In Flesh-Coloured Silk

Seamus Perry

  • Metaromanticism: Aesthetics, Literature, Theory by Paul Hamilton
    Chicago, 316 pp, £17.50, August 2003, ISBN 0 226 31480 4

There is a beguiling poem by Raymond Carver which, like many modern poems, though more cheerfully than some, spends most of its short life mulling over the conditions of its own possibility. ‘A crow flew into the tree outside my window’: the ingenuous opening line at once establishes Carver in a realm of the purest contingency, where things just happen to happen. The rest of the poem is about trying to stay there, to keep within the occasional and mundane and, above all, not to get all literary:

It was not Ted Hughes’s crow, or Galway’s crow.
Or Frost’s, Pasternak’s, or Lorca’s crow.
Or one of Homer’s crows, stuffed with gore,
after the battle. This was just a crow.
That never fit in anywhere in its life,
or did anything worth mentioning.

Just a crow: not, that is to say, a poetic crow, the sort worth writing about; and, after a few exemplarily unexceptional moments in the garden, the bird flies off ‘beautifully/ out of my life’. In doing so, you might think, the crow has secured an unobtrusive yet decisive victory on behalf of the unpoetic and ordinary; but setting out to imagine happenstance can hardly yield such simple results. For all Carver’s patient insistence to the contrary, nothing could be more literary, or possess a more purely symbolic interest, than this intently ordinary bird, and by the time it leaves the poem it has become unmistakably Carver’s crow – something he knows perfectly well, and wryly insinuates in his title, ‘My Crow’ (other Carver poems are called ‘My Boat’ and ‘My Work’). As Wallace Stevens put it in ‘The Plain Sense of Things’, ‘the absence of the imagination had/Itself to be imagined.’

Carver’s deft, paradoxical allegory joins a distinguished tradition of Romantic birds, at once their author’s property yet elusive and free, too. Keats’s nightingale is a thing of art and myth, an immortal whose song found out ‘the sad heart of Ruth’; but it is also a transient visitor to a Hampstead garden, which heedlessly slips out of earshot (‘Past the near meadows, over the still stream,/Up the hill-side’) and so brings Keats’s poem to an unpremeditated close. Carver’s poem sets about capturing the quotidian and resists the charms of art, but ends up as art anyhow. Keats is no less self-conscious, but his poem works in almost the opposite way: he is wholly smitten with the charms of art (‘the viewless wings of Poesy’) and ordinariness surprises his poem like the breaking of a spell (‘the fancy cannot cheat so well/As she is famed to do’). The poems face in different directions, but share a creative preoccupation with the moment when art runs out and something else – the ordinary, or Truth, or the plain sense of things, or what you will – asserts itself.

Critics and historians of ideas have often told us that the ‘aesthetic’ is an invention of Romanticism, and it is certainly true that the Romantics often speak ringingly of art or poetry as ends in themselves, with a magical authority which trumps any other claim that human intelligence or experience might make: ‘I believe the Souls of 500 Sir Isaac Newtons would go to the making up of a Shakespere or a Milton,’ Coleridge once announced. The Coleridgean poet possesses the ‘self-sufficing power of absolute genius’, and the pre-eminent example of such power is Milton, who, as we are told in Biographia Literaria, ‘attracts all forms and things to himself, into the unity of his own ideal’. A large part of Coleridge warmly approved of such sublime egotism, and he saw it in Wordsworth, a poet superbly ensconced in ‘the dread watch-tower of man’s absolute self’. As Frank Kermode argued in Romantic Image (1957), it is really not so large a step from the solitary tower of the Wordsworthian ego to the lonely tower of high aestheticism; and while it would never have crossed Coleridge’s mind to say with Mallarmé that the world existed to be put in a book, yet some such Symbolist dream is not far away from his portrait of Milton, who conjures ‘all forms and things’ into the ideal and improved universe of his poetry. Poets are ‘Gods of Love who tame the Chaos’, Coleridge writes in his Notebooks, anticipating by more than a century the aphorisms of Stevens, in which the imagination is a new saviour at the heart of an aesthetic theology: ‘Poetry is a means of redemption’ or ‘Poetry is a renovation of experience’ or ‘The mind is the most powerful thing in the world.’

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