Monday, November 14, 2005

A Post For No One Else

The McSweeney's web page is now publishing some poetry, but only sestinas, an elaborate 39-line form (originally and most successfully used in French) featuring six stanzas of six lines each, one stanza of three. The doozy is that six ending words are repeated and recycled in a fixed permutation from stanza to stanza.

The best sestinas, in my opinion, play with (and to a certain extent, outright evade) the strict restrictions of the form, which both helps the poem be a real poem (and not just a boring or nonsensical repetition of a few words or images) and serves as a kind of self-commentary, both on the sestina as form and on the poem as process. There's one pretty good one just posted on the McSweeney's site that does just this: "One Long Sentence and a Few Short Ones, or 39 Lines by Frank Gehry: Guggenheim, Bilbao," by James Harms. Harms pulls off a nice trick here, both by breaking the sestina into nine stanzas of four lines plus one of three (while keeping the six-word permutation scheme) and by treating one of the words as a variable, cycling seven different Spanish cities into the same slot.

But though I grant this much license, I was surprisingly pissed off when I read "Pound-Eliot Sestina" by Alfred Corn. (If McSweeney's is sincere about its anti-pseudonym policy, I don't know where these douchebags get their last names.) The first stanza of Corn's poem goes like this:

T.S. Eliot never wrote a sestina.
I guess he was afraid of copying Pound;
Or else doubted his metrical finesse. If
We rate poets according to form, he blew.
With Old Possum, it's like free verse all the way.
Yet, except for "Sestina: Altaforte"
And it goes on like this, with "sestina," "Pound," "If," "blew," "way," and "Altaforte" recurring according to form. The poem never gets much better, either in its prosody or its content, but I found myself waiting for a clever joke at the end that inexplicably never came.

The problem is that Eliot did write a sestina -- or at least, he used the sestina form -- in one of his very best poems, Four Quartets. It's the first half of part two of "The Dry Salvages":

Where is there an end of it, the soundless wailing,
The silent withering of autumn flowers
Dropping their petals and remaining motionless;
Where is there and end to the drifting wreckage,
The prayer of the bone on the beach, the unprayable
Prayer at the calamitous annunciation?

There is no end, but addition: the trailing
Consequence of further days and hours,
While emotion takes to itself the emotionless
Years of living among the breakage
Of what was believed in as the most reliable—
And therefore the fittest for renunciation.

There is the final addition, the failing
Pride or resentment at failing powers,
The unattached devotion which might pass for devotionless,
In a drifting boat with a slow leakage,
The silent listening to the undeniable
Clamour of the bell of the last annunciation.

Where is the end of them, the fishermen sailing
Into the wind's tail, where the fog cowers?
We cannot think of a time that is oceanless
Or of an ocean not littered with wastage
Or of a future that is not liable
Like the past, to have no destination.

We have to think of them as forever bailing,
Setting and hauling, while the North East lowers
Over shallow banks unchanging and erosionless
Or drawing their money, drying sails at dockage;
Not as making a trip that will be unpayable
For a haul that will not bear examination.

There is no end of it, the voiceless wailing,
No end to the withering of withered flowers,
To the movement of pain that is painless and motionless,
To the drift of the sea and the drifting wreckage,
The bone's prayer to Death its God. Only the hardly, barely prayable
Prayer of the one Annunciation.
Some caveats: 1) there's no three-line mini-stanza; 2) the words don't permute from stanza to stanza, and 3) Eliot opts to use rhyme rather than repetition (except for the sixth stanza -- the ending words there are identical to those in the first stanza, which makes them a kind of negative image of one another), but this is unquestionably a sestina. In a class on Eliot back at Chicago, I called it "a half-hearted sestina," but was eventually convinced that once Eliot opted for rhyme rather than repetition -- a seemingly slight but crucial variation -- the other changes followed accordingly. (I wish I had some manuscript evidence to back this up.)

It's not exactly Eliot's best work, but it (and all of Four Quartets, where he engages in these kind of games with literary form over and over again) prove that he was certainly up to Pound's (and Yeats's, and Swinburne's) challenge with formal meter, and that even if Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats blows, it has nothing to do with Eliot's poetry at the height of his powers.


1 comment:

Saheli said...

this actually pissed you off? that's awesome. That's a terribly silly pseudonym, but I'm surprised McSweeny's has an anti-pseudonym policy. Thanks for the Eliot pointer.