Some Modern Versions of Pastoral

Pastoral, Pragmatism, and Twentieth-Century American PoetryPastoral, Pragmatism, and Twentieth-Century American Poetry by Ann Marie Mikkelsen

My Goodreads rating: 4 of 5 stars

Ann Marie Mikkelsen’s extensive research has yielded a very informative book on the use of pastoral themes in twentieth century poetry. Her prime exhibits are select poems by Robert Frost, William Carlos Williams, Wallace Stevens and John Ashbery, but she also briefly covers works by Gertrude Stein, Lyn Hejinian and Lisa Robertson. As she examines the poems, Mikkelsen demonstrates, either by way of clear connection or filtered influence, their relationship to the philosophical pragmatism of William James and John Dewey.  In this way, she provides a broader cultural explanation, one that exceeds the usual investigations into literary history, for the presence of pastoral themes in twentieth century poetry.

She begins by providing a fine summary of the origins of American pastoral poetry, tracing its roots from Theocritus and Virgil through Walt Whitman, and then introduces the philosophical contributions of James and Dewey [including insightful quotations from Dewey’s Art as Experience], which she pursues in ensuing chapters, simultaneously interweaving the literary criticism of William Empson, John Crowe Ransom, Leo Marx, Raymond Williams and others, all of which is intended to highlight the political thrust of twentieth century pastoral poetry. Indeed, pastoral literature has a long history of political and social commentary, as noted by Empson, Renato Poggioli and other literary critics.  Mikkelsen’s thesis does not thoroughly examine the basic tenets of pragmatism or its philosophical origins, and it contains many conclusory statements respecting pragmatism’s application to pastoral literature that we must take on faith, even as there is ample proof of the general influence of James on Stevens (they were correspondents) and Dewey on Williams.

Given this testament, Mikkelsen informs us that “tramp poetics” is a species of pastoral poetry that was forged in the late nineteenth century in response to the growing numbers of migrant workers and homeless itinerants that appeared on the American landscape in the post-Civil war era. Whitman characterized himself as a “loafer” and Frost briefly lived the life of tramp in 1894, the year that Bliss Carman and Richard Hovey’s Songs of Vagabondia was published. The tramps were individuals, mostly men, who rejected the stability of domestic life and community membership. They spurned hard work “for a life of ease and pleasure,” and so were popularly portrayed as shiftless, lazy and irresponsible, a view reflected in James’s own writing on the subject in Psychology.

But the enduring presence of the poor in the American landscape eventually forced the country to consider the problem of unemployment as a substantial contributor to this social phenomenon. Journalists, including Stephen Crane, “donned rags and took to the rails” to report on the jobless class which “threatened to destabilize the modern industrial economy with strikes and protests.” Frost’s hometown of Lawrence, Massachusetts was the site of labor unrest during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries (notably the Lawrence Strike of 1912), and his own experience as a mill worker provided a first-hand awareness of the realities faced by the working and unemployed poor. The political response eventually increased labor’s economic leverage and afforded safety nets such as social security and unemployment insurance. However, as Mikkelsen points out, the cosmic irony was that more income and leisure time resulted in the working class “buying into a consumerist ethos that channeled political into cultural capital.” Thus, the proletariat was delivered into the hands of the bourgeois and ruling classes.

Of course, the American journey to late capitalism took time. As Leo Marx points out in The Machine in the Garden, Thomas Jefferson believed the American ideal was most completely realized in the pursuit of husbandry within an agricultural community, and there was body of pastoral literature that reinforced this belief. Certainly, discourses on the manifold benefits of farm (or country) life are found in Virgil’s Georgics (actually a revision of Hesiod’s earlier work) and other pastoral texts. Classical pastoral hallmarks, like those associated with the arcadian fantasy celebrated by Jacopo Sannazaro and Phillip Sidney, embodied idealizations of rural life and promised love, security and stability, even if the men and women figured therein often comically or pathetically fell short of the ideal, either as victims of their own devices or that of outlying forces like nature or the government. Mikkelsen contends that these idealizations, when they were adapted by the emerging Jeffersonian democracy, aided the ascendancy of the first citizens who were “white, middle class and male” (and presumably living on country estates such as Mount Vernon).  The myth of America was, hence, initricably bound up with the pastoral myth.

The poet, on the other hand, represented a freer spirit that, by removing himself as an invested participant in the commercial aspects of the community, was able to more accurately reflect the experience of the “representative man.”  Mikkelsen believes the pastoral god Pan (as figured in Frost’s poem, “Pan With Us”) became a harbinger of the modern poet as such a representative. For James and Dewey, Mikkelsen says, “the poet was a creative force who embodied the essence of pragmatic thought, and each explicitly associated the poet’s perspective with their visions of re-imagining of the ideal American self and community.”  She further maintains that James and Dewey employed “explicitly pastoral rhetoric in their philosophical approaches to modern ethics, and thus influenced the “‘pragmatic pastorals’ of their literary counterparts.”  The early twentieth century pastorals of Robert Frost and Williams Carlos Williams, which can be more correctly characterized as anti-pastoral, presented a progressive unease (in Frost) and discontent (in Williams) with classical pastoral archetypes and, particularly, how these ideals were translated by American culture.

The “tramp,” by his very presence, became a human protest that checked the haloed ideals of family and community. So it was that James had a change of heart, as he wrote in Pragmatism, that yielded a new image of the tramp as “democratic seer,” an “individual capable of revealing the elusive, transitory nature of ‘value,'” who thereby enabled a “‘new centre and new perspective’ upon human existence.” Thus, Mikkelsen summarizes:

His mental labor accrues value in proportion to the tramp’s refusal to acknowledge traditional concepts of material value, thus precluding the possibility of economic compensation for the latter’s work, his civic participation limited to a “sympathetic” contribution of perspective that is willingly appropriated by a spiritually impoverished and implicitly more deserving middle class.

Notwithstanding this, James still advocated for what we recognize as traditional American values, with a vision of men as virile “ideals of hardihood and discipline” and women as “tough-minded” pragmatists who were not ideologues, but willing to use logic or their senses in order to follow the maternal and nurturing forces of nature.

Some forty years later, Dewey’s own pragmatism or “naturalism” (as he preferred to call it) moved beyond James’s feminized portrait. Dewey was progressive and pro-immigrant. He rejected rigid ideological and theological standards that would “stifle democracy.” Writing for the Partisan Review, he stated:

Democracy cannot obtain either adequate recognition of its own meaning or coherent practical realism as long as antinaturalism operates to delay or frustrate the use of methods by which alone understanding of, and consequent ability to guide, social relationships can be attained.

Mikkelsen characterizes the mid-century pragmatist that Dewey envisioned as “not an orderly or obedient soldier, but an intellectually various aesthete,” who rejected the “dangerous passivity of the populace” for “active engagement with the political process.” It’s not too difficult to see how Dewey’s sort of pragmatism provided background for New Deal policies and the rise of the Civil Rights and Free Speech movements.

Further, Dewey’s pronouncements on aesthetics seem prophetic today when he observed that “‘changes in industrial conditions’ too often led artists to develop eccentric and ‘isolated means of self-expression,’ rather than art that is fully integrated into its environment.” As a corollary, the processes of production in the private control of labor “suppress and limit esthetic quality.” We observe this when we get to the urban pastorals of Williams and Ashbery. In anticipating Dewey, Frost saw the dissolution of traditional values, but even more effectively presented “the anxieties and cultural difficulties involved in translating such philosophical (and implicitly economic) transvaluations into new visions of the ethical individual – especially the artist – in society.”

Given this thorough background, Mikkelsen’s readings of the Frost’s poems are consistently informative and interesting. I especially enjoyed rereading “Pan With Us,” “Two Tramps in Mud Time,” “The Wood-Pile,” “The Fear,” “The Smile” and the other poems she examined, though I sometimes felt that important themes were held at bay while she was shepherding her thesis. For example, in reading the oft-anthologized (and frequent subject of critical comment) “Death of the Hired Man,” she portrays the itinerant Silas (a farm hand formerly employed by the husband and wife, Warren and Mary, whose dramatic dialogue forms the substance of the poem) as a “victim of the abstraction of labor,” which is technically true because physical labor of the type Silas performed was in the process of being greatly reduced, if not wholly replaced by modern technology. But it was like Frost to tuck a blibical narrative into the social commentary underlying his poems, as here Silas is a sort of prodigal son returned “home,” not to his own family, but to the nearest thing that to him represents a family, viz., his former employers, who are reflections of society-at-large. Frost, as other writers of his generation, saw the exigent needs of the working classes as largely a question of human dignity, and even though Mikkelsen notes Frost’s proud declarations of his own independence and self-sufficiency, he was accutely aware of the human crisis that was many years later addressed by the creation of social security benefits (which are funded by contributions from both employers and employees).

Mikkelsen perceptively compares the couple’s dramatic dialogue to the shepherd duets found in the ancient eclogues, and also places the poem squarely in the tradition of tramp ballads, but at the poem’s heart lies the story of the gradual corruption of the traditional American family, as figured by Silas’s purposeful refusal to seek shelter at the nearby home of his own rich brother, a “director in the bank,” whom Silas “won’t be made ashamed of to please.” The conflict between the opposing mores of metropolitan society (figured by the bank) and those of the country (figured by the farm) has been a major pastoral theme for over two thousand years, but Mikkelsen elides its significance here. At the turn of the twentieth century, when Frost wrote this poem, the cities were being inundated with former farm workers who were seeking a new life and, particularly, a change in their class status. These movements, borne of the Industrial Revolution, divided the traditional American family. Ironically, Warren’s resentment of Silas stems from the latter’s leaving Warren’s farm during harvest time in order to obtain a better paying job.

Silas represents the old pastoral virtues of life in the country: where you learned all you needed to know in order to make a living, but also where living one’s life as he saw fit expressed a freedom that was more essential than holding down a steady job. He is a throwback when considered against the new strictures of the rising bourgeoisie of the mercantile class, which is figured by Silas’s brother and Harold Wilson, a college student who worked a summer job on the farm, whom Silas still believes he can teach to “build a load of hay.” These two worlds offer competing visions of human dignity and worthy enterprise, and it is refracted in the couple’s debate on the pros and cons for taking Silas in.  While the emotional character of the debate corresponds to James’s views on masculinity and femininity, Mikkelsen omits this point in favor of a more topical, albeit valid, observation (fostered some 30 years later by Frost himself) that the couple’s discussion could be read as a conventional Republican – Democratic debate [which might be better expressed as the contrast between the local biases and primary concerns of the rural “red” states and those of the metropolitan “blue” states.]

The poem’s central lines, however, are about what “home” means: “Home is the place where/They have to take you in” and “Something you somehow haven’t to deserve.” In this way, Frost poses a societal problem in the form of a wholly domestic drama that primarily concerns the question of human dignity, which originates from a sense of family; it is Silas’s dignity and self-respect that is juxtaposed against the question of community ethics, obligations, and economic rights. It is not an accident that Silas is compared to a “hound” and found leaning against the door to the barn (where the Christian myth was born), for our view of the “stranger” as the specular image of ourselves is the first door we must walk through in addressing these questions.

Mikkelsen’s discussion of Williams Carlos Williams urban pastorals, particularly Patterson, is especially penetrating when it focuses on Williams’s urge to “embrace the foulness” of the world. [One sees this view further reflected later in Frank O’Hara’s popular poem, “Song [Is It Dirty?]”. The negative view of urban corruption, as compared to the rural community’s accepted harbor of purity and innocence, was one of the hallmarks of classic pastoralism and later embraced by the Romanticism, as unequivocally stated in William Blake’s “London.” Williams was one of the first poets to notoriously embrace the imperfection of mankind as a salutary theme. Yet Williams knew this was considered outré among poetry’s elites, as Williams saw himself and other American-based poets portrayed as a literary “Ashcan school” in contrast to expatriates, particularly T.S. Eliot and Ezra Pound, who were invested in an “overtly ironic and apocalyptic perspective” and whose readers were perplexed by Williams’s “nuanced representations of daily life in urban and suburban New Jersey.” Williams adopted Dewey’s pragmatic aesthetics and considered his poetry akin to the pastoral tradition which was deliberately unsophisticated and unvarnished. Thus, in Book Four of Patterson, Williams fashions an urban pastoral using traditional names of the shepherd and his maid, Corydon and Phyllis, to tell what Mikkelsen characterizes as a “hopeful yet troubled aesthetic” in “a series of idylls depicting the amorous, often disturbing, and sometimes comic encounters between a middle-aged, gay, wealthy woman; her younger employee, a nurse, and Dr. Patterson himself.” Prevailing critical opinion recoiled at this. But Williams, reacting to criticism by Randall Jarrell, said: “If you are going to write realistically of the conception of filth in the world, it can’t be pretty . . .What in the world is an artist to do? He is not a moralist. He sees things, reacts to them, must take them into consideration.” Mikkelsen observes that “Williams’s pastoral poetics is most radical, perhaps, in its recognition that not all deemed ‘filth’ or ‘dirt’ is necessarily ‘polluting,’ in part because determinations of ‘pollutants’ are so relative and ideologically based.” While it is not possible here to cover the substance of Mikkelsen’s discourse on Book Four of Patterson, I can only say that Mikkelsen’s reading of this part of the poem is a compelling one. A fortiori, it is now beyond dispute that Williams’s views became foundational for American poetry up to and including the contemporary period.

Mikkelsen focuses on Stevens’ purported obsession with his own physicality in “fat” poems like “Bantam of Pine-Woods,” “Owl’s Clover” and “Credences of Summer” and draws forth provocative readings that bypass the usual code-breaking that marks much Stevens criticism. She draws out conflicted images of masculinity in “Bantam of Pine-Woods” and reads Stevens’s own fight with obesity into the mix. In “Owl’s Clover” she finds a portly figure of disorder in “fat Jocundas,” who is ambiguously characterized as a Falstaffian trickster, the opposite of the “black-blooded scholar,” and a “medium man among other medium men” who is “indifferent to the poet’s hum.” In this way, she renders Jocundas a disconcerting stand-in for the average man, which then challenges the authority of the poet who physically resembles him. Mikkelsen’s evinces the “fat” in “Credences of Summer,” where the “fat” “roseate characters” of the poem are viewed as necessary way-points in Stevens’s mundo. While Mikkelsen ably states her case, I never felt she had a true compass to Stevens’s work and it was difficult to accept her analysis from her deconstructed explications of the poems. Stevens was a notoriously private person and few have attempted to wed his personal life to his poetry, for there is little evidence of it there. Stevens’s figurations are more like that which one finds in a fable, where descriptive values like “fat” and “inchling” stand-in for larger ideas of life. So, for example, in “Bantam” the figure of “Chief Iffucan” (i.e., “if you can”) of “Azcan” (the purported ability of “as can,” but more likely “ashcan,” as in garbage) is the “universal cock” strutting his stuff, and thus he is “Fat!” with an illusory blown-up ego of the “ten-foot poet” (a “poet” because the imagination is always involved in the hyperbole of such inflations). The “Fat” abstraction of the self is opposed to the reality of the “personal” of the “inchling” man:

Fat! Fat! Fat! Fat! I am the personal.
Your world is you. I am my world.

Stevens, again using the “fat” metaphor, shows us this in “A Rabbit as King of the Ghosts,” where we are figured by the vulnerable rabbit in the real world and must “hump” ourselves up in order to deal with the “Fat cat,” which represents the abstracted enlargement of the threat of death in our minds. In order to keep the idea of death at bay, we create an illusion of ourselves “that fills the four corners of night,” becoming larger than the cat, and in this way we supplant the idea of the death in our minds. Life is complex, and there are assorted reasons why we inflate our significance for purposes of survival, procreation and feelings of self-worth; at the same time we should understand that we are preternaturally prone to this type of ego-inflation, which can, if not kept in check, deleteriously distort our view of reality.

In confining her interpretations to the physical plane, rather than expanding them to their metaphysical extensions, Mikkelsen reduces Stevens’s figurations to rather naive perceptions of the poetry. Moreover, the lack of a substantive discussion of Stevens’s pastoral themes in poems like “Anecdote of the Jar”, “The Idea of Order at Key West” and “The Auroras of Autumn,” which do not have a clear biographical or philosophical touchstone, creates a serious void in Mikkelsen’s study.

Mikkelsen is correct in determining the underlying rationale for the camp and irony in Ashbery’s work, which delights “in the consumerism and specularity, as well as artifacts of mass culture considered vulgar, extreme, overtly feminine, and in poor if sincere taste,” which is the way he attempts to deal “with the problems that life imposes and which are out of one’s grasp.” She is insightful here:

Ashbery develops an attitude toward modern subjectivity that acknowledges its culturally produced and contingent nature, his pastoral poetics modeling the representative man and speaker as a figure marked primarily by his alterity rather than his centrality. . . Ashbery’s poetry permits the reader to linger in its strange spaces while pointing to their ultimate fragility, their connection to the flux inherent in human experience. Encouraging what Dewey termed a “surrender” to art, Ashbery’s lyrics also create islands of safety, acknowledging a state that the philosopher described as an “adequate yielding of the self . . . possible only through a controlled activity that well may be intense.”

I, however, differ with weighted biographically-tinged interpretations (that Ashbery himself expressly rejects) which Mikkelsen adopts to trace homosexual themes and a changing vision of masculinity in poems like “Eclogue,” “The Picture of Little J.A. in a Prospect of Flowers,” “Variations, Calypso and Fugue on a Theme of Ella Wheeler Wilcox” and “Rural Objects,” thereby beggaring more important aspects of those poems. First, it is mistaken to say that Ashbery’s ‘surrealism’ (a characterization of his style I would dispute) emerged from an “ideological emphasis on ‘realism’ during the period.” We must remember that, in Ashbery’s formative years, Abstract Expressionism (which dates from at least 1946) was the rage in the NYC art scene. In fact, U.S. poetry’s embrace of the surreal began much earlier with Eliot and Stevens, who got it from the French Symbolists, reflecting the widening influence of European artists as Munch, Magritte, and Duchamp. I would rather we understand that Ashbery’s poetry, to the extent it invokes pastoral artifacts, embodies a post-pastoral sensibility in the way it instrumentally advances or opposes classical pastoral devices, often by way of parody, irony or camp, in order to illustrate a particular engagement with the mythical, historical or cultural forces that are suspended within the event of a specific poem. Thus, Ashbery’s own artistic approach is more in harmony with the prevailing aesthetic trends of his time, rather than serving as a late rebellion to already rejected notions.

As French Symbolists like Baudelaire and Rimbaud, Ashbery adopted the manner of the hip flâneur. To the extent surrealistic attributes are present in his work, they are mainly in the service of social comment. And though one may find a commonality of spirit with the work of other gay artists of his era, sexual politics was only one of many mirrors in the kaleidoscope through which Ashbery viewed the social, philosophical and political ferment of the post-WW2 era. Ashbery’s vision, as Mikkelsen acknowledges, opposed entrenched frames of thinking and directly attacked, in poems like “Eclogue” and “The Picture of Little J.A. in a Prospect of Flowers,” the insidious intent beneath the public sale of traditional American values that were fresh off the farm. He opted, instead, for a wholesale detachment from such monolithic thinking in favor of unstructured and open-ended approaches that were, coincidentally or not, the foundational struts of Dewey’s form of pragmatism. In “Variations, Calypso and Fugue on a Theme of Ella Wheeler Wilcox”, Ashbery writes:

Well, it is a good experience, to divest oneself of some tested ideals, some old standbys,
And even finding nothing to put in their place is a good experience,
Preparing one, as it does, for the consternation that is to come.

Without question, all of Mikkelsen’s readings (of poems like “Eclogue,” “The Picture of J.A. in a Prospect of Flowers,” and “A Pastoral”) are informative as much as they are provocative. She very well evokes the latent tension in “Some Trees,” but omits noting the significance of the pastoral setting and the “comeliness” of nature as a symbolic, if only aspirational, return to prelapsarian innocence, which is then contrasted to the “reticence” that city-life and the civilized world surreptitiously imposes in the name of societal norms. It is worth noting, however, that “Some Trees” was written while Ashbery was still a student at Harvard, and that in this poem he was using the figurative archetypes of pastoral literature instrumentally, without the pointed irony that was only a few years later to become one of the signature staples of his work. Ashbery, now in his eighties, has sufficiently demonstrated over the course of a superb literary career that his poetry is not a subscription service for obtaining predefined attitudes toward its subject matter. Of all the poets writing today, Ashbery is preeminent and capable of a range and diversity that can still astound us.

Lastly, Mikkelsen’s brief examination of the work of Gertrude Stein and her influence on such writers as Hejinian and Robertson is very illuminating. Although I was familiar with Stein’s poetry and prose work, Mikkelsen’s analysis provided an interesting pastoral lens through which to view it, and this served as a fitting introduction to the work of Hejinian and Robertson.

Mikkelsen’s book is one of only a few modern studies that investigate the influence of pastoral themes in twentieth century poetry. An older work is John F. Lynen’s book, The Pastoral Art of Robert Frost, a 1960 study. More work needs to be done here, but Mikkelsen’s book will remain a sturdy guide for future critics.

View all my reviews at Goodreads

Categories: Literary Criticism

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