Sunday, 15 March 2020

No 99 - Paper conversation: Sydney Clouts and Stanley Kunitz

When I wrote my study of the poetry of Sydney Clouts, entitled Intimate Lightning, I framed it with his life-story, but otherwise pursued what Clouts himself termed “the method of the fleck and the speck”. In his poetry, this meant that he picked up on scintilla of material existence – a rock, a gesture, a bird, a beetle, the gleam of light on a coat-button – and placed them in startling, interdependent juxtapositions. In my study, it meant that I picked out ideas and images in the poems that intrigued me, and wrote up short responses, in no especial order. A different reader would make a different selection – just what Clouts would like, I think – and more can always be said.

Especially when more material comes to light. Clouts’s wife, Marge, who has been wonderfully generous with my intrusive project, recently sent me two hitherto unseen letters which contain some interesting commentary. These are letters written by Clouts to his twin brother Cyril, rediscovered and passed along by Cyril’s widow, Rose. One letter, undated but probably late 1959, discusses efforts to publish an early collection entitled “First Poems”. It includes some slightly diffident correspondence with the then more famous poet and novelist William Plomer (Plomer would later present Clouts with the Olive Schreiner prize for the collection One Life). More illuminating, given that we have rather little of Clouts’s thoughts on poetry itself, are his own comments on some of the poems, including some of his best-known.  The relevant sections of this letter read as follows:

Dearest Cyril,
            Your long 3-letter letter came a few days ago and now your letter about the ms. [“First Poems”] has arrived, with one from Plomer, whose words are friendly. He says, “I have read your First Poems with curiosity and attention, particularly as I had already seen yr work in Butler’s and McNab’s anthologies. May I say that the clear imagery and delicacy of touch in your poems are appreciated by me. The two I like best are ‘Roy Kloof’ and ‘Dawn Hippo’. Cape’s seldom publish new poets. Even where merit is evident, the prospect of financial loss is bound to influence them, and they do not feel able to publish this volume. But don’t let this discourage you. ...

Plomer suggests that Cyril try Chatto & Windus, to which Clouts adds wearily: “(Well, this of course has been done.)”  Publishing poetry was evidently no less difficult and unprofitable then as it is now.  Cyril, ever a sensitive reader and supporter, seems to be taking the responsibility for approaching publishers and small magazines. Sydney continued this letter with a critique of his own work which is more perceptive than Plomer’s:

I understand what you [Cyril] mean about the poems you feel should perhaps be ommitted [sic], and I don’t agree with Plomer in his choice! Dawn Hippo and R Kloof are simply not as good as a few others. The “Henry [the Navigator]” poems don’t completely satisfy me. Perhaps the best thing in Henry I is that “meditating lantern”. Yes, I think the poem has a too obvious rhythm but I wanted it in, if only for its treatment of a theme that is particularly dear to me [the Portuguese maritime explorers]. It still is but I should handle it differently now. “Dawn Hippo” gets better as it goes on, don’t you think. I think I’ll keep it in for those last lines. “The Sea and the Eagle” deserves excision. Please remove it and draw a line through the title on the contents page. I’d like to preserve “The Strong Southeaster” and “Reading an Old Book”, if only for their expression of certain moods. “The Sea and the Eagle” is rather clumsy from a technical point of view, the rhythms are imperfect; perhaps it only really gets going in the last stanza.
            I’m sure you’re wiser than Plomer in your feeling about “D. Hippo” which I must say I nevertheless have some affection for. So lets keep it. The manuscript is flawed, I know that. It wobbles in a number of places and I don’t know (anyway, I get a bit tired of my poems after a while) whether it really contains enough good matter to warrant publication. This is not lack of confidence but one must look squarely at what one has done, and then go on from there. ... I don’t delude myself into thinking that I have made a book of complete authority. That is to come, I hope.

“First Poems” never did get published, though a number of the poems remained in One Life, the one volume Clouts did publish some six years later, under the auspices of Guy Butler’s journal New Coin. That slender book was indeed as close to a volume of “complete authority” as any I know in South African poetry. Its quality was in no small measure due to Clouts’s ability to step back and evaluate his own poems with a cool eye, and with his obsessive last-minute changes, which would drive more than one future editor to distraction.

Clouts also hints here not only at his attunement to rhythm as a poetic resource, but his willingness to sacrifice rhythmic purity in favour of a more shaggy immediacy of mood or theme. This was part of his congruence with major currents of Modernism in other parts of the world, especially the United States, the contemporary poetry of which he preferred to the British. Much as he revered the formal solidity of early modernist W B Yeats, he gravitated as he matured to the more limber imagism of a William Carlos Williams or the elliptical lyricism of the Italian Eugenio Montale.

In Intimate Lightning, I take some time exploring the question of influence and originality. Like just about any poet, Clouts learned from his predecessors, from all ages. I look especially at the echoes of  William Blake, Yeats, and the Afrikaner modernist NP van Wyk Louw – but of course for a poet as widely and intensively read as Clouts, the ‘sources’ and provocations are multiple and mostly untraceable. One such contemporary – a fellow-traveller more than an influence –  whom I mentioned only in passing – was an American who has suffered a marginalisation not unlike Clouts’s own. This was another Jewish poet, Stanley Kunitz.

Stanley Kunitz; from the back cover of his
Collected Poems
Kunitz is the burden of the second letter Marge gave me, a folded blue aerogramme (anyone remember those?) dated 28 November 1959 and written, as was the first letter, at the Clouts residence at 20 Sir George Grey Street, Oranjezicht, Cape Town. Stanley Kunitz was some twenty years Clouts’s senior. Rather like Clouts, his densely-wrought, intellectualised earlier poetry restricted his appeal. However, he did receive a Pulitzer Prize for the Selected Poems that Clouts mentions in this letter. Unlike Clouts, who died relatively young, Kunitz lived almost twice as long, dying in 2006 aged 101 – having been rather belatedly appointed the tenth US Poet Laureate at the age of 95. His long life produced a lot more poetry than Clouts’s, and shows long-term developments of style into something rigorous but much more vernacular and homely in vocabulary and setting. For all that, as doyenne of literary critics Helen Vendler once noted, Kunitz has never quite got his due. He does not appear at all in three standard surveys of twentieth-century American poetry I looked at, and is mentioned only once in passing in Michael Schmidt’s compendious book Lives of the Poets. Much like Clouts’s reputation: treasured by a minority but frequently sidelined.

In 1959, nevertheless, Clouts had come across a review, and obtained Kunitz’s Selected Poems, as he related in his enthusiastic letter. As the aerogramme has been torn off down one edge,  it’s not entirely clear where the quotation from the review ends, so I hazard a guess.

Dearest Rose and Cyril,
            Both the TLS [Times Literary Supplement] and the Paris Review have arrived and we are now reading them with great interest. What you wrote about the belated “official” English attitude to American literature, music, painting, etc – is I think quite correct, but the supplement’s editorial is still only half a recognition, so typically frigid. It has the niggling sort of atmosphere of “Yes, so-and-so’s very fine indeed. Of course, he’s no Michelangelo”. I have recently come across the poetry of Stanley Kunitz, described as you have probably noticed in the supplement as “the most underrated poet writing today[”]. His Selected Poems is nothing less than a revelation, in the best meaning of that term. He writes great poems with the assured power of a man who has discovered the secret of turning life into art and back into life again. Entering his subject with immediate knowledge and vision, he explores it with an intense and passionate awareness that has not been equalled since the last  superb phase of Yeats. His poem “The Terrible Threshold” is without doubt one of the greatest lyrics of the century; and I am also sure that Kunitz is the finest poet of love since Donne. He proves that old point over and over again: the great creator can choose any form he pleases, since whatever he touches, once he has achieved his mastery, glows and builds into authentic flame. Any critic who hurls Kunitz’s book against the wall will find himself being shot to bits by the ricochet.

A vigorous image – Clouts was quite disdainful of ‘critics’ – to back up some rather sweeping and perhaps untenable claims. But what sparked the enthusiasm? Curiously, the title poem of the Selected Poems, “The Terrible Threshold” apparently hasn’t weathered well: I can’t find it online, and it wasn’t selected by Kunitz himself for the Collected Poems of 2000.  Other poems from The Terrible Threshold retain strict stanzaic measures, rhyming and rhythmical – such as the opening stanzas from “The Dark and the Fair”:

A roaring company that festive night;
The beast of dialectic dragged his chains,
Prowling from chair to chair in the smoking light,
While the snow hissed against the windowpanes.

Our politics, our science, and our faith
Were whiskey on the tongue; I, being rent
By the fierce divisions of our time, cried death
And death again, and my own dying meant.

I imagine the strength of those images in the first stanza would have appealed to Clouts, though the obviousness of the allegory – “the beast of dialectic” – and the direct intellectual intervention of the second stanza are techniques Clouts would strongly eschew. He had already moved strongly away into free, almost instinctual verse. But he might well have responded empathetically to Kunitz’s poem “The Science of the Night”, in which the poet ruminates adoringly on his sleeping wife, oblivious and oddly estranged as she lies “so deep/ In absent-mindedness,/ Caught in the calcium snows of sleep”. It thus has powerful echoes of Clouts’s beautiful poem for Marge, “The Sleeper”, might even have been thought an influence had not “The Sleeper” been published two years before.  Similarly, Kunitz’s poem “The War Against the Trees” might be interestingly ranged alongside Clouts’s “The Cutting of the Pines”. Kunitz, as far as In know, was never aware of Clouts.

A few other poems in Kunitz’s Selected Poems begin to move towards the freer verse, more vernacular language and subject-matter that would characterise his later work; at this point – as Kunitz himself later acknowledged – his poetry was, for all its evident power and control, still a bit too abstract, formalistic, arch. He was prepared to comment directly on politics in ways Clouts generally avoided – a voice very different from Clouts’s own. Clouts’s evident disdain for regular politics, however, would doubtless have thrilled to Kunitz’s brief and timeless barb, “The System”:
To order Seahorn Messiah, a new edition
of Clouts's complete poems, contact

That pack of scoundrels
tumbling through the gate
as the order of the State.

In many other poems, though, Kunitz showed a detailed and attentive awareness of the natural world much like Clouts’s. In short, in Kunitz Clouts seems to have found a fellow-traveller through themes and techniques that preoccupied mid-century, late-modernist poets everywhere, responding deeply to Kunitz’s forcefulness even as he groped his way to his own distinctive style and approach. Like Clouts, Kunitz said he eschewed the nerve-jangling ‘confessional’ mode of many of their contemporaries like Robert Lowell and Sylvia Plath. “The work is the thing,” Clouts said, not the personal life. Nevertheless, I think Clouts would have liked Kunitz’s statement:

The poem comes in the form of a blessing – “like rapture breaking on the mind”, as I tried to phrase it in my youth. Through the years I have found this gift of poetry to be life-sustaining, life-enhancing, and absolutely unpredictable. Does one live, therefore, for the sake of the poetry? No, the reverse is true: poetry is for the sake of the life.

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  1. Great stuff, Dan - I had never thought to place Clouts and Kunitz alongside one another, but this is fascinating. I'm reminded of a lovely Stanley Kunitz poem called 'Touch Me' - hauntingly beautiful, I must find it again - and a quotation from him I've always liked: "Every new poem is like finding a new bride. Words are so erotic, they never tire of their coupling."

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