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There Is No Cure For This: A Reading of Geoffrey G. O’Brien’s “In The Idle Style”

By Gary Sloboda.

I can recite three poems from memory: John Keats’ “Ode To Sleep”; Dylan Thomas’ “The Force That Through The Green Fuse Drives The Flower”; and James Wright’s “Saint Judas.” They were memorized many years ago, around the time of my first serious attempts at writing poetry. These short, evocative poems struck me with their formal beauty and large thematic implications, such as death in Keats, interconnectedness with the natural world and its cycles in Thomas, and a unifying moral sense and compassion for humanity in Wright. In committing them to memory, I believed they would function as an elixir of sorts, allowing me to ingest and absorb their essence, thereby helping me to understand poetry at a more intimate level and maybe enhancing my prospects of writing a good poem. Like an acolyte, the poems would be my chants and prayers, enacting a physical connection to great writing of the past. In retrospect, my intent seems naïve and mystical, but today the occasional act of calling up these poems remains a pleasure.

Geoffrey G. O'Brien

My interest in poetry has — for the most part but in no sense completely — moved away from such semi-canonical pieces to focus on postmodern and contemporary works. In perhaps a flight of nostalgia, a poem I recently revisited, Geoffrey G. O’Brien’s “In The Idle Style,” seemed a perfect candidate to add to my limited repertoire of memorized poems. It struck me as an attempt at reaching back to the more traditional and thematically universal concerns of Keats, Thomas and Wright, but in the quasi-elliptical style of the post avant-garde. However, after several failed attempts at memorizing “In The Idle Style,” I became less interested in committing it to memory than exploring the idea that there was something in the deeper fibers of O’Brien’s poem that resisted my initial attempts at memorization — and that such resistance was a signal to its meaning and value.

Before taking it further, I should turn to the poem itself. It is brief enough to quote, here, in full:

It was discovered on an overcast day
that the eyes are two holes the sky passes,
that white lilies open without assistants
first to the roar of stretching space and then
the lion’s loin of the sound, the dayflow,
and there is no cure for this
except to think of a clear wreath in the air
to which everything alludes, the smell of flowers
shaken out of the smell of the earth
and the land again, young enough to know

On its surface, and as punningly telegraphed by its title, “In The Idle Style” is a beautifully evoked pastoral poem, an idyll — a contemporary reinvigoration of that ancient poetic form. It works on that level, but also opens up a line of inquiry into a larger poetic ethos. The way the poem embodies the tradition of contemplative nature poetry in just ten lines, with limited punctuation, and driven by an Ashberyian torque, calls out the potentially contradictory locus of the poem as one of resistance to the very form of the idyll it portends to take. In other words, if, as the formalists posit, form is meaning, then the form of O’Brien’s poem signals a revision to the idyll tradition.

Although discussing narrative forms in the novel, Mikhail Bahktin makes foundational observations about the function of the idyll, observations that are equally applicable to its poetic form, particularly as practiced in ancient literatures. In Form of Time and Chronotope in the Novel, Bahktin writes that

[t]he unity of the life of generations (in general, the life of men) in an idyll is in most instances primarily defined by the unity of place, by the age-old rooting of the life of generations to a single place, from which this life, in all its events, is inseparable. This unity of place in the life of generations weakens and renders less distinct all the temporal boundaries between individual lives and between various phases of one and the same life. The unity of place brings together and even fuses the cradle and the grave (the same little corner, the same earth), and brings together as well childhood and old age (the same grove, stream, the same lime trees, the same house), the life of the various generations who had also lived in that same place, under the same conditions, and who had seen the same things. This blurring of all temporal boundaries made possible by a unity of place also contributes in an essential way to the creation of the cyclic rhythmicalness of time so characteristic of the idyll.

If this, then, is the foundational purpose of the idyll, where and how does such a form fit into the approach of contemporary writers? In contemporary times, the idyll has come to function more as a utopian/dystopian vision, most often appearing as a mode of satire or parody. Take, for instance, the title story in George Saunders’ collection of short fiction, Pastoralia, which portrays a few days in the life of an actor who lives and works in a theme park devoted to re-enacting the pre-historical lives of cavemen and cavewomen. The lives of the theme park actors are tightly regulated: food and instructions are delivered to the actors’ caves through a “Big Slot” and the actors’ behavior is constantly assessed by the management. These strictures are intended to ensure that the façade of the authentic, natural world of cave people is maintained. But the reality of the actors’ conditions consistently diminishes the possibility of such illusion. When the unnamed actor leaves his cave to dispose of his trash in the designated “Disposal Area 8,” he observes his surroundings as follows:

Down in the blue-green valley is a herd of robotic something-or-others, bent over the blue-green grass, feeding I guess? Midway between our mountain and the opposing mountains is a wide green river with periodic interrupting boulders. I walk along a white cliff, then down a path marked by a yellow dot on a pine. Few know this way. It is a non-Guest path. No Attractions are down it, only Disposal Area 8 and a little Employees Only shop in a doublewide, a real blessing for us, we’re so close and all.

The description of nature (which is not fully natural) begins with an echo of the idyll in a flowing phrase of perfect iambic pentameter (“Down in the blue-green valley is a herd”), which is immediately undercut and parodied by the actor’s alienation from his natural locale: the herd is not sheep or cows but “robotic something-or-others” that are “feeding, I guess?” It is, after all, a theme park, a superficial imitation of an imagined idyllic past and place — not nature itself. And although the description ends with a claim of connectedness, it is by way of proximity to the “Employee Only shop” located in a doublewide trailer and near the trash disposal area, which underscores the emotional and spiritual poverty of the actor’s existence in the theme park. In this sense, the feint towards the idyll is used to satirize contemporary human connection to nature as a complete fake, achieved only superficially as the backdrop for an ersatz form of entertainment.

But while the idyll in Saunders’ story is thoroughly exploited for satirical purposes, it also seems that it necessarily must assume that posture in order for the idyll to have any meaning in contemporary times. We are left to question and interrogate the relationship between modern human society and the natural world by Saunders’ dismantling of its fanciful ideal, highlighting our alienation from the natural world and the degradations suffered as a result. The idyll thus becomes the opposite of its origins by enacting the breakdown of its unifying characteristics and demonstrating its applicability to modern civilization only as an inversion of itself. Indeed, when the idyll form is intended otherwise unselfconsciously as a literal trope, it devolves into banalities of “decorative” art or the sentimental, such as generic wall hangings, greeting card verse, scenes in a romance novel, etc. Specifically, art prints in the manner of Thomas Kinkade come to mind.

Thomas Kinkade

But O’Brien’s approach is none of these. As a poet, O’Brien is meditative, given to neither satire nor parody and is anything but unselfconsciously literal … and yet, O’Brien’s idyll is written straight, so to speak. I think it is the tension between this straight approach to the idyll and the embedded resistance to and alienation from it that harbors the poem’s creative reward.

The first lines of “In The Idle Style” read like an eloquent description of a scene from a zombie movie. That it is “discovered on an overcast day / that eyes are two holes the sky passes,” represents a Zoloftian restraint where the observer of nature assumes a somnambulant stance: the eyes are non-dynamic organs — voids. These opening lines eviscerate the observer’s value and prime rate the observation itself. Yet this is not meta-poetry; in cinematic terms, the “fourth wall” remains here completely intact. Nevertheless, something similar is going on in this poem that paradoxically calls out, resists and laments the poetic form of the idyll itself. By doing so, O’Brien calls the reader’s attention to the poem’s idyll form, as well as his impulse to revise it.

The following three lines signal most clearly the poem’s urge towards pastoral or bucolic imagery, the romantic pull of the idyll:

that white lilies open without assistants
first to the roar of stretching space and then
the lion’s loin of the sound, the dayflow…

In the lush, imaginative quality of these lines is a nostalgia for the perfection of human connectedness to nature and a deeper sense of place, which, when combined with the opening lines of numbed observation, dramatize a kind of Freudian or Lacanian death drive, by which nature evokes a longing for a lost pre-oedipal harmony, the avoidance of which is impossible because

…there is no cure for this
except to think of a clear wreath in the air
to which everything alludes …

The cure, then, for the human urge for such nostalgic connection to nature and a rooted “natural” life is, again paradoxically, to forcefully imagine the wholeness of nature, to reassert and continue the idyll itself. Yet this cannot be accomplished conventionally because the observer has lost the unified connection to nature and place celebrated and reinscribed by the idyll form. The relationship evoked by the poem must be one of disconnection, disunity and distance.

In Literature and Evil, George Bataille, writing about Baudelaire (through the predicate lens of Sartre), observes that the “first impulse” of poetry

destroys the objects which it seizes. By destroying them it returns them to the elusive fluidity of the poet’s existence and it is at this point that it hopes to regain the identity of the world and man. But at the same time as it releases the objects, it tries to seize this release. All it can do is substitute the release for what it has seized from reduced life: it can never allow the release to take the place of the objects it once seized.

As for Baudelaire’s poetry specifically, Bataille sees it as affecting, “at the cost of an agonizing tension, the fusion between the subject (immanence) and those objects which lose themselves both in order to cause anguish and to reflect it.” In other words, Baudelaire exploits the context of his poems in order to inject his personality, suffering and consciousness into it. The world represented in Baudelaire’s poems is not the world at all, but the manifestation of his creative and psychic appetites.

While “In the Idle Style” does not fit Bataille’s rubric, a consideration of Bataille’s conception of poetry’s “impulse,” as exemplified by Baudelaire, works to highlight, and differentiate, O’Brien’s ethos. Unlike Baudelaire, O’Brien’s poem swerves away from the imposition of the poet’s self onto the poem and the natural world it evokes by necessity. For O’Brien to do otherwise would render nature a captive, a stretched canvas upon which he projects himself, transforming the relationship between the poet and the natural world it portrays into one of domination or exploitation. Instead, reflecting and lamenting the disconnection between nature and humanity, O’Brien pulls away from the poem – he disappears from it. That the idyll can be accomplished as a unifying poetic form only by evoking this separation from the natural world turns the form on its head, while simultaneously preserving it. Thus, with the awareness of such disconnectedness and distance, the poem is able to conclude genuinely with a further romantic strain:

…the smell of flowers
shaken out of the smell of the earth
and the land again, young enough to know

In this way, the idyll is preserved by perversely removing the human entanglement, the human connection, entirely — so that the observation dissolves into the earth consciousness, the “land … young enough to know.” Indeed, where the Keats, Thomas and Wright poems I memorized many years ago reflected a synch with nature and humanity, O’Brien’s poem enacts a lost connection, rendering my nostalgic attempt to translate the poem into memory – to fuse it with my consciousness — a philosophically empty or futile act.

And perhaps it is that tension between, on the one hand, the human creative act of writing, reading, and observing, which gives life to the poem, and, on the other hand, the need to remove the modern human element from the idyll so it can stand as a legitimate contemporary form, that distracted my attempts to commit it to memory: if the idyll enacts such disconnection, its meaning belongs to our absence, our loss of apprehension. I have no business keeping it as my own.

“In The Idle Style” from The Guns And Flags Project by Geoffrey G. O’Brien (c) 2010 by the Regents of the University of California. Published by the University of California Press.

Gary Sloboda

Gary Sloboda is a writer and lawyer.  His work has appeared recently or is forthcoming in such places as BlazeVox, Cumberland River ReviewPosit and Thrush. He is currently writing a collection of poems entitled Tremor Philosophies and a book of essays on contemporary poetry. He lives in San Francisco.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Tuesday, March 17th, 2015.