The arduity project that I’m currently working on has given me more than a few problems. Trying to encourage people to read difficult poetry has led me to describe certain poets and certain poems as ‘important’. This has now become a cliché in my head as well as on the page so I’ve decided to work out what we mean when we say that ‘The Triumph of Love’ is important or that Paul Celan is important.
I’ll start with the importance of poetry as a means of expression. Ever since I read and understood my first ‘adult’ poem I’ve known instinctively that poetry was somehow important but decided not to work out why. This intuitive knowledge is problematic because it is really hard to explain but I can give something of a definition by separating out my notion of importance from that expressed by others. There is a view that poetry is in a privileged position because it can provide a closer indication of the truth than any other form of expression. I reject this view because I have yet to see any empirical evidence to support it and because this claim is the kind of thing that gives poetry a bad name.
My notion of the importance of poetry would rest on the fact that it isn’t prose and that it is incredibly versatile. Not being prose removes the poem from ordinary speech and enables all kinds of devices to give expression to deep emotion and profound ideas. Poetry, at its best, can be both incredibly beautiful and packed with meaning at the same time in a way that other forms of art can only aspire to.
This notion of versatility combined with a kind of strength has stayed with me since I was thirteen when a single line from a poem suddenly made sense. Nothing that I have read or tried to write since has caused me to change my view that poetry is really important but not that important.
So, why is it that I feel that some poets are ‘important’ and others not? I must stress that this isn’t an argument about the canon which (I would argue) has little to do with importance but an investigation as to why I feel that I can make an instinctive judgement about a poem’s importance before I fully understand it.
First of all, poetry has to hold my attention and it has to be honest. This will always weed out about 95% of what’s been written. Heaney isn’t important because he doesn’t hold my attention, Larkin isn’t important because he’s dishonest and manipulative (I could go on). Muldoon holds my attention but there’s this lurking suspicion that he’s dishonest. Of the Movement poets, I can make the strongest case for Thom Gunn in terms of interest and integrity. Elizabeth Bishop’s work is always interesting and honest and the degree of technical skill marks her out as ‘important’.
Modernist poetry gave poets a whole new set of crayons and the ‘late’ modernists continue to exploit this potential. For all its many faults, modernism did open up the possibilities of poetry and this trend should be seen as important because it represents a major break from what has gone before. Hill, Prynne, Celan, Olson and Matthias have all pushed this potential and produced work that is interesting, honest and complex. Sometimes the crayons don’t quite work as intended but that’s inevitable when something new is attempted and when you’re pushing the versatility of poetry to its limit.
Poetry that is important is poetry that is innovative, complex, honest, technically accomplished and interesting because it stands out from the rest of what is being produced and because it is clear that the poet is deadly serious about making poems.
‘The Triumph of Love’, for example, meets this criteria even if some of the devices used don’t actually work (the faux editorial gloss and the angry response to critics) because other factors more than compensate. Very few people on this planet are more serious about poetry than Geoffrey Hill.
Having written the above, I now have a lurking suspicion that Paul Muldoon might be more important than I thought……