POETS Day! CS Lewis
Not everybody’s taking a POETS Day this week. Senator Bob Menendez ([REDACTED]-NJ) was charged last Friday with “corruption-related charges for the second time in ten years.” This time’s better. There are gold bars. Cash was stuffed in closeted pockets of “Senator Menendez” embroidered jackets. Nothing this gloriously cinematic/made-for-tv has been reported since Tammy Faye Bakker shot Joey Buttafouco on boat called “Risky Business” when he returned the sunglasses Jon Bennet threw out of a car window into a Virginia roadside field.
Obviously, the Hollywood writers agreed to whatever they had to within forty-eight hours of the Menendez script practically writing itself across the home pages of news organizations the world wide and ended their five-month long strike. They have boxes full of unfinished Marvel sequel drafts and rejected Law & Order screenplays to scour for liftable dialogue, repurpose-able fan fiction sex scenes to de-vampire, and girlfriends’ organic scented candles to product place.
Writers have their hands full, but they aren’t alone. At least one police jurisdiction and associated prosecutors will spend till the wee hours trying to make regular people civil forfeiture laws apply to gold bar people with Senate seats. Speaking of the Senate, I expect more than a few aides will spend the usually free Friday buried-press-release-strategic-work-absence-unavailable-for-comment time sifting through recently dropped off Goodwill donation bags reclaiming the suits wishy-washy Schumer told their Senator were no longer necessary.
If you’re a Hollywood writer, a New Jersey police administrator with dreams of avarice, or Fetterman adjacent, I’m sorry. You’re not likely to get the POETS Day that’s yours by right. As to the rest of you, Piss Off Early, Tomorrow’s Saturday.
No work is getting done after lunch with the weekend looming. Get out, beg, scheme, lie. Whatever you have to do. There’s sunshine and people doing fun things in sunshine, and if there isn’t, sing in the rain. It’s your time to do with, but if I may suggest, pull up a little verse on your phone. It’ll make fuzzy things crisp.
I’m too jaded to immediately enjoy C.S. Lewis’s poetry as I should. I can and I do enjoy it, but initially I hold it at arm’s length, regarding it as other: a fine example of what my grandparents and other innocents would hold up as exemplary. It takes a moment to adjust my mindset and get past that impression.
I suffer from the delusion that peoples’ imagination is bound by what conversation is acceptable in their company. In your elders’ presence, you don’t talk about getting drunk at a frat party and waking up with a girl whose name you don’t know. Therefore, your elders are ignorant of excessive drinking and wonder why all those nice boys have notches on their beds. It would shock them that such things exist and send them to that couch they all used to faint on. Out of bounds, out of mind.
I’m self-aware enough to know what nonsense that is. People look at earlier generations as naïve or repressed and older generations look at kids today and wonder why they can’t keep secrets. With the rise of the automobile, recreational deviancy is now done in the streets. Any intrigue is sapped.
I think part of the reason I look at Lewis’s poetry as quaint, or at least his approach to poetry as quaint, is his approach to speculative fiction. The Narnia books’ charm and power come from his expectation of wonder on the reader’s part. Mr. Tumnus doesn’t emanate a wild musk. Eustace as dragon would be ill described as a terrible wyrm. When something was terrible, it was Aslan, not because he was drenched in blood or other evocative signifiers, but because the reader was reminded that he was a lion and understood.
His “scientifiction,” as he called it, wouldn’t get a Netflix green light. There’s no halo of grime around a screen blinking “Purge” or serious attempts to ground what is described in science. Malacandra and Perelandra are otherworldly without our hard view of the dangers of space. The planets are more Ireland than Australia but the stakes are still higher in the trilogy than in, say, Alien.
The race for realism in storytelling and the overboard de-Pollyanna-ing of everything – there’s a dark television re-imaging of the Archie comics called Riverdale where “teenagers try to unravel the evils lurking within the town” – changed our view of story and left an impression that if it’s not pushing limits, it’s passe, it’s not serious, or at least not to be taken seriously.
If you’ve ever read any of Lewis’s philosophical non-fiction works you know well that he deserves serious consideration. A theme throughout is danger in ignoring the mundane. It is the small and seemingly venial-at-best that set courses. His monsters don’t need much exaggeration. The real stuff that can hurt you is more dangerous than the imaginary that can scare you, so his inventions cling to familiar things. In the same vein, his conception of beauty is simply grounded.
My HarperOne edition of Lewis’s poetry collection, Poems, was edited by Walter Hooper, briefly personal secretary to the man and literary advisor for his estate. The decisions as to what to include or exclude was no easy task. From Hooper’s preface:
“They were in no particular order. It was not always easy to determine his final version of a poem, especially if there were slightly different versions or if the poem had already appeared in print. Nor is it clear that the selection he had made represented a considered judgement on his part; for, as I discovered in conversation with him, he simply did not know what he had written. Anyone who had lived in his house could have understood this. Although Lewis owned a huge library, he possessed few of his own works. His phenomenal memory recorded almost everything he had read except his own writings – an appealing fault. Often, when I quoted lines from his own poems he would ask who the author was. He was a very great scholar, but no expert in the field of C.S. Lewis.”
Hooper chose to lead with Lewis’s “A Confession.” I like that decision. I can’t decide if Lewis takes a shot at T.S. Eliot in the first stanza or at Eliot’s effect on the many imitators who followed in replacing recognition with revelation. I’ve read enough to believe that he appreciated works from innovative poets of the early to mid-twentieth century, but he seems to think (Lewis warned against reviewers and critics assuming the intent, unless expressly stated, of an author from a text in an essay included in “Of Other Worlds” thus I’m using “seems” although I’m pretty sure. I’d give the essay’s title but my copy is lost to the mess of my son’s room and may never return.) that as impressive as many may be, too much innovation draws us away from the original poetics that inspired the innovators love of making in the first place.
C.S. Lewis (1898-1963)
I am so coarse, the things the poets see
Are obstinately invisible to me.
For twenty years I’ve stared my level best
To see if evening – any evening – would suggest
A patient etherized upon a table;
In vain. I simply wasn’t able.
To me each evening looked far more
Like the departure from a silent, yet a crowded, shore
Of a ship whose freight was everything, leaving behind
Gracefully, finally, without farewells, marooned mankind.
Red dawn behind a hedgerow in the east
Never, for me, resembled in the least
A chilblain on a cocktail-shaker’s nose;
Waterfalls don’t remind me of torn underclothes,
Nor glaciers of tin-cans. I’ve never known
The moon look like a hump-backed crone –
Rather, a prodigy, even now
Not naturalized, a riddle glaring from the Cyclops’ brow
Of the cold world, reminding me on what a place
I crawl and cling, a planet with no bulwarks, out in space.
Never the white sun of the wintriest day
Struck me as un crachat d’estaminet.
I’m like that odd man Wordsworth knew, to whom
A primrose was a yellow primrose, one whose doom
Keeps him forever in the list of dunces,
Compelled to live on stock responses,
Making the poor best that I can
Of dull things… peacocks, honey, the Great Wall, Aldebaran,
Silver weirs, new-cut grass, wave on the beach, hard gem,
The shapes of horse and woman, Athens, Troy, Jerusalem.
Of course, the author of the Narnia books did have use for the imaginary that can scare you… or amuse, intrigue, and inspire you. He writes about that in “Impenitence,” Hooper’s choice as the second poem to appear in the collection.
All the world’s wiseacres in arms against them
Shan’t detach my heart for a single moment
From the man-like beasts of the earthy stories –
Badger or Moly.
Rat the oarsman, neat Mrs. Tiggy Winkle,
Benjamin, pert Nutkin, or (ages older)
Henryson’s shrill Mouse, or the Mice the Frogs once
Fought with in Homer.
Not that I’m so craz’d as to think the creatures
Do behave that way, nor at all deluded
By some half-false sweetness of early childhood
Look again. Look well at the beasts, the true ones.
Can’t you see?… cool primness of cats, or coney’s
Half indignant stare of amazement, mouse’s
Tipsy bear’s rotundity, toad’s complacence…
Why! they all cry out to be used as symbols,
Masks for Man, cartoons, parodies by Nature
Formed to reveal us
Each to each, not fiercely but in her gentlest
Vein of household laughter. And if the love so
Raised – it will, no doubt – splashes over on the
Who’s the worse for that? Marry, gup! Begone, you
Fusty kill-joys, new Manichaeans! Here’s a
Health to Toad Hall, here’s to the Beaver doing
Sums with the Butcher!
I don’t think I’ve ever seen a photo of Lewis where he isn’t wearing a suit though when I picture him, he’s wearing a cardigan. A cardigan fits his voice; his fictional, philosophical, and poetic voice. One of the reasons he’s been so successful as a teacher is his patient syntax. He can be cuttingly sharp when he wants to, and funny, but better than most he discusses morality pleasantly and rationally. I think one of his most valuable lessons is on faith as trusting recollections of decisions made in calm. Rationally we know that flying is safer than even driving, but for those afflicted, in the moments before boarding fear presses and doubt sets in. Faith, says Lewis, at least one kind of faith, is deferring to conclusions made before duress. He writes that way: clearly, considered, and seemingly removed from distraction.
In his younger days, Lewis wanted to be known primarily as a poet. Narnia and theology made sure he wasn’t, but I don’t think (“think” being in the “seems” family as directed by the essay) fame of any sort concerned him much as he grew older:
To Andrew Marvell
Marvell, they say your verse is faint
Beside the range of Donne’s;
Too clear for them, too free from taint
Of noise, your music runs.
Their sultry minds can ill conceive
How godlike power should dwell
Except where lungs with torment heave
And giant muscles swell.
The better swordsman with a smile
His cool passado gives;
Smooth is the flooding of the Nile
By which all Egypt lives.
Sweetness and strength from regions far
Withdrawn and strange you bring,
And look no stronger than a star,
No graver than the spring.