Friday, March 23, 2012

The stationary blasts of waterfalls


Paintings freeze the vision of landscape at a moment intime, whilst poems can convey the shifting impressions of a walk.  But a poem that pauses whilstthe writer pictures the landscape may be more successfulthan a painting at slowing and focusing the attention on nature.  Elements of a landscape will in any case be in motion themselves, or appear in a state of constant movement that comes to seem aform of stillness.  In his book Can Poetry Save the Earth? (2009) JohnFelstiner suggests that this permanence in transience is a natural figure inpoetry: William Carlos Williams 'senses an "unmoving roar" in Passaic Falls, A. R. Ammons in an "onbreaking wave" finds "immobility in motion." Derek Walcott recalls Caribbean swallows "moving yet motionless."' Waterfalls in particular seem to elicit this response from poets: ‘Coleridge in the Alps is struck by “Motionless torrents!” andWordsworth by “The stationary blasts of waterfalls” ... Imagination,momentarily grasping things in flux, admits in the same moment that nature isungraspable.’  Felstiner quotes ThomasCole who saw in waterfalls ‘“fixedness and motion – a single existence in whichwe perceive unceasing change and everlasting duration.”  A poem like a painting catches life for theear of eye, stills what’s ongoing in human and nonhuman nature.’ 

Thomas Cole, Falls of the Kaaterskill, 1826

Can Poetry Save the Earth? has reproduced on its cover Joseph Farington's view of the waterfall at Ambleside (1816).  Felstiner says that 'Keats saw these falls soon after he'd said "The poetry of the earth is never dead," and they blew his mind'.  It was on his tour of the Lakes in 1818: Keats and his friend Charles Brown arose at six in the morning and headed out before breakfast to search for the falls.  Having heard the noise of the water through the trees, they made their way down to the bottom of a valley ("Keats scrambled down lightly and quickly") to watch the cataract's waters darting and spreading over the rocks, descending into "the thunder and the freshness".  "What astonishes me more than any thing," Keats wrote in a letter to his brother Tom, "is the tone, the coloring, the slate, the stone, the moss, the rock-weed; or, if I may so say, the intellect, the countenance of such places. The space, the magnitude of mountains and waterfalls are well imagined before one sees them; but this countenance or intellectual tone must surpass every imagination and defy any remembrance. I shall learn poetry here and shall henceforth write more than ever, for the abstract endeavor of being able to add a mite to that mass of beauty which is harvested from these grand materials, by the finest spirits, and put into etherial existence for the relish of one's fellows."  Felstiner quotes this letter and truncates that last sentence after the first five words, turning it into a resounding affirmation of the way Keats felt art could flow from nature: "I shall learn poetry here."