I have been really enjoying Ron Silliman's posts about his experiences judging the William Carlos Williams Award. (That link will take you to one of a series). In one of them (the one linked), he describes James Schuyler's The Morning of the Poem as 'the last completely great book' to win the Pulitzer Prize for poetry. I started thinking about that book and rereading it. It won the Pulitzer in 1981. One of my favourite poems in the book is 'Growing Dark', which begins with these three lines:
'The grass shakes.
Smoke streaks, no,
cloud strokes.' (CP 232)
I love the variation-effect that these lines create, the way the not-so-subtle changes in the words suggest a poet exploring, and choosing, words, accepting that there aren't the perfect combination of words to describe an experience. Robert Von Hallberg wrote, in 1980, when this book was first published, that Schuyler 'loves words, but promiscuously rather than deeply. A deep love of words ought, I think, to lead a poet to just the right words, not to a string of many words that will more or less do for the moment' (http://www.jstor.org/stable/view/1208261?seq=2). I'm not sure I would call this kind of variation and multiplicity 'promiscuous' and I'd say that von Hallberg's idea of 'a deep love of words' sounds a bit Bluebeardish and My Last Duchess-ish to me- a deep love of words as controlling/forcing/depriving them.
Schuyler's use of language is more nuanced, exposing the myth of 'just the right words'. The vowels here are nearly but not assonant, (and then there is the 'smoke'/ 'strokes' rhyme); the letters, of both vowels and consonants, are realised differently; you get a sense of how a 'u' effects an 'o'/ an 'h' effects an 's'/ a 't' effects a 's', etc. The effect of this reminds me of painter Helen Frankenthaler's description of her process in creating her work 'Gray Fireworks' 1982: ' I was choosing what seemed like every conceivable color accent to play against gray'. The 'accents' of letters and sounds are here in 'play'. At the same time there is an interplay of tones and emotions:
matter-of-factness/ sense of inevitability/ reportage:
'The phone rings.
And is answered.'
There is still word-play here; the word 'and' appears in 'answered'; constellations of three are forming; Schuyler is also exploring 'sounds'- the phone, and a few lines previously the 'clank' of the dogs' 'licences' as they are fed. There is the emergence of a downbeat but resilient comedy, a comedy of inevitability. This reaches its most tender in the following lines:
' . When
I was young I
hurt others. Now,
others have hurt
The line-breaks here are startling, especially that one, 'I was young I'. Von Hallberg wrote that the tone of 'Growing Dark' is 'perfectly helpless', but it is heroic, too, as Charles Bernstein has written of Tennessee Williams: 'we are pathetic and heroic simultaneously'. This is nowhere more evident than in the steadfast comedic spirit of the last few lines:
Poor guy. Yet,
I got my sleep.'
'Racking sobs' is sonically triggered by the preceding line, 'a dog bark', and this 'dog bark' serves as a metaphor for the sound of 'sobs'. I intend to look at some more poems from this book in the next few posts.