NABOKV-L post 0014954, Fri, 23 Feb 2007 15:08:25 +1300

Re: False Azure, Frost: BB reply
The point is that James Marcus offered only one example of what was
wrong about the poem "Pale Fire," without explanation or discussion,
and that the example actually indicates the poem’s customary
strengths rather than its supposed weaknesses.

Charles, ready to dismiss “Pale Fire,” was happy to concur that
Marcus’s sole proffered example was yet another wrong note, though
he hadn’t thought it one before:

Azure means blue. Only secondarily does it connote sky. A thing is
either blue, or it isn't. It can't be "falsely" blue. Shade's English
is not as precise as VN's, and a poet should not allow himself to be
so sloppy --- unless it's with deliberate aesthetic intent.

In fact Duncan White’s posting, and the OED, showed this
“explanation” of the wrong note to be wrong itself. "The clear
blue of the unclouded sky" (OED) is exactly what Shade wants (and
exactly what Nabokov wants, at another level, through the connection
to "Our blue inenubilable Zembla"; although this overtone is
irrelevant to the quality of Shade's poem, the quality of the poem in
itself AND what Nabokov does on top of that offer a measure of the
whole novel's achievement).

Assuming that the poem sucks, adopting an a priori attitude of
dismissal, leads one to welcome other supposed weaknesses without
examining what the poem actually does: in this case the poet, far
from being sloppy, chooses a word whose dictionary sense alone makes
it a mot juste.

Doubly juste, in fact. Let me quote my Pale Fire book, 282n.5: "The
'azure' of the poem's opening couplet also clearly engages with
Stéphane Mallarmé's recurrent image of the 'Azur," representing the
Ideal, as opposed to the ‘Ici-bas,' the here-below, the here and
now, in such poems as 'L'Azur," 'Retourneur,' 'Le Soupir' and
especially the most important of these early poems, "Les
Fenêtres." [And let me add now that our subject is precisely the
"azure of the windowpane."] Nabokov recalled that 'ce n'est pas
Coppée ou Lamartine, mais Verlaine et Mallarmé, qui prirent soin de
mon adolescence [it wasn't Coppée or Lamartine, but Verlaine and
Mallarmé, who took care of my adolescence]." Like Nabokov, Shade
knows French and French verse well. In view of Mallarmé's concern
with what Renato Poggioli calls "the attendant falling back of the
soul from . . . azur to what he named ici-bas," like the waxwing’s
fall from the false azure, Shade has perfectly integrated his own
metaphysical questing with that of poetic tradition. And as so often,
he alludes with precision but without the display of modernist poetic

Trebly juste: as Pekka Tammi was the first to observe, "From Shade's
perspective, the opening reference to 'false azure' evidently
functions as an anticipatory clue, prefiguring the death of his
daughter in Canto Two" ["the three young people stood / Before the
azure entrance"]. Lest there be further grumblings, Shade’s "azure"
is also accurate and economical in this second and final occurrence
in the poem, in evoking and describing the color of the argon-and-
mercury lighting of the logo for the Hawaiian bar.

Quadruply juste, I would suggest: "azure" can be pronounced with a
long a (see the second pronunciation listed in Webster’s Second) and
thereby becomes a virtual homophone of "Asia." As many have noticed,
and as I discuss at length in my Pale Fire book, there is a pattern
of winged creatures, and especially of birds and insects, throughout
the poem; Shade's parents were after all ornithologists, after whom a
new waxwing was even named. Shortly after the “azure” that the
waxwing hits at the start of the first verse paragraph, Shade
associates the second bird in the poem, at the end of the second
verse paragraph, with Asia (where as Shade and Nabokov knew the ring-
necked pheasant Phasianus colchicus torquatus originated) and with
the sense of the other side of the world, the strangeness of the
remote or extreme, in the expression "to dig for China":

A pheasant's feet!

Torquated beauty, sublimated grouse,

Finding your China right behind my house.

That last line suggests that Shade and Nabokov probably had in mind
specifically Richard Wilbur’s poem “Digging for China” (first
collected in 1956):

Digging for China

"Far enough down is China," somebody said.

"Dig deep enough and you might see the sky

As clear as at the bottom of a well.

Except it would be real--a different sky.

Then you could burrow down until you came

To China! Oh, it's nothing like New Jersey.

There's people, trees, and houses, and all that,

But much, much different. Nothing looks the same."

I went and got the trowel out of the shed

And sweated like a coolie all that morning,

Digging a hole beside the lilac-bush,

Down on my hands and knees. It was a sort

Of praying, I suspect. I watched my hand

Dig deep and darker, and I tried and tried

To dream a place where nothing was the same.

The trowel never did break through to blue.

Before the dream could weary of itself

My eyes were tired of looking into darkness,

My sunbaked head of hanging down a hole.

I stood up in a place I had forgotten,

Blinking and staggering while the earth went round

And showed me silver barns, the fields dozing

In palls of brightness, patens growing and gone

In the tides of leaves, and the whole sky china blue.

Until I got my balance back again

All that I saw was China, China, China.

Note the “never did break through to blue . . . the whole sky china
blue . . . China, China, China.”

Nabokov’s first recorded interest in Wilbur dates to 1951 (Wilbur
had been published in the New Yorker in the late 1940s, at a time
when Nabokov was often being published there); he first met him at
Harvard in 1952; he sat in the front row for a reading Wilbur gave at
Cornell later in the 1950s; in the 1960s he singled out Wilbur’s
“Complaint” as the sole instance he cared to record of recent
reading that had given him “the spinal twinge which is the only
valid reaction to a new piece of great poetry” (SO 134). Wilbur,
incidentally, won the 2006 Ruth Lilly Prize for Poetry ($100,000),
one of the US’s most valuable; the editor of Poetry, Christian
Wiman, said in announcing the award: "If you had to put all your
money on one living poet whose work will be read in a hundred years,
Richard Wilbur would be a good bet. He has written some of the most
memorable poems of our time, and his achievement rivals that of great
American poets like Robert Frost and Elizabeth Bishop."

In another post today Arthur Glass aptly quotes Henry James's
definition of "the critical challenge" as "essentially the spirit of
fine attention." The problem I have with the dismissers of "Pale
Fire" is that their attitude makes it hard for them to see what Shade
and Nabokov are doing in the poem: it coarsens their attention,
curiosity, and recall, all essential in reading poets as allusive and
wily and addicted to concealed pattern as Shade and his maker.
Reading critically should have nothing to do with sycophancy (I have
been severely negative of some of Nabokov's work; and to whom would
admirers of the poem "Pale Fire" like Ron Rosenbaum, Helen Vendler
and I need to be sycophantic?) but it does have a lot to do with
imaginative sympathy as well as independence.

Shade is as different from Frost as Pope is from Gray, but all have
written great poetry.

Brian Boyd

On 23/02/2007, at 8:44 AM, Chaswe@AOL.COM wrote:

> Since everything else that was quoted of what James Marcus wrote,
> even if he expressed himself in a joky, journalistic style, made
> excellent sense, I thought I’d have a stab at trying to figure out
> what he was getting at in singling out “false azure”, which
> hadn’t bothered me at all until reading his remark. Hence my
> deliberate use of the word “suggestion”. Since this mild
> suggestion has caused a minor flurry, here is a response. Duncan
> White’s cavil seems the most reflective, so I’ll start with his.
> He wrote:
> You write that "Azure means blue. Only secondarily does it connote
> sky." But one of the meanings of the noun azure is the type of blue
> that we see in an unclouded sky - it is not a secondary meaning,
> the two are bound up together in Shade's usage. Here's the OED:
> Azure: The clear blue colour of the unclouded sky, or of the sea
> reflecting it. (Originally, the deep intense blue of more southern
> latitudes.)
> The azure is "false" because it is not the real sky, but a
> reflection of it in the window pane. I don't really think it can be
> cited as Shade being sloppy in his use of language.
> Of course someone could make a case for Frost being superior to
> Shade, or vice versa, but the point is that glibly singling out one
> line, out of context, is no way to construct any sort of
> interesting argument. But then Marcus' piece is more hackwork than
> "fair criticism" and probably does not deserve even this slight fuss.
> The OED deserves ultimate respect, and I should have consulted it.
> In fact, I thought I’d checked my handy Cassell, but perhaps I
> only took a quick look at the internet. Several on-line
> dictionaries give:
> az·ure (ăzh'ər)
> n.
> a. A light purplish-blue. b. Heraldry. The colour blue.
> The blue sky.
> Cassell, however, does give n. lapis-lazuli; the deep blue of the
> sky; the vault of heaven; a bright blue pigment; (Her.) the blue of
> coats of arms, etc. I may have been over-persuaded by my
> familiarity with the heraldic usage. The derivation from lapis-
> lazuli, a blue stone, seems slightly significant. Victor Fet wrote:
> At least in Russian poetry "azure" ("lazur' ") used as a noun often
> means sky, being a standard poetic cliché.
> The Russian ("lazur' ") apparently retains a firmer memory of the
> original sense (Persian lazhward). Victor’s mention of standard
> poetic cliché may also be part of Marcus’s point. Using azure to
> mean “sky” smacks faintly more of the poetastic than the
> genuinely poetic, and perhaps therefore falls more aptly to Shade.
> I agree with Duncan, however, that this particular example is
> probably not sloppy enough to fuss over. Otherwise, Marcus seems to
> me spot on: he is only reacting immediately and instinctively to
> Rosenbaum’s utterly preposterous assertion that Shade’s poem
> “surpasses in every respect anything that Frost has ever done”.
> Baloney.
> George’s and Carolyn’s points were interesting. The various
> dictionary definitions for “blue” seem to hover uneasily between
> noun and adjective. Carolyn’s question: Is the sky itself, then
> "truly" blue? raises the question of whether “blue” has any
> existence at all apart from what the human eye perceives as blue. I
> would say that it doesn’t, which is why the concept of “false
> blue” can’t be justified. “False sky”, however, is of course
> perfectly conceivable.
> Brian Boyd wrote:
> Addendum: James Marcus declares that it takes a tin ear to rate the
> "Pale Fire" poem highly. Then he speaks with a tin tongue: "VN just
> isn't in the same ballpark as top-drawer Frost." How to undermine
> your critical clout in one easy lesson!
> This comment seems to me completely irrelevant. The posture of the
> critic is, as I believe I’ve said earlier, naturally hateful, and
> invites hostility. Sycophancy is far more rewarding, and as
> Pinocchio’s little friend once put it: if you can’t say
> something nice, don’t say anything at all. However, Marcus is
> making a journalistic point, not writing poetry. Dr Johnson said,
> in defence of the critic, that it is perfectly permissible for a
> man (though invidious) to criticise a carpenter who makes him a bad
> chair, even if he can’t make a chair himself. Presumably Brian is
> having a dig at Marcus’s rhetoric, but there is nothing metallic
> about his demotic metaphors in this context. In such cases of
> joyful mixing I’m often reminded of a sterling line from
> Churchill’s 1941 broadcast: “The Royal Air Force beat the Hun
> raiders out of the daylight air raid” when what he was also
> implying was that the RAF had beaten the daylights out of them.
> As I’ve recently been dipping into The Collected Poems of Robert
> Frost (Halcyon 1939), I’m vividly aware that I’ve been keeping
> company with a true-blue master of cerulean azure, whose works are
> so far superior to Shade’s as to leave that neighbourly “poet”
> not a couple of oozy footsteps, but more like seven leagues, behind
> him. This list doesn’t want to analyze the spine-tingling
> subtleties of Frost, but I’m bound to agree with James Marcus
> that, temporarily no doubt, Ron Rosenbaum must have gone completely
> off his trolley. But let me not be unfair.
> My warm thanks to Jansy for her generous support.
> Charles
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