“A Scene in London”
[from Towards Democracy (1912)]
– “Both of them deaf, and close on 80 years old, she, stone blind and he nearly so, side by side crouching over a fire in a little London hovel, six shillings a week. Their joints knotted with rheumatism. Their faces all day long mute like statues of all; passing expression. No cloud flying by, no gleam of sunshine there, lips closed and silent. But for that, now and then taking his pipe out of his mouth, he puts his face close to her ear and yells just a word into it, and she nods her blind head and gives a raucous screech in answer.” – The similarity of noticing and of detail between the style of Reznikoff and the style cultivated by (Walt) Whitman and his friends, is interesting. What it goes to show is that there is some common ground of humane particulars – humane eyeball – that can tell a little vignette story that sums up a lifetime, (usually in dark, unnoticed corners). There’s a little longer poem, a description of St James’ Park in London [also in Towards Democracy]. These are interesting. It’s like time-capsules. There weren’t many modernist writers of poetry in those days. Most of the poetry was very idealistic and had very little everyday detail, prosaic detail, in a sense. This reminds me a little of poems of my own in a period right after “Howl” – “Transcription of Organ Music” and “Sather Gate Illumination”, which are like sketching detail in a park, in a subway, in a room, in a garden – “St. James’ Park” – “An island ringed with surf, a cool green shade and tiny enchanted spot of trees and flowers and fountains, the ocean raging around it. The roar of London interminably stretching, interminably sounding. Great waves of human life breaking. Millions of drops together. Torrents of vehicles pouring. Businessmen marching. Gangs of workmen, soldiers, loafers, street hawkers. Shopkeepers running out of their shops to look at their own windows. A woman seized with birth pangs on a doorstep. Ragamuffins and children swirling by. At ease in rapids of fashion. The everlasting tide ebbing a little at night, rising again in the day, with fierce continuous roaring, yet infringing not on the little island. Here only a little spray. A dull and distant reverberation. In the soft shade a pleasant drowsy air. The willows hanging their branches to the water. The drake preening his feathers in the sun or swimming among the flags by the pondside regardless of Nelson peering over the treetops from his column, taking no note of the great clock face of Westminster. Only a little spray, broken water, drop by drop, one by one, or here and there in twos, specimens, items out of the deep. The bakersman, working fifteen hours a day, leaves his handcart in a convenient spot outside and puts in a quiet quarter of an hour here with a novel. The old woman, her thumb gathered and disabled by incessant work on crepe now, as a matter of course, thrown out of employ, goes along moaning and muttering to herself. The prissy old gentleman who’s made his money out of the moving warehouse also goes along. The footman on an errand walks leisurely by. The French nurse plays with the little English children. The rather elegant lady meets her man by appointment at one of the garden sheets. They study Bradshaw together in an undertone, revolving plans. The middle-aged widower comes along, thin, so thin, dressed all in black, seeing nothing, hearing nothing, sitting down for a moment then up again, resting only in constant movement. The tramp, with dead expressionless face, the man who is not wanted, to whom everyone says “No” comes along and throws himself down listlessly under the trees. Only a little spray, broken water. The summer sun falls peaceful on the grass. The tide of traffic rises a little during the day and ebbs again at night but the great roaring bates not, breaks the surf of human life forever on this shore.” – That’s a funny mixture. You’ve got the Whitmanic roar of London, a little bit of (William) Blake roar of London, a little bit of (William) Wordsworth’s Westminster Bridge, London silence, and then more modern, almost 20th century clear consciousness, humorous description of fantastical detail.
Student: Like (Charles) Dickens.
AG: Yeah. Of course, in prose, it’s always been there. It’s just that when that prose detail begins to enter poetry in the 20th century, (it makes) interesting poetry, as far as the eyeball, as far as common sense. Yeah, it’s in prose all along (and, actually, it’s in (Robert) Browning – there’s quite a bit of everyday matter in Browning).