Poetry’s dead ends

This has been prompted by Andrew Hadfield’s observation that the poetic innovations of John Skelton led to a ‘dead end’ by which I think he means that there are no obvious followers who took up the Skelton way of doing poetry. I think this might be right about Skelton, certainly it’s hard to think of anything since in the manner of ‘Speke Parrot’ and this has led me to consider how many other dead ends there may be.

Hadfield also quotes with approval C S Lewis on Skelton- ‘He has no real predecessors, and no important disciples; he stands out of the streamy historical process, an unmitakable individual, a man we have met’ and this seems quite helpful in dead end identification. The other consideration for me is to identify why I’m attracted to this particular type of failure.

The two poems that spring to mind are Browning’s ‘Sordello’ and David Jones’ ‘The Anathemata’. The DNB has this to say on Sordello: ‘ One of the chief characteristics of the poem that gives it its distinctive voice is parabasis: that is, the presence of digressions in which the author addresses the audience on personal or topical matters. After devoting six books often relating in a roundabout way to Sordello, in the end the narrator suggests that the real subject was not Sordello but rather the poet himself and his efforts to write the poem. Carefully ordered but appearing unstructured, purportedly historical but in fact deeply personal, generically indeterminate and stylistically complex, Sordello is unique in literary history’ and notes that Browning thought that it would make his career whereas it was met with critical condemnation and has remained unfollowed despite attempts by Swinburne and Ezra Pound to revive it. Some lonely souls regard it as our first modernist poem but this is very much a minority view.

‘The Anathemata’ can also be said to have buried Jones’ literary reputation because of what is seen as its relentless difficulty and obscurity which undermined the reputation of the much more accessible ‘In Parenthesis’. It also has had champions but seems to stubbornly resist attempts at rehabilitation. I recognise that Jones’ influence can be seen in the work of John Matthias but I can’t think of any work that matches the ambition and the breadth of this completely brilliant poem.

I’d also like to nominate Michael Drayton’s ‘Poly-Olbion’ but it did receive some recognition at the time of publication and was revered as our national poem by some in the 19th century. I also acknowledge that most of Drayton’s work was a pale imitation of Edmund Spenser but ‘Poly-Olbion’ stands apart in terms of what it tries to do and because it puts Drayton at a further distance from his metaphysical and cavalier peers. Whilst there are a number of poets who were influenced by Drayton, I can’t think of any poems that are in the vein of ‘Poly-Olbion which is a very, very long geographical survey of England and Wales- it is also one of the poems referred to by Jones in his notes to ‘The Anathemata’.

‘Speke Parrot’ is gloriously complicated and makes extensive use of foreign words and phrases. One of its themes are said to be an attack on Cardinal Wolsley’s growing power whilst another is espousing the ‘traditional’ cause in the Grammarians’ War which is now considered to be reasonably obscure but did lay the ground for the English Renaissance at the end of the 16th century. As Jane Griffiths (current expert on all things Skelton) has pointed out, the current version that we now have which was produced in the 19th century is a mixture of the manuscript and print versions of the poem but it is clear that Skelton took more care with this than the rest of his output.

Not only is this poem radically different from any other of the time, it is also very different from the rest of Skelton’s output and I’m increasingly of the view that it is this ‘overshadowing’ by one particular poem that is responsible for these ‘dead ends’.

Warming to this particular theme, the DNB again informs me that it was Browning’s publisher, Edward Moxon, who gently steered back on to a less ‘difficult’ path, thus preventing the kind of overshadowing referred to above. I also need to distinguish here between bad poems and poets that have been rightly overlooked and those accomplished poems which have led to dead ends but nevertheless deserve our attention.

The other point of this post was to try and work out why I’m attracted to this stuff. I think there’s two things that are entwined here:

  • a completely sentimental and irrational devotion to the perceived underdog which is embedded in the cultural DNA of the north-east of England which I reluctantly accept as my own even though I haven’t lived therefor thirty years;
  • a deeply felt identification with the odd and the incongruous providing that the oddness / eccentricity is sincere and not merely for the sake of standing out from the crowd.

There is also a little bit of elitism going on in that I want to be in the ‘gang’ that recognises the importance of this stuff (Ezra Pound in the case of ‘Sordello’, W H Auden and John Matthias in the case of ‘The Anathemata’ etc.) because I like to think that I’m as preceptive, insightful and generally clever as other gang members. Needless to say, this is something that I need to be very careful with.

By way of coming to some further kind of conclusion, it is worth recognising that the poets concerned took more care with these works than any other and that ‘Speke Parrot’ ‘Poly-Olbion’ and ‘The Anathemata’ were provided with notes. The other commonality is the level of self-consciousness in the work and the presence of the poet who is addressing the audience about (at least in part) the making of the poetry.

Finally, the dead end may also be due to the difficulty in following in these footsteps, as a practitioner I recognise that David Jones provides the best modernist example to follow but it really would take years of practice and learning to reach that kind of breadth and technical prowess. And life might just be too short…

I’m conscious that this is a personal selection, I’d be interested to hear of others, particularly those outside the UK.

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9 responses to “Poetry’s dead ends

  1. Some day I’d like to hear you elaborate on Jones’ “technical prowess” – what specific technical skills were you thinking of? I’m guessing that one of them might be something like an artist’s “eye” for pre-envisaging and realizing a large form – The Anathemata LOOKS amazing. I remember reading somewhere else that Jones took very little interest in or care of meter – do you think it’s true?

    I think the dramatization of scene and atmosphere in In Parenthesis are fantastic, but of course I don’t find much of that in the later book. After the geological opening (which I do like) it wanders around in mythic archetypes in a way that I identify as very PrePostModernist, if you see what I mean. Anyway, it puts me off a bit.

    • Michael,

      Once again you’ve given me a lot to think about – a quick elaboration would talk about rhetoric, about the list and about the uses of the list but this requires a lot of space, I’ll post something in reply and as amplification next week. There’s also the thorny prose / verse divide.

  2. I’d nominate a rather different poem — “Howl”, an enormous (and in my view deserved) success which has had no successor, and overshadows the rest of the author’s own work.

    • Funnily enough, ‘Howl’ did occur but it was successful and therefore falls into a slightly different category if we apply the Hadfield and Lewis definitions. It’s also iconic- isn’t it?

      • It is iconic (though not in the semantics sense), and that’s some of why it was hard to build on, for Ginsberg or anyone else. I’ve occasionally compared it to Gray’s Elegy for this reason — an isolated success, the poem of an age.

  3. John Skelton certainly has at least one obvious follower- He was David Jones’ own major poetic influence, Eliot’s The Waste Land aside. I would have thought the confluence quite apparent. Also his influence is clear on Edith Sitwell, although in a bad way, and more conjecturally on RF Langley in places. Robert Graves admired him greatly, and wrote a tribute, though on the whole there is not much evidence of an influence on Graves poetry, at least so far as I can see- admittedly I haven’t the closest acquaintance with Graves’ work.
    To say Skelton has no “real predecessors” seems a bit of a stretch. The Goliards spring immediately to mind.

    • Eliot identified Joyce rather than himself or Pound but the Skelton / Jones thread is one I will take great pleasure in pursuing. I haven’t read any Graves since I was 17 (a very long time ago) but I’ll see if I can find the tribute.
      With regard to predecessors, I’m not sufficiently familiar with the ME canon to argue with C S Lewis and I think that my point relates more to how the likes of Lewis and Hadfield choose to ‘place’ Skelton rather than any kind of historical/literary accuracy.

  4. I’m relying on Jones himself. Not that I think a writer necessarily has the ultimate word on such things, but I find him convincing in this case. He rejected imputations of Pound as an influence; though certainly admired Joyce. Celtic springs fed both.

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