Sunday, December 7, 2014

The Tragic Generation

I have been reading Richard Tillinghast’s Damaged Grandeur, Robert Lowell’s Life and Work.  I am 88/124 through his book.  Tillinghast does think Lowell wonderful and tells his readers that in many ways, but I have yet to hear how wonderful Lowell’s poetry is demonstrated by the poetry itself.  Nevertheless the book is interesting and worth reading by anyone interested in the poets of that generation.  Here is Tillinghast on Jarrell and Berryman, both of whom committed suicide:

“What a distance we are from the high claims made by Randall Jarrell forty years ago [Tillinghast published his book in 1995] in ‘The Obscurity of the Poet’ from Poetry and the Age:
    Art matters not merely because it is the most magnificent ornament
    and the most nearly unfailing occupation of our lives, but because
    it is life itself.  From Christ to Freud we believed that, if we know
    the truth , the truth will set us free: art is indispensable because so
    much of this truth can be learned through works of art and through
    works of art alone – for which of us could have learned from himself
    what Proust and Chekhov, Hardy and Yeats and Rilke, Shakespeare
    and Homer learned for us?
        . . . Human life without some form of poetry is not human
    life but animal existence.

“That art teaches us about life is an idea seldom heard from poets now, and never from exponents of ‘critical theory.’  From reading texts, they say, we only learn about other texts.

“The task, it seems to me, is to avoid the temptation toward despair and self-destructiveness that so damaged the lives of the ‘tragic’ generation, while at the same time taking seriously their dedication to the redemptive value of poetry.  Lowell, in an elegiac tribute to Jarrell, used the word ‘noble’ to describe his old friend.  John Berryman had his own fierce nobility, which he characteristically hid under self-satire.

“His single-minded obsession with poetry, his gift for transforming his own brilliance and his own pain into art – these enabled him to leave behind a tortured but strangely sublime and moving testament.

    Henry’s pelt was put on sundry walls
    where it did much resemble Henry and
    them persons was delighted.
    Especially his long & glowing tail
    by all them was admired, and visitors.
    They whistled: This is it!

    Golden, whilst your frozen daiquiris
    whir at midnight, gleams on you his fur
    & silky & black.
    Mission accomplished, pal.

Comment:   In regard to Tillinghast’s comment about the critics in 1995, “reading texts, they say, we only learn about other texts,” I thought of Harold Bloom.  Some place else I read recently that for Bloom the most significant aspect to poetry is the influence between a poet and the once influenced rather than the poetry of either – something like that – a rather serious condemnation.  But writing about poetry seems difficult.  I don’t think Tillinghast has been of good service to Lowell as far as I’ve read.   Tillinghast was under a severe restraint in that he had only 124 or so pages to write his comments, but even after turning often to Bidart and Gewanter edition of Robert Lowell, Collected Poems to see what Tillinghast was referring to, I wasn’t finding beauty.  Tillinghast seemed content to show that earlier readings missed Lowell’s points and that Lowell was more serious and profound than previously thought.

The quote of Jarrell’s is interesting and after reading it I ordered Poetry and the Age.  I used to have some books by and about Jarrell but seem to have gotten rid of them.  I don’t think I ever read this one.  Tillinghast is saying no one thinks this way today.  We don’t go to poetry for truth.  Today we are clear about this, but they weren’t clear in the “Tragic generation.”  The poets then kept wanting to be respected for doing their jobs well.  Instead they were ignored or marginalized and didn’t handle that very well.  After spending time off and on with most of these poets over the years I came away thinking Berryman the best of the lot with perhaps Plath being a distant second.  I think now I misjudged Lowell.  Tillinghast did “witness” to Lowell and that influenced me, but he didn’t really treat any of the poems in such a way that I could see why he appreciated them.  It was only as a result of acquiring Robert Lowell, Collected Poems and reading more of Lowell than I ever had in the past that I learned to appreciate him a wee bit more.  I still wouldn’t place him above Berryman however.

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