in a different spirit Robinson Jeffers do with this open legacy is to close it, or enclose it, personalise it. The impersonality – or universality – of Whitman’s I could hardly be more emphatic. Langston Hughes, D.H. Lawrence and Gertrude Stein seem to get it creatively. His work displaces conventional notions of the author in a poem. He guided Christopher Middleton, writing in these pages in 1979 (PNR 10, ‘The Viking Prow’):
To recapture poetic reality in a tottering world, we may have to revise, once more, the idea of a poem as an expression of the ‘contents’ of a subjectivity. Some poems, at least, and some types of poetic language, constitute structures of a singularly radiant kind, where ‘self-expression’ has undergone a profound change of function. We experience these structures, if not as revelations of being, then as apertures upon being. We experience them as we experience nothing else.
Middleton’s line of reasoning is appealing, it draws back the corner on a creative possibility that looks new but is in fact (to use Stein’s phrase) ‘at the bottom of all creative activity’.
Jorge Luis Borges translated from Leaves of Grass, describing it as the epic of American democracy. He imagines Whitman reflecting on the inadequacy of earlier, feudal epics. ‘My epic […] must be plural, it must declare or take as its premise the incomparable and absolute equality of all mankind.’ Whitman is, as Borges says, ‘each one of us and all those who will populate the earth’.
Here is a great liberating pattern book – liberating to the common reader, liberating to the writer; liberating in theme, and liberating in form and style. With whom does Whitman collaborate? With Blake, perhaps, with the King James Bible, with America before, during and after the Civil War, and with his many successors.
Thom Gunn reads ‘Whitman’s self’ as ‘both exceptional and average, representative and individual, a rich young lady and Walt Whitman, one of the roughs and Jesus Christ. Each merges into the other, like leaves of grass into the prairie or individuals into a visionary democracy.’ He applauds Whitman’s ‘juxtaposition and improvisation’ as though he anticipates modernism and jazz and much else: Whitman’s verse is ‘revelatory (and even interpretative) but not explanatory’. Not explanatory. Poetry is a language different in construction from prose, different in purpose and usage. Poetry is process, even when it is written down, printed, and folded inside a book. When the book is almost over, the reader is immediately addressed by it. It lies in our lap and speaks to us, it asks us to respond. The ‘I’ here is the book we have been holding.
The past and present wilt - I have fill’d them, emptied them. And proceed to fill my next fold of the future.
Listener up there! what have you to confide to me? Look in my face while I snuff the sidle of evening, (Talk honestly, no one else hears you, and I stay only a minute longer.)
Cover Story FrancoiseLacroix,‘StairwellParis’
y function and definition , the stairwell is a transitional space, a between-places place, and especially in Paris – where the stairwells are generally too narrow to accommodate lifts – it encloses an in-between time. This domestic container for space-time hesitation has often been used in art and literature to signal dramatic change in a character’s life (Lucy Snowe seeing herself in a stairwell mirror as a ‘third person’, in Charlotte Bronte’s Villette; Michael Berg recognising the eponymous woman depicted in a painting, in Bernhard Schlink’s The Woman on the Stairs). Woman’s place was traditionally thought to be in the home, but the stairs are all about coming and going, and in the modern era that is the setting for reorientation. Francoise Lacroix’s riveting ‘Stairwell Paris’ turns upside down a photograph of a woman who is already hanging upside down – making her hair appear to stand on end, Elsa Lanchester ‘Bride of Frankenstein’-style. It gives a touch of looming menace (reminiscent of the upside-down-onthe-stairs scene in The Exorcist) to a starkly beautiful image, turning one of our most familiar haptic means of reassurance (holding on to the banister) into its mirror-opposite, the vertigo of estrangement.
News & Notes
Ten commandments . Robert Alter has issued (The American Scholar, May 25) ‘Ten Commandments of Bible Translation’. They are commandments to which even the secular translator might harken (though the word order of the eighth and tenth commandments could be improved):
1. Thou shalt not make translation an explanation of the original, for the Hebrew writer abhorreth all explanation. 2. Thou shalt not mangle the eloquent syntax of the original by seeking to modernize it. 3. Though shalt not shamefully mingle linguistic registers. 4. Thou shalt not multiply for thyself synonyms where the Hebrew wisely and pointedly uses repeated terms. 5. Thou shalt not replace the expressive simplicity of the Hebrew prose with purportedly elegant language. 6. Thou shalt not betray the fine compactness of biblical poetry. 7. Thou shalt not make the Bible sound as though it were cover story news & notes 3