Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Unsung Classics: E.A. Robinson

Pointing out the innumeracy of economic reporting in America is like screaming into a clogged toilet. You'll never actually fix the problem and after a while the stench gets to be too much to bear... So let's talk poetry!

I know this isn't the most popular of subjects. Most of you probably haven't read a poem since high school, unless it was in a greeting card. But even those of you who have probably never got around to Edwin Arlington Robinson. And that's a shame because he's probably the last good poet America will ever have.

More of a shame - that mustache isn't cool anymore.

I'd never even heard of him myself until senior year of college when I took Arthurian Literature for a laugh. The professor often referenced Mort d'Arthur as the definitive work in the mythos even though we never read it. Instead we read the moralizing dross of Tennyson, the soppy fanfiction of Marion Zimmer Bradley... And a surprisingly good modernist mock epic by one E.A. Robinson.

Merlin is one of those literary works too good to make it into the Norton anthologies. Instead of Arthur and his knights, it focuses on the complex relationship between Merlin and Morgan le Fay - renamed here Vivian - the femme fatale of Arthurian legend. Under Robinson's hand, she ceases to be the one-dimensional scheming witch and instead becomes a complex figure both enticing and reviling Merlin, who is compelled to chase after her by Fate - so he claims - with their interactions taking on shades of a strained marriage rather than an epic battle between good and evil. It's a synechdoche for Robinson's work as a whole, taking myth and grandeur and making it relatable without losing any power.

Let's take a look at his more well known piece, Miniver Cheevey, which I can present here in full thanks to public domain:

Miniver Cheevy, child of scorn,
Grew lean while he assailed the seasons
He wept that he was ever born,
And he had reasons.
Miniver loved the days of old
When swords were bright and steeds were prancing;
The vision of a warrior bold
Would send him dancing.

Miniver sighed for what was not,
And dreamed, and rested from his labors;
He dreamed of Thebes and Camelot,
And Priam's neighbors.

Miniver mourned the ripe renown
That made so many a name so fragrant;
He mourned Romance, now on the town,
And Art, a vagrant.

Miniver loved the Medici,
Albeit he had never seen one;
He would have sinned incessantly
Could he have been one.

Miniver cursed the commonplace
And eyed a khaki suit with loathing:
He missed the medieval grace
Of iron clothing.

Miniver scorned the gold he sought,
But sore annoyed was he without it;
Miniver thought, and thought, and thought,
And thought about it.
Miniver Cheevy, born too late,
Scratched his head and kept on thinking;
Miniver coughed, and called it fate,
And kept on drinking.

Something feels off when you read, doesn't it? Robinson's rhythm is out of whack, especially those last lines. But try this - read Miniver Cheevy again, skipping those awkward final lines... Flows much better, don't it? Conveys more pathos, more of that cloying desperation of the All-American Loser. The very American reality we all desperately pretend does not exist.

Because Robinson knew enough to write strategically bad. The whole poem is the titular Cheevy wallowing in self-pity,  a tale told by an idiot for himself. His verse fails because he is such a failure. It's much harder to do than you would think because Robinson had to know enough to write the poem well from the start, then go back and tweak things just so Cheevy's misery and failure is illustrated without just making a bad poem. It's a stunning demonstration of the craft - especially since Robinson was writing in the age of the Verse Libre poets, who liked to indulge in such stylistic quirks but lacked the substance to say anything of import. They were so terrible, they were later celebrated by every beatnik and hippy too dull to write proper pop songs. Robinson actively resisted the "free verse" of his day, explaining with the self-deprecation of a true artist, "I write badly enough as it is."

It's rare for that much humility to go hand in hand with such genuine skill. Rarer still that such writers get read so go pick up a copy of Robinson's poems now. It'll make you a better person.

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