Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Commentary on yesterday's Jourdain poems

To me, "Dovedale" feels like a fragment. It's pretty but somehow unfulfilling. Also, scabious is such a bad name for a flower, and, at least according to Wikipedia, Milly might have chosen other, more evocative common names for the referent. Or she could have played up "scabious" in a different sort of poem. I realize this sounds petty, but diction is diction, after all.

The second poem, "From a Road," is far richer than the first. I love the poet's long, paragraphed stanzas, a response that interests me because I usually dislike unlineated poetry. The contrast among the dense stanzas and the third one, which is so simple and plain, is also beautiful. But once again, she somehow blows it at the end. To understand its poignancy, a reader must understand Milly's personal history: she has Friedrich's ataxia, a particularly crippling form of multiple sclerosis, and so cannot participate in the "stooping" and "touching" she describes in the fourth stanza. But if the poem is to stand alone as a framed work of art, it can't rely on a reader's preknowledge of a writer's autobiography. And that last stanza is a drag: it breaks the spell of the negative capability she exhibits in the previous stanzas (Keats's term for a writer's ability to be intensely involved in delineating a scene that is separate from herself) and requires me to bump back into "poor Milly" mode. Even the language stiffens: "I know I cannot stir from the road" is both a dull phrase and a dull ending.

Negative capability is not only a poet's province. Novelists have it too, and Jane Austen is a prime example. Here's a bit from Emma:

Harriet, tempted by everything and swayed by half a word, was always very long at a purchase; and while she was still hanging over the muslins and changing her mind, Emma went to the door for amusement.--Much could not be hoped for the traffic of even the busiest part of Highbury;--Mr. Perry walking hastily by, Mr. William Cox letting himself in at the office door, Mr. Cole's carriage horses returning from exercise, or a stray letter-boy on an obstinate mule, were the liveliest objects she could presume to expect; and when her eyes fell only on the butcher with his tray, a tidy old woman travelling homewards from the shop with her full basket, two curs quarrelling over a dirty bone, and a string of dawdling children round the baker's bow-window eyeing the gingerbread, she knew she had no reason to complain, and was amused enough; quite enough still to stand at the door. A mind lively and at ease, can do with seeing nothing, and can see nothing that does not answer.

What I love about this passage is that Austen simultaneously demonstrates her character's absorption in what she sees and steps back authorially to consider a watcher's ability to become absorbed. Sometimes I think Austen was the smartest person who ever lived to tell about it.


Jenny Doughty said...

Interesting, Dawn, though I don't totally agree with your comments on the end of 'On the Road'. In fact I think it reads too much into it to see it in the light of Jourdain's illness.

For me, the important bit is: But the trailing smell of honeysuckle from the hedge is blown to me.

Hedges only grow alongside a road, so to me this says that despite the temptation and beauty of what she sees in the distance, there is enough sweetness for her on the road.

Dawn Potter said...

You may be right, Jenny: I could be reading too much into this particular piece. But having already copied out a number of MJ's poems (I'm doing them in book order), I think there's no question that she deals often with her distress at being distanced from nature. In some poems that approach really works; in others it strikes me as tacked on rather than an integral element of the piece. But I am merely a single reader, and I may be trying to be "too fair." I'm fond of her, and protective, and aware that she's unstylish. So I keep trying not to let myself overlook her weaknesses, and I might be trying too hard.

Anyway, no matter what, it's exciting that this poet is finally being read and talked about.