Wednesday, January 25, 2006

Neglected poets

The subject of recognition having come up -- with such wonderful responses! -- I find myself thinking about this category of poets. I've read some interesting ideas on Silliman's Blog, and on a women's poetry listserv I belong to, there's an ongoing discussion of "Foremothers" -- a specific category of neglected poet. The idea intrigues me, as poetry fads roll by like waves on a beach. I've been finding my poetry bearings for about the last ten years, and in that time I've often been confused about who are the "important poets" I should read and study. Who in the last 50 years I should look to. The players keep changing, and the score cards fluctuate wildly in such a short span of time. It can't always have been this hard to determine, can it? When the Modernists hove into view, there were only a handful of Important Poets to rebel against, and only one major direction away from them -- free verse.

Some of my favorite neglected poets have been hiding in plain sight, like Roethke, whom nobody studies anymore. Or thye've been masquerading as grass by being so everywhere they're nowhere, like Whitman. Of course, many of my "discoveries" appeared our of my own ignorance, like Bishop -- though I did obsess over her work a bit before there was so much buzz. I have in recent years "discovered" Kunitz, Moore, Rogers, and that never really reckoned Bly. I loved Kay Ryan's quirky, narrow poems before she got the big prize, and before her last book, which kind of spoiled it for me by being repetitive. I loved Billy Collins while he was spurned (and perhaps still is) by the elite establishment.

But I remain puzzled by the biggest "undiscovered" poet in English who's hiding in plain sight: Aurobindo Ghose. Not many modern poets have written epic poems. Savitri is in a class by itself. It's been turned into an opera, studied as a mystical text by thousands of Aurobindo's followers, but I've never come across a critical discussion of it as poetry. Yet by any rational measure, it's a phenomenal work:

* Sheer number of lines (23,837)
* Number of times rewritten (I believe it was six)
* Scope of subject (a myth from the Vedas)
* Length of time continuously in print (since 1951)

It's easy to see why Savitri is hard to approach. Vedic myths aren't exactly the common coin of Western culture. And I have to admit, I haven't read it all the way through. I actually made my way in it with the help of a friend's outline of the plot. And yet any fragment of it I have picked up I have savored. Whether it appealed entirely to my rational mind, every bit of it that I've looked at has appealed deeply to me esthetically and perhaps on other levels too. For example, this excerpt strikes me as universal, and personal in the best literary sense:

A silence sealed the irrevocable decree,
The word of Fate that fell from heavenly lips
Fixing a doom no power could ever reverse
Unless heaven's will itself could change its course.
Or so it seemed: yet from the silence rose
One voice that questioned changeless destiny,
A will that strove against the immutable Will.
A mother's heart had heard the fateful speech
That rang like a sanction to the call of death
And came like a chill close to life and hope.
Yet hope sank down like an extinguished fire.
She felt the leaden inevitable hand
Invade the secrecy of her guarded soul
And smite with sudden pain its still content
And the empire of her hard-won quietude.

Then, of course, there's the sheer awe I feel at the idea that he sustained such limpid imabic pentameter (blank verse) for more than 23,000 lines. Reading Savitri is kind of like reading The Lord of the Rings. You savor it as much for the awesome effort as the plot.

2 comments:

  1. I didn't realize you were an Aurobindo fan. I worked at the California Institute of Integral Studies in the early 1980s, a grad school in SF founded by Aurobindo followers.

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  2. I didn't know the Institute of Integral Studies was founded by Aurobindo followers, but am happy to learn that. Yes, I am a tremendous fan of Aurobindo and the Mother. And I have read Aurobindo's book The Future Poetry so often it opens to the same places.

    I especially like his thoughts on the aim of poetry:

    "Its function is not to teach truth of any particular kind, not indeed to teach at all, nor to pursue knowledge nor to serve any religious or ethical aim, but to embody beauty in the word and give delight. But at the same time it is at any rate part of its highest function to serve the spirit and to illumine and lead through beauty and build by a high informing and revealing delight the soul of man. And its field is all soul experience, it sappeal is to the aesthetic response of the soul to all that touches it in self or world;"

    I'll stop typing there. It goes on inspiringly, as all of his work does. Once I dive in, it's hard to stop.

    Do you still read Savitri?

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