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Review of Sylvia Townsend Warner's New Collected Poems - John Wilkinson, University of Notre Dame, Project Muse
Some literary texts, causing scarcely a ripple in the larger tidal survey, excite a turbulence troubling particular readers; a tide-map may change shape subsequently to accommodate the strange object, or the waters again close over what can be deemed a local snag or a reader’s special neurosis. This last can happen time and again; there are books proclaimed as discoveries every other decade, only to sink back out of circulation. Turbulence is endemic to a category such as modernism compromised between a periodic and a stylistic designation, and representing an institutional net of decisions as complicated and as slow to adapt as the Austro-Hungarian bureaucracy of The Man Without Qualities.Previous review of 'New Collected Poems'... To the 'New Collected Poems' page...
But the problems of modernism’s configuration have reached a point where endless fine adjustments exacerbate the category’s contradictions. The institutional panoply sails on, but with twin prows, an ever more stressed catamaran. Straining in one direction is a reassertion of a rigorously defined set of stylistic and epistemological principles. The extension of the core modernist cohort of poets to include Louis Zukofsky and George Oppen exemplifies this tendency, symptomatic of the retrieval of modernism by poets and scholars after postmodernism. Modernism then becomes a stylistic choice in the present, asserting its legitimacy through extending the modernist line towards the point where history or conspiracy is seen as contriving to snap or occlude it.
On the other hand, retrieving submerged writing by women and by gay poets contemporary with high modernism, has had the unanticipated effect of bringing back into currency a range of stylistically un-modernist poetry. Some was written oblivious of modernism, some in deliberate refusal or contestation, but all derives from that same rich conjunction of symbolism, Georgianism and urban-realist balladry where modernist poetry had its English birthplace. Georgian style anticipated the anti-modernist regionalism which has become the poetic mode most favored in contemporary Britain. But another line of un-modernist poetry runs from the early poetry of Yeats, including a predilection for theosophical concoctions and personal mythological pantheons, and represents a principled commitment to poeticism as resistant to commodification, declarative transparency and instrumentalism—a position developed by later poets, particularly women and gay men, including Robert Duncan, John Wieners,and Jennifer Moxley. From this perspective there are poems by Edna St. Vincent Millay as radical as the early poems of Ezra Pound; and Robert Duncan could discover major sources not only in the subsequently canonized modernist H. D. (whose writing has a theosophical strand) but also in the eldrich Lallans ballads of Helen Adam. Such predilections if expressed as a program, might reject the Poundian (and objectivist) emphasis on clarity of particulars, staking all on the prosodic generation of powerful feeling (not necessarily self-expression).
The poetry of Sylvia Townsend Warner belongs to this complicated constellation, where tradition was recreated rather than conserved. Her poetry of a sometimes frank lesbian eroticism and of a distinctly unintellectual communist commitment, works through and against the conventions of Georgian verse. No wonder it outraged Robert Frost more than overt modernism could—for Warner’s poetry is blasphemous in taking the pastoral mode seriously and, to reach for a current usage, in queering the pastoral.
The editor of Warner’s New Collected Poems, Claire Harman, is cautious with claims for the work, and this is fortunate since her understanding of poetics is limited. Noting that in Warner’s drafts 'you can see her quite often changing words for the improvement of the musical effects,' she adds 'this might seem deplorable.' If sensible behavior is her criterion for poetic success, Harman is reading the wrong poet. She does however praise the powerful ambivalence of the Second World War poem 'Recognition'. This point could be extended; Warner’s war poems are uncomfortable, potent, perverse in their use of pastoral, and decidedly feminist:
No will of mine, the pilot
Whispered, from my young wife and from my sleeping
Children to this work
Sent me out, a sower reaping
The curses of women who clutch their babies unsleeping.
This strikes a note familiar from Lynette Roberts's modernist long poem, 'Gods with Stainless Ears,' and taking Warner's lyrics alongside Roberts's fractured narrative leads to the judgement that the finest British poetry of the Second World War was written by women on the home front. Warner’s communism and feminism and Roberts’s Welsh nationalism inoculated them against contrived ideological and emotional unity—which were good for the war effort but not for poetry.
Sylvia Townsend Warner was impossibly erratic. Repeatedly her lyrics offer terrific first and second stanzas, high-wire sentences zig-zagging through formal metrics and rhyme, before a third stanza starts a collapse into embarrassingly arch diction, the whole rounded off with a final stanza so incompetent that it suggests a need to vandalize what could not stay true to a first necessity. Yet Warner could write poems of a prosodic intricacy beyond most of her contemporaries; an early example is 'The Requiem', apoem evidently generated by tight vowel-patterning, and anything but deplorable. Its conventionality is redeemed by its flaunting its artifice. Meanwhile from the start she twisted Georgian motifs like the verse of wayfaring in which W. H. Davies and Robert Louis Stevenson were adept, but gave them a nasty edge in poems like 'The Capricious Lady' and The Dear Girl'; while the lullaby-like 'The Little Death' is disturbingly literal and 'The Possession' is the scary song of an implacable stalker.
Besides these songs and the Second World War poems there are two other notable groups of lyric poetry in Warner’s work. The first consists of poems addressed to her lover Valentine Ackland or addressed to herself in Ackland’s absence. Some are highly erotic and remarkable for the alternating tension and relaxation of the poetic line. The kindling of language and flesh seem one, as in 'Since the first toss of gale blew' with its exquisitely suspended ending: 'What wraths of wild our dangerous peace / Waits to release' and in 'Out of your left eye,' a poem of 'little death' both replete and explosive. Other poems for Ackland are deeply painful, especially the chilling 'Being Watched' where sexual faithlessness blights the kitchen garden; and there are fine poems of settled love, such as “Drawing you, heavy with sleep,” and of love and loss following Ackland’s death, including the beautiful 'I always fold my gloves' and 'Death of Miss Green’s Cottage'. The second notable group consists of poems of advancing age, beginning with a group written in 1950 and culminating in 'Not terror' of 1970. These contrast strikingly with Philip Larkin’s 'Aubade', published in 1977, for the loss of her lover reduces her own anticipated death to mere punctuation for Warner. Although highly personal, the poems are peculiarly selfless. Besides these identifiable groups, several lyrics bracingly displace pastoral convention through their unsentimental view of country labor.
It is good to have this enlarged edition of Sylvia Townsend Warner's poems. These poems can act as a reminder that poetic change does not involve supersession. Writing which once looked old-fashioned can be seen to have affinities with later poetry assigned to the avant-garde. Thinking about the relationship between the 1950s poetry of Robert Duncan and Warner’s extended poem 'Wintry is this April, with endless whine', written at the start of the 1930s, might shed a further welcome obscurity on 'modernism'—as these lines show:
As though a Pentecost hawked down achieving its prey
Of hodden grey,
And earth’s glum looks and true for an instant changed
To the burning fiery furnace where man’s frail dirt
Might stroll unhurt
And talk with angels. Scarcely to be received –
Imposed on sight as meaningless and clear
As etched on ear
Some brief and lovely phrase in a language unknown:
A chance-net as idly trawled over flesh
As the bright mesh
Of bird-song, woven a seamless garment that man
May never shape, piece, suit to his wear or word.
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