Taking a cue from Charles Bernstein’s championing of the poetry of Samuel Greenberg (1893 – 1917), whose promise was cut short by tuberculosis at the age of twenty-three, I’ve been reading some of the poems readily available online through Michael Smith’s excellent website.
Reception of Greenberg’s poems has been mixed. Allen Tate finds some of his work “turgid and bathetic,” although he also judges that “poetry of the twentieth century in the United States could not be complete without the publication of the poems of Samuel Greenberg.”
Part of the difficulty of Greenberg’s work that gives rise to Tate’s claim of turgidity is its often vague or ambiguous syntax, its nonstandard punctuation, and its archaic poeticisms of diction and syntactical inversion. In a 1947 review, John Berryman judges that “Greenberg had with rare exceptions so little control over syntax (‘of grammatic assistance unguided’) that the best of them are inevitably those that . . . follow a catalogue development.” But while Berryman grants that the reader’s “allowances” in reading Greenberg’s can be “justifi[ed] in biography” (by which he means, I suppose, a less than ideal education), he also points out that time invested in the poems is often worthwhile, rewarding the reader with the realization that here is not vague inspiration (or, as James Laughlin, intending to be critical, put it, “unconscious dictation”) but instead craft and intention. Reading Berryman’s several astute interpretations of Greenberg’s poems, I gained an appreciation for Greenberg’s wielding of syntax.
If Berryman’s attitude toward Greenberg’s syntactical acrobatics and ambiguities alternates between accepting them as limitations and elevating them to the level of deliberate craft, Bernstein’s assessment is less ambivalent: he appreciates them as characteristics of a “radically modernist dimension”: “His swerve from syntax as a principal of clausal subordination and hierarchy opens up the field of serial apostrophe that pushes to liberate itself from the confines of ‘literary diction.’”
For me, both are true to a degree. Greenberg’s work does sometimes suffer from overwrought syntax and diction, but at the same time he is pushing the possibilities of language into a kind of musicality that cannot be expressed in a plainer style. The seemingly off-kilter clauses of his sentences, nudged out of the standard hierarchy, create a complex, braided language that withholds secrets. And the floating strands of that texture counter-intuitively creates more possibilities in which readers can interweave meaning.
Below are three of his more interesting poems. In a subsequent post, I’ll discuss one of them in more detail and address the question, Is there sometimes an ironic stance at the heart of what Tate calls Greenberg’s bathos?
But only to be memories of spiritual gate
Leting us feel the difference from the real
Are not limits the sooth to formulate
Theories thereof, simply our ruler to feel?
Basques of statuets of Eruptions long ago,
Of power in semetry, marvel of thought
The crafts attempt, showing rare aspiration
The museums of the ancient fine stones
For bowels and cups, found Historians
Sacred adorations, the numismatist hath shown
But only to be memories of spiritual gate
Leting us feel, the difference from the real
Are not limits, the sooth to formulate
Theories thereof, simply our ruler to feel?,
Night! the lute as daylight But dim
A cloister strangly near a hill
Rang the evening chimes of prayor
The shadows of the miniature lamps
Shaped strange unseen, frightful creatures
Of horrid ghosts, vailed in pale caps
The solitude teeming in its hush
Let the unseen noises of insects clear
Buzz in their melancholy wiery hum
Dreams are short, But their Beauties are
Rare, night is long, causes thought
Its Freedom, of Fantasie to acquire
The grey demon clouds covered Heaven
Which hid the moon, but stars retreating fought
The Glass Bubles
The motion of gathering loops of Water
Must either Burst – or remain in a moment
The violet colours Through the glass
Throw up – little swellings that appear
And spatter – as soon as another strikes
And is Born – so pure are they of coloured
Hues that we feel the absent strength of
its power – when they Begin – they gather
Like sand on the Beach – each buble
Contains a complete eye of water.