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The Complete Poems, John Crowe Ransom

December 9, 2019

Several of my most intelligent and industrious friends have been actively looking for employment over the past year and have gotten only a few interviews and no offers. It’s a hard way to spend a year. One of these friends, still in her twenties, said last week that her most recent job application—for a human resources data analysis position–asked her to write an original poem about her current employment. (As she’s unemployed, this was difficult, but she did come up with a clever limerick.) What’s next? A job application that asks applicants to “paint in watercolors an image of the magnitude of your yearning to analyze data” or “compose one movement of a symphony expressing the lofty joys of serving as a successful human resource”?

I do like the assumption that anyone can and should write a poem in circumstances we don’t usually associate with poetry. It’s not something many of us do when faced with myriad everyday demands.

Last week Ron brought home a brand-new volume of poetry that he had checked out from the Kenyon College library because he knew I’d want to read it. Edited by the professor at Hendrix who first made me want to learn to write, Ashby Bland Crowder, it is The Complete Poems of John Crowe Ransom and has a foreward by the sister of one of the people who first welcomed me to Kenyon, Robb Forman Dew.

Ransom is known for having written most of his poetry early in his life. Dr. Crowder says that “after 1927 he wrote only six new poems, the last in 1963.” Like many other people I know at Kenyon, he got too busy: “his editing, critical writing, teaching, reading, and other prose commitments piled up, and he was never able to find the path back to poetry.”

Ransom’s poems have a complicated publication history. He allowed a more experienced poet to revise and even re-title the poems in his first volume (Grace After Meat, 1924). He revised his own poems throughout his life; Dr. Crowder says that “he fiddled…with poems he had already written, thinking that he was improving them. He even wrote essays explaining how his revisions had improved the originals.” And so The Complete Poems is a large volume, containing poems that the most patient teacher and editor I have ever known thinks are the best version.

My ideas about Ransom were formed by Dr. Crowder, who never lost interest in the first poet he saw in person, and so I thought of Ransom’s most famous poems as “Bells for John Whiteside’s Daughter” and “The Equilibrists.” There are others that are quite famous however; like “Janet Waking,” “Blue Girls,” “Necrological,” “Captain Carpenter,” “Piazza Piece,” and “Dead Boy.” My favorite has always been “Bells for John Whiteside’s Daughter,” with its memory of a child in a “brown study,” which, as I learned at the age of 18, is an archaic phrase meaning absorbed or abstracted. Here is the best version of it:

There was such speed in her little body,
And such lightness in her footfall,
It is no wonder her brown study
Astonishes us all.

Her wars were bruited in our high window.
We looked among orchard trees and beyond,
Where she took arms against her shadow,
Or harried unto the pond

The lazy geese, like a snow cloud
Dripping their snow on the green grass,
Tricking and stopping, sleepy and proud,
Who cried in goose, Alas,

For the tireless heart within the little
Lady with rod that made them rise
From their noon apple-dreams and scuttle
Goose-fashion under the skies!

But now go the bells, and we are ready;
In one house we are sternly stopped
To say we are vexed at her brown study,
Lying so primly propped.

“Vexed.” Isn’t that just the right word in the right place? And the way the first stanza introduces the “brown study” and then the final stanza puts it in context recapitulates the way we plunge into remembering things a dead person has done and then come up over and over again against the shore of our realization that the person will do these things no more.

Reading my favorites among all the other poems gave me more appreciation for the way they rise above their time. Some of the others, like “Husband Betrayed,” do not:

And so he called her Pigeon,
Saying to himself, “She flutters walking
And in sweet monotone she twitters talking.”
Nothing was said of her religion.

There was wood-wildness in her—say a dove.
For doves are pigeons not domesticated
And whoso catches one is soon frustrated,
Expecting quick return of love.

At all events she had a snowy bosom
And trod so mincingly that you would say
She only wanted wings to fly away,
Easy and light and lissome.

She pecked her food with ravished cries,
She sunned her bosom by the wall in the morning,
Preening prettily in the sun and turning
In her birdwise.

But there was heavy dudgeon
When he that should have married him a woman
To sit and drudge and serve him as was common
Discovered he had wived a pigeon.

The words “heavy dudgeon” are brilliant, summing up the humor and the perspective of the poem. I’ll argue that the perspective is dated, although it’s not dated enough, as a viewing of the tv shows Gilmore Girls and The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel will attest. Can’t you almost see three of the lines of this poem as a summary of Lorelei Gilmore’s daily activities? “She pecked her food with ravished cries,/She sunned her bosom by the wall in the morning,/Preening prettily.”

Because I was thinking about a connection between a person I knew at Hendrix College, in the warm and sunny south, and a person I met at Kenyon College, in the cold and gloomy north, I discovered a new Ransom poem that I will take to heart, “Winter Remembered.”

Two evils, monstrous either one apart,
Possessed me, and were long and loath at going:
A cry of Absence, Absence, in the heart,
And in the wood the furious winter blowing.

Think not, when fire was bright upon my bricks
And past the tight boards hardly a wind could enter,
I glowed like them, the simple burning sticks,
Far from my cause, my proper heat, my center.

Better to walk forth in the murderous air
And wash my wound in the snows; that would be healing,
Because my heart would throb less painful there,
Being caked with cold, and past the smart of feeling.

Which would you choose, and for what boot in gold,
The absence, or the absence and the cold?”

I feel the absence of Dr. Crowder more keenly now, with this posthumously-published edited collection, and of Helen Ransom Forman, the poet’s daughter who used to play croquet with us and her daughter Liz on the court where her parents had played, in a short summer on a northern campus where almost everyone gets too busy for poetry, eventually.

6 Comments leave one →
  1. December 9, 2019 4:20 pm

    What a lovely collection and so many wonderful memories associated with it too! Thanks for sharing the poems and some of the memories.

  2. Elizabeth permalink
    December 26, 2019 3:53 pm

    I feel as though I’ve caught a glimpse of your truest inner self with this post, in all the best, most moving ways.

    • December 26, 2019 10:25 pm

      It is more of a gathering of deeply felt thoughts because it’s so layered in years–mine, my professor’s, and the poet’s family.

  3. January 6, 2020 9:58 pm

    That is a startlingly creative application question! It sounds like the company is looking for well-rounded people who can think beyond just the numbers. And I applaud your friend for finding a way around the unfortunate assumption that every applicant has an employment history without gaps.

    That last poem is really chilling (#sorrynotsorry). I feel how empty and depressed the narrator feels. I understand why he or she would rather freeze out in the woods than sit by a fire — they’re already frozen inside, and sometimes it feels better to surround yourself with an environment that matches your emotions than to torture yourself with a cheery hearth that can’t reach you.

    On a less melancholic note, I’m now imagining the narrator tossing their cloak aside and singing, “The cold never bothered me anyway!” #stillnotsorry

    • January 7, 2020 8:37 am

      “Chilling,” ha! I struggle to understand anyone who prefers freezing, even in this kind of emotional situation. I’ll always go for the cheery hearth rather than the tortured attitude. But when in the north, do as the northerners do.

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