A Look Round the Estate
The Hard Hours
The Harvester’s Vase
Iliad of Broken Sentences
How happy our poets should be these days! Relieved of all their former responsibilities, they can go about their business of making poems with words, as pure as any scientist alone at his Institute blackboard, solving theoretical problems that have absolutely no practical application at all. (A quotation, actual but not for attribution: “Anybody who discovers a cure for cancer in this place ought to be fired.”)
Both in the largest and in the smallest matters of their craft the Muse has let go her rules, and the destinies of their nations expect even less from poets than they can expect from their nations. Of course they may take political stands if they want to. But Clio no longer demands that they labor on some great Epick to bring their own lands and their mother tongue the glory that the greatest and choycest wits of Athens, Rome, or Italy, and those Hebrews of old, brought to their languages, gods, and armaments. We have had our few long poems—the Cantos, Four Quartets, Paterson…. Relieved of epic plots and heroes, even of romance heroes and heroic deeds, they are words: lots of words, it is true, but words. Poets need no longer frame even a tale. And from the Tragic Muse and the Comic Muse alike they are delivered. Pastoral, Historical, Satirical, Historical-Pastoral; Meditation, Argument, Ode, Elegy, Anacreontic…for gestures only or for parodies. Even that favorite twentieth-century mode, the dramatic monologue, is largely gone, and, to speak rather freely, the mode today is only that someone, generally to be taken for the poet himself, is writing—or speaking—words at no particular time to no one in particular. Words, we might say, appear, and declare themselves poems.
POETS need no longer study the old forms, nor practice to fill out with suitable matter the stanzas of rhyme royal or sestina; they need not ponder the English or the Italian sonnet, or the heroic couplet as against unrhymed heroics. Meter itself they can take or leave alone as they choose. Lines, if poets choose to set their words in printed lines, rather than to breathe them with their own voices onto tape or into amplifiers, even lines are all at their disposal, just as they please, and nobody asks them why they run on or stop short or just hang there. The protests and riots over free verse were calmed long ago, and integration reigns unquestioned, the ideal integration of the totally un-noticed. So poets have the perfect freedom of their words. Nobody really cares what they say or how they say it. A typical poem of today is a collection of words (unless it is a Concrete Poem), about as many words as are given to the obituary of a college professor or a minor millionaire, only in the poem the words have more white space around them.
This is meant to be descriptive, not invidious though it may sound so. Let me turn and defend our contemporaries. It was always the word that counted, and the spirit with which that word somehow connected. Never was the form primary: “It is not ryming and versing that maketh Poesie: One may be a Poet without versing, and a versefier without Poetrie.” Thus Philip Sidney, in a time that like our own had no great stock of forms: almost nothing, he said, “but that Lyricall kind of Songs and Sonets.” (Marlowe was then about sixteen or seventeen years old.) Sidney thought too that nobody cared for Poesie, but what claims he made for it. (If these claims seem antique and preposterous, think then not of our own time nor even of Sidney’s, but of what we know about the ritual functions of poetry in primitive societies.)
No more to laugh at the name of Poets, as though they were next inheritors to fooles, no more to jest at the reverent title of a Rimer, but to beleeve with Aristotle, that they were the auncient Treasurers of the Grecians divinitie; to beleeve with Bembus, that they were the first bringers in of all Civilitie; to beleeve with Scalliger that no Philosophers precepts can sooner make you an honest man, then the reading of Virgil; to beleeve with Clauserus, the Translator of Cornutus, that it pleased the heavenly deitie by
Hesiod and Homer, under the vaile
of Fables to give us all knowledge, Logicke, Rhetoricke, Philosophie, naturall and morall, and Quid non? To beleeve with me, that there are many misteries contained in Poetrie, which of purpose were written darkly, least by prophane wits it should be abused: To beleeve with Landin, that they were so beloved of the Gods, that whatsoever they write, proceeds of a divine furie. Lastly, to beleeve themselves when they tell you they will make you immortal by their verses.
Well, we may believe too, or remember that we once believed, something like this—even though the poets are themselves blessedly unburdened of such weighty exercises. A word is less than a breath; it can’t even blow out a candle, let alone keep one lit. Words are all the poets have left. But then, words are really all that we have ever had.
NTO TRUE of Kingsley Amis, hardly any of what I say above. (My alphabet of poets is alphabetical in order only, not complete.) For fifteen years a successful novelist, and now the inheritor of Ian Fleming’s James Bond, Amis has also been a poet, in something of the flat anti-poetical vein of Philip Larkin, mixed with music hall tunes. The thirty-five poems of A Look Round the Estate are dated 1957-67. Their theme is single, the theme of Lucky Jim: the poems remark simply that “Art,” “Love,” “Religion,” “Patriotism,” all the traditional values of the educated and cultured classes are rot. Sex, automobiles, and liquor are not only real but good. Anyone who thinks otherwise is a fool, and anyone who does not act on this knowledge, who does not provide himself with these real and good things, is probably a coward.
“That slimy tune,” I said, and got a laugh,
In the middle of old Franck’s D minor thing….
Thus the poet echoes Lucky Jim’s famous “filthy Mozart” remark, and goes on to explain why: he once believed “Keats and the rest of them”; now he knows better: “‘Slimy’ was a snarl of disappointment.” Deliberately flat and deflated in language, as simple as possible in form—quatrains, couplets, simple short-lined rhyming stanzas—the poems deny suggestion, mystery, feeling. They are amusing to come upon in the pages of The Spectator or the New Statesman because they are witty and because they do have a point. They say exactly what they want to say, neatly and clearly. Without these simple forms of quatrain or couplet, the remarks would be only remarks, the jokes only jokes; but caught up in these forms, the casual daily words become more than remarks, they become a comment on speech itself, specifically on the kind of speech that can tell these kinds of truths.
Sex stops when you pull up your pants,
Love never lets you go.
Men have no doubt said this before in almost these very words. But here, in the lines preceding those quoted above, we have read “quid pro quo” which, we find, rhymes with “go,” and “romance” which rhymes with “pants.” In themselves these pairs are small jokes, modest surprises discovered in the sounds and meanings of the English language. And there is something like a small joke, too, something that gives us that little release of pleasure, like a small spark, when we find that the phrases of the most ordinary talk will neatly fall out, when properly chosen and manipulated, into something we recognize as a line of verse. Amis’s verses are a lesson in the minimum. Since his message, too, intends to be a lesson in the minimum, they thus together, words, form, and meaning, combine as what we know about art tells us they should. And small as it is, made of the flimsy materials at hand, a contraption rather than an engine and running on very inexpensive fuel, this verse is something that works.
Two of the poems end, after the sour confession of a small episode, with the sad, impudent remark that all of them imply: “What about you?” Are you any better, with your fine feelings and your moral pretensions? If this is serious enough to answer, I suppose we could reply with a variation on another Amis remark. He said, about the expansion of British higher education, something like this, “More is worse.” One could say here, “Worse is better.”
JOHN BERRYMAN’S Short Poems includes his first volume, The Dispossessed (1948); a small privately printed volume, His Thoughts Made Pockets & the Plane Buckt (1958); and “Formal Elegy,” a poem on the death of John F. Kennedy. The poems in The Dispossessed were written in the years between the poet’s early twenties and his middle thirties. Like many good poets, Berryman began by apprehending at once in his youth the best current style of the time, a style won through years of hard work by his elders. The style of Yeats and Auden allowed him the range of his intelligence and sympathies but seemed not unlike what others could do as well.
I wish for you—the moon was full, is gone—
Whatever bargain can be got
From the violent world our fathers bought,
For which we pay with fantasy at dawn,
Dismay at noon, fatigue, horror by night.
Skills of the time, the careful variations in the regular line, arranged to give some emphasis to the abstract words violent and horror in a voice at once idiomatic and yet capable of employing such words. If this seems more noticeably mannered now than it did then, and if, on the whole, the meditative and summarizing tone, as of one who has appropriated and is bequeathing—largely from “In Memory of Major Robert Gregory”—if this tone seems a bit presumptuous for so young a man, then, at least, it is decently and carefully done.
Berryman’s publications of his poems seem not always to reflect immediately the time of composition, and it seems that he may have worked in several styles at once, so that to observe his progress in detail will require some digging when the time comes for a full-scale appraisal. But it is clear that at some period when he himself was in his thirties, shortly before the publication of The Dispossessed—I do not know if he was then working on Mistress Bradstreet—he developed the new, radical, intensely personal style that led eventually to Dream Songs. An early stage of this style can be seen in “The Lightning,” a poem from The Dispossessed. Certain surface eccentricities of punctuation, of general impatience with the standard academic tone of the time, had appeared in “Canto Amor,” which seems to have been earlier. “The Lightning” still keeps the basic framework of the iambic line, of a set rhyme-scheme, and of standard syntax. Transitions are rapid and connections implicit in the movement of the poem, but they are perfectly intelligible. However, a new energy is pushing through the structure of the verse, and although the movement back and forth from personal circumstance to reviews of current events and the moral order is no different from what Berryman had always been doing, here neither the personal circumstance nor the public events are embedded in formal address. The poem is not too long to quote entire, and since, I believe, it is a key poem in the history of contemporary verse, it may be worth the trouble to read it through. Perhaps there are readers who have struggled with the enchantments of Dream Songs without having had the chance to see, in this poem, a kind of introduction to the method, language, and even to the weirdly and frantically abrupt despairs and joys of those marvelous poems.