The current generation of readers and writers is likely to look on the early 20th century as a far-distant era of artistic ferment. T. S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, H.D., the other Imagists, the War Poets -- their lives and, to some extent, their work are beginning to seem remote, disconnected from the present. This sense of remoteness is dangerous: it is likely to make us overlook how much we owe to their trail-blazing, and how they continue to influence us. Sometimes a little shock is necessary to make the present power of the early 20th century apparent. For me, one such shock has come in discovering the poetry of Janet Lewis. A lively and gentle octagenarian, Lewis brings to the present the legacy of the literary advances that she helped to make in the early part of the century.
Because Lewis's work has spanned all the crucial periods of contemporary writing, it's possible here to cover only a couple of the high points. Certainly one of those high points occurred early in her life, during the second decade of the 1900s, when she was attending the University of Chicago. Chicago was just coming into its own, a fresh center of intellectual and artistic discovery. Its celebrated Poetrym magazine was barely seven years old, and publishing some of the shockingly original work of the day. Admitted to the poetry club of the University when she was 19, Lewis had already been writing seriously for several years; and in 1920 she too would begin appearing in Poetry ,m sharing its pages -- and some of its artistic concerns -- with such luminaries as William Carlos Williams, robert Frost, H.D., Eliot and Pound.
Lewis's Imagist poems, like the Imagist poems of her compatriots in the '20s, seek to penetrate to the hard kernel of meaning latent in the everday world. But Lewis's poems are different -- different in part because of her unique upbringing, which placed her in close contact with the Ojibway Indian culture of Michigan, the "Old Northwest." For her the fundamental facts of human existance -- beginning and endings, tumult and quiet, time and the seemingly timeless, perfect moments -- had a nearness, a vigor and artful balance that came to her through the personal experiences and mythic tales of Indian companions. Thus her early poems evoke a fine sense of kinship with the earth and its mysteries, while capturing that "perfect moment" so famous in Imagist poetry.
"The Wife of Manibozho Sings," for example, relies on an Indian legend and a finely perceived moment to convey it s balance of change and stillness. Monibozho, a powerful figure in Ojibway mythology, is the agent of change. Lewis is quoted, in a fine essay by Kenneth Fields, as describing Manibozho as "the variant principle of life." he is distinguished by his ability to maintain opposing forces in some kind of balance: thus, at one point he may be a beast or bird, at another point a man; he may be large or small, may soar or move through the ground, may be visible or invisible. He astonishes with the variety of his motion, and exasperates or delights with his perpertual activity -- even in the midst of what seems to be a peaceful setting. Lewis's poem incorporates this myth in a celebration of flux and stillness -- the balanced opposites that make each other sweeter: He comes and goes And the maple leaves Lie still Under the sun.
The peace of the maple leaves would decline to ugly stasis without the seemingly timeless quiet of the leaves, would seem frenetic and pointless. As Lewis recognizes in a longish poem, "Snail garden," written in 1977 -- over 50 years after "The Wife of Manibozho Sings" -- the balance of Monibozho and the leaves is the beautiful motif of dance. It is the dance of our life, of motion and stillness, of discovery and dryness and discovery, which we cannot avoid without losing touch with the richness of life.
While Lewis's poems reveal her reassuring kinship with the earth, the also demonstrate her personal understanding of the balance of earth and spirit. The realm of the spirit, she feels, is not for human beings to conquer in a grand assault. The use of metaphor, for example, as a means of teaching spiritual lessons shows nothing if not our need to use our present surroundings to understand what lies beyond them. Lewis's poem "The Earth-Bound" treats the theme of earthly and spiritual balance the most directly of all her work. The poem is one of my very favorites, in any age, in any language.
By bringing to bear on our lives the powers we most cherish -- wisdom and love -- we can take deep comfort from seemingly commonplace exeriences. In the poem, Lewis merges the spring with wisdom, the leaves with love, using the water and the leaves as tangible metaphors for difficult abstractions. We know the course, the beauty of the water; it gives us confidence in the course, the beauty of wisdom.
And we know the light touch of a falling leaf; it is a touch like love's which jars us from isolation into a keen sense of the real.
Though we might become "tangled with earth," we can find, right within the flux of this world, the rising spirit, the wisdom and love to which earth gives tribute. As Janet Lewis demonstrated throughout her 65 years of writing, that rising spirit is the source of surprise, enchantment and sustenance