Her poems follow the logic of reverie, but reverie of the utmost sobriety, disciplined by attentiveness, and, what is most remarkable, held to standards of a public accountability–something like tact or decorum.
This union of tact and reverie is a monstrous mixing of categories—but then all of her poetry is monstrous in so yoking elements that refuse unity. Even the monstrous of her verse is inseparable from its domesticity, the yearning for disfiguration evident only through the fidelity to form. Everything is received on its own terms, but also, everything is highly wrought on hers.
It is self-evident
that it is frightful to have everything afraid of one;
that one must do as one is told
and eat rice, prunes, dates, raisins, hardtack, and tomatoes
this fossil flower concise without a shiver,
intact when it is cut,
damned for its sacrosanct remoteness–
like Henry James ‘damned by the public for decorum’;
not decorum, but restraint;
it is the love of doing hard things
that rebuffed and wore them out–a public out of sympathy
The poems, for all of the various objects that they imagine, are essentially occasions for holding the imagination accountable, both by its own terms (hence the logic of reverie) and by the terms of a public arena in which imagination operates (hence decorum). They are poems that scrutinize the actively receptive powers of the imagination no less than Stevens’, but without taking the imagination as their explicit subject matter; it can only be known, they seem to say, through its engagement with the world, by giving itself as absolutely as possible, to something other than what it is; when it turns to apprehend its own activity, it is perforce oblique.
An ancestor of her poetry is Coleridge’s “Kubla Khan,” a fragment of reverie that tempts us to read into its images emblems for the powers of the mind. But she drops any pretense of intoxicated inspiration: her reverie is utterly sober.
At the same time, she resists, as Stevens and Coleridge do not, the highest claims that can be made for the imagination, and the fullest exercise of its power. She prefers instead something like “fancy” as Coleridge described it: “FANCY, on the contrary, has no other counters to play with, but fixities and definites. The Fancy is indeed no other than a mode of Memory emancipated from the order of time and space; while it is blended with, and modified by that empirical phenomenon of the will, which we express by the word CHOICE. But equally with the ordinary memory the Fancy must receive all its materials ready made from the law of association.” Her preference is not unconscious, but is entailed by her sense of tact: the exercise of Coleridgean primary imagination would be foreign from, or disruptive to, the social world in which she posits her poetry as taking place (a world continuous to that of Henry James).
But fancy granted its fullest scope produces something close to “wit” as Eliot understood it, and her poetry is exemplary of this quality: “It is not cynicism, though it has a kind of toughness which may be confused with cynicism by the tender-minded. It is confused with erudition because it belongs to an educated mind, rich in generations of experience; and it is confused with cynicism because it implies a constant inspection and criticism of experience. It involves, probably, a recognition, implicit in the expression of every experience, of other kinds of experience which are possible, which we find as clearly in the greatest as in poets like Marvell.”
Wit, then, in reverie; and reverie held to the standards of a particular public. The way to know the reverie of wit and the way to know the proper behavior of reverie–her poems would say–is to put them into practice, to sustain them for as long as they can be sustained, by whatever happens to occasion them, however infrequent the occasion might be:
One sees that it is rare —
that striking grasp of opposites
opposed each to the other, not to unity,
The best poems are spectacles of reverie chastened by intelligence. But that is insufficient as an account of the unity that holds her poems together; that unity must lie elsewhere. The solution would seem to coincide with the questions: what situation does she imagine or ask us to imagine? What dilemma of narrative surround the poems? The answers are not forthcoming. In part, it must be, then, that the dilemma of the poems is the fact of wanting to write a poem; that the situation is the first notion of reverie and the task is to control it and bring it to flight and landing.
But such a solution is not satisfactory–and something more is required of the poems where the reverie is a technique rather than an occasion, and where the decorum works on the urgency of having something to say, and of needing a poem to say it. In such cases, something like a dilemma or conflict in a poem ought to be fathomed.
“An Octopus”: at once the height of refinement, decadent even, and sublime, monstrous, and unknowable; a place of natural fit in the world and for the world that cannot be made to fit together itself; the yearning to ascribe order and neatness of finish and rules on that which resists such yearning, except for animals which belong and fit properly, by instinct and nature; a landscape of pastoral acceptance that is not fit for the singing shepherd; a parnassus and anti-parnassus.
The dissonance is articulated in the reverie that orders its parts, without reconciling them.