One of my main recurrent glibnesses is that poetry today is still too poetic for its own good. Whilst this is a reasonable one-liner, it might require some further elaboration because this particular quip ‘covers’ a reasonably serious point that deserves an airing.
First of all I’d like to define my use of ‘poetic’. I think most of us will agree that the poem has a long and noble history of using many devices, sleights of word, in order to achieve its effects. Three of the main tricks of the trade have been rhyme, metre and word choice which have been put together to create a certain type of poetry known as ‘lyric’ used primarily to describe personal emotions and responses but seems to have seeped its way into other areas since the Romantics.
This isn’t primarily an argument about aesthetic worth or value but much more about strategic direction. What poetry needs is to challenge and disrupt its current image and replace this with work that takes pride in ‘not being poetry’ because to do otherwise would be to perpetuate both the malaise and the current mediocrity.
I wouldn’t have that much of a problem with this if this idea of poetry was not so firmly fixed in the public imagination as to what poetry is about and anything that doesn’t conform to this amorphous notion isn’t poetry. This may well be why the stunningly mediocre still gets the major plaudits and the work that runs against this grain is ignored.
I’m not going to dwell on the current culprits but I do want to review how poets and readers have got into this plight. Oddly this is primarily due to an absence of imagination and a kind of intellectual laziness.
The term ‘lyric’ derives from the Ancient Greek practice of accompanying certain poems with the lyre. This may not seem to have any relevance today but is worth bearing in mind given the ongoing proximity between poem and song. The intervening 3000 years or so have seen many new tricks developed and extended with perhaps the ‘peak’ in English brought about by the Romantics in the early decades of the 19th century. This isn’t a debate about whether or not this was a good thing but it is to express concern that we are still making the Poem in the shadow of Wordsworth.
The damage was perpetuated by Eliot with his Four Quartets which attempted to give lyrical flummery some kind of intellectual kudos. This is another shadow that has skewed the poetic enterprise since 1936- this is a long time. I’m going to set out some examples of what I see as this fossilising tendency in an attempt to illustrate the thing that holds the current poem back the most.
Edmund Spenser and the Sonnet Explosion.
In the arduity scheme of things, Spenser is second only to Milton in the Great English Poets stakes. I can make a case for this assertion based on technical skill, the sustained brilliance of The Faerie Queene and pastoral innovation. I do however fall down on the sonnets. This particular form was particularly in fashion from about 1592 to about 1610 and some of the work produced was a very high standard indeed, Shakespeare and Sidney spring to mind as particularly adept. Spenser, being the showman that he was, clearly felt that he had to join in with his Amoretti an emotive account of his wooing of Elizabeth Boyle, his second wife. This is sonnet XLI:
IS it her nature or is it her will,
to be so cruell to an humbled foe:
if nature, then she may it mend with skill,
if will, then she at will may will forgoe.
But if her nature and her wil be so,
that she will plague the man that loues her most:
and take delight t'encrease a wretches woe,
then all her natures goodly guifts are lost
And that same glorious beauties ydle boast,
is but a bayt such wretches to beguile:
as being long in her loues tempest tost,
she meanes at last to make her piteous spoyle.
O fayrest fayre let neuer it be named,
that so fayre beauty was so fowly shamed.
Even in 1594 this is tired and cliche-ridden, an example of what Michael Drayton referred to as “ah me” verse whereby the poet (manipulatively, dishonestly) pours out his emotional angst. Unusually for Spenser, the technique is tired and sloppy but my point is that this sudden and extravagant outpouring of sonnets of a similar ilk marked the beginnings of the poet as talented but tortured soul in the modern period. This is compounded by the repeated use of excessive lyricism (plague the man, wretches woe, beauties idle boast, loves tempest tost etc etc). The problem is compounded by the fact that the sonnets were incredibly popular, a precursor of the work of the Romantics 200 years later.
George Herbert and the religious lyric.
Herbert is perhaps our finest religious poet after Milton and his posthumously published The Temple demonstrates a poet of great skill and technique who is not afraid to write with brutal honesty about his faith and his doubt. This is Sighs and Grones:
O Do not use me
After my sinnes! look not on my desert,
But on thy glorie! Then thou wilt reform
And not refuse me: for thou onely art
The mightie God, but I a sillie worm;
O do not bruise me!
O do not urge me!
For what account can thy ill steward make?
I have abus'd thy stock, destroy'd thy woods,
Suckt all thy magazens:1 my head did ake,
Till it found out how to consume thy goods:
O do not scourge me!
O do not blinde me!
I have deserv'd that an Egyptian night
Should thicken all my powers; because my lust
Hath still sow'd fig-leaves to exclude thy light:
But I am frailtie, and already dust;
O do not grinde me!
O do not fill me
With the turn'd viall of thy bitter wrath!
For thou hast other vessels full of bloud,
A part whereof my Saviour empti'd hath,
Ev'n unto death: since he di'd for my good,
O do not kill me!
But O reprieve me!
For thou hast life and death at thy command;
Thou art both Judge and Saviour, feast and rod,
Cordiall and Corrosive: put not thy hand
Into the bitter box; but O my God,
My God, relieve me!
Given what appears to be Herbert’s rising stature amongst critics, it is difficult to understand why the above has received so little attention. Unlike Spenser this is both complex and lyrically stunning. One of Herbert’s recurring anxieties is that he may not be worthy of God’s love, that his ‘frailtie’ may block his salvation. The lyrical strength, the outstanding use of rhyme and metre gives a prime example of the lyric at its best.
William Wordsworth’s enduring legacy.
I know that there are many people who consider Wordsworth to be on a par with Milton and there are some who consider him to be the best that we have. I am not one of those, although I acknowledge his great skill and artistry. My concern is the extent of his influence ever since, beginning with instilling in our culture what poetry should look like and what it should do. I’m not arguing that the work isn’t brilliant but to my mind it does the wrong thing in the wrong way. This is obviously a biased position but it does seem to me that there are many more things that poetry should (must) be doing than these outpourings of emotion. The only Wordsworth poem that I know well, thanks to J H Prynne’s remarkable commentary is The Solitary Reaper but it nevertheless makes at least part of my argument:
Behold her, single in the field,
Yon solitary Highland Lass!
Reaping and singing by herself;
Stop here, or gently pass!
Alone she cuts and binds the grain,
And sings a melancholy strain;
O listen! for the Vale profound
Is overflowing with the sound.
No Nightingale did ever chaunt
More welcome notes to weary bands
Of travellers in some shady haunt,
Among Arabian sands:
A voice so thrilling ne'er was heard
In spring-time from the Cuckoo-bird,
Breaking the silence of the seas
Among the farthest Hebrides.
Will no one tell me what she sings? -
Perhaps the plaintive numbers flow
For old, unhappy, far-off things,
And battles long ago:
Or is it some more humble lay,
Familiar matter of to-day?
Some natural sorrow, loss, or pain,
That has been, and may be again?
Whate'er the theme, the Maiden sang
As if her song could have no ending;
I saw her singing at her work,
And o'er the sickle bending; -
I listened, motionless and still;
And, as I mounted up the hill,
The music in my heart I bore,
Long after it was heard no more.
We’ll skip over the fact that Wordsworth is using someone else’s account of this encounter and worry instead about how this outpouring of emotion neglects both the genocidal Highland Clearances that were occurring at the time of composition and the fact that the female reaper was carrying out back breaking work in order to survive. Isn’t one of the prime functions of poetry to speak truth to power. Isn’t it to at least take note of social and economic injustice, especially when it’s as glaring as this? I’m not overly keen on out and out political verse, unless it’s done very well, but in this context it does make more sense than this exercise in aesthetics.
All of this would be okay if it had stayed in its own time and not echoed down through the last two hundred years, especially in the UK, as if nothing else of note has been written, except by Eliot.
A Modernist Interlude.
The most significant figures of the last hundred years have been Ezra Pound and T S Eliot. Of these two, Pound was clearly the most intent on creating a break with what had gone before and determined to confront the literary establishment. Eliot however became a fully paid up member of the poetry establishment and his work slid into the dishonest mediocrity that is The Four Quartets. In my youth I was very taken with this sequence both for its lyricism and what appeared to be intellectual integrity. As with almost everyone else, I found The Cantos both troubling (anti-semitism, fascism) and daunting (length, obscurity, inconsistency) but now I find that position reversed. The more I read Pound, the more I like what he has to say as he clearly articulates what I think. I’m particularly fond of his Donts and this exhortation: “compose in the sequence of the musical phrase, not in sequence of a metronome”, a plea to move away from metre and towards cadence.
I’m not a fan of decisive moments nor of the counter-factual but it is likely that Pound would have been much more influential in terms of ‘steering’ the Moderns had he not mired himself in anti-semitism and Italian fascism. It is also likely that the Lyric may have lost some of its charm. It’s also of interest that Eliot’s prejudices and political alliances (anti-semitic, Action Francaise) get rediscovered and then buried about every thirty years or so.
However, I’d like to illustrate my point, such as it is, with something from each poet, perhaps if we’d had less of this:
Ash on an old man's sleeve
Is all the ash the burnt roses leave.
Dust m the aIr suspended
Marks the place where a story ended.
Dust inbreathed was a house-
The wall, the wainscot and the mouse.
The death of hope and despaIr,
This is the death of aIr.
There are flood and drouth
Over the eyes and in the mouth,
Dead water and dead sand
Contending for the upper hand.
The parched eviscerate soil
Gapes at the vanity of toil,
Laughs without mirth.
This is the death of earth.
and more, much more, of this from Pound’s Canto XLII;
And that (7thly) the overabundance every five years shall the
distribute to workers of the contrade (the wards) holdIng In
reserve a prudent proportIon as agaInst unforeseen losses
though there shd. be NO such losses
and 9th that the borrowers can pay up before the end of theIr
term whenso It be to theIr Interest No debt to run more than
+ [a cross In the margm]
That profit on deposIts should be used to cover all losses
and the dIstrIbutIons on the fifth year be made from remaln1ng
profits, after restoratIon of losses no (benché) matter how
WIth sane small reserve agaInst future Idem
I, Livio Pasquini, notary, Citizen of SIena, most faithfully copIed
July 18th 1623
I like to think that these two are still relevant to our current plight. Things poetical have followed the former trend which uses the lyrical to create material that seems portentous and heavy with meaning but is in fact empty of anything except technique. The second is documentary and archival with little emendation but is an honest attempt to make a ‘real’ point- no matter how much we may disagree with it.
The later Eliot, as poet and publisher, conforms to the popular expectation of what poetry is and does and this still pervades the majority of material produced on either side of the Atlantic. This is both safe and counter-productive, poetry is disappearing from the public sphere primarily because most of it sounds like Wordsworth modified by the Four Quartets and doesn’t consider any of the other options. This is why all current conversations are both introspective and self-indulgent, because we stay with and argue about what we’ve known forever.
The Bishop and Hill Exceptions.
Because the Lyric has been so dominant over the last two centuries, it is really hard to produce original work of any quality but it can be done. I would nominate Elizabeth Bishop as one of the very few who have been able to construct work that stands above this overcrowded field. She achieved this by perfect technique and an understanding of what had gone before and how this could be progressed. She could only manage this however by a painstaking process of drafting and redrafting that often took many years to complete.
Sir Geoffrey Hill is a futher exception but in a different way. The default arduity position is that Mercian Hymns and The Triumph of Love constitute his finest work and neither of these are particularly lyrical in the accepted sense. However, some of Hill’s nature/landscape poetry shows again how some lyrical work can build on and further what’s gone before. This is Lyric Fragment from the A Treatise of Civil Power collection:
I hear an invisible
source of light skirling
off objects round about me - the granite portal
women's hair also, and a deer's antlers.
In February a solitary oak leaf
dominates recognition. Are there
ancient coins wreathed with Medusa's head?
A Concluding Qualifier.
The above is a bit too ‘neat’ for me and I must therefore confess that I’m distrustful of this kind of linearity. I’m also completely in the dark about the idea of ‘influence is supposed to work. Nevertheless it does seem that this business of living down to expectations is something that really does need to be fixed.