Books: The Meaning of Recognition — Criticism à la Kermode |
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Criticism à la Kermode

Frank Kermode’s latest collection of essays, Pleasing Myself, should please a lot of other people too, but strictly on the quiet. In real life, Frank Kermode is softly spoken. An interlocutor does best to get as close as possible, so as not to miss a word. Many of the words are not Kermode’s: they are quoted from writers he admires, and most of those are poets. The poets, could they be present, would be pleased to hear their lines pronounced with such a fine regard for rhythm, balance, sense and nuance. Shakespeare’s Language, Kermode’s last book before this, was justly hailed by its reviewers as the ideal critical tribute to the way the greatest of all poets actually wrote. It wasn’t hard to imagine Shakespeare hailing it too. After all, the book brought him alive.

This new collection of essays works the same revivifying trick for poets of the twentieth century: Yeats, Eliot, Auden, Empson, Marianne Moore, Henry Reed and Roy Fuller are among them. Most of the essays are book reviews, and most of the books reviewed are books on: writing about writing. So this is writing about writing about writing. But Kermode is a practised hand at getting back through the layers of commentary to the ignition point of the gaseous expansion. In the beginning, somebody said something inspired, and this artist among critics already has it in his memory. For Kermode, language comes first. If a writer can actually write, here is a critic who can tell. The guarantee is that he writes so well himself.

Some reviewers were surprised that Kermode showed such a talent for narrative in his memoir Not Entitled. They shouldn’t have been: he has always shown it. Some of his earlier books had grand, over-arching themes, but a knack for vividly recounting the events was always in plain sight. The first thing he looks for in art is a quality he possesses, and although he is too modest to think it sufficient in his own case, he is confident enough to call it a necessity in others. If they’ve got that, there is much else they can safely lack. Reviewing Roy Foster’s first volume of the Yeats biography, Kermode ought to be two steps away from the poetry, but he is instantly in the poet’s mind, which he knows to be a jumble sale. Foster is given credit for annotating the detritus: sooner or later we have to know about the Order of the Golden Dawn. But later is better.

First we have to know what Kermode knows: ‘he had the ability to make all his interests coalesce ...’ In other words, you don’t need the bric-à-brac to get at the talent: it is because of the talent that you might want to get at the bric-à-brac. If we want to know who Maud Gonne was, and whether or not Yeats ever managed to get her into bed, it should be because of ‘The Cold Heaven’. Calling it ‘his finest lyric’ of the early period, Kermode speaks with authority, and not as the scribes. Recently, at a black-tie dinner in King’s College, Cambridge, I heard him recite it by heart. ‘Suddenly I saw the cold and rook-delighting heaven ...’ It was very easy to imagine Yeats there, pleased that his articulated sweet sounds were being so well respected. If he could have heard a performance like that on his All Souls’ Night, he might have thought that a living man can drink from the whole wine after all.

On Eliot’s ‘missing’ Clark lectures, Kermode makes an apparently peripheral remark about what Eliot did, or did not do, for Donne: ‘there are a few, but too few, instances of close literary criticism, nose to text, brisk, arguable and fun’. Kermode is personally qualified to say that on all counts, but he is on his way to making a central point: Eliot’s reasons for getting away from close literary criticism are the wrong ones. Eliot says the Brunetto Latini episode in the Inferno has a ‘rational necessity’ that Shakespeare’s Octavius doesn’t command when he talks about Cleopatra’s corpse. Kermode quotes both passages and sees a difference: one is by Dante and the other by Shakespeare. ‘But it would be hard to agree that the difference is about “rational necessity”’. And indeed it would. Eliot’s big idea about rational necessity was part of his even bigger idea about the dissociation of sensibility. Kermode, by staying with the poetry, has taken Eliot’s big ideas apart. The implication is that ‘close literary criticism, nose to the text’ is a big idea in itself, and the only one that counts, because it alone can bring everything in, including the irreducible fact of the individual voice.

Kermode once wrote a book about Wallace Stevens. Now an essay on Marianne Moore shows that he remains as pleased as ever about the American moderns. They had ‘this dispersity’: they were individuals, not a movement. Marianne Moore’s poems are an extension of the principle she had been taught at Bryn Mawr: to find a disciplined way of doing as she pleased. ‘Anything can get into them, including all the chosen pleasures of her life, the ball games and prize fights, the paintings and the exotic animals. To an extraordinary degree she did, though with great labour, exactly as she liked.’ The way he makes the pleasures ‘chosen’ is an instance of how Kermode can switch on a single extra light bulb and show you a new corridor. To serve the purpose, poets can choose even their passions. The crunch comes only when the choice wrecks the work.

Empson chose to be difficult. He made things difficult for himself with Continental rhyme-schemes fiercely demanding in a rhyme-poor language like English; and he made things difficult for the reader by deploying a range of reference beyond any imaginable single encyclopaedia. Kermode is well equipped to follow up the references, but he makes sure always to follow them in a circle, so that you end up at what really matters about Empson: the compulsively memorable, singing lines whose simplicity the complication is there to protect. The protection was against himself. An appeal for sympathy would have cheapened his feelings, so he put the feelings almost beyond appreciation, as a beggar selling matches might paint a miniature on every box and price them at a thousand pounds each.

Once again, Kermode is the ideal appreciator because he is the ideal reciter. Empson had a way with a pentameter that made even the unstressed syllables prominent, and he would be glad to know that at least one of his readers, having got the lines by heart, doesn’t miss a beat. ‘Slowly the poison the whole blood stream fills’. I heard that line while our wine glasses were being refilled, and its companion while we were contemplating an overly challenging modern dessert of frozen oxtail soup arranged to look like hazelnut sorbet. ‘The waste remains, the waste remains and kills.’ Kermode knows exactly why ‘Missing Dates’ is a great poem even with its faults, although he himself, for once, can be faulted here. With typical generosity he borrows and acknowledges John Wain’s tribute to Empson’s ‘great reverberating lines’, but follows Wain too readily in supposing that the dog’s ‘exchange rills’ are dragged in. The rhyme might very well seem strained, but there is no guarantee that the poem didn’t start from there. It takes a more than usually complete set of worksheets to tell us which rhyme-word triggered the chain reaction. Empson might have seen ‘rills’ first and come up with ‘fills’ and ‘kills’ later. (That would be an explanation for why the key line is written backwards: ‘Slowly the poison fills the whole blood stream’ would have been just as Empsonian, especially with its clinching spondee.) With a mind like Empson’s, you never know. But it remains true that you can’t begin to know what his mind is unless you hear the sonorities first, as he did.

Did you know that Kermode and Henry Reed once tooled around Seattle in a Ford Thunderbird and drank away the afternoon in the revolving restaurant at the top of the Space Needle? Neither did I. From the essay on Reed, the author of ‘Lessons of the War’ and ‘Chard Whitlow’ emerges as a misfit, a talent largely wasted, and a forlorn punster. But the talent was there, and one of the puns proves it. Puns rarely prove anything except an absence of wit, but it must have been fun to share the revolving sky-lounge with a man who could respond to the label of the next bottle of Mumm’s Extra Dry by saying ‘Poor baby!’ Kermode is very good on poetic careers that were not fulfilled. He himself began as a poet — I think we could guess it, even if we had not been told — but his manuscripts were lost on their way home from the war. A cruel circumstance, offset by something else we could guess: he knows that a poet with a true vocation can’t be stopped by anything short of gunfire.

There is an affectionate essay on Roy Fuller, a recognized war poet who came home to write poetry for the rest of his life. Kermode admires the way Fuller, like Wallace Stevens, could make a decent fist of an office job while serving his muse, to the tune of about 1,500 lyrics, give or take a hundred. Kermode can say, and make it stick, that part of Fuller’s luck was to have no university. Kermode approves of everything about Fuller except, one suspects, the way he writes. ‘Yet for all his various skills there is often in his writing, prose and verse, a certain ungainliness.’ This is not exactly as damning as to say ‘Wagner’s music isn’t as bad as it sounds’ but it is getting close, because we know that for Kermode the gainliness is the sine qua non. Still, Hazlitt’s unstinting praise of Milton makes you want to read Milton, even if it doesn’t quite persuade you that Hazlitt wanted to read Milton.

Essays about prose writers are just as attentive to the style that tells all. Bertrand Russell’s mountain of love-letters might have been written solely to inspire a single sentence from Kermode: ‘He hated his women to be unhappy, because it upset him.’ The piece on William Golding will send me back to Pincher Martin, which ‘could hardly have been written by somebody who had not been a watch-keeping officer on a warship on North Atlantic convoy duty.’ Kermode can say this with authority because he once kept the watch himself. Take it from one who knows. Philip Roth’s Sabbath’s Theatre is reviewed at the level of its writing, with blazing energy, as a matter of life and death. The whispering professor can turn the heat on when he wants to. Sometimes you wish he would do it more often. For devoting prodigious efforts of casuistry to calling Shakespeare an establishment propagandist, Professor Richard Helgerson of Santa Barbara is gently dismantled. Demolition would have been more appropriate. Seamus Heaney is duly praised for his Beowulf, but a duff translator from the French is let off with a slapped wrist, instead of a tanned hide. Even Jesus, if there was a temple to be cleansed, knew when to get the whip out.

But there is no point in whipping Kermode for his excess of Christian charity. It is one of the mainsprings of his receptivity, which has made him, in the long run, the opposite of a soft touch. There was a time when he thought the theorists had something. When it became evident that what they had was a tin ear for language, he gave up on them. Talent refuses to be trivialized, even by itself. My favourite piece in the book is a reminiscence of Australia’s most volcanic literary event, the Ern Malley hoax. About sixty years ago, the young Kermode was on the scene when the hoax erupted. To embarrass the avant garde editor Max Harris, two young poets, James McAuley and Harold Stewart, invented Ern Malley and his complete works: a suite of poems comprising any nonsense that came into their heads. Harris fell for it, and for the rest of his life the laugh was on him. But Herbert Read said the right thing at the time, and Kermode repeats it now. A talented poet can’t be entirely meaningless even when he tries. The creative spark is a hugely complex natural event which even those who possess it are only partly qualified to explore, and the less so because their attention is on themselves. Enter the great critic, whose attention is on them all, and who proves it with his marvellous memory.

TLS, 10 August 2001


In 1974, when I published The Metropolitan Critic, the first of what are by now seven collections of pieces, it was fun to pretend that we toilers in Grub Street were bravely embattled against the safely tenured professors of the academy. It wasn’t quite true even then — some of the best pieces in the newspapers and periodicals were written by academics — and today it is scarcely true at all. Only the occasional prodigy among the current bunch of penny-a-line men could hope to turn anything as good, or even as lively, as the pieces written by the professors. Fresh from victory over the arid theorists within their own ranks, they have brought their schooled humanism to a much wider forum than the quadrangle. Though very few of the academic hats can demonstrate quite the omnivorous range of John Bayley, it is necessary to remember that Bayley did time as a professor himself. If Grub Street’s mission was to give the academy lessons in readability, the academy’s mission was to give Grub Street lessons in scholarship. When the academics proved that they were readable too, it became obvious that an armed truce was more desirable than a war. Professor Kermode took the lead in giving the proof; and professors Ricks and Carey, to name only the most glamorous among several, have followed his example. After forty years, a picture that looked to the hasty eye as if it were hanging upside down is hanging the right way up. Young arrivals in Grub Street can now be told to look to the professors for instruction not just in reading, but in writing. Some of the more slapdash tyros need quite a lot of instruction in that, but only because the educational system is failing them in quite another way: it certainly isn’t because the university professors have made themselves unavailable.