Saturday, May 20, 2017

Haniel Long, “Easter 1933”

Haniel Long, photographed by Ernest Knee
I’ve been reading the modernist poets of Santa Fe, New Mexico, and among that group Haniel Long, whose Pittsburgh Memoranda (1935) I’ve previously discussed. In my research and reading of Long, I was also struck by his poem “Easter 1933,” which was not included in any of his collections, but was published in Poetry magazine and can be read for free in their archives (read it in full, here). It doesn’t quite fit with the direction I’ve gone in in my other readings of Long or the Santa Fe group, but it’s such a good poem. So, here is my take on it.

After the 1928 publication of The Turquoise Trail anthology, and moving into the 1930s, the Santa Fe scene continued to thrive. Poetry designated its December 1933 issue as a “Southwestern Number,” guest-edited by John Gould Fletcher. Long was among its contributors. His sole offering, a 72-line poem titled “Easter 1933,” was in many ways that issue’s centerpiece. A sophisticated handling of various mythic elements, political commentary, and strands of personal experience, it takes as its subject an Easter visit to the Enchanted Mesa in New Mexico, a site near the Acoma pueblo and Mount Taylor (a mountain considered sacred by Native Americans). It begins with snippets of conversation among those on the sojourn, rendered paratactically, and then moves to a description of

the Mesa, ivory chiefly, slanting up to pink —
precipitous, what we had come to see,
high above the rippling white
wind-written-upon sand. (138-39)
There is a sense of amity among the group and awe before this signal landmark. Being at the mesa, approaching the desert with reverence, on a day holy in the Christian calendar (Long’s father was a Methodist missionary), sparks a meditation on history, civilization, and politics. Putting Acoma pueblo among a number of other noteworthy cities — “magnificent Chinese cities”; Florence; Rome; Richmond, Virginia; Vienna (139) — Long goes beyond the familiar pattern of primitive-equals-good and civilization-equals-bad that he and other Santa Fe poets had vaunted only a few years before in The Turquoise Trail. In this poem, none of these cities represents a utopic situation (not even Acoma), but
Despite the faults a scrutiny discovers,
they were magnificent, and to think of them
is to receive obscure sleep-giving pleasures
like those from mountain or butte. (139)
Carl Redin, Enchanted Mesa, oil on canvas, 1929
Long considers cities and the natural world alike and finds joy in each. It is a more nuanced view than the stark binaries between the decadent city and the spirituality of the desert that many of the Santa Fe poets asserted in the 1920s. While the focus is still on the centrality of land and nature, “Easter 1933” sees Long moving toward a synthesis of different mythological frameworks and modes of living.

This is reflected in the poem’s form, a discontinuous, free-verse pastiche of images, thoughts, and quoted conversation (not unlike the documentary style used in Pittsburgh Memoranda). As it continues on, Long returns to a vision of the mesa, then relays a companion’s comment that “Something is always happening to wonderful people and cities / to hurl them into the age in which they live,” which prompts the unspoken rejoinder, “No matter what you say, / democracy for me is still a virgin, / has never been tried” (139-40). Celebrating “the mystical love of one’s own landscape” (140), Long suddenly drops in an allusion to the Grimm fairy tale “The Three Snake-Leaves,” then ends:

Ask the Navajo, ask the Zuñi — ask the Acomanero
why he thrusts his prayer-wands
into the flank of Mount Taylor.

. . . anyway, we’ve broken through our winter crust —
taking time to be with the earth and the sun,
hearing meadow-larks and mocking-birds,
and visiting with a strange mesa
all by itself in the shifting sands. (140; ellipsis in original)
As with other Santa Fe poets, Long retains his interest in Native American myth and ritual, but now it is portrayed as one strand among many in the more multifarious worldview he constructs. It stands alongside the Christian myth of Easter (rebirth, “we’ve broken though our winter crust”), of the ideal of American democracy (which for Long has yet to be achieved, “has never been tried”), of great civilizations (“magnificent” cities), of European legend (Grimm fairy tales, themselves often distilled from earlier European mythological material), and so on. The particulars no longer matter for Long; as he had written in Notes for a New Mythology (1926), “Whoever pictures life as he sees it, re-assembles in his own way the details of existence which affect him deeply, and so creates a spiritual world of his own” (13). In “Easter 1933,” finally, there remain nothing but images of the natural world with the poem’s speaker and his companions imagined as pilgrims “visiting with a strange mesa,” which stands mesmeric amidst the continual change (“shifting sands”) that occurs below it.

“Easter 1933” perhaps then suggests that, for Long, myths in a sense are disposable, that he will make and remake his world as necessary. Native American myth is certainly important to him, as someone alive to his environment and surroundings, but in this poem he seems to understand the limitations of his sympathy to it. Why do the Navajo, the Zuñi, and the Acomanero sacrifice prayer-wands at the site of a sacred mountain? They have their reasons, as Long intuits, but he does not purport to speak for them — ask them, he says, and “anyway” moves on.

Similarly, while he clearly does not promulgate Christianity as such, he gestures toward its trope of renewal at Easter, eschewing the particulars of the story. In moving through a number of different mythological frameworks in this poem, Long acknowledges that none of them can be eternal or absolute. Only the “strange mesa” itself seems so, and Long demurs from explicit summarizing, leaving its importance up to the reader — each individual person who visits the mesa, he suggests, is free to draw his or her own meaning from it, mythological, religious, or otherwise, or not to draw any particular meaning at all.

Monday, May 08, 2017

The Unknown Kerouac (a review of sorts)

Recently, the Library of America began publishing the works of Jack Kerouac, providing them the sense of gravitas they deserve and making them available in solid (literally and figuratively) hardback editions replete with scholarly material and context.  The most recent such edition is The Unknown Kerouac: Rare, Unpublished & Newly Translated Writings (2016), edited by Todd Tietchen, with translations of the French-language material by Jean-Christophe Cloutier.

This volume includes works thought to be lost, or which existed only as fragments, never previously published.  There are two novellas (La nuit est ma femme/The Night Is My Woman and Sur le chemin/Old Bull in the Bowery, both written in Kerouac’s native Québécois French), the existing portion of the abandoned novel project Memory Babe, and the opening to the late-period projected novel Beat Spotlight (which would have followed Kerouac’s final book, Vanity of Duluoz, had he lived to complete it).  In addition, The Unknown Kerouac includes a significant 1951 journal, an interview conducted by John Clellon Holmes in 1963, and the short but engaging sketch-like manuscript Tics, among other odds and ends.

The phrase “odds and ends” suggests that the book might be an insignificant hodge-podge that scrapes the bottom of the archival barrel.  However, this is not the case.  For anyone who is more than a casual reader, the works collected here not only round out our picture of Kerouac’s oeuvre in a significant way, in themselves they are absorbing examples of the author’s consummate and unparalleled prose style.

One of the works herein that I find particularly interesting is La nuit est ma femme (1951), written in French in New York City not long before Kerouac composed the famous scroll version of On the Road.  Like most of his work, it is autobiographical, focusing in this case on the time period after Maggie Cassidy, before he left Lowell for Horace Mann and Columbia University.  It begins, though, with the Kerouac-narrator (here named Michel Bretagne) reflecting on his current state of existence, almost in the mode of Dostoevsky (thinking of Notes from Underground): “I have not liked my life.  It’s nobody’s fault, just me.  I see only sadness everywhere.  Often when a lot of people laugh I don’t see anything funny.  It’s a lot funnier when they don’t trouble themselves with sadness” (65).

Here, we note that the style is not what we would expect from Kerouac; instead, it is composed in short, clipped sentence structures similar to those exhibited in the earlier, existential And the Hippos Were Boiled in Their Tanks (1945).  The reason for this has to do with the difference in languages, Kerouac’s native French dialect versus his learned English style.  As the translator Cloutier observes, “Kerouac notably renders in written form a type of French that, at the time, only existed as speech” (xxiv).  He also goes on to note that, in his translation, he takes a cue from the approach that the author himself used in a few self-translated passages where he “often chose to foreground rather than bury his linguistic foreignness.  His hand-edits disclose moments when he deliberately worsens the spoken English of the characters” (xxxi).  Finally, we get a real glimpse of the double-consciousness that Kerouac lived with every day as a working-class Francophone “Canuck” in a majority English-speaking America.

In a different mode, the 1951 journal is of immeasurable importance in Kerouac’s development as an artist, as it documents, over a three-month period, the working out of his new literary approach, culminating in his discovery that he could write about the “real” events of his life with a focus on character, rather than worrying about plot — that he could essentially approach his writing in whatever way was necessary to render his own original vision of life and art.  It was this breakthrough that led to his “spontaneous” style, first realized the On the Road scroll (it is also interesting to notice that many of the tenets put forward in Kerouac’s “Belief and Technique for Modern Prose” are pulled directly from this journal).

At the same time, it is worthwhile to be reminded here that Kerouac worked through many different iterations of his most famous book, and that his success as a novelist (and for that matter as a poet) is due not merely to some fortuitous burst(s) of energy, but also to many years of thought and the hard work of actually writing hundreds of thousands of words.  The 1951 journal shows him engaged in all the different aspects of this, committing himself to his vocation as a writer and elaborating exactly how he would go about fulfilling it.

Similarly, the 1963 interview initiated by John Clellon Holmes (“Doing Literary Work,” conducted in writing, by letter) further solidifies our image of Kerouac as a serious writer, in contrast to the popular misperception of him as the “King of the Beats.”  Holmes’s questions about his friend’s themes and techniques are insightful and usually designed to elicit sustained thought about the writing itself (not, say, the salacious details of a life; though, occasionally these are connected).  For example, Holmes asks,

In On the Road, you still see things in terms of superlatives, exuberance . . . after this book . . . you become more precise and yet sadder too.  Was this simply a stylistic honing?  A surer grip on your mind and meanings?  Or a disappointment, a reconciliation? (308)
To this, Kerouac answers,
A disappointment.  I was an imbecilically joyous healthy lad bent on thinking only “glad” thoughts but for deliberate philosophical reasons, in fact as a deliberate counterargument to Oswald Spengler and all his Late Civilization Skepsis.  Finally the world creeped up on me . . . and drove in the lesson. (308-09)
But, readers of his work can see a stylistic honing in this process as well, and The Unknown Kerouac registers his evolution, the breakthroughs, changes, and progression in the career of — let’s be honest — one of America’s greatest writers.  This is not to say that Kerouac can’t also be criticized (hints of reasons for that exist here too), but in the critical discussion(s) of twentieth-century literature he can no longer be dismissed.