The French poet Stephane Mallarmé once opined (T.S. Eliot would echo him in his magisterial Four Quartets) that poetry’s object was to “purify the language of the tribe.” I’ve been thinking about that lately– less, though, in response to any poetic text than to a wonderful prose one, Henry Beston’s Northern Farm (1949), a chronicle of seasonal life in and around the house that the author and his wife shared on Lake Damariscotta in Maine.
Anyone who has ever considered her- or himself in the least a naturalist writer knows Beston’s classic The Outermost House; by her own account, for example, this was the only book that directly influenced Rachel Carson’s composition of Silent Spring, itself so influential. Yet I was ignorant of Northern Farm until it turned up on a shelf at my late, wonderful mother-in-law’s house in western Massachusetts. Much of the author’s prose simply stuns me, and I am in sympathy with many of its tendencies. Consider the following:
Amen, said I to myself as I pondered these assertions...a response that among other things surely proves, as I must acknowledge, how men and women of an age like mine have always thought and will always think “the world nowadays is going to hell.” But.
But what is meant, for example, by “Chevrolet, an American revolution”? Was it General Motors that impelled Washington across the Delaware in that cold, crucial winter? For shame. Or “Love– it’s what makes as Subaru a Subaru.” Did Dante drive an Outback?
This is the sort of thing that Beston called vulgarization. Loathsome though it be, however, it can’t compare to a passage like the following, cobbled together by a professor– Lord, help us– of English at a prestigious university:
Contemporary literary theorists such as our professor here have pointed out that words never bear more than an oblique relation to what they are meant to signify. (To arrive at this conclusion, evident to any poet or fiction writer within the first day or so of trying out her art, the intelligentsia must have invented a reader so dumb or so rapt as perhaps to have seen a written word like “hamburger” and then tried to eat it.) But it is unclear to me exactly what the obfuscatory words just cited may refer to, even obliquely.
In reading Henry Beston, in relishing his straightforward yet lyrical style, it occurred to me –hardly for the first time– that alienation from the tangible world, including the alienation of language from that world, is, as he says, dangerous. I am more and more convinced that the farther we get from our physical realities, the more radically we make the (false) distinction between our bodily and spiritual lives, the more we pay for it.
We can turn to– well, silliness, the kind evinced, in my opinion, by the unreadable prose of the English professor just quoted, though his is only an instance, and sadly not a particularly extreme one, of the argot used by the academic theorists who have carried the day in our humanities departments. These tend to be men and women who speak so densely and abstractly –and all but exclusively to one another– that their language bears no palpable relation to the world of people who live in very different circumstances. Theory among the academicians, I surmise, is so motivated by their need to say something new (an imperative that would have baffled, even alarmed, the scholars of antiquity, by the way) that I can’t help supposing they must themselves at times feel suspicion of their own assertions.
Here’s Henry Beston again:
When I am here by myself..., I read the agricultural papers and journals which have been put aside in the kitchen cupboard for just such a solitary night. I never read (these) without being struck by the good, sound, honest English of the writing, by the directness and simplicity of the narratives...Whether the topic be tomatoes or ten-penny nails, their writers know how to say things and say them well.
But wait: I am not mounting an argument for simplism any more than Beston is; I scarcely regret that Emily Dickinson, for instance, was not a poultry farmer. I am simply reiterating my claim that disembodiment, alienation from our physical and natural world, results not in higher thinking but in impoverishment or obfuscation or, again, silliness. This seems to me even truer for poetry than for most modes of discourse. I’m put in mind of Ezra Pound’s claim, which, granted, is only a half-truth, even if the true half is deeply compelling: “the natural object is always the adequate symbol.”
Speaking of which, could anyone, as poet, fictionist, or practitioner any other sort of language, be more eloquent than Beston in this passage from Northern Farm?
A gold and scarlet leaf floating solitary on the clear, black water of the morning rain barrel can catch the emotion of a whole season, and chimney smoke blowing across the winter moon can be a symbol of all that is mysterious in human life.