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Monday, October 20, 2003

Trying for "Ozymandias," I end up on Houseman

Skimming like Camilla along some old posts, I noticed the words "lone and level sands" and remembered that at the moment I wrote them I considered linking them to Shelley's "Ozymandias," their source, but concluded in the end I was already pedant enough by far (you see by the "Camilla" link there, however, I've since reconsidered that conclusion). Though I didn't make the link, I did find sites with the poem and reread it a few times, experiencing again that prickling of the hairs on the back of my neck that, if I remember aright, for Houseman was the test of great poetry. (This test is akin to the know-it-when-you-see-it test of pornography that Potter Stewart is remembered for. Stewart's test, of course, begs the question of by what mechanism he knows porn when he sees it, which Houseman (if it's he) at least specifies (erect hairs) for poetry. I suppose Stewart felt it would be unseemly to explain, like Houseman, his precise bodily response. Had he done so, though, he could have invoked Donne's "Elegie XIX" to distinguish poems from porn pix: "Those set our hairs, but these our flesh upright.")

OK, so as soon as I wrote that sentence about Houseman's test I decided, in further repudiation of my decision to curb pedantry, to link to his exact words, which I assumed would be out there somewhere. So I did a variety of searches involving words like poem, poetry, great, hairs, hair, neck, test, etc. I couldn't find the fucking quotation to save my life. Oh, sure, millions of web authors had the basic sense of it. Some even acknowledge Houseman as the source--here and here, for example. But some attribute the notion to another source, such as Emily Dickinson, Marianne Moore (this one was from Fred Moramarco, Editor of Poetry International, in a letter responding to the notorious Houlihan piece), Yeats, and Robert Graves.

So now I'm wondering if Houseman ever said it at all. Finally I land in the middle of a passage from The White Goddess where Graves himself attributes it to Houseman--but the hairs standing up are on his chin not the back of his neck. So finally, with the addition of the word shaving I manage to find the most complete version of Houseman's quotation out there on the web (from The Name and Nature of Poetry:

Experience has taught me, when I am shaving of a morning, to keep watch over my thoughts because if a line of poetry strays into my memory, my skin bristles so that the razor ceases to act. This particular symptom is accompanied by a shiver down the spine; there is another which consists of a constriction in the throat; and a precipitation of water to the eyes; and there is a third which I can only describe by borrowing a phrase from one of Keat's last letters where he says, speaking of Fanny Brawne "everything that reminds me of her goes through me like a spear." The seat of this sensation is the pit of the stomach.

Well, so there. Hairs sticking up on the back of the neck doesn't even begin to cover it. Well, anyway, one of the poems that gets me that way is "Ozymandias," and I was going to talk about it here, but I guess I'll have to wait till tomorrow.

It turns out that Aaron Haspel has some unkind words to say about this Housemannish approach, which he terms the "visceral." He worries about its subjectivity and imprecision, how it gives us no tools to distinguish the greatness of Medea from the mass mediocrity of Top Gun. He can enjoy worrying about that stuff. What are the pleasures? is all I know on earth and all I need to know. Haspel seems quite smart, though pretty unpleasant. I'm not surprised to read that someone "deservedly" punched him out at work and that he used to drink vinegar straight from the bottle. It's still dribbling out.

From Haspel's supercilious vinagrette I was brought for the second time in so many days to George Wallace's blog A Fool in the Forest, which criticizes Haspel intelligently and has some really smart observations about poetry generally. This is all the more amazing because Wallace by trade is an insurance lawyer. Who'd a thunk someone working in insurance law would have a single poetic bone in his body? Wild.

Once again I've spent way too much time chasing marsh gas through the night. I did have real work to do today . . . . I should have taken Houseman's advice in another context:

Three minutes thought would suffice to find this out; but thought is irksome and three minutes is a long time.
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