Essays and Comment: Transatlantic Poetics: An Autobiography

Transatlanticism is a rather quaint notion. Outmoded even. the transatlantic traffic between the UK and American that defined twentieth century poetics – the figures of T. S. Eliot and W. H. Auden straddling the Atlantic like some sort of twin Colossus of Rhodes– has, quite rightly, given way to a twenty-first century transnationalism. The approach allows for a far more diverse and inclusive understanding of literatures in English beyond those boundaries delineated by the canonical dead white dudes of the twentieth century Anglo-American “tradition.”

 

As retrograde as it may be, then, my entire adult life has been defined by transatlantic poetics; which is quite an assertion considering that I didn’t even know that American poetry existed until I was sixteen. Certainly poetry didn’t feature at all in my home life; neither of my parents (both of whom left school at fourteen without a qualification between them) had any interest whatsoever in poetry. My first encounters with verse, then, came at Lyndale School in St Albans, England in the early 1980s. This was an extraordinarily unorthodox educational institution along the lines of the British cartoonist Ronald Searle’s fictional and madcap St Trinian’s. Certainly the uniforms, straight out of the British prep school playbook –  box pleat gym tunics, sashes, straw-boaters – were almost entirely identical. The curriculum followed no known or recommended educational program and was wholly informed by the likes and dislikes of our headmistress, the formidable septuagenarian Mrs. Biddy Hodge. Consequently, my early education mainly consisted of field hockey, the study of fossils and the works of Lord Alfred Tennyson.

 

Mrs. Hodge’s father, the schoolmaster and amateur paleontologist Frank Mozart Walker, had met the great poet of the Victorian era while holidaying at the family’s home in Seaview on the Isle of Wight in the late 1880s where Tennyson also regularly vacationed. The Isle of Wight was late nineteenth-century Britain’s answer to the Hamptons and much in vogue since Queen Victorian and her family would regularly decamp to Osborne House, their home on the island. This, albeit rather tenuous, connection was enough to ensure that my poetic education was almost entirely Tennysonian. However, this did not involve a critical acquaintance with the work; rather I remember happy afternoons spent illustrating and illuminating “The Lady of Shalott” and “The Eagle” which we had laboriously copied out longhand in order to practice writing with our leaky ink pens. My young fingers were perpetually stained royal blue.

 

My first forays into the active study of literature a few years later were far from illustrious. While moving a few years ago I discovered my school reports from the ages of six to sixteen and the English Literature entries include such comments as, “She has a cavalier disregard for accuracy and form,” “Her spelling is bizarre [and] her experience of language is narrow,” and, my favorite, “she wastes too much time organizing the whereabouts of her books and general classroom impedimenta.” I still procrastinate by organizing my impedimenta. Any literature studied up to that age had been entirely British (Shakespeare for the most part) and largely historically remote. The most recent verse allowed to enter my purview was the (entirely British) poetry of the First World War.

 

My first encounter with both contemporary and American poetry came in 1992 at St Albans School. Founded in 948 the school is one of the oldest in world, boasts such alumni as Stephen Hawking and Nicholas Breakspear (latterly know as Pope Adrian IV), and at the time was know for its rather maverick and free-wheeling approach to educational standards (that era is now, sadly, long past). The school, overthrowing more than a thousand years of tradition, had just started to let girls attend the school; there were sixteen of us new girls and eight hundred boys. It was housed in a series of gorgeous buildings made out of the blue-grey flint found in the nearby Chiltern Hills, the oldest of which was the castle-like Abbey Gateway. The upstairs floor of the medieval Gateway had holes in it through which to poor boiling oil on one’s enemies. This must’ve come in handy during the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381 when disgruntled lower orders stormed the Abbey. I adored it there. Most of all I adored my English teacher, John Mole, who was the first actual real-life poet I’d ever met. On the first day of class he distributed copies of George MacBeth’s Longman anthology Poetry 1900-1975. A complete revelation: apparently poetry also existed in America and was being written up to as recently as the year before my birth! So taken was I with the book that I pilfered the school’s copy and still have it in my office in Houston. It that class that I was to read the poem that set me on the path to becoming a poetry critic: W. H. Auden’s “In Memory of W. B. Yeats” (1939).

 

My relationship with Auden’s poem has developed over the past twenty-five years and my academic career has, in many ways, been defined by the various insights and illuminations won from a near-daily interaction with his great elegy for Yeats. It provided me with the central arguments relating to prosody and elegy that I explore in my book Grief and Meter and furnishes me with the title of my next book, Ranches of Isolation, which comes from these lines from the very middle of the poem:

 

For poetry makes nothing happen: it survives

In the valley of its making where executives

Would never want to tamper, flows on south

From ranches of isolation and the busy griefs,

Raw towns that we believe and die in; it survives,

A way of happening, a mouth.

 

It is in these lines that Auden sets the agenda for poetry after 1939, heralding a new age for poetry in which the poem is not a product, a well-wrought urn to be admired as an aesthetic object but rather a participatory process, a “flow” a “way of happening.” Moreover, not just an act rather than a object, but also an act that “makes nothing happen.”

 

I’ve considered Auden’s assertion at length in Grief and Meter so I don’t want to rehash that here, suffice it to say that I’ve been grappling with it for the best part of three decades now but it wasn’t until very recently that I noticed upon untangling the syntax of this passage for the hundredth time, that though poetry “survives” in the “valley of its making” (a phrase that has received plenty of critical debate since Auden was to change it to “making” from “saying” in later incarnations of the poem) poetry comes directly “from ranches of isolation and the busy griefs.” And then, recognizing with shock that I’d spent most of my professional life trying to reconcile those “busy griefs” with the elegiac poems born of them that I reflected anew on that familiar line and I was struck by the strangeness of the word “ranches.”

 

Ranches. Ranch. To my English ears it is the most ineffably American word I can imagine. It comes from the American Spanish “rancho,” meaning farmhouse. Yet the Americanized version of the word is freighted with so much more than that. From its humble roots in the nineteenth century (according to the Oxford English Dictionary in a letter of 28 August 1846 one B. Upton writes, “Rancheros are farmers and a farm house is called a ranch”) the word takes on a new life in the twentieth-century thanks to marketers keen to capitalize on the word’s associations with American resourcefulness and frontier spirit. In the fifties the cookie-cutter open-plan bungalows of the American suburbs become “ranch style” homes. In the nineties and onward in America one of the most ubiquitous condiment one can dip one’s victuals in is Ranch dressing (which, I would like to inform our American viewers, is all-but unknown to the rest of civilization, and rightly so, because it is an abomination). But what did that particularly American word “ranch” mean to Auden in January 1939, eight months before he sat in a “dive” (also a uniquely American locus) on “Fifty-second street / Uncertain and afraid”?

 

Certainly in 1939 “ranch” was as distinctively an American word as another word used in the poem, “Bourse” (the Paris stock exchange), was French. It clearly had, in Auden’s mind, those very associations with independence, and, of course, isolation that those canny ad men would later coopt for their own purposes. In the poem it functions as a symbol of the frontier of Auden’s imagination in 1939, newly arrived in America after leaving the Europe of the “public statutes” and “fashionable quays” of the poem behind. Thus the poem’s geographical references enact the transatlantic voyage that the poet himself has just taken. Most significantly it is from this American frontier that poetry is flowing, and that has, indeed, proved to be the prevailing current of influence in twentieth century verse.

 

There have been few studies of Anglo-American poetic relations. As the British poet and editor Jeff Nutall asserted, “the academic capsule was almost perfectly sealed”; the intellectual compartmentalizations of our traditions approaching near-quarantine conditions. In their introduction to the essay collection Something We Have That They Don’t: British and American Poetic Relations (2004) the editors Steve Clark and Mark Ford consider why this might be:

 

The paucity of studies addressing literary interrelations… is indicative of an apparent reluctance to analyze in detail the traffic in poetic rhetoric between the two countries. Both British and American critics seem more comfortable with narratives that define their respective poetries in isolation from each other, and this separation has come to be institutionalized in universities on both sides of the Atlantic.

 

Once again, that idea of “isolation” that Auden attaches to the idea of American ranches in his poem. That the jet stream of poetic power has been prevailingly from east to west across the ocean is undeniable and has been considered in work such as Keith Tuma’s Fishing by Obstinate Isles (1998) in which he considers the lack of influence of British poetry on its American readership. In many ways I had regretfully accepted the critically entrenched isolationist version of events, considering myself an anomaly, a salmon who had swum against the current upstream from the small pond of British verse into the great lake of American poetry (easier for a critic than a poet perhaps?). Indeed, I was propelled across the Atlantic by American rather than English poetry. It was, after all, the Robert Lowell archive held Harvard University that initially coax me stateside, and ultimate led me to leave behind my beloved London.

Certainly, in my experience as a Limey professor of contemporary poetry at stateside universities, in large part the recent poetry of the British Isles is rarely taught. This is an omission that I seek to correct at every available opportunity and address in the essays collected in my forthcoming book. When I came to gather my scribblings of the past two decades together I was concerned that I might end up with a critical miscellany much like the pudding that Winston Churchill once rejected for lacking a theme. It was with great surprise, then, upon mining the dusty hard drives of long-abandoned laptops that an abiding leitmotif emerged. It turns out that over the course of my career I have been concocting, for the most part entirely unconsciously, a veritable transatlantic trifle. My new book demonstrates how our respective recent poetic traditions are highly interdependent and why that is, in fact, a very good thing.

.

 

Sally Connolly is the Graduate Director of the English Department at the University of Houston. She is an Associate Professor of Contemporary Poetry and is an authority on American, British and Irish verse from the Modern period to the present day. She previously taught at Wake Forest University and was a Visiting Fellow at Harvard University. Dr. Connolly’s main area of research is the elegiac tradition, and particularly elegies for poets. Her first book Grief and Meter: Elegies for Poets After Auden was published by the University of Virginia Press in 2016. Her second book Ranches of Isolation: Transatlantic Poetics will be published in 2017 followed by a critical biography of the Anglo-American poet Thom Gunn. Her reviews and articles appear in publications such as PoetryThe Times Literary Supplement, and Yeats Annual. She has been the recipient of several prestigious honors and awards including the Kennedy Scholarship at Harvard University.

Essays and Comment
Share This