DID SOME POETS DETEST POETRY? by Kevin Kiely
(Poetry Ireland News, March/April 2006)
Some twentieth-century poets not only disparage and decry but appear to detest poetry, prompting the question as to whether poetry being lashed by philistines is preferable to its derision by practitioners. Did the English Romantics flagellate themselves for being versifiers? Not Shelley, who exalts his art in the foreword to Prometheus Unbound and claims for poets that they are ‘in one sense, the creators, and in another, the creations, of their age’. Keats is no less abashed in the 'Ode to Psyche' when proclaiming, ‘Yes, I will be thy priest’, and outlines a manifesto for his imagination and poetry. Coleridge, suffused in poetry and its pinnacles of power and glory, is more pained in Dejection: An Ode by his inability to exult with nature rather than in his own misery. A glimpse of the heavens and the moon evokes personal criticism: ‘I see them all so excellently fair, / I see, not feel, how beautiful they are!’
Wordsworth magisterially launches out further in Essay, Supplementary To The Preface to Lyrical Ballads and states that good [his italics] poetry survives through the people and not through what he calls ‘the public’ – ‘The voice that issues from this Spirit, is that Vox Populi which the Deity inspires.’ Wordsworth rates poetry in these lofty terms where poetry chiefly embodies ‘Vision and the Faculty divine’. Oliver Goldsmith in The Deserted Village literally takes off and Poetry (capitalised) is evoked as ‘thou loveliest maid’, ‘Dear charming nymph, neglected and decried, / My shame in crowds, my solitary pride; / Thou source of all my bliss, and all my woe, / That found'st me poor at first, and keep'st me so; / Thou guide by which the nobler arts excel, / Thou nurse of every virtue, fare thee well!’
Shakespeare's despair in sonnet 66 is not against poetry but darker forces
and ‘art made tongue-tied by authority’. Elsewhere in the sonnets
his anxiety is caused by the dark lady, the patron to be pleased and placated,
and even a rival poet (Marlowe): ‘Was it the proud full sail of his
great verse, / Bound for the prize of all too precious you’. Poetry
at full sail, and great? Not for T. S. Eliot in East Coker: ‘The
poetry does not matter / It was not (to start again) what one had expected.’ Eliot
declared that poetry was ‘a mug's game that messed up one's life for
no apparent reason’.
At the turn of the century, however, Arthur Symons's The Symbolist Movement in Literature (1899) continued to preach to the highest achievement for poetry in terms of mysticism and in excelsis. He writes, ‘religion being the creation of a new heaven, passion the creation of a new earth, and art, in its mingling of heaven and earth, the creation of heaven out of earth.’ For art, ‘read’ poetry in the latter. Symons's text can be located in his discussions with Yeats, the dedicatee of the book. Yeats admitted that ‘All things can tempt me from this craft of verse’ and closes ‘Meditations in Time of Civil War’ with ‘The half-read wisdom of daemonic images, / Suffice the ageing man as once the growing boy.’
A turning point comes three decades after The Symbolist Movement in Literature, when Symons's dizzy proclamations for poetry are brought to heel by William Empson's Seven Types of Ambiguity, where ‘all sorts of poetry may be conceived as explicable’ - poetry is shown to be not quite obscure verbal gushing. Empson's line of least resistance lowers the tenor of the debate, and the beautiful lofty thing that poetry was to Symons is not so for him.
Auden, in the elegy for Yeats penned in the month of the poet's demise, castigates the poet for being ‘silly’ alongside the minor concession, ‘your gift survived it all’. The ‘gift’ being poetry, is no more than a peculiarly Irish affliction, ‘Mad Ireland hurt you into poetry’ but the damning codicil is that ‘poetry makes nothing happen: it survives’. There is a definite contradiction in Auden's In Memory of W. B. Yeats in the final stanzas, which take their rhythm and diction from Under Ben Bulben: ‘With your unconstraining voice / Still persuade us to rejoice;’ poetry is jacked up surprisingly high; Auden in the passion of celebrating Yeats concedes some praise for that queer stuff - poetry. Robert Lowell's neurotic sensibility laments that publication is a negative experience: ‘everything is real until it's published.’ In Dolphin, poetry is treated with disdain in a dire profusion, ‘I have sat and listened to too many / words of the collaborating muse’. A contemporary of Lowell's was Marianne Moore, whose letters are replete with effusions and discussions on what in the age of Pater and Wilde, was known as ‘aesthetics’. Moore, one of Auden's favourite poets, categorically relegates the art of poetry, ‘I, too dislike it. / Reading it, however, with a perfect contempt for it, one discovers in / it, after all, a place for the genuine’. This is not quite a shrug of acceptance more a guarded mild affirmation. She goes further in ‘Avec Ardeur’, where poetry is implied as being mundane. The poem is dedicated to a high-priest of the art form, Pound: ‘Nothing mundane is divine; / Nothing divine is mundane’. Pound once considered throwing his first poetry manuscript into the canal in Venice. In his poem The Lake Isle he reverses the Yeatsian idealism of Inisfree, ‘Lend me a little tobacco-shop, / or install me in any profession / Save this damn'd profession of writing, / where one need's one's brains all the time’. But why such reticence? Modernists brokered the notion that poetry after all might be suspect. Of course, in the light of some of its manifestations, machinations and by necessity its capitalisation, perhaps it should be scanned warily, but there is a contemporary position that poetry is more tarnished that glittering. And why not?
But it was not always so. In Baudelaire's prose-poem ‘À une heure du matin’ the poet reflects on his day in the city: begging some hack-work to no avail, visiting a dancer to less avail, followed by bragging in the bistro. Finally alone, he writes, 'my God, grant me the grace to produce a few lines of poetry which will prove to me that I am not the lowest of men.'