Friday, September 10, 2010

Closing down the sepulchers…

Browsing - or more aptly, given this post - grazing the Internet this week I came across a question attached to one of those literary study guides that populate well-meaning high school libraries and, more recently, pedagogic websites. The subject: Irving Layton’s poem “The Bull Calf” from the book of the same name published by Toronto’s Contact Press in 1956. I should say straight away that the questions posed by these study guides always seem to me to eviscerate with a dull blade the poem at hand, but nevertheless I pressed on and read the following:

11. What similarities and differences do you perceive between animals in Layton’s poems (“The Bull Calf”… “A Tall Man Executes a Jig”… “Cat Dying in Autumn”… and in the poems of, say, Rilke (“The Panther”), D.H. Lawrence (“The Snake”), Elizabeth Bishop (“The Fish”), Margaret Atwood (“The Animals in that Country”), or Michael Ondaatje (“Loop”)?

“The Bull Calf", as many will know, was one of Layton’s earliest poems and sufficiently well regarded to find its way into A.J.M. Smith’s The Oxford Book of Canadian Verse, which is where I first encountered it. Now normally, I wouldn’t have found the citation of a famous poem in a teacherly forum particularly remarkable, but for the fact that I recently did something similar to the writer of Question 11; that is, I found myself comparing Layton’s calf poem with another poem about a calf, this one by Ted Hughes contained in Moortown Diaries (Faber and Faber, 1979) entitled “Struggle.” Yes, I know it’s not always fair or judicious to make comparisons, especially when our favourite poets are involved. But how a celebrated Canadian poem by a celebrated Canadian poet stands up against a lesser known poem by a more celebrated poet, frankly, was too much to resist.

Do I have an opinion about which poem is the better poem? Sure. In sum, the difference between the two is the difference between telling and showing, between declamation and revelation - and more besides. But perhaps you can guess.

Layton’s poem is first, immediately followed by the Hughes’ poem:

The Bull Calf

The thing could barely stand. Yet taken
from his mother and the barn smells
he still impressed with his pride,
with the promise of sovereignty in the way
his head moved to take us in.
The fierce sunlight tugging the maize from the ground
licked at his shapely flanks.
He was too young for all that pride.
I thought of the deposed Richard II.

“No money in bull calves,” Freeman had said.
The visiting clergyman rubbed the nostrils
now snuffing pathetically at the windless day.
“A pity,” he sighed.
My gaze slipped off his hat toward the empty sky
that circled over the black knot of men,
over us and the calf waiting for the first blow.

the bull calf drew in his thin forelegs
as if gathering strength for a mad rush .
tottered… raised his darkening eyes to us,
and I saw we were at the far end
of his frightened look, growing smaller and smaller
till we were only the ponderous mallet
that flicked his bleeding ear
and pushed him over on his side, stiffly,
like a block of wood.

Below the hill’s crest
the river snuffled on the improvised beach.
We dug a deep pit and threw the dead calf into it.
It made a wet sound, a sepulchral gurgle,
as the warm sides bulged and flattened.
Settled, the bull calf lay as if asleep,
one foreleg over the other,
bereft of pride and so beautiful now,
without movement, perfectly still in the cool pit,
I turned away and wept.

by Irving Layton


We had been expecting her to calve
And there she was, just after dawn, down.
Private, behind bushed hedge-cuttings, in a low rough
The walk towards her was like a walk into danger.
Caught by her first calf, the small-boned black and
white heifer.
Having a bad time. She lifted her head,
She reached for us with a wild, flinging look
And flopped flat again. There was the calf,
White-faced, lion-coloured, enormous, trapped
Round the waist by his mother’s purpled elastic
His heavy long forelegs limply bent in a not-yet-
inherited gallop.
His head curving up and back, pushing for the udder
Which had not yet appeared, his nose scratched and
By an ill-placed clump of bitten off rushes,
His fur dried as if he had been
Half-born for hours, as he probably had.
Then we heaved on his forelegs,
And on his neck, and the half-born he mooed
Protesting about everything. Then bending him down,
Between her legs, and sliding a hand
into the hot tunnel, trying to ease
His sharp hip-bones past her pelvis,
Then twisting him down, so you expected
His spine to slip its sockets,
And one hauling his legs, and one embracing his wet
Like pulling somebody anyhow from a bog,
And one with hands easing his hips past the corners
Of his tunnel mother, till something gave.
The cow flung her head and lifted her upper hind leg
With every heave, and something gave
Almost a click –
And his scrubbed wet enormous flanks came sliding
Coloured ready for the light his incredibly long hind
From the loose red flapping sack-mouth
Followed by a gush of colours, a mess
Of puddled tissues and jellies.
He mooed feebly and lay like a pieta Christ
In the cold easterly daylight. We dragged him
Under his mother’s nose, her stretched-out exhausted
So she could get to know him with lickings.
They lay face to face like two mortally wounded
We stood back, letting the strength flow towards
We gave her a drink, we gave her hay. The calf
Started his convalescence
From the grueling journey. All day he lay
Overpowered by limpness and weight.
We poured his mother’s milk into him
But he had not strength to swallow.
He made a few clumsy throat gulps, then lay
Mastering just breathing.
We took him inside. We tucked him up
In front of a stove, and tried to pour
Warm milk and whisky down his throat and not into
his lungs.
But his eye just lay suffering the monstrous weight of
his head,
The impossible job of his marvelous huge limbs.
He could not make it. He died called Struggle.
Son of Patience.

by Ted Hughes


Zachariah Wells said...

The comparison, as framed, is misleading, David. For one thing, I've never understood why "The Bull Calf" has been so widely anthologized. It's far from one of Layton's best. Secondly, one needn't look far in Hughes' oeuvre to find examples of him "telling." Hughes himself makes interesting observations about the Moortown sequence, saying that he wasn't even sure they were poems--precisely because they were so matter-of-factly descriptive. Even so, probably the best poem in that sequence, "Dehorning," ends with the very 'telling' line: "But they've all lost one third of their beauty." Showing good, telling bad is useful advice for CW undergrads, but it runs up hard against its limits in great rhetorical lines. The problem with the BC isn't that it tells where it should show. It's that what it tells isn't convincing; the too-easy allusion making Layton/speaker a Christ figure at the end (Jesus wept!) clanks. Likewise, the problem isn't that Hughes is a great poet whereas Layton is only great in Canada. Both poets wrote some of the best English poems in the last century. And both wrote reams of stuff that was middling to awful.

David Kosub said...

I'm just responding to the two poems in front of me, Zach (yes, and being a little cheeky into the bargain, I admit; I don't mean to pin either poet's entire reputation to the poems here). Whatever doubt Hughes may have had about the Moortown Dairies as poetry, I find his poem here genuinely moving, in part because it's concrete and unfolds naturally. Layton's, by comparison, is strained in both its ambition and execution, resolving into mere bathos. But you're also right: he's written better poems than this one, much better ones.

Zachariah Wells said...

Sorry, I probably read more into

" how a celebrated Canadian poem by a celebrated Canadian poet stands up against a lesser known poem by a more celebrated poet "

than you intended; it felt a bit loaded to me. And the showing/telling argument is too easy a way of explaining why Hughes' poem is better than Layton's.

On that score, at least, I agree wholeheartedly with you. The BC shows Layton in Trying-to-Write-an-Important-Poem-whilst-Riding-Philosophical-Hobbyhorse mode. Everything about it feels willed. It's a poem that impressed me as an undergrad, when I first read Layton and was impressed--as callow youths are wont to be--with a good many of his rhetorical poses.

Anyway, thanks for your post. Description and rhetoric, their disjunctions and intersections, have been much on my mind of late, as I'll be doing quite a bit of writing on the subject for a self-study course I'm developing for my MA. You've reminded me that I should revisit Moortown and Hughes' letters for that course.

Harold Rhenisch said...

Well, I agree with Hughes. His isn't a poem. Layton's is a bit dull, with that clunky last line, as you point out well, Zach. It's self-indulgent. But, I'd say Layton's poem isn't about any old bull calf, anyway, but about Layton, male images, Jews, and stuff in that orbit, but the last line is, well, arch. As for Hughes, his object is unutterably dull and plodding, although sincere. It does, however, have a strong metrical foundation, which is appealing. Anyway, I find the comparison unhelpful: they're both failed poems, for one thing; for another, they don't divide on the show-tell axis, so much on an axis of intent regarding the 'use' to which they put non-human being. They are united in the fact that they could both, in my opinion, use some strong and thorough editing. Two poems from the Age of Individuality, with all the strengths and flaws that come with it. At any rate, Hughes' would have made a nice piece of prose. The fact that it isn't is a similar instance of self-indulgence to that last line of Layton's, I reckon. Too bad that Hughes stuck to verse. It's intellectually intriguing that these two titans of the ego both have their tragic flaws.

David Kosub said...

Seeing how two poets treat nearly identical subjects can be helpful, Harold, though I agree it will have its limitations. Is Hughes' piece a poem? Well, couple a narrative structure with "a strong metrical foundation" as you say here, and I'm guessing you have a narrative poem.

I don't see where Hughes' ego shows up in the poem, as it's pretty much concentrated on describing what's in front of him rather than overtly expressing his feelings about what he sees; it's what a good narrative poem does, it seems to me.

Harold Rhenisch said...

Well, it's just an avalanche of descriptions without narrative, and although it has a metric foundation on one level (word-by-word), on the level of the line and stanza it's flat. It's a journal entry, and self-indulgent, in that it's just a series of descriptions, none of them particularly luminous, and it has no music. That's ego at work. Neither is it a piece of science or precise observation. It is designed to make us observe the observer. Only.

Harold Rhenisch said...

I don't mean to be grumpy, David. It's just that, geez, these are pretty uninteresting word objects. Their interest lies in their nature as records of what people, at a certain point in history, considered to be poetry. As historical documents, they are fascinating, but that's about it. Let's not cheapen the word 'poem' by calling these that.


David Kosub said...

Nothing wrong with "grumpy", Harold. You're a tough audience, but that just keeps the rest of us on our toes.


Harold Rhenisch said...

Whew. You keep me on mine, too, you know.

Still, this prose/verse thing has legs, I think. There's Hughes, on one hand, here, if my contention is correct. On the other side, there are Williams' explorations at lineating prose. Or Ammons' work (dull, I find, but he's onto something on the molecular level). Or Bidart's. Now, there's one that succeeds a lot of the time, in the long poems. Ditto for Charles Wright in his best work. And a good prose line in a verse poem, properly anchored tonally, that's a beautiful thing, too. The Germans are great at this kind of thing. Handke. Enzensberger. They have a long, robust song tradition that they are drawing from. That might be an interesting way of looking at it. Dietrich's or Brecht's cabaret work finding a way into page-based work, for example, through a Marxist /deconstructionist door.

Ken said...

They are both fine poems, but I'd vote for Layton's if I had to pick one as the 'winner', not something I like doing. Hughes' poem seems to me more unfocused. Sure, it has more detailed descriptive elements, but that in poem (unless you're an imagist) isn't the most important feature of a poem. It is true that Layton tends to hit hard at the end of his poems with rhetorical flourishes that some might consider bombastic. (He was rather notorious for that tendency.) But all this aside, I think this "which is better" game in art is silly and pointless. What is interesting is the different approaches artists take. "Compare and contrast" is a more valuable exercise than playing 'Survivor' with works of art trapped on a desert island.


David Kosub said...

"Compare and contrast" reminds me of those literary study guides I talk about at the top of my post or those awful questions we were asked in high school and university literary classes. At the same time, making judgements about poems, if only at the level of a poetic line or an image, a rhythmic or rhetorical choice, seems even to you here, Ken, to be an instinctual and valid response. I see no reason why we would not extend that to a judgement of the poem as a whole (We do the same thing in judging film, for example).

As for whether a poem will "survive" to be read say a hundred years from now, only posterity can judge. But I'd like to think they would find our assessments of poems written today equally insightful and enduring.

Alice Major said...

I'm not going to get into the 'defining' of poems -- a mug's game. Some poems are more about content and some poems are more about sound. Room for all.

But for heaven's sake, how could you guys miss the huge "Pieta-son-of-struggle' stuff going on in Hughes? It's as burdened by its Christian symbolism as anything in Layton.

Even so, I don't think either poem is as self-indulgent as all that. The world hands us emotion and you have to do something with it.

Zachariah Wells said...

One of the things that makes the Hughes poem more successful, IMO, is that the symbolic dimension is missable. Layton, by contrast, telegraphs it from the get-go. At any rate, yes, mug's game indeed.

David Kosub said...

Are we trying to "define" poems in the grand scheme of all things poetical, Alice, or simply trying to account for these two poems in front of us, i.e. in relation to what works for us or doesn't work for us? I'm kind of hoping the latter.

I'm not sure we missed the Pieta reference; I mean how could we? It's right there (i.e. "He mooed feebly and lay like a pieta Christ/
In the cold easterly daylight.") More likely we got side tracked by other issues. But isn't the Christ thing generally over done a little, anyway, and the least interesting aspect of Hughes' poem?

You say "The world hands us emotion and you have to do something with it." That raises a good question: Was anyone actually moved by the Hughes' poem...say by reading it aloud?

David Kosub said...

I agree. The Hughes poem has other things to recommend it besides its symbolic dimension. By contrast, when Layton relies upon symbolism as he does here, it almost always tends to weaken his poetry, at least for me.


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