Review ‘From Culbone Wood ― In Xanadu’ by Marius Kociejowski

Tom Lowenstein From Culbone Wood ― In Xanadu

I have been reading Tom Lowenstein’s From Culbone Wood ― In Xanadu: notebooks and fantasias (Shearsman Books, 2013) in tandem with the new complete translation of Giacomo Leopardi’s Zilbadone. The conjunction is a happy one. At times the words of one seem almost to feed into the other: ‘The imaginative life rejoices in its imperfections,’ one of them writes, ‘and were I to feel complete, there would be nothing left to make.’ Leopardi? Lowenstein? The two poets converse brilliantly on the matter of the imaginative life and their books are superb instances of poet’s prose ― sharply focussed and free of the unpleasant sweat of ‘poetic prose’. While I can just about accept Lowenstein’s own definition of his work as a ‘flying notebook/fantasia genre’, I am not so sure it is ‘a series of prose poems’, the latter having become so baggy a term it can be almost anything one wants it to be. (Only the French, so natural in their artificialities, have ever truly managed it.) If, at times, he approaches pastiche it never goes so far as to fall off the edge of the page and when the voice is arch it is almost always to comedic effect.

There is a slightly eccentric passage in the Zilbadone that speaks of the relationship between poetry and prose when it is at its healthiest, that is, when poetry is not merely a scattering of chopped-up prose.

Paciaudi excellently described prose as the nourisher of poetry, as Alfieri recounts, with admiration in his Life, for if someone who wrote verse were to obtain nourishment from poetry alone, it would be like someone feeding only on fat in order to put on weight when animal fat is the least suitable thing to form our own, and the most suitable things are succulent lean meats, and substances obtained from the drier parts, which is how prose can be considered in comparison with poetry.

From Culbone Wood points to what that ‘nourisher’ might be. A spare prose Lowenstein’s mostly certainly is and ultimately, in what it invites in the reader’s mind, poetic but without ever striking clumsy postures. A fine poet we already know him to be, but this is a journeying so far removed from the routes we have become accustomed to in his work ― although it, too, is multifarious ― that it begs the questions: from whence does this book come? Whose voice is this? What is this book?

At its most basic level From Culbone Wood is a series of meditations on the nature of creativity, a not very satisfactory answer because the book is so much more. Maybe it would be more accurate to describe it as an exploration of the syntheses out of which art arises and, so, what happier choice of poem than “Kubla Khan” whose origins not even its author seems able to place. The prefatory note Coleridge supplies obfuscates a little. (The person from Porlock, does he exist even? And if so is he not always in attendance when inspiration fails?) In an earlier manuscript note to the poem Coleridge describes it as having been composed in a ‘reverie’ induced by opium. The reader is perhaps best advised to go with this, although he will have to contend with the medics who say no, impossible. 

A series of enquiries takes the reader of From Culbone Wood through a challenging reading of The Book of Genesis, Man’s First Fall, mushrooms, butterflies, bees, tea, carpets, the distillation of cider, a serving girl such as Rembrandt or Vermeer might have rendered in oils, the origins of poetry, theatre, folk song, doppelgangers, Thomas the Rhymer, Goethe, Andrew Marvell and Shakespeare, Shakespeare deeply so, and never more companionably than in a contemplation of the 1623 Folio.

To clasp this book, and urgently I did so, was privilege in plenty. Much of it I had by heart and no urge took me to read further. Then this happened. For an instant the totality ― from The Tempest to the Phoenix was transfused through my hands and up into the seat of all four humours: thus suddenly my body read the whole of Shakespeare in a storm that so shook me that it was some days, as if in a soaking ague of both intellect and body, before I had recovered. And yet, when you think on it, Shakespearian totality is a portion only of a greater Everything ― each one of whose parts is played out in that 1623 edition.

Among the many welcome asides there is a striking passage on the vanity of poets, funny and penetrating at the same time: ‘I knew of one, elsewhere, who believed that could he cut deep into a slab of marble he would find his name engraved there’. I rushed to the Notes at the end of the book to learn his identity but Lowenstein does not say. There are enough candidates to be sure but it is hard to believe Lowenstein does not have a particular poet in his sights but then there is a great deal in this book to tickle a curious mind.

The speaker is and is not Coleridge: in his “Note to the Reader”, Lowenstein says he is a pseudo-Coleridge. The real and the invented share a number of characteristics: they both have a need for laudanum; they both have tasted of the forbidden fruit of knowledge, the Miltonic curse, and in so doing ‘chose mortality over the pieties of a sterile and eternal Sabbath’; they both are visitors to a lonely farmhouse somewhere between Porlock and Linton; they both carry a weighty volume of Samuel Purchas’s Pilgrimage (1614), its several lines on ‘Cublai Can’ being those which spark the composition of the poem that is at the centre of this work; and they both suffer from bowel problems: the speaker ‘strives to sing out of [his] incontinence’ whereas Coleridge suffered from costiveness, which is one of the effects of opium addiction and which probably, in later years, contributed to his unproductiveness as a poet.

This, I believe, is the book’s genius, the creation of a third voice that hovers somewhere between Lowenstein’s and Coleridge’s, its object not ventriloquism but the creation of an other. If I may hazard a guess it is that by semi-appropriating a figure from the Romantic period in literature Lowenstein has been able to project any number of views which, if they were expressed by a modern author, would be considered highly unfashionable if not downright suspect. We have become too impoverished to be able to speak in terms of the Muse but then Leopardi would say we have been so impoverished ever since the Classical Age. And yet this is the most modern of books, located in that category of writings that might be described as exploded genre, where, as in W.G. Sebald, fact and fiction are interchangeable. Sometimes I suspect there is an element of tongue-in-cheek in what Lowenstein writes but on the whole the book addresses the very soul of artistic creation in a way that modern academe has chosen not to. And just when it appears the prose aims so high one fears it will crash to earth as when, for example, he considers the nature of the Muse (‘The Muse touches from a distance, first with light, then with music’) Lowenstein provides a safety net with a thudding line: ‘I learned this when I stopped at Linton to buy radishes and lettuce.’ And by exploring the creative forces that went into the making of “Kubla Khan”, a poem which in itself is quite outside the rest of Coleridge’s oeuvre, Lowenstein comes close to providing his own ars poetica:

Poetry, in my experience, is a continual singing in the dark. It is, at the first, an interior action in which the noise of daily language is sequestered and inaudibly refined. This takes place in the night-environment of the intelligence, enclosed in an unlit reclusion. Just as a dream, however stormy, enacts its business in darkness and privacy, so the poem comes into being from a shadowy chamber of which the author is the sole inhabitant.

So much for the creative writing course: poetry is a lonely business.

Elsewhere Lowenstein writes:

In the conversation between the poet and the world, a metaphoric bridge of significations composed of often mutually discordant elements is extended. Not one single truth may be observed to make its crossing here, but it is obscured and rendered inscrutable by the very medium that made its going over possible … Little that is said or written pertains to the meaning which had its origin at the moment of conception. We experience only the artefacture of the means by which a transit has been created … In the meantime, what we witness is an indecipherable music, as if produced by a gorgeous, indistinctly apprehended and extrinsic being, whose beauty consists of falsifications raised to the condition of an exquisitely construed phantasm.

The critical language Lowenstein employs is of the clean air of another time. Who, in contemporary critical parlance, would be so bold as to say of Shakespeare that ‘there is a terror-inspiring joy to the current of his language [and that] reading Hamlet and Lear is like being slapped in the face by the sea’? Slapped in the face by the sea: this, surely, is one of the more memorable critical descriptions of recent times. So much in the book is quotable that perhaps the greatest service one could perform would be to quote it in full and append one’s own signature to the end of it. Here, again, is Lowenstein on Andrew Marvell’s “The Garden”:

Passive in a tree’s shade lingers the poet. He is subdued to nothing and his thought has become a reflection of that absence. Existence recedes. It processes backward. But who thinks that greenness? The shade in which that one green thought occurs is a reflexive space which is boundariless and empty. While through this, vigorous and naturally engaging phenomena pursue change and movement. The mind, for the present, is an empty vehicle or screen. And thus it takes on summer’s colour. And if it is this greenness which is thinking (as a grass blade or leaf may putatively contemplate its own existence), that thought’s activity is also passive. It owns no purpose, no content or motion. Prospectively reactive, it endures without ambition. The poet has died here. But out of this fatality, this sacrificial obliteration, a delicious poetry emerges.

Exquisite. This is criticism as it ought to be, which engages in equal measure both the mind and the senses. This is not to say that Lowenstein shies away from close reading: consider the revelatory pages devoted to the use of the word ‘inform’ in the line ‘How all occasions do inform against me’ from one of Hamlet’s soliloquies. What he is does, however, is to write critically without ‘hermeneutic tackle’: there is always a linking of literature to actual life.

Lowenstein veers away from the oft-stated notion of “Kubla Khan” being the product of an opium-fuelled dream and instead, in a lovely parody of literary criticism, describes meeting in a dream his doppelgänger (as Romantics tend to do), this being a somewhat rustic version who ‘in rugged, stumbling iambs and in still more ragged dactyls, as though caught like greasy sheep’s wool in a thorn hedge’ produces an ale house song (‘Kublai Khan wuz ’is toitle an’ much ’e did own’) the full text of which he, the dreamer, might have fully transcribed were it not that he was summoned on business. It is a good joke. And as for that troublesome person from Porlock, Lowenstein points to the sheer unlikelihood of any such figure making the journey so late in the day, all the way from Porlock to Ash Farm, and employing a skilful layering technique suggests it might have been an apparition of an ur-Coleridge, Edmund Rack, who some years before had delineated in verse, in the same vicinity, another golden dome.

The most astonishing, and demanding, aspect of the book is that ‘Distant Asia [is] concentrated into Culbone.’ The section which forms the centrepiece of the book is so densely packed with nuggets of knowledge the reader is here in danger of losing sight of the fissures between them. Any reading of it requires perseverance but then one is amply rewarded. Among the many things it addresses is something that has been floating in my own thoughts for some time, and it is the question why tyrants of the past had an intrinsic notion of culture which in its modern equivalent is almost always reduced to kitsch. There is a striking passage in which Lowenstein suggests that Kublai Khan, a destroyer of peoples, was susceptible, though not necessarily cognisant, to the words of a single wise person, which is to say there was in him at least the recognition of what might be true.

What cannot be emphasised enough is the sensuality of Lowenstein’s language:

We take language and its constituent elements as does the oriental who prepares a dish for the supreme monarch or one who is a connoisseur of the language of taste. For just as the flavour of a cardamom seed, when it has been broken in the teeth, spreads along the membrane and fills the mouth with both taste and aroma, radiating even into the illusions of a colour, so the syllables of a line give forth sensations that may be wrung from it as they are from a spice which has burst into life on the cognoscente’s palate.

Maybe that sensuality is what counts for most in the end, for it is what brings the ideas so vividly to life and it is what allows us to carry the book within ourselves. A great work prompts a reader to rediscover what he already knows. Lowenstein’s book resists classification but what it does, and this can never be done wilfully but only by virtue of character, is to seek to contain the world. From Culbone Wood sits if not physically then mentally on the shelf that bears my copy of Zilbadone. I can think of no higher praise.

                      Marius Kociejowski

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