The White Words
Wide-ranging in his subjects, Baron Wormser writes about Hegelian philosophy, native American humor, children, books, art, conversation, the Victorian worldview, revolutionaries, capitalism. He works like the artist in his poem “In a Genre Studio,” who declares that everything is something to paint, who speaks of “This light that is everywhere/ That has everything to say.” It is not surprising that Wormser writes a poem entitled “Henry James,” noting in it that a countess observed of James, “’This American never gapes.’” Wormser is himself a keen observer of social reality, always listening, looking, but never gaping—alert to the import of a nod, a gesture, an intonation, the apparently random movement that becomes significant event.
Wormser’s interest in intellectual history, and in a series of technological and social changes that define important aspects of modern life, is tempered by a thoroughly American pragmatism. He deals not with free-floating ideas but with the way ideas, or technological or social innovations deriving from them, make an ordinary day in a particular place look and feel. Wormser reports on the way ideas look after they have disappeared, like a stain, into the grain of life and are nowhere yet everywhere, coloring and informing the smallest detail, giving quite disparate domains the same hue and tint. Thus, in “Report on the Victorians,” he connects the era’s commerce with its religion: “Heaven, along with the railroads and the docks,/ Prospered. They were separate endeavors but fitted together:/ The eternal was the greater clock,/ Commerce the mighty lever.” In this context, a stance becomes significant: “They [the Victorians] were great ones for looking up.” In “Hegel & Co.,” the shift from a sacred to a secular interpretation of history spells the end of duels, the beginning of ceaseless change.
In some of his best poems, Wormser makes simultaneous distinctions and connections. Thus, in “The Virtues and Shortcomings of a Humorous People,” he discovers the native American intelligence “Not in oratory, innuendo, or discontent/ But in a thorough yet soft-spoken bemusement,” in an attitude that connects “the bumpkin and the pundit . . ./ On the same low ground.” American humor reveals truth not in the all-encompassing idea of Hegelian Geistesgeschichte but in “the anecdote’s tone,” “the drawl of custom.” What makes a difference is not the World-spirit but the loss of servants, the development of modern photography.
Wormser distinguishes between realism and reality: “Sanity was impossible, instead there was realism” (“Report on the Victorians”). He suggests a connection between the rise of photography—“Reality, like a dumb beast, yawned”—and the decline of rhetoric (“A History of Photography”). The conversation of those “professional Menschen” who once spent long evenings on the terraces of wooden hotels was lively and absorbing because they were people of whom “no one of importance ever/ Asked . . . anything . . . because they would never make/ A decision that mattered . . .” (“The Privilege”).
Repeatedly Wormser cleaves the conventional wisdom as if it were a block of firewood and makes a sculpture of the pieces. Contrasting the syntax and vocabulary of the metropolis with those of the small town, he suggests that one should not mistake for gossip the “fondness . . . for measuring lives” in little towns that “dignify the slimmest/ Of lives with a history, remembering even dogs/ With an earnest pleasure, a rush of anecdote and regret.” Against that he sets “The surmises that the metropolis loves/ To make, the crushes of people whose names you will/ Never know . . .” (“Of Small Towns”). In “Eine Neue Fabrik, 1912,” Wormser links capitalist ideology and styles of architecture. In “Immigrant’s Letter,” he distinguishes between the native and the immigrant American, between those who are at home in America and “can tell/ When something is out of place” and those who know the culture because they have had to learn it. His immigrant discovers the military-industrial complex in a simile: “It [America] is like a big, easy-going army. . . ./ There is a sort of general/ In a business suit at the top. . . .”
Again and again, Wormser disconnects things conventionally paired and reconnects them in a way that permits the reader to see familiar aspects of contemporary life as if for the first time. In “A History of Photography,” he asks: “Still, who could argue with modern life?” Wormser argues with it. In poem after poem, he asks—explicitly and implicitly—what is great, what small; what significant, what...
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