In his influential book The Late Style, Edward Said observes that the late works of many artists are marked not by “harmony and resolution” but by “intransigence, difficulty, and unresolved contradiction.” Contrary what one might assume, late works are rarely Triumphs of Art, but acknowledgement of art’s limits and of the artist’s mortality. Said cites Adorno on Beethoven’s late work: “The power of subjectivity in the late works of art is the irascible gesture with which it takes leave of the works themselves. . . . Touched by death, the hand of the master sets free the masses of material that he used to form; its tears and fissures, witnesses to the finite powerlessness of the I confronted with Being, are its final work.”
This is not mastery in the sense of complete command of materials, but of allowing forces larger than the artist’s facility and intentions into the work. The artist commands by letting go—by “taking leave,” as Adorno would have it. Mastery in the late style means coming to terms with what one cannot master.
I was reminded of this discussion of “late style” while reading John Koethe’s 2016 collection of poems, The Swimmer. It’s the 10th volume by the 70 year-old poet, and many of the poems discuss what his poems once were (he’s been publishing since the early 1960s) and what they’ve become. For instance, the poem “Early April in the Country” takes up the notion of “late work” explicitly. It begins with the poet surveying the landscape from his deck: “At the bottom of the meadow I can see a scattering of / Indifferent cows arranged to form a static, pastoral tableau.” He’s reminded of an earlier poem, citing a couple lines:
“. . . the copper-, cream-, and chocolate-colored /
Cows we bought in Salzburg form a tiny herd.” I remember
Writing thouse lines in my first “grand poem, “Domes,”
Which I worked on for over a month in nineteen sixty-nine.
“We Poets in our youth begin in gladness,” and while it didn’t
Feel too much like gladness at the time, it saw me through,
Whatever it was, until now I feel this precarious combination
Of futily and pride that something real got completed
That left everything unchanged. The promise hangs in the air
As long as it can, and though eventually it starts to fade,
Its question mark survives, and remains unanswered.
[. . . .]
They [his early poems] flowed, they had too many words, they were
Driven by a ‘madness to explain’ that feels quaint now,
As though there were nothing to explain anymore.
The labored finish of the 1969 poem “Domes” now feels “quaint”–it seemed at the time to accomplish so much, but the poet now realizes that its “promise” has faded. All that remains is a “question mark” that “remains unanswered.” The poet now feels no need to cover over the jagged edges of his understanding with the flow of “too many words.” In a poem about jazz saxophonist Von Freeman, he notes that “He believed in roughness, and on leaving imperfections in / So his songs wouldn’t lose their souls, which is how I think of poems.”
While Koethe may be overstating the contrast, it is clear that many of the poems in this book have an unfinished feel. There’s no sense of preciousness and little rhetorical flair. No time for tidiness: there’s only the urgent need “to get said what must be said” (as WC Williams put it) and, along with that, a recognition of the limits of that saying. In “The Long Dissolve,” he observes that
The stories I told…
Seem discontinuous and small, as though they’re
No one’s stories anymore, those of an author
Who’d lost interest in them, and was old.
I hear in “The Long Dissolve” echoes of another late work that explores the edges of art: The Tempest, specifically this passage in which Prospero dismisses his own art and, by extension, Shakespeare’s. Note the shared term, “dissolve”:
Our revels now are ended. These our actors,
As I foretold you, were all spirits and
Are melted into air, into thin air:
And, like the baseless fabric of this vision,
The cloud-capp’d towers, the gorgeous palaces,
The solemn temples, the great globe itself,
Ye all which it inherit, shall dissolve
And, like this insubstantial pageant faded,
Leave not a rack behind. Tempest 4.1
Prospero-like—”Lie there, my art”—Koethe renounces the smooth, overworked surfaces of his early work, and offers instead a poignant combination of longing and awareness of his—and of art’s— limits:
I want to
Speak to something far away, beyond the confines of the page.
But it won’t listen, and to everything I say it answers No.
(“The Arrogance of Physics” 4)
While this may seem bleak, Koethe would argue that the defeat of Art offers a truth beyond artifice:
I hate poems
Of affirmation, poems too
Unaware, too smooth
To be true. Life is rough.