Sunday, August 28, 2011

Ruth Pitter's "Collected Poems"

Ruth Pitter lived in the twentieth century (1897-1992), but her poetry lives in an earlier time. It refuses to acknowledge Matthew Arnold's "melancholy, long, withdrawing roar" of faith, but struggles in isolation with religious doubt and meaning. As such, it is, on occasion, a powerfully individual poetry, but it is also radically cut off from the most significant movements of her time. The refusal to engage with Modernism and its aftermath stunts the poetry. The slightly archaic diction and windy abstractions persist into the late poems. The use of traditional verse forms (including the heroic couplet) evinces individual skill but makes no larger argument, unlike the work of Eliot, Auden and Larkin. A few late poems grapple with modern science, but the main thematic development in the Collected Poems is from the observation of nature to the description of dreams-visions, a movement backwards in time, from Romanticism to medievalism.

The nature poems, from the start, are keenly observant. What makes a few of them memorable is the addition of black humor. "Maternal Love Triumphant," which opens the Collected Poems so promisingly, speaks in the voice of a "Virtuous Female Spider," who eats her mate to keep her strength up for her unborn babies. After their birth, she feeds them by killing two bluebottle-lovers and a host of silly butterflies. Convinced that a mother's love "bears no blame," she looks forward to her heavenly reward when she dies. The complacent self-justification is developed through ten ballad octaves rhyming ababcaca, the first a and the last a using the same word. The poem is virtuosic in a very attractive manner.

Another memorable method is the complete and convincing transmutation of nature to meaning. In "Stormcock in Elder," the cock perching on the broken roof of the speaker's hermitage is described with gorgeous detail:

The large eye, ringed with many a ray
Of minion feathers, finely laid,
The feet that grasped the elder-spray:
How strongly used, how subtly made
The scale, the sinew, and the claw,
Plain through the broken roof I saw;

The flight-feathers in tail and wing,
The shorter coverts, and the white
Merged into russet, marrying
The bright breast to the pinions bright,
Gold sequins, spots of chestnut, shower
Of silver, like a brindled flower.

The language owes a great deal to Hopkins (minion, bright breast, brindled) but is made over into the speaker's own acute observation of her bird. The splendor described here earns Pitter the right to compare the brightness of the stormcock to the glory of the angel Gabriel at the end of the poem.

The felicitous use of the technical terms "flight-feathers" and "coverts" indicates how possible it was for Pitter to go the way of Marianne Moore. But she did not, perhaps because she was finally seeking not a way to live on earth, but a way to transcend nature. Moore's favorite critter is land-based and armored--the pangolin is functional, adaptable, paradoxical. Pitter's favorite creature is ornithological--nightingale, bird of paradise, phoenix, sparrow, stockdove, lark, swan, cygnet, sandmartin, cuckoo, crow, robin, chaffinch, owl, goose, swift--figures for song, flight and transcendence.

One of her best poems, an allegorical lyric, "The Bird in the Tree," says it best. Looking at "that tree" and its "haunting bird," the loves of her heart, the speaker asks, "where is the word, the word,/ O where is the art?" Desirous and unsatisfied, the poem prays:

O give me before I die
     The grace to see
With eternal, ultimate eye,
     The Bird and the Tree.

The song in the living green,
     The Tree and the Bird--
O have they ever been seen,
     Ever been heard?

The poem has the jewel-like clarity of a medieval illuminated manuscript.

The "living green" is evoked in many poems about plants and trees, another of Pitter's favorite subjects. The best of these green poems is "Morning Glory," which achieves the Blakean aim of seeing the universe in a grain of sand. But more interesting to me is the path not chosen, the moving post-war poem "Funeral Wreaths," in which plant life is already dead. It begins with uncharacteristic directness:

In the black bitter drizzle, in rain and dirt,
The wreaths are stacked in the factory entrance-yard.
People gather about them. Nobody's hurt
At the rank allusion to death. Down on the hard
Cobblestones go the painted girls on their knees
To read what the foot-ball club has put on the card.
There is interest, and delight, and a sense of ease.

The matter-of-fact tone is all the moving for being so matter-of-fact. The wreaths are "stacked." We are not at a shepherd's hut or autumnal grove, but at the entrance-yard of a factory. The wry speaker of "Nobody's hurt" sees the ironies in the all-too-human behavior of the "painted girls." The music of the verse is so subtle and personal that we may not notice the end-rhymes at first. These opening lines strike a "modern" note not heard elsewhere in Riiter's work. But the poem continues with one of her favorite devices, the asking of rhetorical questions:

Is it only that flowers smell sweet, and are pretty and right,
Or because of the senseless waste of so many pounds,
Or because in that dreadful place the unwonted sight
Of a heap of blossom is balm to unconscious wounds--
The mortal wounds that benumb, not the sharp raw pains
Of the daily misery, but the fatal bleeding inside?

These questions upset the balance in the earlier lines between observation and attitude. They are undigested ideas. They reveal other faults in Pitter's style too: the archaism of "unwonted," "balm" and "benumb"; the cliches of "senseless waste," "mortal wounds" and "daily misery"; the over-modification. Then, after a transitional thought, also untransformed--"Here is the supernatural to be bought with the gains/ Of the spectral torment," Pitter hits upon the surprising image of the hearse as a luxury sedan. And she is off, combining description and allegory in her inimitable manner:

The soul can go for a ride with the rich young dead.
It makes you feel like a wedding. The Gates Ajar,
The Broken Column, the Pillow with "Rest in Peace,"
The sham Harp with its tinsel string allusively bust,
The three-quid Cross made of flaring anemones,
The gibbetted carnations with steel wires thrust
Right through their ranking midriffs, the skewered roses,
Tulips turned inside-out for a bolder show,
Arum lilies stuck upright in tortured poses
Like little lavatory-basins.

It is a fantastic imagining of gain and loss, of life and death. Overwhelmed by its own vision, it vomits into those "little lavatory-basins." Alas, the poet feels the need to control the power of these lines by instructing the reader: "This is the efflorescence of godless toil," and by resorting to another favorite device, that of ventriloquism ("We are the lost, betrayed ones. We are the Crowd./ Think  for you must do something to let us in."). Despite of its unevenness, or perhaps because of it, this poem shows how Pitter could have "modernized" herself while retaining her former strengths. The later dream poems have a certain eerie beauty, but nothing of the "intolerable wrestle with words and meaning" (T. S. Eliot) evinced in the strongest parts of this poem.

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