Is poetry too poetic?

I come to this in wavering mode. On the one hand it can (and is about to be) argued that poetry is the main problem with poetry just as politics is the main problem with politics. On the other hand I can point to the work of some of our younger poets (particularly Timothy Thornton and Francesca Lisette) as examples of really strong poetic poets who are moving the form in new and exciting directions.

I need to clarify what I mean by the nature of the problem. The first issue is introspection and the sad fact that most poems a written in and from aspects of poetic lineage. We are all guilty of this, I have spent many years attempting to write in a similar fashion to poets that I admire because I think this is a good way to do poetry and also because I like to think that I ‘get’ what they are about. The second issue relates to what I think of as the heightened language problem. It is absolutely correct to say that poetry in a variety of ways concentrates, refines, energises and thus heightens our language practice but I am concerned that there is too much heightening going on.

Poetry that plainly says what needs to be said.

I’m going to start with a quote from George Herbert because it’s what reminded me of the current poetry problem and because it gives me an opportunity to identify contemporary poets who make matters worse. This is the first verse of ‘Jordan’:

Who sayes that fictions onely and false hair
Become a verse? Is there in truth no beautie?
Is all good structure in a winding stair? May no lines passe, except they do their dutie
Not to a true, but painted chair?

I would argue that the problem is best exemplified by the ‘false hair’, the ‘winding stair’ and the ‘painted chair’. The first time I read these lines I thought of Prynne’s austerity and his stated aim to say how things are and then I realised that he’s frequently guilty of creating a winding stair. In fact it’s the complexities of the stair that I find so compelling. Then I recalled those moments where the austerity is ruptured by false hair moments. ‘To Pollen’ is mostly unlyrical in that the phrases are blunt and completely without heightening. The third poem in the sequence ends with “Stand nearby went off its oil trap refined” which just isn’t poetic. The twentieth poem however has:

will explain how that works, how bravery is planted
in a celestial soil like dust that we are

and ends with:

for good cheer brave hearts never in vain as under
starry skies commit acts of stupendous cocky turpitude.

The first of these is a bitter and sarcastic quote of what the clergy say about warfare whilst the second undermines the lyrical description of our soldiers with the last three words, especially ‘cocky’ which is almost anti-poetic.

I’m ready to concede that Prynne is a special case in all kinds of ways and that the above two examples (ruptures which are intended to take our breath away) can be seen as attacks on Herbert’s false hair but I wonder whether their cleverness can be seen as part of the winding stair. Prynne does all kinds of winding stairs, he does radical ambiguity, he does secondary and tertiary meanings, he does obscure references all of which might appear at variance with his desire to say how things are.

Poetry made with false hair.

I’m guessing that this extract from Simon Jarvis’ F0 is what Herbert had in mind:

The grey shades fall across the lintel and the steppes of lack still roll their perfect carpet out
Not like something upon which it is death to tread rather like some death which we are to be and to tread.
The sun is still felt to go down as this planet spins over it
No less lit when it turns away
Than is this inside
No darker or lighter than a thought.

There’s the poetic twists of the first line (‘shades fall’, steppes of lack’) followed by the repetition ruse in the second and the mannered syntax and distorted perspective of the last four. I speak as fan of Jarvis and consider him to be one of our most accomplished poets but I think this, by being too poetic, is the kind of thing that gives poetry a bad name.

On this theme, it is widely acknowledged that nobody does the English landscape as well as Geoffrey Hill, this is conceded even by those who dislike the rest of his output. It is therefore of some note that Hill is at his most poetic (and playing with false hairs) in this particular mode. This is the beginning of “In Ipsley Church Lane 2”:

Sage green through olive to oxidised copper
the rainward stone tower-face. Graveyard
blossoms come off in handfuls - the lilac
turned overnight a rough tobacco brown. Every few minutes the drizzle shakes
itself like a dog.

As poetry this is very accomplished and poetic (‘rainward’, drizzle shaking itself etc) with a lyricism that’s at odds with the rougher speech and language struggles that occur in his less popular and more challenging work. This, I feel, tells us a lot about what many critics and readers expect from poetry, that it should have false hair and embellish rather than heighten language.

The Dogme interlude.

(Bear with me, this does make a kind of sense.)

Last night I was watching the Mark Cousins thing on the history of film and he was interviewing Lars von Trier. Lars was explaining what he did with the camera in ‘Breaking the Waves’ and Cousins remarked that Godard did something similar in the early sixties. Lars smiled at this and gently explains that Godard was/is still caught up in the cinematic tradition of making film whereas he wanted to get rid of all that.

The point is that those who do poetry perhaps need to get rid of all that as well. It’s interesting that at Dogme hq there is Dreyer’s editing desk and perhaps poets and critics should take a look at “The Passion of Joan of Arc’ to be reminded of just how much can be done with less.

I’ve never been keen on Dogme because I’m not keen on artificial constraints but some ‘rules’ might be helpful in solving the poetry problem or at least in beginning to think about the problem.

The Stress Position Dither.

As I’ve already said there’s a degree of wavering in my head on this because of the brilliance of some of the poetic and lyrical stuff currently being written. There’s also the problem presented by the first part of Keston Sutherland’s ‘Stress Position’ which is written in metrical 7 line stanzas. The poem as a whole is a searing indictment of the dismal Iraq fiasco in general and the use of torture in particular. This is one of the stanzas:

   Wash your mouth, the rustle of sweetened Diyala inflected by affix
FACE 2, affix CONE GUTS 6, the life you rifle down
battering the slash of blood in procrustean sewage, never bespoke
free karaoke? The revolving door that leads to the emerald
has seven doors and seven plates of glass, the man who pushes
it round, who pushes the push bars, who pushes the meaning onward
himself is the spicy diglyceride, pre-cum for oil and water.

Regular readers will know that I’m a great fan of ‘Stress Position’ and consider it to be one of the best achievements in the last twenty five years. I also recognise that the above containsseveral examples of what I’m trying to identify as the problem. There’s the mannered use of words and phrases (‘rustle’, ‘procrustean sewage’ etc), the faux portentousness of revolving doors and the meaning being pushed onward and the repetition of ‘push’ are all tricks of the trade that we could do without.

The dither kicks in when I can recognise the inherent value of the work as a whole and can recognise why the first part is constructed in this way yet feel (uneasily) that the deployment of the poetic bag of tricks is very bad for the future of poetry in the current scheme of things. The other bit of wavering with regard to ‘Stress Position’ is my minority view that the prose section depicting a wedding reception is the most successful and effective part of the work.

John Ashbery and the Winding Stair.

Unlike George Herbert, I don’t have that much of a problem with the ‘winding stair’ and would argue that most ‘good structure’ is in the intelligent and subtle use of form and language. I do however worry about the ongoing influence of Ashbery on both sides of the Atlantic because I feel that his work epitomises what Herbert was trying to get at. I’m going to be glib and suggest that Ashbery is the current poet of the chattering classes, lauded in the quality press and taught extensively in North America and the UK. I remain a great admirer of Ashbery’s earlier work and of the effort that he has put in to champion other poets. It doen’t take a lot of attentive reading to come to the conclusion that most of his later work is fairly self-regarding and repetitive as if Ashbery has found his own winding stair, is sticking to it and wants us all to admire it. I accept that Ashbery can do this because he is John Ashbery and has the absolute right not to care about wider issues. I also feel that, given his ‘profile’ that this kind of stuff is very, very bad for poetry.

The Painted Chair and the Truth

For Herbert, God was the truth, his poems ends with ‘My God, My King!’ as an example of all that plain poetry needs to say. This may be entirely sufficient for religious poetry but doesn’t tally with the situation of poetry today. I would argue that poetry will only survive, other than as a niche for academics and hobbyists, if it challenges, disturbs and confronts our comfortable notions of the truth. The most successful poems that I have read in the ‘challenge and disturb’ department attempt tp say truthful things about difficult subjects- J H Prynne on the ‘Troubles’ Vanessa Place on rape and the nature of evidence and Keston Sutherland on the sexual identities of children. These are disturbing because none of them, as subjects, have easy solutions and the poets do not pretend to provide answers to the challenges that they provoke.

Reading and re-reading ‘Streak~~Willing~~Entourage~~Artesian’, ‘Statement of Facts’ and the yet-to-be-published ‘Odes’ is a disturbing experience but also one that has convinced me that this is the kind of relentlessly honest poetry that must survive and flourish.

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2 responses to “Is poetry too poetic?

  1. I came across this quote from Chesterton (in Gary Wills ‘Rome and Rhetoric’) :
    ‘The great error consists in supposing that poetry is an unnatural form of language. We should all like to speak poetry at the moment when we truly live, and if we do not speak it, it is because we have an impediment in our speech. It is not song that is the narrow or artificial thing, it is conversation that is a broken and stammering attempt at song…The poetic does not misrepresent the speech one half so much as the speech misrepresents the soul.’
    Of course, it doesn’t help the discussion one whit that we don’t have anything like a working definition of ‘the poetic’.
    ‘Language heightened?’ Okay, okay. But it sort of begs the question; I don’t think it is any easier to spell out what heightened language would consist in than it is to say what ‘the poetic’ is.
    nor till the poets among us can be
    “literalists of
    the imagination” — above
    insolence and triviality and can present

    for inspection, imaginary gardens with real toads in them, shall we have
    it.

    Keats in a poem like ‘To Autumn’—
    Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness,
    Close bosom-friend of the maturing sun;
    (and so on…)
    —comes as close to pulling off the use of ‘the poetic’ as one could hope to do. But do we aspire to talk this way? When we truly live? When we truly die?
    Gary Wills via Chesterton is contrasting the oration Brutus makes in ‘Julius Caesar’ with Mark Anthony’s. The latter being in verse/ poetry (at least in iambic pentameter), the former in prose. What’s interesting is that both submit quite gracefully to a rhetorical analysis. Both arguably could be called ‘poetic’.
    Did you know there is a muse of sacred poetry? Polyhymnia. She must take ‘the poetic’ to an extreme close to being unbearable: ‘ancient, aimless, almost airless’ is how I summarize (at least one summary; there is that ‘poly—‘ to deal with) in a recent…um, poem? Or is this meta-poetry?
    Meta-poetry! God help us all! (Or is he meta-poetry?)
    It also might be worthwhile to look back to Artaud’s ‘No More Masterpieces’. I just looked at the Wikipedia article and it found this quote: “the notion of a kind of unique language half-way between gesture and thought.”
    Also Charles Taylor’s arguments for god’s existence…but I stop here. Goodnight, John.

    • Jim,

      Brilliant and provocative as ever, there isn’t, thankfully, a useful definition of poetic and this gives me some leeway to aim past the simply lyrical. In a similar vein, I’ve used a post today to worry about what it is that poetry does in what we refer to as the real world and this has proved fruitful for me because it’s thrown up the idea of performance which I’ve now decided is overlooked… Haven’t read Taylor for about fifteen years….

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