Books: Poetry Notebook — Introduction |
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Poetry Notebook : Introduction

This book got started early in 2006, when I had lunch in London at an open-air restaurant near Holborn, on an unusually sunny winter’s day. My companion was Christian Wiman, editor of the magazine Poetry. Operating from its base in Chicago, Poetry magazine has always been a force in the world of poetry, even for those of us who believe that a poem should get beyond the world of poetry if it can, and get itself heard in a wider world. I was pleased to discover that Wiman held the same belief.

I was even more pleased when he suggested that I might write my opinions about poetry down, and publish them from time to time in his magazine, in the form of a Poetry Diary. Or perhaps a better title would be Poetry Notebook, to obviate the impression that I was thinking about nothing except poetry every day. Even if I were, it would surely be better to let the daily thoughts accumulate into proper arguments, as long as I kept them short. Brevity would be the watchword; as, indeed, it is for poetry; or anyway it ought to be. Right there was one of the many opinions that I would have the chance to focus on and perhaps clarify, or even, as gracefully as possible, admit to have been wrong. Whichever poem or piece of a poem was in question, if it had vitality then all other considerations would be trumped. I could already hear the book’s tone of voice in my head: always a good sign with any writing project.

No, Poetry Notebook would be the right title. Having settled that matter, we talked on: mainly about poetry in Britain, poetry in America, and the function of the Atlantic Ocean in coming between the two. If Robert Frost had not first secured his British reputation, would he ever have risen to supremacy in America? We discussed whether Seamus Heaney — still alive at the time — could possibly have enjoyed reading all those poetic offerings from his students at Harvard, or whether even he, who had the patience of a saint, might not have prayed for release. All we could be sure of was that he had never written a poem about it. His manners were too good. Perhaps there needed to be a revival of bad manners, on the scale of Auden trashing any spare room he was ever allowed to stay in, or Verlaine expressing his feelings about Rimbaud by putting a bullet into him.

I remember that by the time we got to the coffee we were agreeing that the later Wallace Stevens spent too much time writing in his own manner. To speak on such a theme — instead of falling silent, as if the CIA might have the table bugged — was a testimony to Wiman’s moral courage, because for an American editor it is a bold thing to question, even in part, the achievement of an American poetic giant. But it was clear that Wiman was a brave man all round. Fine-drawn with a close haircut, he looked like a more than usually sensitive astronaut. He was, however, carrying a vicious form of bone cancer. It was inspiring to hear so young a man — so young and so cruelly stricken — making such a point of being clear about how poetry ruled his mind, even at a time when his body was putting him on notice that the years ahead would be tough sledding.

A few years later I fell ill myself; but I had already published, in Poetry, a few chapters of my Poetry Notebook that treated time as if it were running short. Only occasionally did I still feel inclined to write a longer piece about poetry. I was getting old, and the concentration necessary for writing a long piece seemed better reserved for writing poems, when they came. After I fell ill, I quit writing longer pieces altogether, although I still wrote the occasional short book review when I thought, perhaps foolishly, that the poet had a right to my continued acknowledgement: Michael Longley, Stephen Edgar, Les Murray and Wiman himself. But two or three brushes with death left the thought of any extended prose excursion looking overly ambitious, and even after my leukaemia went into remission I was short of energy. My translation of the Divine Comedy still required a lot of attention: the verse-writing was complete, but there were introductory pages of prose that still needed to be written, and my share of the editorial scrutiny was a hard task. Put it all together and it was no longer likely that I would get many critical articles even started, let alone finished. Critical ideas, however, still thronged in my head, as they always had. Now more than ever they tended to be ideas about poetry, and now more than ever they tended to be conclusions about poetic bedrock: the intensity of language that marked the real difference between poetry and prose. But a lifetime of thinking about the subject had not left me with an aesthetic system to convey. It had left me with a thousand thoughts. To register them, a Poetry Notebook was the ideal form.

One of those ideas will be found to rule this book. The favourite question of any editor of a literary page, anywhere in the world, is: ‘What is a poem?’ Your answer is meant to be short, snappy, quotable, bloggable. One answer, which I devised and published years ago, is that a poem is any piece of writing that can’t be quoted from except out of context. I still find that idea serviceable as an epigram. A better question, but one that you will never be asked, is: ‘How do you recognize a piece of writing as a poem?’ There are trick answers. One of them is to point out that if you have to ask, then already it is not a poem. But the best answers are not tricks. They are registrations of what we feel and think when we encounter a stretch of language that transmits the thrill of human creativity by all its means, even by the means with which it is put together.

Declaring itself to be a poem is one of the main things a poem does. But such a declaration takes a good deal of management: the poet has to have mastered the mechanics of what he is doing, even as he strives to make the result seem inevitable. In my active years as a critic I made it a rule, when talking about poetry, to confine myself to practical points that I felt professionally qualified to discuss, having long been engaged in writing poems of my own. With due allowance for scale, I wanted to stay in the territory that Dr Johnson, himself a great critic, retroactively marked out for Dryden, our first great critic: the poetry criticism of a poet. Thus I steered well clear of theory, although there was always a possibility that there was a theory behind my approach: the theory that concentrated meaning should be what any poet was after.

But all too often, and especially if they stemmed from recent times, the poets made it clear — it was often the only thing they made clear — that they were less interested in meaning than in just sounding significant. In pursuit of significance, they would say anything, apparently in the belief that they were saying everything. Bits of their poems, as if driven to their isolated positions by no impulse except the random fidgets, would appear all over the page, like the manufactured evidence of an explosion that had never taken place. About such poetry, I seldom had anything to say. On both sides of the Atlantic, and in Australia, the creative writing schools churned forth slim volumes by the thousand, all of them supposedly full of poetry but few of them with even a single real poem in them. Spreading to cover the whole of the English-speaking world, this long eruption of unspecific stuff had one sole merit: nobody could praise it, analyse it or teach it without inadvertently proving that it was fake. There were exceptions of course; real talent can survive anything, even encouragement; and you could pick up the occasional creative writing collection in which the writing really was creative. But all too often there was only the claim, and never the deed. With so much tosh on the loose, the real thing looked more real than ever.

Better to say that it sounded more real than ever. One hears the force of real poetry at first glance. There is a phrase, something you want to say aloud. Sometimes the phrases link together into a whole line. Perhaps there is a stanza of these lines, a memorable unity. Very occasionally, there is a whole poem: a stand-alone unity that insists on being heard entire, and threatens never to leave one’s memory. Even if you don’t set out to memorize a real poem, it somehow seems to be memorizing itself for you. This authoritative audible presence, I believe, is an indispensable connection between the reader and the thing read. If that connection does not form, there is no real poem.

These and other matters are discussed at greater length in the following chapters; but always, I hope, they are discussed as tersely as possible. In the later part of life, and especially after I fell ill, I became convinced that the notes I had been putting into the margins and endpapers of poetry books for so many years were the basic stuff of what my critical response to poetry had always been; but that if I published those notes in paragraph form, the chain of argument should be kept brief, and precisely because poetry mattered to me so much. It had always mattered: but now it had become so vital to me that I didn’t wish to insult it, or its readers, by manufacturing swathes of prose to convey my reactions. So I composed my chapters for Poetry magazine out of miniature essays. Occasionally there were other outlets or institutions which wanted me to write something about poetry — the Wall Street Journal, Quadrant, the Poetry Archive — but with those assignments, too, I could proceed only by prior agreement that I would keep things terse and particular. The same agreement applied when I wrote a farewell Notebook piece, which I place here at the back of the book, as a kind of finale. Christian Wiman having moved on from Poetry magazine, it was time for me to stop anyway; but Alan Jenkins of the TLS, visiting me where I was convalescing in Cambridge, kindly suggested that if I wanted to write one more chapter, he would consider it for his pages.

In that last chapter, as in the first, and in all the others in between, my critical arguments were sometimes not much more than a single paragraph long. Sometimes, because the habit dies hard, the paragraphs joined up; sometimes a single topic dominated the whole piece; but most of the pieces were not, at that stage, trying to be a book. Perhaps now, so late in the day, they are. If so, it is a book which can be guaranteed not to treat poetry as anything less than the occupation of a lifetime: except that, for those attuned by their nature to poetry’s great mystery, the lifetime can begin very early on, with the first enthralled realization that a single sentence, or even less, is like nothing else they have ever heard.

Cambridge, 2014