Monday, December 28, 2009
Here I am, home again, yet I also managed to leave the power cord for my laptop at my in-laws, so I must borrow computer privileges from obliging family members until the cord arrives in the mail. Ah well. We always manage to forget something, and it could have been pants.
I arrived home to find a charming Christmas card from a blog-and-Tracing-Paradise reader whom I've never met. But while she appears to enjoy most of what's going on here, she is not a Milly Jourdain fan. I think you fans-versus-non-fans may divide right down the middle . . . and as non-fans I include people who don't get my interest in her: she just doesn't seem exciting enough to like or dislike. Be assured that I barely get my interest in her. But since my reading life has always been guided by un-thought-out motivations, I am obliged to follow my trajectory here. Something will turn up; really, a few things have already turned up. They don't transform Milly into a great artist, but they do make her valuable to me.
1. On the whole, I intensely dislike self-monickered nature poets. Mary Oliver, for instance, makes me itch. Probably I will lose a whole lot of readers by admitting this, but really I think she is a tremendously annoying poet. Milly Jourdain could be easily labeled as a genteel lady nature poet. Why, then, do I continue to copy out her work? I don't have the answer yet, but I suspect that the unabashed human presence in her visualized world may be part of why I believe in her.
2. A large variety of people read this blog, running the gamut from professional writers to people with relatively little education and reading experience. I love this. And when I get messages from one of these less experienced readers that a Milly poem mattered to her--along with a brave venture into why it mattered to her--I feel as if poetry as a genre and a practice is doing its work. This particular reader noted the clarity of Milly's words. I agree: they are clear, and that is a beautiful thing. She is a non-ironic writer, usually unsentimental, with a sharp eye and a perceptive ear. Her dramatic control is flawed, her metaphors and diction can be trivial, but her articulated vision is as clear and forthright as a brook over stones.
3. Which leads me to my next point. Unfulfilment was published in the mid-1920s. The world of poetry was changing, shifting from the nineteenth century's decorative wordiness to the twentieth century's imagist brevity and Poundian academicizing and Eliot-like irony. Milly may not have been a guiding light in that shift, but (as my friend Lucy the historian noted during our walk across some scary ice the other day) neither was she an uneducated milkmaid. She belonged to an educated family; was linked through her elder sister to Ivy Compton-Burnett, one of the craziest new novelists out there; and her work is perforce influenced by her knowledge of the changing styles of verse. I think her poems are an interesting acknowledgment of the power of the "show, don't tell" doctrine of contemporary verse. She has plain diction and an objective eye. Yet she is still, like her nineteenth-century predecessors, a non-cynical devotee of Beauty. This disconnect doesn't necessarily turn her poems into art; but at least to me, it does make her more interesting as a thinking human being. She is not jumping wholeheartedly onto the modernist bandwagon; she is looking back over her shoulder at Rossetti and Tennyson and Coleridge and Bronte and Keats, those devotees of Beauty whose books no doubt sat on her shelves. They sit on my shelf too, and they're considerably less dusty than my Pound and Eliot collections. Yet I, too, write as a poet of my times, one who has been influenced by my centuries and their art. I recognize Milly in myself. I also recognize my good fortune. Milly died at age 44 after a long and debilitating illness, but here I am at 45, full of beans. I've had some luck that she didn't have.
4. Reading Milly's work is a way to thank life for my luck, a way to remind me that flawed work is not garbage, a way to shock myself into noticing the power of delicacy, a way to see why poems must be dramas in order to work as complete entities. How can this not be useful to me as writer and a person? The question, in a public forum such as this one, is whether or not it's useful to you as well. I'm sorry if she bores you, but at the very least perhaps she presses you to do your own thinking.