Late Late Modern

Parker Tyler, The Granite Butterfly. A Poem in Nine Cantos. A Facsimile of the First Edition, with Supplementary Materials. Edited by Charles Boultenhouse and Michael Fournier. Orono, ME: National Poetry Foundation, 1994, $25.00.

Reviewed by Marjorie Perloff

Published in William Carlos Williams Review, 22, no. 1 (Spring 1996): 103-11.


Parker Tyler’s long poem The Granite Butterfly was published in the late autumn of 1945. On 29 December, William Carlos Williams wrote excitedly to Tyler:

I just now, 9.15 p.m., finished reading The Granite Butterfly. It is absorbingly interesting quite apart from being a pleasurable work of art and quite definitely an important work of art in addition to its being thoughtfully interesting. I’m trying to be accurate. As far as I know it’s the best poem–far and away the best poem you have ever done. . . . I think the finest poem–in some parts–of our time. [1]

And lest we think these are just the kind words of one established poet for a less well-known poet friend, Williams wrote a review of The Granite Butterfly for Accent, in which he declared Tyler’s poem to be “the best poem written by an American since The Waste Land– certainly by far the best long poem of our day.” As for Tyler’s metrics, “This verse,” we read, “is much more modern than Pound[’s].”[2] At the same time, Williams recommended The Granite Butterfly to Pound himself with the comment, “I have called the poem the best long poem produced in America since the disaster of Eliot’s Waste. . . . Tyler resumes where our investigations were stopped by that piece of vaginal stop-gap” (GB 133).

Strong words, these, even for Williams, who, as James E. B. Breslin reminds us in his Introduction to Williams’s writings on younger poets, was often “too lax in dispensing his support, as if he were a wayward bishop willing to confirm anyone able to stumble to the altar” (SS 25). But whereas few critics shared Williams’s indiscriminate enthusiasm for, say, Eli Siegel or Marcia Nardi, Tyler did have the support of as fastidious a Leavisite critic as Marius Bewley as well as of the oppositional Kenneth Burke. At the very least, then, Charles Boultenhouse and Michael Fournier’s fascinating new facsimile edition of The Granite Butterfly provides us with an important chapter in taste-making, a set of documents (reviews, correspondence, drafts, illustrations) that can help us to understand how and why a poem that has since fallen into such total obscurity, was once hailed as a masterpiece.

Who was Parker Tyler? He was born in New Orleans in 1904, moved to Chicago as a child and attended the Chicago Latin School. At eighteen he left school and joined the Cleveland Playhouse; at twenty-two, he moved to New York and was soon part of its avant-garde literary scene. Little magazine editor (first of Blues, with Charles Henri Ford, later of View), he was also a gifted film critic (see The Hollywood Hallucination and Magic and Myth of the Movies), art critic (he wrote important pieces on Joseph Cornell), biographer (of Pavel Tchelitschew), and a minor poet. Williams’ contact with Tyler is chronicled by Mike Weaver, who describes the poet’s keen interest, at the point when he was organizing the manuscripts of Paterson, in the January 1943 issue of View devoted to “Americana Fantastica,” which Tyler had edited. The front and back cover of the issue were made up of a single collage of Joseph Cornell’s, a collage that juxtaposes images of Indians with extravagant feathered headdress, athletes riding Niagara Falls, circus acrobats, skyscrapers, and an ape on a tall pedestal, holding an airplane in his fist– fantasy collocations that anticipate the juxtapositions of Paterson. [3] In keeping with Cornell’s collage, Tyler proclaimed that “the real Constitution of a romantic State” depended on the fantastic, fantasy being “the Anti-camouflage, the enemy of self-effacement,” and the “total negation of deceit” (MW 129). The fantastic, in its turn, was, for Tyler, synonymous with the monstrous, which he documented with relish in View, much to the dismay of the war refugee artists from Europe as well as American poets like Kenneth Rexroth and Robert Duncan (see MW 129-30). But Williams found Tyler’s definition of the fantastic in art as “the city of the irrational . . . the irrational plus architecture,” stimulating, and shared Tyler’s taste for the painting of Tchelitchew, longing to “americanize” what he and Tyler took to be the latter’s Surrealist fantasies (see MW 135-42).

But–and this is where The Granite Butterfly comes in– Williams’s understanding of Surrealism, like Tyler’s own, was oddly skewed. Tyler defined Surrealism dialectically: “Surrealism combines in practice the representational value of the image (imagism) and the symbolic value of the image (symbolism) in a sort of dialectical play of values.” [4] But such “dialectic” (between the literal and the symbolic) is almost diametrically opposed to André Breton’s originary definition of Surrealism as “pure psychic automatism, by which an attempt is made to express, either verbally in writing or in any other manner, the true functioning of thought.” “Surrealism,” for Breton and his cenacle, “rests on the belief in the higher reality of certain hitherto neglected forms of association, in the omnipotence of the dream, in the disinterested play of thought.” [5]

In practice, what this meant is that surrealist poems were to be impervious to logical explanation, much less “translation” into “normal” discourse. In Tyler’s “surrealism,” on the other hand, explanation and interpretation were de rigueur. Consider, for example, his “Author’s Note on the Meaning of the Poem,” originally designed to be published with the poem and reproduced in the facsimile edition. Proudly proclaiming that his poem does not rely on external sources like The Waste Land, Tyler notes that “All its sources are in the poem itself”:

These sources are simply a triple set of situations: first, the original situation of the poet’s intuitively incestuous relations with his parents; second, the hallucinated situation of the negro boy’s invasion of the country home of the movie actor and his mistress; third, the situation dreamed by the actor’s mistress, based on the plot of a movie proposed for the actor, in which a noble Russian family is ruined by a revolution, the son being killed, and the father raped in the same manner as the man in the second situation. (GB 67)

And further:

The negro boy is obviously the son excluded from the sexual ecstasies of his parents; the fact that he is black signifies not only a socially inevitable type of inferiority, but the fact that his primary nature is secret, associated with both obscurity and the night. (GB 68)

This sounds a good deal more like Brooks & Warren’s Understanding Poetry than like anything Breton or Desnos or Aragon would have written. Indeed, forties “modernism” in the U.S. –the modernism of Maxwell Anderson and the late Eugene O’Neill, of Tennessee Williams’s Glass Menagerie (first performed in 1945, the year of Granite Butterfly), of Delmore Schwartz and Allen Tate, John Crowe Ransom and the Robert Lowell of Lord Weary’s Castle (1946) –had much less in common with Surrealism (or indeed with any of the great “modernist” innovations of the teens and twenties)– than with Symbolism, but a symbolism that, unlike Mallarmé’s or Eliot’s or Stevens’s, is largely reductive in its one-to-one equivalencies. “The negro boy is obviously the son excluded from the sexual ecstasies of his parents,” “the son is a homosexual Oedipus” (GB 68), and, as for the title, the “poet’s soul” is a “butterfly, something beautiful and extremely frail,” that is nevertheless “locked in the sublime catastrophe” of the Oedipal myth and hence “is one with a perduring substance. It is granite.” Indeed, “its interposition is not altogether artless, for as a symbol of the poet-spectator who is scrutinizing the secret of the pyramid, the angle of its wings coincides with the sides of an inverted pyramid and with the lifted legs of the supine male” (GB 71).

Again and again, Tyler explains himself in this manner. Writing to Kenneth Burke on 19 July 1946, he notes the “‘inversion’ of substituting the father-image for the mother-image in the poet’s oedipal impulse [which] embodies in the oedipus-personality of the poet-son the antagonistic attributes of the chief gods of the Hindu triad, Vishnu, Brahma, and Shiva, who have both destructive and creative faculties” (GB 120). Or again, “The poem’s image of the ‘furious mother’ (frustrated by her mate’s passivity and the sexually ambiguous nature of her son) as the Medusa, coincides with the stone phallus-butterfly as the ‘child’ of her glance” (GB 121). Every word, every image, every narrative thread, it seems, points to something else, exists only to point to that other. And in these pre-Deconstructionist days, there is no question, at least not in Tyler’s mind, but that poetic signifiers exist in order to point to the signifieds behind them.

Why would this “deep symbolist” aesthetic have appealed to Williams, who had recently declared, in “Against the Weather: A Study of the Artist” (1939), “No symbolism is acceptable. No symbolism can be permitted to obscure the real purpose, to lift the world of the senses to the level of the imagination and so give it new currency” (SE 213)? The Williams who wrote in 1944 in his “Author’s Introduction” to The Wedge that “A poem is a small (or large) machine made of words,” and two years later in Paterson, “No ideas but in things”? What, to put it plainly, could and did Williams see in Tyler’s long poem? This is the intriguing puzzle the reader of Granite Butterfly faces.

In his excellent introduction to the facsimile edition, Tyler’s long-time companion Charles Boultenhouse recalls that Williams especially admired the poem’s “music.” “The distinctive quality of Parker Tyler’s measure,” he writes, “the personal rhythm that prolongs and smooths the syllables of The Granite Butterfly, is caused, technically, by a subtle counterpoint of traditional iambic and falling sprung rhythm. This special tension between a temporal and stress prosody” gives the poem “a slowness of pace that permits the deepest flow of blood and being to be heard” (GB xii). Here Boultenhouse seems to be following Tyler’s own lead: in 1964, a year after Williams’s death, Tyler prepared a complete scansion and metrical analysis of the Granite Butterfly in the form of a musical score (see GB 91-92 and unnumbered figure 8). But he had, for that matter, already praised his own prosodic innovations in a number of pieces, for example the review he wrote of his own poem, under the pseudonym Everett McManus, for the Chicago Review. [6]

How does this “subtle counterpoint” of iambic and sprung rhythm actually work? Here is the opening passage of the First Canto (GB 9):

The mother, first in the birth pangs
Blinded with being
Crushes her lashes together

shutting out

All but the in

And

In her: the poet
Sharing her blindess, her agony, her
Being . . .

In my own scansion (which the reader may compare to Tyler’s own–see figure 8), this is a fairly reductive version of Poundian “free verse”–a verse largely formed, as many scholars have noted, on Greek rhythms. The first line has an amphibrach (“The móther”) followed by a dactyl and spondee; the second, a dactyl followed by an amphibrach, the third repeats that pattern somewhat monotonously (despite the consonance of “Crushes”/ “lashes”), and adds a second amphibrach (“togéther”), the fourth has a trochee plus an iamb, the fifth an isolated stressed syllable, and so on. There is nothing very arresting about Tyler’s line breaks or caesurae (“In hér // the póet”) and, all in all, it would seem that this is no more than conventional mid-century free verse, marked by slow rhythms and a good deal of repetition, as in the anaphoric opening of Canto 7:

Slow as the first long look of love
Slow as the last look
Slow as the music of a sigh
Slow as the moment after goodbye. . . . (GB 36)

Boultenhouse calls this canto “a brilliant invention . . . unique in all poetry. One might possibly argue that it is Homer’s catalogue of the ships altered into another catalogue altogether: a list of metaphors of slowness” (GB xxiv). But to a reader of the nineties, a reader familiar with the rhythms of, say, Olson, Duncan, and Spicer, one longs for some sort of thickening of the plot.

Why, then, would Williams, one of the great free verse prosodists of the century, admire The Granite Butterfly so enthusiastically? I shall return to this question in a moment, but I want first to look at the actual plot of this long poem, originally titled A Story Must be Told. That “story” is the poet’s own; the nine cantos (nine symbolizes the nine months from conception to parturition) chronicle the Oedipal family drama of a sensitive young gay man from birth to the rite of passage wherein he is reborn a poet. Here is a quick synopsis of the cantos:

1. “The Birth of Art.” Opens with a birth scene in which the mother’s delivery doubles as the couvade (the simulation of giving birth by the father) of the future poet.

2. “The Name.” The young poet’s obsession with an unnamed movie star (who is, as Boultenhouse tells us, the silent screen star Carlyle Blackwell).

3. “Boredom.” A three-act playlet in which three short dialogue interludes are punctuated by the poet’s soliloquy, providing a glamorous evocation of his parents as movie stars on vacation in an idyllic landscape.

4. “Portrait.” A dream sequence in which Perseus-Tyler dares to turn away from the dreaded face of his Medusa-mother and, in the person of Narcissus (the symbol of his inversion) reinvoke his beloved film star.

5. “Metamorphosis.” Evokes the poet’s recognition that his obsession with Blackwell is a “Verifiable complex,” a disease. The background of this complex is a long Freudian dream sequence, in which the poet’s mother, father, Narcissus, birth, and childhood come together in a new understanding of his mother’s masculine and father’s feminine qualities.

6. “Black Oedipus.” The poet appears a a black rapist, in a fantasy in which he rapes his father in front of his mother.

7. “Slow As.” The moment of metamorphosis and poem’s crescendo, in which we witness the poet’s ritual couvade of being born and giving birth, his exorcism of Carlyle Blackwell as personal Dybbuk, and the self-therapy which brings on poetic healing: “Suddenly / The pyramid disappears from around its heart / leaving the heart there on the desert sand, / black and white hieroglyph” (GB 39).

8. “Narcissus.” The poet of reflections, of mirrored images now emerges as Narcissus, able to restore the image of true poetic power, which he has wrested from his family drama.

9. “The Story.” A blank verse narrative of a movie scenario set during the Russian Revolution, a scenario replete with star-crossed lovers, rebelling serfs, and violent struggle, which contains echoes and allusions to everything that has gone before. The narrative simulates the texture and movement of film; at its conclusion the Russian tale merges with the poet’s address to his Mother Medusa, in which Perseus-Narcissus announces his initiation into poetry.

We can see from this synopsis that The Granite Butterfly has more in common with, say, O’Neill’s similarly Freudian-mythological Strange Interlude and Mourning Becomes Electra than with Paterson, let alone Pound’s Cantos. Its symbolism is heavy-handed and murky, Black Oedipus-Perseus-Narcissus never quite emerging as a credible human being. As for Tyler’s language, it remains largely inert on the page. Canto 2, for example, begins with the line “From this name take off, this platform of love,” followed by a rectangular box containing two units of seven and nine x’s respectively, x’s which, Boultenhouse tells us, stand for Carlyle Blackwell. Below this coy device, we read:

Secret name of the father

Name of another

Whole mask of the father

In another whole being

So he be not hated

but loved

Breaths of being, mould!

Not abbreviation

Nor all the sleepy grammars of this earth
Shall comma me to such deep drowse that I
Know not the sounded speech, the waking word
As, in the subway, things go back
To their beginnings, the mind
Escaping from the sound, the seated crowd,
Going back to an old love. . . . (GB 13-14)

and a few lines further down, Tyler refers to the “old love”

who in 1916 was young
who in 1918 was older
who in 1923 was still older

in 1928. . . .

The hero              (GB 14, ellipses Tyler’s)

Here the monotonous abstractions of the opening passage (“Secret name of the father / Name of another”) give way to pretentious Shakespearean allusions (Othello’s “Not poppy, nor mandragora. . .) dressed in blank verse, followed by a vaguely Hart Cranian subway scene, and finally a coy reference to the poet’s idol, the cataloguing of dates reading almost like comic pastiche. What, after all, could Blackwell be in 1923 but older than he was in 1916 and 1918?

The Granite Butterfly has better passages than this one. The little playlets in Canto 3 (“Boredom”), recall, not so much a “pre-Pinter Pinter,” as Boultenhouse suggests (GB xix), but the Frank O’Hara of Try! Try! , written less than a decade later. The alternation of screen-play setting, with its detailed account of an “idyllic” country landscape, and dialogue has a campy tone:

ACT ONE

HE: Come here.
SHE: (Invisible) Why?
HE: Come here.
SHE: In a minute.
HE: Can’t wait.
SHE: (Appearing) What is it?
HE: Guess.
SHE: Oh, that. Oh, that.
HE: Never know.
SHE: Might have known. (GB 17)

Such passages suggest that, had Tyler given in to his own best impulses, he might have been a delicious comic writer. But it is when Tyler is serious (and in most of The Granite Butterfly, he is dead serious!) that he falls flat, as when in Canto 4, he describes Blackwell’s nose as “flawless / Specific / Point of the nose / Long, classic, virile, out / From the face / Nostrils pyramidal / Flatulent, openings almost / Level with the bottom / line / Of the nose in profile / Agony of / Identification, it was He” (GB 23). If this “Agony of itness” were carried just a shade further, we would be in the burlesque world of New York poetry, fifties-style, the world of O’Hara’s “Meditations in an Emergency” or Ashbery’s “‘They Dream only of America’.”

As it is, however, this would-be surrealist dream poem remains resolutely Freudian, Symbolist, and Heavy, an escape, perhaps, from the war years in which it was conceived and written. Oddly, World War II makes no appearance in Tyler’s Oedipal family drama, his aim, like that of Delmore Schwartz or the late O’Neill, being to celebrate the uniqueness of the individual rather than to take up questions of collective history or culture. But–to come back to Williams–Canto 4 begins with a passage worth remarking on:

Conscience, color of night and color of day
Beautiful thing! rising
Like Venus from the waves of being
Link, link to all. . . . (GB 22)

Can the echo of these lines in Paterson III be coincidental? Surely not, although Williams’s “Beautiful thing” takes on many more and complex shapes than Tyler’s Venus. Indeed, by the later forties, one might say of the connection between the two poets, the Williams of “no ideas but in things,” was moving toward the archetypal “beautiful thing,” a “beautiful thing” of mythology and phallic fantasy.

And perhaps this explains Williams’s excessive praise of The Granite Butterfly, his comparison of Tyler’s poem to the despised Waste Land. By the mid-forties, Eliot had been fully canonized, and would soon bestow accolades, in his turn, on the late modern, late Symbolist Robert Lowell of Lord Weary’s Castle, a book that Williams regarded with suspicion, until Lowell wrote his glowing review of Book 1 of Paterson. [7] In 1945, Paterson had not yet been published, Pound was in disgrace, the Objectivists, except for Zukofsky, had gone underground, and Williams, who remained neglected by the New Critics, must have felt extremely isolated. How, he must have wondered, to buck the tide of the seemingly all-encompassing Eliotic mode? Surrealism, at least the way it was represented in New York by the refugee artists from France and Spain, seemed to provide the answer. And Tyler had sterling avant-garde credentials, having edited Blues and now the surrealist-oriented View. Hence, in what is surely one of the ironies of literary history, Williams convinced himself that The Granite Butterfly–a late symbolist poem that could speak to an anti-Williamsite like Marius Bewley– was radically innovative, a counterweight to such Eliot offshoots as the Anabasis, which Williams dismissed as representing the “malady of the franco-gobi St. J. Perse” (GB 133).

And of course Tyler’s “Athenian” poem (Williams’s way of referring to its overt homosexuality) was innovative in its explicit admission of sexual orientation. Meanwhile, the negotiation between Surrealism and late Freudian Symbolism was left to Williams himself. Paterson III takes Tyler’s “beautiful thing” and creates a complex collage-text out of documentary bits (newspaper cuttings, slang letters) and lyric sequences so that Tyler’s Narcissus-Oedipus-Perseus is brought down to earth, specifically “Downstairs / (by the laundry tubs),” where “Beautiful thing” is to be found “by the wall on your damp bed, your long body streched out negligently on the dirty sheet” (P 124-25). And it is in this sense, that the reproduction of The Granite Butterfly, with the supplementary documents the editors have included, is such an important literary event. The National Poetry Foundation has produced a beautiful edition, from the Maya Deren cover photograph to the inclusion of the Joseph Cornell photocollage from “The Hunchbacked Bear,” a collage that has a small still photo of Tyler’s adored Carlyle Blackwell, the head fixed backward on a skier’s torso, the skis all but impaled on what looks like a giant rack (see unnumbered figure 2). An emblem of the transition from modernism to postmodernism, Parker Tyler’s “granite butterfly” rises from the weight of its restrictive stone cocoon and is perched for flight. It remained for the poets of the fifties to let it take off.


FOOTNOTES


[1]
Granite Butterfly, A Facsimile of the First Edition, p. 128. Subsequently cited in the text as GB.

[2]
The review originally appeared in Accent, Urbana, Ill., 6, 3 (Spring 1946): 203-06. It has been reproduced by James E. B. Breslin in SS 139-45. The review appears in its original form in GB 97-104.

[3]
See Mike Weaver, William Carlos Williams, The American Background (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1971), p. 128. The Cornell collage is reproduced in Plate 4, facing page 85. Subsequently cited in the text as MW.

[4]
Parker Tyler, Fantasy 6, 4 (1940): 44, cited in MW 143.

[5]
André Breton, “Manifeste du surréalisme” (1924), Manifestes du surréalisme (Paris: Gallimard, 1971), p. 37. I use the translation by Richard Howard for Maurice Nadeau, The History of Surrealism (1965; rpt. Cambridge and London: Harvard University Press, 1989), p.89.

[6]
See GB 79-81. This pseudonymous self-promotion is an astonishing feature of Tyler’s career. He also reviewed himself under the name of M. Roy Mason, although this review (see GB 82-87) was never published.

[7]
See SS 20-23.