Lecture 18: Poetry and the Way it Undermines Us: Weldon Kees and Donald Justice

After a break of a few months, I’m back to conclude this lecture series on poetry. This is Lecture 18, titled Poetry and the Way It Undermines Us: Weldon Kees and Donald Justice. I will be producing five more lectures after this one, before I conclude the series.

I’ve been delighted by the response to my poetry talks – there are 2,205 of you and growing, from all over the world – and I encourage your continued comments, questions, and ratings.

For those of you interested in great prose as well as great poetry, I’m planning a new MOOC when I finish this one, and the subject will be the novels of Don DeLillo, author most famously of White Noise, and a person many people consider the best novelist currently writing in and about America. I invite you to sign up for that series when Udemy introduces it.

I’ve always been intrigued by this statement from the French philosopher, Albert Camus:

Beginning to think is beginning to be undermined. Society has but little connection with such beginnings.

Sounds very negative, doesn’t it? We’re told again and again that the unexamined life is not worth living, but, as one of Saul Bellow’s characters once said in one of his novels, “sometimes the examined life makes you wish you were dead.” Society is where we all act together and keep smiles on our faces; poetry – like philosophy – is a more private place, where we do not act; we think, and we think in such a way – such an intense and exploratory and honest way – that the results can, Camus suggests, undermine us, literally erode the foundations – spiritual, moral, whatever – that keep us upright in the world.

Of course poetry differs from philosophy because it is not just thinking – it is thinking and feeling at the same time. Imagine a word which would be thoughtfeeling, or feelingthought – this is poetry. Here are some quotations from people attempting to get at the strange coincidence in poetry of thought and feeling, idea and emotion. Robert Frost, the great American poet, wrote that “Poetry is when an emotion has found its thought and the thought has found words.” You see the coincidence – in poetry, feeling and thought are inseparable; Frost says feeling has found “its” thought, as if all feelings are somehow matched by their appropriate thought, and the job of the poet is to make that match. Poetry renders how it feels to have thought something, and how particular thoughts carry with them particular feelings.

The successful poem can be understood as the verbal synthesis of these two drives – the drive to understand, and the drive to feel. Muriel Rukeyser writes that “Poetry is, above all, an approach to the truth of feeling . . .. A fine poem will seize your imagination intellectually—that is, when you reach it, you will reach it intellectually too— but the way is through emotion, through what we call feeling.” The truth of feeling is an odd phrase, but it’s trying to capture what I’m trying here to capture about poetry: poetry is the verbal form that clothes ideas in feelings, indeed that makes it clear that no idea, no thought, is without emotional substance, a foundation of feeling. We think what we think because of the way we feel, because of what we feel. We sense ideas as we move through life sensing our emotions.

You might even say that many poems are in this sense retrospective gestures – They are the poet saying okay, this is what I’m feeling right now (think of Auden feeling empty and nonexistent in Brussels, Larkin feeling the same way on the beach) and I feel this right now because … .well, let’s backtrack. How did I get to these feelings? Where did this sense of emptiness, say, come from? Hm, well, by following this feeling back, as it were, to some life experiences that formed buried but life-shaping convictions about life in me, I can arrive at some knowledge of those convictions…

Maybe most people remain in the realm of unselfconscious feeling most of their lives; maybe most people don’t undergo this sort of emotional/intellectual retrospective exercise… but the poet is a supreme thoughtfeeler, a feelingthinker, always at once feeling and thinking about what these feelings mean, how they are symptoms, if you like, of ideas.

The truth of feeling, Rukeyser says, as if we might well be suspicious of ideas as such, but emotions come at us with an unanswerable authenticity – this is what I feel, this despair, this elation, this fear, this confusion, this passion. And we can get at intellectual truths through a poetic arrestation of all that feeling (I’ve said throughout these lectures that poetry arrests life, and in this case arrests that cascade of feeling that most people are tumbling through for most of their lives.), through a special aesthetic examination of it, and ultimately through an ordered verbal rendering of it.

Remember that short funny poem we looked in Lecture 17, “Niagara River” by Kay Ryan. Remember how she describes life as an oblivious passage down the Niagara River – a river which, if we allowed ourselves to think about it, in fact finally dumps us into the Niagara Falls. But we don’t allow ourselves to think about that, because it would undermine us. It would make it more difficult for us to keep our balance, to keep floating on our little life raft on the Niagara River. Instead we feel the curious emotion Ryan features in that poem – a kind of pleased ignorant enjoyment of the passing moment, a willed cow-like not knowing…

So through poetic arrestation of this not-knowing, through an examination of the feelings that not-knowing (in the case of the Ryan poem) generates in us, we will get at truths – the most important truths, arguably, because they are the most human truths. They are not coldly deduced concepts and claims, but emotionally grounded actualities: This is what it means to be a human being; this is what it means to live in the world. Somehow I’ve gotten to this point; somehow I’ve evolved into a person who feels this and feels that – How did that happen? How did I get here? Only by bringing reflective intellect to the fact of a present emotional reality will I be able to thread together the complex interaction of thought and feeling that got me to this place.

“The office of poetry is not to make us think accurately, but feel truly,” writes Frederick William Robertson, reiterating what we’ve already heard from Frost and Rukeyser. I think that when you grasp this point, you also grasp what Mark Van Doren means when he writes, “The job of the poet is to render the world – to see it and report it without loss, without perversion. No poet ever talks about feelings. Only sentimental people do.” It is of course a typical and popular misreading of poetry that it’s all about sentiment, about the statement and airing of feelings. No sirree. You know you’ve got hold of a bad poet, a fake poet, a manipulative poet, when you’ve got someone panting away about the beauty of nature or whatever. (Recall my discussion of the unfortunate American poet Joyce Kilmer, and his thrill at the sight of trees. Recall also my discussion of the wallowing-in-her-own-emotions poet Anne Sexton.) Poetry is emotion under very tight control – under the control of serious thought.

I want to focus in this lecture on two great twentieth century American poets – Weldon Kees and Donald Justice – who did this sort of retrospective thoughtfeeling and feelingthought exercise at a very high, beautiful, and enlightening level. I mean that – to use Rukeyser’s language – when you REACH their poem, when you understand it, when you feel it, when you feelunderstand it, you feelunderstand a lot. And of course this is the payoff of the reading of poetry – not just that we get to consort with beautiful language and that it is, on a very simple, musical, level, an exhilarating delight to consort with glorious rhythm and words, but that as we read those words, crucial truths of human life, of our life, roll out of the poetic lines.

As with listening to music, those thoughtfeelings emerge slowly, line by line, as we listen, as we read. I made this point in my lecture on Elizabeth Bishop’s poem At the Fishhouses; most of it reads like pure description with no idea attached to it; yet in fact as we read there’s a gradual and sly gathering of meaning – somehow meaning squeezes itself out of each seemingly purely musical or descriptive line; an atmosphere of implication expands as we read, and though we may not be able – ever – to put that implication into straightforward propositions or claims, nonetheless when we finish the poem, when we REACH it, we realize that its accretion of detail has not been mere accretion, but has culminated in thoughtfeelings about the human condition.

Again, is this not the great value, the great gift to us, of poetry? That it brings us to actuality, carries us through feeling to the way things really are? Poems are not bloodless propositions or hypotheses about what it means to be a living human being in a glorious, crushing, and enigmatic cosmos; they are dispatches from the front; they are you are there chronicles of the moment to moment reality of our mind and our body moving through existence. I’ve said, along with Camus, that these dispatches also undermine us – that they may in some sense undermine us – but does it follow from this that we want, like the absurd people in “Niagara River,” to refuse to receive them?

Let’s consider first the Weldon Kees poem (remember that both the Kees and Justice poems are in the Materials section of this screen) titled “That Winter.”

Kees recalls, as his title suggests, THAT winter, one particular winter when something happened to him during a snowstorm, something that generated feelings which, on examination, enlightened him about himself, about all human beings. So it’s a lyric poem – short, personal, capturing one moment – but it incorporates a little narrative, the poet having had a vision, an experience, while walking, in the past, through a snowstorm.

Note that like Auden’s poem, another winter poem, “Brussels in Winter,” the Kees poem is in the second person – YOU. The choice of you transmits the poet’s conviction that this is not his experience alone, but has resonance for the reader – you know what I’m talking about; you’ve been in the same sort of existential moment. But the second person also conveys, in the Kees poem, the poet’s self-alienation, his rather disgusted confrontation with his naïve past self: you see yourself, a fool with smiles… So you because he’s literally addressing a different person – the person he was, but the person he no longer is. Essentially, in this poem, Kees has a vision of his youthful happy trusting self, springlike and fully alive; and to this vision he brings the full force of his current bitterness, coldness, frigidity…

So let’s look more closely at this poem.

Cold ground and colder stone
Unearthed in ruined passageways,
The parodies of buildings in the snow –
Snow tossed and raging through a world
It imitates, that drives forever north
To what is rumored to be Spring.

This is not a sentence; it is a series of descriptive phrases, listing one after the other the things the sees as he walks in a city buried under heavy snow. All is white except for some soil and stones visible now at a spot in a “ruined passageway” that the snow hasn’t covered. The snow, by blanking out the warm, busy, in motion, distracting world, and allowing the unearthing of some signs of the true gravelike deathliness of existence (cold ground, colder stone), has plunged the poet into the condition of intellectual and emotional clarity – coldness – that will generate the poem.

Parodies, imitations – that’s what the world is. It pretends to be a world of life, of buildings and movement, but it’s really as deadwhite as the snow itself. The snow shows – to quote Philip Larkin in one of his deathly poems – what’s really always there, unresting death.

The snow is “raging,” and that raging will return in the last line of the poem: And snow is raging, raging, in a darker world. Note that the poem is three six-line verses of more or less iambic pentameter; but note also that the poem ends in one freestanding line, which carries most of the weight of the poem, sitting out there at the end all by itself. And what it carries is the poet’s full emotional realization of his own rage, his rage at the conditions of human existence. The snow rages in the first stanza; by that final line, the poet, now in a darker world from the vision of his early self that he sees during the storm, also rages.

If winter comes, asks Shelley in “Ode to the West Wind,” can spring be far behind? In the bleak depths of winter, in the depths of sorrow, we project the return of life, joy, spring… Yet Kees is cynical: the snow drives “forever north / To what is rumored to be Spring.” But it is not spring; spring is mere parody, mere imitation, mere covering over of the permanent icy deathliness of life.

The next two stanzas will describe his vision during the snowstorm of a lighter younger world:

To see the faces you had thought were put away
Forever, swept like leaves among the crowd,
Is to be drawn like them, on winter afternoons,
To avenues you saw demolished years before.
The houses still remain like monuments
Their windows cracked, For Sale signs on the lawns.

He doesn’t see his own particular younger self yet; he sees the younger, more innocent world he grew up in, the faces of family and friends suddenly swirl around him, and he finds himself drawn to them, to his past – and this is what I meant earlier by the retrospective thoughtfeeling procedure of so many poems – the poem so often seems a backward maneuver, a present moment rather quickly pressing the poet back, back, back, into the past, so that he or she can compare past and present.

The literal ruined passageways of the first stanza become in the second the demolished avenues of the poet’s past – demolished literally, in that those old streets have fallen into disrepair to the point of unrecognizability; but also demolished in their having been crushed by the poet, pushed into a past he no longer wants to think about. Yet they are still avenues – ways to get somewhere – and the poet will, whether he likes it or not, go back, in feeling and thought, to the past.

The houses on the street where he grew up have “cracked windows” – a nice image, consonant with his current world of snow and ice … yet rather than follow his thoughts forward again to his current cold conditions, the poet will now, in his third and final stanza, deepen that memory, move further down that avenue to youthful innocence:

Then grass upon those lawns again! – and dogs
In fashion twenty years ago, the streets mysterious
Through summer shade, the marvelous worlds
Within the world, each opening like a hand
And promising a constant course. – You see yourself,
A fool with smiles, one you thought dead.

So – the fully realized vision. Snow is gone, and grass is again upon the lawns of his childhood avenue. Yet – and here I think is the heart of this retrospective, undermined, thoughtemotion, utterance – what the poet really sees in this vision is not the sentimental business of I once was young and now I’m old; rather, he sees the world not boringly monotonal under the white of snow but fascinating, mysteriously rich and multidimensional under dappling “summer shade,” marvelous with imaginative possibility (worlds within the world), each new world “opening like a hand / And promising a constant course.” This generative palmy human flowering is not the snowy world that “drives forever north / To what is rumored to be Spring,” but rather a constant course, like the course of a river in spring – instead of icy motionlessness, or a hard driving snow which we deludedly hope is heading for spring, the poet’s vision here culminates in a past feeling, a conviction, that some constant pulse, or flow, of life energy, imaginative energy, the capacity to imagine and maybe even generate, new worlds, persisted through time and seasons.

The poet sees himself, his past self, “a fool with smiles,” a person he thought dead; and yet this retrospective capacity to feel again the life possibility suggests that the poet retains some of that earlier capacity. Still, the poem ends by returning, in that last single line, to the snow, with intensified rage at what the past has lost: snow is “raging, raging, in a darker world.”

Donald Justice, an admirer of Kees, wrote a similar retrospective thoughtfeeling – a poem titled “Absences.”

Of course we’ve already read a poem with this title – “Absences” by Philip Larkin, in Lecture 11. And a quick Google search turns up other poems with that title. Again I’d suggest that much of poetry amounts to a current feeling of loss measured against a past feeling of abundance, with the substance of the poem amounting to nothing less than an effort to conjure in real time this temporal depletion, the way it feels to live every day with death – again in the words of Larkin – a whole day nearer now, with the depletion of our physical, imaginative, and spiritual energies more and more intimately apparent to us.

Yet when is life, really, anything other than a variation on this theme? When we were young and welcomed by hand after hand of possibility, were we actually able to reflect and act on that abundance? Only when we get past unmindful, heedless, youth, are we capable of reflection and action, even if that action is compromised in various ways by the content of that reflection, by the undermining melancholy and bitterness that reflection may generate.

So that is a complex place to be in; but it’s real enough, and poetry is there – some poetry is there – to place us with clarity in that situation, to offer it to us as an insight so that we can know more about the truths that reside in our feelings. And even if this sort of prompt to thought is, as Camus suggests, undermining, this does not make it killing; it makes it an honest challenge to our tendency to deny our nature, and the nature of reality.

Okay, so let’s look at Justice’s “Absences.” (Scroll down.)

It’s snowing this afternoon and there are no flowers.
There is only this sound of falling, quiet and remote.

So we’re in the snow yet again, but this is a more sedate snow than Kees’s – it’s not a blizzard driving itself into his face, but rather a quiet and remote sound of falling. No flowers, of course, it’s winter; but Justice is in fact writing in Florida, so the snow is not only mild – and unusual – but there’s still plenty of natural life around.

The snow elicits a childhood memory – same deal as in the Kees poem – but here again things are softer:

Like the memory of scales descending the white keys
Of a childhood piano.

So the gentle remote music of the ticking snow reminds the poet of his piano practice as a child, working his way down the scales – using only the white (snowy) keys.

Outside the window – palms!
And the heavy head of the cereus, inclining,
Soon to let down its white or yellow-white

So he recalls a bizarre day of snow in Florida, its mix of dead white and the persisting green of the palms – instead of Kees’s clear distinction between white and green, we have a strange meld; and yet the feeling tone seems about the same – green youthful memory, current “no flowers” snowing.

Now the cactus flower “cereus” is a pretty inspired choice of flower on the part of Justice, and not merely because when you recite the word it sounds exactly like serious, as in being a serious person, or as in truly meaning something (“I’m serious.”). The poet recalls, as a young man, practicing at his piano during a freak snowfall, looking out the window and seeing not merely palms, but the cereus flower, a yellow/white bloom that typically blooms only for one night – as in night-blooming cereus – or one day. So here the poet conveys the fragile transience of that glorious past to which both poets retrospectively return in their poems.

The heavy head of the cereus – pressed under the weight of snow, and in any case soon enough to “let down its white or yellow-white…” It is soon, like the poet, to be pressed into serious life, or the kind of life in death that is this compromised adult aftermath sort of life.

In his second stanza, he brings himself back to the flowerless present, to this current snowfall.

Now, only these poor snow-flowers in a heap,
Like the memory of a white dress cast down…

So the fallen bloom, which makes a domed shape on the ground, reminds the poet of an innocent bridal gown cast down … This is poetry, deeply suggestive language… It takes us many possible places… So that if one wants to read this white dress cast down as an image of initiation into the adult world, the stripping off of the innocent garment in preparation for deflowering, one can certainly do that. But the poet won’t pursue the metaphor – he will simply move from feeling to thought, to the idea

So much has fallen.

This statement, again, can be read both literally – so much snow – and figuratively – I have in so many ways fallen away from what I was… Or, if you want to give it a Kees twist, the world has so much fallen away from what it once was… At least that’s how I feel, that’s what I think this feeling that my poem is trying to capture – nostalgia, a sense of the heaviness of life, the end of innocence – is ultimately about.

And here is how the poem concludes:

And I, who have listened for a step
All afternoon, hear it now, but already falling away,
Already in memory.

I think we can read that word “step” musically, given the piano practice context of this; I mean, I think on first reading we read this as the poet listening for the step of a human being, and certainly the poem allows for this reading. But let us at least double it and suggest that the poet has been trying to recall, all afternoon, a certain interval between two notes that he played when he was a child; a particular one/two sound that now haunts him. He hears it now; but, as is the nature of these retrospectives, always undermined and undermining lyrics; they are always temporally slipping away even as the poem is being written. The interval once found is quickly lost, already falling away, already in memory.

And now the poet concludes with a lovely paradox, a mystery, an impossibility:

And the terrible scales descending
On the silent piano; the snow; and the absent flowers abounding.

It’s a summation; in the final line the poet gathers all of the significant elements of the poem: piano, snow, flowers. The scales he remembers having played are now “terrible” because of their descent, their movement down the piano – a musical passageway of the sort – the ruined sort – Kees talks about. Those scales are temporality itself, as music is time, meter, played in time, and their descending character in his memory is linked to images of fallen flowers and cast down white dresses and inclining cereus heads – everything falling, fallen. The scales, you might say, have fallen from the poet’s eyes, and this is terrible as it is also terrible for Weldon Kees. The current piano is silent, yet it shakes with the descent of those remembered scales; the snow is flowerless and yet also abounds with the recalled – now absent – flowers that withstood – barely- the earlier snow.

Absent flowers abounding. – This paradox gets at the thoughtfeeling that in the case of Justice sustains him: imagination, emotion – these sustain and even proliferate the flowers, for after all the mind is creative, is itself generative, and can from the dead past reanimate some life. The mind, if you will, can go through that undermining emotional knowledge and come out still holding flowers, still somehow garlanded.

To think is to begin to be undermined – yes. But to go underground, to mine one’s memories, is not only unavoidable for thoughtful, feeling people, but potentially revitalizing, as indulgence in these heavy feelings may help you clarify where they came from, and how they might be put to less bitter use than Kees puts them.

The beautiful completeness of the realized poem is itself reassuring evidence of our capacity to retain strong feeling, to retain openness to the world, even as we feel beneath us our inescapable processes of erosion. Once again, poetry arrests life, suspends the erosive nature of temporal being, and exhilarates us with the truth of exactly where we are at this moment.

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