All poetry that really works has immediate vocal authority. It makes us attend. In a rather memorable and haunting poem, ‘The Masters’, Kingsley Amis stressed the point, substituting other activities for the poetic one, but really talking about the nature of the poem itself.
That horse whose rider fears to jump will fall,
Riflemen miss if orders sound unsure;
They only are secure who seem secure;
Who lose their voice, lose all.
Listening like all his generation to Auden’s voice, whose orders were always mesmerisingly sure, Amis knew what he meant. When Auden opened his mouth and said, ‘Look, stranger,’ or ‘Consider this, and in our time,’ he was listened to with rapt attention, which in itself constituted obedience to orders. Also immediate atavistic loyalty to the tall unwounded leader, which is the personal factor determining choice in this Amis Anthology. It is the something in the poem ‘producing the illusion that is was written specially for me, however well I may know that it was written for the whole nation, or for no one in particular’.
The voice with personality, and for that reason with authority, determined ‘this collection of my favourite poems’. It is an incisive principle and pays off well: it makes a first-rate anthology. There are a number of poems, by Suckling, Henry King, George Farewell, Andrew Young, which will probably be new to the reader, and which will certainly produce ‘the illusion that it was written specially for me’. There are well-known favourites too, like Housman’s ‘Bredon Hill’ and Flecker’s ‘Golden Journey’. Interesting omissions are Shakespeare and T. S. Eliot: the former because, as noted in the laconic introduction, ‘his non-dramatic poems are not a favourite of mine,’ and ‘even his sonnets, especially his sonnets, lack my personal factor, a deficiency I feel is connected with something else that is missing from them or wrong with them.’ In terms of voice authority, that is a subtle judgment, for although the sonnets are not dramatic in the same sense as the plays, they exhibit a baffling and fascinating reluctance to display a uniform assurance of tone. The riflemen, so to speak, would always miss if Shakespeare as sonneteer were directing them. Some of us are enchanted by this lack, some not: Amis must be one of the latter.
But he has a wonderful ear for voice in unfamiliar and little-known poems by Herbert, Graves, Christina Rossetti, Kenneth Ashley, and he opens with a marvellous one – surely his own discovery – by the Medieval chronicler John Lydgate, about a horse called Lyarde, too old now to work.
They lead him to the smithy to pull off his shoon
And put him to greenwood, there for to gone.
The idea is echoed by Larkin, also well represented here, in his poem about race horses, ‘At Grass’, where
Only the groom and the groom’s boy
With bridles in the evening come.
Eliot, though, the other absentee, clearly does not appeal: I suspect his voice, intoning about the desire and the shadow, is uncongenial, sounds to Amis a little put-on, as indeed it often does; and a novelist’s ear is sharp for these things. In the oddity and sureness of the selections there is a suggestion of Larkin’s Oxford Book of 20th-century English Verse, and in several poems – ‘General Bloodstock’s Lament for England’, or ‘Thames Gulls’ – a slightly uncanny echo of his presence. Those pieces by Graves and Blunden must once, like others here, have been discussed between Larkin and Amis, and an occasional similarity has slipped into their own tone. Some of Larkin’s most haunting lines have ghostly originals here. More remarkable are the ear and the eye with which Amis has picked out and recalled the rare masterpieces among poets like Newbolt, Masefield, Squire, who wrote mostly workmanlike junk. Did it seem junk when they wrote it, to themselves and their readers? Hard to say. Not only do tastes and readers change, but – still more important – so does the accepted idea of how much bad stuff a poet can publicly get away with. Some ages revere the stuffing in Collected Works, others the few choice mysteries of a Mallarmé. Larkin was wise not to be talkative: unbuttoned and garrulous poetry has its place, but Amis was no doubt also wise to exclude it from an anthology. Orders are best kept short, and Amis in his Introduction leaves the reader to ‘speculate’ why he has kept out Shelley and Ezra Pound. ‘Nothing is here because I think it ought to be here.’
He also excludes nonsense. But what is nonsense in poetry? In one of the no-nonsense notes which are an added bonus to his anthology, Amis remarks of Auden’s poem ‘Watershed’: ‘Worth saying that in 1927 it was not usual for a poem to mention tramlines, engines, or flooded workings unless in a special “realistic” tone of voice.’ That gives the clue. The confident poetic voice takes things for granted, is never self-conscious about what it says, however unexpected or incomprehensible this may be. In a note on Betjeman’s ‘Myfanwy’ Amis says the poet has ‘got him where he wants’ with poems in this vein, ‘but I have never been able to work out quite where that is. Nor has anybody else I know of.’ Successful poetry takes its sense for granted, as applying to itself alone, and yet being written especially for us. Nonsense is usually composed in a special impersonal nonsense voice, out of which it can sometimes imply that it is giving us a straight message, really. As Amis points out, Auden ruined by revising the last verse of his marvellous early poem ‘What siren zooming is sounding our coming’ by giving it a civic and mellow advisory tone (‘Till our nerves are numb and their now is a time/Too late for love or for lying either’) only suited to his later verse. The original is rich nonsense magic, a proper climax to a prolonged incantation.
Till the time is ten and the town is London
And nerves grow numb between north and south
Hear last in corner
The pffwungg of burner
The shadow of death.
I can remember the tremendous pleasure of that ‘pffwungg’ long ago when I had no idea where the poet had got me, except that it was a place of intoxicating elation and comic-sinister hilarity. I think, in fact, it echoes a popular song theme of the Depression years, where you turned out the lights and went to sleep, having also presumably turned on the gas. In the incantation in the verse before (‘Gas-light in shops/The fate of ships/And the tide-wind/Touch an old wound’) there is an associative clue such as often occurs within the idiom of special sense poetry.
For the term ‘nonsense’ begs the question. Housman, as one might expect, gives a neat illustration of this. He writes of the reading proposed of some classic text by a fellow scholar: ‘To say that a thing is not yet begun but is still going on is such nonsense as not one of us can conceive himself uttering in the loosest negligence of conversation.’ Yet we would accept it in a ‘nonsense’ poem, such as Housman enjoyed and sometimes wrote himself and, also, as he ironically points out, ‘if centuries of transcription by barbarians have imputed it to an incomparable poet, then we accept it as a matter of course.’ We do not expect normal (at least the unthinking among us don’t) sense from an ancient author, just as we do not expect it from a poet who is deliberately writing nonsense verse.
But, as the example from Auden shows, Amis’s law is the one that matters. Deliberate nonsense may amuse us, and the poet who writes it, but it will not get us to that unique and personal place where we go with a real poem. Even the stringent Housman confuses the issue here, by notoriously asserting, in his essay ‘The Name and Nature of Poetry’, that some of the loveliest poetry ‘says nothing’, and that the song ‘Take O take those lips away’ is nonsense. Of course it is nothing of the sort. As riflemen readers we don’t miss the tone when it gives its orders. Commenting on Housman, the equally stringent Ricks also missed the point in suggesting that what Housman admiringly meant is that some ravishing poetry transcends common sense. In what way does ‘Take O take those lips away’ do that? It knows perfectly well what it is talking about, just as Auden does in ‘Siren’ or Betjeman in ‘Myfanwy’, and because these poems give their orders so confidently, we know too.
It hardly matters that in his delightful and learned introduction Hugh Haughton fails to make the obvious distinction between nonsense poetry and special sense poetry. His spaciously ecumenical anthology includes both, and in so doing gives a variety of different glimpses and different pleasures. It so happens that the only poem in both his anthology and Amis’s is that masterpiece by John Crowe Ransom, ‘Captain Carpenter’. Not only did Ransom have no intention of writing a nonsense poem, but his subtly stylish tale, with its many implications, depends on a tone of complete natural authority unique to the poet. It is no more a nonsense poem than, say, Larkin’s ‘The Whitsun Weddings’. The nonsense poem is bound in one sense to be not real poetry, because in telling us with a nudge that it is nonsense it automatically forfeits the unique vocal authority of the poet. It becomes a kind of patter, patois, argot – something shared in common – and that is why much nonsense verse is anonymous. The most sophisticated things in the genre play with this, which like many comic acts often palls before the player gives up. A real tale, such as that of Lear’s Jumblies or Dong, is like ‘Captain Carpenter’ or ‘The Whitsun Weddings’, but ‘The Hunting of the Snark’ becomes decidedly heavy-going: the joke about long and boring epic poems has itself gone on too long.
‘Jabberwocky’ achieves a kind of parody of vocal authority by aping the confidence of real poetic language, and this, too is a standard ploy among nonsense poets. The amiable Gelett Burgess (1866-1951) makes a good start with
Twine then the rays
Round her soft Theban tissues.
But his little poem soon collapses into
Matters not when nor whence;
Sounds make the song, not sense.
Thus I inhibit!
That will never do, committing as it does the fatal sin of bad nonsense verse in drawing coy attention to its nonsensicality. The watchword of such verse should be a line from Wallace Stevens: ‘Life’s nonsense pierces us with strange relation.’ The strange relation is inevitable to poetry, and to its supreme fiction, but to pursue it consciously is to achieve tedium, as Joyce does in Finnegans Wake. ‘Any poet is a zaumnik, whether he knows it or not,’ claimed Igor Terentyev in ‘Seventeen Nonsensical Implements’. That may indeed be so, but poetry usually does better by not claiming it. 1919, when Terentyev was writing, was the vintage period for systematic nonsense, with Kruchenykh and Khlebnikov inventing zaum in the new Russia; Dada, Surrealism and Joyce going strong in France, with Modernism and The Waste Land in the wings. The world is senseless so let us make language so, but this logic somehow did not last. Yet a post-Freudian era no doubt found nonsense more significant and meaningful than sense, as being in touch with the unconscious; and a new political era perhaps found it classless, without the cultural historical forms of the high style and the low.
Oddly enough, the Romance languages, and the Celtic too, always found nonsense more natural than the Germanic ones, as Irish fairy-tales, for instance, are more purely fantastic than Anglo-Saxon riddles. Indeed, it would be tempting to speculate that the distinction unrecognised but so evident in this anthology between systematic nonsense and ‘special sense’ poetry comes from these two separate linguistic traditions. Ingenuity, of course, is common to both, as to all special uses of language, but what connection otherwise is there between the inevitably rather solemn, because systematic, nonsense of E.L.T. Mesens, Benjamin Péret or Robert Desnos and a well-known jingle like this by Harry Graham (1874-1936)?
I was playing golf the day
That the Germans landed;
All our troops had run away,
All our ships were stranded;
And the thought of England’s shame
Altogether spoilt my game.
It is thus printed by Hugh Haughton, but the author in fact subsequently changed ‘altogether’ to ‘very nearly’, which is much more pointed. Pointed? The point of this sort of ‘nonsense’ verse is to be pointed, which makes it the precise opposite of nonsense. Housman again illustrates the point in his ‘nonsense’ verse, which is as tersely meaningful as The Shropshire Lad. A Nonsense lion ‘rightly and strongly objects to the taste/Of good and uneatable boys’:
So lads of good habits, on coming across
A lion, need feel no alarm,
For they know they are sure to escape with the loss
Of a leg, or a head, or an arm.
It would be hard to pack more implications into a verse – for a start we know who the lion is, don’t we? But the more a real poet tries to write nonsense the more meaningful he becomes.
Or the idea of meaning can be cultivated as something comic in itself, as in the ‘Old French’ rhymes of Luis D’Antin Van Rooten, in which ‘Humpty Dumpty sat on a wall’ becomes Un petit d’un petit/S’étonne aux Halles, and is explicated in scholarly footnotes: ‘The subject of this epigrammatic poem is obviously from the provinces, since a native Parisian would take this famous old market for granted.’ Inexplicably, Haughton leaves out the funniest one, which begins Razeuse arrêt, valet de Tsar bat loup (‘Roses are red, violets are blue’), and has a fantasy gloss involving a female barber required to stop work on the Imperial Family when the valet is beating off wolves: obviously a necessary precaution in view of the Family’s well-known haemophiliac tendency.
But too much meaning becomes pesant; the joke, as with nonsense verse, begins to wear thin. Part of the trouble is that it is too gamesome and too communal, not written specially for us. The same goes for light verse of satiric facility. But not always. Amis’s wonderful eye for accuracy and honesty, which has put into his anthology the very best things of Edward Thomas (‘It rains’, ‘Tall Nettles’, ‘Women he liked’), has also suggested its most unusual items: Yeats’s ‘The Song of the Wandering Aengus’ on a page facing Roger Woddis’s imitation of it in his verses on the Birmingham pub bombings, ‘The Hero’. The two poems complement each other neatly in terms of Romance, and the kinds of nonsense, enchanting or gruesome, it can produce. Yeats’s own phrase was ‘murderous innocence’.
Send Letters To:
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN
Please include name, address, and a telephone number.