N. Scott Momaday | Critical Essay by Yvor Winters

This literature criticism consists of approximately 10 pages of analysis & critique of N. Scott Momaday.
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Critical Essay by Yvor Winters

SOURCE: "The Post-Symbolist Methods," in Forms of Discovery: Critical and Historical Essays on the Forms of the Short Poem in English, Alan Swallow, 1967, pp. 251-97.

Winters was an American critic, poet, short story writer, and editor who emphasized that all good literature necessarily serves a conscious moral purpose. In his best-known critical work, In Defense of Reason (1947), Winters stated: "I believe that the work of literature, in so far as it is valuable, approximates a real apprehension and communication of a particular kind of truth." Momaday, who studied under Winters while at Stanford, has noted that Winters greatly influenced his writing. In the excerpt below, Winters offers an analysis of "The Bear," "Buteo Regalis," and "Before an Old Painting of the Crucifixion," placing Momaday's work within the Post-Symbolist tradition.

I use the term "post-Symbolist" to describe a kind of poetry which develops most commonly and most clearly after the French Symbolists but which sometimes appears before them or independently of them. Logically, it should follow them and should follow from them, but these things happen as they will.

The associationistic doctrines taught that all ideas arise from sensory perceptions, and gradually it came to be thought that all ideas could be expressed in terms of sensory perceptions, but this effort, as in Pound's Cantos or in much of Williams ("no ideas but in things"), was doomed to failure. The result is very often a situation in which the poet offers us, or seems to offer us, sense-perceptions for their own sake, and for the sake of whatever vague feelings they may evoke. This dissociation of sense-perception and feeling on the one hand from conceptual understanding on the other finds its chief theorist in Mallarmé, although Rimbaud and Verlaine are also such theorists. These three men are the most distinguished apologists for, and practitioners of, deliberate obscurity. The reader may examine Rimbaud's "Larme" as a remarkably brilliant example of the practice.

The Romantic poets, both English and French, were interested in sensory perception, natural detail, but the interest was for the greater part theoretic; they talk about sensory details, they refer to them, but in stereotyped language … they do not see them or even try to see them. My three Frenchmen see them, hear them, feel them, and sometimes smell them, and with clarity and intensity which is often startling; and they try to isolate them from meaning, and they are surprisingly successful at it. There is nothing like this in British poetry. There is comparable visual imagery in Hardy, but it is not so employed. This clarity of perception, usually of visual perception, is characteristic of the post-Symbolist poets, but the clear perception is employed in ways different from the Symbolist way and different from Hardy's.

Valéry, in his two great poems, "Ebauche d'un Serpent" and "Le Cimetière Marin," is the heir to this sensory perception—but these two poems are not poems of hallucination; they are philosophical poems. Both poems contain a good deal of abstract statement, so that there can be no real doubt as to their themes. The sensory details are a part of this statement—they are not ornament or background. The language is often sensory and conceptual at the same time, for example in this line describing the sea: "Masse de calme et visible réserve." The line should be considered carefully. Calme and réserve are both nouns indicating potency; but both suggest the possibility of immediate act. They are metaphysical abstractions; or to be more precise, they are clearly substitutes for the metaphysical abstraction potency, substitutes brought closer to the visual, very close indeed when we remember that the line describes the sea, and substitutes which suggest the abstraction act, or actuality, but act in visible form. Masse and visible render the perception clearly visible, make it clearly the sea. That is, the sea is rendered as visibly the embodiment of potency on the verge of becoming actual. As a visual image, the line is brilliant; as an intellectual perception it is profound; the visual and the intellectual are simultaneous—they cannot be separated in fact.

There is nothing resembling this line, in the totality of its qualities, in any of the Symbolist predecessors. Nor is there anything comparable in British poetry save, perhaps, for a few lines in Bridges and T. Sturge Moore. The two poems by Valéry are what one might call classical examples of the method, but I have discussed them elsewhere and will not discuss them here. Equally clear examples are "The Cricket," by F. G. Tuckerman, a poem written about 1870 or shortly before, and without benefit of the French, and "Sunday Morning," by Wallace Stevens, which was written and the early version of which was published a year or two before the first of the two poems by Valéry (Stevens, of course, knew the French Symbolists quite as well as did Valéry)…. The poem of the kind which I shall describe is usually but not always put together from beginning to end on the principle of carefully controlled association. We have seen controlled association without imagery in Churchill's "Dedication." In some of the poems which I shall discuss we have controlled association in conjunction with post-Symbolist imagery; in some we have post-Symbolist imagery with the rational structure of the Renaissance. The controlled association offers the possibility, at least, of greater flexibility and greater inclusiveness of matter (and without confusion) than we can find in the Renaissance structures; the post-Symbolist imagery provides a greater range of thinking and perceiving than we have ever had before. The method, I believe, is potentially the richest method to appear. In fact, I will go farther: I believe that the greatest poems employing this method are the greatest poems that we have….

N. Scott Momaday (1934–) may seem too young for inclusion in a discussion of this kind, but I would remind the reader of my definition of a great poet: a poet who has written at least one great poem. In my opinion Momaday has written the poem, as well as a few fine lesser poems, and his work is very much to my purpose.

I will quote a poem called "The Bear." The poem owes something to Faulkner, but it is essentially Momaday's. It is written in syllabic verse. The first and third lines of each stanza contain five syllables apiece, the second and fourth contain seven; as in all syllabic verse, the accented syllables must vary sufficiently in number and position that they do not form a pattern (a pattern would give us standard meter) but must still contribute to the rhythm:

           What ruse of vision,
      escarping the wall of leaves,
           rending incision
      into countless surfaces,
           would cull and color
      his somnolence, whose old age
           has outworn valor,
      all but the fact of courage?
           Seen, he does not come,
      move, but seems forever there,
           dimensionless, dumb,
      in the windless noon's hot glare.
           More scarred than others
      these years since the trap maimed him,
           pain slants his withers,
      drawing up the crooked limb.
           Then he is gone, whole,
      without urgency, from sight,
           as buzzards control,
      imperceptibly, their flight.

The poem is more descriptive than anything else, yet in the third and last stanzas the details are more than physical and indicate something of the essential wilderness. The sensory perception is very acute, very quiet, as if the observer himself were almost as much at home in the wilderness as the bear. The language is at every point very quiet and could as well be the language of distinguished prose. The poem is poetry by virtue of the careful selection of details and the careful juxtaposition of these details, selection and juxtaposition which result in concentration of meaning, and by virtue of its rhythm, which is the rhythm of verse, but very subtle. Of all the poets of the past decade or so who have experimented with syllabic verse, Momaday is the only one to use it with real success.

My next poem, "Buteo Regalis," describes a hawk at the moment of attack. The lines of this poem are of ten syllables each; lines two, four, five, and six are in iambic pentameter, and the others are syllabic—Momaday controls this change of movement with perfect success:

       His frailty discrete, the rodent turns, looks.
       What sense first warns? The winging is unheard,
       Unseen but as distant motion made whole,
       Singular, slow, unbroken in its glide.
       It veers, and veering, tilts broad-surfaced wings.
       Aligned, the span bends to begin the dive
       And falls, alternately white and russet,
       Angle and curve, gathering momentum.

This seems to be more purely descriptive than "The Bear." The language could be that of prose, except for the rhythm, but of absolutely distinguished prose, free of all cliché, not of journalistic prose. Yet the language deserves more attention. We are given a rodent, not a rabbit, or a prairie dog, or a kangaroo rat. His frailty is discrete, that is, considered separately, just as his purely rodent nature is considered separately, in the defensive turn. It is the abstract movement of the abstract rodent, which we might get in a line-drawing of two or three strokes. The first and third lines, in their syllabic rhythm suggest the sudden hesitation; the four pentameter lines suggest the smooth motion of the soaring hawk; the last two lines in their syllabic rhythm and fragmented phrasing, suggest the rapid and confusing descent. This is done with absolute economy, quietly, yet with uncanny perception. Perception of what, however? Is it only the perception of physical objects observed? It seems rather perception of the "discrete" wilderness, the essential wilderness. It is this quality in both of these poems which brings them within the limits of my present subject.

Both of the poems just quoted, though remarkably fine, are minor poems. The next poem is Momaday's most impressive achievement. It is in standard meter throughout; the general method is that of controlled association:

        "Before an Old Painting of the Crucifixion"
                  The Mission Carmel
                      June 1960
       I ponder how He died, despairing once.
       I've heard the cry subside in vacant skies,
       In clearings where no other was. Despair,
       Which, in the vibrant wake of utterance,
       Resides in desolate calm, preoccupies,
       Though it is still. There is no solace there.
       That calm inhabits wilderness, the sea,
       And where no peace inheres but solitude;
       Near death it most impends. It was for Him,
       Absurd and public in His agony,
       Inscrutably itself, nor misconstrued,
       Nor metaphrased in art or pseudonym:
       A vague contagion. Old, the mural fades …
       Reminded of the fainter sea I scanned,
       I recollect: How mute in constancy!
       I could not leave the wall of palisades
       Till cormorants returned my eyes on land.
       The mural but implies eternity:
       Not death, but silence after death is change.
       Judean hills, the endless afternoon,
       The farther groves and arbors seasonless
       But fix the mind within the moment's range.
       Where evening would obscure our sorrow soon,
       There shines too much a sterile loveliness.
       No imprecisions of commingled shade,
       No shimmering deceptions of the sun,
       Herein no semblances remark the cold
       Unhindered swell of time, for time is stayed.
       The Passion wanes into oblivion,
       And time and timelessness confuse, I'm told.
       These centuries removed from either fact
       Have lain upon the critical expanse
       And been of little consequence. The void
       Is calendared in stone; the human act,
       Outrageous, is in vain. The hours advance
       Like flecks of foam borne landward and destroyed.

The first two stanzas deal with the experience of the Crucified, as it was suggested in the mural. They bring up the idea which will recur in the fourth stanza, the desolate calm following any tragic event, a calm the nature of which we may sense in the wilderness, near the sea, especially near death; and in the latter part of the second stanza we have a statement of the uniqueness of this experience for the Crucified. These lines are worth our attention: to say that the experience was unique and then try to describe it would be a contradiction, a falsification; Momaday does not try to render the unique experience but instead gives us a statement of the nature of uniqueness, in relation to the inner experience of Christ, after the line on his outer and public appearance. These lines are as powerful as any I know; they illustrate a way in which abstract statement can be utilized effectively. In the third stanza he recollects that this is, after all, a mural, old and disintegrating; the scene of the mural, mute in constancy, is not real. The sea is real, but in the distance it also is mute in constancy; he remembers how the view of the sea had held him till his eyes had drifted back after the cormorants. And then the mural comes back to mind. The third stanza may seem obscure on first reading if we do not keep in mind the position of the observer, in the old mission near the ocean, his mind moving back and forth between the two objects.

"The mural but implies eternity." I have italicized two important words. The mural does not render eternity, nor explain it; Momaday is too cautious an observer of his experience to suspect anything so foolish. It merely implies eternity but it does imply it, and it implies nothing else. The line ends with a colon, which indicates that the implication will be explored. The first line of the fourth stanza may bother the reader for a moment, for, in the usual sense, death, like any other occurrence, is change; but this is not what Momaday is talking about. Death itself is a process, a part of life; but in the silence after death we have a different state entirely, an essentially inscrutable state, which is implied by the immobile mural. The remainder of the fourth stanza describes the mural, with reference to the details which imply eternity, details which resemble our experience but suggest a state removed from it, details which are neither the one thing nor the other, which are sterile though beautiful.

The fifth stanza is a commentary on the fourth but refers back to the third as well: it tells us that in the mural there are none of the movements which indicate the presence of time, nothing to

                    remark the cold
       Unhindered swell of time,

a phrase in which we are reminded of the ocean swell outside, now as if it were at hand and powerful, but in which the swell appears to be stayed even before the fact is stated in the next few words. Time is stayed; we are in eternity in the mural; but for the moment we are in eternity this side of the mural as well. On this side of the mural the Passion wanes into oblivion; time and timelessness seem to become one. The phrase "I'm told" is not something inserted for a final foot and a rime, as one of my young friends once suggested; it is there for a clear purpose. It is a weary confession that we are dealing with a mystery, about which we cannot know as much as some people claim.

In the first two lines of the fifth stanza we have a quick light rhythm as we see the little movements which indicate life in time; this is slowed somewhat in the third line, which summarizes and begins to move into the magnificent image of time; this sentence is compact but complex in syntax and rhythm alike. The rhythm of the fifth line is slow and pensive, and that of the sixth is similar. The command of rhythm, whether linear, syntactic, or in some other way stanzaic, is that of a master; but the reader who has learned to read poetry aloud can find this command throughout.

The last stanza is a commentary on what has preceded, a summing up and a final judgment. The phrase either fact indicates two facts: the real crucifixion and the crucifixion depicted in the mural. The expanse has been critical in two senses: it has been a test of the centuries following the Crucifixion; it should have been a period of crisis, of great change. But nothing really to the purpose has occurred; there was a moral void; time was geological, not human; the extreme sacrifice was in vain. The indications of time before us are as trivial as flecks of foam moving in to disappear in the beachsand.

I have tried to explain this poem in great detail, because the poem, although not obscure, is difficult and requires careful reading. I myself did not understand it for a long time, and I know other readers, and very intelligent readers, who do not understand it yet. The poem is worth understanding. Every word, every mark of punctuation, every cadence, every detail of grammar and syntax is a precise and essential part of an act of profound understanding.

The poem displays both of the post-Symbolist methods which I have been discussing. First we have controlled association: this is seen most clearly in the third stanza and in the movement back and forth thereafter between the mural and the ocean, but it occurs throughout the poem. Second, we have post-Symbolist imagery, imagery weighted with intellectual content; the fifth stanza is the most obvious example, in "the cold unhindered swell of time," but we can find it elsewhere. And there is purely abstract statement on occasion, and very powerful abstract statement.

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This section contains 2,829 words
(approx. 10 pages at 300 words per page)
Buy the Critical Essay by Yvor Winters