heavens’ embroidered cloths,

Enwrought with gold and silver light,

The blue and the dim and the dark cloths

Of the night and light and the half-light […]

WB Yeats by Augustus John 1907

WB Yeats by Augustus John 1907

(the monosyllables and spondees here arousing the reader to un-classical fervour) and ends:

I would spread the cloths under your feet:

But I, being poor, have only my dreams;

I have spread my dreams under your feet;

Tread softly because you tread on my dreams.

Notice how the rhetorical overpowers the metrical. It is hard to see AE Housman, a near contemporary, allowing himself such liberties and prospectively inspiring Malcolm Muggeridge.

AE Housman

AE Housman

This poem seems to have been conceived as a whole before ever pen was set to paper, like the remarkable ‘The Pity Of Love’:

A pity beyond all telling

Is hid in the heart of love:

The folk who are buying and selling,

The clouds on their journey above,

The cold wet winds ever blowing,

And the shadowy hazel grove

Where mouse-grey waters are flowing,

Threaten the head that I love.

Here, the full force of rhetorical drive piles up in the initial dactyl of the final line. Similarly, the first stanza of ‘Into the Twilight’ ─ the only one admitted by Bridges ─ exemplifies a moody, pensive exploratoriness that is hard to match among his contemporaries in 1899:

Out-worn heart, in a time out-worn,

Come clear of the nets of wrong and right;

Laugh, heart, again in the grey twilight,

Sigh, heart, again in the dew of the morn.

One can see that this might lodge in the auditory imagination of Robert Bridges.

WB Yeats, the romantic idealist, by John Singer Sargent

WB Yeats, the romantic idealist, by John Singer Sargent

Which brings me to that dreadfully familiar poem, ‘The Lake Isle of Innisfree.’ Here one has to forget the remarkable crackly recording of Yeats’s own reading and forget, too, the anaesthetic effect of meeting it in innumerable anthologies, and read it afresh, so that one can notice that this is a wholly unsentimental poem. Indeed it is primarily an acoustic poem, one that alludes to the effect of sound while not especially contriving such effects. Although the linnet’s wings are a visual exception, we are invited to consider the sound of bees and cricket and water lapping. The poet returns to the city, to tread the roads and pavements, but he still carries the echoes within him:

I hear lake water lapping with low sounds by the shore;

While I stand on the roadway, or on the pavements grey,

I hear it in the deep heart’s core.

This is a daring and irresistible plunge to the heart of poetic sensibility. Experimental psychologists have not, as yet, had anything illuminating to say about this most central aspect of human linguistic capacity, what Eliot called ‘the auditory imagination’ and what many poets, Pasternak and Bunting among them, have isolated as the matrix of poetic creativity.

WB Yeats 1923 after winning the Nobel Prize

WB Yeats 1923 after winning the Nobel Prize

It may, too, be relevant to evaluate Yeats’s writing ability (not his attitudes and beliefs, which are another story altogether), his artistic and rhetorical power, in relation to these gusts of prophetic current issuing from what he himself called “the deep heart’s core”.

Euripides has long been regarded, amongst the ancient Greek tragedians, as the most amenable to us today. That is to say, to retrospective eyes, the most “modern” and forward-looking. This is not to adopt a sort of progressivist view of history, but simply to say he adumbrated radical, existential concerns and is in some sorts, perhaps like Marcus Aurelius, one who anticipates the need for a Christian theology.

 

He certainly seems to have been somewhat isolated in his own age, and may have compromised by introducing important themes (as “irony” in Philip Vellacott’s terms) behind a screen of the popular dramatic panoply expected by his audience. He lost out in the prize-winning stakes to his contemporary, Sophocles (Aeschylus had preceded them both by a generation or so) and was mocked by Aristophanes. Nevertheless, after his death, when Sophocles, his rival, appeared in mourning dress, Euripides’s considerable reputation was not diminished.

 

The translations produced for Penguin Books in the 1950s and 1960s by Philip Vellacott remain the staple sources for non-Greek readers today. One should not overlook nevertheless that they are in themselves products of recognisably modern times (nobody any longer finds it easy to access Euripides via the more “classic” versions of Gilbert Murray, though, happily, his collected versions of Euripides are still available in hardcover). Vellacott aspires to poetry and uses a loose English hexameter style which is alien to British poetry but is nonetheless flexible and compelling. It sets up an acoustic of anapaests[1] in the inner ear which is pleasingly intermittent. This medium has recently and most impressively been used in David Raeburn’s complete edition of Ovid’s Metamorphoses (2004), also in Penguin Classics, as it was― memorably ― by Kimon Friar in 1958 in his Herculean five-year collaborative translation with Nikos Kazantzakis of his verse epic, The Odyssey – A Modern Sequel.[2] But as far as I know, Vellacott was not producing a commission for the theatre, but a very ambitious and extensive series of translations of classical dramas for publication. He was therefore not pressed by the exigencies of the modern theatre. His versions therefore remain “faithful” to the text as we have it, complete in the case of Alcestis, with careful notes about difficulties and departures, and accordingly a useful benchmark.

 

The same cannot be said of Ted Hughes’s late version of the same play, late in the sense that Hughes seemed to turn to translation of classical verse drama ― Racine’s Phèdre, Aeschylus’s Oresteia, Tales from Ovid, and Euripides’s Alcestis ― in the last years of his life when he may already have been aware of his illness. All were commissions or at least were performed soon after his death in 1998.

 

What are the barriers that today separate us from such ― perhaps forbiddingly classical ― antique Greek drama? There is no doubt that, like opera in the 19th century, this was the mass popular entertainment of its day, dazzling to contemplate or even imagine in the massive, rotund stone theatre at Epidaurus; yet equally like opera it is something of a fossil in the world of cinema, rock festival and massive electronic stimulation. Nevertheless, theatre itself, though marginalised and increasingly ill-attended, continues to host highly successful productions of Aeschylus, Euripides and Sophocles, all of whom have a perennial appeal, on radio as well as stage. My impression is that Aristophanes, though comic, fares less well. In many ways radio has a chastity and potential for auditory imagination which solves many of the problems of communication and brings the viewer closer to the reader.

 

The Hughes version of Alcestis, completed after a five-year intermission, is touted as being somewhat unfree, by implication, as he

 

goes beyond mere translation to an inspired rethinking of the story in terms of his own vision of human suffering.[3]

 

This is more than a little unfair, since a comparison with Vellacott reveals that many of Hughes’s best flourishes are present in the Euripides original. True, Euripides presumably does not refer to the dead as

 

dead / Forever. / They return to the pool of atoms (p. 2.)

 

But the comments on marriage, one of Euripides’s core modern concerns, are there in all versions. Hughes allows Alcestis to say in her final appeal to her husband, Admetus,

 

Protect my children, be their mother,

And guide them

Into strong marriages. (p. 12)

 

Chorus 2 (Hughes follows Vellacott in slicing up the problematic Greek Chorus: more on this below), after some echoes of Crow and Eliot (both Faber and Hughes are well within their rights to draw on these literary reserves), makes the comment:

 

Never say marriage

Brings more happiness to those who marry

Than it brings pain.

Think of all the marriages you have known. (pp. 16-17)

 

Of course there are

 

additions to the text [which] include an expanded burlesque treatment of Hercules’s drunk scene and an episode involving Prometheus and his vulture (cover blurb)

 

but these seem wholly justified by the requirement to produce a lively stage production. Actors must love Hughes’s chewy yet naturalistic lines. On first opening his ‘version’, one is inclined to think that this is a novel on legs. The pages quickly turn. The impact on audiences must be immediate. Hughes is a great Shakespearean and has written an immensely ambitious book about his hero[4] and therefore had a vivid appreciation of the necessity for variety and diversity in a two-hour live performance; he therefore welcomed the irruption of grieving servants and rude mechanicals to cavort with Hercules who, in the original text, is hardly inebriated.[5]

 

So, do we need “powerful” versions like this of Euripides? Undoubtedly, especially when, as with Hughes, there is an underlying armature of constant fidelity to the original text, through which the unmistakable concerns of Euripides are transmitted and even clarified.

 

Alcestis is not supposed to be a prime tragic work. It is a ‘satyr’ play, usually the last of a series of four, which includes popular appearances of nymphs and satyrs. Yet we have a complete text which begins with an unmistakable announcement of tragic ambition in monologues by Apollo and Death, which subsequently migrate into a dialogue between these two polar characters, who enjoy an almost allergic opposition; in Vellacott’s text (Apollo is speaking):

 

And I too must leave this house,

Which I love dearly, to avoid the taint of death.[6]

 

These two characters provide the structure ― the warp and weft ― of the play but never reappear. On this structure are woven the dilemmas of love and sacrifice, relationships between men and women in marriage, the view of women as chattels, the ultimately bleak vision of the universe and, of overwhelming importance to Euripides, the rôles of what he calls Chance and Necessity in human destiny. There is no need  any longer for the author to conceal any of this behind any screen of irony: it is fully explicit in both modern translations.

 

Let us deal with the pre-Christian metaphysics first and then turn to the problem of the Chorus, which seems to me an obstacle to be chiselled away at.

 

No Christian really believes in Fate. The ancients had gloomy and deterministic views of the universe, with events emanating from mischievous gods and goddesses who provided extraordinarily poor rôle-models, however comic they are made to appear by Ovid. The narratives are endless. Even if one resorts, as many do, to the most lively and capacious modern treatment, that by Robert Graves in his The Greek Myths, one finds a welter of fast moving detail that scarcely allows the stories to breathe, so vast are the tracts to be covered. No doubt Graves felt this method to be forced upon him.

 

For a Christian there is the Will of God. This eliminates randomness of all kinds (pace Heisenberg) and Necessity, if this be understood as the opposite of free will. One may therefore describe Euripides as peculiarly prescient in his accurate anticipation of the need for a Christian theology. His concerns were all the right ones. One may doubt his audience’s appetite for philosophy. Still more, one may doubt the appetite of any audience, ancient or modern, for the bleak tragic vision. But from a Christian point of view we cannot but admire the full unveiling of a hostile Fate, as we might say; a controlling but malign and usually arbitrary reality.

 

All is well here, however, given that Alcestis is somehow resurrected by the obliging Hercules, who yanks Death by means of a mighty arm around his neck and brings the lady home surrounded by nothing worse than a three-day aura of silence.

 

Let us turn to the problem of the Chorus. This has puzzled and ultimately defeated most translators and modern audiences, including Ezra Pound, who complained mildly to TS Eliot about all the groaning women of Canterbury who appear in the faux-Greek but much performed Murder in the Cathedral. Yet it is precisely the presence of the author and his narratives that make Euripides seem, in the Hughes version, so much like a novel on legs. That is, we have plenty of dialogue but also an unceasing flow of reinforcing commentary, often interpreted as superfluous and therefore banal, in the form of the frequent interventions by the Chorus.

 

This is recognised in a further, older but interesting translation of Ten Plays by Euripides by Moses Hadas and John McLean.[7] This is a prose but lively rendition in which all the interventions by the Chorus are rendered in italic print. This, it seems to me, brings us closer to the authorial nature of the Chorus, at least on the page. It remains difficult to translate to the stage, particularly as Euripides insists at times on a single, unfragmented Chorus who interacts as a person with the character of Admetus:

 

I had a kinsman lost his only son,

A boy worth weeping for. Nevertheless,

Though childless in old age,

Yet patiently through the grey downward years

He bore his sorrow. (Vellacott, p. 72; Chorus is speaking)

 

Admetus has just responded to an intervention by a solo Chorus, as follows:

 

You touched my heart where the wound lies. (Vellacott, p. 71)

 

This gives Chorus the opportunity to propose to the stricken Admetus the first great metaphysical theme, before closing in almost as a therapist:

 

CHORUS: Chance has come upon you; you cannot wrestle with chance.

ADMETUS: I cannot. (Vellacott, p. 71)

 

Notice that these examples involve true interpersonal interactions. They are therefore noteworthy as exceptions. For the most part Chorus operates as an independent nexus of authorial digression and popular entertainment. Sometimes Chorus moves towards or among characters on stage but is strangely ignored, as if a ghost or, when plural, a company of ghosts. Bear in mind that it is given to Chorus to provide poetic masterpieces, structured antiphonally in Strophe and Antistrophe, as well as semi-redundant commentary. It is said that Greek prisoners in Syracuse were released if they were able to recite some of these, rather as Leadbelly used to sing his way serially out of prisons in the southern United States.

 

One example is the ‘Hymn to Apollo’ (pp. 61-62 in Vellacott) which is noteworthy. Here is the Antistrophe:

 

Spotted lynxes loved his music and came

To feed beside his flock,

And a tawny herd of lions

Came from the glen of Orthrys;

And around your lute, Apollo,

Dappled fawns, stepping out

Slender-footed from the high shady fir-trees

Danced for joy to your enchanting notes. (Vellacott, p. 61)

 

This is worth at least a year or two of time off for good behaviour.

 

However Chorus is not the sole source of lyricism. Lyricism is implicit even in the despair of Admetus, when he says:

 

The sunlight wakes no pleasure in my eyes;

My foot treads the firm earth and feels no joy (Vellacott, p.70)

 

But this effectively reminds us that to tread the earth and be lit by the sun are pleasurably life-affirming if unconscious joys. Chorus is quick to remind Admetus that

 

In mortal life different events occur

To crush now one man, now another. (Vellacott, p. 71)

 

Chorus is right. The bleak vision of the universe is realistic, even though it highlights the necessity for still absent hope.

 

But one can see the dilemma for a producer if Chorus is sometimes an individual with a history, sometimes a group of ghosts, sometimes a poetry recital, sometimes an on-stage existential therapist, and so on. How on earth can one realise this in a stage performance with all its visual commitments? (Radio provides more melting opportunities.) One possibility is to have something like quadraphonic speakers with selections of Choral contribution floating across the stage, as in the text, at times single, at times split into three or more voices, at times interacting with characters, as Hamlet interacts with his own thoughts, at times singing or reciting.

 

In truth, it seems to me that we are dealing with hidden, novel-like aspects which are integral to the original Euripidean construction and concept. These should not really be a problem, because they introduce precisely the focus of interest, diversity and relief afforded by the rude mechanicals and eloquent vulture of Hughes.

 

My point, then, is to get Chorus off the stage altogether but to introduce a narrative flow and diversity of interest of a novel without in any way impeding, but rather enhancing, the action on the stage. I propose this merely as one possible solution, having never directed a play in my life.


[1] “The Assyrian came down like a wolf on the fold/ And his cohorts were gleaming in purple and gold.” Byron, The Destruction of Sennacherib.

[2] Because of Kazantzakis’s insistence on exclusive use of the demotiki, many modern Greeks actually prefer to read the English version. It is reckoned to be his most enduring work and Friar’s translation is, ironically, a masterpiece of kingly speech.

[3] Euripides, Alcestis, in a new version by Ted Hughes. London: Faber and Faber, 1999; cover blurb. All subsequent page references are to this first edition.

[5] Vellacott points out some exuberant but transient rhyming.

[6] Euripides, Alcestis, Hippolytus, Iphigenia in Tauris. Harmondsworth, Middlesex: Penguin Books, 1953, 1974, p. 43. All subsequent page references are to this latter edition.

[7] Dial Press, 1936; Liberal Arts Press, 1950; Bantam Classic Books, 1981, 2006.

 

 

 

My most attentive cousin has been very keen that I should read a 1992 novel All The Pretty Horses by Cormac McCarthy. I was sorry not to have heard of this — by all accounts — substantial American author. This evening, moved and absorbed, I finished the book.

 

There is no doubt that the strength of the narrative lies in the consistent focus on the moral progress of the main character, John Grady Cole, who in addition to natural gifts, such as his way with horses, is brave and truthful, loyal and ingenious in adversity. Given that he seems to be about 17, his sinews and fibres, all of which are ultimately laid pretty bare, are all the more impressive. He is allowed three encounters in the course of the book — with Alejandra, the great-aunt and the judge — which must suffice for him, since there is no ‘home’ to go back to, only divorce and death, and he must be always ‘heading out.’

 

However, there is always the question of style that does not quite dissolve (the best style is unnoticeable) but remains to bug the reader. The Hemingway style has, 60 years later, become merely an affectation, though it is taught as orthodoxy in all American creative writing classes. (Even in Hemingway’s own later works there had entered in an element of self-parody.) The style adopted by McCarthy is sub-Hemingway and one finds, for instance, nine ands in eleven lines. (If a school child produced this, he would be told to rewrite the passage in self-contained sentences.) The early pages of any book contains much self-consciousness, as if the author were clearing his throat; here McCarthy seems to need to establish his illiteracy as one of this democratic credentials (dont, wont without punctuation) before exploiting his very considerable poetic and descriptive gifts. So the affected style both restricts and frees the writing in complex ways.

 

In the 1920s or 30s there was a famous spat between Hemingway and Aldous Huxley, subsequently analysed as “vernacular” versus “mandarin” by Cyril Connolly in Enemies Of Promise. And there is no doubt that there is a real difference in educational standards at stake, which surfaced again in “Redskins” (Ginsberg) versus “palefaces” (Lowell).

 

But in spite of his flourishing of these credentials there is no doubt — for instance in the monologues of the great-aunt and in the more “European” sections — McCarthy can handle and originate complex ideas in a compelling manner. These passages are among the least obscure in the book. But still the stylistic tic remains, the punchy rhythms, the unspoken dialogue, the show of inside knowledge of Spanish and horsecraft, the occasional portentous (but meaningless) sentences that can hardly convince anyone above high school level.

 

There is less of this literary static as the book unfolds but it never altogether goes away. The author seems attached to the style as a camouflage which allows him to get away with unmanly things like descriptions of moonlight. His successes of this kind may well validate his positioning of himself as a boll weevil in the great tree of Hemingway.  Still more, it may protect him against the overwhelming pressure on a writer of our time — what Virginia Woolf called “the spirit of the age” — the lure of journalism.[1] One only has to look, today, at the line-up presented as pioneers alongside the late Norman Mailer — Joan Didion, Tom Wolfe, Truman Capote and Hunter S Thompson — to see the dangers. The result is that in the USA Ezra Pound is considered a poet, though he wrote no poems, and Mailer is considered a novelist, though he wrote no novels.

 

So far be it from me to unpick this instinctive writerly strategy of Cormac McCarthy, given that the result is a true novel, authentically compelling, absorbing and, no doubt, difficult to shake off.

 

But one cannot fail to wonder at the continuing influence — the prevailing orthodoxy — of the “school of Hemingway”.

 

 

11-Nov-07


[1] Media, publicity, celebrity, the dwindling of the “private” sphere to the advantage of the “public”.