Absence and Absences
First person pronoun ‘I’, her own voice speaks
Omniscient narration starts his piece,
a former meeting place is where she seeks
at first, he seems to be by sighing seas,
to discourse in the present of the past,
Initially, he’s present tense; he sees
of visiting the garden where she last
and hears the images inside his head;
encountered ‘he’ or ‘she’. constructing fast
and slow alternate scenes. She hasn’t said
the person’s name, it’s either we or you,
His audience, I think, more widely-spread.
She’s written it, in part, of someone who ...
He’s written it because he wants to play
With metaphors. whose very name construes
an earthquake shaking nature, as she says.
Both metaphysical, I think, in different ways.
Contemplate Rembrandt’s Late Self-Portraits
You are confronted with yourself. Each year
The pouches fill, the skin is uglier.
You give it all unflinchingly. You stare
Into yourself, beyond. Your brush’s care
Runs with self-knowledge. Here
Is a humility at one with craft.
There is no arrogance. Pride is apart
From this self-scrutiny. You make light drift
The way you want. Your face is bruised and hurt
But there is still love left.
Love of the art and others. To the last
Experiment went on. You stared beyond
Your age, your times. You also plucked the past
Tempered it. Self-portraits understand
And old age can divest,
With truthful changes, us of fear of death.
Look, a new anguish. There, the bloated nose,
The sadness and the joy. To paint’s to breathe,
And all the darknesses are dared. You chose
What each must reckon with. 154
Jennings said ‘form is not a jelly-mould’ and ‘I almost never choose a form and then write, it comes together’. 155 Nonetheless, she once again employs the ababa rhyme scheme in a poem in which ‘there is still love left’. However, enjambment and slant rhymes (e.g. part/hurt and past/divest’) permit the jelly to trickle down the sides of the mould. Two examples of Larkin’s poetic representations of visual images have been explored earlier, and here, Jennings writes in what May terms the ‘hitherto hidden genre of female ekphrastic writing in the twentieth-century’. He attests that James A. W. Heffernan’s Museum of Words: The Poetry of Ekphrasis from Homer to Ashbery, attempts to set up what Heffernan describes as ‘a formidable tradition of male ekphrasis.’ May’s examples include Pope’s ‘Epistle to a Lady’ (1743), Keats’s ‘Ode to a Grecian Urn’ (1810) and Shelley’s ‘On the Medusa of Leonardo Da Vinci in the Florentine Gallery’ (1819) in this ‘formidable tradition’. These are poems which he says belong to an ekphrastic genre which ‘set up a tension between looking and reading, the act of reading further objectifying the female verbally represented on the page.’156
One such poem which springs immediately to mind is Robert Browning’s ‘My Last Duchess’, based on Duchess Ferrara, formerly Lucrezia Borgia. However, unlike the examples cited by May, it is unclear whether Browning based his poem on an actual portrait. In the ‘female tradition of ekphrastic writing’, May cites Barrett Brownings’ Aurora Leigh (1856): ‘a portrait for a friend / who keeps it in a drawer’. There is also, of course, Rossetti’s ‘In an Artist’s Studio’. Other women following in their footsteps are
Jennings’s contemporary, Stevie Smith, and more recently, Carol Ann Duffy, Wendy Cope and Sujata Bhatt.157
If, then, there is an ekphrastic genre, Jennings diverges from both male and female traditions, in that she is a female poet writing about a male artist and his art. In so doing, she subverts the genre by placing the male under the female microscope. Moreover, unlike that of her male counterparts, her scrutiny is compassionate, seeking
to neither control, nor to objectify.
The formal structure of Jennings’s ‘Rembrandt’s Late Self-Portraits’ mimics the formal structure of the portrait. Reflective lines mirror reflective brush strokes, and, like Rembrandt’s brushstrokes, pare down to reveal the essential truth that ‘there is still love left’. The poem’s ‘light and darknesses’ mirror the chiaroscuro complexion of the painting. Coincidental with writing this section, the present writer visited the Rijksmuseum. Having read Jennings’s poem before her visit it coloured her perception of Rembrandt’s portraits and, in turn, an added appreciation of the poem itself. The painterly and the poetic artist, alike, confront themselves through the medium of their art in their later lives to discover that ‘love of the art and others’ remained. The fact that this writer was in the museum on her seventieth birthday added a personal element of self-confrontation. Some of these points are made in the following poem which, again, attempts to emulate Jennings’s rhyme scheme. Like the painter and the poet, I use a chiaroscuro palette, for example, harsh and soft assonance, ‘darknesses/dared’. Particularly, though, the pared-down lines reveal what I consider to be the essence of Jennings’s poem, its clarity and its craftsmanship.
Lines on Jennings’s ‘Rembrandt’s Late Self-Portraits’
The brushwork of her poem traces his
self-portrait faithfully. Her strokes a deft,
a careful application; sentences
reduce revealing truth, there’s still love left.
A clear ekphrasis:
a formal painting and a formal style
of writing. Yet: she masks her rhythms, end
lines drift away the way [she] wants, beguile.
Her half-rhymes are at one with craft, beyond
with understand. Meanwhile
the poet and the painter share a tone
of light and dark. A chiaroscuro voice
where darknesses are dared. We hear her own
experiment [go] on, voice and devoice,
she tempers one with one.
She paints her own self-portrait here, I think:
same age as Rembrandt, same self-scrutiny,
same confrontation with herself, to link
the poet’s with the artist’s craft, one she
creates in pen and ink.
The following is the present writer’s ekphrasis, using Jennings’ rhyme scheme and employing MacNeice’s repeated lines, in that it replicates Rembrandt’s repeatedly painting self-portraits over a forty year period. Rembrandt began by painting tronies, i.e. experimental paintings of himself, in various guises in which he enacts various emotions. He was impoverished at the time, and using himself as a model was pragmatic.
Lines on Rembrandt’s Late Self Portrait (1660)
You are confronted with yourself. Each year
for forty years, that annual scrutiny.
The self-perception surfaced earlier -
the twenties tronies sealed your destiny -
you were confronted with yourself each year.
The mirror-image studies brought you fame -
pragmatic option, modelling yourself –
unguarded glimpse of fear caught in the frame
and then, you posed the roles, but not true self.
The mirror image studies brought you fame.
Then year-on-year, an inner-dialogue –
like Alfred Prufrock, you grow old ...grow old –
Your stream of consciousness - your monologues
in oil - that speak so candidly unfold.
A year-on-yearly inner dialogue.
For centuries we’ve looked into your eyes.
Your face has aged around that outward gaze;
head broadened, lines and wrinkles multiplied
but in your eyes, we see the spark now blaze.
For centuries we’ve looked into your eyes.
Consider Caravaggio’s ‘Narcissus’ in Rome
Look at yourself. The shine, the sheer
Embodiment thrown back in some
Medium like wood or glass. You stare,
And many to this gallery come
Simply to see this picture. Clear
As glass it is. It holds the eye
By subject and by symmetry.
Yes, something of yourself is said
In this great shining figure. You
Must have come to self-knowledge, read
Yourself within that image who
Draws every visitor. You made
From gleaming paint that tempting thing –
Man staring at his suffering.
And at his joy. But you stopped where
We cannot pause, merely make sure
The picture took you from that stare,
Fatal within: Chagall or Blake
Have exorcised your gazing for
A meaning that you could not find
In the cold searchings of your mind.158
Jennings appropriates the rhyme royal form (from the customary ababbcc rhyme scheme, discussed in Chapter 1) to ababacc. Her rationale may have been to give emphasis to ‘sheer, stare and clear’, repeating ‘stare’ again in the third line of the third stanza. Overarchingly, this is a poem concerned with gaze, the male gazing at himself, the viewers in the gallery, at Jennings and her readers. The narcissus myth is a familiar one which needs no elaboration here, except to refer to the Renaissance theorist Leon Battista Alberti’s opinion that Narcissus was the inventor of painting. If so, it might follow then, that every painter paints himself. This is not Jennings accusing Caravaggio
of Narcissism per se, but an acceptance of self-reflection, and she includes us all. This poem can read be as a compassionate and complex one, in which she invokes the visionary Blake and the self-forgetful Chagall as ‘exorcists’. Once again, Jennings has produced a faithful mimesis of a painting combined with rigorous self-scrutiny. The following poem, using Jennings’s adapted rhyme scheme, summarises this paragraph. I found this a helpful writing practice in that the ‘a’ rhymes ‘emphasize/eyes/scrutinize’ and ‘yourself/herself/self’ aurally reinforce the primary ethos of the poem and the painting, those of vision and of self-regard.
Lines on Jennings’s ‘Caravaggio’s ‘Narcissus’ in Rome’
Adapting royal rhyme to emphasize
the sheer and clear, particularly stare,
but whom does she command to stare; whose eyes,
Narcissus/ours ... or is it clear
that she’s the one she’s come to scrutinize?
The poet finding sounds to fit that sheen,
the sibilance of glass and sheer and shine.
Affirmative. Yes, something of yourself
is said (not seen) she says. That’s interesting –
embodiment in paint and words - herself
and Caravaggio. A tempting thing
to contemplate the suffering of self,
and also Joy. A cautionary tale
of all that self-regarding might entail,
a fatal thing that must be ... exorcised?
A powerful verb: demonic resonance
of inner cleansing, Jennings visualized,
by visionary Blake, the difference
from coldly searching neatly symbolized.
And merely to make sure? No hubris there.
To simply come to see? No simple here.
Contemplate Michelangelo’s First Pietà
Carve a compassion. Older than you are
He lies upon your lap. What can you do
But hold him with a trust you also fear?
Saw what a girl may do for gods. O we
Have mercy on this man a woman holds,
God in the grip of our humanity
All this the sculptor moulds
But more. It is a prayer that he is saying
Wordless, except that written on her breast
He writes his name. This girl he is displaying
Has also brought him rest.159
As proposed in earlier chapters, the central lines of poems by women writers such as Winchelsea and Barrett Browning contains their essential message and this poem may be similarly read. The central word is ‘woman’, and Jennings alerts the reader aurally by the emotion carried in the vowels. The centrality could be seen as that of the relationship between the female and the Almighty. In her interview with Garrigan, it emerged that
Jennings’s sympathy for the Virgin was compounded when she
edited an anthology of verse in her praise. Many of her own
poems attempt to do that which she saw Michelangelo doing
in his first Pietà; Jennings would ‘carve a compassion’ in celebration of that feminine link with God. 160
On the one hand, there is textual evidence to support what May describes as ‘almost jealousy’ of the silent art of the sculptor, or ‘wordlessness’, as Jennings has it in her poem.161 May cites other examples: as early as 1961, in ‘Visit to an Artist’, Jennings writes of ‘paint/restraint’ and in ‘James Palmer and Chagall’ (1966) of ‘an art at rest’. Although in ‘Works of Art’ (1964), Jennings states ‘the poem lies with trouble at its heart’, by the same token, she also has it that ‘every fashioned object makes demands’ (my italics).162 The change from pentameters to hendecasyllabics in lines 1 and 3 in the third stanza, emphasised by ‘But more’, link ‘saying/displaying’ rhymes, and would also appear to confound May’s theory. Elsewhere, there are ten syllables to lines 1-3, and six to the fourth line of each stanza, creating a ‘tear drop’ impression on the page with the fourth line indented.
The next poem combines this brief commentary on the aural and visual properties of Jennings’s poem with an allusion to May’s theory. Accumulating Jennings’s /o/ vowels
in the first stanza, along with the present writer’s ‘invocation...moaning...chosen mould’ carries the emotional aspect inherent to Jennings’s poem. Additionally, sibilant ‘wordlessness ... dissection .... noiselessness’ convey the sculptor’s silent art.
Lines on Elizabeth Jennings’s ‘Michelangelo’s First Pietà ’
We hear her invocation; chant her prayer,
her moaning incantation, older ... hold
and o and woman holds and more. The tear-
drop shapes, her chosen mould,
drip down the page; they form, and then, re-form
in mute depiction of his wordlessness
dissection of tranquillity. Her form
conveys his noiselessness.
Each stanza is a strain, perhaps? Except
her extra syllables (lines 1 and 3
in Stanza 3) link ‘say ...display’, adept
at showing, tellingly.
Producing this response has engendered an increased awareness of the emotional and spiritual properties of vowel sounds. Whereas Winchelsea uses inverse stress patterning, and Barrett-Browning relentless rhythms, to convey the crux of their poems, Jennings’s acoustics cue the central word in this poem. The exploration of physical intimacy between Jesus and Mary in Michelangelo’s sculpture, experienced by, and conveyed in, Jennings’s poem has facilitated my combining experiment with experience. That is to say, writing formally and feeling the emotion carried in the vowels simultaneously.
The next two experiments, building on Jennings’s poem, comment on Michelangelo’s first and his final, unfinished Pietà. In the first poem, I use an initial trochee to convey strength, thereafter iambs. The second work begins with bracing dactyls to accentuate the sculpture’s swirling structure, incorporating ‘cleaving the air’ from James Beyer’s structural analysis of the pieta. 163 Jennings’s syllabics are inverted in both poems to replicate the pyramidal form of both sculptures. These two poems differ vastly in form,
content and tone from my ‘Imagist’ Pietà, as did the ‘Imagist’ Pietà from the original poem in sonnet form, discussed in the previous chapter.
Lines on Michelangelo’s First Pietà (1498 -1499)
from metamorphic rock , recrystallized
carbonate or calcite. Serenity:
Carrara marble silence vocalized
the virgin mother, daughter of her son,
her figlio, father of humanity,
the paradox of two, as three in one.
The Holy Trinity
depicts, it seems, two different points in time;
the mother’s gaze is fixed on distancy,
upon her newborn son, her face sublime.
Lines on Michelangelo’s Last Pietà : The Rondanini Pietà (1550 -1564)
Peaceful, yet powerful
swirl, cleaving the air as it hurls around
grain. Redolent almost of vertical
take-off, ascending to heaven from the ground.
Softest curve to Mary’s
back. Does she hold him? Does he hold her?
Rough-cast gradini, yet wraith-like, weary
heads joined together, their boundaries blur.
In the poetry examined in this chapter, Larkin and Jennings have painted their self-portraits, or rather, self-fashioned themselves as poets. Both writers are concerned overtly with visual images, made all the more vivid by virtue of being ‘economical in metaphor’ in the ‘production of something poetic’. On the whole, Jennings displays an acceptance of ageing, suffering and human frailty with serenity. The exception is the powerful earthquake and remembrance of a name metaphor, which might, or might not, be that of the Almighty. In common with Larkin’s ekphrastic poems, those from Jennings fulfil Scott’s ‘anti-phoney, anti-wet and robust’ criteria. However, Jennings’s poetry has a deeply spiritual element and, unlike the two examples of Larkin’s ekphrastic work examined, is completely devoid of irony. Jennings, who knew Larkin well, makes his scepticism clear.
For Philip Larkin
The last thing you would have wanted –
A poem in praise of you. You would have smiled,
Cracked a joke and then gone back into
Your secret self, the self that exposed itself
To believe in nothing after death ... 164
The present writer’s creative output in response to the small selections of Larkin and Jennings’s poems discussed in this section is on a continuum of profane to sacred. The production of an analytical poem on Caravaggio’s Narcissus, was problematic in that the temptation to emulate Carly Simon was difficult to resist.165 ‘You’re so vain, I bet you think this poem’s /about you’ would have been out of keeping with the inherent spirituality of that particular section, and this is an important issue. Looking back at Chapter 3, where the term ‘ekphrasis’ first appeared, the retrospective realisation is that it was something of a catalyst. My creative response to Jennings’s work has been intensely formal, and that level of formality has, in turn, been a spiritual experience. Thus, it can be said that until I experienced a highly personal connection with Jennings’s work, I had not realised that, when I was producing poetic representations of visual art in chapter 3, I was working within an established tradition of women writers. This has, in turn, led to a sense of awe, and belonging, of being on a timeline with the other women poets with whose work I have interacted, thus far.
Chapter 6: Back to the Future: New Formalist Poetry
This chapter examines work from American poets writing within the New Formalist Movement and, inherently, a debate surrounding the internationalism of poetry written in English. Poets of both genders were writing formally in America in the 1980’s and 1990’s in the second, and more concerted, wave of New Formalism which began in the 1960’s.166 This chapter departs from the customary practice of comparing work by male and female poets. Selected work will be explored from an anthology of women’s poetry only, Annie Finch’s, A Formal Feeling Comes: Poems in Form by Contemporary Women.167 Whilst poetry from eleven of Finch’s writers appeared in an anthology of male and female New Formalists, Rebel Angels: 25 Poets of The New Formalism, noteworthy pieces from other female writers did not.168 Finch showcases work written in diverse forms, containing diverse subject matter, by women from different races, and differing sexual predilections. The present writer perceives the production of creative responses to her American cousins’ poems will present a double challenge. Firstly, certain poetic forms to be examined are either new to her, or are ones which have previously presented such a high level of difficulty that they have been avoided. Secondly, as a heterosexual, English ‘WASP’, she would find difficulty writing from an ‘outsider’ perspective. This is not as arrogantly elitist as it appears, because her own ‘insider/outsider’ status will be questioned. On the one hand, given that English is her mother tongue, she does not perceive herself to be ‘writing under someone else’s thumb and tongue’, on the other hand, with her strong regional accent, she views herself dialectically an ‘outsider’.169
‘Writing under someone else’s thumb and tongue’ was also the topic of a ‘Poets’ Round Table: A Common language’.170 Titan poets, Joseph Brodsky, Seamus Heaney, Les Murray and Derek Walcott discussed the ‘new internationalism of poetry in English’ in a debate chaired by Michael Schmidt. Schmidt guided the discussion in the
direction of the ‘inevitably complex and paradoxical relationships that writers in English, but who are not British, have with the language and tradition of English Literature’. Alluding to Brathwaite, Schmidt asked Walcott about the dichotomy between the ‘tyranny of the iambic pentameter which actually distorts native speech’, and his own language and colonial education which ‘ironically, is very much within the English tradition’.171 Walcott thought that on the one hand he ‘didn’t really grow up in a situation in which [he] felt English was a second language’. On the other hand, he thought he was ‘only entitled to it from the sense of being colonized or the victim of something.’
Schmidt sought Murray’s opinion on the ‘language of poetry – in fact the poetical tradition - which has always, in a sense, not lent itself, or very seldom lent itself, to the colonial enterprise of the English tradition.’ Murray thought there were ‘two kinds of English’ in contention in Australia: the sort of ‘very upper English, the officer caste English which was taught in the universities and schools … And there was the vernacular, which [he] felt native’. Thus, Murray ‘felt the right to borrow any other kind of English because [he] read it that way.’
On what Schmidt described as Heaney’s ‘vexed relationship with English in some of the poems’, Heaney said he ‘spoke with the South Derry accent at the back of [his] throat for a long time’. Yet, at the age of thirteen, ‘when [he] wasn’t articulating properly, [he] was taking enormous pleasure in P.G. Wodehouse, than whom there is no more fastidious a handler of English tones.’ Moreover, Heaney thought that in writing it’s what you can hear and reproduce rather than what you can speak.’
Schmidt wondered whether there were any English poets who ‘shared the kinds of things’ in the above discussion. Heaney cited Tony Harrison’s ‘disposition to view himself as an outsider within the culture’, and this chimes exactly with the present writer’s disposition. I can identify with what these renowned poets had to say about ‘insider/outsider’ status because it is both hierarchically, and sociologically, based. What I see on paper is not necessarily how I articulate, nor perhaps, is it necessary for
me to do so. What the titans involved in the above discussion had discovered, and I am in the process of discovering, is that paradoxically, levels of formality can divide and rule within a supposedly common language. When we speak of supposed ‘outsiders’ from the ‘language of poetry – the poetic tradition’, it is the level of formality in the pen nib that determines admission to, or blackballing from, the ‘club’. Formality both deforms and informs my natural speech and affects my socio-linguistic status. Thus, the on-going reading, hearing and reproducing process involved in writing this thesis increases my consciousness of formality, thereby permitting entry into a hierarchical culture diametrically at odds with my speaking voice. In other words, the process facilitates my continuing re-invention, self-perception and self-fashioning as a formalist poet and, particularly, a female formalist poet.
Consider now the poems of selected American women New Formalists, ‘writers in English who are not British’, emerging at the time of the Poets’ Round Table discussion. Their poetry is examined in light of their position statements, in an attempt to determine what their use of form implies about their self-fashioning. Harvard PhD and Hermann Melville Scholar, Helen Pinkerton holds the following opinions of metre and rhetorical structure.
My view of form is that it is essential to the art of poetry,
both in meter and in rhetorical structure. I have always
written in standard English meter, never abandoning it
for variations in accentual or syllabic metres, still less for
so-called ‘free verse’ or lineated prose.
This is a confident statement from an American woman who clearly perceives herself to be working within poetic traditions. She says nothing of formalisms’ hierarchical origins and, unlike Walcott and Murray, seems concerned with neither ‘entitlement’, nor ‘right’. Consider Pinkerton’s poem