Tuesday, 12 January 2010

Poetry enlarges life

In the preface to his excellent book on the poetry of Wallace Stevens, Simon Critchley writes:

If I have a general cultural complaint it is that, first and most importantly, there are too few readers of poetry and, second but relatedly, too many of those readers are writers of poetry. It is the general conviction of this book that poetry elevates, liberates and ennobles human life and that the experience of poetry should be extended to as many people as possible. Poetry enlarges life with a range of observation, a depth of sentiment, a power of expression and an attention to language that simply eclipses any other medium. As I say below, poetry is life with the ray of imagination's power shot through it. It is my belief that a life without poetry is a life diminished, needlessly stunted.

Little there to disagree with, I think. There's a comic apologetic dance that readers and writers of poetry alike go through when talking about poetry, some kind of intuition that it's an antiquated or bourgeois pastime, that it is inconsequential or a harmless eccentricity, or that its sphere of effectiveness is diminished to a few thoughtful but impotent aesthetes.

This is partly so because one thinks of poetry as being either the rhythmic tapping-out of the banal or inaccessible and recondite shards wrung out of infinite complexity; and this is why John Betjeman and Geoffrey Hill are the twin inspirational spirits of contemporary dullness. One could be forgiven for navigating the poetry section at Foyles and thinking that Critchley's plea for poetry is the admirable formulation of an ideal cruelly flattened by reality.

Most readers not instinctively given to the vice of poetry would accord with Auden when he says, famously, 'Poetry makes nothing happen.' But that stanza, in a eulogy of W.B. Yeats, is as much a testament to Auden's own struggle with Yeats' ineffable music and barbarism as a dictum on poetry in general. What is not often recognised about that poem is simply how cruel it is – in eulogising Yeats, even imitating his distinctive meter, Auden belittles and negates much that Yeats believed about poetry, its ability to engender and capture worlds. It is a peculiarly English vice to be captured by the music but disown its sublimity.

(One of my favourite of Stevens' poems: To an Old Philosopher in Rome)


  1. Magnificent poem. Interesting to see you turn on Hill---not a poet I read much for pleasure these days, I must say.

  2. I've always been mildly ambivalent about Hill -- there are books of his which I think of as almost flawless masterpieces (Tenebrae, Orchards of Syon) but I think he's occasionally hermetic to the point of inconsequentiality. That said, I loved Treatise of Civil Power, so we may be talking about my own inadequacies rather than Hill's here.

    What he *has* unquestionably inspired, though, is the portentous post-Eliotean maundering of innumerable contemporaries; one can never bear responsibility for one's imitators, sure, but his praise of 'difficulty' isn't as unproblematic as some make it out to me. A poetics of difficulty with that as its sole criterion produces thin, etiolated poetry -- one can read 'Leda and the Swan' effectively without knowing that it's ekphrastic, or indeed what ekphrasis is.

    (I'm aware I'm causing a host of straw men to dance before us; woe!)

  3. Yes the Stevens poems is magnificent.

    As serious and difficult as Hill is made out to be, much of this, I feel, is critics posturing about how they are handling - or not handling - the difficulty. I did wonder if I was alone in finding some of his references amusing, but when I talked to him after a reading once he said he has always aspired to be a comic poet.

    As for Auden, I've always been ambivalent about him! 'Poetry makes nothing happen' is certainly at odds with Hill's insistence on responsibility for words that are released, and a cop-out. Like 'the truest poetry is the most feigning' it has a point but also institutionalises dishonesty. On the other hand if we listen to:

    "As if the design of all his words takes form
    And frame from thinking and is realized. "

    I think we can see this another way.