Peter Steele: Braiding the Voices: Essays in Poetry

St Kilda: John Leonard Press, 2012, 310pp.

Although it is always an unhappy task to be looking at a posthumous book, it is also a pleasure, after focussing on books of poetry for the first six years of these reviews, to be able to review a book of criticism. In point of fact the proportions are about right: somewhere between fifty and seventy-five books of poetry are published annually in Australia but one could probably count the books of poetry criticism in the last six years on one hand. In a healthy literary culture, of course, poetry is always recognised as far more important than the criticism which accompanies it but you don’t want too great an imbalance lest critical instincts atrophy irrevocably. The fact that this is, in a sense, a memorial volume is a painful reminder that one of the always small company of good critics has left us and a source of good critical judgement has disappeared. But one still wants to congratulate the John Leonard Press for publishing a book which will have, at best, a small readership and, through the quality of their design and materials, making such a fine job of it. It’s also a book that looks as though it might have some kind of extended physical life: my copy of Steele’s earlier critical book, Expatriates, though, admittedly, getting on for thirty years old, has pages that look like frames from early acetate silent films. Braiding the Voices is a physical pleasure, as well as an intellectual pleasure, to read and if readers of these reviews were to buy, annually, one of the books reviewed, I would probably hope that it would be this one.

Peter Steele’s critical instincts are finely honed and I have always found that reading him is an introduction to admirable and often surprising insights. So I want to celebrate his work as that of an elder statesman of criticism. If Australian poetry critics often seem to me like a small, hungry, cold band of outcasts huddling around a fitful campfire in the middle of a great and partially derelict cathedral, then Steele would, in recent years, have been voted first choice when it came to portioning out the scraps of food. But being a respected elder statesman doesn’t mean that your method and interests are in any way representative. Those of you who follow up Steele’s book after reading this review won’t find many similarities in our methods though that can always be interpreted as evidence of a desirable polyvocality in the way Australian critics look at Australia’s poetry.

And that reveals one of the distinctive features of Braiding the Voices almost immediately: it doesn’t limit itself to discussing Australian poets. There are important essays on Peter Porter (whose poetry is the subject of a small book by Steele in the Oxford Authors series), Les Murray and Vincent Buckley but also on the poetry of Anthony Hecht and Seamus Heaney (Steele favourites). Perhaps the Australian poet most likely to appear is Steele himself but this is a result not of self-centredness or self-promotion but rather, as I’ll explore later, of the very genre of the book. At any rate, Steele in his criticism was no critical nationalist and it is interesting to look at the ambit of his interests. The first surprise is the extent to which he focusses on poets who are of his generation, or close to it: he is most comfortable with the poems of people like Heaney, Porter, Buckley and Hecht. Expatriates was focussed around individual poems by Hecht, Merwin, Wilbur and others born in the twenties as well as poets like Bishop and Moore from slightly earlier. I don’t think I have read anything by him which is about poets markedly younger than he is. These poets of his generation form a kind of community – an essential word in the Steele ethos – that he is very good at exploring. When his critical mind goes back in time, uncovering or claiming traditions, it tends to go on recognisable stepping stones: Hopkins, Smart, Swift, Herbert, Donne and Milton all figure regularly. In terms of what is called “secondary material”, Steele is very widely read and one is as likely to find references to contemporary social analysis as to the church fathers. Overall one gets the impression of a man at home in an immensely rich European tradition with those descended from the Greek Orthodox imperium, Russia and Greece, making occasional appearances. There is an essay on Dante in Braiding the Voices but, usually, Steele confines himself to English language literature.

The role of art is important in both his poetry and criticism. In one sense, it provides something that I want to argue might be lacking in Steele’s approach: an external yardstick. Two of the essays in Braiding the Voices are about art and poetry and the value of this exploration, you feel, is that the visual arts represent an otherness as against the verbal ones: they serve as a way of measuring the generalisations we make about poetry as well as revealing surprising new aspects of it. This seems to me an essential balance in criticism: it has to bring the outside to bear as well as evolving a vision which comes, internally, from an empathic response to the works being considered. On the other hand, it could be argued that the visual art which fascinates Steele is, by and large, an expression of European culture, with an emphasis on late medieval religious experience, and thus stands in for an area where the literary arts are weak. All of this is by way of observation rather than objection; the same could be said of the critical writing of Auden, a better critic than either Steele or myself. But I can’t help but feel – and it may be a personal rather than a true epistemological objection – that the very best criticism would also be familiar (and intimate) with a completely different culture, literature and language – Mandarin, say, or Hindi, or even Inuit – in order to see one’s own tradition from the outside. How else will we see it clearly? In other words it is a moot, and important, point whether Steele’s engagement with European culture is minutely and thus preciously informed and or just cosily intimate.

The feeling that Steele is happiest when he is most “at home” emphasises how communal his readings are. One of the features of this is a kind of intimacy and the virtues of intimacy – as well as its problems – are present in the style and structure of these essays, too. The tone, for example, is always intimate, often even avuncular but it doesn’t invite disagreement. In fact a reader is inclined to feel that disagreement would be, in some way, rudely disruptive. I’m not suggesting that Steele’s prose contains a suasive or controlling element, even in disguise, and his discussion of Murray’s poetry shows how well he understands that, under the relaxed intimacy of a poem like “The Quality of Sprawl”, there is a very unrelaxed desire to command both poem and reader. It is more that you get the sense that in his work, the placing of observations against their very opposite (either in debate with others or in internal debate with oneself) in order to determine which is more accurate is not the essential method of moving forward. Steele’s critical mind (as opposed to his poetic one) seems to work by generalisation, association and the exploration of subtle differences. The essential subject, I always feel, is not a single work, a single writer’s works, a generation’s poems, or a national or linguistic tradition, but poetry itself, dignified almost to the extent of being capitalised.

Structurally, Steele’s essays are of a piece with his style. His most common method is to explore a particular facet of this subject – Poetry – by looking at a number of poems (usually three or four) that illuminate this in some way. One of the finest essays in Braiding the Voices is “Still Moving: Variations on a Theme”, and it’s a good example of his method. It begins by looking at the issue of whether poetry is more concerned with the particular than with the general and then modulates (through speaking of “primordial questions”) to the contrast between “what might be called the Still One and the Moving Many”. The essay goes on to look at some poems – by P.J. Kavanagh, Deborah Randall (in her mid-forties an exception to my comment that Steele doesn’t deal with poets younger than himself) and Peter Porter – not as overt discussions of the issue but as sites where the issue is given “imaginative play”. The reading of Kavanagh’s “Autumn” (which is based on the situation of “Gawain and the Green Knight” but with a strong element of Browning’s “Childe Roland”) is a brilliant analysis of that poem’s “dramatic suspension”s and describes Kavanagh as a poet “of moments and situations waiting to discharge their often striking energies”. It is the kind of observation that comes from intimacies, intimacy with an individual poet’s work but also an intimacy with the subtler features to be found in poetry itself. The analysis of Deborah Randall’s “The Hare” begins by finding in the poem the double image of an animal which is all movement and must be described both as movement and as frozen movement “the palpable and the fugitive” and goes on to discuss the opposition in poetry between the spoken and the unspoken before finishing up with the Navajo’s Coyote which occupies several planes of reality at the same time.

The final poem discussed in the essay is an ekphrastic one, Peter Porter’s “The Lion of Antonello Da Messina” a more difficult poem and one which provokes a subtler analysis. Steele responds to Porter’s transmutations and by beginning with a discussion of this he develops the issue at the core of his essay into movement between states rather than simply stasis and movement. And that’s just the beginning. I’ll content myself with quoting a compressed version of what follows since trying to paraphrase it will probably produce only a wordier summary:

Whatever the theoretical fortunes of mimesis these days, Porter’s poetry is incessantly mimetic, insofar as energy itself is up for imitation. The disconcertment which some readers experience upon exposure to his work comes less, I think, from what they take, sometimes correctly, for esoterica, than from the leaps and plunges of Porter’s associative mind: it is as if the many hundreds of poems are tantamount to an advanced course in metaphorical intelligence. Canetti wrote that “A great many ideas want to remain like comets”; Porter’s ideas and images are more often than not comet-like, but “remain” does not seem to be the right word.

Not the right word in part because, in the midst of remarkable intellectual fertility, Porter is an impresario of loss. The medieval philosophical dictum, made over from Aristotle, that “the generation of one thing is the destruction of another”, has a kind of aching cogency in his imagination. One of his first instincts in the face of the given is to see that it can be taken away and probably will be. The predicament is handled, commonly, with a blend of unillusioned trenchancy and stoical finesse, but handled it is, pretty well unremittingly. . . . . The truly extraordinary thing is to see this combined with imaginative vitality, not by concession or exception, but as if that were the norm in such things. Every church or theatre in which Porter contemplates complexity, every field or bay, seems indeed to be part of the great Globe itself, an instant before evanescence: but at that terminal moment insight is profuse, association emphatic, and imaginative mobility heightened.

That is such good criticism, such a subtle teasing out of the intellectual fluidity of Porter’s poetry and its connection with what seems to cruder readers merely a morbid imagination, that – I’m ashamed to say – it makes me envious. Of course, one can console oneself with the observation that it’s going to be a pretty irritating essay for undergraduate readers who are looking for some help with essays of their own and who are not at all sure even who the speaker is in Porter’s poem: Steele tends to speak at what is – or should be – the level of his community.

Intimacy encourages, among other things, playfulness and Steele isn’t above enjoying the complex structures of his own essays which are often deliberate floutings of the academic template. In Expatriates, there is an essay on Robert Huff’s poem, “Blue”. It is an essay full of delightful, writerly jokes, beginning with the contrast between the four-letter title of the poem and the length of essay itself – some eight or nine thousand words. The short poem which forms the opening of the essay is itself a complex affair dealing with the Huff’s role in a bombing raid over Germany in the Second World War. It is so densely interwoven with allusions that the ethical issues underneath are obscured as they become made complex. The central figure is Faust whose pact with the Devil perhaps makes such high-tech warfare possible and the plane is, in a way, bringing this process back to its origins: “As though I had been turning through the stars / For ages on my way to Germany. / Down in the ashes that were Wittemberg / The blue flames cough up black geraniums.” And the entire poem – not only the inside of the bomber’s cockpit – is bathed in “blue”. It’s a poem that you would like to see teased out but Steele’s essay begins with a passage which I will quote:

Poetry is among other things language making a nuisance of itself. Some poets are applauded for their pellucidity, for giving tongue as though they were giving explanations; but even these poets are less likely to be delivering the goods than delivering the baby – things are off to a new start with them, and language is given the cross-hatching of the personal. The night comes when no man can work, but the words can play their way along quite as well then, better in fact. The marche militaire is a skater’s waltz in disguise, the uniform a camouflaged motley.

This is a nuisance for the preliterate, many of whom are not illiterate. Many indeed traffic much in books, cracking their codes, as they suppose, alembicating poetry into diurnal meanings: beyond the Hyades they find the Ephemerides. Of course such is not the Kingdom of Heaven, but they often suppose that it is, or at least that if that starry zone is not yet theirs for the having, they may sponsor, now, the Good, or the Good Life. Petulant moralists, soi-disant analysts, unfrocked legalists – these fragments of our usually fragmentary selves maraud around the poem, as around the arts at large, and proclaim with the tireless, heedless insistence of somnambulists what the poem means. “For every complex problem”, announces a poster, “there’s a simple solution. And it’s wrong.” The poet may forget his other words, but that one he knows.

Or knows after a fashion. It is in his hornbook, but only imperfectly in his heart. Bad company does odd things to our ideals, and we are in part all bad company to ourselves. There is a perverse streak in us which leads us to want to take wooden nickels, want to be snowed by the offer of Brooklyn Bridge. A human being is an angular thing, more like a question mark than an exclamation mark. . . . .

And so on for another twenty pages. It’s Steele at his most Delphic and inspissate. Most of it I don’t follow despite having reread it many times but I quote it to point out the extent that it is also a set of gags. Many of these derive from the method of obliqueness. There is a wonderful essay by Greg Dening, “Sharks that Walk on the Land: The Death Of Captain Cook” in which the reader has to face two pages of anthropological analysis (admittedly very lucid and not especially forbidding) until the curtain goes up, so to speak, and Captain Cook appears. Part of the fun of Steele’s essay is that the appearance of the poem itself is delayed for about fifteen hundred words and the first thousand words devoted to it are a long meditation on the colour blue. It has the same structure which underlies most of Steele’s essays (none in Braiding the Voices are as extreme as the essay on “Blue”) in that a poem is subsumed into a general theme which is then engaged obliquely. But the fact that the subject of the poem is a bombing raid (certainly not a “raid on the inarticulate” though that theme appears in the essay) and is treated in such a less than full frontal attack, is part of the joke, as is the fact that a poem with a four letter title is surrounded by such an extensive meditation. The fact that it begins with an attack on a certain kind of poetry analyst (with an asperity rare in Steele’s writing) is also something of a joke in the light of the poem under consideration. I’m sure there is a lot more subtle humour of this sort in this weird essay but it would take a lot of work to tease it out. At any rate my point is that Steele’s intimate, “at home” approach to criticism includes a playful element.

But, of course, Expatriates is not a series of scholarly analyses of poems: it is a set of meditations about poetry itself, roughly constellated about the idea of expatriation and exile. In a sense it is belletristic but it is also, obliquely perhaps, a challenge to scholarly analysis of poetry to match its quality and insight. Braiding the Voices is in a more recognisable mode: that of the collection of poet’s essays. Behind it (and often quoted) stand similar collections by people like Hollander, Jarrell, Merwin, Nemerov, Heaney, Auden and many others. In the absence, in Australia, of a strong tradition of literary journalism, it is a book genre that needs to be encouraged. As I said before, the genre is the reason that Steele and his own poems make so many appearances: in Expatriates he appears incognito as Michael Kent, the author of a sestina. Braiding the Voices concludes with six final poems. The first of these is set, sinisterly, in the oncology ward but you feel that rampant confessionalism was never going to be Steele’s way and so the final poems, about eating and proverbs, are about community.