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DAVID RIGSBEE - APRIL 2000 FEATURE  

The Cortland Review

FEATURE

Charles Bernstein
Charles Bernstein recites some of his finest poems. David Lehman interviews the poet--all in RealAudio.

Robert Kendall
A Study in Shades - A new interactive poem in hypertext.

David Rigsbee
An elegy for poet Edgar Bowers

John Kinsella
Random Memories: What I Remember - The latest in John Kinsella's autobiography series.

David Rigsbee

David Rigsbee's most recent books are Trailers (University Press of Virginia, 1996) and A Skeptic's Notebook: Longer Poems (St. Andrews, 1996). His work has appeared in American Poetry Review, New Yorker, Iowa Review, Southern Review, Georgia Review, and Ohio Review
David Rigsbee - On Edgar Bowers

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Born in Georgia, educated at Stanford (where he studied with Yvor Winters), Edgar Bowers brought a severe classicism to his poems. His verbal compression, allusive surfaces, and learned demeanor all contributed to the impression that his difficulties were, broadly speaking, those of a literary culture, not of an individual poet. At the same time, one senses that the layered artifice provided the buffer against a chaos not necessarily or only tied to culture. His poems are hard-won gains—or perhaps stand-offs—in which the discipline of poetry as much constrained the poet’s freedom as it did subdue intractable subject matter. But as Bowers knew, the poet’s freedom is illusory, and in catering to it, he runs the risk of entertaining the very chaos he would elsewhere avoid. 

A soldier in Germany in World War II, Bowers drew upon European settings and characters for some of his most important poems. Typically, the locales and the characters who appear are chosen because they are associated with historical themes. For instance, in "The Prince," a German Junker faces the consequences of his own militaristic milieu ("I come to tell you that my son is dead./ Americans have shot him as a spy"), while in "From William Tyndale to John Frith," the English religious reformer Tyndale, awaiting his auto-da-fé in Holland, writes to his most loyal disciple, who is himself in prison in England awaiting execution by fire. In "Aix-la-Chapelle, 1945," a soldier observes the ironic conjunction of the French south’s "sensual calm and beauty" with "the dragon’s gore/ From off the torn cathedral floor," which "Forces [the] mind’s dark cavity." At the moment when such ironies reveal reality’s dual face, Bowers' poems remind the reader that, imperfect and provisional as it is, culture enables the making of a poetry replete with layers to track and constrain, in the accents of literary device, the force of events where no special pleading can hide the layers of bones from the layers of history. All the same, Bowers was aware of the "Orphic futility" of arresting evil with a name, as if, in that futility, he must always be seen to measure his own complicit participation. At the same time, it is probable that casting the problem of culture’s futility in terms of good and evil fails to do justice to the nuances involved. A dysfunction suddenly perceived as systemic (the modern intellectual’s typical stance toward the question of culture and history) signals less something that had been previously overlooked than ongoing rhetorical maneuvers designed to serve power rather than truth. Since the poet shares the same tools as the rhetorician, indeed, of the tyrant, his only recourse is to declare his faith in the provisional nature of truth, even as he holds objectivity as a virtue. 

In Bowers’ work, objectivity is manifest in a position taken relative to issues of style, and thus style—and with it prosody, form, and tone—becomes equivalent to staking out a moral position. This was the argument Bowers’ teacher Yvor Winters used to excoriate insufficiently formalized poets. At all points, the poet’s work stands upon matters of moral import, so this argument runs, extending all the way down to the last philological or philosophical implication of a word. Otherwise, not only is chaos come again, but language is an unfit instrument of belief (Eliot, for one, wrote passionately for its fitness but accepted its unfit condition as our portion of incompleteness). Otherwise, the sophisticate, already managing with glozing words to accommodate violence, cannot distinguish between moral actions and "behaviors" and, hence, cannot apply the Orphic name to his humanity since that humanity is indistinguishable from the bestial—not edified by discernment, but sunk by cleverness. 

Clearly, such burdens harry poets and in so doing find out their weaknesses. In Bowers’ case, sheer compression sometimes drove the poet into the sort of obscurities that arise when one attempts to reduce many things to one thing, a side-effect of which is to render the poet sonorous and long-robed. But a poet of Bowers’ accomplishment was, of course, as aware of his own dangers as he was of the contents of his wallet, and the impasse that stood to block his poem's ascent of Parnassus sometimes became its own theme ("O for that madness again/ Where illusion spoke Truth’s divine dialect!"). Not for Bowers the naive identifications of a Whitman or the enticements of free verse. His "classicism" consisted not only in self-restraint, but in self-awareness, a mode of consciousness with respect to itself that Baudelaire opined the death of poetry. For Bowers, poetry was, in that sense, already "dead," but as in recent negative theologies, its death was all the more reason to keep the writing hand in trim. After all, words’ emergence across the steppe of the page enacts history ritualistically, and although they can never pull off the big tricks: to end death, to expose all of cruelty’s disguises, to edify beyond the patron’s reach, they can give more than a momentary stay since their highly wrought productions (i.e., poems) also exist to bear the traces of incarnations—in suitably secular garb, of course—that translate the old notion of a "passion" into the modular twists and turns of language. These let passion go—just as metaphor itself does—by other names. 

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