By John Crowe Ransom
Original Publisher: Alfred A. Knopf
Current Publisher: Out of Print
John Murillo writes:
I find it strange that early critics of John Crowe Ransom found him a bit too cool and disengaged in his work, considering his technical virtuosity a bit too front and center, self-conscious, pretentious even. Some thought it came between him and his subject, and, ultimately, between poem and reader. I don't read him this way. In fact, I think it is through his technique—his handling of line, sound, and rhetorical progression—that he arrives at what the Spanish poet and playwright Federico García Lorca would term duende.
I can hear the criticism already: Duende is not a matter of craft, but quite the opposite. It's that bright black heat boiling up from the ground, through the gut, and out the mouth or hands or whatever the artist is using to fashion his art. But I'd argue that this is an incomplete view, that Lorca himself was a craftsman of the highest order. (He once wrote—tired, I believe, of critics treating him as if his work were all viscera and no brain—that if he is a poet by virtue of the duende, he is also a poet by virtue of knowing exactly what a poem is and how it works.) Although he argued for art that started from and ended in soulcry, he also knew that the means of achieving this—the wrestling with the duende that he spoke of—is by way of craft. (Consider Valery's proposition that the poet's duty is not to experience what he called the “poetic state,” but to evoke that state in others by using whatever technique he has at his disposal.) Duende, then, is both source of inspiration as well as a quality of art. We would do well to keep this in mind when reading the poetry of John Crowe Ransom.
Lorca tells us that in Spanish and Mexican culture—where he considers duende most apparent—one of the defining qualities of duende is the way in which it engages death, embracing it as a necessary condition of this world. A writer of the American south—blues and bluegrass south—Ransom also does this throughout his work. He doesn't try to sell us on any one way of viewing death. He simply presents it. Poem after poem. He presents death plainly and allows the reader to feel how they will.
BELLS FOR JOHN WHITESIDE'S DAUGHTER
There was such speed in her little body,
And such lightness in her footfall,
It is no wonder her brown study
Astonishes us all.
Her wars were bruited in our high window.
We looked among orchard trees and beyond,
Where she took arms against her shadow,
Or harried unto the pond
The lazy geese, like a snow cloud
Dripping their snow on the green grass,
Trickling and stopping, sleepy and proud,
Who cried in goose, Alas,
For the tireless heart within the little
Lady with rod that made them rise
From their noon apple-dreams and scuttle
Goose-fashion under the skies!
But now go the bells, and we are ready,
In one house we are sternly stopped
To say we are vexed at her brown study,
Lying so primly propped.
As this poem shows, sometimes the duende isn't all gnashing teeth and torn clothes. Sometimes it whispers. In this short elegy, Ransom speaks to the enormous grief of all who knew—and, maybe, didn't always love—the dead girl. He renders this grief through understatement. And this coldness gives way to heat. By simply telling the story, Ransom lets death speak for itself. He does it again and again throughout the collection. See the following poem, for example:
HERE LIES A LADY
Here lies a lady of beauty and high degree,
Of chills and fever she died, of fever and chills,
The delight of her husband, her aunt, an infant of three,
And of medicos marveling sweetly on her ills.
For either she burned, and her confident eyes would blaze,
And her fingers fly in a manner to puzzle their heads—
What was she making? Why, nothing; she sat in a maze
Of old scraps of laces, snipped into curious shreds—
Or this would pass, and the light of her fire decline
Till she lay discouraged and cold, like a stalk white and blown,
And would not open her eyes, to kisses, to wine;
The sixth of these states was her last; the cold settled down.
Sweet ladies, long may ye bloom, and toughly I hope ye may thole,
But was she not lucky? In flowers and lace and mourning,
In love and great honor we bade God rest her soul
After six little spaces of chill, and six of burning.
Lorca tells us in “Play and Theory of the Duende” that “intelligence is often the enemy of poetry, because it limits too much, and it elevates the poet to a sharp-edged throne where he forgets that ants could eat him or that a great arsenic lobster could fall suddenly on his head.” Perhaps this is what Ransom's critics had in mind when they derided him for his foregrounding of craft at, as they saw it, the expense of the poems' soul. But here we see that Ransom used his craft in the service of soul. In this poem, he is reminding us of the exact same reality that Lorca urges us to keep close to our hearts: that we are indeed mortal, that this world is finite, that death does dog us at every moment, that we should therefore live as fully as we are able in the here and now.
The little cousin is dead, by foul subtraction,
A green bough from Virginia's aged tree,
And none of the county kin like the transaction,
Nor some of the world of outer dark, like me.
A boy not beautiful, nor good, nor clever,
A black cloud full of storms too hot for keeping,
A sword beneath his mother's heart—yet never
Woman bewept her babe as this is weeping.
A pig with a pasty face, so I had said,
Squealing for cookies, kinned by poor pretense
With a noble house. But the little man quite dead,
I see the forebears' antique lineaments.
The elder men have strode by the box of death
To the wide flag porch, and muttering low send round
The bruit of the day. O friendly waste of breath!
Their hearts are hurt with a deep dynastic wound.
He was pale and little, the foolish neighbors say;
The first-fruits, saith the Preacher, the Lord hath taken;
But this was the old tree's late branch wrenched away,
Grieving the sapless limbs, the shorn and shaken.
Ransom's is a quiet pain. A steady ache. That he presents it in carefully controlled verse—in this case, rhymed quatrains—does nothing to diminish its effect. The pain is contained, sure. But this control serves to intensify without sentimentalizing.
In reading Ransom's Selected Poems and critics' responses, I'm reminded of how some jazz traditionalists treated John Coltrane and what they considered his furious, wild, uncontrolled solos. For whatever reason, they weren't able to see—or hear, rather—that he was working out utterly complex tonal problems right in front of them. What they were witnessing was a master at work. In that case, the critics got it wrong because they focused on the blood and not the brain in Coltrane's art. With Ransom, quite the opposite seems true. Many of his critics saw only brain and were blind to the blood running through his best work. Fortunately, in 1964 at least, somebody got it right.
John Murillo is the author of the poetry collection, Up Jump the Boogie (Cypher Books, 2010). A graduate of New York University's MFA program in creative writing, he has received fellowships from the New York Times, Cave Canem, the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, and the Wisconsin Institute for Creative Writing, among others. He is a founding member of the collective, The Symphony, and is currently visiting assistant professor of creative writing at Cornell University. (Photo credit: Rachel Eliza Griffiths)
Poetry Finalists that Year:
- W.S. Merwin for The Moving Target
- Louis Simpson for At the End of the Open Road
- May Swenson for To Mix with Time
Poetry Judges that Year: Jean Garrigue, Anthony Hecht, John Hall Wheelock
The Year in Literature:
- At the End of the Open Road by Louis Simpson won the Pulitzer Prize for poetry.
- Reed Whittemore was named Consultant in Poetry of the United States.
- John Crowe Ransom (1888-1974) was born in Pulaski, TN.
- Ransom was the founding editor of The Kenyon Review.
- John Crowe Ransom profile at Poets.org
- Ransom's Papers at Washington University in St. Louis
- Criticism, Inc. by Ransom from Virginia Quarterly Review
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