February 20, 2014

Willa Cather: Poetry vs Prose

Willa Cather published poetry when she was young, although she is known for her later short stories and novels. Her poems seem to sink under the heavy weight of meter and rhyme, but still they reveal the world from which she drew her art:  

Prairie Spring
by Willa Cather

Evening and the flat land,
Rich and sombre and always silent;
The miles of fresh-plowed soil,
Heavy and black, full of strength and harshness;
The growing wheat, the growing weeds,
The toiling horses, the tired men;
The long empty roads,
Sullen fires of sunset, fading,
The eternal, unresponsive sky.
Against all this, Youth,
Flaming like the wild roses,
Singing like the larks over the plowed fields,
Flashing like a star out of the twilight;
Youth with its insupportable sweetness,
Its fierce necessity,
Its sharp desire,
Singing and singing,
Out of the lips of silence,
Out of the earthy dusk.

Her material was better served by prose. The poetry seems dated, but not her prose.  This excerpt from My Ántonio
As I looked about me I felt that the grass was the country, as the water is the sea. The red of the grass made all the great prairie the color of wine-stains, or of certain seaweeds when they are first washed up. And there was so much motion in it; the whole country seemed, somehow, to be running.
These few sentences convey much more. The poem seems static and this is alive and in motion. Willa Cather, in “The Art of Fiction,” wrote: 
Art, it seems to me, should simplify. That, indeed, is very nearly the whole of the higher artistic process; finding what conventions of form and what detail one can do without and yet preserve the spirit of the whole—  ....Writing ought either to be the manufacture of stories for which there  is a market demand—a business as safe and commendable as making soap or breakfast foods—or it should be an art, which is always a search for something for which there is no market demand, something new and untried, where the values are intrinsic and have nothing to do with standardized values. The courage to go on without compromise does not come to a writer all at once—nor, for that matter, does the ability. Both are phases of natural development. In the beginning the artist, like his public, is wedded to old forms, old ideals, and his vision is blurred by the memory of old delights he would like to recapture. 
She admired poetry by Sappho, and she focused attention on the music in her poems. But the music she imposed does not seem to fit with the music of the prairie. Perhaps each landscape holds a sound that the writer must hold true on the page. For her, it could be achieved from shifting genres. It allowed her to simplify and to detach from the old forms in order to articulate her own vision.  

Cather also has some very well written essays. In 1925, in an essay about writing, Cather said:  
The struggle to have anything of one’s own, to be one’s self at all, creates a strain that keeps everybody at the breaking point...Even in harmonious families there is this double life: the group life, which is the one we can observe...and underneath, another-secret and passionate and intense-which is the real life that stamps the faces and gives character to the voices of our friends.  Always in his mind each member [of the family] is escaping, running away, trying to break the net which circumstances and his own affections have woven around him....One realizes that human relationships are the tragic necessity of life: every ego is half the time greedily seeking them, and half the time pulling away from them. 
Her life experience on the prairie, before she was fifteen, is the material of her novels. She lived primarily in urban settings throughout her life. My Ántonio and Death Comes to the Archbishop focus on characters who are Catholic. Jewell and Stout correct the assumptions that readers have:  
Raised as a Baptist, Cather later became Episcopalian, but had two of her greatest successes with books so steeped in Catholicism that readers thought she was a Catholic. In fact, in a letter written from Pittsburgh in August 1896, she told a friend, "There is no God but one God and Art is his revealer; that’s my creed and I'll follow it to the end, to a hotter place than Pittsburgh if need be."
She worked as a journalist and continued to write poetry all of her life in addition to doing the fine work for which she is celebrated.

Cather, Willa. "Prairie Spring." This poem is in the public domain.

Jewell, Andrew and April Stout.  "Ten Things You Probably Didn't Know about Willa Cather."  Publisher's Weekly.  April 19, 2013. Retrieved 20 February 2014.  Web.  http://www.publishersweekly.com/pw/by-topic/industry-news/tip-sheet/article/56879-10-things-you-probably-didn-t-know-about-willa-cather.html 
Jewell, Andrew. The Willa Cather Archive. U of Nebraska-Lincoln, 2004-2013. Web. 13 Dec. 2012. http://cather.unl.edu/index.wcse.html

No comments:

Post a Comment