Is it just me, or is there an issue with the declining quality of recent academic writing? (I don’t say “research,” as that implies a sense of direction and originality that might preclude some of it.)
I’ve been reading D A Powell and Kevin Prufer’s editing of essays and other bits on Dunstan Thompson, an uncommonly interesting American poet who came over here as a GI in the ‘forties and stayed. (Unsung Masters series, Pleiades Press, Missouri, 2010.) Tramping through “Battles in the Boudoir: Thompson’s Intimate Metaphors of War,” by Heather Treseler (Presidential Fellow at Notre Dame, Postdoctoral Fellow at Cambridge, Mass), I came across this, regarding Thompson’s magnificently titled “In All the Argosy of Your Bright Hair” of 1947:
“The poem begins as a graveside elegy … The first lines are full of funereal keening:
Whom I lay down for dead rises up in blood,
Drawn over water after me. His wavering
Football echoes from the ocean floor. Blow,
Ye winds, a roundabout. These bully sailors flood
My eyes with tears, treacheries.
The poet stumbles slightly here in his mixture of maritime and homely images; a ‘football’ sent up from the ocean floor seems, at best, a rather odd gift from Neptune and one strangely placed among watery ‘tears’ and ‘treacheries.’ But by the second stanza, Thompson’s ‘argosy’ has been righted in its waters.”
Quite apart from the clear fact that the opening lines, while they mention death, are no sort of elegy and involve zero “keening,” what the dickens is this about a “wavering football”? Ms Treseler has been watching too much college sport from her window. It’s “footfall.” With an eff. And it’s clearly printed as such in the “folio of poems” included in the very same volume, as well as in the original edition. The mannered aesthete Thompson may have fancied footballers, but he would have run a mile from the object itself. In these lines, the “dead” lover returns revived to stalk the unwilling poet. (And to bed him too, as what was lain down now rises again in blood. Thompson was partial to a bit of double entendre.) There’s absolutely no need for the poet to “right” the wobbling argosy, which was never in danger of capsizing; it’s the critic who’s capsized here. And while on the “right the argosy” comment, don’t you rather weary of that sort of waggish conceptual punning that academics resort to when they run short of real perceptions?
Two pages on, Treseler tackles Thompson’s “Lament for the Sleepwalker,” telling us that it –
“… features the speaker’s heart as a predatory cat, prowling the outdoors for the figurative carrion of an erotic connection. The poem begins in dramatic apostrophe:
The lion is like him and the elusive leopard:
Nine lived, he ranges – killer cat – my heart.”
Sorry, but what apostrophe? Thompson does not address his own heart here. Treseler has mistaken the dashes for commas and read this as if it were:
“Nine lived, he ranges, killer cat, my heart.”
Which could identify “he” with “cat” with “heart.” But it ain’t so. The heart is not subject, but object. He, the other, the lion-lover, the killer cat, ranges my heart. It’s a simple enough inversion, but the misreading knocks out Treseler’s whole understanding of the poem.
In the same poem, perhaps enchanted by Thompson’s adopted Englishness, she takes the “green courts” where the predatory lion-lover “eats green meat from the green dead” as “worthy of the Windsor palace.” Windsor? Where did that come from? And this despite the green moss, green jungle and bamboo of the previous two lines. I’m afraid it’s simply not that sort of court. Just an open space. I’m only surprised that we don’t have a tennis ball bouncing in to maintain the sporting metaphors.
But you get the point. Let’s give it up and hasten on a few pages to “I Can Only Promise Poems: Finding Dunstan Thompson” by Katie Ford (Professor at Franklin and Marshall College). This proceeds to take a look at some of Thompson’s later, overtly Christian poems:
“Probably the most heavily liturgical of the poems is ‘San Salvador,’ which has perhaps only one moment that breaks from Christian formulas of belief:
… Dear Host, sole owner of the house He built,
Who, coming unexpected to the door,
Knocks, and, if answered, breaks the chain of guilt,
And lets the soul go free to live once more;
Shepherd, who seeks His torn and filthy sheep,
Rejoicing when the longest lost is found;
Father, who sees the broken wastrel creep
Towards home, and, running, lifts him from the ground …
It’s the little ‘broken wastrel’ that feels new to me, although it participates in the parable of the lost sheep.”
No, no. It doesn’t. Quite apart from Ford’s persistently sloppy use in this essay of the term “liturgical,” confusing formulas of language with formulas of belief, the “broken wastrel” is not “little” and it’s NOT A BLOODY SHEEP. (Excuse my shouting, but …) Thompson announces the shift from one saying or parable of Jesus to another with a series of divine titles: Host, Shepherd, Father. “Father” flags up the jump from the lost sheep to the Prodigal Son, and it’s this son, of course, who is the broken wastrel who creeps towards home, to be met by his father running to meet him. Not a little sheep. No way then is this image a “new” or “one moment” departure from an orthodox narrative or register – quite the reverse.
Katie Ford also is fond of conceptual puns, rambling them out in sequence to take us, imaginatively, to nowhere and back. Bizarrely, her opening thoughts in this essay conjure up the “cathedral” of the ocean depths, from which the earliest living creatures emerge onto dry land to escape the dangers of the deep: “Imagine crawling out of the ocean,” she invites the reader. Er, no thanks. This then drifts to social Darwinism, to the ascent of Christianity under Roman rule (the “cathedral” again, cleverly), to the ascents and descents of canons of literature, and thence, finally, to the critical neglect of Thompson’s poetry; “There’s a fight for life,” she tells us, “going on in every discipline, system, business and art.”
Uhuh. Maybe so. Cranking out more “research” is the surest way to survive, I’ve no doubt. But you do wonder just how red in tooth and claw some universities can be if these two essays represent winning quality. Yes, there is some better stuff in this book and no, I’m not just picking on these two contributors because they happen to be women, and yes, I know, it’s only one book, and yes, we all make mistakes, and yes, I am being curmudgeonly about relatively minor points, and agreed, there are more important things in the world to get worked up about, and yes, I’ve nearly finished ranting now. But it would be reassuring for the future of English studies if those who earn their modest crust by analysing poems on our behalf could learn to read and understand them before they arrive at the point of publication.
Thompson may turn up in a proper post on this site some day. Meanwhile, he’s easily Google-able. Here’s a good place to start.