Monday, January 12, 2015

Here are two more Milly Jourdain poems, followed by some of my thoughts about them. I would love to hear your thoughts about the poems and my reactions to them, especially as they link to your own approach to writing and revision.

Sheep in a Fog 
Milly Jourdain 
The day was cold and wet with fog
    And all the earth was still,
We drove along through unseen lands
    And half-way up the hill.
We heard a rapid pattering sound
    Like sudden pouring rain,
And then we saw a flock of sheep
    That stretched across the lane.
They made themselves a narrow stream
    To pass us by with fear;
We felt them push and breathe and press
    Till all the way was clear.
And now the fog came closer round
    And all was white and chill;
We heard the sounds of men and sheep
    Grow fainter down the hill.

A Breath of the Past 
Milly Jourdain 
A sudden beam shines from the dying sun
Upon a flight of russet-coloured leaves,
Making them golden birds with rustling cry,
Whirled by the wind along the bone-dry road,
The wind that ever blows from summer's heart.

These two poems exhibit a stylistic contrast that is common throughout Jourdain's collection. The first poem, with its Hardy-like rhythms, stretches back toward the nineteenth-century elegiac pastoral. The second--unrhymed, with a shifting cadence and an intense present-tense focus on a handful of images--looks forward into twentieth-century modernism. At the same time, the poems exhibit another element that is common throughout Jourdain's collection. That is, in each poem she makes a "typical mistake"--which is to say that many of the poems in her collection exhibit one or the other of the following poetry-writing tics. Please note that I am surrounding the term with quotation marks to indicate that I am not speaking pejoratively but simply noticing the way in which her language slips within the context she has created in each poem.

The first of her tics is rhythmic. For instance, in "Sheep in a Fog," she opens the second stanza with a line that crams an extra syllable into the rhythm pattern. Is this a "mistake" or not? In this case, I can easily propose a rationale. The sound of "rapid pattering" imitates the chaotic, compressed, hoof-tapping noise of a herd of sheep; moreover, the two short a sounds are sonically attractive. Yet I can also easily complain about the line. In a poem that otherwise moves so smoothly, it is notably awkward in the mouth. And if replicating awkwardness was a goal, why bend only a single line instead of using a succession of rhythmic adjustments to give those two central stanzas a kind of Doppler effect of ovine anxiety?

The second tic involves both tone and observational focus. In "A Breath of the Past," Jourdain does a brilliant job of forcing me to experience the exact moment she describes, which is itself a moment of vivid action. I love the image of the "bone-dry road"--the way in which it evokes the dust whirling among the leaves, though she never says the word "dust." But then there's the "mistake": the final line--a sudden sentimental lurch that might not feel so surprising in an old-fashioned poem such as "Sheep in a Fog" but is a shock in this one.

Why did she feel the need to include that squashy last line? In a way, the poem reminds me of some of Anne Sexton's late poems. In many of those pieces, the first stanza is pitch-perfect; reading it is like being jabbed with a fork. But the second stanza wanders into a kind of push-button, loose-lipped self-hatred: the feelings are real and terrible, but the poetry is is an unformed clot on the page. Jourdain's poem is not so starkly divided, but the soft-focus last line fits uneasily into the imagistic clarity of the rest of the poem.

Still, the fact is that she did decide to include it. Why? Was she purposely pulling this twentieth-century exercise back in the nineteenth? If so, she set herself a very interesting task . . . the sort of task that, say, young Virginia Woolf was also beginning to set for herself. So if I look at Jourdain's "mistake" in that light, I begin to wonder if the poem is, in truth, unfinished. It can be easy to mistake a peculiar last line for an ending, when really that line is trying to push the poet into strange new territory. 

Monday, June 2, 2014

And on this mild June morning, I offer a late-autumn Milly Jourdain poem--
November in Dorset 
Milly Jourdain 
The yellow sunshine lying on the ground
Is making golden light on trees and hills
And shining on the dew-drops in the hedge
And purple bramble-leaves.
I turn and leave this sleeping rain-soaked land
With all its memories of summer days;
And then among the lonely fields I hear
The lonely cries of lambs.
I like this poem. I like metrical surprise of the short fourth line. I like the careful, patient images. I like the repetition of lonely in the last two lines. I like that it doesn't go out of its way to emote, or juggle big ideas, or draw connections, or build to a meaning-filled conclusion. Yet it nonetheless opens a window within me so that I do experience emotions and ponder ideas, connections, and conclusions. This poem, it seems to me, is a lesson in Keats's concept of negative capability, "when man is capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact & reason." Still, the clarity of the language, the flexible confidence of the two sentences that comprise this poem, are the solidity that frames those "uncertainties, mysteries, doubts." The poem is the frame of the mystery, and that mystery is visible and physical and fleeting and evanescent. 

Monday, January 27, 2014

I haven't updated the archive since last summer, and today is the day to remedy that lack. As luck would have it, I've reached what I think is the most beautiful poem in her collection. I like this first poem so much that I'll be including it The Conversation, although the one that follows is also lovely. Both are Jourdain at her best: focused, precise, patient, lyrical.

Watching the Meet

Milly Jourdain

The air is still so new and fresh and cold,
It makes a warm excitement in our hearts
To drive beside the sad and lonely fields.
And now we see a wider space of road
Where groups of horsemen moving restlessly
Are waiting for the quiet-footed hounds.
The hounds come swiftly, covering the way
Like foaming water surging round our feet.
And then with cries and sound of cracking whips
All, all are gone: the distant beat of hoofs
Like trailing smoke of dreams, comes fitfully
To tell how near they were a moment past.
But we see only winter trees again,
And turning homewards meet a drifting rain.

The End of a Hunting Day

Milly Jourdain

The dusk is creeping up the vale
While on the hill we rest,
And look across the wint'ry fields
Towards the dark'ning west.

A ringing sound comes changefully
Along the narrow way--
Some horsemen going to their homes,
After a hunting day.

They call "Good-night," and soon the dark
Has swallowed them from sight:
But still the sound lives on a while
Lingering like a light.

And now it all grows lonelier
Under the quiet sky,
Until some sparks of life shall come
And burn and then pass by.

Tuesday, July 30, 2013

I haven't given you a Milly Jourdain poem since May, so here is another pair. The second is, I think, my favorite of all of her poems. I like it so much that I've decided to include it in The Conversation. I hope Milly would be pleased.

The Huntsman 
Milly Jourdain 
We drove along the narrow lane, all dark
With sodden leaves and mud, and paused to see
The misty vale, between the leafless trees.
Then all at once we heard the thud of hoofs,
And close to us some horses galloped by;
With passionate strength and heaving flanks they passed.
When they had gone, the earth seemed very still;
Only the trampled road and brambles torn,
And on the grassy side some deep hoof-marks.

Watching the Meet 
Milly Jourdain 
The air is still so new and fresh and cold,
It makes a warm excitement in our hearts
To drive beside the sad and lonely fields.
And now we see a wider space of road
Where groups of horsemen moving restlessly
Are waiting for the quiet-footed hounds.
The hounds come swiftly, covering the way
Like foaming water surging round our feet.
And then with cries and sound of cracking whips
All, all are gone: the distant beat of hoofs
Like trailing smoke of dreams, comes fitfully
To tell how near they were a moment past.
But we see only winter trees again,
And turning homewards meet a drifting rain.

I love the image of the hounds as surging foam, I love the dramatic leap and release of this poem, and I love the way in which the weather conditions are folded into that drama. The poem has a Doppler-effect change in intensity, which is deft and natural. It pleases me every time I read it. 

Thursday, May 23, 2013

The Poems of Milly Jourdain

Dawn Potter

As soon as I opened the flimsy paper cover of Unfulfilment, Joan Arden’s tiny volume of poems, out fell the publisher’s original review request: “Mr Basil Blackwell has pleasure in submitting the accompanying book for review. He will be glad to receive a copy when it appears.” Clearly this was a message from that past that I needed to take seriously, especially since, as far as I can tell, no one else has ever reviewed this book. In fact, hardly anyone seems to have read it. Published in 1924, the collection appeared in the “Adventurers All” series, which Blackwell advertised rather poignantly as “a series of young poets unknown to fame.” Several of these young poets did eventually become known to fame, including Dorothy L. Sayers, Aldous Huxley, and Sacheverell Sitwell. Joan Arden, however, did not.
The author’s published name was a pseudonym. Her real name was Melicent Jourdain, known to her family as Milly; and I first came across Milly’s poems as I was reading Hilary Spurling’s 1984 biography of Ivy Compton-Burnett, whose longtime companion, Margaret Jourdain, was Milly’s older sister. In addition to Margaret, an expert on furniture and the decorative arts, there were other fairly well known Jourdains in this large family: Philip, a mathematician and philosopher; Frank, a pioneering ornithologist; and Eleanor, who with a friend wrote a peculiar book in which they claimed to have seen the ghost of Marie Antoinette at Versailles.
            Milly was the baby of the family and, like Philip, suffered from a hereditary disease known as Friedrich’s ataxia, a rapidly advancing form of multiple sclerosis, characteristically revealing itself in childhood and killing its victims in their twenties. Both Milly and Philip managed to hang on longer than expected, but they were crippled for most of their lives. Philip was dead by age forty, while Milly lived slightly longer, dying at forty-four, which is, oddly enough, my own age as I write these words. To a degree, this coincidence accounts for my interest in her, but only as an afterthought. For as soon as I stumbled across the scraps of poems in Spurling’s biography, I recognized that Milly was a real poet. Here, for instance, is “Watching the Meet,” a poem that Spurling does not quote in her book but that struck me on first reading as a nearly perfect rendering of a fluid moment:
The air is still so new and fresh and cold,
It makes a warm excitement in our hearts
To drive beside the sad and lonely fields.
And now we see a wider space of road
Where groups of horsemen moving restlessly
Are waiting for the quiet-footed hounds.
The hounds come swiftly, covering the way
Like foaming water surging round our feet.
And then with cries and sound of cracking whips
All, all are gone: the distant beat of hoofs
Like trailing smoke of dreams, comes fitfully
To tell how near they were a moment past.
But we see only winter trees again,
And turning homewards meet a drifting rain.

Spurling had also recognized Milly’s stature. Unfulfilment, she writes, “records with singular terseness and clarity its author’s decline into paralysis and death.”
The height of delight in Milly’s poems is a single celandine or crocus in the grass, the feel of cold stream water, thin sunlight on glittering frost-covered hills. Perhaps she had learnt from Hardy or Wordsworth, perhaps simply from her own constricted life, the deceptive simplicity that matches an unobtrusive verse form with an equally unassuming truthfulness. . . .
            There is no way of dating Milly’s poems. Some clearly gather intensity from being written in retrospect, after the Jourdains left Dorset in 1919, but all of them have a musicality, a concentration of thought and feeling, a desolate clarity.

Spurling’s words are as close to a review of Milly’s work as I can find. The book has more or less vanished from human memory; and when I did an Internet search, only one copy seemed to be available anywhere for purchase. I bought it; and thus did Blackwell’s review request come into my hands, tucked inside a frail forest-green volume, the cover so thin it might be construction paper, with title, author’s name, and publisher’s information printed on cream-colored paper and pasted austerely onto the green. The cheap, sad, scrapbook effect of the cover became even more noticeable once I caught sight of the glossy bookplate pasted inside; for, yes, someone else once owned this book: “Arthur Melville Clark of Herriotshall and Oxton,” whose name reposes elegantly beneath a heraldic insignia topped with the fighting Scots motto “blaw for blaw.”
Clark, at least career-wise, turns out to be less aggressive than his bookplate would indicate. He wrote several scholarly tomes, including studies of Sir Walter Scott and the playwright Thomas Heywood. In 1922 Blackwell published his book The Realistic Revolt in Modern Poetry, and Clark is described on the title page as “M.A. (Edin.)” and “sometime lecturer in English at University College, Reading.” Perhaps Blackwell had entertained hopes that Clark would review Milly’s book, but he doesn’t appear to have done so. Nonetheless, someone, presumably Clark, read it, and his rare pencil marks in the margins can be illuminating, in a melancholy sort of way.
Style-wise at least, Clark’s book on modern poetry is the usual sort of clotted, scholarly bombast. “It is,” he declares, “perhaps, unfair to emphasise the activities of the extremists—Messrs. Sassoon, Osbert Sitwell, T. S. Eliot, Edgar Lee Masters—but their very extravagance is instructive, as displaying in a greater degree the tendency more happily, if less obviously, illustrated by others.” Whatever his statement might mean, it doesn’t have much relevance to Milly Jourdain’s poems, which are so distinctly unextravagant as to be nearly invisible to her book’s marginal commentator. He marks only two poems in the collection. One is “Watching the Meet,” where he pencils an unexplained X beside two lines. The other is “The Leap over the Wall”:
Now in my narrow room, my memory hears
The waves break on the shore:
I think of all the pleasant things behind
That soon will be no more.

I think of new-mown hay and summer days
And slowly fading light
And fields of white and shining snow that made
Me breathless with delight.

Of running water slipping through my hands
            And little pools most clear;
Yet all these things have only made me sad
            And brought me close to fear.

But could I rest at length on some great hill
            Watching the fading sky,
Then I might know that peace above the earth’s.
            And only wish to die.

This is by no means the strongest poem in the collection. Jourdain is at her worst when she incorporates rhyme, at which point the poems tend to slip into a singsong periodically jolted by uneven meter. Nonetheless, even these lesser poems reveal her pure diction, her clear eye, and her strange and straightforward communion with sorrow, an honest hopelessness that she balances so eloquently with her love for life. But what the pencil jotter says is “Morbid for no reason.”
On the whole, it seems we should be relieved that Clark never got around to reviewing Unfulfilment. Obscurity is a better fate than disdain, and Jourdain’s poems are, at least superficially, easy to docket as old-fashioned poetess pieces about flowers and sheep and fog and sadness. Yet they bear, in their simplicity and their unflinching gaze, a resemblance to some of John Haines’s tiny poems about the natural world. They are, as a friend said to me after reading a few excerpts, “a figure in three dimensions.” And when Jourdain allows herself to relinquish her stultifying rhyme schemes, her lines blossom, becoming, as in “The Floods Are Risen . . . ,” deft and idiosyncratic statements on the link between external awareness and the inner life:
The great white sea has flooded all the land,
And little waves are blown against the path
With tiny sounds like dry and restless throbs:
A white-sailed boat skims like a frightened moth
Into the dusk: the grey clouds grow darker
And dim the yellow light; we turn and leave
The cold wind blowing on the ruffled sea.

Occasionally she goes even further: “From a Road” layers unlineated stanzas of varying density to create a mélange in which the white space of the stanzas functions as the most delicate of line breaks:
Across the green valley the great hill raises its worn head through the pattern of fields which lie on its warm sides, brown in the summer sun.

Above the line of dark green hedges, beech copses straggle to the top: rooks fly over it and little white clouds.

The short grass is warm and the air is very clear.

For a moment I think I am walking on the hill, stooping and touching the ground with my hands.

But the trailing smell of honeysuckle from the hedge is blown to me, and I know that I cannot stir from the road.

Unfulfilment was published two years before Milly’s death in 1926. I don’t know how many copies Blackwell printed or how many were sold. I don’t know whether Milly paid for the printing herself. I don’t know whether seeing her poems in print made her feel better or worse about the worth of her life and her imminent death. But the poems themselves . . . ah, they have not died. Just barely, their spark flickers. Cup your hands round that guttering spark, and it burns. A good-enough fate, most poets might say.

[First published in The Reader, no. 48 (2013). I gleaned biographical information about Milly Jourdain and her family from Hilary Spurling’s Ivy: The Life of I. Compton-Burnett (New York: Knopf, 1984), passim.]

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Life and Light

Milly Jourdain

The twittering of swallows in the air--
The faintly distant hum of crowded life--
The rain drops on the petal of a rose--
The fresh juice of a pale and fragrant pear,
Make up the sweet taste of this friendly life.

But when my eyes are blurred with mist and pain
And only through the choking gloom there sound
The crying needs of this poor maddened self,
Stumbling alone among the unseen rocks,
Then let me see a little of that light
Which I have seen in those remembered days.

In a Garden

Milly Jourdain

The air is dry and dead,
The swallows flying low,
When from the church beyond the wall
A bell sounds thin and slow.

Another man has died,
And lies beneath the grass.
He feels no more the heat and cold,
As changing seasons pass.

On this dead sultry day
I wish the sun would shine
On plums and pear-trees by the wall,
But that the grave were mine.

The two poems appear in this order in the collection. Once again, they seem to encapsulate Jourdain's uneasy willingness to depend on herself as a poet. When I read "Light and Life," I feel as if the poet is saying to herself, "I'm looking at my misery and remember good things and writing down what I think I ought to be feeling because I kind of do feel it but I'm also intellectualizing and standing outside the feeling." The poem's details aren't uniformly clean and sharp, though "poor maddened self" and "stumbling alone" do work to reach beyond the ladylike "rain drops on the petal of a rose." But she doesn't do enough work to synthesize the memory and the actuality. It feels like the poem she thought she ought to write rather than the poem that only she could write.

"In a Garden" is better. The poet pulls me into the immediacy of this cemetery, the immediacy of her despair. It is constructed in simple sentences and mostly with plain nouns, and the cadence reminds me of one of those ballads in which every thing goes wrong. I could sing this song. "On this dead sultry day" is a surprise and a shiver. I like this poem.

I bet you all have completely different reactions, however, which is good.

Saturday, July 21, 2012

Lobster and oysters last night, singing and fiddling tonight. In the meantime weeding and laundry and grass mowing. Possibly I'll find a spot to insert a verb into this litany. Possibly not. It seems to be a gerund kind of morning.

What would Milly Jourdain say?
White Poplar 
Milly Jourdain
The sunshine lies along the winding road
And white dry leaves are falling from the tree;
We stay and watch them fluttering to the ground,
For now we know the silver leaves are free.
The leaves like still about the sun-dried lane,
Waiting until the winter winds shall blow
Their patient selves to heaps of sodden mould,
Ready to help some other plants to grow.
Well, that's rather disappointing, isn't it? The first line is nice enough, but the poem rapidly descends into Hallmarkian tedium. I can imagine a needlepoint version of this poem. Oh well. I should have stuck with my gerunds. 

To cheer us all up after that disappointment, I offer you a few lines of a real poem: Beowulf, in Seamus Heaney's remarkable translation.
In off the moors, down through the mist bands
God-cursed Grendel came greedily loping.
The bane of the race of men roamed forth,
hunting for a prey in the high hall.
Under the cloud-murk he moved towards it
until it shone above him, a sheer keep
of fortified gold.
How do you think this would look in needlepoint?