(To Walker Evans.

This week I’ll post po­ems by other folks as well as some from my­self time and again, along with other nor­mal stuff maybe if I feel like it. Today’s poem is by James Agee and comes from the ex­cel­lent book Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. My man­i­festo also comes from that book:

“Isn’t every hu­man be­ing both a sci­en­tist and an artist; and in writ­ing of hu­man ex­pe­ri­ence, isn’t there a good deal to be said for rec­og­niz­ing that fact and for us­ing both meth­ods?”

(To Walker Evans.

Against time and the dam­ages of the brain
Sharpen and cal­i­brate. Not yet in full,
Yet in some ar­bi­trated part
Order the façade of the list­less sum­mer.
Spies, mov­ing del­i­cately among the en­emy,
The younger sons, the fools,
Set some­what aside the di­alects and the stained skins of feigned
Ambiguously sig­nal, baf­fle, the eluded sen­tinel.
Edgar, weep­ing for pity, to the shelf of that sick bluff,
Bring your blind fa­ther, and de­scribe a lit­tle;
Behold him, part wak­ened, fal­len among field flow­ers shal­low
But undis­closed, with­draw.
Not yet that naked hour when armed,
Disguise flung flat, squarely we chal­lenge the fiend.
Still, com­rade, the run­ning of beasts and the ru­in­ing of heaven
Still cap­tive the old wild king.

3 thoughts on “(To Walker Evans.

  1. Harvey, I liked the ca­dence but I did not un­der­stand the mean­ing. It re­minded me a bit of Rimbaud’s Le dormeur du Val”. Was it about war?

  2. It might be about a kind of war. This poem serves as the fron­tispiece for Let us Now Praise Famous Men, which is a very strange and pow­er­ful work of doc­u­men­tary jour­nal­ism. James Agee was a very self-hat­ing kind of guy, but also very ob­jec­tive when nec­es­sary. I think this poem is his way of ex­plain­ing to Walker Evans the dif­fi­culty he has rec­on­cil­ing [what he might have felt was] the ex­ploita­tion of the share­crop­pers he was doc­u­ment­ing and the ul­ti­mate in­abil­ity to tell the full story [still cap­tive the old wild king].

    For me this poem serves as a re­minder that noth­ing I cre­ate will be as per­fect as my de­sire or idea.

  3. Well said. It makes it much clearer given your ex­pla­na­tion. Perfection is some­times a mo­ti­va­tor but for many peo­ple it cre­ates the fear to even try be­cause they might fail. You ob­vi­ously use it in a much more pos­i­tive way and we all gain from it.

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