The Promise of Words

Laura (Riding) Jackson

There are at least two words ‘poetry’, one meaning linguistic activity of a certain kind, the other meaning verbal matter produced by such activity. I speak in this little essay of what it is that poets are doing and what their activity amounts to in the scales of human behaviour, rather than of poetry the verbal matter – although I may be drawn into making incidental references to it. Another way of describing my point of view, here, is to say that I am trying, here, to function in the field of human criticism rather than in that of literary criticism. (In my fundamental attitude to poetry as a poet, my conception of poetry was not a categorically literary one.)

During my career as a poet I became increasingly an advocate of poetry. In the final stages of that career I claimed, I think, more than any one has ever claimed for it. I believed that it was the way of truth, and to truth, the ‘of’ and the ‘to’ being mingled in my mind in a fond hope that somewhere along the way approach would turn into arrival. Lest my use of ‘truth’ in the preceding sentence throw a religiose mist over my meaning, let me recast my phrasing: I believed that it was the way of speaking true and the way to speaking true, both path of the ideal in language and place of its realisation. This double focus was the result of my not having a categorically literary conception of poetry.

I came eventually to believe there to be something ineradicably wrong with the activity poetry – and that this was reflected in poetry the matter. I arrived at this belief not from disapproval of the cultivation of extraordinary linguistic powers to which poets are professionally dedicated – not with any priggish bias towards the plain-ordinary verbal level – but in the persuasion that poetry involves a distortion of a natural human ambition of linguistic self-fulfilment, and that poets delude themselves in feeling that they attain a verbal serene above the murk of commonplace articulateness, and that they obstruct the general vision of human linguistic potentialities with the appearance of doing so. In the ordinary way of speaking, and the ordinary way of writing, called ‘prose’, which is modelled on it, there are obvious murkinesses; the ‘good’ speaker or prose-writer is one who is able to keep their number low. In the poetic way of writing, which is at once a non-ordinary way of speaking, there is no escape from murkinesses, but they are concealable there; the ‘good’ poet is one who keeps them so inconspicuous that they make no overt problem for his or her or anybody else’s intelligence. Much of the magical effect that poetry gives of rendering everything it touches pellucid comes from the necessity of compression that it imposes. The impossibility of pausing in poetry as long as may be needed to make sense clear causes many a set of words actually deficient in linguistic workmanship to pass for an eloquent brevity.

The obscurity, often called ‘difficulty’, that is charged against ‘advanced’ modern poetry, and against the charge of which it has found more and more defenders, is real, but is something apart from the ingenerate poetic defect of which I have just spoken, something additional to it. It originates in a general progressive weakening, in modern time, of the seatedness of human minds in language, a loosening of the hold on them of formalistic ideas of the coherences of language without the correction of an enlarged view of the nature of those coherences and their importance. People generally are divided between word-weariness and innate passion to make words mean aright for them, and are all linguistically at odds with one another, Poetry still holds aloft, above this scene of disorder, its emblem of relief from the stale and sordid in language, but poets themselves are enveloped in the disorder. Freer rein is given in modern poetry to mental and verbal idiosyncrasy; there is a sharp decrease in the amount of common intellectual ground occupied by poets through the use of a common language. Poets more and more speak their own different languages – their personal versions of the language they use: this is what lies at the root of modern poetic obscurity, ‘difficulty’. I myself came under attack as guilty of one or the other offence in my career as a poet, but I believe my case to be a different one. I laboured to discover the obscured coherences of the common language: from that came my linguistic strangeness as a poet, not from my speaking, after the manner of my fellow modernists, a language of my own – and came also my having an influence on the word-craft of many poets.

My word-ways seemed to extract more ‘poetry’ from language. But I only extracted more language from language. The ‘influenced’ poeticised my enlargement of the linguistic compass of poetry. None who have drawn upon my poems for advantage to their own have comprehended and acted upon (made intelligent application of), in so doing, the broadening and strengthening of the intellectual function of poetry that was the basis of, the governing reason of, my enlargement of its linguistic compass. Those I helped directly, and those who took help from me in the form of ‘influence’, remained insensitive to the line of connection in my poetic principles, and my poetic work, from the spiritual aim of making poetry truly real, a believable mode of truth, to the intellectual pursuance of the ideal, the treatment of it as within the reach of rational practicality, and from this to the linguistic honesty of a spacious exactitude, the attempt to justify the poetic use of words as naturally ‘right’ by attempting to round, in it, the linguistic natural to a full, a perfect, expressiveness. Every poet who has been affected by my poems, or my help, has converted what they, or I, have given, into mere behaviour, an additive to their work of a spiritual, intellectual, linguistic superiority to itself that leaves behind the spiritual, intellectual, linguistic point of the source-material from which it has been derived.

Poetry has been, and still is somewhat, an object of worship, an idol. The tutelary spirit of language seems to dwell in it; it has the appearance of an emblem of Purity. However, the intellectual harmonies of language are sacrificed to it, rather than exalted in it. The hybrid objective of physical and intellectual pleasure, from what is done in poems with words, makes an impossible linguistic ideal; the intellectual pleasure falls ever into second place.

Poetry is a substitute, for linguistically sensitive people, for being of full human linguistic age, which no one can isolatedly be, and the human generality is not yet. It is an enactment by poets of a drama of accession to a state of final knowledge of the secrets of words. The poet dramatises the common dream of the loosened tongue; the poet’s audience delights – or is supposed to delight – in the performance as a reality in its own right, an end in itself. Thus poetry charms the lovers of words into forgetfulness of the reason of their being loveable, which is their holding a promise of perfect, whole, self-delivering utterance for human beings.

Between the poet as language-priest and the reading congregation there is an unwittingly unholy covenant to evade the intellectual, and therefore linguistic, final difficulties and yet by exploiting a certain ‘way with words’ – the poet leading, the congregation following – to transcend them, dissolve them, soar past them. There is a diabolical side to poetry, which adds overtones of angelic beauty to the din of ordinary parlance. This is its futility, its ministering to the vanities rather than to the needs of human beings in their dependence on words, its raising them to heights of illusion of linguistic felicity only to let them drop down to real speaking ground with no increase of capacity to make – or, rather, let – words carry full burden of meaning. Ultimately, in the human production and enjoyment of poetry, poetry proves good only for itself. It provides something to admire – to do which may be argued to be useful and also argued to be an empty justification for its existence.

Poetry involves an attempt to fulfil natural linguistic impulses more successfully than they are fulfilled by ordinary speaking-means with the aid of artifice. Poetry – what poets do – is, therefore, a self-contradictory performance. And general attitudes to poetry are self-contradictory in relation to this peculiarity of it, and the poets’ own attitudes to it, likewise: it is viewed as providing experience of a character that is outside the norm of ordinary human experience, and yet touches the very heart of human existence, and speaks the intimate language of its meaning. If it did this in real effect, it would obliterate the difference between ordinary and super-ordinary, dissolve the self-contradiction in itself, and solve the painfully haunting problem of human uncertainty as to what the human ‘real’ is.

The rhythmic pattern of the poem, which forces continuity of attention – incites a pleasurable compulsion to ‘follow’ – is either a tried metrical suasion-contrivance or a specially invented pattern of physical insistences, equally, if not more, binding in its effect on the reader. From a straight linguistic point of view, there is room for wonder if there is not latent vice in this environment in which pleasurable physically-compelled responses, produced by incidents of poetic utterance, are identified with the Good.

It is very difficult to judge of the poet Wordsworth without clearing from the scales a heavy suspicion that one’s moral instinct places in them in spontaneous innocence of prejudice. The natural impressions that his performances from early to late make of a calculating mind and personality clothed in literary piety, and the unavoidable deduction of a secretive heart, from Coleridge’s generosities of unreserve of himself and restless strivings of spirit and intelligence in special relation to Wordsworth, besides in his general activity and disposition, and what the course of Wordsworth’s work in particular respect to Coleridge’s generosities suggests, could discourage a view of Wordsworth as a man of sensitive conscience, with energy of conscience penetrating from the personal into the literary area of life. But there is some circumstantial basis for deducing that a sense of personal guilt was not unfamiliar to him. And there is an odd quality of guilt virtually felt – a sort of literary guilt doing token service for conscience – in Wordsworth’s expressed uneasiness over the metrical features of poetry, and his offering an elaborate apology for this aspect of poetry. The uniqueness of such position-taking, whatever the key to the question of sincerity, in Wordsworth’s regard, gives the position an importance of an absolute degree: the position, put on record, is in itself a respectable one.

There are other effects associated with the excitation of responses of certain kinds besides those produced by the material features and rhythmic patterns of poems. Wordsworth’s identifying as a function of poems the evocation of experienced emotion irked the sensibility of T.S. Eliot as a literary vulgarism. His own conception of the part of emotion in poem-making was a subtilised one. Emotion, with him, was attenuated in processes of critical theorising that actually entered into his poem-making; it was not for him a determinate element in a poem, as emotion is, in and out of poems, but one that waited upon the indeterminate intellectual element of the poem (always an indeterminate one in his own poems) to arrive at a full determination of its indeterminateness: emotion became emotion about itself in this intricate literary circumstance. Wordsworth faced the technical deviosity of poem make-up in a professional manner perhaps intended to be disarming. It was, at any rate, disarming, communicating as it were the poet’s awareness of a role in tradition’s and the public’s eyes of producing some emotional effects. Eliot was for playing down this role: he made the emotional element as a private factor in the poet’s experience of composing a poem. Readers could be sensitive to it, but they were on their own, there was no overt courting of their emotional interest.

Wordsworth’s position as to the poet’s relation to his public seems also oddly forthright. He treats the problem with practical simplicity as a professional one, from the point of view of the poet estimating just what it is his business to attempt: there is the job of producing poems, there is the public, and there is himself who has got to stand in the poem and out of it, both making it and intermediating between it and himself and it and the public. The Wordsworthian posture is not likeable but it is respectable. Eliot’s posture, in his construing the nature of the poem and the poetic act, takes the entire situation out of the workaday literary world and plants it in a world of literary criticism in which all problems are in terms of the troubles of self-evaluation of the poet as an irresolute mind partly accepting this as proper to the times in which he lives: the poet’s mind is assumed to be, humanly, one of psychological and all other kinds of irresolution, and for the rest one that must steel itself to the professional requirements of poet-identity by forming a competitive self-consciousness keyed to the most intellectually respectable poetic competencies of the past and to the most intellectually innovational poetic trends of the present. The posture is of so elaborately professional a cast of self-centred preoccupation as to invite, to have invited, highest respect, literary, academic and popular, as a paradigm of the predicament-of-the-modern-poet-in-being-modern. But within the posture’s complex aggregation of attitudes there is a stiff one of sustained concern with effects. This attitude, which is not necessarily imperceptible amidst all the fine critical argument and fine adjustments of the poetic writing to this and that personally professional consideration, is, perceived, perceptibly one of sharp crassness as compared, for instance, with Wordsworth’s blunt, businesslike vulgarity in his analysis of the poet’s task.

(Poor Coleridge devotes many, many pages of the latter part of Biographia Literaria to his agonising perplexity over Wordsworth’s critical pronouncements on the practicalities of poems-making. How does the realistic, professionally common-sense view of poetry voiced in them accord with the lofty elegance – in Coleridge’s loyal-hearted and wistful estimation – of some of Wordsworth’s poetic writing? Coleridge pondered this wonderingly. He would have liked to be able to sustain a line-to-line course of poeticised philosophic elevation such as Wordsworth could. But he was not merely philosophically but religiously a more serious man than Wordsworth. And he was serious in his conception of the nature of poetry with an angelic philosophic seriousness. His poetic ideal was itself so elevated that he had not an ounce of professional poetic elevation in him. Wordsworth had a weighty talent in this. It was his intensely professionalistic view of poetry and of himself as a poet that allowed of his making the matter-of-fact prescriptions for good poetic practice, in connection with the Lyrical Ballads, that later haunted Coleridge, distressingly, when he looked back on this – and on his past association with Wordsworth generally.)