From the “Soiree” series. Short essays incited by the Soiree de Poesie Francaise held monthly at the Cranford TeaSpot in Cranford, NJ with my careful co-host Carrie Pedersen Hudak.
The third was staring at his glass from out abysmal pain;
With tears his eyes were bitten in beneath his bulbous brain.
“Who is the sodden wretch?” I said. They told me: “Paul Verlaine.”
~~Robt. Service, Gods in the Gutter
Here lived and died a man of towering passions. All of his wisdom is the poverty of passion. To be blown about by the winds of his passion taught him all of life that he would ever know. His reaction to these buffets and blows of interior turmoil was to write exquisitely disciplined poetry. His poetry could contain and describe his wild passion; or, if not describe, indicate and evoke those passions in his readers. For, of course, Verlaine was one of the first masters and principle proponents of the idea that vagueness and nuance (or “the apprehension of reality though sensation” as Philip Stephan puts it more precisely) is its own value in the creative exercise of language. Naturally, when Verlaine came to write a directive adumbrating his new view of poetics in his justly famous poem “Art Poetique,” one of his first instructions to would-be poets is to “take eloquence and wring its neck!”
When passion is pursued in the mood of passion, and not “recollected in tranquility,” as Wordsworth recommends, special problems–both of validity and precision–arise. To be in the mood of passion is to be a bit intemperate and overblown, yet to represent or evoke that passion is to require the calm precision of the watchmaker squinting willfully at his bench. Perhaps only God could do the thing fully, sending a third of his tripartite self to live and suffer a life of passion, inspiring by his demise and titillating all of the arts for centuries. But if one must pen the poem as well as suffer its inspiration? How is one to do it? Even our man on the cross felt abandoned in such circumstances–and this is Verlaine’s precise starting point.
College DJs who play the loudest music often have a laid-back demeanor that they present between the tracks. Using loudness in amplified music as a rough contemporary equivalent for passion, we can tune in to limitless hours of top-volume hardcore screeds and screams punctuated by a laconically under-caffeinated tween’s wearily somnolent hypnosis-inducing voice. How else can one’s underpowered words bracket the screech of a jet engine? And this is world-weary wispiness that Verlaine often uses to approach his most emotive moments.
Surfers also have a lifestyle approach to their art. You can’t master the enormous energy of a righteous curl, you must surrender to it. And yet, of course, there is a great art in the surrender; a finesse, and a requisite strength. But, and this is the key distinction, one must throw one’s whole being into the task–including one’s habitual attitude toward life, the way you carry yourself in daily tasks. The surfer’s reward for going whole hog, for giving up any other way of life? The ride of their lives! A seemless oneness with the wave, with God.
Images of extreme delicacy are a hallmark of Verlaine’s poetry, and I don’t mind indulging in a few over-the-crest metaphors to make my point regarding his verse. Verlaine may be one of the most difficult poets, besides Mallarme, to translate and keep the emotional meaning of his work intact. This is to his credit, and to Poetry’s eternal glory. I feel that the way his translated poems best resonate is in their referring so deeply to imagined moments of perception, with all the indistinct machinery of subjective consciousness intact. I think of Robert Lowell’s short sweet poem “Myopia,” which perfectly capture’s the time between removing one’s eyeglasses and the onset of sleep as an objective correlative to how Verlaine’s poetic technique operates. But with Verlaine, much vaster ranges of emotion and ranges of subjectivity are handled with this sort of one-off precision. He did find a few sorts of experiences especially effective in his experiments, and one often comes across indistinctly heard music, voices in other rooms, the blurry warbling of a fountain, the smeariness of tears whose origin is unknown even to the weeper.
From the turmoil of his life, he brought forth dreamlets of beauty, remorseful echoes of joys gone by. Verlaine “grabbed for the gusto,” as we might say. And these moments of gusto, of beauty, then left permanent traces in his memory, which he recreates with the delicacy of watercolors and with a careful attention to suggestive detail–allowing the reader’s own imagination to be more fully engaged in the task of re-creation. What had been his private experience becomes your own private experience, since you must bring the details and explicit emotions to the piece that Verlaine creates. He will not profane the pinched heart with an abstract label; he will not narrow the field of his telescope with a name. In this way, his compositions are almost musical, with a suggested theme or setting, and with much of the enjoyment created by being subsequently aroused within the reader. Pornography perhaps achieves this same effect, but with a simple explicitness of imagery and soundtrack–and an equally stereotyped outcome.
Not for Verlaine such paucity of passions! We do, perhaps, feel some effect of being forced to squeak or groan upon command, as if our own feelings are not as great, not as sharply engaged as the author’s are. Too, there is a sense of exhaustion that can set in–not the intellectual exhaustion that happens when reading some brawny-brained poet, or the tiredness of tracing out too-whimsically filleted a plot, having trod from the Caucuses to moon-craters and back again–but an exhaustion at having to experince too deeply our own conjured feelings. With Verlaine, quite uniquely perhaps, there is an emphasis on getting out of the poem what you are able to bring to the poem. I think perhaps his poetry can get us to the irritable sleepiness of a good psychotherapy session; we have glimpsed the cunning crowded whirling of a few of our enmeshed emotional cogs, noted a few revealed connections that we hadn’t been conscious of before, and then, aghast, expressed, and, strictly speaking, satiated at feeling these new revelations, we need to return to our old selves for awhile. The mental incisions must heal and we must reassure ourselves of our old homey surroundings as we yawn and blink.
There are many risks inherent in this strategy of creation. The reader may be too young, naive, or emotionally undeveloped to be able to bring to the poem the sorts of feelings that the poet-surgeon is so delicately attempting to diagnose and evoke. Verlaine’s poems may simply seem weak or vague to such a reader. But Verlaine is too careful a craftsman to allow even the casual reader to dismiss his efforts, which are so very exacting in their forms. A bedpost chiseled by Bernini is not just a bedpost; a slip of the tongue by Freud himself is a fraught affair! The labor of Verlaine’s efforts are obvious even when the effects are ephemeral.
It is this tenacious veracity in the technique that can let even the most vigilant reader relax into a trusted relationship with the innovative tricks that Verlaine is attempting in his verse. He has the strict form of a Parnassian, and the cutting-edge content of a symbolist. Baudelaire first opened these floodgates, and in English the emphasis on vague evocativeness came to a head in the early Yeats. Yeats uses Irish myth and the flitting world of faerie to float the reader to new realms of daydream and emotional meaning. Writers like Verlaine, like the Impressionists in painting and Debussy in music, sought to create new feelings and sensations that did not yet have a name. Whether such a search for new experiences can ever bear true fruit, I cannot say. But even a old saw needs to be re-toothed when it wears dull. Each age seems to have its own “sensibility,” its sense of itself as being different from those who came before, and from those who trail after. Perhaps this is all that may be reasonably said about the matter–the vortex where style and substance intersect.