Wednesday, August 19, 2015

The Wheels Failed, The Wheels

When I read something that fails, I tend to move on to the next with hope for better prospects; but sometimes, I hit the brakes to look at the blood on the asphalt, and I wonder: what the hell went wrong?

At the same time, as a person who writes nightmare stories, I'm eager to study a case that set out with nightmare intentions, but ended up as a pile of wreckage under clear skies on an empty road.

So let's have a look at the accident scene. This poem is from WHEELS: AN ANTHOLOGY OF VERSE (Longmans, Green & Co, New York, 1916).

by Osbert Sitwell.

Round the great ruins crawl those things of slime; --
Green ruins lichenous and scarred by moss, --
An evil lichen that proclaims world doom,
Like blood dried brown upon a dead man's face.
And nothing moves save those monstrosities
Armoured and grey and of a monster size.

But now, a thing passed through the cloying air
With flap and clatter of its scaly wings --
As if the whole world echoed from some storm.
One scarce could see it in this dim green light
Till suddenly it swooped and made a dart
And swept away one of those things of slime,
Just as a hawk might sweep upon its prey.
Then there were horrid noises, cries of pain
Which only made one feel a deep disgust.
It seems as if the light grows dimmer yet --
No radiance from the dreadful green above,

Only a lustrous light or iridescence
As if from off a carrion-fly, -- surrounds
That vegetation which is never touched
By any breeze. The air is thick and brings
The tainted subtle sweetness of decay. --
Where, yonder, lies the noisome river-course,
There shows a faintly phosphorescent glow. --
Long writhing bodies fall and twist and rise,
Anil one can hear them playing in the mud.
Upon the ruined walls there gleam and shine
The track of those grey vast monstrosities --
As some gigantic snail had crawled along.

All round the shining bushes waver lines
Suggesting shadows, slight and grey, but full
Of that which makes one nigh to dead with fear.
Watch how those awful shadows culminate
And dance in one long wish to hurt the world.

A world that now is past all agony!

The one merit of this poem is that its flaws are clear enough to pick apart.

First of all, there are no surprises in the language. A good poem can startle us with a single noun:

When as in silks my Julia goes,
Then, then (me thinks) how sweetly flowes
That liquefaction of her clothes.
[Robert Herrick]

Or with a vivid simile:

Then felt I like some watcher of the skies
When a new planet swims into his ken;
Or like stout Cortez when with eagle eyes
He stared at the Pacific -- and all his men
Looked at each other with a wild surmise --
Silent, upon a peak in Darien.
[John Keats]

With language that speaks to the senses:

Her vespers done,
Of all its wreathed pearls her hair she frees;
Unclasps her warmed jewels one by one;
Loosens her fragrant bodice; by degrees
Her rich attire creeps rustling to her knees....

Or with an abstraction that seems to fly directly to the subconscious:

Ay, but to die, and go we know not where,
To lie in cold obstruction and to rot....

This poem by Sitwell has one vividly specific simile: "Like blood dried brown upon a dead man's face." But otherwise, the adjectives are bland or cliched:

great ruins

evil lichen

dim light (green or otherwise)

horrid noises

dreadful green

noisome river-course

gigantic snail

awful shadows

Even worse, these adjectives make a promise that is not kept: nothing in the poem can justify the use of "evil" or "horrid" or "dreadful," because nothing in the poem -- not in its imagery, not in its narrative -- can bring these qualities to life. Writers can toss around as many adjectives as any good dictionary can provide, but unless the details of a poem can dramatize or suggest the applicability of such terms, then adjectives become like the coins fed into a slot machine: they fall away from your fingertips with an empty clatter, and they achieve nothing.

Meanwhile, Sitwell drags in a sense of portent that also achieves nothing.

Watch how those awful shadows culminate
And dance in one long wish to hurt the world.
A world that now is past all agony!

And yet, while the blobs "dance" and "play" (threatening verbs! Hide the children!) nothing much happens. I'm still here in one living chunk, and so (I'd like to assume) are you.

If poets want to destroy the world, they should go ahead and get the job done, as vividly as their skills can allow:

The Thirst of Satan
by George Sterling

In dream I saw the starry disarray
(That battle-dust of matter's endless war)
Astir with some huge passing, and afar
Beheld the troubled constellations sway
In winds of insurrection and dismay,
Till, from that magnitude whose ages are
But moments in the cycle of the star,
There swept a Shadow on our ghost of day --

A Shape that clutched the deviating earth
And checked its headlong flight and held it fast,
Draining the bitter oceans one by one.
Then, to the laughter of infernal mirth,
The ruined chalice droned athwart the Vast,
Hurled in the face of the offended sun. 
[From BEYOND THE BREAKERS AND OTHER POEMS. A. M. Robertson, San Francisco, 1914.]

With one clearly-described action, Sterling achieves more doom in 14 lines than Sitwell can with all of his vague fumbling.

And what could be done, to justify that description of a world "past all agony"? William Butler Yeats took on the task, and even though he relied more on abstract implication than Sterling did, what he implied at least had the virtue of being specific.

Turning and turning in the widening gyre  
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere  
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst  
Are full of passionate intensity.

For another world "past all agony," we can turn to Clark Ashton Smith.

by Clark Ashton Smith

In billow-lost Poseidonis
I was the black god of the abyss:
My three horns were of similor
Above my double diadem;
My one eye was a moon-bright gem
Found in a monstrous meteor.

Incredible far peoples came,
Called by the thunders of my fame,
And passed before my terraced throne
Where titan pards and lions stood,
As pours a never-lapsing flood
Before the wind of winter blown.

Below my glooming architraves,
One brown eternal file of slaves
Came in from mines of chalcedon,
And camels from the long plateaus
Laid down their sard and peridoz,
Their incense and their cinnamon.

The star-born evil that I brought
Through all that ancient land was wrought:
All women took my yoke of shame;
I reared, through sumless centuries,
The thrones of hell-black wizardries,
The hecatombs of blood and flame.

But now, within my sunken walls,
The slow blind ocean-serpent crawls,
And sea-worms are my ministers,
And wandering fishes pass me now
Or press before mine eyeless brow
As once the thronging worshippers....

And yet, in ways outpassing thought,
Men worship me that know me not.
They work my will. I shall arise
In that last dawn of atom-fire,
To stand upon the planet's pyre
And cast my shadow on the skies.
[From SELECTED POEMS. Arkham House, 1971.]

Specific details, clear focus, a promise of doom and evil not only made, but kept: Sitwell's poem could have worked if he had held these principles in mind. Instead, he gave us a smear of grease on a country road, a pile of crushed metal.

Staring, pondering, I can only vow that I will do whatever I can, to drive with greater care than he did, when I set off once more on my own untrusted wheels.

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