LYRIC COMPANION Janet Lewis “Lines with a Gift of Herbs”

The summer’s residue/ In aromatic leaf, / Shrunken and dry, yet true / In fragrance, their belief, // These from the hard earth drew / Essence of rosemary, / Lavender, faintly blue, / While unconfused nearby // From the same earth distilled, /Gray sage and savory, / Each one distinctly willed,—/ Stoic morality. // The emperor said, “Though all / Conspire to break thy will, / Clear stone, thou emerald, shall / Be ever emerald still.” // And these, small, unobserved, / Through summer chemistry, / Have all their might conserved / In treasure, finally.

FRAME OF REFERENCE Is there a philosophical beholding that is neither servile nor sovereign? Not sovereign because it does not stand outside or above the imminently given. Not servile: because it is not slave to immanent givenness but finds itself released into a freedom beyond servility in beholding immanence otherwise, that is, as the happening that communicates of the intimate universal. WILLIAM DESMOND The Intimate Universal, 164.

Does “poetic form” in the technical sense—the interlocking of sound patterns determined by meter and rhyme—provide the reader/poet with a durable point of view? That belief would be the “formalism” that continues to attract young poets. I was once a young poet and followed the school of Yvor Winters, which included his wife, Janet Lewis. Partly because of my scholarly study of Winters’s early practice as a poet heavily influenced by French 19th-century poetry, especially, Baudelaire, I worked through in my early years the historical crises that still inflect “formalism.” I went on to careers in editing and publishing (including reviewing new poetry books). The problem of formalism as I see it now is outlined in the FIELD OF REFERENCE above, but certain poems from those years linger in my memory.

“Lines with a Gift of Herbs” appears in an anthology produced by Winters, professor of English at Stanford University, and friends in the sixties. QUEST FOR REALITY covers the history of the lyric in English and makes a case for formalism. Lewis has a number of poems in the anthology. Along with poems by Louise Bogan and other women, it has survived the way good lyrics survive, by helping readers “selve” in a chaotic world.

Though I no longer believe that “form” in lyric depends on the patterns shown in this poem—schemes of variously obvious nature—the poem captures In its rhythms the struggle for identity always at play in lyric. The use of “will” to name that issue of durance, lastingness in the universal impermanence, has not worn well but Lewis’s close attention to fragrance remains charming in the argument and the sound patterns of the poem. In novel and poem Janet Lewis was an accute observer of nature, as we said back in the day.

If the poem seems overwrought, that’s not solely due to a conception of literary form. As we assume in these essays, the form of a poem emerges as the other to the voice of the poet. (Selving being very much of the lyric’s expressive muchness.) This poem acts out this stage with the quote from “the Emperor.” One assumes that voice belongs to Marcus Aurelius, the stoic Roman emperor. But the language of the quote pales next to the vigor of the preceding lines.

Finally, the ironies of the last stanza seem baggy and lack the sudden freshness of the being happening of the finite other, as we’ve shown it in the Lyric Companion essays. The poem may look like a period piece, though I won’t be surprised if “formalists” rise to its defense. It was fun to revisit it. Now back to Trump’s impressions of the suffering servant.

Author: Tom D'Evelyn

Tom D'Evelyn is a private editor and writing tutor in Cranston RI and, thanks to the web, across the US and in the UK. He can be reached at tom.develyn@comcast.net. D'Evelyn has a PhD in Comparative Literature from UC Berkeley. Before retiring he held positions at The Christian Science Monitor, Harvard University Press, Boston University and Brown University. He ran a literary agency for ten years, publishing books by Leonard Nathan and Arthur Quinn, among others. Before moving to Portland OR he was managing editor at Single Island Press, Portsmouth NH. He blogs at http://tdevelyn.com and other sites.

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