Jokes

Donald Davie

  • In the Circumstances: About Poems and Poets by Peter Robinson
    Oxford, 260 pp, £35.00, May 1992, ISBN 0 19 811248 3

It seems now that there was always something odd about Peter Robinson’s being the editor, in 1985, of Geoffrey Hill: Essays on His Work, from the Open University Press. Robinson’s sensibility, particularly as one had encountered it in his poems, pointed away from the aloofness of Hill’s attitude to his public, and away from Hill’s lofty and recherché diction, towards something plainer, more demotically awkward, more (the word presented itself) Wordsworthian. Perhaps I’m being wise after the event: at any rate the event –this collection of nine demanding and tough-minded essays –bears me out. Wordsworth is its presiding presence; his poetry is the bar before which other poets –Auden and Eliot, Hardy and Robert Lowell and Browning. Pound and, yes, Hill – are brought to judgment.

This is not overt. Robinson can’t, any more than the rest of us, come on like a latter-day Leavis, a fearlessly normative critic; instead, psychologists and moral philosophers are wheeled in to support the decorous illusion that Robinson is pursuing an investigation, not sitting in judgment. But he is sitting in judgment, all the same; and more power to his elbow, I say.

There aren’t a lot of Wordsworthians around, when you come to look. Oh of course there is the Grasmere industry, a solidly thriving concern; editors of the Wordsworth texts won’t soon go out of business, and the tourists will doubtless continue to flock in gratifying numbers. But if we look for Wordsworth as a live presence in the poetry of this century, we come up with Norman Nicholson and Basil Bunting, and who else? In a tight spot Wall-ace Stevens appealed to the famous line from ‘Michael’, ‘And never lifted up a single stone’ (drawing from it unwarrantable inferences, as Robinson points out): but Stevens’s admirers know they are on safer ground if they appeal to Coleridge or Keats, Blake Or Emerson. It takes some nerve, in fact, to offer as prime exhibit ‘The Sailor’s Mother’:

  One morning (raw it was and wet –
  A foggy day in winter time)
  A Woman on the road I met,
  Not old, though something past her prime:
  Majestic in her person, tall and straight;
And like a Roman Matron’s was her mien and gait.

   The ancient spirit is not dead;
   Old times, thought I, are breathing there;
   Proud was I that my country bred
   Such strength, a dignity so fair:
   She begged an alms, like one in poor estate;
I looked at her again, nor did my pride abate.

   When from these lofty thoughts I woke
   ‘What is it.’ said I, ‘that you bear,
   Beneath the covert of your Cloak,
   Protected from this cold damp air?’
   She answered, soon as she the question heard,
‘A simple burthen, Sir, a little Singing-bird.’

The next line is in the same strain, less than marmoreal: ‘And, thus continuing, she said ...’ How can this not offend now, as it did in 1807 when it first appeared and dismayed Coleridge? Is this what we understand as poetry, we who have relished Lowell transforming Montale’s ‘South winds have lashed the old walls for years’ into For years the sirocco gunned the dead stucco with sand’? Peter Robinson boldly and admirably demonstrates that in context Wordsworth’s line, lame and tame as it is, not only equals but surpasses Lowell’s inventive fire and finish.

It comes as no surprise therefore that, before he can reprint his own essay on Geoffrey Hill from the Open University tribute, Robinson has to expand and revise a good deal. The piece remains adulatory. But before the end it has now to accommodate sentences like: ‘Hill’s obliquity can release him into felicity, but, as comparison with Wordsworth’s encounter poems indicates, his rarefied occasions attenuate the human purposes of his lines.’ Or, ‘What is distanced in the achievement of Hill’s exemplary accuracy is the sound of other specified people being spoken to, or uttering the grain of their lives.’ (For ‘distanced’, might we not read: ‘surrendered’?) Least forgivingly: ‘because Hill is suspicious of the reader to a fault, and includes the reception of literary work in a writer’s “situation”, that poetic achievement is defined by mystical analogies: atonement, transfiguration, redemption. However credible this account of literary value, it does not describe why, for the most part, people read worthwhile books ...’ Robinson, one imagines, may have some explaining to do when he meets those whom, seven years ago, he induced to join him in the Open University tribute to Hill’s work.

Someone who can write, straight-faced, of ‘worthwhile books’ obviously isn’t bidding to be the flavour of the month Robinson, though he nowadays lives and works in Japan, was formed in Cambridge, and the conditioning shows through: he is high-minded and thereby, though in other ways too, old-fashioned. Thus his psychologist is Melanie Klein, not Julia Kristeva; and his philosopher is Bernard Williams, not you-know who. So, too, his prose at its worst recalls Raymond Williams, for whom, ideologically, he has no time. More pertinently, there are no jokes, or none that I can see. This gets to seem important as soon as Robinson turns to that very jokey writer, Auden. Cambridge high-mindedness has always made heavy weather of Auden, from an inability to see how some jokes, like most of Auden’s, can be serious. A crucial case (crucial because unpalatable) is Auden’s essay, ‘The Poet and the City’: ‘All political theories which, like Plato’s, are based on analogies drawn from artistic fabrication are bound, if put into practice, to turn into tyrannies. The whole aim of a poet, or any other kind of artist, is to produce something which is complete and will endure without change. A poetic city would always contain exactly the same number of inhabitants doing exactly the same jobs for ever.’ Or again:

A society which was really like a good poem, embodying the aesthetic virtues of beauty, order, economy and subordination of detail to the whole, would be a nightmare of horror for, given the historical reality of actual men, such a society could only come into being through selective breeding, extermination of the physically and mentally unfit, absolute obedience to its Director, and a large slave class kept out of sight in cellars.

    Vice versa, a poem which was really like a political democracy – examples, unfortunately, exist – would be formless, windy, banal and utterly boring.

In between these two mordant passages (from The Dyer’s Hand, 1963), Auden has fooled about, constructing a fictitious case of a poet revising, in which, when the poet eliminates a word, he is said to ‘liquidate’ it; when he defers it to a later stanza, he is said to ‘deport’ it. And Robinson is shocked: ‘This simplifies revising, making it analogous to omnipotent fantasy’ But what it is, is a joke – with as much truth as jokes have. Auden is proceeding by hyperbole and caricature: thoroughly legitimate rhetorical devices, and effective, particularly when one is writing journalism, as Auden is. Robinson decides confidently: ‘Auden’s reductio ad absurdum is misleading not because tyrants never behave as he describes them, but because poets do not.’ If Auden can’t disenchant him, I will. Poets often see themselves in fantasy as rulers of subservient realms, and their fantasising themselves so is often the condition of their persisting in their cock-eyed vocation. Poets are not often such good citizens as Robinson supposes. He justly pillories Pound for exalting Mussolini as artifex, but how many other poets did or would not have done the same, substituting perhaps Lenin for Mussolini? It is as Auden jokily but in all seriousness implies: poets are not reliable guides to right political sentiment, nor to prudent political action. Auden makes the point in a rather elaborate joke; that shouldn’t leave us feeling that the point wasn’t worth making, or can hereafter be disregarded.

There is the same breaking of butterflies on wheels when Robinson turns to Auden’s verse. (This was a Stinging butterfly, however):

  Out on the lawn I lie in bed,
  Vega conspicuous overhead
  In the windless nights of June;
Forests of green have done complete
The day’s activity; my feet
  Point to the rising moon.

Lucky, this point in time and space
Is chosen as my working place;
   Where the sexy airs of summer,
The bathing hours and the bare arms.
The leisured drives through a land of farms,
   Are good to the newcomer.

These are the first two stanzas of 16, telling of an occasion in 1933 (an actual one, and datable – Robinson is splendidly punctilious about such things), which Auden set enough store by to describe it in prose in 1964, under the heading. ‘The Vision of Agape’: ‘One fine summer night in June 1933 I was sitting on a lawn after dinner with three colleagues, two women and one man. We liked each other well enough but we were certainly not intimate friends, nor had anyone of us a sexual interest in another.’ (It seems the weather was fine enough for Auden and at least one of his companions to pass the entire night on the lawn – hence the poem.) Aha, says Robinson, but if Agape has nothing to do with Eros, if none of the four had a sexual interest in any other, then why ‘sexy airs of summet’? This suggests, to him, ‘a vague but unmistakable erotic atmosphere’. And so, he decides, ‘the presence of a benign sexual well-being does have a contribution to make in Auden’s feeling of equality among colleagues’ – which is no doubt true, and hardly surprising. But we may surely protest that ‘sexy’ doesn’t mean ‘erotic’, any more than ‘jokey’ means ‘jocund’. The slangy epithets, consciously vulgar and flippant, have self-disparagement built into them. In 1993 to call the airs of summer ‘sexy’ was a typically Auden-esque cheeky joke in passing; he can hardly be blamed for not foreseeing that sixty years later someone would be solemn about it. It goes along with ‘Vega conspicuous overhead’, which has the air of being culled from a star-gazer’s almanac; and with what points to the rising moon being nothing more poetical than the sleeper’s feet. Undoubtedly this jokiness isn’t Wordsworth’s way of addressing such matters; but equally it isn’t the ‘big bow-wow’ of Bostonian Lowell or, in his different way, of conspicuously tormented Hill. There is, between these two extremes, a glancing and sliding idiom that is harder to keep track of than either; and it is Auden’s idiom. He is still not applauded for it as he should be.

All the same, these are very thorny matters, and Robinson deserves every credit for forcing his way into the thickets. It’s still Wordsworth, in poems like ‘The Sailor’s Mother’, who puts the question at its most challenging. When we object to such an encounter-poem by Wordsworth that it is garrulous, how do we deal with the rejoinder that it is garrulous because it faithfully reproduces the speech of people to whom garrulity is natural? (These are often from ‘the lower orders’; the man of few words is to be found as often in those ranks of society as in any other.) One uncompromising answer is that any poet is at fault when, in poetry, he tries to represent garrulous speech – which rules out from poetry the voice of the Sailor’s Mother, as also that of the narrator of Wordsworth’s ‘The Thorn’. This was the position taken by Yvor Winters, whom Robinson acknowledges when he recognises Winters’s ‘fallacy of imitative form: the attempt to express a state of uncertainty by uncertainty of expression’ Prolixity as against terseness; uncertainty as against certainty – the opposed terms are different, but the principle is the same. The real devotee of the marmoreal will require that everything be turned into marble before he can admit it into his composition. When Geoffrey Hill refuses to be bullied by the glamour and overweening claims of ‘the colloquial’, he is of Winters’s way of thinking. And from that standpoint Auden’s skipping and sliding among idioms, among linguistic ‘registers’, undoubtedly looks like a cop-out.

What a ticklish business this is, appears when Robinson undertakes to vindicate Eliot’s sestina in ‘The Dry Salvages’. This has been thought a distressingly uninventive filling in by rote of a pointlessly demanding form. Robinson argues that the demandingness isn’t pointless at all: ‘In finding difficult end-rhymes for each of the stanza’s six lines, for each of the six stanzas. Eliot’s phrasing endures the imposed stanza form.’ And in this way, Robinson claims, the poet honours the endurance of merchant seamen in the North Atlantic in 1940-1, when the poem was written; in acknowledging ‘that there are long passages of time where others must endure the wastage of routine in the service of larger goals, his sestina respects those actions by representing them through the toils of verse writing.’ I find this vindication winning but quite implausible, a clear case of special pleading, and also of Winters’s ‘fallacy of imitative form’. Faithfully to celebrate the uneventful but perilous observance of a routine is certainly worthwhile: but not, surely, by devising a form of verses that replicates, in its own procedures, the routine tiresomeness. Poetry shouldn’t be tiresome: that seems at first sight what everyone must agree to, but it isn’t, when we push the Wordsworthian position to its logical end. If we do that, tiresomeness comes to seem, in certain circumstances, what poetry not only may but must aim at. I don’t like the argument, and I don’t trust it: but it’s very hard to see where it can be faulted, except by retreating to Yvor Winters’s rock-ribbed neoclassicism.

These are matters of perennial and therefore of topical import. When a poet of our day composes a poem out of the hyped and neon-lit language of our time, is he thereby censuring such language or surrendering to it? It’s essential to his enterprise that we shouldn’t know, and at hand is Post-Modernist theory to explain that we never can tell. For in any case this is what ‘the real language of men’ has come down to: the phraseology, however patently determined by commercial or ideological interests, that the populace feels at home in. So, to keep in touch with that populace, this is the phraseology that, like it or not, we have to deal in. Geoffrey Hill doesn’t like that logic, and won’t accede to it –which is greatly to his credit.