Category Archives: Poetry

Stéphane Mallarmé

Ravel, “Trois poèmes de Stéphane Mallarmé”

More treasure from Bob Denham’s Essays on Northrop Frye, Frye and Stéphane Mallarmé”:

[A]lthough Mallarmé speaks of God as an old scarecrow whom he has at last overcome,[i] he also speaks in his letters of a symbolic death and resurrection that he has attained through his search for a pure poetry, and speaks also of the poet who creates in the teeth of the creation, so to speak, as though he were the vehicle of a holy spirit.  “Man’s duty,” he says, “is to observe with the eyes of the divinity; for if his connection with that divinity is to be made clear, it can be expressed only by the pages of the open book in front of him.”[ii]  He also describes himself, in a letter to Cazalis, as “one of the ways the Spiritual Universe has found to see Itself, unfold Itself through what used to be me.”[iii] (457)


[i] Frye is referring to the oft‑quoted passage in Mallarmé’s letter to Henri Cazalis, 14 May 1867: “I struggled with that creature of ancient and evil plumage [vieux et méchant plumage]––God––whom I fortunately defeated and threw to earth” (Selected Poetry and Prose, 87)

[ii] The passage is from Mallarmé’s “The Book: A Spiritual Instrument” (Selected Poetry and Prose, 80).

[iii] Letter to Henri Cazalis, 14 May 1867 (Selected Poetry and Prose, 87).  In one of his early plans for Words with Power Frye proposed organizing the first three chapters on a Trinitarian scheme––the Book of the Father, the Book of the Son, and the Book of the Spirit––based on Joachim of Floris’ theory of the three epochs.  Only in the Age of the Spirit, according to Joachim, would humankind be able fully to understand spiritual truth.  Mallarmé was to be a part of the Book of the Spirit (Late, 171).    

Wallace Stevens

Stevens reading “Sunday Morning”

Yesterday was the anniversary of Wallace Stevens‘ death (1879-1955).

Frye may have written more extensively on Stevens than any other 20th century poet, except for Yeats and Eliot. Unlike the other two, however, Stevens certainly seemed to be a strongly personal favorite: not just a canonical figure a scholar would have to deal with, but a poet to be read for pleasure.

Here he is in conversation with David Cayley:

Cayley: Another poet about whom you’ve written a good deal is Wallace Stevens. Was he someone who challenged you in some way?

Frye: When I was sixteen working in the Moncton public library, I used to pore over Untermeyer’s anthologies of modern American poets, and all there was of Stevens at the time was Harmonium, but that fascinated me. That had some of the same qualities that Eliot had, even though it was a very different kind of poetry. I found that Stevens was somebody who held up, whereas so many of the others, like the imagists, just dropped out of my sight. I didn’t cease to read them for pleasure, but Wallace Stevens remained something very central. Once the Collected Poems came out, I decided I had to write an essay on Stevens.

Cayley: Was that “The Realistic Oriole”?

Frye: Yes. I find myself quoting Stevens very frequently, so frequently that when The Great Code came out, the people who interviewed me by telephone from Sydney, Australia, wanted to know why the hell I’d put so much Wallace Stevens in, and I couldn’t tell them why, except that he just seemed to fit what I had to say.

Cayley: The reason I asked whether he challenged you was because he seems to me that some of those famous phrases you quote from Stevens — “the weight of primary noon,” “the dominant X,” “one confides in what has no concealed creator” — have a sense of the independent existence of nature and the sense of the imperialism of the imagination and the necessity of there being a struggle with no winner. It seemed to me that this might have challenged your sense of nature’s finally being taken inside the enlightened imagination.

Frye: Well, it was inside in him, too. Description without Place tells you don’t live in a natural environment at all. You live in a coating, the husk of human culture or civilization, and you take nature in through that.

Cayley: So there’s nothing in Stevens that necessarily challenged your view, although it may have extended it or given it a language?

Frye: It extended it, yes. It didn’t set up anything I could not very easily come to terms with.

Cayley: I think of Stevens as an atheist.

Frye: I think of Stevens as a Protestant. I know he turned Catholic on his death bed, but people do funny things on their death beds.

Cayley: A nature with “no concealed author,” the earth as “all of paradise that we shall know,” the idea of a “supreme fiction” — I suppose that as a young man reading Stevens lines like these suggested atheism to me.

Frye: He says “in the new world all men are priests,” and I think that he had a sense of man assigned to recreate the universe, just as Blake had. His attitude toward God was very like Emily Dickinson’s, who didn’t want to repudiate her faith but wanted to fight with it.

Cayley: What about the view of nature as uncreated?

Frye: I think he disliked the thought of God as an artist, because again that writes off the human artist.

Cayley: I know nothing about Stevens personally except that he worked in insurance, and obviously my knowledge of this poetry is sketchy too. Was he in fact a religious man in his own way?

Frye: Oh, I think so, yes. Look at what he says about Easter in Adagia in Opus Posthumous. He doesn’t very often commit himself to a religious statement, but it’s there, all right. (CW 24, 963-5)

Quote of the Day

From The Tudors, Lord Surrey reads his translation of an epigram by Martial to Charles Brandon

Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey, was “sincere in all his doings. If he was alive today, he’d be Canadian.” — Nicola Shulman, Graven with Diamonds: The Many Lives of Thomas Wyatt: Courtier, Poet, Assassin, Spy (via TLS)

Frye on Wyatt and Surrey:

Wyatt and Surrey, at the court of Henry VIII, were the pioneers of a new conservatism, though this has to be qualified for Wyatt, as we shall see. Surrey in particular established for the sixteenth century a new pentameter line, based on the contemporary pronunciation of the language, heavier than Chaucer’s line though lighter than the post-Miltonic ones. The two poets introduced the sonnet into English from Italian and French sources, mainly Petrarch. Petrarch is earlier than Chaucer, but in English (this does not apply to Italian) the sonnet has a rounded, epigrammatic, almost three-dimensional quality: like perspective painting, it belongs in the Renaissance, not to the flat narratives or the delicate pastel lyrics of medieval poetry. Wyatt followed the five-rhyme Petrarchan form, but Surrey introduced the freer structure, of three quatrains and a couplet, which is more suitable to English, and which Shakespeare alsoused. Surrey also brought in the major invention of blank verse, and both poets experimented with other forms, such as the so-called “poulterer’s measure” of alternating six and seven-foot lines. (CW 10, 16-17)

Movie as Doggerel: “Plan 9 From Outer Space”


The entire glorious thing is available at the single link above

We’re following the science fiction thread begun with Solaris and followed by Fahrenheit 451 the week after that, but with a twist: Edward D. Wood’s Plan 9 from Outer Space.

Frye in “Rhetorical Criticism: Theory of Genres,” Anatomy:

The characteristics of babble are again present in doggerel, which is also a creative process left unfinished through lack of skill or patience. . . . Doggerel is not necessarily stupid poetry; it is poetry that begins in the conscious mind and has never gone through the associative process.  It has a prose initiative, but tries to make itself associative by an act of will, and it reveals the same difficulties that great poetry has overcome at a subconscious level.  We can see in doggerel how words are dragged in because they rhyme or scan, how ideas are dragged in because the are suggested by a rhyme-word, and so on. (CW 22, 259)

From this description we can see that any verbal structure might be generically considered doggerel if it lacks skill and patience, is not associative, is self-consciously rather than subconsciously processed, and generally betrays itself as the undressed word salad it invariably turns out to be.

Plan 9 from Outer Space is known as “the worst movie ever made” — so bad that you can’t look away; so bad that its unintentional hilarity provides zen instruction to anyone who thinks funniness is a specialized form of spontaneous combustion. If you haven’t seen it, please do.  It rewards in ways that are unique to it.  If you can’t bear to watch all of it, then at least take in the brief “Criswell Predicts” sequence that opens the movie — which will likely make you want to get to Criswell’s closing remarks at the end, and, just like that, you’ll have watched it right through.

The entire thing, every miscast word of it, is pure doggerel: the tautologies and non-sequiturs, the Dadaist moments of found comedy, the jack-knifing problems with continuity, and the absurd randomness of the elements of “terror” promiscuously thrown into the mix with winning confidence. (“Ah, yes, Plan 9: The resurrection of the dead.”)

Here’s a sample from Criswell’s opening remarks:

Greetings, my friends, we are all interested in the future because that is where you and I are going to spend the rest of our lives. And remember, my friends, future events, such as these, will affect you in the future.

That’s got to leave you hungry for more because only people who can’t make ’em can make ’em like this.



Pre-Confederation footage from the Salmonier River, along with a traditional Newfoundland reel

The Dominion of Newfoundland joined the Dominion of Canada on this date in 1949 to become the country’s tenth province:

Frye in an essay about E.J. Pratt, “Silence in the Sea”:

The attitude I have trying to trace in Pratt and associate with his Newfoundland origin is most clearly expressed, naturally, in the poem called Newfoundland which stands first in his collected poems. As the poet watched the sea beating on the Newfoundand shores, a possible ironic or fatalistic vision is dismissed and the vision of the unquenchable energy and the limitless endurance which unite the real man with real nature takes its place:

Here the tides flow,
And here they ebb;
Not with that dull, unsinewed tread of waters
Held under bonds to move
Around unpeopled shores—
Moon-driven through a timeless circuit
Of invasion and retreat;
But with a lusty stroke of life
Pounding at stubborn gates,
That they might run
Within the sluices of men’s hearts,
Leap under throb of pulse and nerve,
And teach the sea’s strong voice
To learn the harmonies of new floods,
The peal of cataract,
And the soft wash of currents
Against resilient banks,
Or the broken rhythms from old chords
Along dark passages
That once were pathways of authentic fires.

And just as the closed door separates the world of consciousness and feeling from the blind fury, so the open door unites man and his world in a common vision. (CW 12, 396-7)

I was lucky enough to live in Newfoundland for a year, and I can guarantee that Newfoundland did not join Canada, Canada joined Newfoundland.

I can also confirm that the bite of Newfoundland humor is keen. After the jump, a sketch from CODCO, now twenty years defunct and still missed.

An earlier post in which Frye cites a poignant fragment of Newfoundland verse here.

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Irving Layton


Yes, there are better clips available, but who could resist this?  Leonard Cohen sings the Chiquita Banana song to Irving Layton.  Cohen said of Layton: “I taught him how to dress, he taught me how to live forever.”

Today is Irving Layton‘s birthday (1912-2006).

From “Poetry,” written in 1958:

It is difficult to do justice in a sentence or two to the variety and exuberance of Layton’s best work. The sensuality which seems its most obvious characteristic is rather an intense awareness of physical and bodily reality, which imposes its own laws on the intellect even when the intellect is trying to snub and despise it. The mind continually feels betrayed by the body, and its resulting embarrassments are a rich source of ribald humour. Yet the body in the long run is closer to spirit than the intellect is: it suffers where the intellect is cruel; it experiences where the intellect excludes. Hence a poetry which at first glance looks anti-intellectual is actually trying to express a gentler and subtler kind of cultivation than the intellect alone can reach.  Thus Layton is, in the expanded sense in which the term is used in the article, an academic rather than a Romantic poet, though one of his own highly individual kind.  (CW 12, 290-1)

Thomas Campion


A real treat: countertenor Alfred Deller sings Campion’s “It fell on a summer’s day”

Thomas Campion died on this date in 1620 (born 1567).

From The Educated Imagination:

Here’s a poem by a contemporary of Shakespeare, Thomas Campion:

When thou must home to shades of underground,
And there arriv’d, a new admired guest,
The beauteous spirits do engirt thee round,
White Iope, blithe Helen, and the rest,
To hear the stories of thy finish’d love
From that smooth tongue whose music hell can move;

Then wilt thou speak of banqueting delights,
Of masques and revels which sweet youth did make,
Of tourneys and great challenges of knights,
And all these triumphs for thy beauty’s sake:
When thou hast told these honours done to thee,
Then tell, O tell, how thou didst murder me

This is written in the convention that poets of that age used for love poetry: the poet is always in love with some obdurate and unresponsive mistress, whose neglect of the lover may even cause his madness and death.  It’s pure invention, and it’s a complete waste of time trying to find out about the women in Campion’s life — there can’t possibly be any real experience behind it. Campion was himself a poet and a critic, and a composer who set his poems to his own musical settings. He was also a professional man who started out in law but switched over to medicine, and served for some time in the army. In other words, he was a busy man, who didn’t have much time for getting himself murdered cruel mistresses. The poem uses religious language, but not a religionthat Campion could ever have believed in. At the same time it’s a superbly lovely poem; it’s perfection itself, and if you think that a convention poem can only be just a literary exercise, and that you could write a better poem out of real experience, I’d be doubtful of your success. (CW 21, 451)

The History of Violets: Ready for a Frygian Reading

Jeannine Marie Pitas has recently translated a small book of poetry called The History of Violets by the Uruguyan poet Marosa di Giorgio.  Though a slim volume, the poetry is powerful and ripe for analysis.  In her introduction, Pitas writes: “For me, her poems recall the British Romantics – Wordsworth’s image of a child terrified by a jutting crag in his Prelude, or Blake’s awe before the little lamb’s innocence and the burning tiger’s power” (viii).  These poems stand out because of the imaginative power of a poet whose voice, whatever its sources, seems wholly her own.

Though I have not yet found the time to give the poems the critical attention they deserve, I can hear echoes of Frye’s Blake throughout.  As a scholar trained in Latin American Literature, I continue to believe that Frye has a great deal to teach us about a literature with which he evidently had little familiarity beyond an appreciation for Jorge Luis Borges. Just as the appeal of literature is universal, so are its archetypes and expression of prevailing human concerns.  When it comes to these two literary elements, Frye remains most relevant to the study of world literature.

You can order The History of Violets here.  Review here.

Di Giorgio reading one of her poems after the jump.

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Amy Lowell


Amy Lowell’s “Meeting-House Hill”

Today is Amy Lowell‘s birthday (1874-1925).

From The Well-Tempered Critic:

The free verse imagists of the 1920s issued manifestos saying that poetry should be objective, visual, concentrated, precise, hard, clear, and rendering particulars exactly.  As with a good deal of poetry written to a theory, the theory was a compensation for the practice: what imagism mainly produced was precisely the opposite, an associative hypnotic chant based on various devices of repetition. (CW 21, 364)

Gregory Corso


Five poems by Gregory Corso

On this date in 2001 beat poet Gregory Corso died (born 1930).

Frye in “World Enough Without Time”:

The “beat” writers are trying to identify the genuine proletariat, the body of those who are excluded from the benefits of society and have sense enough to realize it.  For such a proletariat the road to freedom is not through organizing a revolution to seize power from the squares and become squares in their turn, but through breaking the current of social  energy by drifting, bumming, playing jazz, taking dope, or what not, and entering the world of the pure present through the break.  The beat philosophy may be wrong — that is, it may be crazy itself instead of merely making use of craziness — but its symbolism is a contemporary cultural force to be reckoned with. (CW 21, 292)