Sailing into the Unknown

by M. L. Rosenthal

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Sailing into the Unknown

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1710

When M. L. Rosenthal enters the first leg of his Sailing into the Unknown, he carries with him and his reader as crew member the words from Ezra Pound’s “Canto 47”: “Knowledge the shade of a shade/Yet must thou sail after knowledge.” Knowledge, for Rosenthal as he looks at the work of three modern masters, Ezra Pound, T. S. Eliot, and W. B. Yeats, becomes understanding that arises from “an openness to what’s there, a [giving] of love when love is indeed called for.”

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The premise that seems to underlie Sailing into the Unknown, as well as the author’s other critical efforts, is that the intrinsic life of a work of art should not be made minor by terminology or eviscerated by the academic knife. Assuming that he is not begging the question, one watches to see how he avoids this. Agreed: to keep the vitality and delight that play in a poem, one must not strain its passion and mystery through a net of intellectuality. He mostly sticks to his own guns, and to the guns of Rilke, Cummings, and Lawrence, who urged a little tenderness and respect “for the grace that shines within” poems “that demand a living mirror of grateful recognition.” Rosenthal says that any fool can see Whitman’s weaknesses, for instance. This insight takes no particular ability; one suspects that any fool can also see Whitman’s shining graces.

Sailing into the Unknown makes an insistent plea for criticizing at levels above delving and nit-picking. This plea makes Rosenthal required reading. However, he never says one should throw out the baby with the bath water of critical excess. As a result, his book is noteworthy for its concentration on the qualitative achievement of these poets, Pound often having the edge. Rosenthal gives him more attention and colors him favored, if not superior. He looks at the impact of these poets’ explorations into the unknown and hazardous waters of the new genre, the modern poetic sequence, upon the nerve endings of subsequent travelers on poetic seas. In doing so, he insists upon recognizing the extraordinary part played by feeling and tone, and on the improvisatory ingredient in their works, looking as well at their felt influence on poets who followed: Joyce, “the great prose poet of the age”; W. C Williams; Black Mountain poets Charles Olson and Robert Creeley; William Empson; and Philip Larkin.

Writing from the base of his own experience as a poet, Rosenthal makes a case for reading with love and with some of the lucid essentiality associated with a sea voyage, where instincts and intuitions take the place of maps and instruments.

The explorations of the lives of these poetic sequences occupied some years of planning before completion of the book. It begins with a statement of beliefs. Poets are their poems. The poet’s death is to be kept from the poem, to paraphrase Auden in his poem on the death of Yeats. The poet creates something transcendent, alien, which takes hold, invades, scattering briefly one’s learned and comfortable system of language. Another belief here stated is that to hear a poem purely is to have access to a distillate of intimacy, “however vulgar or refined, free from external information.” Diverse states of feeling may merge which give birth to mystery and indefinable pressure from deep within the work. Here the poet lives in his poem world, “mind entire,” a world in which he works out with reality. Now to see these beliefs in practice, in “Canto 47,” Pound delineates the fusion of the past and the present, sees the human element in process. These fascinate Rosenthal: Pound’s seeming love affair with method, his bouts with structure, and the integration of politics into his poetry. With Yeats, the attraction is his experimental use of conventional forms; and with Eliot, Rosenthal plunges into the balance of his sense of the absurd with sensibility, and concurrently his affirmation, if unwillingly, of the Christian faith. At the same time, the “idiosyncratic life and force” in the poems can only be explored looking at each poem individually. In this way, the virtuosity which surpasses craftsmanship can work on the reader and can release the energy, that stirring of what Cummings called “the mystery you have been, shall be, and are.” This pushes itself outward, exploding the poem into existence. Remnants of this energy charge the poem ever afterward.

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Pound’s “Canto 47” is seen as a fusion of Odysseus and modern man whose intelligence is similar to that of Pound’s, showing a subjective man not at all as Homer created him, a man like “a small lamp adrift in the bay,” sailing at some risk to seek knowledge, taking a leap into the unknown. One is reminded of Pound’s own poetic vulnerability and displays of courage, his imagination like Odysseus, wandering, embodying the creative principle. Pointing to Poundian craft, internal rhymes, half rhymes, Rosenthal views simultaneously the whole work. He acknowledges the abandonment of man’s humanity to oblivion by death-wish potency and ceaseless sexuality which man participates in, not altogether with his whole heart. The moly given Odysseus is the spiritual antidote for these grosser tendencies. Hermes’ gift against Circe’s magic represents the redeeming power of memory and imagination.

For Rosenthal, Pound displays spectacular ideas of remarkable energy and polarizing intensity. Certainly one feels a strong affinity for Pound’s ostensibly humanizing cry for identity and moorings, but somehow when one remembers his ideological stances, the cry seems to falter and weaken. Whether Pound’s execution of this elevating and ennobling function of imagination deserves Rosenthal’s panegyric, one must question. Considering Pound’s anti-Semitism and Fascism, one finds it difficult to climb blithely upon Rosenthal’s band-wagon. One can only puzzle at his detachment and at his apparently sincere generosity of spirit, particularly in examining the Cantos, which contains some of Pound’s meanest blasts. By Pound’s holding “the worlds of cross-reference in volatile solution,” if not for Rosenthal, then for others, there may exist ambiguities of intention not altogether poetic.

In comparing Pound’s “Canto 47” with Yeats’s “1919,” Rosenthal begins by looking backward to Whitman and his influence on the modern poetic sequence, marking the intimate, fragmented, open, and emotional complex that characterizes his writing. Yeats deals with forms that are simpler and shorter than Pound’s. He constructs a more solid structure with a more obvious statement. Rosenthal excels in catching the spirit and intention particularly of “meditations,” also included in The Tower. He observes the complexity of texture through which is shot Yeats’s billowing despair as he reacts to the isolation of the spirit and the encroaching barbarism of the times. Like Pound, Yeats tries to rekindle, at least briefly, a gleam of the soul’s life, like Pound’s “small lamps,” the poet trying by example to keep burning the kindling of memory and fantasy where lie the sources of unconscious meaning. Rosenthal sees Yeats’s poet as the authentic bearer of an aristocratic heritage: “Out of terror of dark consciousness, the unknown future will be born.” The poet is not, however, superior. He is simply aware of possibilities and of what is not possible. He is the perfect balancer of victory and defeat.

Although one may not agree that Eliot’s “Little Gidding” finds its place as far as method is concerned between Yeats and Pound, Rosenthal makes a good case for this opinion. He feels that Eliot’s genius stems from his capacity to fuse the language of concreteness and immediacy with the subtleties and ambiguities of his intellectual storehouse, to intermingle the physical with the metaphysical. One can thank Rosenthal for his paraphrasing of Eliot, although somehow the idea of a “road map” to paradise seems to violate the spirit of the work, since the idea is that one can find his way to faith regardless of maps or starting points, regardless of guarantees of certainty or of destination. Eliot’s reminder of the vanity of artistic toil and the obsolescence of the poet in the twentieth century stirs the poet Rosenthal, and he quotes: “Last season’s fruit is eaten/And the fullfed beast shall kick the empty pail/For last year’s words belong to last year’s language,/And next year’s words await another voice.” Candidly noting Eliot’s alternating brilliance and prosiness, he sees “Little Gidding” marred with flawed writing, and holds “Burnt Norton” up as the model for the other quartets.

Moving now into larger dimensions of these poets, Rosenthal makes wider circles, more ambitious, perhaps more repetitive. Interesting as much of this may be, one senses that he has been there before, not only in Sailing into the Unknown, but in other critical works. One feels that Rosenthal is voyaging in waters that are much traveled. He sometimes loses his focus in these chapters, and his treatment of the poems begins to pall, perhaps because he tends to deal with what is common knowledge. Perhaps he is making his point too well: “The critic is well-advised . . . to try his feeble sympathetic best to be instructed in what the poets are doing by what they write.” If one can get the best of the poet by meeting the poem face to face, one can conclude the obvious. Once one learns to do this, there is no longer any need for detailed instructions.

Looking at the contributions of Yeats, Pound, and Eliot to the writers of the last several decades, Rosenthal sees the poetic sequence as having been turned and modulated by open process, the presentative style, and the balancing of volatile, emotional states. Problems of structure in the poetic sequence remain to be worked out, there being still a tendency to arrange poems in the order in which they were written.

Rosenthal’s poetics are superbly at play in this work: his theories, his ingrained imperatives, his feeling for language. He is able to formulate and express a sense of the nature of poetry as few other poet articulators of their craft can. It is clear that his romance with words is alive and well. Only when it interferes with clarity does one wish for a cooling of his passion for words.


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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 22

Choice. XV, September, 1978, p. 874.

Library Journal. CIII, April 1, 1978, p. 755.

New York Times Book Review. April 2, 1978, p. 14.

Sewanee Review. LXXXVI, October, 1978, p. R118.

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