Books: Poetry Notebook — Part II: Other Articles about Poetry |
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Part II : Other Articles about Poetry

Interlude (prologue)

During the few years in which I was writing and compiling the notes that form the main part of this book, I also, but not very often, wrote some articles in my usual manner, and for the usual primary reason: they were commissioned. They were, in other words, somebody else’s initial idea. But, though I would really rather dream up my own projects, I have always tried to be grateful when an editor suggests a topic on which I might write. Even when the suggested topic seems too bizarre or banal to touch, the invitation is flattering, and sometimes the most acute reason to regret one’s ebbing strength is that the debility removes the chance to make something useful out of a superficially lousy idea. Kingsley Amis was invited to write a regular short piece about poetry by one of the most horrible newspapers in Britain. Carrying the war to the enemy, he took up the commission, and wrote some wonderfully humane and quotable criticism. The fact that he was dealing with the kind of journalists who aren’t talented enough to be terrorists served only to concentrate his wit.

In this next-to-last section of my book, the component pieces were brought into being on a more civilized basis than that. With the exception of the valedictory article on the poetry of John Updike, which was written at the invitation of the New York Times, they were all written to answer requests from publications in Britain, or, on one occasion, Australia: to that extent, the old Empire remained my stamping ground. This imbalance is fitting, I think, because in America poetry is something that happens to one side of the literary mainstream, whereas in the old Empire it happens in the middle of it. Even in Australia and New Zealand, countries where small population means being a poet depends so much on grants and prizes, poetry is still regarded as life’s blood. Some of the poets mentioned in the main body of my notebook appear again here, treated with greater exclusivity: with, in a phrase, more focus. To that extent, any essay with a single topic must distort the picture, which is multiple, intertextual, endlessly complex. As the centuries accumulate, poems grow out of poems, and critical remarks out of critical remarks. (Would Hazlitt have spotted that Spenser had insufficient rhymes for his stanza, if Johnson had not first said that Pope sometimes failed to disguise that rhyme sounds were in short supply?) A thousand names jostle to be remembered. A cautionary truism: any poet from the past whose name we remember once knew the names of all his contemporary poets who are now forgotten. Nothing is harder, in modern times, than for a new name to stand out longer than a little while. No surprise, then, that Robert Frost should occupy us again as the final topic in this section. He was there at the start of the book and he is still there as the book passes its half-way mark. There is no point protesting at such eminence: much as we might be suspicious of the long rule of a master, there is such a thing as a great name. Only twenty-four years old, Chidiock Tichborne wrote an uncannily good poem on the eve of his execution. But because the axe deprived him of the chance to write further, his name is hard to remember now. Sir Walter Raleigh, also, was beheaded, but at least he had had time to get a few things written, as well as having been the lover of Queen Elizabeth I. That last idea, however, was the invention of movie producers, and I’m afraid they were handing him a reward for his piracy, not for his poetry.