When poets write prose about their art the result tends to be either a manifesto or ars poetica; a grab bag of lectures, expanded reviews, and commencement addresses; or a manual, a teaching aid. The English poet Glyn Maxwell’s new book On Poetry is a curious alloy of all three, comprising soapbox declarations of what makes poetry endure, close readings of various canonical pieces, and a fictionalized account of a poetry workshop run by Maxwell for four apprentice writers. Books by poets about poetry tend to argue for the primacy of their own kind of writing, and Maxwell’s is no different.
He favors well-tended poetry that is not obscure and that bears some relation to rhyme or meter or stanzas, and preferably all three. Certain about what does and doesn’t work, he is fast to set out his argument. (The third page: “If you write poems that you might call free and I might call unpatterned….”) His approach is both thrilling and frustrating: it is heartening to read his assurance and enthusiasm, but his dictums shut down interesting questions and his certainty occasionally feels like camouflage for its opposite.
On Poetry is divided into seven parts—White, Black, Form, Pulse, Chime, Space, Time—though these distinctions are pretty arbitrary, and the book feels like one long engaging barroom lecture. It is against “free” verse, by which he means
verse that isn’t formal at all, that neither shadows nor echoes it, has no interest in what it has foregone. Verse that on theoretical grounds has refused to engage with any traditional form at all. Which, in case you ask, means I don’t mean Stein or Eliot or Pound or Jones or HD or Rosenberg or Williams or Bunting or Lowell or Plath or Morgan or Hughes. What I do mean is an awful lot of what we’ve got.
The book is defiantly and exhilaratingly poetic, employing metaphor relentlessly. Try this for a new perception:
There are poems of mist and poems of smoke.
By mist I mean something natural that thins or parts or deepens further, something through which a shifting truth is glimpsed with joy, understanding—or spotted with fear. Mist: breathable, water going by in a cloak.
By smoke I mean man-made smoke, complex molecules conjured for reasons obscure, yet emanating from a single, explicable source. Clever to make, not clever to breathe. When you’ve blown it all away you’re looking at a shell. By the time you get what it was you can’t use it any more.
Maxwell deals with the metaphysics of writing poetry in a zesty tone but with serious intent. For him silence, the whiteness of the page, “does the work of time” (his italics, here and throughout). The silence is the time passing, which the poems must work through, and attempt to hold off. Time is the one deity, and a poem is different in kind from other art forms because (unlike music or theater or dance or TV, where time is entirely in the hands of the maker) a poem on a page is linear and each reader, alone with the text, can read the poem at his own pace: “time remains one’s own—or, more exactly, voice upon time does.” Maxwell thinks “poets are voices upon time. What makes poetry so giddyingly different from other forms is how naturally and plainly its reader can inhabit that voice.”
He is very good at offering systems of approach, describing how the poems that endure have an eye to “prime meaning, resonant meanings, [the] way it sounds sans meaning, [the] way it looks sans meaning,” and characterizing these categories as “solar, lunar, musical, visual.” “Poems deficient in solar meaning,” that is discernible, paraphrasable content,
are quite easy to spot in the field, because vast trapezoids of critical scaffold have been constructed around them to clank in the wind. Measuring devices have been set up to record all resonance real and imagined. Cults spring up in the meadows thereabouts; outsiders are unwelcome. The Hard Question: what actually happened here and is there a good enough reason why NOT SAYING held sway over SAYING? No major poet has been used as a smokescreen for obscurity more than Ezra Pound, yet it’s he who writes: “Language is the main means of human communication. If an animal’s nervous system does not transmit sensations and stimuli, the animal atrophies.”
This is symptomatic of Maxwell’s persuasive, corrosive style—though is he saying that Pound is obscure, or that later critics have tried to make him obscure? One might also add that transmitting sensations and stimuli is different in kind from communicating a plain meaning. (Pound’s own poems are not afraid to transmit sensations and stimuli instead of offering a coherent solar or surface meaning.) Poems “deficient in lunar meaning” (which Maxwell equates with resonance, with deeper meaning)
might have immediate impact, might be strong on comedy, misery, shock-value, perhaps impressive in live performance. But written down the words are flat, go nowhere else…. (All song lyrics written down or recited are in this category, if only because the absent music plays the lunar role.)
Maxwell himself, though he doesn’t note it here, used a lyric from Bob Dylan’s dream to preface his own second collection Out of the Rain—though whatever he was then, he’s now an essentialist:
Songwriters stir up a living tradition, poets make flowers grow in air. Bob Dylan and John Keats are at different work. It would be nice never to be asked about this again.
Poems weak in music “sound like prose, are dull to read and hard to memorize.” He quotes Pound again: “Poetry atrophies when it gets too far from music.” The last fault is for poetry that lacks a “visual intelligence,” that is “blind to the whiteness.”
I like the urgency and stringency of Maxwell’s advice, and it should be useful to students coming to a poem, providing a set of keys to allow them entry. Though I wonder whether they open every door. Maxwell takes poetry personally, so much so that he thinks “your meeting with a poem is like your meeting with a person. The more like that it is, the better the poem is, the longer you remember it, the longer it lasts.” He believes that a poem coherently expresses the presence of a human creature, which is a beautiful sentiment, beautifully expressed, and yet oddly prescriptive when applied to the appreciation of “what we’ve got.” Much contemporary verse is, according to Maxwell,
colloquial, prosaic, apparently “free,” going about its business without rhyme or meter or stanzaic pattern of any kind. But such poems, to survive, need two essential components: first their makers need to have truly mastered line-break, which is simply to say that he or she can keenly feel the pressure of silence; second, the poem must act upon you in a way that resembles a human encounter. For alone, in your memory you, you, what’s the difference—to the cells, to the synapses—between a poem you remember and a person you recall? You want lamps to go on.
Adverbs like “truly” or “simply” in an argument are like cracks in the plaster, indicative of structural problems. What can it mean to “truly” master line break? What does it mean to “keenly” feel the pressure of silence? There is something tautological here: for a poem to be great and survive it has to be by a “truly” great poet. And do poems really act upon a reader in a way that resembles a human encounter? When we think of a poem we remember words and lines, a verbal/musical memory, but when we think of a person our recollection is primarily visual or emotional. A voice can be very suggestive: if you are on a bus listening to someone behind you making a phone call, the way that person speaks may suggest their appearance, their personality, even their history—and not necessarily accurately. However, actually encountering another person is often a matter of contrasting linguistic differences, reading the cues that emerged to define our cultural identity and that reinforce the distinctions of our tribe (the in-group) from another (the out-group). Another human is, a priori, other—what cannot be synthesized with the self. They cannot be possessed, absorbed, assimilated, known, or appropriated: they cannot be internalized.
Reading a poem, however, is different: you experience the other as yourself. The brain’s motor cortices are forced to say the words, and research suggests that doing this, putting one’s self in a foreign tribe’s perspective, may involve the removal of prejudice.* Poems open up channels, of course, between the writer and the reader, challenging or reassuring or clarifying, acting as a way of being alone while finding you’re not. Maxwell goes on to explain that, by saying “a poem coherently expresses the presence of a human creature,” he means
the same creature, in a consistent relation to you [the reader]. For example, standing a few feet away in a field, saying aloud into the wind: “Something there is that doesn’t love a wall…” Intoning from a high lectern to the rafters of a hall: “Do not go gentle into that good night…” Muttering next to you, mid-afternoon in a sad pub, having drained a generous G-and-T: “They fuck you up, your mum and dad…” A consistent relation. The relation can change and still be consistent. The creature can approach you, back away from you, be gone a while, but this can only work if the relation changes like a human presence might change it. In the whiteness the poet can change it, make time pass, distance grow.
Though this is winningly presented, Maxwell, a playwright as well as a poet, privileges his own preference for dramatic monologue. What about poetry that deliberately lacks a setting? Maxwell is against what we might term nonrepresentational poetry. Consider the case, say, of John Ashbery, whose poetry, insofar as it doesn’t always coherently express the presence of a human creature, might be considered an exemplum of nonrepresentational work. Ashbery’s poetry eavesdrops and channel-hops and juxtaposes and surprises. It expresses, one might say, the incoherence of the presence of a human creature, the flippant, startled, flighty consciousness. His poems, even if dealing in traditional forms like the pantoum or the sonnet or sestina, frequently resist a consistent “presence.” The trajectory of Ashbery (who made a living as an art critic, and was a member with Frank O’Hara and Kenneth Koch of the so-called New York School of poets) mimics his coevals in the New York School of painters, like Franz Kline or Arshile Gorky or Willem de Kooning, who began in figurative work and ended in abstractions. Thirty years ago Ashbery commented that
the simultaneity of Cubism is something that has rubbed off on me, as well as the Abstract Expressionist idea that the work is a sort of record of its own coming-into-existence; it has an “anti-referential sensuousness,” but it is nothing like flinging a bucket of words on the page, as Pollock did with paint. It is more indirect than that. When I was fresh out of college, Abstract Expressionism was the most exciting thing in the arts. There was also experimental music and film, but poetry seemed quite conventional in comparison. I guess it still is, in a way. One can accept a Picasso woman with two noses, but an equivalent attempt in poetry baffles the same audience.
* See Tiffany O’Callaghan, “Voice Almighty: Decoding Speech’s Secret Signals,” New Scientist, July 16, 2013: “Patti Adank, now at University College London, and colleagues asked people who had never lived in Scotland, and were not often exposed to Scottish accents, to mimic speakers from Glasgow. Before and after, participants rated the attractiveness of the Glaswegian accent. Assessments of power and competence remained the same, but after mimicking the accent, participants consistently found it more attractive. ‘After we asked people to imitate people from Glasgow, they liked them a bit more,’ Adank says.” (I wouldn’t recommend this activity to those actually visiting Glasgow.) ↩
See Tiffany O’Callaghan, “Voice Almighty: Decoding Speech’s Secret Signals,” New Scientist, July 16, 2013: “Patti Adank, now at University College London, and colleagues asked people who had never lived in Scotland, and were not often exposed to Scottish accents, to mimic speakers from Glasgow. Before and after, participants rated the attractiveness of the Glaswegian accent. Assessments of power and competence remained the same, but after mimicking the accent, participants consistently found it more attractive. ‘After we asked people to imitate people from Glasgow, they liked them a bit more,’ Adank says.” (I wouldn’t recommend this activity to those actually visiting Glasgow.) ↩