September 23, 2010

Allen Tate, Consultant in Poetry, 1943-'44

(What follows is another installment in my series of posts on the American Poet Laureates. I've undertaken the project for my own education; any instance in which I sound authoritative should be regarded with suspicion. Further, I have limited myself to study of the primary texts (the poems) with only minor supplements from biographers and critics. If any musing contradicts the reality expressed in the superior scholarship of others, it is doubtlessly the result of my ignorance, not their error.)

Reading a poem by Allen Tate is like navigating a museum: each phrase, each line, requires scrutiny as a distinct item in the museum’s collection, and when the poem in its entirety is considered, the reader, like a museum goer, is suffused with a sense of history, tradition, and an appreciation for craft which provides the spontaneity of inspiration with a skeletal frame. The museum is not trying to be obtuse, but the coherence of a museum is not the same coherence of a story or a play.

You do not run through Tate’s museums. You do not scan or skim. You stroll, you dally, you sit on a bench and puzzle it out.

In contrast to Auslander’s populist verse, Tate’s formal and carefully metered poetry is often uninterested in accessibility or amiable subjects. Similarly to Auslander, Tate seems a traditionalist, a romantic, and a preservationist.

Indeed, Tate is often an epideictic poet: he uses rhetoric and irony to praise and blame the various subjects of his careful meditation. He is also a didact, spending some time instructing us on the finer sinews of history: classical, American Southern, and modern. He is sometimes a grump, but rarely is he unlikeable: his dislike of industrialization is faceted and political; his praise of nature and the pastoral is not misty or grand; his meditations on youth are frank and affecting. “The Swimmers,” for example, is a profound characterization of the horror that strikes us in our youth when we are exposed to violence before it is blunted by repetition, contextualization, and the rationalization of our social machinery. It’s also a most striking account of the aftermath of a lynching, and it shows Tate's own developed sense of race.

Despite these loose observations on the content of his work and despite the fact that he was an accomplished critic, Tate was never, it seems, as concerned with the content of his poems as he was with their meter, rhythm and form. Perhaps this preoccupation can be best elucidated by the poet himself as he describes his excitement at striking upon a manner for translating “The Vigil of Venus:”
...then I suddenly knew that I ‘had’ it. I had it, that it to say, in language that somewhat resembled English and in a metre that the English language can be written in: plain iambic pentameter, with anapaestic substitutions for the frequent falling rhythms of the original. The Latin is in trochaic septenarii, seven-footed lines with, at the end, an extra syllable which is usually accented, making eight accents...
Tate’s enthusiasm for meter and form, which far outstrips my own, sometimes makes his verse sound like complex machinery, and indeed his poems tend to wind and unwind rather than “turn.” Contributing to Tate’s “unwinding” verse is his miserly use of commas, the absence of which often requires a certain willingness among readers to live with the disheveled sentiment and the ambiguous dictum.

I have every confidence that Tate knew what he meant. I, however, being of reasonable analytical ability and fair patience, often have only inklings, guesses, and, on occasions, angry gestures of despair.

Tate’s poetry is staid and ironic. Even when he is criticizing a man or his practice, Tate maintains his decorum. This calm sounds, I think, sometimes aloof to modern ears:

Didactic Laurel, loose your reasoning leaf
Into my trembling hand; assert your blade
Against the Morning Star, enlightening Thief

Of that first Mother who returned the Maid.

But Tate’s tone conjures both the Southern culture in which he was raised and the classical education he received. What may seem like pretense is actually his pedigree.

He was Consultant in Poetry (what later became referred to as "Poet Laureate") from 1943-44, and it was around this time that he wrote the poem, “Ode to Our Young Pro-consuls of the Air.” The Ode stands in contrast to Auslander’s blithely patriotic verse, though Tate’s tone and form in this case somewhat resembles Auslander’s (and the popular) aesthetic. In the Ode, Tate expresses what could not have possibly been a popular sentiment: namely, that poets were not lackeys of the state, that the polaristic nature of military conflict was antithetical to the moral and rational mind, and that the refusal of poets to act as fonts of propaganda had never hastened any military conflict, past or present, and critics who said otherwise were more the coward than the reflective poet. Tate harps on the cultural characterization of war, its ubiquity in boyhood toys, and its over simplification in historical review. He also concludes the poem with the most acerbic of adjournments:
Take off, O gentle youth,
And coasting India
Scale crusty Everest
Whose mythic crest
Resists your truth;
And spying far away

Upon the Tibetan plain
A limping caravan,
Dive, and exterminate
The Lama, late
Survival of old pain.
Go kill the dying swan.
This seems brave to me, and it seems an interesting and hopeful precedent to set: the laureate is not the nation’s ad man.

One of Tate’s most beloved saws was the defense of (and conversely, the assault of) Romanticism. Tate, a Romantic seemingly in the tradition of Wordsworth and Blake, vies in several of his poems to characterize the institution. His poem, “To the Romantic Traditionalists,” insinuates that inferior romantics are superficial (or perhaps, metaphysical), mystical (as opposed to religiously observant or at least faithful), and cavalier in their handling of morality and mortality. Like Auslander, Tate uses the poetic form to comment upon and direct the poetic tradition. Like Auslander, Tate calls folks out. But Tate’s treatment of the poets he addresses is more severe. In “Winter Mask,” Tate seems to chide the late Yeats as a minister dismissed from the room of a dying man:

I asked the master Yeats
Whose great style could not tell
Why it is man hates
His own salvation,
Prefers the way to hell,
And finds his last safety
In the self-made curse that bore
Him towards damnation:
The drowned undrowned by the sea,
The sea worth living for.

But, as with much of Tate’s poetry, the ending sentiment is not entirely clear. I like Tate best when he begins to lose his temper or when he allows flecks of cynicism to spangle his verse. “The Ivory Tower,” “To the Lacedemonians,” and “Two Conceits” are each, in their own ways, chinks in Tate’s cloak of inscrutable and swift associations. At his most obscure, Tate's writing is like a door without hinges:

O Pasiphae! mother of god, lest nature,
Peritonitis or morning sickness stunt
The growth of god in an unwholesome juice,
Eat cannon and cornflakes, that the lamb,
Spaceless as snow, may spare the rational earth
(Weary of prodigies and the Holy Runt)
A second prodigious, two-legged birth.

Even to his contemporaries, Tate was regarded with a cocked eyebrow. He is often now called a poet’s poet, a dubious distinction which has not, apparently, been continued. His work is increasingly omitted from college-level anthologies; if he is remembered at all, it is for his poem, “Ode to the Confederate Dead,” which is obscure, difficult, and finally insufficient. He has become a poet’s poet’s poet, irrelevant to a generation which discounts form and prizes innovation, a generation which is suspicious of tradition and prizes tribalism.

To the pedestrian readers of poetry, Tate must sound generally dour, pessimistic, and severe. The clime of his poems is dreary in description and effect. It is his sound, his meter which is finally most memorable because his meaning is so often laced up with a knot at the top, middle, and bottom.

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