Book Notes: A meditation on the saving grace of poetry and the imagination
“The poet… brings the whole soul of man into activity …. imagination the soul that is everywhere … and forms all into one graceful and intelligent whole.” Coleridge: Biographica Literaria ch. xiv.
“We say that God and the imagination are one. . .
How high that highest candle lights the dark.”
Wallace Stevens: “The Final Soliloquy of the Interior Paramour” v.5.
The Hebrew prophet Ecclesiastes describes failure of the imagination, the spirit, in this way - “Or ever the silver cord be loosed, or the golden bowl be broken, or the pitcher be broken at the fountain, or the wheel broken at the cistern.” (ch.12: v 6), a waste land of the mind and spirit.
As this February marks the one-year anniversary of Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, reducing it to a waste land, it is poetry, music, art that makes it possible to have our spirit not fail, to not turn away from such heart-wrenching devastation, a vision of Hell that Milton shows us in “Paradise Lost.” Satan, “Hurled headlong flaming from the ethereal sky,/ With hideous ruin and combustion, down/ To bottomless perdition,” sees “The dismal situation waste and wild:/A dungeon horrible, on all sides round,/As one great furnace flamed, yet from those flames/No light, but rather darkness visible.” (Bk 1: ll. 36 -63). A vision of “the burning marl,” “darkness visible” that has become, yet again, tragically familiar.
Many millennia on from Ecclesiastes, and nearly 300 years after Milton, T. S. Eliot presents to our imagination in his 1922 poem “The Waste Land,” a blasted post-war landscape of destruction and spiritual despair, a despair repeated in his earlier dramatic monologue “Gerontion.” The speaker, (gerontion is Greek for ‘little old man’) is recalling the horrors of the First World War and asks “After such knowledge, what forgiveness?”
In 1937 Picasso painted “Guernica,” an immense canvas (11.5x26.5 feet) in matte black, grey and white, as a cry of protest against the horror of the Spanish Civil War. It was this painting that Elizabeth Bishop had in mind in 1940 when she was was thinking about her poem “Roosters.” As she wrote in October of that year to her friend and mentor, Marianne Moore, she “had in mind the violent roosters that Picasso did in connection with his Guernica picture.” (One Art, p.96).
In the same letter she says that she “wants to emphasize the essential baseness of militarism.” Not yet come to America, the war in Europe was already casting a long shadow.
This poem, in part an allegory of male military aggression, is a tour de force of the imagination, and it speaks as powerfully today as when Elizabeth Bishop conceived it. Like Guernica, “Roosters"with its 44 rhyming tercets, is a broad canvas, a poem that possesses the three qualities that Bishop said she admired “in poetry I like best - Accuracy, Spontaneity, Mystery.”
Beginning with a dawn filled with the echoing cries of the roosters, the scene of increasing violence is depicted with the accuracy of this poet’s “famous eye.” Yet perhaps, of these three qualities, it is in Mystery that the special magic of this poem lies as, half way through, it moves from a violence filled dawn to a night of grief, of spiritual mystery and forgiveness, before closing with an aubade of spontaneous beauty, a hymn to a new day:
At four o’clock
In the gun-metal blue dark
we hear the first crow of the first cock
the gun-metal blue window
and immediately there is an echo
off in the distance,
then one from the backyard fence,
then one, with horrible insistence,
grates like a wet match
from the broccoli patch,
flares, and all over town begins to catch.”
Here is what Bishop called “the rattletrap rhythm” with its two, three and four or five beat lines, each running on to the next until coming to rest at that chilling “grates” and “flares.”
Roosters, heralds of a new day as well as ancient symbols of combat and war, “brace their cruel feet and glare/ with stupid eyes/while from their beaks there rise/ the uncontrolled, traditional cries. Deep from protruding chests/in green-gold medals dressed,/ planned to command and terrorize the rest,”
The violence and tension mount, the roosters mimicking an aerial battle of war planes, until:
“…one has fallen,
. . . . .
his torn-out bloodied feathers drift down;
and what he sung
no matter. He is flung
on the gray ash-heap, lies in dung.”
Then, with a sudden change of key, we are no longer in a backyard in Florida in 1941, but some 2,000 years earlier, in the courtyard with St. Peter as he follows Christ to his place of trial, “to see the end.” We witness his thrice denial of Christ before the rooster crows. (Matthew ch.26 vs. 74-75)
“St. Peter’s sin
was worse than that of Magdalene
whose sin was of the flesh alone;
of spirit, Peter’s.”
How startling is that reversal of sense, that brevity of line in the next stanza.
And with, yet again, a change of key, we are in the presence of an “old holy sculpture” - “Christ stands amazed/Peter, two fingers raised/ to surprised lips, both as if dazed./ But in between/ a little cock is seen/ carved on a dim column in the travertine/ …There is inescapable hope, the pivot; …. that even the Prince/ of the Apostles long since/had been forgiven.”
With the simplicity and ease that is at the heart of her poetry, Elizabeth Bishop takes us from the cruelty of war to the mystery of forgiveness and the life-giving role of art that “could set it all together/in one small scene, past and future,” - in this case a little carving, an “old holy sculpture,” that offers “inescapable hope.”
Thus it is, offered the balm of forgiveness and hope, we are brought to the dawn of a new day:
“In the morning
a low light is floating
in the backyard, and gilding
the broccoli, leaf by leaf
how could the night have come to grief?
gilding the tiny
floating swallow’s belly
and lines of pink cloud in the sky,
the day’s preamble
like wandering lines in marble.”
What high art to be returned to the broccoli patch, with “gilding” twice repeated! The poem is answering, as though antiphonally, that harsh “gun-metal blue”, the “green-gold medals”, “the baseness of militarism,” just as it recalls “the old holy sculpture” in the “wandering lines in marble” of the travertine.
That Bishop took the form of her poem from the 17th century metaphysical poet Richard Crashaw’s lyric ,“Wishes to his (Supposed) Mistress,” again highlights the power of art to speak across the ages.
In “Roosters,” with its musical form, with all its layers of meaning, richness of vocabulary and allusion, we find the saving grace of poetry’s resistance in the face of “hideous ruin,” a poet’s response to Gerontion’s despairing question: “After such knowledge, what forgiveness?”
As Wallace Stevens says of the imagination -“How high that highest candle lights the dark.”
Belinda deKay is director emeritus of Stonington Free Library.