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with its baby rivers and little towns, each with its abbey or its cathedral; with voices - one voice perhaps, echoing through the transept - the criterion of suitability and convenience; and Italy with its equal shores - contriving an epicureanism from which the grossness has been extracted, and Greece with its goat and its gourds, the nest of modified illusions: and France, the "chrysalis of the nocturnal butterfly," in whose products, mystery of construction diverts one from what was originally one's object - substance at the core: and the East with its snails, its emotional shorthand and jade cockroaches, its rock crystal and its imperturbability, all of museum quality: and America where there is the little old ramshackle victoria in the south, where cigars are smoked on the street in the north; where there are no proofreaders, no silk-worms, no digressions; the wild man's land; grass-less, linksless, languageless country in which letters are written not in Spanish, not in Greek, not in Latin, not in shorthand, but in plain American which cats and dogs can read! The letter a in psalm and calm when pronounced with the sound of a in candle, is very noticeable, but why should continents of misapprehension have to be accounted for by the fact? Does it follow that because there are poisonous toadstools which resemble mushrooms, both are dangerous? Of mettlesomeness which may be mistaken for appetite, of heat which may appear to be haste, no conclusions may be drawn. To have misapprehended the matter is to have confessed that one has not loooked far enough. The sublimated wisdom of China, Egyptian discernment, the cataclysmic torrent of emotion compressed in the verbs of the Hebrew language, the books of the man who is able to say, "I envy nobody but him, and him only, who catches more fish than I do" - the flower and fruit of all that noted superiority if not stumbled upon in America, must one imagine that it is not there? It has never been confined to one locality. * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *It is rare when prose is so good that it rivals poetry. Perhaps that was what Pound meant when he stated that "poetry should be at least as well-written as prose" at a time when the dominant prose-writers were Henry James, Edith Wharton and Willa Cather. Moore was the master of a prose style which did indeed rival the felicities of organizedprosody. Her extremely eccentric syllabic matrices suggest that for her--at least as far asstraight prose (which has its own rhythmic and rhetorical rules just as rhyme and syllabiccounting does) went, a rigid form was, a priori, a basic precondition of managing a "denatured"(poetically dry) sentence style, of "setting it" artificially outside of its essential prosaic context, into a formal shape that was both visually, and aurally, "poetic." If you can make rhyme seem natural enough, within the syntax and flow of ordinary speech, there is less and lessresistance to the implied monotony of its recurrence. In this way, at least, poetry can bemade to seem as accessible as elevated conversation, which would seem to be very muchwhat Moore is striving for, generally, in her poems. I choose this poem, "England," precisely because it doesn't seem to me to have an over-riding, complex argument, requiring a finicky deconstruction of terms and ironic twists, but is ratheran evidently simple entertainment, addressed to a question that has interested serious Americannovelists (such as James and Wharton) and poets for at least six generations (since the mid-19th Century): That of the difference between European and American culture (and language), the forbear and the "descendant", the Mother-tongue and the bastard child. The enumerations of cliche with which the poem begins are intended to capture (or burlesque)the familiar characterizations of cultural-intellectual stereo-types which form the foundationof our habitual senses of these national (Old versus New) differences. America--"the wild man's land"--is where "American" is spoken "which cats and dogs can read!"The implied satiric self-deprecation of this pose is not defensive, but prideful. If AmericanEnglish is regionally various, then it must follow that mere pronunciation cannot be a basis fordetermining any inherent superiority between "English" (or British) and American pronuncia-tions. If the difference between British and American culture is one of type, and not of degree,then the important observation is that any regional (local), provincial, riparian, in situ civili-zation has as much integrity as any other. Human beings seem incapable of conducting businessanywhere, over time, without developing complex terms of interaction and traditional codifica-tion at least as remarkably unique and compelling as any other. "It has never been confined toone locality" means just that, that the minor differences we may remark between shared linguistic traditions cannot be the basis for "continents of misapprehension." The implication of this insistence upon America's cultural integrity ignores the subtle distinctionsemployed by writers like James and Wharton, who appear to believe that only Americans'innocence, purity or boldness can match the nuance and inscrutability of European fastidiousness. What Moore does manage to do is brilliantly mimic the proposed edifices of thousands-year-oldcultural artifacts, which then are methodically leveled in order to render their essence--"substance at the core." If decorativeness is what we really think about the supposed superiorityof European culture--and it almost always is, in the end--then that decorativeness is no less"regional" or "local" than any other. Oceans may separate us, but modern communication andthe familiarity of intercourse make that irrelevant. Continents of misapprehension. Oceans ofdifference.
I see the poem as having one single argument having to do with whether America has a culture that one can stack up next to England's, France's, Italy's, whether or not America can be considered "museum quality" when its people smoke cigars on the street, and we speak a language that any animal can read, and is partially a wild country yet.The poem appears in the 1935 edition of The Selected Poems. At that time America is still suffering in its relationship to England and the continent from the notion of not quite having a culture.It's something like what Australian writers are still going through to some extent when they look at their own home-grown artists and writers and suffering what they call "cultural cringe."Read it from that viewpoint and see if the argument isn't one continuous one.We are not like the great Asian cultures that can trace their poets back a thousand years, and think about the growing of silk.Ours is (was) a young culture just 70 years ago. Now of course these poets are called "modernists" and since WWII America has become an artistic center which probably rivals if it doesn't outdo many other countries. We no longer need to look to England (I suspect most of us now look down on England), or to France (which feels very much to BE a museum whose better days are past). China is still caught in the throes of a Maoist juggernaut, and Japan is in the throes of confusion having lost its military superiority and with it, its confidence -- and is now well along in the process of becoming a Christian country -- its Zen and Buddhism more or less museum-qualities relegated to cities such as Kyoto.But things didn't look like that in 1935. Our movie industry looked like mindless entertainment. Walt Disney was more of a huckster than an artist. No one knew that Hollywood was making classic films.The key word appears in the fourth to last line -- superiority.She is arguing that all that superiority that has appeared elsewhere -- in Egypt, in China, in England (England was about to be blown to ribbons, and is now only a ghost of its former self), all that superiority can also be found right here.England used to scare America with its cultural might.Since we've had to bail them out twice militarily, and since their economy has been choked by their growing socialism, artists of any consequence have ceased to appear there.But in 1935 they still had that superiority, which they were about to lose. Did they have to go to war with Hitler? Was there a way around it? Patrick Buchanan was on the other night claiming Churchill led them into that fight, and wrecked everything the British had built since QE1.At any rate, that's how I read the poem. And I do see it as having one continuous argument.
Kirby,I thought you might pick up on the lines"its little towns, each with its abbey or its cathedral;with voices--one voice perhaps, echoing through the transcept--thecriterion of suitability and convenience"Do you think this is a criticism of the "smallness" of English provincial life, its mere "suitability and convenience" as opposed to America's emerging juggernaut?***** "I see the poem as having one single argument having to do with whether America has a culture that one can stack up next to England's, France's, Italy's, whether or not America can be considered "museum quality" when its people smoke cigars on the street, and we speak a language that any animal can read, and is partially a wild country yet."I think Moore privileges that "wildness" as a precious resource; it's vital, untamable, and nourishing. "The poem appears in the 1935 edition of The Selected Poems. At that time America is still suffering in its relationship to England and the continent from the notion of not quite having a culture."Do you then acknowledge Silliman's argument about America's Modernism (as represented by Moore, Stevens, Williams, Pound) opposed to what he calls the "Quietists" (i.e., reactionary conservatism of the European models)? Did the torch pass to America in the 1920's, or later?(continued)
"It's something like what Australian writers are still going through to some extent when they look at their own home-grown artists and writers and suffering what they call "cultural cringe."This is a good point."Ours is (was) a young culture just 70 years ago. Now of course these poets are called "modernists" and since WWII America has become an artistic center which probably rivals if it doesn't outdo many other countries. We no longer need to look to England (I suspect most of us now look down on England), or to France (which feels very much to BE a museum whose better days are past). China is still caught in the throes of a Maoist juggernaut, and Japan is in the throes of confusion having lost its military superiority and with it, its confidence -- and is now well along in the process of becoming a Christian country -- its Zen and Buddhism more or less museum-qualities relegated to cities such as Kyoto."It would appear that China will soon follow Japan down the capitalist road, if recent trends and tendencies continue. "But things didn't look like that in 1935. Our movie industry looked like mindless entertainment. Walt Disney was more of a huckster than an artist. No one knew that Hollywood was making classic films."I think some people did realize this. The early champions of American culture could see clearly that we had become the vanguard: Europe had nothing to put up against our accomplishments."The key word appears in the fourth to last line -- superiority."But I think we should distinguish here between artistic and political "superiority". "She is arguing that all that superiority that has appeared elsewhere -- in Egypt, in China, in England (England was about to be blown to ribbons, and is now only a ghost of its former self), all that superiority can also be found right here.""England used to scare America with its cultural might."Was this intimidation something that American artists felt, or was it really limited to ordinary citizens? I think the important Modernists knew very well how much better, and different, they were. It was their audience that was unprepared for American innovation. "Since we've had to bail them out twice militarily, and since their economy has been choked by their growing socialism, artists of any consequence have ceased to appear there."I think we could do without the "imperial" qualities of British art. It's the humanistic traditions that we admire--Forster, not Kipling. "At any rate, that's how I read the poem. And I do see it as having one continuous argument."Of course. It's really a very simple poem, though it rather "backs into" its point, by way of cliche'd enumerations, as a defense against foreign condescension.
I will be out of touch for two days. I'm going into NYC to see the James Ensor exhibit at MOMA.I read your comments, and loved them. Will get back soonest.
Enjoyable and very useful discussion for me as I need a Moore-age in time for the German-American poet whose Civil War poems I've translated. "Ramshackle victoria" and "smoked on the street" are succinct phrases for the south and the north well suited to the foreign-born poet's perspective on America's divided sensibility. The poems he wrote and published in 1846 and 1848 as a student revolutionary expelled him from Europe to America and a life in exile, a career with some strong parallels to another German, a journalist/economist who took refuge in London. I exchanged a few e-mails this week with the poet's great great grandson. He told me his grandfather was a track and field coach for the U.S. Olympic team, whose sprinters, Owens and Metcalfe, bested the Germans at 100 meters at the '36 Games in Berlin. The outcome of the race illustrated a point made half a century earlier in the poet's signature poem. Publication of the poet's collected poems in Germany that year, along with a popular biography, restored the poet to consciousness in the land of his birth. His association with the events of 1848 means he is a perpetual part of the blood tie that binds America to Germany, but although he came to America more than 150 years ago he won't really belong to America until his words are known "in plain American which cats and dogs can read!"
The word "baby" does seem to belittle English rivers. I would think that she's still in awe of England. Maybe the poem is in some sense written to T.S. Eliot, who had gone over to England, become Anglican, and was -- in close touch with Moore.WCW had tried very hard to insist on the American qualities in his verse while almost all the others had gone to Europe: Pound went there, and finally stuck with Mussolini throughout WWII. Many of the modernists were in France: esp. the prose writers -- Hemingway and Stein, Joyce, Beckett, Henry Miller, and even later the Beats were there at the Beat Hotel.Moore made several trips to Europe.It seems she's trying to spread the notion of the spirit of art (God?) in order to say that it has no borders, that the spirit of greatness is everywhere, even if it has regional variations.WCW is a lot more provincial in terms of arguing for a strictly American art, and praising purely American qualities. When he looked through the Beat poets he praised Orlovsky as having the most purely American qualities.Moore on the other hand spends a lot of time like Pound studying and admiring other cultures: you get tidbits of Korean, Swedish, and many other cultures (the Swedish carriage). Her church was the first to go into Korea, and most Korean Christians are still Presbyterian.This is somehow related to the typewriter.Moore's church has an enormous Korean vase behind the altar.That church is now more or less a social gospel church. I sat through two sermons and only heard the word God once or twice. A lot of it was about social activism, and the need to save a few housing projects from developers.
The business about provinciality is interesting. WCW was quite cosmopolitan, but he believed that the true roots of an indigenous cultural revitalization would take hold at the level of the local--but, again, WCW himself was quite sophisticated. He'd studied in Germany, and thought of himself as belonging to an avant garde that had international connections. He visited Paris in the Twenties, and had contacts with many of the literary and artistic figures of his time. Despite maintaining a regular medical practice, he wrote every day and kept up with advance trends. Arguing for an American Art is really "less" provincial a trend than you might think. Should America have continued to "imitate" English poetry and French painting forever, or strike out on its own into new territory (as it did)? Provincial ultimately means remote from the center. If you become the center, then everything else becomes the "provincial." You could make a case that--after Yeats--British poetry becomes, in effect, "provincial" to American.
Maybe the baby rivers are a reference to the argument over provincialism within modernism. (As for Silliman, I see everything he writes as mere personal ambition, and I always see everything he writes from within that rubric. He wants himself and his friends to advance, and probably NEVER EVER leaves that alone for long enough to really see anything else.)And maybe the modernists were the same. Certainly Picasso was a mean and ruthless self-promoter. Most of the top artists are doing that. Warhol probably never took a day off from self-promotion.Pound was willing to make an alliance with fascists just so his poems could get a bigger audience. Eliot may have been doing that.I suppose the promotion of the self along with the landscape is part of the critique going on, and how Moore is mobilizing the vastness of America against the baby rivers of England. Flexing her muscles, and showing how much greater we are.But that seems gauche. I don't think she's that awful, really. Naturally, she did self-promote. Every artist has to do that. It just becomes unconscionable when that's ALL an artist is ever doing.The whole politics of art thing is gross, especially when it merely becomes politics, as in Silliman's case.Or as in the case of Kanye West.There's a lot of this virulent stuff in the art world. She's mobilizing America to knock out the supposed "superiority" of other cultures.But then let's never the accessibility to the media that New York provided, and that that's where all the top modernists went.They didn't go to Cleveland or to Topeka.Accessibility of the major media is now someone undermined by the internet. But there is still the importance of networks of friends, networks of influence, etc.
The voice I hear "echoing through the transept" is the "scarebabe voice" of Scarlett, the East Anglian gravedigger from The Hero who buried two queens, a voice that also has echoes in The Steeplejack. My inclination is to read Moore's religious allusions as contrapuntal dialogue with Eliot. High church Protestantism has more in common with Catholicism than it does with the numerous stripes of low church protestantism. The Lutherans of Wittenburg grabbed their gear and moved to Halle when Napoleon brought his circus to town, but by then Wesley had already imported a German religion to England that suited the tastes of the House of Hanover. Norway, Sweden and Denmark had pronounced influences on German Lutheranism, but I don't know that Wesleyan Methodism ever really took hold in Germany. It flourished in England because it emphasized pedigree less than the Anglicans and Presbyterians did. This English Lutheranism wants to hang suspended upside down, above Methodism somehow, yet between Anglicanism and Presbyterianism, like a bat in a belfry.
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