Vol. 2 No. 9 · 15 May 1980

D.J. Enright is soon to bring out his ‘Oxford Book of Contemporary Verse 1945-1980’. Here is the substance of his introductory statement.

4445 words

Proust remarked that, like microbes and corpuscles, theories and schools devour one another and by their warfare ensure the continunity of life. I doubt, though, that the present is a time for schools or manifestos, whether grandly or modestly styled. ‘Acmeists’, ‘lmagists’, ‘Parnassiens’, ‘Symbolists’, ‘Projectivists’ – these days the words ring out like great ancient bells, in a secularised city. The group most frequently referred to in Britain during recent decades, and more often than not with only moderate enthusiasm, was ‘the Movement’ (a title, not invented by its members, whose simplicity suggests either considerable potency or abject poverty), and the most notable thing about it, except as concerns sociologists and culture-historians in search of a footnote, was the nonchalance with which, after a brief cohesiveness, its members went their separate ways. The best movement is one that doesn’t move far in the same direction.

I notice, incidentally, that the present book contains poets who were associated severally with the New Apocalypse, with the Movement, which was explicitly anti-Apocalyptic, and with the Mavericks, an alliance formed in opposition to the Movement. True, these poets are decidedly unalike – if they were not, they wouldn’t all be here – but their differences are scarcely to be defined or appraised by reference to the platforms on which they once assembled.

To say this is not to cast aspersions on that age-old congeniality of feeling and purpose which brings writers, and particularly young ones, together. A cold wind blows through the world of the arts, where supply is eternally in excess of demand, and one finds shelter where one may. Nor am I recommending any variety of Noble Savagery or Doing-your-own-thing. The latter is a contemporary phenomenon worth noting as one of several factors in the weakening of poetry as a public affair. A lot of interest is shown in poetry today, compared with the recent and probably the remoter past, but not very much of it is disinterested. That is, there is little respect for poetry as distinct from admiration for oneself for writing it: indeed, poetry is seen as something that is written, not something that is read.

This phenomenon – does it arise in progressive or indolent classrooms, is it an aspect of our distaste for élitism and specialisation, or a sign that, when religion has materialised itself into thin air and creeds are shaken and traditions dissolved at a rate unimagined by Matthew Arnold, people turn to pen and paper for consolation and sustenance? – is as barely credible as (something to which any poetry editor will testify) it is widespread. Here are writers who have spared themselves the discomforts attendant on what W. Jackson Bate has termed ‘the remorseless deepening of self-consciousness before the rich and intimidating legacy of the past’ through the simple expedient of ignoring the past. What then deepens is another sort of self-consciousness, and it is sad to think of people as exclusively each his own poet, moving in a cloud of their own breath.

The writing of verse as a self-administered form of therapy is of course traditional and helpful, being both cheaper and often more effective than other methods. Its true sponsor is the National Health Service rather than the Arts Council, and it is only exceptionable when mistaken for poetry as a mode of communication with other people on matters of mutual consequence. One form of Noble Savagery – ‘O for a Life of Sensations rather than of Thoughts!’ – has demonstrated its appeal, chiefly for the young and for busy people who look for quick returns: the type of writing which, abandoning the ancient poetic habit of making connections between one thing and another as either vulgar or old-hat or ‘academic’, gives itself up to unconnected whimsies, velleities or spasms. At its best D.H. Lawrence, who did it best, characterised the genre as ‘the poetry of that which is at hand’, ‘the insurgent naked throb of the instant moment’ where ‘there is no perfection, no consummation, nothing finished.’ The genre can have its successes – we should never forget that, as W.H. Auden put it, ‘Parnassus has many mansions’ – but in the main it is more accurately described by another phrase lifted from Lawrence: ‘the living plasm vibrates unspeakably.’ Such writing has been praised for being ‘groping and semi-articulate, like us’, as though poetry is merely to repeat and condone our weaknesses.

Proust also remarked that a work in which there are theories is like an article on which the price-tag has been left. The alignments so prominent in other spheres of activity, it seems to me, are best avoided or at least played down in the arts. A conscious ‘programme’ can be crippling: in as far and for as long as he can, the poet best remains unattached, he finds his own way or is led into it by a multiplicity of circumstances ranging from the happily ‘accidental’ through the unplumbably deep-seated to the most deliberate experimentation. We are in a region where one is tempted to say there are no laws. But there are: their presence is only to be inferred from what we can tell is an offence against them, or what we recognise as a triumphant observance. Writing is full of unwritten laws, and attempts at codification can only touch their surface.

Yet if people are to discuss poetry at all, they will want to fall back on theory and categorisation. Classical and romantic, urban and rural, paleface and redskin, Ego and Id ... In Britain it has been found convenient at varying levels – a telegraphese for journalism and academic use alike – to subsume the period under two poets, Philip Larkin and Ted Hughes. Their contemporaries can then be located at intervals on the line stretching between these two not wholly imaginary points, with Robert Lowell appearing now at one end, then at the other. An ill effect of this rough-and-ready schematism is that it has helped to impel writers into excogitated gimmickry, the one-finger étude, the all-thumbs concrete poem, the four-letter ejaculation, and other practices which at least denote a certain if not particularly enterprising acquaintance with the movements or the twitches of the past.

The dealings of academic critics with contemporary poetry seem to have turned into a virtually autonomous activity. The more elaborate the critical treatment, the more reductive it is of what is being treated – public import dwindles into private ingenuity – or at best the more inconsequential. The oddity is accentuated in that twenty people are able to talk sophisticatedly about ‘literature’ for every single person who can actually tell good writing from bad. ‘When we search out the motives for most of the criticism being written today,’ Lionel Abel remarked recently, ‘we are unlikely to find love or hatred of particular works or authors.’ What are the motives? Perhaps the untiring industry of the human brain, its appetite for newfangledness, for fresh fields to colonise ... Perhaps the circumstance that criticism is something that enables you to get a job – a job that enables you to compose criticism. We recall the remark of a character in Balzac’s La Peau de Chagrin: ‘University chairs are not made for philosophy. Philosophy was made for the chairs.’ At all events, modern criticism turns a deaf ear to Arnold’s insistence that a critic’s labours amount to mere dilettantism unless they help him to distinguish between the better and the worse, to develop ‘a clearer sense and a deeper enjoyment of what is truly excellent’; and, if anything, it has served to alienate the general public further. If being written about like this is what poetry is for, then poetry is not for them.

But to complain that criticism has come close to killing poetry is to flog a moribund horse: during recent years literary criticism has come even closer to killing literary criticism. In the words of A.D. Hope.

In this superb contraption here, you see
The Self-moved Mover as Machinery ...
Pure Criticism, without thought or fuss;
Pure Theory formed, with nothing to discuss!
This rare device embodies in its guts
No cranks or levers, pistons, cogs or nuts;
A ‘magic eye’ looks inward and controls
Pure Critics musing on their own pure souls.

Yet we should guard against taking as a prime and wanton cause what is also an effect, even to some extent an effect of poetry. Reflecting on the takeover of poetry by the university, Theodore Weiss makes a wry point: ‘Alas, in an increasingly unliterate, if not illiterate, age where else can poetry be preserved?’ And of course there are honourable exceptions, in whose hands the critique still serves the text instead of contrariwise. There are honourable exceptions among periodical reviewers of poetry too, some of whom are able to give an intelligent and disinterested account of what they see as its intrinsic strengths and weaknesses. This may be thought a small thing to ask of a reviewer. Not so, for much reviewing of new verse is coterie in spirit, whether hatchet-job or puff, meanly judicious or vacuously benign, offering unmediated verdicts whose real significance can only be deduced by students of ‘form’, and serenely ignoring the public whom the periodicals themselves profess to address.

No wonder then that serious-minded readers have turned, successfully or not, to the novel for information about life and how it is or was or may be led. In terms of spectator sport, that prodigy of our time, poetry – a prodigy of other times – has sunk in the hierarchy to around the level of marbles or yo-yo. ‘The great instrument of moral good is the imagination; and poetry administers to the effect by acting upon the cause ...’ We have come a long way since those grand old affirmations of poetry’s nature and use: the high-flown language of Shelley’s Defence of Poetry raises an uneasy smile in an age that veers between bluster and stutter – though the essay could still be taught, sensibly, with profit in schools.

Rather than try to apportion blame for what has happened to poetry’s public standing (and possibly more markedly in Britain than elsewhere), it is wiser to note the pathetic waste, the sheer silliness of the situation – and then to insist that poetry is a unique form of expression and communication, not to be superseded in its potentialities, in what it so generously offers writer and reader, not merely a superior or inferior variant of some other activity – ‘not a branch of authorship’, if one dare invoke Hazlitt, but ‘the stuff of which our life is made’. And then to remind ourselves that, like the reputations of individual artists, art forms are bound to the wheel of fortune, and we have no reason to believe that the wheel has stopped turning. I quote from a letter written by Thomas Mann to an unidentified questioner in 1932, partly because Mann is a character as little Shelleyan as may be, and he is here employing a language so remote from grandiosity as to sound like a bureaucratic minute:

I regard art as a primal phenomenon that in no conceivable circumstances can be banished from the world ... Self-examination teaches me that artistic representation is a natural and indispensable mode of vital expression. Therefore I cannot believe that even the most utilitarian and mechanised society could ever permit the general type I modestly represent to become extinct ... I am convinced that man will always need the holy and liberating form of play that is called art in order to feel himself as properly human.

One thing I hope this anthology will do – by virtue of the poems in it and through the juxtaposition of British writing with American and Commonwealth – is to shake the notion that British poetry of the period has been discreditably or pitiably provincial or parochial. Those who have voiced the complaint have not invariably been famous cosmopolitans or renowned for their understanding of the wide world. Their internationalism has largely taken the shape of regression to modes (such as Surrealism) which reached their modest apex several decades ago, or else of snapping up the extraneous mannerisms of more recent European writers, some of whom have enjoyed the unfair advantages of revolution, proscription, imprisonment or even death. Provincialism and its opposite – whatever its opposite is – is a question not of techniques or accessories, but of attitudes of mind, and when we are reproachfully referred to ‘the mainstream’ of European culture or world literature we are entitled to ask where exactly that stream is and what flows in it. However modish on the international poetry circuit, a concrete poem or a ‘sound’ poem (less ambiguously termed Lautgedichte) can be a good deal more parochial – ‘confined to narrow area’ (COD) – and more trivial than a conventionally metrical sonnet: the effects may be striking, but they do not strike very deep. ‘Look in thy heart, and write’ – perhaps the advice isn’t quite as foolish as we were brought up to believe, if you consider its context, and if you think of the places people choose to look in nowadays.

A related charge is that of gentility, which in 1962 A. Alvarez described with some degree of truth as ‘the disease so often found in English culture’. ‘Gentility,’ said Mr Alvarez at that time, ‘is a belief that life is always more or less orderly, people always more or less polite, their emotions and habits more or less decent and more or less controllable; that God, in short, is more or less good.’ I doubt if there are many contemporary poets who believe all of those things simultaneously – though some may believe a few of them and wish they could believe others. Civility is an apple off another tree, and not to be confused with gentility; in my early experience, gentility would never dream of writing poetry at all, but that was some while ago. Those who subsequently seized on Mr Alvarez’s diagnosis for their own purposes have wanted blood all over the streets – ‘madhouse and the whole thing there’. Art is not an outbreak of violence – something readily come by elsewhere – or a mere imitation of it, but an ordering of experience, however precarious-seeming, of internal and external events, which enacts and interprets disorder more firmly and poignantly than anything else can do, even while containing it. Howard Nemerov has said: ‘There is no thought so secret or so unique, so wicked or shameful or sublime, that the same has not quietly occurred to many others. Poetry is a realm in which such thoughts, such feelings may be tested without imprecating disaster as a consequence in the practical realm; hence its subversive character is highly civilised and civilising.’ To this, one would only wish to add the rider that poetry as exorcism or, to use Mr Nemerov’s word, ‘testing’ is in a different category from poetry as a means of solely personal therapy or self-exhibition.

They write most fluently of scars who never felt a wound. ‘Violent’ verse is not far removed from its seeming and equally common opposite, the bland, disembodiedly sensitive or namby-pamby verse that never puts a foot wrong, or right; both add, supererogatorily, to the stock of available unreality. The poetry of civility, passion and order is the true antithesis of both.

Certainly there is plenty of boring verse around: there always has been. But it may be worth dwelling briefly on the dullness or, more politely, unambitiousness with which our period has been charged. The complaint has not come from the general public, needless to say, but from poetry writers and professional fanciers themselves. Granted, it would be splendid to have on the scene a sublime and unmistakable genius or two, a Shakespeare or a Milton, even a Wordsworth or a Pope: and more splendid still if the complainant himself could be seen as that overmastering genius. Somewhat similarly, the idea of a strong and scintillating national leader is exciting at a time of laborious democratic procedures. It may seem that there is a fairly constant supply of creative genius available, and in an age of egalitarian feeling and institutions this is spread widely and hence rather thinly. The truth more probably is that the arts have their rhythms, not inevitably and certainly not traceably linked to external conditions, and as yet unpredictable and as inexplicable as their laws. The impetus towards excellence persists, despite well-intentioned agencies, and so does the desire for it. And one bright aspect of the period is that, whether or not it can show any towering mountains, its landscape is manifold and variegated. The call for towering mountains resembles the wartime demand for war poets in that it usually comes from those who don’t really want poetry at all, let alone towering poetry. If the politico-social analogy is valid, there is reason for hoping that individualism can survive in an egalitarian and hence constrained environment, and even in a society apparently more excited by theory and doctrine than exercised by the actualities which these are reckoned to account for or determine. But enough on this topic – the present is an Oxford Book, not an Old Moore’s Almanac.

It was unfortunate that the great modernists of the early part of this century should have promulgated the theory that ‘poetry in our civilisation ... must be difficult,’ for it was bound to find a welcome with those averse to the hard labour entailed in achieving lucidity. It is a tribute to Eliot’s poetry and to Pound’s that, so long afterwards, obscurity should be regarded in some circles as a wellnigh infallible sign of seriousness, and its absence as indicative of shallowness. Someone said to me recently: ‘I wouldn’t want to trouble myself with a poem I could understand.’ This was not, as it turned out, a jokily modest allusion to Groucho Marx’s disinclination to join any club that would admit the likes of him, though it may have concealed a sour awareness of the embarrassment caused by poetry unamenable to high-level exegesis. Try, for example, to give a lecture course on the work of Edward Thomas. Less modestly – though total comprehension is not a claim I would make – I can say that there is no poem included here which I have not understood at least in a rewarding measure.

That not to understand a piece of writing is in some way preferable to understanding it – a mark of superiority in the poem, or in the reader – is a superstition whose perniciousness soon supplants its initial amiable charm. Of course, in poetry of any stature there may well be a nimbus-like fringe which defies certainty, and to which readers respond in varying ways, but this is a bonus that has to be earned, by the poet in working for the effects he wants and by the reader in working to follow him. The distinction we need to make is between the difficulty of what is in its nature hard to grasp and the difficulty of what the writer himself has failed to grasp. Our instinct helps us to tell the one sort of difficulty from the other: does the poem draw us on, does it make us want to understand? Our instinct should also enable us to recognise the pursuit of the outré in various shapes and sizes by those who (in Samuel Johnson’s phrase), ‘being able to add nothing to truth, hope for eminence from the heresies of paradox’, or more plainly those who, because they cannot think to much effect, assure themselves that thought (sometimes given the dirtier names of ‘rationality’, ‘logic’, ‘intellectuality’) plays no part in poetry. This is a sin against our central faith in the seriousness of art, in literature as an illumination, criticism and enhancement of the rest of life, and in poetry as the finest, most efficient vehicle for the passing on of what wisdom and courage the race has painfully acquired.

Aggrievedly or gamely, much has been said about the ‘struggle with words’, as if to suggest that the writer is engaged in mortal combat with some alien monster. Struggle there must be – to resist the seductive and wrong word and to embrace the right and liberating one, and while the former is at your throat, the latter is generally several streets away. But language is at least as much an ally as an enemy. One wouldn’t get very far without it, or with a merely ‘conscript army’, as R.S. Thomas has it. It was in talking of the likelihood of poets needing to be difficult ‘in our civilisation, as it exists at present’ that Eliot opined that the poet, if he is to cope with the variety and complexity of that civilisation, must become more comprehensive, allusive and indirect ‘in order to force, to dislocate if necessary, language into his meaning’. In fact, and although he very probably had his own literary needs more in mind than the enunciation of categorical directives, Eliot was not himself a notable dislocator of language outside that singular poem, The Waste Land (of which A. Walton Litz has remarked, ‘Few works can have remained avant-garde for so long’ – exactly, and where was the rest of the guard?). In any case, I have not included here those who, having gathered that important poets are to all-in wrestlers near allied, suppose that a solemn and methodical deformation of syntax will procure strong effects for their writing. The thud-thud of unexpectedness conventionalised is no advance on the thud-thud of conventional expectedness – the one bullies where the other lulls or insinuates. The procedure brings to mind the deliberate maiming of beggars in dreadful and occasionally ingenious ways for the betterment of their vocational prospects.

In passing, and since I seem to have laid at Eliot’s door practices over which he had no control, it is fair to add that the modernism of which he was the greater part left one precious legacy, of true liberalism: the proposition that, far from poetry being a preserve or reserve, no subject is in itself unsuitable for poetic treatment. That proposition too can be misapplied, in that subjectlessness has been mistaken for one manifestation of freedom of subject; and we have to concede, adapting Eliot’s fine epigram on vers libre, that no subject is free for the man who wants to do a good job.

The present anthology contains no ‘confessional’ poetry – Robert Lowell is only to be so described when he is writing at his lowest ebb and, rather than leave John Berryman out altogether, I have selected work by him which may well though not indisputably be judged unrepresentative – since if poetry is a public matter it is not the place for private revelations, and if it is not a public matter it has no place in a published book. Keats spoke of the ‘chameleon poet’ possessing no identity, no self, the most unpoetical of all God’s creatures. A latterday equivalent of what Wordsworth termed ‘gross and violent stimulants’ and the contrary of Confucius’s ‘joy without licentiousness and grief without heartrending’, the cult of confessional poetry, itself an obsession with ‘identity’, is one of the saddest epidemics of recent years. Here, alas, poetry does appear to have made something happen. It has been said – we have our own brand of romantic grandiosity – that the poet’s courage lies in keeping ajar the door that leads into madness: are we to suppose, then, that some high-handed vulgarian has taken it on himself to lock and bar that door? My own sympathies are with the wit who observed that there are tears that do often lie too deep for thoughts.

This last comment could apply to another species of writing, popular (if not for long at a time) among those who may not recognise poetry but always know a good cause when they hear it recited. ‘Protest poetry’ can at least be said to boast a subject, but it soon declines into a nervous tic, a mechanical reiteration by its practitioners – ‘I protest, therefore I am’ – and in its public aspect, like many another operation, it is subject to the law of diminishing returns. Not a few poems in the present book are properly, naturally, unavoidably, concerned with what man has made and continues to make of man. There is a distinction, not of degree, but of kind, hard to define in theory but quickly spotted in practice, between the telling of truths and the self-regarding exploitation of them.

The poets printed here, I would venture, subscribe to the spirit of Johnson’s reminder that words are the daughters of earth while things are the sons of heaven, and this decent sense of priority helps to invest their work with a generic validity and power, to preserve them against the narcissism which (though its manifestations are frequently the reverse of beautiful) is today’s version of aestheticism. This selection from them may suggest a mild and harmless predisposition on the editor’s part towards verse that ‘tells a story’ as against ‘mood’ verse: the former comprehends the latter, after all, and can deliver it from the gratuitousness to which it is vulnerable. And while there was never the faintest intention to supplement Kingsley Amis’s New Oxford Book of Light Verse, the editor remains unpersuaded that wit is necessarily evasive in some shabby way or emotionally lowering, or that humour is trivial or Philistine: these faculties are at the least as necessary today as they ever were.

In their diverse ways these poets are writing out of and about the nature of our species and our time, about real things rather than ‘literary’ confections – and in my own dealings I must hope I have not interpreted the concepts ‘real’ and ‘unreal’ in an unduly narrow sense (an element of fantasy has found its way in, I now see, though not the sort that is quaintly called ‘free’), for the imagination is both discoverer and inventor, moving at ease between the existent and the inexistent, tempering or transmuting both. For reasons hinted at above, the anthology may be considered reactionary. It could with equal justice be reckoned revolutionary – and with equal senselessness, since neither adjective has any certain or central place in this domain. The clever young Ottilie of Goethe’s Elective Affinities notes in her journal that the surest way of delivering yourself from the world is through art, and so is the surest way of binding yourself to it. If in the end I had to admit to one general principle or guiding preference or profession of faith, then in spirit it would have much in common with Ottilie’s aphorism.

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Vol. 2 No. 11 · 5 June 1980

SIR: ‘If poetry is a public matter it is not the place for private revelations, and if it is not a public matter it has no place in a published book’ (LRB, 15 May). The Book of Psalms? Sappho? Catullus? La Vita Nuova?

Francis Landy

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