Thursday, June 18, 2009

on form

. . . I soon realized that the assurance of his early formal patterns provided the warrant for following him when his patterns became more complicated and finally ceased to be patterns at all. In the twentieth century, this was a not uncommon progression among revolutionary spirits in all the arts. Picasso had conspicuously mastered every aspect of draughtsmanship and painting that had ever been applied to the recognizable before he moved on into the less recognizable, and the best reason for trying to follow what he was up to was that he had proved he could actually do what he was no longer doing. Stravinsky composed melodies you could hum and whistle . . . before he moved on to composing what could only be listened to, and the best reason for listening hard was your memory of the authority he had displayed when the listening was easy. In poetry, Eliot went on proving that he was a master of tight forms even as he became famous for works that apparently had no form at all, and that was the best reason for supposing that those works still depended on a highly-schooled formal sense. So there was nothing new about Merrill's progression from poems with apprehensible boundaries to poems whose lack of boundaries was part of their subject. It was in the tradition of Modernism. But it depended on an assurance that made paying attention compulsory.

-- Clive James (on James Merrill) "The Necessary Minimum" Poetry July/August 2009


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