We’ll start with a couple of qualifiers. I used to know what Kant said about what made something aesthetically pleasing but I’ve since forgotten it. I hadn’t thought until very recently about the relationship between the beautiful and the poem so most of what follows has probably been said before. I have however noticed something that might be useful to share.
Regular readers may know that I’m in violent agreement with K Sutherland on the need to pay attention to serious work. In my experience as a reader, reading attentively is far more rewarding than reading the work as if it were a novel. Of course, I have to be interested enough in the first place in order to start being attentive but fortunately I find that I am interested in many (perhaps too many) different kind of poem. Material that challenges me with either it’s subject matter or its deployment of language usually gets some interest but beauty has never struck me as interesting enough to gain my attention.
With the annotated Trigons project with John Matthias and the ongoing experiments in reading I’ve been paying sustained attention over a number of weeks to The Anathemata, The Odes to TL61p, Night Office and Trigons. Oddly (at least to me) its seems like bits of beautiful poetry have crept up on me and caught me unawares. This was the first:
Within the railed tumulus he sings high and he sings low. In a low voice as one who speaks where a few are, gathered in high-room and one, gone out.
This refers to the Last Supper and is part of the announcement of Jones’ main theme. Before I started writing about it I thought it was one of the many pieces of sustained brilliance that run through the book but then I noticed within me a reluctant recognition that this was primarily a beautiful piece of poetry in itself. By this I think I mean that it isn’t describing anything that I might find attractive to the eye but that the combination of words (poems as poem) move me more than something I find visually inspiring. I’ve thought about analysing the above but the only guess that I’m prepared to venture relates to brevity and simplicity. Of course, the above does crop up in the most accomplished long poem of the 20th century so the poetic context may make a contribution.
However, I’m going with an unmediated almost physical response which I also get from this from the first poem in the Trigons sequence:
for such is fate Senor and yet the alphabet was left us when alas ambrosia turned to vin ordinaire and Icor just poor plain red & human blood spilled & spilling in the deserts mountains seas and islands too, fit for Eucharist in world conflagration
(the first five lines are the last lines from section five, the last line is the beginning of section 6.
I’ve written before about over-reading the theme of this poem, of seeing in it a complex portrayal of the tragic nature of 20th century Greek politics. I’ve also written about John’s ability to make the very difficult look easy. The above is remarkably complex and works on a number of different levels but what makes it beautiful for me is the strength and clarity of the fourth line, especially “red & human” and “spilled & spilling” which seem to hold the whole thing together. I recognise that there is a religious element to this but it is only one of many threads that are interwoven in these few lines. So, brevity and simplicity, as with Jones, but also superb technique in terms of word choice and pacing being utilised to maximum effect. Perhaps even more than Jones, these lines stand by themselves, with or without context as a beautiful thing. It could be argued that ‘conflagration’ is too big a word to end with and that it isn’t sufficiently lyrical but the point is that it both punctuates and contrasts what has gone before.
The last of these is from Jarvis’ Night Office:
just in the corner of my eye the vast cathedral, too large for its believers, and just now dwarfing small clumps of them in polyhedral splendours and gestures. Its bright sharpened bow went sailing through the night, to put down evil wherever it might surface, so that how this back of it disgorged the faithful, few at this cold, minor, festival, and who they were, could not be seen, but, from its gaps immensities of music, and their wide curves, flights and logics, rivets, knots and straps let the machine preposterously ride out into air, let open all its taps,
I’ve quoted this at length because most of it isn’t particularly beautiful and because there are bits that are Very Awkward Indeed but that does not prevent some inherent beauty leaking out. I’m not entirely sure but I think it’s the list and the splendours and gestures that transform this reasonably straightforward description into something quite wonderful. I readily acknowledge that I’m a sucker for lists, that there’s something about nouns next to each other that I find deeply satisfying. This is a particularly good list mainly because it has logic as an item. I know that there’s more than a little religion in this but I’m not religious and I can only speak as I find.
I think I need to contrast these examples with the apparent beauty and lyrical dexterity of some bits of The Four Quartets. I was captivated in my late teens by these until I worked out that almost all were cynical attempts to appear profound. These three, on the other hand, are not trying too hard, are not desperate to impress but do have more than a degree of honest depth and skill.