Exhibits of the Sun
A.D. Hope once applied the metaphor of ecological imbalance to the writing of poetry. Just as a sharp decline in one species will effect the others around it, Hope speculates that
neglect of any of the great forms by the poets affects the practice of all the others. The introduction of a new literary form, if it becomes popular, may seriously upset the whole traditional balance of literature. Moreover changes in social structure, in education or in belief, outside the field of literature, may destroy this balance in such a way that certain traditional forms fail to command respect and cease to be practised. This, in turn, weakens the respect for others, for the different forms support one another. One after another the great forms disappear; the remaining forms proliferate and hypertrophy and display increasing eccentricity and lack of control. A general erosion of the mind proceeds with more and more acceleration. A desert ecology replaces the ecology of the rain forest. The forms are few, small, hardy, and reflect the impoverished soil in which they grow. If the process goes a little further a point of no return is reached; sand, clay and naked rock present a lifeless and inhuman landscape where only minimal forms of life persist. (Hope 2002 , 1–2)
Stephen Edgar, then, as perhaps the only Australian poet to write only in fixed forms, is a conservationist (though certainly not a conservative). His decades-long commitment to rhyme and metre puts his work at odds with much of contemporary poetry. Exhibits of the Sun, Edgar's tenth collection, contains fluid and musical verse that demands to be read aloud, which Edgar himself does well.
Edgar creates his own forms, and sticks to them. In “The Trance”, a typical Edgar stanza unfolds.
The sun displays its gorgeous jewellery
Across the spread
Of harbour, as it heartlessly arranges
Over the bluffs and bays of Middle Head
The silken trance it's spun and shed.
Edgar's poems provide what so few, free verse, concrete and language poems provide: aural pleasure. Lacking the aridity of Philip Larkin and the stilted syllable counting of some noteworthy Australian formalists such as James McAuley and Hope, Edgar is warmer in his thinking and gentler with his cadence. Though at times this looseness leads to extra labour for the reader. Try to work out what's going on in the opening of “Saccade”:
They have no sense of what they're looking at,
Unless the object moves.
(Or so he's read; who knows if that's the case?)
A painted bird's an empty analogue
To the oblivious cat.
And it is not his still familiar face
So much as that distinctive gait which proves
The master to the dog,
Who frolics for him like an acrobat.
Poetry doesn't have to be easy, of course, but this is heavy going. By the time you look up the definition of "saccade"(a small, rapid jerky movement of the eye, according to Merriam-Webster) and wade through the poem picking up and examining the nouns and articles a few times, you've lost interest. But when Edgar straightens out his syntax the results can be breathtaking, as in “Morandi and the Hard Problem”. Edgar pins the central mystery down, using the awkward bottles from Giorgio Morandi's famous still-lifes as his springboard.
How could such simple objects know so much?
This web of everything that is the case
Is nothing, we are told, but matter,
Dissolving ever downward from the clutch
Of common sense to scatter
Among the primal mesh of time and space
While round their tables the philosophers
Knock heads and strike the board to break the seal
That locks their own hard problem: how
A subject that can know itself occurs,
What process could endow
Mere matter with the power to wake and feel.
There is perhaps no way to finish off a thought such as this without getting devotional or nihilistic, and Edgar cannot be faulted for not sticking the ending. “Nothing's more abstract than reality” and “What do I know but my experience?” What indeed? Pure subjectivity is the modern malaise. From our cognitive prisons we are able to question even the existence of others and if they really deserve to be considered. God can square this circle quite well, if we let God, and if human beings are just matter, where does poetry find its resonance?
In “Let Me Forget” Edgar juxtaposes a contented suburban man's life with the stranger being tortured to death by his criminal next-door neighbour. It is facile to draw a lesson from the mere proximity of evil, as Edgar tries to do. Evil occurs everywhere and at all times. The professional in the poem has no idea what is happening. The sentiment of the poem is saved by the second-to-last stanza:
Behind that door, past comprehension,
Beyond imagining, the universe;
The laws upon
Whose unknown code the selves that you rehearse
From day to day are based; oblivion
In the absence of transcendence, Edgar can only purvey oblivion, which is of course, where everything under the sun ends up. Edgar's stock in trade is ineffables. He writes like a Buddhist Tennyson, agonisingly aware of the folly of all action and the transience of all things, yet compelled to shout its beauty to the skies in the strongest rhythmic language he can find. When humans kill God, we must attach God's agency to something. Edgar, like many others, grants it to nature:
Almost as though the sky
Were sentient and desperate to persuade
The town's pre-occupied inhabitants
To pause and lift an eye
And a moon perhaps? A far
And saffron-flushed exhibit of the sun
Balanced on that outstretched and weightless power,
A swirling upright spar
Of cloud, like an ornate Islamic tower,
Is capped with the crescent moon and one faint star.
The show is over that was overdone.
You lift your dropping jaw.
Such an extravaganza staged above.
So much superfluous effort to impress.
Whatever sky you saw,
However swept and bare, would do no less,
And its clear depths of night would overawe
Your sense and call up something much like love
The pillowy nihilism of Exhibits of the Sun is in the end defeated by the beauty of Edgar's forms and rhythms. And that might be the most important purpose of poetry. In that moment of creation no poet can be a true nihilist and if the work is resonant enough, neither can the reader.
Edgar has been reviewed extensively and I won't stray from the consensus. He is a master at what he does. We tend to think of nature as a chaotic realm, separate, as far as we can make it, from human order. The wind blows where it wants to blow and the rain falls where it wants to fall. Much eco-poetry seems to try to mimic that alleged chaos, with free forms, words scattered across the page like hailstones, and enjambment like a flash flood. But nature, too, has its fixed forms. Similar latitudes all over the world have similar climates; different species of animals from different continents fill similar ecological niches. Adaptive radiation divides a single species into many.
Edgar proves that formalism is evolutionarily viable. When read singly in magazines Edgar's poems punch through the desperate wordplay and strained significance that characterises so much contemporary poetry. When read in a book alongside so many others, the effect of each individual poem is diminished. Though formal, Edgar's poems lack the compulsive memorability of some formal poetry. It is hard to avoid memorising, say, Edna St. Vincent Millay's lyrics. Edgar foregoes the primary use of meter and rhyme, as a mnemonic device. What sticks is the atmosphere and the lyrical focus Edgar brings to his subjects. One feels that Edgar could make anything into a poem if he perceived it slowly enough, and for once that seems like something to hope for.
Humans underestimate nature's resilience at our peril. The time-worn rhythms of formal English poetry have a way of sneaking in through the back door. The American formalist poet Dana Gioa has delightfully pointed out that William Carlos William's famous harbinger of literary modernism, “The Red Wheelbarrow”, is actually two lines of perfect blank, not free verse. Not that there needs to be conflict between formal and radical (and all modes in between). All are welcome to the fruits of tradition and the hybrid vigour of selective breeding programs. As Czeslaw Milosz wrote, rhyme and meter “can ... be used like ice, to freeze decaying meat” (1981, 190). Yet, at a time when so much verse reads like cut-up prose, we can hope the leaves that fall from Edgar's trees will prepare the ground for lusher forests.
Stephen Edgar, Exhibits of the Sun. North Fitzroy, VIC: Black Pepper, 2014. ISBN 9781876044886
Hope, A. D. (2002) “The Discursive Mode: Reflections on the Ecology of Poetry”, in Essays on Poetry. Sydney: University of Sydney Library (Second edition; Sydney: Sydney University Press, 1974) http://setis.library.usyd.edu.au/oztexts
Milosz, C. (1981) “The Publican”, in Native Realm: A Search for Self-Definition, translated by C. S. Leach. Berkeley: University of California Press.