I’m in the middle of writing a short essay on John Crowe Ransom’s first book, Poems about God (1919). In his early poems even more obviously than in the later work that made him one of the most influential minor American poets of the last century, one sees a ubiquitous but erratic, and almost unbearable, irony saturating the poems. Ransom seems to have woven irony through his lines so that he could speak about what he genuinely loved while at the same time acknowledging it is not wholly lovable and, more importantly, what is lovable about it is what escapes definition and representation. What is most precious is useless; what is most loved is irrelevant; the heart of things always glistens at the horizon, just beyond the reach of the reason’s steady eye or the salesman’s firm handshake. His loquacious poems seem to proliferate words in an effort to make clear that what he wants to say cannot actually be said.
Back when Ransom was just a name to me, his poetic practice was already a nameless ghost pointing me with a finger of white bone in the direction my own poetry was bound to take. Like so much of Ransom, some of my first poems were poems about the way in which lust, desire, and God are all so near to us that we cannot see them. They are realities so close, closer than we are to ourselves, that they will always escape beyond the receding horizon of our speech.
Here is one of them, first written in 1999, finally gotten about right in 2012: