Britain's first book blogger (November 2000)

Friday, December 03, 2010

Limited means

From an interview at Big Other conducted by Greg Gerke with James Longenbach, poet and author of Wallace Stevens: The Plain Sense of Things.

Gerke: At the end of your book you write about Stevens’ warning to young poets about being too much in books and not experiencing the world [...]. Stevens sent out this quote from Henry James’ notebooks to a young poet:
“To live in the world of creation–to get into it and stay in it–to frequent it and haunt it–to think intensely and fruitfully–to woo combinations and inspirations into being by a depth and continuity of attention and meditation–this is the only thing.”
It seems the upshot of this is to do one’s own thinking instead of filling one’s head with more ideas–to live in the world, to experience people and nature and have these experiences inform one’s writing. Do you think Stevens counseled this because of the great sadness of his own life–though his isolated existence did provide for him in terms of his own art?

Longenbach: This is a hard question, and I’m not sure if today I’d answer it the same way I would have twenty years ago, when I wrote my book about Stevens.  One person’s intense engagement with the most visceral aspects of life is inevitably going to look to another person like retreat or denial.  Somebody like Jim Morrison represents one kind of lived intensity, but somebody like Wittgenstein represents another.  I think Stevens had real doubts about the shape his life ultimately took; increasingly, his poems seem to me at times unbearably sad: “Her mind will never speak to me again.”  (Sixth line of “Farewell to Florida” – a gorgeous pentameter!)  But he also made something extraordinary from the limited means of himself, and that’s what we all do, or try to do.  In some ways, Stevens lived with an intensity that terrifies me.

3 comments:

  1. Wallace Stevens the "unbearably sad" poet was, as it happens, the favourite poet of the unbearably sad R S Thomas. The "unbearably sad" insurance man was the favourite poet of the unbearably sad poet-priest. Now there's a thing.

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  2. Thanks for that thing. For what it's worth, Kenzaburo Oe's novel Somersault features a discussion of RS Thomas. I can't remember what it said now.

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  3. On the Farm

    There was Dai Puw. He was no good.
    They put him in the fields to dock swedes,
    And took the knife from him, when he came home
    At late evening with a grin
    Like the slash of a knife on his face.

    There was Llew Puw, and he was no good.
    Every evening after the ploughing
    With the big tractor he would sit in his chair,
    And stare into the tangled fire garden,
    Opening his slow lips like a snail.

    There was Huw Puw, too. What shall I say?
    I have heard him whistling in the hedges
    On and on, as though winter
    Would never again leave those fields,
    And all the trees were deformed.

    And lastly there was the girl:
    Beauty under some spell of the beast

    Her pale face was the lantern
    By which they read in life's dark book
    The shrill sentence: God is love.

    R.S. Thomas (1963)

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