“I think the artist, generally speaking, feels lonely. Perhaps his recourse to art, in any form, comes from his essential loneliness. He is usually in rebellion against the world.” –William Carlos Williams
For two sessions of American literature, I get to teach a bit of Modernist poetry. I can’t justify extending it beyond two sessions, and I’m having to practice self-control in the number of things I plan to cover. (Truthfully, I am already trying to squeeze too much into my sessions.) This quote from Williams seems to sum up the situation rather nicely, though. Restate it: the poet is lonely.
We stop alone with Frost by woods on a snowy evening. We enjoy the lonely pleasure of the plums in the icebox with Williams — so sweet and so cold — too sweet, too cold, perhaps, to be shared? We, lonely, look at the lonely faces in the crowd in a station of the metro where Pound walks on a rainy evening. And, ah! always Eliot’s mermaids are singing, each to each, but not to us, not to J. Alfred Prufrock who drowns alone in the chambers of the sea.
In some sense, all poets of all time are lonely. They have to be: they cannot live life thoroughly and write it. Or, to state it another way, as Willa Cather does in “Neighbor Rosicky”: “you [can’t] enjoy your life and put it into the bank, too.” Poets are banking life for the rest of us. And so they are alone.
The Modernists are more poignantly alone, however: consciously cut off from their immediate history, from traditional forms, from an optismism which said life could be bettered, people could be friends, truth could be known.
They live and write in and of a radically fragmented world. This is why
so much depends
a red wheel
glazed with rain
beside the white
Because the red wheelbarrow is something solid, something whole, something you can grasp by its two handles and trundle about the yard after the white chickens. Because you can do that without knowing who you are or who anyone else is, without worrying that the white chickens will tell you “That was not what we meant at all,” without understanding why it rains on the evil and the good.
We studied Stephen Crane’s short story “The Open Boat” last week. There his “correspondent” character reaches the certainty that the universe is callous, cares nothing for him, may kill him or not, quite without reason. He imagines himself kneeling to a personification of that universe, clasping his hands, pleading: “Yes, but I love myself!”
Is this the way the world ends, as Eliot asserts, “Not with a bang but a whimper”?** Are we really all alone, pleading only our self-love at the end of the day?
Or is it possible to arrive there, and find a way beyond? Eliot found a way beyond (though our anthology is significantly silent on this part of his career). In the poem “Ash Wednesday” he arrived at the end of himself, at the end of his hopes, and finds that he is not the one who must make his own plea. He finds the Lord of whose love he is “not worthy” but who can “speak the word only,” and bring the end to the end. No callous universe, but a Lord in whose will is peace.
And this is why I love to teach the Modernists, poetry and prose. Because after we have seen Crane’s correspondent wringing helpless hands and making a pitiful claim of self-love, I may show them that that is not where we end, that my plea is not self-love or deeds done and undone. My plea is the love of Christ, who loves me: a thing more solid than a hundred red wheelbarrows.
*William Carlos Williams, “The Red Wheelbarrow”
**”The Hollow Men”
©2013 by Stacy Nott