March 31, 2011

Leonie Adams, Consultant in Poetry, 1948-'49

Leonie Adams penned three complete collections between 1925 and 1933, capping her career publishing poetry with a selection in 1954. She became the seventh Consultant in Poetry in 1948. Most generally, she was a formalist who produced carefully structured verse. Not the most productive of poets, Adams crafted densely lyrical poems which tended toward the metaphysical and the romantic at a time when social, political and autobiographical subjects were more in vogue. It may be fair to think of her as something of an anachronism: a modest rebirth of John Donne.

Poets commonly struggle to not replace exuberance with craft, and craft with habit. The poem that is well-crafted and habitual often becomes decorative: a production-line painting that hangs in the lobby of a chain hotel. Such poems are, of course, not immoral or without value, but like the hotel lobby painting, they are engineered to be flat and unobtrusive. Such work is lifeless because it has sprung from muscle memory. It is cynical because it privileges the craft and form over imagination, discovery, and communion with the reader.

If craft is then further compacted with the metaphysical, which bring additional limits to the poet’s scope, the poles of the poet may reverse entirely. As opposed to expressing, the poet begins to repress their sentiment, bob their tone, and box the subject. The sentiment becomes a grave and essential lesson on existence, which the reader has almost certainly misunderstood until now. The tone is weary yet stoic, pathetic yet entitled. The subject is a metaphorical conceit which generally dwells on eyes, celestial bodies, water in all its states, bells and horns, birds and snakes. Adams epitomizes just such a constrained and blinkered poet.

Adams seems unburdened by the desire to innovate. Her symbols, so essential to metaphysical poetry, have been filched wholesale from the tradition. She uses a cultivated and sterile vision of nature to animate her modest epiphanies. The result is austere and uninflected, and it this great indifference towards the art of writing that is often mislabeled “lyricism.”
Adams confuses poetic words for lyricism in the same manner that a children’s choir might confuse volume for pitch. In her poem “Words for the Raker of Leaves,” all of the following poetic saws appear: wending, wizening, gamboling, skein, rime-bedabbled, bloom-dappling, weft, autumnal, roseate, mouldered, climes, musing, pathos, beseechings, eyebeam, vistaed, and foredone. Of course, there is nothing verboten about any of these words (far be it for me to pluck a single word from the poet’s garden); rather it is their congestion that results in a general lyrical nausea.

While this profusion of purple language may be held as a talent by some readers, Adams further dapples her poems with tortuous syntax and Yoda-speak. From “Elegy Composed in Late March:”
More than the lovely who prevail?
But very love must know
By no perduring thing
Can this be known.
Though with attributes of marble,
It is mortal beauty
Never hewn in stone.
Readers are required to unravel the poem to access its sentiment. This act of unraveling undermines interpretation by emphasizing comprehension. Once the lines are puzzled out, the sentiment is prim enough, i.e.: the qualities of beauty endure, but all expressions of beauty are fleeting. But there is little else to be mined here. Adams often further tangles her work by a liberal interpretation of the rules of punctuation. The Elegy quoted above concludes:
To what they loved and destroyed,
Never had their fill of cherishing and would not save,
Even the gods fixed no star;
But more in sign
The rainbow’s meltings and the reed
And the slight narcissus gave.
It seems that Adams prized the melody of phrases over their clarity. In their prime, her poems have the quality of reels and ballads, but often the melody comes across as an incessant, tuneless humming rather than a captured phrase of music.
When subverting the meter of her form and stretching rhymes to their limit, Adams sounds hopelessly arcane, as evidenced by her poem “Thoughts on a Violet:”
For here the violet was
Still in the offering hand
That quarrelled after; then,
Early, a fragrance strayed
Withering from dead’s muff; and led
In traverse of mind’s subterfuge perfecter
And far, borne memoried beyond
The seasons told,
Shone, vegetative star,
Risen and passing, after the summers told,
The winter’s patience, lent,
Exchange of darkness, where the tread
Of yearning, still visitant,
Arched not to bruise an emblematic head.
The lines are devoid of ease and flow, scanning instead like a logic proof. Poetic belaboring of this kind is common in Adams’ work. Ultimately, many poems read like leaden light-verse.
In retrospect, it’s obvious that Allen Tate prematurely congratulated Robert Lowell for revitalizing the public’s interest in formal verse. And perhaps Adams was handed the laurel in an attempt to further elevate interest in the mode. But the resurgence of formal verse never really materialized, and the reasons for its popular falling off are complex. An increasingly pragmatic culture, the ubiquity of newspapers, and the proliferation of cheap paperback novels and comics likely all contributed to a change in the public’s taste. I sometimes pretend that ours is the first impatient generation, but perhaps verse’s requirement for lengthy reflection seemed to our grandparent’s unnecessarily tedious.