The Three Acts of Criticism

Helen Vendler

  • The Oxford Companion to 20th-Century Poetry in English edited by Ian Hamilton
    Oxford, 602 pp, £25.00, February 1994, ISBN 0 19 866147 9

This handy compilation (to which I myself contributed a couple of notices) covers, according to the jacket copy, ‘some 1500’ poets and ‘charts the shift from “poetry” to “poetries” – from primarily British and American traditions to a rich diversity of younger poetic identities elsewhere’. It may be doubted whether ‘poetry’ is so easily dislodged in favour of ‘poetries’, but no editor is responsible for his jacket copy. Nonetheless, the jacket copy (like the accompanying publicity material) is a test of the current way of marketing poetry; and it is disheartening that after a brief nod to ‘critical assessment’ and ‘biographical and bibliographical information’, the jacket flap launches into its trumpeting conclusion, that ‘20th-century poets have lived far from humdrum lives’:

Twenty-seven here had nervous breakdowns, 19 served time in jail, 14 died in battle, three were murdered, one executed. One played hockey for his country. There were 15 suicides, and one poet who staged his own death only to reappear, still writing poetry, under a new name.

In part this is only good clean fun. But more seriously, it points to the real vacuum in the publishing world of things to say about poetry itself. Inside Ian Hamilton’s volume there are, of course, things said, and they are said by experts – though the expertise is compartmentalised, with women writing about women, Indians about Indians, Irish about Irish, Scots about Scots, language-poet critics about language poets, and so on. This is a first run-through of poetry since 1900, at a moment when the sieve has the largest holes. In 2500 AD, if the world is still here and publishers are still sponsoring surveys, the 1500 poets here included will have shrunk to about fifty, and a good thing too. The small ‘mob of gentlemen who wrote with ease’ has now swollen to a throng of men and women who write with intent, and this reader, at least, shrinks before the sheer weight of publication represented by these 1500 writers of verse.

Hamilton has included short notices of various movements and formal strategies (Lallans, language poetry, Native American poetry, syllabics, concrete poetry) and of some literary magazines. Anyone leafing through the collection will be alerted to scores of poets (African, Australian, Caribbean, Canadian, North American) of whom he may have been unaware; and since these writers have usually been sequestered in geographically ordered anthologies, it is a good idea to have them all brought together in one place. But there is a real conflict in the Companion between poet and poetry, life and art, simply because it is easier, in a short space, to describe someone’s life and publications than it is to say anything revealing about the many poems belonging to that life, collected in those publications.

Here, for instance, is the total comment (following a bit about the life and publications) on one 40-year-old poet’s poems: his

poems draw variously on his Liverpool childhood, particularly his sense of Irishness as caught in the evidence of his name and his family’s accents; on the tense interaction between a life spent reading and the married life he leads beyond books; and, most movingly, on the experience of adopting a child.

Are these poems, the reader wonders, short or long, stanzaic or not, in free verse or metrical verse, Audenesque or Larkinesque or Heaneyesque, tragic or ironic or comic, narrative or meditative, vivacious or mournful, and if original, in what measure and in what way? Granted, this is a short entry; but couldn’t something have been said about aspects other than thematic ones? Those of the Companion’s contributors who are poets do notably better than this, both in choosing illuminating adjectives and in mentioning technical aspects of verse. Here, for instance, are a couple of sentences from George MacBeth on Carl Sandburg:

William Carlos Williams broke the grip of the iambic line with more subtlety, but Sandburg smashed it open with greater naturalness. Poems like ‘Skyscraper’ and ‘Cool Tombs’ offer the paragraph as a verse unit in a way that no one had quite done before, not even Whitman ... What Sandburg often catches is the tacky bravura and breezy sentimentality of his Midwest subjects, a sense of pulsating energy still unsure of itself and sometimes lapsing into the maudlin, the vicious or the grotesque.

Sandburg of course has had a longer time to be assimilated, critically and thematically, than the young poet of my first example; but there is always something to be said about how a poet either follows a formal or technical trend or begins one. And such remarks cannot simply be general ones. Precise and specific remarks about a poet’s procedures are always to be preferred to the sort of all-purpose sentences too common in this collection:

A practitioner of the meditation-in-verse and the self-presentational lyric, X attempts to infuse the commonplace with mystery and drama through conversational free verse and, on occasion, traditional forms.

Does such a sentence about X’s procedures really tell us anything distinctive about this poet? Or is it simply generic blurb-talk? Ninety-nine per cent of current poets practise the meditation-in-verse and the ‘I’ poem; and given the realistic, journalistic and domestic style that has dominated Anglo-American lyric in this century, ‘infusing the commonplace with mystery and drama’ is everyone’s hope. What would the opposite be? Showing the commonplace to be commonplace? As for using ‘conversational free verse and, on occasion, traditional forms’, what poet does not? There is hardly anyone, these days, who has not committed the occasional sonnet or rhymed couplet in addition to writing in free verse.

All-purpose sentences are not confined to poetic procedures; they also exist in thematic description:

Y writes a strong, clear-sighted poetry that is deeply rooted in place. But if the poems begin in particular locales, the poet’s meditative intelligence soon brings the moral topography into view.

Well, yes, but what would a poem be that stopped with a description of a particular locale? Wouldn’t any poet have to bring in some ‘moral topography’? And wouldn’t any lyric poet worth his salt possess some sort of ‘meditative intelligence’? ‘Strong’ and ‘clear-sighted’ are all-purpose honorific adjectives, applying as easily to Burns as to Pope, and therefore hardly informative. The piece in question continues with a peculiar logic:

In his first collection, Y manifested his characteristic concerns – with romantic love, memory, political accountability, and the spiritual impulse – but managed to sustain a subdued lyricism throughout.

But managed to sustain lyricism? What would the alternative be? To manifest concerns while losing lyricism? And as far as the ‘characteristic concerns’ go, it is hard to think of a first collection by a young man in his thirties that would omit love, memory and ‘the spiritual impulse’. Only ‘political accountability’ might be though ‘characteristic’ (in the specifying sense, distinguishing this poet from the usual young writer); yet when one knows that this is a South African poet, even ‘political accountability’ becomes less individually specifying than before. The strange logic continues:

The title-poem, an imaginative re-creation of the lives of the Bushmen of the Kalahari, summons up the void left behind after their all-but total eradication, but does so in an elegiac manner.

Here, once again, is a mysterious ‘but’. The poet, says the contributor, speaks about the eradication of the Bushmen, but does so elegiacially. What is the implied other attitude – a triumphal rejoicing? And is it likely that any poet would express such an attitude?

This is all relatively harmless, of course, and anyone could poke comparable holes in my own two short contributions, which say not a word (I now notice, mea culpa) about the verse-forms of my two poets. I can’t now remember my instructions from the editor; the general format seems to be a bit about the life, a ‘critical assessment’ and a bibliographical addendum. Since the first and last of these are relatively cut-and-dried, it is only in the ‘critical assessment’ that the contributor has a chance to identify the idiosyncrasy of the poetry, and most of us have done this work through adjectives and adverbs of tone and attitude. Yet these do not identify how poetry distinguishes itself from autobiography and the personal essay, both of which use tonal variation and attitudinal postures as strategies of self-revelation. Even the metaphors and similes that are thought inseparable from poetry are of course common coin in essays and memoirs. What, then, distinguishes poetry from other kinds of autobiography or from other sorts of fiction?

The first, and simplest, answer is lineation and stanza-breaks. Yet one would not know from most of these entries (including my own) that the poems we describe were written in lines, with or without stanza-breaks. This does not prove that the defining external features of poetry are unimportant: it proves only that in introducing new authors (which is, after all, the function of these short pieces) the contributors thought that the mention of themes was the first and indispensable act. And perhaps it is – but it should be followed by a second act and a third, which I shall come to in a moment. The fact that so often there is not even a second act proves only that we hardly know what to say to a lay audience about lineation and stanza-breaks. Nor do we know what to say about that of which lineation and stanza-breaks are merely the outward sign: the poetic form itself. How does one reveal oneself in poetry, and how is that mode different from self-revelation elsewhere? Of what is poetry the fiction, and how does that fiction differ from the prose short story?

There is no one reason for lineation. Regular lineation was originally an aide-mémoire, but lineation has persisted as the chief sign of verse even with the withering of memorised performance. Lineation is a form of segmentation; and it makes us ask why poetry needs to be segmented in a more elaborate way than prose. Prose reserves its formal segmentation for paragraph-breaks; and we would find it very odd, in reading prose, to have to stop several times per sentence. Real poetry (by contrast with the versified prose that fills pages of contemporary anthologies) needs segmentation precisely because it changes direction so often, as ‘efficient’ prose does not. A ‘good’ line-break in a poem always reflects a change of direction – an alteration in tone, a veering of glance, a shift in metaphor, a speed-up or slow-down in pacing, a new addition to a list. Poetry can thus be defined (in one sense) as prose written for maximum inefficiency. The well-known concision and even hermeticism of poetry (‘real’ poetry) stems precisely from this ‘inefficiency’ in conveying information (while aiming at maximum efficiency in emotional kinaesthesia). An autobiographical incident which has been made into a poem exists not to reveal incident (as it would had it been made into a story) but to reveal, one might say, the EEG of its speaker, tracked precisely by the veerings and tackings of lineation.

Sometimes stanza-breaks in poetry serve merely the same function as paragraph-breaks in prose: they are a signal that a new topic is about to occur. But this paragraphing function does not explain the breaks between regular stanzas (the breaks, for example, between regular quatrains or regular ottava-rima stanzas). These are not paragraph-breaks between topics. Instead, they exemplify one of the peculiar things about poetry – that its self-interruptions obey a logic that is non-informational or non-topical. Sometimes it is a pictorial logic, sometimes an emotional one, sometimes a metaphorical one; and a study of stanza-breaks tells a lot about the mind of a poet. It can say whether the reworking of incident in a poem is done in the service of tableaux, or in the service of volatility of emotion, or in the service of a metaphorical recasting of the original incident.

Beginnings and endings also tell a good deal about a poet, but not so much as does the characteristic internal structure of his or her lyrics. Emily Dickinson’s binary and ternary forms are symbols of her bitter contrastive briskness and ironic point-making; Whitman’s expansive middles, with their ranging glances, show a poet who sits down in the centre of his subject-matter and gathers it in, skein by skein, or who launches out into the open road of leisurely digressions. George Herbert’s intensifying stanzaic repetitions, episode by episode, reveal him as a poet who is rarely satisfied with his first look at his material, but who must go deeper and deeper into the truth of the thing. It would be helpful if commentators on poets could attempt to say something about lineation, stanza-breaks, beginnings, endings and internal structure as well as about the easier topics of themes and imagery.

And what I have called above the third act of criticism – which comes after a consideration of themes and imagery, and after a glance at external and internal forms – is an investigation into how the poet’s imagination works to redefine the topics common to lyric (family, love, memory etc) in symbolic form. It may be that the family has been seen as a gulag, or love as a game, or memory as a treadmill – no matter what. In short, theme untransformed is theme unimagined. If I recommend the first act of identifying theme and imagery, the second act of describing form, and the third act of analysing imaginative transumption, it is so that an author’s originality can be at least partially represented. This recommendation is perhaps what used to be called a counsel of perfection, but it would improve the reviewing of poetry as well as the contents of handbooks if the intrinsic nature of lyric – its powers and its peculiarities – were more widely understood.

What is most useful to an American in Hamilton’s Companion is its inevitable centre in London, its concern with the tributaries of post-colonial poetry pouring into London presses, magazines and reviewing. In the United States, one hears much less about African, Caribbean and Indian poetry than one does in England, with its long history of Imperial and Post-Imperial educational and literary connections. The world-poetry in English that does filter through to an American audience is somewhat capriciously chosen by anthologists or critics. Hamilton’s wide coverage comes to an American reader as a revelation, though the entries about poets who are not English or American are not always so clear as one could wish. What does it mean to say, of a Nigerian poet, that ‘in some poems Ijaw spiritual concepts are boldly transposed directly into English (“shadow”, “inside”, “Front”, “Back”)’? Or to say of a Trinidadian poet: ‘His aims as a poet are strongly suggested in “Calypso Cricketer” and “Cricket’s in my Blood” ’? Or, of an Indian poet, that she ‘employs her native Gujarati for onomatopoeic effect, and because for her certain subjects cannot be described in English’? Perhaps such enigmatic sentences are simply meant to draw the reader into further acquaintance with the poet – and perhaps that is all such a Companion, in the case of short entries, can do.

Some of the longer entries are well worth reading. I especially enjoyed Douglas Dunn’s exemplary entries on Scottish poetry, and of course Heaney on Lowell. The British contributors (I here include, for convenience, Irish and Scottish) have, on the whole, tarter tongues than the Americans do: the British are willing to dismiss certain volumes, to enter reservations, to point out limitations. They are less likely to write blurb-speak, or to praise without stint. Their more measured contributions tend to inspire confidence. This is, after all, a putatively informational handbook. It is therefore unsettling (especially if one does not agree with the judgment expressed) to find (and from a British reviewer) an adulatory and unctuous set of comments like these:

His substantial and remarkable oeuvre ... holds the glass up to this worst of centuries and looks it squarely in the eye ... [It] shatters the cosy notion that a fragmented, fractured age should be reflected in the forms of its art, that ugliness and shapelessness demand payment in kind. He has absorbed the evils and grotesqueries of his unhappy century into a verse both highly formal and all-encompassing, stitching wounds with iambs, sculpting pentameters of sustained, Latinate beauty, sounding a healing music.

Such lavish writing really has no place in a handbook, and tends to backfire, as this reader, at least, wonders what wounds she has lately seen stitched with iambs. And she asks, from her opposed perspective, how hollow will this moralising encomium ring in thirty years’ time? I sometimes wondered, as I read, whether the general public is not right to find commentary on poetry so often simply silly:

On the page, Z’s language forces readers to look at familiar words with new eyes: ‘the’ becomes ‘th’, ‘and’ becomes ‘nd’, ‘some’ becomes ‘sum’, ‘station’ becomes ‘stashun’.

You don’t say. One had of course never seen ‘the’ become ‘th’ before if one is a reader of poetry. And as for phonetic spelling, didn’t that go out with Shaw? Or at least with E.E. Cummings? I don’t blame Hamilton for not arguing with his contributors – there is no end of argument possible, and it is better that this useful reference work appear than not appear. It is just that the crucial absence of a serious and widely-shared cultural discourse applicable to poetry becomes cruelly evident in the desperation of contributors casting about for something – anything – to say. Of course there is always a lot to say about powerful poetry, especially once the canon is complete (see Heaney on Lowell or Bernard O’Donoghue on Yeats or Nicholas Jenkins on Auden, all three pieces triumphs of compression and depth). Facing the work of a less accomplished writer, who really has done nothing technically or procedurally new, the commentator falls weakly back on either a recital of themes and images or on an all-purpose vocabulary of sensitivity, meditativeness and so on.

Anthologists (and readers) would benefit if this handbook contained an appendix cross-listing the poets by country of origin. And the mysterious process by which the prefatory list decoding the identity of contributors (the entries are merely initialled) has been arranged (alphabetically by initial letter of last name, but within that letter not alphabetised) should be revised into proper order for easy identification. It is often as interesting to know the contributor’s identity as to read the entry.

In spite of some disappointments, I am glad to own this volume. As a proclamation of the internationalisation of poetry in English, Hamilton’s Companion, generously inclusive, will be seen in the future, I am certain, as a significant landmark of literary change. It documents the enormous burgeoning of English all over the world, a cultural fact bound to produce continuing poetic results. Major poets do not usually appear overnight from colonised nations. It took the United States two hundred years to produce Whitman and Dickinson, and Ireland three hundred years to produce Yeats. Australia and Canada (to name two newer nations) have not yet had poets of comparable world importance. Yeats was right in saying that a written language ‘wrought of high laughter, loveliness, and ease’ was ‘gradual time’s last gift’. That is harsh but true: great poetry – capable of comedy, irony, splendour and rhythmic grace – is a late-flowering off-spring of national wealth, education and spiritual confidence. Most of Hamilton’s poets will, through gradual time, fall by the wayside. But the explosion of poetry in English outside the British Isles and the United States represented in his Companion is bound to surprise us all in the future.