I’d planned to offer you a new “Something Old” today, but I am pleased to announce that I got an email out of the blue from Dr. Ima Sirius-Kriddek, who is, at last, ready to make at least one guest post.
Most of you won’t remember Dr. Sirius-Kriddek, Unseen University’s eminent professor of literature, but a year and a half ago, I mentioned that she wanted to spread her crusade for her New Canon to my blog. She plans to revalue all literature in English according to principles I must admit I do not fully understand. Please note that I do not agree with all (or, really, any) of her conclusions, but I still find her work fascinating and I hope that you will too.
Thanks, Meg, for that lovely introduction. Allow me to offer a word or two about the New Canon as a whole before I dive into the nitty-gritty of today’s post, in which I will argue for the enduring worth of Oliver Jenkins’ poem “Song.” My principles about which Meg expresses confusion are not, perhaps, principles as such, since I truly believe that literary greatness takes as many forms as there are great writers, and that no formula will suffice to account for it, but I cannot escape the conviction that it is an objectively determinable quality. So far, Meg and I are essentially in agreement, although she expresses a certain hypocritical uncertainty on the last point. The difficulty comes, of course, in the application of these principles, if principles they are, because Meg believes that the literary establishment is one good source of information on the quality of writing, whereas I believe that the writers it values, almost without exception, are unremarkable or downright bad, while it uniformly ignores or condemns the truly great and has done so from time immemorial.
While I would not venture to claim that today’s poet, Oliver Jenkins, is truly great, despite his ambitions as expressed in this poem, I certainly value his poetry more highly than, say, the dreary and incoherent T.S. Eliot’s, whose The Waste Land was published in the same year (1922) that this poem appeared in Anthology of Massachusetts Poets, ed. William Braithwaite. Without further ado, allow me to present the poem:
LET me be great, as stars are great,
Singing of love, not of hate.
Love for sweet and simple things,
Like clouds and sea-shell whisperings,
Cool autumn winds, pale dew-kissed flowers,
Thin coils of smoke and granite towers,
Snow-capped mountain peaks that flash
High above a river's crash,
Shrill songs of birds and children's laughter,
Soft grey shadows trailing after
Sunbeam sprites that seek the woods
And lose themselves in solitudes.
All these I'll love, never hate,
And loving them, I will be great.
Appropriately enough to this conversation on the nature of poetic greatness, one defining feature of this poem is the fascinating ambiguity of the concept of greatness, which could (and likely does) include poetic ambition but also implies something more spiritual. The poet-speaker implicitly asks and answers the question of what it means to be great, and ends the poem a statement of provocative and disturbing yet inspiring confidence: “I will be great.”
Greatness, or at least the greatness the poet-speaker seeks, lies in loving “sweet and simple things”: and so this poem makes the admirable claim that sweet and simple things (and, by extension, sweet and simple poems) are important, and it certainly is a sweet and simple (though not simplistic) poem itself.
A central motif in this poem is the embrace of opposites, and perhaps the central pair of opposites is simplicity and greatness itself. The paradox that greatness is to be found in simplicity is central to Christian doctrine, and the stars mentioned in the first line embody that paradox excellently: stars appear delicate in their twinkling and smaller than the sun that hides them, and yet they are lasting and lofty.
A parallel juxtaposition, not directly invoked but enlightening all the same, is the juxtaposition of the Burksean beautiful and sublime. The stars, as above, combine qualities of both; the flowers are clearly beautiful, the river’s crash and mountain’s flash seem rather to be sublime, and many of the other images could be either depending upon one’s interpretation. And the reconciliation of greatness with simple-sweetness is very much like the reconciliation of the sublime with the beautiful.
Subordinate pairs of opposites include: fall (in the form of winds) and spring (in the form of flowers), earth (the river) and sky (the mountain peak), transient and lasting, light and dark, urban (the smoke and tower) and natural; human (children’s laughter) and animal (birdsong). All of these are dubbed objects of love and “sweet and simple,” presumably with the paradoxically complexity-containing simplicity of God.
One pair of opposites not reconciled, of course, is love and hate. I am reminded of bumper stickers urging us to tolerate everything but intolerance, and this is another, different paradox, but one equally if not more central to the human experience, then as now. And it is worth noting that, while “sweet and simple” contains a universe of wonders, there is much that it does not contain: malice, ambition, and misery, for instance. The poet-speaker seeks a form of greatness that does, for all its reconciling power, exclude a great deal of the human experience.
Formally, its rhymed tetrameter couplets seem, at first glance, almost too simple, but Jenkins does not allow the meter to become a straitjacket; the meter is overall iambic but many headless iambs at the starts of lines allow it to switch to a trochaic feel at points, and the first and last couplet are home to a variety of interesting metrical variations I don’t have space to discuss here.
Structurally, it is a catalog of images—”sweet and simple things”—bookended by two stanzas about the greatness the poet-speaker seeks in loving “sweet and simple things.”
“Song” is divided neatly in half, with the least ambiguously sublime stanza serving as the axis around which the poem turns; this stanza falls precisely in the middle of the seven-stanza poem, and it is worth pointing out that its two images are less obviously a pair of opposites than most of the connected images on either side, depicting indeed one landscape, and showing more clearly, perhaps, an underlying unity.
In addition to this binary structure, “Song,” after its initial stanza, makes a ritardando and crescendo toward its end. Each pair of images in the stanzas before the axis takes up a single line, whereas the axis stanza contains only one image per line. The stanzas after the axis stanza start with the by-now-expected two-image line, but the next pair of images is spread across three lines and two stanzas—three lines that unite them with a third image, the woods, just as the peaks and the river form one landscape.
The establishment of these patterns (the two-image line and then the ritardando) and their breaking (in the form of the one-image line followed by the reappearance of the two-image-line followed by the two-images-in-three-lines) shows pleasingly both nature’s regularity and its irregularity, another “sweet and simple thing.”
Finally, I mentioned that some of the images were cliche. I argue that this is a feature, not a fault, and that, indeed, the cliche is not to be mindlessly fled but rather to be employed sometimes and not others, like any artistic tool: it is a tried and tested way to evoke a certain set of visual, emotional, and intellectual associations without calling excessive attention to itself. Cliches are like single words, a more basic unit in our mental language than “fresh” metaphors. Jenkins is capable of using a more organic image when he chooses to (the granite of towers and thin curls of smoke are less cliche in that both of them are almost industrial and seem like they should be anti-aesthetic; and the “sunbeam sprites,” a delicate personification of sunlight and moving description of how dappled light appears, also read as original and expressive to me). He carefully balances the two types of images to evoke emotion while directing attention not the imagery but to a widely encompassing type of imagery—the “sweet and simple.”
In today’s world, this small but masterful poem, regular but organic, at once (as it claims to be) sublime and “sweet,” enlarging “sweetness” to encompass the stars, makes a moving and too-little-heeded case for bringing at least some of our poetic focus back to traditionally recognized “simple” beauties. The poem asks us to pull away from the art of the tragic, the sordid, of rage, of the unillumined everyday, and create an art that rises above those things to recognize the beautiful and the sublime. While this is far from the only worthwhile thing art can do, it is worthwhile.
Dr. Sirius-Kriddek is, of course, a person of my own (Meg Moseman’s) invention, and, as such, this article is kind of a spoof. A larger explanation of this project you may find on the original blog post, An Experiment in Canon Formation
My first episode of Dr. Sirius-Kriddek’s critiques gives me further evidence that 1) my taste is bad and 2) the time period whose artistic creations I relate to most strongly is the bridge between the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. I went to Anthology of Massachusetts Poets on Project Gutenberg in search of mediocre poetry for Dr. Sirius-Kriddek to praise to the skies and found, instead, a bunch of poetry that I liked much better than I like most poetry. Only some distance into the anthology did the quality, to my taste, go far enough downhill for me to see appropriate fodder for Dr. Sirius-Kriddek.
What’s more, Dr. Sirius-Kriddek, fictional though she is, almost has me convinced that there’s a lot to say for Oliver Jenkins’s “Song” even though at first blush it struck me as trite, simplistic, and sentimental, and it certainly didn’t crawl into my head the way earlier poems in the anthology did.
I also think I may find it easier to interpret work that is less good. This is partly because I feel I understand it effortlessly, and I can invent subtleties and complexities rather than trying to ferret out the poet’s (and I am less intimidated by the shadow of all the criticism that has gone before me….). But I think it’s also that poetry that stirs a stronger emotional reaction can push me into a frame of mind distant from critical analysis, and it inspires a just but crippling fear of doing the poem wrong.