Friday, February 15, 2013

The Shifted Diamond's Instant Shock of Light

In the wake of modernism, some fascinating writers were cast aside, and one of these was a California poet with an interesting circle of friends and an even more interesting way with words: George Sterling.

I came to Sterling late. His friend and pupil, Clark Ashton Smith, I discovered when I was ten years old; his friend and mentor, Ambrose Bierce, I discovered a few years later. Books by Smith and Bierce were easy to find in affordable paperbacks, but books by Sterling were scarce and expensive.

In recent years, thanks to archive.org, scans are now available of the poems that were collected while Sterling was alive, and they are the most fascinating things that I have read in a long time.

Time has been no friend to Sterling. He was one of the latest of late romantics, and by the year of his death in 1926, much of what he had written was considered old-fashioned, obsolete.

I agree with old-fashioned: his language was often deliberately archaic; but obsolete makes me bristle like a tomcat in the dryer. I have my reasons:

The experiments of modernism and the energies they released are one of the great legacies of the 20th Century. Writers, poets, artists, composers, anyone who felt the need for a new form had the freedom to develop it. Yet this development coincided with an idea that I consider false: that previous forms were now automatically and inevitably obsolete.

When writers discover the need for new forms, when they realize that old forms are hindering what they have to say, then by all means, they should experiment. Whether or not a particular experiment will succeed depends largely on what the writer wants to do.

As an example, the "condensed novels" that J. G. Ballard collected in The Atrocity Exhibition were suited uniquely to his obsessions, to his detached and clinical style; for that reason, I doubt they would have functioned for anyone else. But for him, they were essential, and he made them work beautifully.

On the other hand, if writers are able to work at their best in traditional forms, then critics and readers should give them a certain leeway.

(Please note that by "forms" I mean technical approaches to writing, structures for narrative. These are quite different from genres, which often owe more to marketing categories than to creative needs; in contrast, forms are devised and developed by writers themselves, for their own purposes. Sometimes, in other arts, a form is imposed as the one and only legitimate way to create something: this happened with serialism in music; and while serialism can be fascinating and beautiful in the right hands, it can be limiting for composers who have something else they need to say. Writers, in contrast, have had more freedom to pick and choose.)

Sterling chose to work in traditional poetic forms like the sonnet; he also chose to rely on the imagery and idioms of romanticism. For many of his critics, and for many of the poets who came after him, Sterling's embrace of tradition and archaic language made his work obsolete.

But I am neither poet nor critic; I have no battles to fight for the sake of modernism and no reputation to build in academic circles. What I want to do, is to learn as much as I can about writing, so that I can apply these lessons to my work.

So what do I find in Sterling?

Consider this:

Blunt as a child, since child he was at heart,
And sun-sincere, my friend to many seemed
Dull, rude, aggressive, tactless. Add to all
His bulk and hairiness and stormy laugh,
And one can find them some excuse for that.
'Twas seeming only. We, who found his soul
Thro friendship's crystal, saw beyond the glass
The elusive seraph.  In his mind were met
The faun, the cynic, the philosopher,
But first of all, the poet. Give to such
Apollo's guise, and matters were not well.
Too glad to pose, ofttimes he held his peace
Before the jest that sought his heart; but let
The whim appeal, and all his mind took fire --
The shifted diamond's instant shock of light.
Beauty to him (as wine's ecstatic draught,
Richer than blood, and every drop a dream)
Was like a wind some hidden world put forth
To baffle, madden, lure -- at times, betray,
Then win him back to worship with a breath
Of Edens never trodden. Yet he stood
No dupe to Nature in her harlotry,
Her guile, her blind injustice and the abrupt
Ferocities of chance, but swift to face
The unkempt fact, and swift no less to snatch
Its honey from illusion's stinging hive --
No moth that beat upon Time's enginery.
Yet loved he Nature well, as one might love
A half-tamed leopardess, for beauty's grace
Alone. Within his enigmatic soul
Sorrow and Art made Love their servitor,
For he would have no master but himself.
To what best liken him? Some singer must
Have used the star-souled geode's rind and heart,
Telling of such as he. Let me compare
His rugged aspect and auroral mind
To that wide shell our western ocean grants --
Without, all harsh and hueless, with, perhaps,
A group of barnacles or tattered weed;
Within, such splendor as would make one guess
That once a score of dawnings and a troop
Of royal sunsets had condensed their pomp
To rainbow lacquer which the ocean pow'rs
Had lavished, godlike, on the gorgeous bowl.

-- "A Character," from The House of Orchids and Other Poems. A. M. Robertson, San Francisco, 1911.

In one of his essays, Gore Vidal pointed out that the best use of an adverb is to surprise. When I read Sterling, I am reminded that adjectives can take on the same role: not only can they describe, but they can illuminate, they can shock, they can surprise us into recognition.

Auroral mind. Sun-sincere. Shifted diamond. The abrupt ferocities of chance. The unkempt fact. The star-souled geode.

When we concentrate on the modernity of form, when we use form as a basis for judgement on someone's relevance or obsolescence, we can all-too easily forget about something much more important and much more instructive: the writer's use of language.

By its nature, prose tends to be prosaic, but a poet like Sterling shows that other ways of writing are not only available, but are lively, electrifying, and necessary.

1 comment:

Phillip A. Ellis said...

The development of Modernism as an aesthetic movement in the arts is one of much interest and complexity. I know that many of the anti-modernists reacted essentially against the Anglophonic currents alone, with some, such as Lovecraft and Clark Ashton Smith) accepting of the modernist movements of the French branches of the Decadents and Symbolists, poets such as Baudelaire and Verlaine. Also, aspects of Modernism, such as Symbolism, were late flowerings of Romanticism, while others, such as the Modernisms of Pound, Eliot, Lowell, et al., reacted against the use of Romantic cliches and commonplaces. (I guess we can distinguish Mallarme as a Romantic Modernist, and Eliot as Classical Modernist, in the sense of Classicism versus Romanticism.)

There's a lot more to Modernism than at first glance, and it's an exciting and absobing area for the student of poetry.