Paul Valéry, the great French poet and critic, famously remarked that “poetry is to prose what dancing is to walking.” His point was that poetry and prose are both forms of writing, but that their use of language is fundamentally different — one of them is artistic and the other is instrumental. When poets write prose, then, they are taking advantage of the instrumentality of the medium to do something that they can’t quite do in their poetry: tell a story, flesh out a character, make an argument.
Henri Cole‘s Orphic Paris is a fine book of poet’s prose, consisting of brief essays originally published in The New Yorker. Cole himself is a distinguished and successful poet, though not quite a household name (in the limited sense that any contemporary poets are household names). He also has roots in France: his mother was born there, after her family fled the genocide in Armenia, and grew up as a Frenchwoman in Marseille. Although the book has much to say about Paris and France, and is partly a memoir of Cole’s time spent living in an apartment in the Latin Quarter, neither the city nor the country, nor even Cole’s personal ties to both, are the book’s true subject. This is a bold choice, since there could not be a city more talismanic to writers, especially American ones, than Paris. Instead, Cole’s essays record the ways in which the city prompts a poet to reflect on life and art.
Part of the charm of the book is seeing how deftly Cole merges his rambles with his ruminations. The essays move in a relaxed but searching manner — one that palpably evokes the ways in which Paris invites its walkers to explore it. In the third essay, for example, Cole recalls a morning when he sits in the Jardin des Plantes (Paris’s historical botanical gardens) and reads Rilke’s poem “Blue Hydrangea“. The flowers in the poem, as well as omnipresent Parisian flower shops, lead him to a general meditation — “I was reminded of how short life is but how tough and durable humans are” — thence to more Rilke (this time to the famous poem “The Panther”). From there we move to a panther sculpture in Auguste Rodin’s studio that Rilke had once seen and found marvelous, to the beekeeping school in the Luxembourg gardens, to an inquiry on loneliness and solitude that includes some remarks on the poet’s late mother, to two poignant art pieces by Felix-Gonzalez-Torres in the Centre Pompidou’s contemporary art museum, to a conversation with the art historian and critic James Lord about Brokeback Mountain, and, finally, to Deyrolle, a famous taxidermy shop on the Left Bank, where Cole buys an Australian finch whom he affectionately names Keats. (Photographs dot the text. They don’t always do much, with the exception of a portrait of a snow leopard stand-in for Rilke and Rodin’s big cats.)
The fact that Cole’s walks are bookended by Rilke and Keats underscores that the main subject of his reflections in Orphic Paris is poetry. (Orpheus, according to legend, is the greatest of all Western poets.) And not just poetry in general but Cole’s particular sense of it. Here, some familiarity with the poet behind the prose is useful. Cole’s poems come out of that strain of postwar American poetry dubbed “Confessional”. They take their cues from the autobiographical stance of Robert Lowell’s Life Studies (1959) and, to an even greater degree, the work of Elizabeth Bishop, who appears early in Orphic Paris and serves as a kind of tutelary spirit. Bishop’s poems are artfully restrained channels through which course intense, barely repressed emotion; the pathos is all the more palpable for not being overt. Full as they are of rich and memorable descriptions, their main subject matter is the feeling self. Cole’s poetry follows this example. Here’s a sonnet of his, “Oil and Steel”, from 2003’s Middle Earth:
My father lived in a dirty-dish mausoleum,
watching a portable black-and-white television,
reading the Encyclopedia Britannica,
which he preferred to Modern Fiction.
One by one, his schnauzers died of liver disease,
except the one that guarded his corpse
found holding a tumbler of Bushmills.
“Dead is dead,” he would say, an antipreacher.
I took a plaid shirt from the bedroom closet
And some motor oil—my inheritance.
Once I saw him weep in a courtroom—
neglected, needing nursing—this man who never showed
me much affection but gave me a knack
for solitude, which has been mostly useful.
This memorial to the poet’s father is notable for its lack of overt sentimentality, its declining to turn the aging parent into an occasion for pity. On the contrary, as the poem catalogs the way in which the father commits to a disenchanted world — the refusal to wash dishes, the black-and-white TV, the preference for the encyclopedia over novels, the schnauzers (bred as rat catchers), the Protestant whiskey, the plaid shirt and the motor oil inheritance — it seems to prepare us for some sort of denunciation on the part of the artist-son. What we get instead is the internalization of the father’s distance. “Once I saw him weep in a courtroom — / neglected, needing nursing”. The poet becomes just another spectator to his father’s frailty and pain. This, rather than the father’s situation itself, is the surprising emotional denouement, and it plays about the plainness, but also the plaintiveness, of the poem’s final words. The “knack for solitude” is useful if you often find yourself alone. The poem doesn’t ask us to pity the father; it asks us to pity the son.
If Cole’s father gave him a knack for solitude, his mother seems to have supplied the sense of beauty and loss that would inspire turning that solitude into art. She is a strong presence in Orphic Paris, and the book returns to her repeatedly. Ultimately, though, she too becomes another occasion for Cole’s thinking about poetry. After remarking that Marianne Moore had once claimed that solitude was the cure for loneliness, Cole relates that, on her deathbed, his mother confessed that “she had been lonely her entire life.” She seems, then, to have lacked the capacity to transform her loneliness into solitude that Moore extolled. And yet. “My last memory of her is when she peeked out from under her covers to say goodbye,” Cole writes, “saying, ‘Je suis prete a m’allonger,’ which means, ‘I am ready to stretch out.'” It’s hardly an accident that the idiom here is a metaphor. What does it take to turn loneliness into solitude? A sense of poetic vocation.
Beyond Cole’s parents and his artistic enthusiasms — Orphic Paris includes a number of sensitive remarks about painting and film — Cole’s friends provide further occasions for reflection on art. He suggests that “[w]hat matters in the life of a poet is the life of the imagination, and friendship — not bitterness or resentment — can nurture the thirsty soil of a poet’s mind.” This is a fine and generous statement, even if it’s not strictly true. (Pope and Swift were friends, but their poetry certainly seems to have thrived on bitterness and resentment, and something similar could be said for Milton and Donne, among others.) But when Cole makes general claims about poetry in Orphic Paris, he’s only really speaking of himself, and when he discusses family, or friendship, or Paris, it’s with an eye to his own poems.
One of those friends he recalls at some length is the aforementioned James Lord, celebrated biographer of Albert Giacometti and intimate of Picasso and Dora Maar, whom Cole meets for drinks and dinner on a few occasions while living in Paris. Reading Lord’s claim in Plausible Portraits that “From the beginnings of civilization, it has been the human likeness which has most preoccupied man,” Cole is moved to express his desire that poetry should be a kind of intense portrait: “I want to write poems that are X-rays of the soul in moments of being and seeing. This includes the ghastly, the insane, and the cruel, but also beauty, Eros, and wonder.” Such work is hard, but rewarding: “Because there is a kind of nakedness or authenticity in poetry that is associated with truth, on many days, I haven’t the guts for it, and I fail. But when I succeed there is nothing in life — except love — that equally verifies my existence.”
Many casual readers of poetry will find that these remarks echo their common sense. There’s even something ennobling about them. But others will find the invocation of the X-ray machine, and the claim to authenticity, not to mention the idea that poetry should verify the existence of the poet (and not, say, the community), more problematic. The whole critique of representation that drove modern art, and modern poetry, toward an interest in wrestling with the distorting potential of their own media, and the ways in which that media were shaped by larger social forces — the whole history of vanguardist experimentation, of modernity and post-modernity, is absent here.
At one point, Cole has the chutzpah to enlist John Ashbery, whose work has probably brought the critique of representation into lyric poetry to the greatest possible degree, to the confessional cause. But Ashbery’s remark is not a blanket endorsement but (predictably and typically) a hedge: “We are all confessional poets sometimes.” Indeed, it’s significant that Lord’s historical remarks about art-making, rather than the great modernist masters themselves, inspire Cole’s theory of his own work; the link reveals his personal, but also his poetic, modesty. The modesty doesn’t ring false; Cole seems sincere in his ambitions to keep the faith with a kind of attenuated, neo-Romantic lyric. The question that we might ask, however, is whether readers and writers should also want to keep this faith, especially now.
Poetry is the oldest of the arts of language; it existed before writing did. But no one can deny that its seniority has failed to ensure its authority with respect to drama, or the novel, or film. Where poetry does breaks through into the culture at large, where it regains its authority as the art from which others spring, it is generally not modest. The Romantics were not modest in their artistic aspirations. On the contrary, they were revolutionaries. So were Whitman, Mayakovsky, Pound, Neruda, Ginsberg. Neither pop music nor hip-hop at their best are content to limit themselves to the equivalent of portraiture. Cole’s poems, and Orphic Paris as a whole, reflect the disciplined, constrained imagination of a certain kind of late 20th century American poetry, preoccupied more with presenting the self (“X-rays of the soul”) than in reimagining our ways of thinking about the self in the first place, including the ways in which that self is always both a product and a producer of the social world.
This does not mean that such poetry fails on its own terms, only that the accomplishments of this tradition remain restricted by its premises. If I were more confident that poetry could thrive under these premises, I would probably have no objection to them. But I’m not so sure. Orphic Paris makes the case very elegantly for the sensibility that infuses confessional and post-confessional poetry, but, in that very elegance, it also seems like the product of another age.