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For Craft and Country East of Early Winters by Richard Wakefield

Winter 2010 - Vol. 52, No. 1

East of Early Winters by Richard Wakefield
(Evansville, IN: The University of Evansville Press, 2006)

No period in the history of the artsmore doggedly insisted on its concernwith craft—its identification of artistwith artisan—than did the Modernistperiod at the beginning of the twentiethcentury. And yet, at no time were thefamiliar features of craft less in evidence.The American poet Ezra Pound was wontto provide lists of "don'ts" and other prescriptionswith the voice of the mastercraftsman, while his friend and colleagueT. S. Eliot had to publish a short apologyand explanation, "Ezra Pound: His Metricand Poetry," precisely because meter—theformal cause of poetry—was so little inevidence in Pound's work.1

The Modernists virulently rejectednineteenth-century Romantic accountsof the artist as "unacknowledged legislator"and visionary by trying to reclaim thehistorical identity of the arts with craftwork.But they had little interest in givingup the ethereal social authority to whichthe Romantics had laid claim, and so theysought to straddle the Greek conceptionof poet as maker with the Roman oneof poet as vates (as a rather post-doctrinalpriest in a religious order). As the poetcriticJames Longenbach considered in hisstudy of Pound and the Anglo-Irish poetW. B. Yeats, the Modernists reconceivedthe making and judgment of art as a secretbrotherhood, even a "Fratres Minores."2 Ifpoets were no longer to be priests, theycould at least be alchemists and Masonswho may share with Christianity a beliefin "another reality" more real than that ofthe workaday bourgeoisie, but who alsoshared with the modern scientist a technologicalknow-how, an expertise that couldnot be subjected to the judgment of theuninitiated.

In one of his fragmentary divagationson craft in the first age of free verse, Poundcites Eliot's authority: "Eliot has said thething very well when he said, 'No vers islibre for the man who wants to do a goodjob.' "3 The Modernists excelled at saying"No," at ruling what one must not do. Butgiving positive instruction in verse, ratherthan just berating the weaker novices offree verse, would have been like betrayingguild secrets. This phenomenon extendedthroughout the Euro-American world,and so the great French neo-ThomistJacques Maritain at once defended themodesty and integrity of art as craft, but,following Aquinas, insisted that the virtueof art, for the true artist, was connatural,a habitus; therefore, the less-than-apparentcraft and technique in modern art wasto be excused by our appreciating thatthe artist was not indulging idiosyncraticmeans of self-expression, but rather wassubordinating himself to the higher lawsof his art. The virtue of art is "the undeviating determination of works to be made,"and the artist may least of all "deviate" inhis work by fl attering the extrinsic laws ofcontemporary taste.4

Whatever the merits of these claims,Modernist art distinguished itself as byand for those who had the habitus, and thiscemented an already burgeoning dividebetween the popular arts and the higharts, both of which would in their separateways grow waterlogged beneath the tide ofmass culture. By the late '60s, the apparentformlessness of Modernism had goneradically beyond what its early apologistscould have imagined, while the pretensionsof secret craft were either abandonedor exposed as superstition. The age of"self-expression," concept art, and "pop"art was upon us, and the arts in generalhad entered into a new Dark Ages far morebenighted and vacuous than those earlyChristian centuries that gave us cartoonishreliefs of the Marys at the empty tomb.

I offer these historical remarks in hopesof explaining why Richard Wakefield'sbook of poems takes its place as one moreimportant and hard-won advance in therestoration of good poetry to our culture.If our saturation in the cinematic arts allbut guarantees poetry will remain a minorart form, there is no reason it ought to bean execrable one. Moreover, well-craftedpoetry—where the craft is worn like skinrather than as a secret in the soul—canstill offer us fresh but lasting accounts ofhuman experience ordered not only to thebeauty of form but to the splendor of wisdom.One of the few places one must goto find such work is to the University ofEvansville Press, which under the stewardshipof William Baer has been publishingmagazines, anthologies, and a poetry bookseries for nearly two decades. Wakefield'sbook appears as part of the Richard WilburAward series and makes a worthy, ifmodest, contribution.

The author also of a book of criticismon Robert Frost, Wakefield's approach toverse and its narrative material in manyways extends the account of American—especially rural—life that Frost immortalized.The problem with which his poemscontend derives precisely from the diffi-culty of that word "immortalized," however;for, when poets begin to immortalizesomething in their work you may beconfident it has begun to decay in reality.The first section of East of Early Wintersattends to this decay, providing us with aseries of vivid if plainly spoken vignettesabout boyhood in agricultural westernWashington. The poems fold in to oneanother, providing an evocative story ofthose episodes of burden and initiationthat characterize being the youngest in anextended agricultural clan. Significantly,"Horses" begins,

They sent the boy to build a fire
beneath
the steel water trough after a week
of freezing fog had hung a hoary
wreath
on every bud and leaf along the
creek.

While the next, "Horseback," all butrepeats,

The women sent the boy to call the
men
for supper; too young to drive, he
had to ride
this slow and stumbling horse that
never again
would earn its feed or farm this
country side.

These are representative passages; tobegin with form, the elegiac stanzas (abab),following in the footsteps of Gray, constituteWakefield's most frequent form, followed closely by Italian quatrains (rhymingabba); and, like the mature Frost, Wakefield gives free rein to anapestic substitutionsthat disrupt without really breakingthe pentameter. Although I quote twofirst sentences that conclude convenientlyat the end of the quatrain, Wakefield generallytends to enjamb his lines heavily,and the poems are printed without stanzabreaks or the conventional majuscule todenote the start of lines, so that nearlyall the poems take on the appearance ofplain blocks of distilled colloquial talk.This lack of emphasis suggests the blankverse of Frost or, more distantly, the Lakepoets, while in fact every poem but one("Against the Flood") is rhymed. As such,his craft is systematic and masterful, whileunobtrusive even to the modern ear grownunaccustomed to rhyme.

With such formal attributes noted, however,we have only begun to touch the significance of these parallel openings. Likethese, the other poems in the first sectionof the book (Rural Matters), generally narrateinstances of a boyhood tasting the firstsweat of labor and testing himself in relationto his elders. "Meshing the Gears," forinstance, gives us the boy graduated fromriding broken-down horses on errands todriving a "wheezing truck":

Bad clutch, no synchromesh, it
would buck
and kick up dust like a frolicking
calf in the sun
if he shifted through the reluctant
gears without
a sure but subtle, strong but gentle
touch.

The enjambment across stanzas may concealthe rhyme from the reader here, butthe sense of a slow, indeed natural, maturationinto the tools, customs, and practicesof farm life shows forth. Frost had written,darkly, of "The Need to Be Versed inCountry Things," but Wakefield's poemsdepict such "versing" quite sincerely inthemselves: the ways of rural life are longto learn, and we encounter repeatedlythose moments when the "put-upon" boywitnesses in awe the kind of man's workfor which he is slowly being prepared.However, the collection as a whole castsa dark refl ection on these well-observedreveries over childhood and early youth.It is not the breaking-off of the individualvignettes that haunts, but the breakingoffof the way of life they depict. Wakefield cannot complement his depictions ofboyhood on the farm by further scenes ofadulthood and old age, because the wayof life as a whole has been dying out fordecades and the poet's (or the poet's persona's)family is among its casualties. Andso the book cannot become a unified narrativeprecisely because its subject-matteris the breaking of once enduring culturalcontinuities.

In consequence of this breaking off ofa stable and continuous life, the secondsection of the book gathers, among otherthings, odd vignettes—tattered memories—of local characters like "HenryGrady," who refused to stop for the onetraffic light on Main Street because "Hell,he'd been here before it was." His neighborsthus curse and admire him, dependingon where they happen to be in relationto his pickup, but such stories never endwell:

A semi sent old Henry to his reward.
No matter how it's resisted or
ignored,
the future's coming at us just the
same.

The culture Wakefield depicts cannotcomplete its life, because its life has beencut off. Many of his poems about Othersx end with aphoristic and sententious statementsas this one does, underscoring thepoignancy and portentousness that the lossof a venerable way of life provokes. Themeaning of such episodes is too consequentialto be obscure and such summaryexpressions reinforce the sense that a onceliving past may either be forgotten outrightor sealed in amber. "Scholarship Boy"presents us with a character less colorfulthan an old codger like Henry, but morefamiliar: the farm youth whose talent—inthis case for basketball—becomes a ticketoff the farm and into the mobile meritocracyof contemporary America. Clutchingan old practice ball upon his return fromcollege, "He knows / that he was leavinglong before he left."

The book's final section, Rural Returns,begins as one might expect: "They told meif I went / my heart would break to see theplace," the poet observes before returningto the family homestead now overrun bythe elements. And other poems mark likejourneys to lost homes, as "The OrchardGate" depicts two brothers getting lost intheir effort to find "their parents' place"after thirty years. Wakefield does notmerely show childhood initiations abortedin the name of mobility and "progress,"but accounts for why this came to pass. In"Windfall," policies of taxation that favorcorporate farms and regulations that punishfarmers for not maintaining their propertieslike suburbanites have created a landscapeof "'For Sale' signs in the fencerowscrub." The poem's protagonist makes a"windfall" profit by allowing a beekeeperto let his bees feed on the acres of thistlethat have sprung up on land too unprofitableon account of taxation to be planted.And "A Standing Place" takes us back tothe New Deal, that moment in Americanhistory when the federal governmentmost brazenly asserted itself to establish anew state/corporate regime in which therewould be little room for family farms. Inthat poem, a farmer looks down upon hisflooded land—land flooded permanentlynow that it is part of the basin of a reservoir,land taken from him through thatfamiliar raison d'état, eminent domain.

The volume as a whole, especially inits poems that depict Wakefield grown up,suggest that his has not been a life composedexclusively of regret, but has beenrewarded in marital love and the love ofGod. But the sections that bookend thecollection impress upon us that, while itis possible to live well under most circumstances,the now-broken cycle of familyfarm life was not given up as inferior but,for many, was wrenched away by the handof the state and the spirit of "consumer"progress. Wakefield gives us not poems ofoneiric nostalgia but of measured indignation;one hears in them a plea to thosewho still farm to allow their children tocomplete their initiation, as it were, and topersist, and one hears at least the faint hopethat our rural returns might not be onlythose of passing tourists but of a peoplethat has rediscovered and recaptured theworth of farm ways.

Wakefield's writing is no less devotedto the work of poetry as craft than it is todepicting the craft of rural life. In "Verseand Universe," Wakefield comments indirectlyon Frost's well-known observationthat poetry sets the rhythms of speechagainst meter. In the poem, Wakefield'spersona is skeptical that such "resistance"or "counterforce" accurately accountsfor life in general or poetry in particular,as his interlocutor insists. Certainly, inFrost, one sees the meter often scuffed upto reveal some such tension, as do we inWakefield. And yet, Frost's statement maywell have been a mere concession to thetastes of Modernism, making his generallytraditional versification sound esoteric ata time when art was thought to be filledwith secrets and paradoxes held in tension.Frost never needed to break the pentameterto make his verse sound like speech; hebroke it only for various localized reasons.In any case, it is not in such "tension" thatFrost's genius lies, and Wakefield's poemsdevelop Frost's rural colloquial languageby giving us a fluid, natural, and generallyprosaic voice. This proves a weaknessas well as strength, for Wakefield's realismis narrative rather than descriptive, and hislyrics are therefore far less vivid of imagethan were Frost's greatest poems.

If Frost stressed the unnatural tensionsof verse to beat the Modernists at theirown game, Wakefield shows that versethat sounds more like natural speech thananything Frost wrote can be accomplishedin faithful meter and rhyme and that,therefore, these neglected but essentialaspects of poetic craft should be rediscoverednot as difficult but as accommodatingconditions. "In a Poetry Workshop"wittily mocks the modern scorn of meterand rhyme and its pretentious ticks, suchas the refusal to capitalize the first-personsubject pronoun. Moderns reject rhyme,alliteration, and assonance "so the readerdoesn't think we're playing God," Wakefield observes. But his poems demonstratethat, while a poet's craft is not the secretof some occult vates, it must be analogousto "playing God." For, these poems,like nature itself, insist unobtrusively butopenly, upon the formal principles ofintelligible order; they advocate also anorder of civilization that has been put intoretreat. Of craft and farm country alike,they insist that much which has long layfallow must be sown again.

NOTES

  1. T. S. Eliot, To Criticize the Critic and Other Writings(Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press, 1991),162–82.
  2. James Longenbach, Stone Cottage (Oxford:Oxford University Press, 1988), 3–33. Cf. for "FratresMinores," Ezra Pound, Personae (New York: NewDirections, 1990), 78.
  3. Ezra Pound, Literary Essays(New York: New Directions, 1968), 12.
  4. JacquesMaritain, Art and Scholasticism and the Frontiers of Poetry(South Bend, IN: University of Notre Dame Press,1974), 9.