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Don't Look Back: Poetry and Retrieval

I gave this talk as part of this year's Aldeburgh Poetry Festival

A few years ago I was greatly taken with a poem by the French poet, or Franco-Uruguayan poet Jules Supervielle and ended up translating it. It’s called ‘Le regret de la terre’ and although I didn’t translate the title it might come out as ‘regret for the earth’ or ‘nostalgia for earth’. Since I’m going to be talking about retrieval I thought I might begin with this:

One day we’ll look back on it        the time of the sun
when light fell on the smallest twig
on the old woman the astonished girl
when it washed with colour everything it touched
followed the galloping horse and eased when he did

that unforgettable time on earth
when if we dropped something it made a noise
and like connoisseurs we took in the world
our ears caught every nuance of air
and we knew our friends by their footsteps

time we walked out to gather flowers or stones
that time we could never catch hold of a cloud

and it’s all our hands can master now
( ‘Le regret de la terre’, version by Peter Sirr)

I love many things about that poem: the way it turns us into relaxed if regretful connoisseurs of our own life, looking back from the blankness of the afterlife to the intense sensational life of the earth where everything, from something dropped to a footstep,  reverberated. I like how the poem reminds us that one of poetry’s main missions is this kind of retrieval, this stamping of human and earthly sensation onto the void, or the compensation that somehow realising the world and our own experience in it provides for the blankness that will follow it.

More than that, though, and this is where I pull the rug from under my own feet a bit, I love the way this poem occupies its own space, the way it is, the ways it constructs itself and lays itself down on the page. Its particularity, individuality, the print of its voice that relates to other poems by this poet that I admire. It reminds me that whatever the ostensible subject, what we actually turn to poetry for is the quality of its own making, the peculiar connections and energies that circulate between poet, language and world. What was it Miroslav Holub said once – ‘poetry is an energy storing and energy releasing device.’ That’s what I mean.

So when I gather up a bunch of different poets under the rubric of ‘retrieval’, whatever else retrieval can be taken to mean it must also try to acknowledge each poet’s harnessing or retrieval of their own imaginative energies as they grapple with one of the great myths.

To go back to Supervielle’s poem for a minute. I said I value the way it brings back the world or brings us back to the world. Some the greatest myths have always done this: Demeter and Persephone: the harvest goddess presiding over the cycle of life and death and her daughter who is kidnapped by Hades and taken off to the underworld. She is eventually offered her freedom but as always, there are conditions: she can be fully free if she hasn’t eaten anything while in the underworld. But it turns out she ate some pomegranate seeds and the result is that she can only leave the underworld for a certain period in the year, corresponding to spring and summer.

That’s ultimately a comforting myth because it sets the world in order and plays fruitfully with the natural cycle of the year. Demeter’s grief for her daughter is answered, the thing is resolved, whereas the whole point of the greatest of these myths, Orpheus and Eurydice, is that it isn’t resolved, the attempt at retrieval isn’t successful, but ends in disaster for both Orpheus and Eurydice.

I suppose one of the reasons this myth has gripped me as it gripped so many is that it opposes such primary forces: life and death, love and death, art and mortality. It’s important that Orpheus is the figure of a great artist, for the human imagination. Going down to the underworld to save Eurydice from her premature death is not the first thing he does, after all; the first order of business is to mourn her loss

As Ovid puts it

The bride stepped on a snake; pieced by his venom
The girl tripped, falling, stumbled into Death.
Her bridegroom, Orpheus, poet of the hour,
And pride of Rhadope, sang loud his loss
To everyone on earth.
    (translation by Horace Gregory)

Only when this was done was he ready to descend into the darkness of death, lyre in hand. (For some reason this always reminds me of Dante Gabriel Rossetti recovering his poems from the coffin of Lizzie Siddal in Highgate Cemetery seven years after had ‘sacrificed’ them. Another image of retrieval,  of absolute, even transgressive attachment to art.)

So poetry, song, imagination, making are at the forefront of this myth. Huge ambition, the greatest possible human and artistic ambition: to conquer death, to charm death, to reclaim life through poetry. And because of that, because art turns out to be limited, the myth offers us a spectacular example of the triumph of failure. The failure to accomplish the miracle is what draws us back, the failure to undo death, the failure of art to be charming enough.

And maybe also the failure to love, or to love enough. Orpheus’s is a double transgression: first by descending to death’s domain, but secondly by the – take your pick –  fallible, human, distrustful, needy, greedy, appropriative, possessive, tragic looking back. For all the passion of his art and his supremely transgressive action, we never quite trust Orpheus, we’re never really sure of his motives. Think of Cocteau’s vision of him in his 1950 film Orphée – the tall, handsome (too tall, too handsome?) impeccably coiffured poet in the Poets’ Café, detested by all the other poets because he’s successful. There’s a great moment when the police arrive after a brawl in the café and the inspector asks Orpheus for his papers only to suddenly realise who he’s talking to, that moment that happen to all of us when we encounter the organs of state: My God, you’re the poet, I’m so sorry, my wife has your portrait on the wall.  Only the public like him, we’re told; the poets hate him not only because of his success, but because there’s something too invulnerable about him, something controlling. Even his Death, the Princess who arrives in her Rolls Royce, doesn’t trust him, though she does fall in love with him.

Cocteau’s Orpheus is cool and controlling. The farther we are from the myth the more that comes to seem the default view. The desire to overcome death and bring Eurydice back – the greatest possible act of love –  is also the greatest assertion of control. Male poet control. Eurydice, after all, doesn’t choose to return; she’s silent and obedient, two steps behind the great lover:

I was obedient, but

Margaret Atwood says in ‘Orpheus (1)’,

      like an arm
gone to sleep; the return
to time was not my choice...

...You had your old leash
with you, love you might call it,
and your flesh voice.

Before your eyes you held already
the image of what you wanted
me to become …

Probably the most famous analysis of Orpheus’s intentions is Maurice Blanchot’s essay ‘The Gaze of Orpheus’. For Blanchot that gaze is all about art – the demands of art, the responsibility to art, the need to disobey any law for the sake of art:

‘When Orpheus descends to Eurydice, art is the power that causes the night to open. Because of the power of art, the night welcomes him …’

‘ … for him Eurydice is the limit of what art can contain; concealed behind a name and covered by a veil, she is the profoundly dark point towards which art, desire, death, and the night all seem to lead.’

By turning around he betrays art and Eurydice and the night but if he hadn’t turned around he would have betrayed ‘the boundless and imprudent force of his impulse, which does not demand Eurydice in her diurnal truth and her everyday charm, but in her nocturnal darkness …’

So for Blanchot it’s the male gaze of art that counts, a fusion of inspiration and desire. Eurydice does not count in the myth as a realised creature but as a figure for artistic ambition of a certain kind – grasping, hubristic, self-preoccupied.

The act of writing begins with Orpheus’s gaze, and that gaze is the impulse of desire which shatters the song’s destiny and concern and in that inspired and unconcerned decision reaches the origin, consecrates the song.

So is this myth then really about the limits of art? A very macho notion of the nature of art and the artist: competitive, absolute, overreaching, ego-driven, appropriative? Love doesn’t seem central because Eurydice is such a blank: passive, unknown, unknowable. Much of the greatest love poetry in the European tradition takes place in the absence of the beloved. Think of the troubadours, Petrarch, Dante. But the address to the beloved is intense, felt, meant even when there’s great artifice. There’s an attempt to lose the self in the veneration of the other. And of course Orpheus doesn’t choose to die to be with his love. This is why Plato had no time for him, considering him a coward since he wasn’t prepared to die for Eurydice but instead mocked the gods by trying to get her back alive.

Some versions of the myth happily treat it as a passionate love story. In Gluck’s opera Orfeo ed Euridice, Amore restores Eurydice to life after Orpheus looks at her and the happy couple are united again, the opera ending with a triumphant celebration of love. That’s not going to wash in the twentieth century, when the poems I’m interested in that take this myth as their subject were written. Which isn’t to say that a poet can’t see it as a figure for fulfilled sex and love. Think of how the myth is there – fused with the Grimm Brothers – as a grace note deepening the image of newly married love in a poem like Seamus Heaney’s ‘The Underground’:

There we were in the vaulted tunnel running,
You in your going-away coat speeding ahead,
And me, me then like a fleet god gaining
Upon you before you turned to a reed

Or some new white flower japped with crimson
As the coat flapped wild and button after button
Sprung off and fell in a trail
Between the Underground and the Albert Hall.

Honeymooning, moonlighting, late for the Proms,
Our echoes die in that corridor and now
I come as Hansel came on the moonlit stones
Retracing the path back, lifting the buttons

To end up in a draughty lamplit station
After the trains have gone, the wet track
Bared and tensed as I am, all attention
For your step following and damned if I look back.

Heaney’s poem alludes to Orpheus. The poems that take the myth on directly are often more in tune with Plato’s disabused view. For Donald Justice, in ‘Orpheus Opens His Morning Mail’, Orpheus is the model of the complacent poet:

Bills, Bills. From the mapmakers of hell, the repairers of fractured lutes, the bribed judges of musical contests.

A note addressed to my wife, marked: Please Forward.

A group photograph, signed: Your Admirers. In their faces a certain sameness, as if "I" might, after all, be raised to some modest power; likewise in their costumes, at once transparent and identical, like those of young ladies at some debauched seminary ...
Finally, an invitation to attend certain rites to be celebrated, come equinox, on the river bank. I am to be guest of honor. As always, I rehearse the scene in advance: the dark, the hired guards, tipsy as usual, sonorously snoring; a rustling, suddenly, among the reeds; the fitful illumination of ankles, whitely flashing. . . Afterwards, I shall probably be asked to recite my poems. But O my visions, my vertigoes! Have I imagined it only, the perverse gentility of their shrieks?

This is like Cocteau’s vision of Orpheus and Eurydice as blank suburban couple. After he has been torn to death by the Bacchantes, Death, the Princess who loved him,  allows him to return to life but he has forgotten everything and lives a Don Draper-ish life of desolate happiness.

Given the extremity of his transgression, the abject failure to complete his mission, the doubts about his passion, it might be surprising how often Orpheus is taken to be the representative member for poetry in the parliament of the imagination.  In  ‘Orpheus (2)’ Margaret Atwood positions him as the poet who has seen everything, witnessed horror, knows all the evil of the world. She asks a very twentieth century question: can there be poetry in the midst of horror?

Whether he will go on singing
or not, knowing what he knows
of the horror of this world:

He was not wandering among meadows
all this time. He was down there
among the mouthless ones, among
those with no fingers, those
whose names are forbidden,
those washed up eaten into
among the gray stones
of the shore where nobody goes
through fear. Those with silence.

He has been trying to sing
love into existence again
and he has failed.

He has failed – but his failure isn’t selfish. This Orpheus is the poet as Everyman, refusing to lie down under oppression, persecution, murder:

Yet he will continue
to sing, in the stadium
crowded with the already dead
who raise their eyeless faces
to listen to him; while the red flowers
grow up and splatter open
against the walls.

They have cut off both his hands
and soon they will tear
his head from his body in one burst
of furious refusal.
He foresees this. Yet he will go on
singing, and in praise.
To sing is either praise
or defiance. Praise is defiance.

For Atwood here he is an emblem of the lyric impulse, a supremely human impulse, ultimately indestructible.

Like Atwood, Geoffrey Hill updates the myth and situates it in a nightmarish but familiar scenario: a post-apocalyptic world where political order has broken down but culture, or at least an ironised diminished version of it, nonetheless persists:

Though there are wild dogs
   Infesting the roads
We have recitals, catalogues
   Of protected birds;
And the rare pale sun
   To water our days.
Men turn to savagery now or turn
   To the laws’

Immutable black and red.

Neither Orpheus nor Eurydice are named, except in the poem’s title. But Love is there, a personified figure whose role seems to be to console and comfort, or to seem to console and comfort, since the poem implies his faith in himself and in the powers of the lyric may be mistaken:

   To be judged for his song,
Traversing the still-moist dead,
   The newly-stung,
Love goes, carrying compassion
   To the rawly-difficult;
His countenance, his hands’ motion,
   Serene even to a fault.

(Geoffrey Hill, Orpheus and Eurydice)

The poet is all too serene, all too apt to find solace in art, Hill seems to suggest, blithely indifferent to its own irrelevance. This is what the poem seems to say, but it’s never as simple as that with Geoffrey Hill. The whole manner of the articulation of this poem is so richly contrived, its range of tones and counter-tones so suggestive, its music so compelling that, if this is poetry, you think, if this is Orphic music, then this is as much  a triumphant defence as a seeming dismissal.

And for many poets it really is the art that counts, the helpless persistence of the singing. I think of Jack Gilbert’s poem of Orpheus in old age:

Orpheus is too old for it now. His famous voice is gone
and his career is past. No profit anymore from the songs
of love and grief. Nobody listens. Still, he goes on
secretly with his ruined alto. But not for Eurydice.
Not even for the pleasure of singing. He sings because
that is what he does.
(‘Finding Eurydice’)

I keep, though, going back to the other half of the myth, the second part of the binary opposition: Eurydice. She is the one who has travelled down the centuries to us two steps behind the chief actor, silent, invisible, passive, forced to die twice. That very passivity has been a major provocation for many poets, who have wanted to undermine Orpheus’s presumption. Surely death is one place the male poetic ego can’t reach; surely the final insult is to be disturbed by the Orphic gaze  ‘in the one/ place you’d think a girl would be safe’ as Carol Ann Duffy puts it,

from the kind of a man
who follows her round
writing poems,
hovers about
while she reads them,
calls her his Muse,
and once sulked for a night and a day
because she remarked on his weakness for abstract nouns;
(Carol Ann Duffy, ‘Eurydice’)

Duffy directs a perhaps slightly predictable scorn at Orpheus as the very type of all self-regarding male muse poets

we’ve all, let’s be honest,
been bored half to death by a man
who fucks like he’s writing a book.

A whole lyric tradition gets it in the neck, all the generations of women ‘trapped in his images, metaphors, similes,/octaves and sextets, quatrains and couplets,/elegies, limericks, villanelles,/histories, myths...’

One of the most striking poems inspired by Eurydice has to be Marina Tvsetaeva’s ‘Eurydice to Orpheus.’ The poem is a struggle between mortality and immortality in which Eurydice is adamant that she has no wish to be returned to life, that she needs her death: ‘I need the peace/Of forgetfulness.’ She reminds Orpheus that in the house of the dead she is the real one, and he the shadow. The true victor is Death, she insists, and no one should disturb the dead.

I cannot be stirred! I cannot follow!
I  have no arms! No lips to press to lips!
With the snakebite of immortality
Female passion ends.
            (translation by Nina Kossman)

All passion ends, all the trapping of mortality vanish: the poem begins by itemising and refusing to regret what has gone:

For those who have unmarried the last shreds
Of a shroud (no lips, no cheeks! …)
Oh, isn’t it a breach of the rules --
An Orpheus descending into Hades?

For the American poet H.D. or Hilda Doolittle, the matter is deeply personal, urgent, political, and the form she finds for it is taut and tense, short lines that defiantly mark out her own self and its lights. Her Eurydice boils with anger, first at Orpheus’s failure to set her free, but also at his disturbance of her peace in the first place.

So for your arrogance
and your ruthlessness
I have lost the earth
and the flowers of the earth …

She insists that she is better off where she is: ‘hell is no worse than your earth/above the earth …’ and what she has accomplished is not silence or oblivion but a greater intensity:

Against the black
I have more fervour
than you in all the splendour of that place,
against the blackness
and the stark grey
I have more light …


At least I have the flowers of myself,
and my thoughts, no god
can take that;
I have the fervour of myself for a presence
and my own spirit for light …

Written in the heat of the disintegration of her marriage the poem can certainly be read as angry attack at her betrayal, but the more interesting and enduring dimension of the poem is its rejection of Orphic presumption and its confident if bitter claiming of its own territory of light. You can have your myth of Orpheus, the poem tells us, and much good may it do you, but I won’t be patronised or nullified, I had my own clear gaze

though small against the black,
small against the formless rocks,
hell must break before I am lost;

before I am lost,
hell must open like a red rose
for the dead to pass.

I could leave it there. What else can be said about the use of this myth? An awful lot, in fact, much more than I can deal with here. I haven’t touched on Rilke, or the fine poems on the subject by poets like Mark Strand, John Ashbery, Ingeborg Bachmann or Pina Bausch’s amazing choreography to Gluck’s music in ‘Overture to Orpheus and Eurydice’.

Maybe, though, the inexhaustibility of the myth is best expressed by the fact that Cseslaw Miłosz should turn to it at the very end of his writing life. The last poem in his last published collection,  ‘Orpheus and Eurydice’, written after the unexpected death of his much younger wife, is in a way an examination of the whole lyric project. His Orpheus has a good sized splinter of ice in his heart. He doesn’t believe Eurydice’s words to him, ‘You are a good man’. He knows that lyric poets have ‘cold hearts‘; they have to have, it’s part of the job, ‘It is like a medical condition. Perfection in art/Is given in exchange for such an affliction.’ What human warmth he has was bestowed on him by Eurydice, and yet he has plenty to say, his love-fed gift is for everyone who can hear it. When he finally gets down to the labyrinthine hell with its corridors, elevators and electronic dogs he sings all the great riches of the earth, sings for us, of course, since we, with Persephone and Hades, are the intended listeners, sings with all the passion he can muster of a world that must ultimately be left behind

He sang the brightness of mornings and green rivers,
He sang of smoking water in the rose-colored daybreaks,
Of colors: cinnabar, carmine, burnt sienna, blue,
Of the delight of swimming in the sea under marble cliffs,
Of feasting on a terrace above the tumult of a fishing port,
Of the tastes of wine, olive oil, almonds, mustard, salt.
Of the flight of the swallow, the falcon,
Of a dignified flock of pelicans above a bay,
Of the scent of an armful of lilacs in summer rain,
Of his having composed his words always against death
And of having made no rhyme in praise of nothingness.

There are no surprises or trick endings in Miłosz’s version. He follows the traditional arc of the narrative.  If Persephone is impressed she gives no sign of it. Maybe she’s noticed that the great singer of the world hasn’t found room in his litany for his wife.
I don’t know – said the goddess – whether you loved her or not.
Yet you have come here to rescue her.
She will be returned to you.

and then she sets out the expected conditions. When the fateful moment comes as it must, the moment of betrayal that will send Eurydice back to her second death, it stems from the poet’s inability to believe the unbelievable, to believe in the miracle he has himself created. It’s as if he is too much the artist to expect more from life than he can himself make or testify to. His turning is an act of bad faith:

It happened as he expected. He turned his head
And behind him on the path was no one.

Yet this is not where it ends. The ninety year old poet has not quite done yet, and he certainly has not allowed himself to drift into despair. A strange and ultimately consoling thing has happened. At the poem’s beginning Orpheus is very much in the twentieth century city, a creature of modernity firmly located in the city with its sidewalks and car headlights, entering the underworld through a ‘glass-paneled door’, but when he returns he enters a pastoral scene of tranquil countryside:

Sun. And sky. And in the sky white clouds.
Only now everything cried to him: Eurydice!
How will I live without you, my consoling one!
But there was a fragrant scent of herbs, the low humming of bees,
And he fell asleep with his cheek on the sun-warmed earth.

~ Czeslaw Milosz, from Second Space, translated by the author and Robert Hass

So there is the desolation of loss, with all of creation crying out that loss to him, and yet offering him comfort at the same time. And that’s how Miłosz leaves him, asleep with his head on the sun-warmed, life-giving, life-renewing earth. It’s the poet’s own farewell to the earth, a flag of defiance in the face of the loss that awaits everyone, a determination, even in his own terrible century, to offer as his final gesture an image of renewal.


Mark Granier said…
Fantastic stuff Peter, thanks. I was wondering if you'd get around to Rilke's, the one hat sprang immediately to my mind. As you probably know, Brodsky wrote a great essay about it. Wasn't aware that was one of Milosz's last poems: beautiful.
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