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Thursday, June 26th, 2008
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Collected Poems, 1919-1976 (FSG Classics)

by Allen Tate

The Country of the Damned

A review by Adam Kirsch

In the galaxy of American modernism, Allen Tate is now a black hole. The authority that made him, in the 1930s and 1940s, one of the most formidable figures in American poetry, mentor and superego to a generation, has collapsed. Neither his strenuously ambiguous poems nor his orotund essays in literary interpretation (he was one of the deities of the New Criticism) are still commonly read. In both realms, Tate seems to represent a version of modernism scarcely more acceptable than the politics -- Agrarian, neo-Confederate, quasi-fascist -- that put the seal on his obsolescence.

Like a dead star, however, Tate can still be detected in the strong pull that he exerts. His strength can be gauged by the strength that other poets had to summon to resist him. It is impossible to make sense of Hart Crane's programmatic optimism about modernity and America without seeing it as a response to Tate's equally programmatic despair. Nor can the central drama of mid-century American poetry -- the rebellion against modernism that led Robert Lowell, John Berryman, and Randall Jarrell drastically to clarify and to personalize their language -- come into focus unless it is understood in part as an Oedipal rebellion against Tate's hieratic example.

Since Tate's modernism now looks like a dead end in American poetry, it is all the more necessary to understand how powerful and attractive it once seemed. This new publication of Tate's Collected Poems -- reprinting the arrangement that Tate himself made in 1977 -- is a reminder that, while his body of work is slender and uneven, Tate did evolve a distinctive and influential verse style, a dialect of his own within the period's avant-garde language. His immediate and quite genuine identification with the sensibility of modernism -- above all, with Eliot and Pound -- sets Tate apart from the many forgotten epigones for whom that sensibility was merely a fashion.

From the moment Tate emerged as a poet, in the early 1920s, he impressed everyone who knew him as the bearer of the century's dark blessing -- as the writer who understood just how exaltedly difficult modern poetry was doomed to be. This knowledge seemed like the birthright of his generation -- he was born in 1899 -- rather than something he could have learned growing up in Kentucky, Tennessee, and Virginia, or as a student at genteel Vanderbilt. Indeed, Tate's juvenilia, which can be found in the "Early Poems" section of this volume, take a provincial pleasure in shocking the provinces. There are pieces titled "Euthanasia" and "Elegy for Eugenesis," containing words like "fallopian" and "protoplasm" -- reminders of a time when medical vocabulary could seem transgressive and disillusioned.

In 1922, when Crane came across one of Tate's poems in The Double Dealer, a little magazine published in New Orleans, he wrote to him excitedly, honoring the Southerner as a fellow disciple of the great Eliot. In fact, as Tate was at pains to note even decades later, he had not yet heard of Eliot; if he sounded like him, it was because the age was speaking through both of them. When he did read "Gerontion" and The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock, he recognized a brother: "Eliot goes straight to the real thing; this is of course his 'modernity,' and I am with him."

Yet as Tate recalled in 1968, in his essay "Poetry Modern and Unmodern: A Personal Recollection," it was not exactly reassuring to get back his own thoughts clad in Eliot's alienated majesty. "I got [Eliot's] Poems (1920) at once and I couldn't write anything for several months," he mordantly remembered. "This man, though by no means famous at that time, was evidently so thoroughly my contemporary that I had been influenced by him before I had read a line of his verse. There were two great poems in that volume that seemed to do everything that I wanted to do: 'Gerontion' and 'The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.'" In the next few years Tate would follow the usual practice of young poets by unconsciously copying the poems that he admired.

Yet even after he had moved beyond obvious parodies such as "A Pauper" ("I see him old, trapped in a burly house/Cold in the angry spitting of a rain"), Eliot's example would hunch over Tate's shoulder like an incubus. His verse is seldom entirely free from Eliot. Even his best-known work, "Ode to the Confederate Dead," is deeply indebted to "Gerontion" in attitude and tone; and in his criticism, he acknowledged, "what I owe to Eliot is pervasive." Eliot's intellectual example would prove overpowering for Tate. His conception of modernity as a time of chaos and deracination, his longing for order and rootedness -- and the dire political consequences of these attitudes -- were all reprises of Eliot. The most important reason why Tate did not accomplish more as a writer was that he could not see beyond Eliot's solutions to their shared problems.

In the early 1920s, though, Eliot's example was still energizing. Tate's infatuation helped to set him apart from the rest of the Vanderbilt poets, just then becoming nationally prominent thanks to their magazine, The Fugitive. Being up-to-date was always a part of The Fugitive creed -- a necessity, as they saw it, in a South still under the sway of moonlight and magnolia. John Crowe Ransom sounded this note in his introduction to the first issue of the magazine: "Official exception having been taken by the sovereign people to the mint julep, a literary phase known rather euphemistically as Southern Literature has expired, like any other stream whose source is stopped up.... THE FUGITIVE flees from nothing faster than from the high-caste Brahmins of the Old South."

But being modern was one thing, and being a modernist -- like Tate, in a nearly ideological sense -- was another. The difference can be seen by comparing Ransom's poems, in which decorum and lyricism are delicately ironized, with Tate's, where they are aggressively defaced:

The stage is about to be swept of
corpses.
You have no more chance than an
infusorian
Lodged in a hollow molar of an
eohippus.
Come now, no prattle of reemergence
with the ontos on ...

Tate's "Horatian Epode to the Duchess of Malfi," written in 1922, is saturated in Eliot and Pound, where Ransom had never gotten further than E.A. Robinson. It makes sense that the bitterest episode in the poets' lifelong friendship came when Ransom published a hostile review of "The Waste Land," leading to a published exchange of condescending denunciations. Tate railed against his professor's "superannuate theories," while Ransom mocked his student's youthful arrogance ("his letter is but a proper token of his final emancipation, composed upon the occasion of his accession to the ripe age of twenty-three").

The question of just how modern one needed to sound had special salience in Nashville, where the Fugitives experienced the usual fate of prophets in their own country. The magazine that was eagerly read in New York and London did not make its contributors very popular at Vanderbilt, where they repeatedly clashed with the old-guard English faculty. (Notoriously, the university failed to make any effort to stop Ransom from decamping to Kenyon College, where his Kenyon Review became a Bible of the New Criticism.) No wonder that, in the 1920s, Tate looked north for moral support, defining himself less as a Southerner than as an agent of the Modernist International in exile. "Though many miles separate me, a Southern barbarian, from you all," he wrote to Crane, "I can't help but feel that I am one of you -- in the making anyway."

When he moved to New York in 1925, plunging into the world of Edmund Wilson and Edna St. Vincent Millay, of Broom and Secession, he turned a little shy of his Fugitive past. One Northerner claimed that Tate even tried to suppress his accent, and bragged that his nickname in college had been "the Yankee." Yet Tate's years in New York, followed by a Guggenheim-sponsored sojourn in Paris, did not have the effect of Yankeefying him. He never acclimated to metropolitan life -- one of his best early poems, "The Subway," uses a Cranean rhetoric to transform riding the train into a journey to the underworld:

Harshly articulate, musical steel shell
Of angry worship, hurled religiously
Upon your business of humility
Into the iron forestries of hell....

He was even more put off by the avant-garde pieties of the Paris of Hemingway and Fitzgerald, which he recalled in his essay "Miss Toklas' American Cake." He could not understand the universal reverence for Gertrude Stein, whose holy idiocies grated on him: "I never got anything" from the famous salon in the rue de Fleurus, he complained, "not even much education."

What Tate got from his expatriation, instead, was the opportunity to re-imagine the South from a distance, to transform it from a lived reality to an imaginative symbol. To Tate, deeply under the sway of Eliotian impersonality, this was the only way to bring experience into poetry. "The South," he insisted defensively, "is as good a correlative of emotion as any place else." The virtue of this method, and its cost, can be seen in "Ode to the Confederate Dead" -- which Tate first drafted, appropriately enough, in a garret on Bank Street. The poet who had longed for Bohemia in Nashville was now dreaming, in Greenwich Village, of a South that he had never known:

Turn your eyes to the immoderate past,
Turn to the inscrutable infantry rising
Demons out of the earth -- they will
not last.
Stonewall, Stonewall, and the sunken
fields of hemp,
Shiloh, Antietam, Malvern Hill,
Bull Run,
Lost in that orient of the thick-and-fast
You will curse the setting sun.

The trajectory of those last two lines, from dawn to decadence, is that of the poem as a whole. The poet, meditating in a cemetery for Southern soldiers, contrasts their certitude and courage with his own debility, and that of his age. Like the leaves on their tombstones, the dead are "driven by the fierce scrutiny / Of heaven to their election in the vast breath": "fierce," like the other martial and aggressive adjectives in the poem ("strict," "arrogant," "furious"), carries an unmistakably positive charge. The soldiers' memories, like their corpses, are "inexhaustible" -- "not / Dead, but feed the grass row after rich row." Yet the present does not know how to draw sustenance from its heritage, as Tate makes clear in a barrage of images borrowed more or less directly from Eliot. The "you" the poem addresses is compared to "the blind crab" on the ocean floor (like the "ragged claws" of "Prufrock"); "You know who have waited by the wall/The twilight certainty of an animal," Tate adjures (echoing Tiresias in "The Waste Land," who "sat by Thebes below the wall"); meanwhile "the grey lean spiders come, they come and go" ("talking, presumably, of Michelangelo," as Christopher Benfey aptly jokes in his fine introduction to the Collected Poems).

It is a measure of the distinctiveness of Tate's style that the "Ode," with all these obvious echoes of Eliot, nevertheless does not collapse into pastiche. What marks the poem as Tate's own is his way with adjectives, especially Latinate adjectives, and above all ones with negative prefixes. "Impunity" appears in the first line, followed by "inexhaustible," "immitigable," "immoderate," "inscrutable," "invisible," and "improbable" (not to mention "infantry"). It would almost be fair to say that the real subject of the poem is the prefix "in-," and the particular verbal emotion it inspires in Tate -- of unbending, antique, Roman (and Confederate) sternness.

Significantly, it is when dealing with the Confederate past, its distinctive emotions and language, that Tate is at his most powerful; and it is when he turns to chastising the present that he is at his most derivative. In giving him a vocabulary for spiritual deadness, Eliot seems to have commandeered his very imagination of the spirit - -as though deadness were all that could be ascribed to it in the modern world. In this way, the failings of the "Ode" -- which is Tate's most characteristic poem, but not his best -- point to what would become larger failings in his work. Instead of putting into verse his own experience of the South -- even if only his experience of the South as a symbol, an emotional "correlative" -- Tate would increasingly distort it to fit a prior ideological doctrine about the proper relation of the past to the present.

The rudiments of this ideology are already clear in Tate's poems of the 1920s. The past, it holds, was organic, orderly, and obedient, content with the secular and religious hierarchies that it inherited. The present, in thrall to a delusive technological liberalism, has discarded those hierarchies, leaving us with no common standards in art or life, and no way of approaching the divine. The best poetic expression Tate found for this cluster of ideas was the poem "Last Days of Alice," from 1931, in which the message is enlivened by grotesquerie and a Metaphysical knottiness. Lewis Carroll's Alice, "grown lazy, mammoth but not fat," becomes an emblem of modern narcissism, staring endlessly into her looking glass:

Alone to the weight of impassivity,
Incest of spirit, theorem of desire,
Without will as chalky cliffs by the sea,
Empty as the bodiless flesh of fire:

All space, that heaven is a dayless night,
A nightless day driven by perfect lust
For vacancy, in which her bored
eyesight
Stares at the drowsy cubes of human
dust.

This is already tendentious enough, but Tate could be much more explicit. "Every son-of-a-bitch is Christ, at least Rousseau," he wrote in "Retroduction to American History." "In an age of abstract experience, fornication / Is self-expression," he added in "Causerie." The vulgar blatancy of these editorializing poems, written when Tate was still in his twenties, was a sign that ideology had already started to eclipse experience.

Ironically enough, Tate recognized the danger that he was facing, because he had seen the same thing happen to Eliot. In his review of Eliot's "Poems 1909-1925," Tate offers a perfect prophecy of his own development:

The critical idea of disorder ... was obviously conviction prior to reflection, but to one in Mr. Eliot's spiritual unrest it speedily becomes a protective idea; it ceases to be emotion, personal attitude; one ceases reiterating it as such. This rationalization of attitude puts in a new light the progressive sterilization of his poetry. It partly explains the slenderness of his production: a poetry with the tendency to ideas betrays itself into criticism, as it did in Arnold, when it becomes too explicit, too full.... The intellectual conception is now so complete that he suddenly finds there is no symbolism, no expressive correspondence, no poetry, for it.

All this may be partly true of Eliot, but it is much more true of Tate himself. The difference lay in Eliot's willingness to embrace "disorder" and become one with it -- to let it speak through him, rather than simply condemning it. He was able to articulate his "spiritual unrest" in his verse, even as late as "Four Quartets," while he was propagandizing for order in his criticism. Tate, too, is at his best when he allows disorder to inhabit his poetry; but he had less of the courage or the skill necessary to keep himself open to it. His "intellectual conception" of the modern problem, and his authoritarian solution to it, began to usurp his "personal attitude" as early as the mid-1930s. While he wrote some significant poems in the 1940s, and a few of his very best in the early 1950s, he fell totally silent in his last three decades; and all of his work from 1937 to 1979 fits into less than fifty pages in the Collected Poems.

It is surely not a coincidence that Tate's poetry began to dry up in the years when he was involved with the Agrarian movement. The creation of Southern intellectuals, many of them former Fugitives, Agrarianism had no real political impact in the Depression years -- as the New Dealer Rexford Tugwell said, it was a "literary romp" for "sentimentalists who hadn't any idea what they were talking about." (Thomas A. Underwood quotes this judgment, and offers a fearlessly thorough anatomy of the movement, in his excellent biography Allen Tate: Orphan of the South.) But starting with the publication of I'll Take My Stand, the Agrarians' manifesto, in 1930, the label gave Tate, Ransom, and other Southerners a way to organize their literary and political thought, and to get publicity for it.

It also associated them with some of the worst ideas and movements of the age. Tate explicitly took inspiration from the French fascist Charles Maurras, envisioning Agrarianism as "a society something like the Action Française group. " Maurras was also an enthusiasm of Eliot's, and it is no coincidence that it was during a visit to Virginia in 1933, at the height of Agrarianism, that Eliot delivered his infamous remarks about "free-thinking Jews." Tate never openly registered anti-Semitism, but Underwood reveals that it was just as prevalent among the Agrarians as one would expect from their allegiances. Tate wrote to the Southern poet John Peale Bishop about "the Jewish nature of liberalism and ... the Old Testament character of Das Kapital." Underwood also traces the comedy of errors that resulted when Tate and the Agrarians allied themselves with a crackpot magazine publisher named Seward Collins. The group hoped to colonize Collins's American Review and turn it into an Agrarian magazine. As it turned out, Collins's outspoken fascism ended up tarring them with a brush they were very eager to avoid. (They were particularly embarrassed when Collins told an interviewer that his enthusiasm for reaction extended to banning innovations like the automobile and the bathtub.)

But inevitably, given the Agrarians' neo-Confederate worldview, they were at their worst when it came to race. In the early 1930s Tate committed himself to the most hideous kind of white supremacy, writing in the American Review that "I belong to the white race, therefore I intend to support white rule. Lynching is a symptom of weak, inefficient rule ... [it] will disappear when the white race is satisfied that its supremacy will not be questioned in social crises." He wrote privately to Lincoln Kirstein that "the negro race is an inferior race. ... Our purpose is to keep the negro blood from passing into the white race." He opposed the Scottsboro Boys because "defense of ten negroes would be defense of the whole race. Rather than that, I will shut my eyes, and see the colored boys executed." He protested a reception for Langston Hughes and James Weldon Johnson at Vanderbilt, stating: "My theory of the racial relations is this: there should be no social intercourse between the races unless we are willing for that to lead to marriage."

At least Tate grew to be ashamed of such statements, and in the 1960s he supported the civil rights movement. ("I wasn't born with virtue in these matters. I have had to acquire it," he told Malcolm Cowley in 1966, trying to block publication of a book that included his letter to Kirstein.) Do the nefarious elements of Agrarianism permanently mar Tate's poems? The answer, I fear, is yes -- though not in the way one might expect. There is nothing racist in Tate's poems of the 1930s, and nothing anti-Semitic. Even his Confederate patriotism is surprisingly muted, appearing only in a few poems such as "To the Lacedemonians," where an ancient veteran denounces the New South: "All are born Yankees of the race of men / And this, too, now the country of the damned."

But that equation of modernness with Yankeeness, and of both with spiritual damnation, suggests the way in which Tate's ideology did affect his poetry. It made everything too simple; it gave him a position from which to judge the world, instead of a way of living in the world. Even two of Tate's very best poems, "The Mediterranean" and "Aeneas in Washington," simply re-enact the old story of ancient virtue and modern decline. The former poem beautifully evokes an afternoon picnic by the sea, eating "the very plates Aeneas bore," then contrasts them with the foodstuffs of the New World:

Westward, westward, till the barbarous
brine
Whelms us to the tired land where
tasseling corn,
Fat beans, grapes sweeter than
muscadine
Rot on the vine: in that land we were
born.

The language is inventively classical, but the incoherence of the imagery -- would a tired land produce such fat beans? Did crops rot on the vine in America, even during the Depression? -- suggests that the poem is struggling to reach its predetermined endpoint: Europe is old and good, America young and bad. Indeed, Tate's dream of the South is really the dream of an American Europe, where the old gemeinschaft allegedly lives on, or did until 1865. "The South," he claims in "The Profession of Letters in the South," "clings blindly to forms of European feeling and conduct that were crushed by the French Revolution and that, in England at any rate, are barely memories."

This is historically absurd, of course -- for one thing, it conveniently ignores the fact that Europe never practiced racial slavery -- and it would be easy to dismiss it as simply the old Walter Scott myth in twentieth-century clothing. (Tate's only novel, The Fathers, even features a scene in which Virginia squires hold a jousting tournament.) But in fact the abstractness of Tate's imagination of the South, the rigidity of his historical vision of decline, are authentically modern and authentically modernist. It was Tate's certainty of the loss of the authentic past that led him to invent a radical, exclusivist, and potentially violent myth of the past -- violent exactly because it is a myth, because it can only be accepted at the price of an immolation of reason. "How may the Southerner take hold of his Tradition? The answer is, by violence," Tate famously -- or infamously -- declared in I'll Take My Stand. He did not suspect that the first victim of that violence would be his own imagination.

Adam Kirsch is the book critic of the New York Sun. He can be reached at akirsch@nysun.com


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