Books: Poetry Notebook — Interior Music |
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Interior Music

The poetry of the plainspoken

An unusually successful example of that most easily mangled of verse genres, the philosophical disquisition made fully poetic, Robert Conquest’s intricately argued poem ‘A Problem’ is in The Penguin Book of Contemporary Verse, an anthology that was always with me in the last few years before I left Australia in the early sixties. It’s a long time ago now but I can still remember the thrill of reading, for the first time, the line that sums up what he was really after in that poem. On the face of it he takes a painterly approach, meticulously registering all the nuances of the Ligurian landscape, and how the light falls on it from the sky: falls and alters. But he also says that the shifting patterns of light are ‘Like the complex, simple movement of great verse.’

We can call this prose if we like, but only if we wish that our own prose were as neatly suggestive, as rich in implication as it is authoritative in form — in other words, as complex yet simple, simple yet complex. The mere fact, however, that you have to say the same thing from two different directions is already proof that there is nothing dumb about the idea. Combined into a single oxymoronic phrase, the two words ‘simple’ and ‘complex’ not only collide, they explode. Once they touch and go off, each is riddled with the other’s particular shrapnel. You can’t have one without the other.

Is this seemingly simple notion — but so complex when you unpack it — really an appropriate measure for great verse? In those first years of mine as an appreciator of poetry, I found myself asking that very question when I started reading the later poems of Yeats. In Sydney I had already absorbed — or thought I had absorbed — Pound, Eliot, Auden, MacNeice, and Cummings, plus dozens of others among the avowedly modern — but with them I could always say, when I ran into a difficulty: well, that’s modern art, complex and difficult. I could understand Henry Reed’s ‘Lessons of the War’ perfectly, and thought they added up to a great work. I could understand the poems in Hart Crane’s ‘The Bridge’ only intermittently, and thought they might add up to an even greater work, for that very reason. I could scarcely have been more receptive to a dash of obscurity Tending to underrate intelligibility, I looked upon it as the poet’s fallback position; a true simplicity with nothing complex about it: a life of ease that he might slip back into if he stopped trying. It never occurred to me then that an achieved clarity might be the apex of the craft; and might act as a vehicle for everything that the poet could not fully explain, just so long as he was clear about the fact that he couldn’t. But in laying out the possibilities of choice like this — as if I had seen the choices but just hadn’t yet done any choosing — I might appear to be retroactively giving myself credit for more acumen than I had at the time.

On the ship to England I took my first crack at the later Yeats. I sailed off for the territory beyond such earlier showstoppers as ‘An Irish Airman Foresees His Death’ and got myself into the territory where it seemed that the ageing wizard wanted to be plain as much as he wanted to be poetic. I caught on most quickly to the poems whose prose statements I knew I wasn’t supposed to understand completely at first reading. Such lines as ‘The blood-dimmed tide is loosed’ were obviously meant to be clearer than their context. Byzantium was a destination in the mind, like the Land of Oo-Bla-Dee. None of it was supposed to check out: only to resonate. What threw me, and was to go on throwing me for years, was his use of the perfectly plain, apparently ordinary prose statement. Apart from its biblical rhythm and repetition, was the following moment poetic in any way at all?

Man is in love and loves what vanishes,
What more is there to say?

But the musical momentum of those words made them into an extraordinary statement anyway. And actually there was a lot more to say, and the reader, by trying to say it, must eventually arrive at the conclusion that this seemingly simple statement is complex in the extreme. First of all, man is quite likely to vanish before the thing he loves vanishes. If the thing he loves is a person — say, a beautiful woman — she will certainly vanish one day, but if the beautiful woman is painted by Botticelli, she won’t. One can go on teasing out an argument endlessly, and this same attribute applies to almost every apparently plain statement that the fully mature Yeats ever made. Right up until the end, the simpler he sounds, the more complex he gets. So Conquest’s formula is not invalidated: far from it.

That famous motto about the evanescence of man’s love is an extreme case, but really a lot of Yeats’s later work is like that. Some of the mystical rigmarole of the early work continues into the later work: there is no escaping ‘the gyres! the gyres!’. But his big poems, such as ‘Among School Children’ and ‘All Souls’ Night’, can mainly be read almost as if they were prose: it’s one of their characteristics. The characteristic is deceptive because it can lead even the most acute critic into the delusion that Yeats in his advanced years was writing rhetoric rather than poetry. He didn’t. What he did was to trim down the number of complicating factors. Sometimes there was little imagery and often there was none at all: just an argument. But even the most straightforward argument was made musical by the way it moved. In his spellbinder of a short poem ‘The Cold Heaven’, the ‘rook-delighting heaven’ is first of all a syntactically compressed way of saying that the sky delights the crows. But it is also a peal of music. (One night at a feast in King’s College, Cambridge, when the late Frank Kermode was already older than I am now, he recited the poem to me in his soft voice, and I was breathless at the beauty of its switches and turns, its smooth linking of pause and glide.) To fill the straightforward with implication — to make the simple complex — brought Yeats to the height of his technique.

Irish poets, learn your trade,
Sing whatever is well made.
            — from ‘Under Ben Bulben’

In the early work there is frequent mention of mystical inspiration, but in the later work he is more likely to put the explicit emphasis on craft. We can be sure that he didn’t think of craft as the lesser thing. It was the larger thing, embracing all the other mental activities going on in the mind of the artist.

Looking back on a long life of trying to get my feelings about poetry into order — a doomed task perhaps, but a compulsive one — I am shamed by the number of times that I did not catch on. The truth about my admiration for the later Yeats was that it took years to form. I was off the ship and in England for a long time before I followed up on the way Philip Larkin had provided latter-day mirror images for the big, sweeping stanzas of the last Yeats poems, and of how Dylan Thomas had said, while calling Hardy his favourite modern poet, that Yeats was the greatest by miles. When I read, in a preface by Larkin, that Thomas had said this, I didn’t catch on about Hardy, but I was further encouraged into going on with Yeats.

• • •

I like to think that I finally did catch on about Hardy’s poetry, but it was a shamefully recent revelation. There I was, shambling into oblivion, and I still hadn’t learned to love the mass of Hardy’s verse: that great bulk of finely made things so cherished by such connoisseurs as, well, Larkin. But catching on can have as much to do with the when as the how. Larkin, in contrast to his friend Kingsley Amis, thought that D. H. Lawrence was a valuable writer, even if overrated. Larkin wrote about Lawrence as if Lawrence had opened up the emotional world for him and helped deliver him from adolescence. I got to Lawrence too late in my life to feel that way: only a few years too late, but late enough to close off the possibility. When I was at Cambridge in the mid-sixties, not to be a worshipper of Lawrence’s novels could make life tricky if there were any fans of F. R. Leavis about, but I had a get-out-of-jail free card: I genuinely admired Lawrence’s poetry, and indeed his poem ‘The Ship of Death’ is still frequently in my mind today, especially as the skies ahead of me grow dark. I loved the way his verse moved; but if we spool forward a few decades I find that I still can’t love the way most of Hardy’s verse moves. For too much of the time he is concerned with making pretty patterns on the page, and it seems that he must fool with the syntax and the vocabulary in order to stick within the template. And yet I can quite see that his poem about the Titanic (cleverly, it talks about the iceberg rather than about the ship) is a startling feat of the historic imagination: one of the last of the Empire poems, and as ambiguous about imperial prestige as anything by Kipling. But what I want, and want perhaps too much, is a line that carries its load without contortion, a line simple in its complexity.

I heard such a line of Hardy’s when I was starting off in Sydney. I was no more fit to seek Hardy out for myself than I was fit to seek out the music of Elgar, which always sent me back to Beethoven after only four bars. But Hardy, so to speak, sought me out. In our student days, we would be very choosy about the discs we played at parties. To sit beside the radiogram and load the discs was a position of power. It was an era when the female students were spraining their hips trying to dance to the title track of Dave Brubeck’s hit album Time Out: a few minutes of gyrating in 5/4 time could have dire effects on a foundation garment. But there were discs of spoken poetry too; and the most favoured disc featured Dylan Thomas: and one of the tracks was ‘Poem on His Birthday’. People demanded to hear it again and again. I knew what they meant. ‘And my shining men no more alone / As I sail out to die.’ I found that heroic, even if puzzling. (Wouldn’t they be more alone?) But the track that I myself insisted on hearing again, sometimes against strong opposition, was his recital of Hardy’s ‘In Death Divided’. Thomas’s speaking voice was so beautiful that he would have thrilled you if he had recited your death warrant, but he seemed to have been saving an extra dose of magic for the words of Hardy. What I liked best was the ending. After a twist of syntax in the second last line (‘No eye will see’) the poem ended with an unblemished directness to which Thomas’s voice lent full power but which he had no need to distort. ‘Stretching across the miles that sever you from me.’ Really I should have caught on about Hardy right then, instead of decades later.

Because there it was: the simple statement made complex by its own interior music. Though it undoubtedly sounded all the better because Thomas was saying it, it still sounded pretty good even when I said it. It still does. There must be many more moments like it in Hardy’s thick book of collected verse, which still daunts me with its heap of patterns, as if it were a code book for threading up looms in a cloth mill. But I shan’t make the mistake of hunting about at random in all that. I’ll go to the selections, of which I own several; and to those anthologies in which he is featured, starting with Larkin’s Oxford Book of Twentieth-Century English Verse. Introducing you to a poet is one of the two best things an anthology can do. The other best thing is to introduce you to a single poem, as The Penguin Book of Contemporary Verse did for me when it gave me a line by Robert Conquest that I have been thinking of ever since.

• • •

When Yeats edited the Oxford Book of Modern Verse in 1936 he notoriously left Wilfred Owen’s work out, thereby giving the impression that he did not find the most gifted English poet of the Great War quite poetic enough. (He left out the other war poets too, as if he thought war was not a fit subject. It is often necessary to remind oneself that the great man could be a tremendous fool.) At the time he edited the anthology Yeats had already made his own discoveries of just how poetic ‘unpoetic’ poetry could be. Indeed, he had only three more years to live; most of the body of work that we think of as constituting his later manner was already written; and Auden was all set to sing unforgettably over his grave. One of the phrases that rings most true in Auden’s triumphal threnody for the departed Irish giant was ‘You were silly like us.’ In pretending that he had not seen Owen’s unarguable poetic virtues, Yeats had been as silly as a man of letters can well get. Cruelly cut down when young, Owen had shown from the start the quality that Yeats arrived at only near the finish: the prosaically poetic, the simply complex. (‘And each slow dusk a drawing-down of blinds’: how could Yeats, even at his most batty, not have seen the genius in that line?) A gift for the clear statement that would be almost ordinary if it were not so alert with meaning is one of the things that lock Owen and Keith Douglas in their fearful historic symmetry. Owen, killed by one of the last bullets of the First World War, and Douglas, killed in Normandy in the Second World War, both had the secret. The loss was especially piquant in the case of Douglas because dozens of surrealists survived to help make a fashion of not knowing what they were talking about. Especially when they were subsumed under the blanket title of New Apocalyptics, surrealist poets were the plague of England in the war years. There were surrealist Americans too, but as the war wound down and the US took over as the dominant power in the West, no mishmash of meaning ever stood a chance against the brilliant clarities of Richard Wilbur, Anthony Hecht, and a dozen lesser figures who had seen service — some of them had even seen action — without letting the shock scramble their sense of logic. Not even Robert Lowell, who wanted to say everything at once, ever abandoned logical structure. But in Britain, the ideal of intelligible poetry had to be re-established. Robert Conquest’s anthology New Lines was a key document in the struggle, which was like trying to lift a locomotive back onto the tracks. The job would have been a lot easier if Keith Douglas had come back from the fighting.

• • •

Complex simplicity means a phrase, a line, and sometimes a whole poem that makes a virtue out of incorporating its intellectual structure into its musical progression, and vice versa: it is always a two-way thing, a thermocouple of gold and platinum, but without the capacity of those two precious metals to give a precisely calculable effect.

On the contrary, a successful moment of poetry won’t let you calculate anything. For as long as it lasts, it is a mental force that silences all the other mental forces. For any modern poets, the ability to transmit this quality seems to be an important factor in whether or not they will last. Perhaps not the determining factor: Dylan Thomas would probably still be with us even if all his poems had been as crowded with symbolism as ‘Fern Hill’. But it certainly helped that he could also write

The ball I threw while playing in the park
Has not yet reached the ground.
            — from ‘Should Lanterns Shine’

Eventually we might have to decide whether the poetry of, say, John Ashbery is on its way to immortality or to the junkyard. But most of the great moderns have given us a larger proportion of intelligible statement to go on than he has done over the long span of his work. For what these titles are worth, Eliot and Frost are still fighting it out for the spot at the top of the rankings. Our first thought about Frost is that too often he was too plain: he could do a clinching line that courted banality. People employed the term ‘cracker motto’ and sometimes they were not wrong. But on second thoughts, and for many layers of thought thereafter, Frost was a master of organizing a prose argument into a poem. That brief but bewitching masterpiece ‘The Silken Tent’ is written in the most limpid of plain language throughout. It’s a kind of level-headed dizzy spell. There was one academic — I forget which one — who thought that the mention of ‘guys’ meant men instead of ropes, but on the whole the poem’s language is of a simplicity that not even an idiot with tenure could get wrong. And yet it is as complex as could be. Anyone who doubts that should try memorizing the poem. It defies memorization because of the complexity of its syntax.

Eliot wrote a smaller proportion of ‘unpoetic’ poetry but two examples might be usefully mentioned. Early on, in ‘The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock’, there is the passage that starts: ‘No! I am not Prince Hamlet’ and goes on into an astonishing sweep of deliberate prolixity. The fluent bravura of the structure is obviously meant to be one of the elements that produce the emotion — the ‘art emotion’ which Eliot said was separate from other emotions. When you search for details, you don’t find details of imagery; you find details of syntax, and of how the phrases and sentences balance up. Thus, ‘Politic, cautious, and meticulous’ has a phonetic relationship, as well as a semantic one, to ‘At times, indeed, almost ridiculous’ So effective that it can floor the first-time reader like an overcharged cocktail, this is poetry with very few of the usual poetic attributes. On the other hand, it is prose whose interior workings are calculated and refined to such a high standard that they turn incandescent. If it’s simple, it’s as simple as complexity can get.

Most of Eliot’s poetry isn’t like that. He struck a similar tone only much later, in Four Quartets, and we must remember that in each of the four constituent poems the texture is dictated by symbolism: not so deliberately tangled as in The Waste Land, perhaps, but still densely woven, and often oblique beyond analysis. An indicative moment is when the author completes an obscure lyrical flight and then starts his next verse paragraph with ‘That was a way of putting it — not very satisfactory’ So he has admitted his own thirst for an alternative; but when he takes a different course, into plainness, it is only to floor us all over again, as he once did with the attendant lord who was not Hamlet. In ‘Little Gidding’ we get the long and rigorously unpoeticized passage that begins with how the poet and his interlocutor met each other before they ‘trod the pavement in a dead patrol’. According to a mountain of scholarship, the poet’s companion could be the shade of Yeats. Certainly the mysterious companion has overtones of Brunetto Latini, Dante’s beloved teacher who turns up in the Divine Comedy to walk beside him. Towards the end of this sublime passage — there is no other adjective that will serve — even the most overtly poetic line, the line that sounds as if it could have been borrowed from Shakespeare, is a straight statement that you can take away and use in conversation. ‘Then fools’ approval stings, and honour stains.’ Otherwise, at the end as at the beginning, the whole marvellous feat of versification is written as if it had no claims to the poetic beyond the surefootedness with which it is organized. Somewhere in the background you can hear the pulse of Dante’s terza rima, but in fact Eliot’s version doesn’t even rhyme. The phonetic impetus is all provided by the arrangement of the syllables within each line, and the movement of each line against the next. It is a tour de force. But is it poetic?

Of course it is. And we can say that with rather more certainty than when we assure ourselves that a painting by Mark Rothko in his later manner is still a painting even though almost every standard painterly component has been suppressed at the deliberate wish of the artist. About a Rothko painting there will always be a question: it’s one of the reasons why so many people have come to see it. But about this supreme moment in Eliot’s verse there can be no question. We can tell that it is poetry by the way that we react.

• • •

I knew an English poet of my own age who was quietly mortified at being left out of Larkin’s Oxford book. Since the poet in question was famous for his integrity and stoicism, this was a striking example of how anthologies count. The poet thought that being omitted would hurt his career. In the long run it didn’t, but the long run was certainly made harder. Resentment at Larkin’s policy of inclusion did not centre so much on the lavish space he gave to Hardy and Betjeman: everyone knew that he would serve his tastes. What cheesed people off was that he found room for poems written by sociable versifiers no longer in fashion, while thereby restricting his accommodation of current poets who were counting on making an appearance, however cursory. As my friend said, it hurt to give your life to the art of poetry and then find yourself crowded out by the resurrected corpse of a genteel scribbler such as Vita Sackville-West.

But we have to see the matter from Larkin’s viewpoint. For all that he might have admired my friend’s seriousness, he didn’t think that the result was poetry: whereas he thought that Vita, even though a loquacious mediocrity whose work in verse could be measured by the square mile, had occasionally hit the mark. The inclusion of so much Betjeman was an obvious sign that Larkin’s taste had triumphed: he had always seen Betjeman as an important poet and now he was in a position to assert it irrefutably. But the inclusion of even a little of Sackville-West was an even greater triumph of taste, if much less obvious. He was saying that something matters beyond the name and the reputation. What matters is the authoritative voice of the successful poem; a voice in which the poet might speak only once, but it is still a poem if it sounds like this —

All craftsmen share a knowledge. They have held
Reality down fluttering to a bench;
Cut wood to their own purposes; compelled
The growth of pattern with the patient shuttle;
Drained acres to a trench.

After which she goes on to speak wonderfully about the rich subject she has opened up. Why couldn’t she have written more poetry like that? The only possible answer is that she just didn’t find it imperative. The idea that people might actually choose not to do more of their best thing is one that we are bound to find unsettling, but it is part of freedom. Robert Conquest, incidentally, has spent most of his literary career, when he has bothered with verse at all, cobbling squibs in rhyming form. In a long life he has written only a handful of serious poems. Sometimes to the dismay of his friends and admirers, the man who defined the simply complex has seldom pursued it. But his book The Great Terror helped to bring down the Soviet Union, so we owe him for other things.