In 1966 a forty-year-old James K. Baxter returned to the University of Otago, having that year published one of his most successful collections, Pig Island Letters. Yet the memories and landscapes surrounding his adolescence are not revisited with the same elaborate abstractions that characterized his early verse. In “Travelling to Dunedin,” Baxter begins to use the unrhymed couplets that will become the dominant medium of his late work.
In On the Boiler (1939), W.B. Yeats’s Swiftian impersonation of a “mad ship’s carpenter” in Sligo who used to stand on a boiler to denounce his neighbors, the poet (or the collapsing mind of the speaker) rails against the degeneration of European culture. The customs and ceremonies of old Europe–including, but not restricted to, the smashed Big House culture in Ireland that Yeats had relied on for so many years–were being degraded by commercial production and fetishized by fascism. But for Yeats there was no going back, or rather, there was only going back. The mechanization of art was itself an irreversible return to the originating moment of the Western form of life. “There are moments when I am certain,” Yeats wrote
that arts must once again accept those Greek proportions which carry into plastic art the Pythagorean numbers, those faces which are divine because all there is empty and measured.
The unemployed in Ford Madox Brown’s “Work” (1865)
‘Enterprise and effort,’ he would say to us (on his back), ‘are delightful to me. I believe I am truly cosmopolitan. I have the deepest sympathy with them. I lie in a shady place like this, and think of adventurous spirits going to the North Pole, or penetrating to the heart of the Torrid Zone, with admiration. Mercenary creatures ask, “What is the use of a man’s going to the North Pole! What good does it do?” I can’t say; but, for anything I can say, he may go for the purpose–though he don’t know it–of employing my thoughts as I lie here.
Take an extreme case. Take the case of the Slaves on American plantations. I dare say they are worked hard, I dare say they don’t altogether like it, I dare say theirs is an unpleasant experience on the whole; but they people the landscape for me, they give it a poetry for me, and perhaps that is one of the pleasanter objects of their existence. I am very sensible of it, if it be, and I shouldn’t wonder if it were!’ (Dickens’ Skimpole, quoted in Watts, Voices, 20).
In The Long Revolution, Raymond Williams wrote that
the abstraction of art has been its promotion or relegation to an area of special experience (emotion, beauty, phantasy, the imagination, the unconscious), which art in practice has never confined itself to, ranging in fact from the most ordinary daily activities to exceptional crises and intensities, and using a range of means from the words of the street and common popular stories to strange systems and images which it has yet been able to make common property (39).
Poetry, for example, often stows words from etymologically distinct orders within newly concrete constellations, freezing a piece of roadside sediment into the recognizable machinery of metaphorical or rhetorical conventions from a different language.
Edgar Degas, “Landscape: Cows in the Foreground” (c.1890-1893): “I decided to be Degas for a day” begins one of Ives’ plays — so what faculties or what muscles would I use? How are these haunches in this environment?
“Who would not rather walk,” blazes Wyndham Lewis in big print in Blast, “ten miles across country (yes, ten miles, my friend), and use his eyes, nose and muscles, than possess ten thousand Impressionist oil-paintings of that country side?” (Blast No. 1, 1914, 130). The only thing better than fully using those sense organs and body movers is something “very abstruse and splendid” but nonetheless driven by “NECESSITY.” The Impressionists, Lewis sneers, were too enthralled by a particular “sensibility” associated with “Life” to progress very far beyond the realist Daumier, who combined “great plastic gifts with great literary gifts.” Degas, Lewis writes, offered a few moderately useful innovations, but overall tended to mislead his followers into decadence.
To whom is the scene in Legros’s “Le Repas des Pauvres” (1877) being presented? Why are these things being shown “to me”?
The French these days, reported Muriel Ciolkowska to readers of The Egoist in 1915, do not read newspapers for information. In Paris newspapers are “read to be disbelieved, or, rather, to be interpreted.” Every reader decodes the news in their own way and whispers the truth to neighbors with the consequence that “a ghost-gazette is born and is echoed about the town, as regularly and as persistently as the newspapers.” No one knows where exactly it takes form, writes Ciolkowska, but when it emerges from its occult origins “it cuts its way through from the highest to the lowest and neither space nor time offer any obstacle to the progress of its mysterious, tenacious, subterranean or superterrestrial course” (62). Parisians’ everyday reading habits blend history with fiction and fiction with history, making the dissemination of information about the war a matter of, as Ciolkowska puts it, conjuring and witchcraft.