Monday, June 20, 2011

From Anna Wickham's "The Contemplative Quarry": II-IV

The next three poems, increasingly longer and more complex in thought, express Anna Wickham’s views of her art.

In “II The Singer,” the speaker does not have peace to sit and sing, but is “stung with goads and whips,” and so instead of making a lovely poem, she builds songs “like iron ships.” Goads and whips evoke horses and chariots, and so subtly prepare for seafaring vessels. Since the next poem refers to the old Greek myths, it is not too far-fetched to think that by “iron ships” Wickham had in mind Homer’s “hollow ships.” All this is to point out that the imagery in the quatrain is more martial than it may first appear. The poem concludes with a modest but affecting wish, built in a sturdy tetrameter couplet.

Let it be something for my song.
If it is sometimes swift and strong.

“III New Waters” is less successful a song. It is clunky and chockfull of abstractions: it is not sufficiently imagined. The speaker rejects the Greek myths as tales “over-told.” By a “new risen Attic stream,” a mortal singer dreamed a new dream.

There are new waters, and a new Humanity.
For all old myths give us the dream to be,
We are outwearied with Persephone,
Rather than her, we’ll sing Reality.

The quadruple end-rhyme is simply awful. The use of “we” is utterly unjustified: it loses the peculiar sympathy that Wickham usually elicits from a reader.

“IV The Egoist,” consisting of four stanzas, is structured as a somewhat rhetorical question and three answers of increasing depth. The speaker asks, in the first stanza, if she should write “pretty poetry” that is “Controlled by ordered sense” in her and with “an old choice of figure and of word.”

Her first answer is that she can make a “synthesis” of the dead poets and learn “poetic form” from them, but she will use the figure “that is real/ For me, the figure that I feel.” Intriguing here is her distinction between form and figure. I wonder from whom she got her terms. It seems Romantic to me to gloss “real” with “that I feel.” The desire to be both traditional and individual reminds me of T. S. Eliot’s essay “Tradition and the Individual Talent.” (Is “synthesis” a self-consciously modern word, like the “objective correlative” and the chemistry images in Eliot’s essay?) But Eliot’s example shows that to be truly individual one needs not only individual figure (“Where the evening spreads against the sky/ Like a patient etherized upon a table.”) but also individual form (like the disjunctive music of “The Waste Land”). Anna’s formal innovations are a smaller individuality.

She argues against ear-perfect rhyme in her second answer/stanza, but in a spirit of concession. She is not a “clerk” who “can list all language in his leisure time.” She does not have all the time in the world, but in her haste she can seize a pleasing infelicity. Or, as she puts it:

A faulty rhyme may be a well-placed microtone,
And hold a perfect imperfection of its own.

The balance in the couplet is reminiscent of Pope in “An Essay on Criticism,” although the couplet is in hexameter. But the diction, the figure of “micro-tone," sounds the modern note.

The last answer/stanza is the most general and philosophical. She drops her self-deprecation and asserts “A poet rediscovers all creation.” “Creation” here may refer to both Nature and Poetry. That a poet traces the lineaments of Nature in her poems is a Romantic idea. That a poet traces the lineaments of all past poetry in her poems smacks of Modernism. In this process of re-discovering, the poet’s “instinct” gives him “beauty,” which Wickham glosses aptly as “sensed relation.”

Then in a beautiful break-away from the common measures of five and six stresses, the poem concludes and justifies itself:

It was as fit for one man’s thoughts to trot in iambs, as it is for me,
Who live not in the horse-age, but in the day of aeroplanes, to write my rhythm free.

The penultimate line has nine stresses, the last has eleven. She won through to a small but significant freedom.


  1. I'm enjoying reading your synopsis of her work. Agree that quatrain was awful. I am fascinated how she works out her developing views through poetic argument.

  2. I was finding it confusing, how you seemed to be referring to multiple poems at once. So I looked up and managed to find a transcript, and now see why you tackle them in sections, since many are fragments. Its interesting to see her own personal drafts, her private little experiments, as it appears to me. Its like a birds eye view for us and is comforting in a way. As great and lauded poets write crappy drafts too and have failed experiments.

  3. Hi Laurie,

    The process is fascinating to me too. Development through a kind of daily improvisation.

  4. Hi Jeanne,

    I think the poems are not fragments, but whole poems, short and unsatisfactory though they may be. Wickham has a strong sense of closure, and many of her poems are strongest at that end of the business. But I think you are right in detecting their spirit of experiment.