Monday, April 29, 2013

on Symbolist poetry

Morning, 1897 -- Mikhail Vrubel (1856-1910) 

Yesterday on Facebook, I posted this:
I can't exactly put my finger on it, but there's something about Symbolist poetry. I don't think it actually withered or was supplanted by any worthier aesthetic. I think it's still breathing in a timeless region. I suspect, instead, that sensibility has corroded, reception become coarse. 

I'm going to spend the rest of this rainy day thinking about Symbolist poetry. I might even listen to Sandrine Piau sing Debussy songs based on Mallarmé and Verlaine. Yep. It's something to do.

Someone asked that I suggest an example of a Symbolist poem. So I replied with this:
Here's one by Paul Verlaine, which I think exemplifies several criteria -- a bit of decadence, a dash of melancholy, a sprinkling of mysticism, a pinch of idealism, a dollop of lyricism: 

Your soul is like a landscape fantasy,
Where masks and Bergamasks, in charming wise,
Strum lutes and dance, just a bit sad to be
Hidden beneath their fanciful disguise.

Singing in minor mode of life's largesse
And all-victorious love, they yet seem quite
Reluctant to believe their happiness,
And their song mingles with the pale moonlight,

The calm, pale moonlight, whose sad beauty, beaming,
Sets the birds softly dreaming in the trees,
And makes the marbled fountains, gushing, streaming--
Slender jet-fountains--sob their ecstasies.

Today, I'm still thinking about this stuff.

I think some poems by Boris Pasternak are written with an understated, implicit connection to the Symbolists:

     Like a brazier's bronze cinders

     Like a brazier's bronze cinders,
     the sleepy garden's beetle's flowing.
     Level with me, and my candle,
     a flowering world is hanging.

    As if into unprecedented faith,
    I cross into this night,
    where the poplar's beaten grey
    veils the moon's rim from sight.

    Where the pond's an open secret,
    where apple-trees whisper of waves,
    where the garden hanging on piles,
    holds the sky before its face.

In this poem, phenomena take on a kind of silent speech or a form of spiritual semiotics. There's more happening than meets the eye.

Maybe there are aspects of the Symbolist aesthetic that are less obvious in some poetry still being written. Maybe it's more about a certain attitude than fulfilling a list of surface criteria. Maybe I don't know what I'm talking about or trying to get at. All I know is that so much of today's poetry seems dully infatuated with realism or the quotidian or with poet-as-knowing seer instead of poet-as-metaphysical sleuth.

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