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Monday, May 23, 2011

Number 164: Stephen Spender "The Pylons"

The Pylons

The secret of these hills was stone, and cottages
Of that stone made,
And crumbling roads
That turned on sudden hidden villages

Now over these small hills, they have built the concrete
That trails black wire
Pylons, those pillars
Bare like nude giant girls that have no secret.

The valley with its gilt and evening look
And the green chestnut
Of customary root,
Are mocked dry like the parched bed of a brook.

But far above and far as sight endures
Like whips of anger
With lightning's danger
There runs the quick perspective of the future.

This dwarfs our emerald country by its trek
So tall with prophecy
Dreaming of cities
Where often clouds shall lean their swan-white neck.

-- Stephen Spender

Hap Notes: Stephen Spender (1909-1995) is the poet of the 30s and 40s in England who does not make it out of the decades unscathed. His contemporaries and associates, T.S. Eliot, C.Day Lewis, Lewis MacNiece and his close friend W.H Auden have their fair share of critics but have never been as tossed aside as Spender was/has been. Spender's style is more romantic, idealistic and diffuse, unlike Auden's surgical proficiency at finding the precise word, and Spender's reputation has taken a beating in the last few decades.

This is possibly his most famous poem. Spender has more than a trace of the Romantic in him and he is the bridge, in many ways between eras of poetry and, as such, gets trod upon the way all bridges do, without thanks for their function. Today's poem came to symbolize the era of poets from which he came and Auden, MacNeice. Lewis and Spender were often called the "Pylon Poets" for their use of industrial imagery.

Spender was a politically charged fellow who believed in, and consequently became disillusioned with, Communism. (Breaking off briefly to say, this is always the case with Communism. I have no idea why people are frightened of it; it never works. It's like a vacuum cleaner with no motor- it's a wonderful idea but it doesn't do what it says it will.)

His signature prose work is his autobiography World Within World which is incredibly frank about his sex life (without being lurid) as a bi-sexual, as well as his encounters and friendships with people like Ernest Hemingway, Christopher Isherwood, Virginia Woolf, Pablo Neruda, W.B. Yeats, Octavio Paz, Edith Sitwell and more. (At this point one needs to take a breath and be a bit impressed- he met almost everyone that formed the literary century of the 1900s.) He wrote much of the book on Frieda Lawrence's (D.H.'s wife) ranch in New Mexico. If you never read any more of his poetry than just this one, I encourage to read World Within World. It is an unparalleled view of 20th century literature and its facets both from Spender's analysis and its cast of characters.

Spender lived his life like a bridge, also, being in America, teaching at Sarah Lawrence College, appointed U.S. Poetry Consultant in the U.S. in 1965 (the first non-American to hold the post), teaching at University College, Oxford and being knighted in 1983 (Sir Stephen Harold Spender.) He passed on with these honors, these remarkable friendships and encounters and he was burnished by the century that seems to have forgotten him as a poet.

The masthead illustrations are regular pylons and "humanoid" pylons which have been recently designed in Iceland to make them more beautiful. They are very Spender-like don't you think?
There are, by the by, more than 88,000 pylons in Great Britain.

Here's a good Spender quote: "Great poetry is always written by somebody straining to go beyond what he can do."

Here's another, his very astute analysis of Gerard Manley Hopkins and D. H. Lawrence from his book The Struggle of the Modern: "Both Hopkins and Lawrence were religious not just in the ritualistic sense but in the sense of being obsessed with the word — the word made life and truth — with the need to invent a language as direct as religious utterance. Both were poets, but outside the literary fashions of their time. Both felt that among the poets of their time was an absorption in literary manners, fashions and techniques which separated the line of the writing from that of religious truth. Both felt that the modern situation imposed on them the necessity to express truth by means of a different kind of poetic writing from that used in past or present. Both found themselves driven into writing in a way which their contemporaries did not understand or respond to yet was inevitable to each in his pursuit of truth. Here of course there is a difference between Hopkins and Lawrence, because Hopkins in his art was perhaps over-worried, over-conscientious, whereas Lawrence was an instinctive poet who, in his concern for truth, understood little of the problems of poetic form, although he held strong views about them. "

You can find more Spender here:

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