Sunday, May 01, 2005


Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, Debauché, 1896,
The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Consider three poems. Irving Layton's "Love's Diffidence" (from The Improved Binoculars), Leonard Cohen's "The Rest is Dross" (from Flowers for Hitler), and Pound's Canto LXXXI (from The Pisan Cantos), here concentrating on the last three pages (From "And for 180 years almost nothing" to the end, i.e., the "pull down thy vanity" passage.)

For Layton, love is "a diffident thing". Poets, and here especially those working in the troubadourial tradition, have of course long insisted on the continuity of the art of poetry with the craft of love. One integrated skill, as it were. There is Pound's "What thou lovest well remains,/the rest is dross"; working under that heading, Cohen meets an old aquaintance in a hotel room and blushes at the "hope and habits in the craft", happy that "we own our own skins".

The "deliquesence", as Pound might say, of both arts, love and poetry, can be traced to the deformations of capitalism, which Pound identified first as usury and later as simple avarice (in his foreword to his Selected Prose), more precisely to that enticement to leave the workshop for more lucrative avenues of pleasure that is captured by the etymology of "debauchery" (cf. also the loveless antipoetry of Toulouse-Lautrec above). The lust for easy profit inspires "the indefinite wobble" of language, the deterioration of craftsmanship, "the diffidence that falter[s]". Pound’s "errors and wrecks" (Canto CXVI) are attributed to the "mean[ness of his] hate" (Canto LXXXI). "Love," shouts Layton, "find me, spinning around in error. . . . Then strike, witless bitch, blind me." Looking for love, Layton had "scooped up his hands with air", just as Pound had "gathered from the air a live tradition" (which was not vanity). Cohen invokes "the perfect inflammatory word".

The mot juste, I suppose, that we're all looking for. Some small sign that "it coheres all right/ even if my notes do not cohere" (Canto CXVI). What I am after in this post is the sense of craftsmanship that keeps literary quality alive in the face of the twin enticement of the factory and the dance hall (loveless work and loveless pleasure). The workshop is where work is done with love still there "in the house". In real life, which is imperfect in its inflammations, one tries to keep it together, to pour one's words into some stable vessel. But in the end it must cohere.

I am not a demitasse.

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