Robert Peake’s piece “on Ashbery and surprise” where he quotes Robert Frost on the importance of having a good time when writing a poem has got me thinking about those poems that so obviously gave pleasure to the poet. I know that, as a reader, I get added satisfaction where the poem has been written with pleasure as if I’m sharing in the poet’s virtuosity. As a writer of poetry there’s also that admiration of someone else’s skill.
I think that having a good time is about setting out to do something quite difficult and then finding that you can do it quite well, about showing off the new found skill and about taking delight in the effect that you have created. Book 3 of Paradise Lost for example is Milton’s attempt at setting out a quite complex theological argument by depicting God in conversation with Christ and thereby explaining the “ways of God to men”. This is brilliantly acheived and the pleasure that Milton derived from this shines through on every line. Now, we can’t all be John Milton but we can take pleasure in his achievement.
On a lesser scale, the same can be said about Edmund Spenser’s depictions of sex and violence in the Faerie Queen. These are brilliantly realised, Spenser takes enormous relish in describing the fights between the various Knights and gives the reader a very clear sense of the extreme violence involved in medieval combat. It could be argued (and has been by Virginia Woolf) that Spenser got carried away with his own ability and put too many fights into the poem but that doesn’t mean that he didn’t get enormous pleasure from writing them. With regard to sex, Spenser gives a lengthy and detaile description of the Bower of Bliss in Book 2 only to have his hero destroy it. The authorial voice throughout is consistently disapproving of lust and lustful acts yet his description of these is very alluring. I’m convinced that he really enjoyed writing about sex but was also aware that this conflicted with his overall aim (fashioning the virtues).
Moving into the 20th century, TS Eliot clearly had a great time writing “The Waste Land”, for all its melancholic overtones this is a poem (and there aren’t many) that broke new ground and Eliot must have been aware when he was writing it of the fact that it “works”. There is a confidence in the poem that indicates that Eliot had discovered that he could write it and that he really enjoyed the creative process.
In 1962 John Ashbery published a collection of poems “The Tennis Court Oath”, this book received almost universal opprobrium as critics felt that it was far too obscure and experimental. One poem, “Europe” is particularly difficult but even here the great time that Ashbery had in writing it stands out. Reading it now it comes across as the work of someone who is confident of his gift and is taking pleasure at pushing that gift to its limits.
The great Elizabeth Bishop wrote a poem called “The Moose” which she published in 1976. This is a poem which tells a story about a bus journey but it is packed with such elegant detail that the reader shares the journey. This is a poem whereby Bishop displays her skill in such a loving way that her pleasure is displayed for all to see and share.
Coming up to date, Geoffrey Hill also had a good time composing “A Treatise on Civil Power”. Hill is a controversial character and this poem is full of the trademark allusions to obscure foreign writers, “difficult” pieces of music and descriptions of nature. Nevertheless this poem represents a poet at the peak of his abilities who is making a difficult argument and making it very well. His confidence has grown enormously over the last ten years and this has been a joy to follow.
When I started this I wanted to make the point that writing poems doesn’t have to be an agonised tussle with language. Now, I also think that the fact that people write poetry is in itself a cause for celebration and we should try to be a little less precious about it.