Writing from Ravenna to Thomas Moore in 1821, Byron said that he could “never get people to understand that poetry is the expression of an excited passion, and that there is no such thing as a life of passion any more than a continuous earthquake or an eternal fever.” And he added as an after-thought: “Besides, who would ever shave themselves in such a state?” It’s worth hearing this from Byron of all people—Byron who could fill his days with riding, lovemaking, and drinking and then sit down late at night in an excited passion and pen an extraordinarily large number of stanzas. But Byron’s standards in passion were high. There was no such thing as a life of passion, and there was no such thing as a life of poetry.

Ravenna, a remote place even now, was an exceedingly remote place in those days. Byron’s exile—a thing lived through, it seems to us, with so much passion—was partly a matter of getting away from his admirers as well as his critics, from those who expected on meeting him to encounter the original Childe Harold. Byron was not like Childe Harold—or rather he was not always like Childe Harold. This was the mistake people made about his poetry.

If he was right about poetry being the product of an excited passion, the consequences for the way we regard our lives as poets can be both liberating and depressing. Byron was the most prolific of poets and one of the most successful commercially, but the idea that poetry might be a career was absolutely alien to him—alien to him, of course, as an aristocrat, but alien to him, anyway, as a figure of his time. Indeed, careerism in poetry is a very recent, perhaps postwar phenomenon.

To earn the title of poet in previous centuries it was enough that one had written a poem. Nobody thought that Gray, who made his reputation on a dozen poems, was any less the poet for that. Even today Dr. Johnson’s claim to the title poet rests on a couple of satires, London and The Vanity of Human Wishes (the tragedy Irene having ducked out of sight). But either one of those satires would have been sufficient to validate the claim.

This is not to imply that the poets of previous centuries were easily satisfied with their achievements, that they never yearned to go on churning the stuff out, that they never felt blocked as writers. Nor is it to imply that they had no ulterior motive when they wrote, no further object in view. Indeed they did have an object, about which they were notably more frank than we are. Their object was Fame.

But their object was not a career. You have to go back a long way, and rummage through some quite obscure poetry, before you find a careerism of the kind that is common today. Court poets were careerists, no doubt, if they were writing poems in order to secure a stipend—the kind of thing, for instance, encouraged at the court of Ferrar, long disquisitions on the future glories of the House of Este. But most poetry written at court was of a different, more casual kind. Maybe the occasional sonnet helped oil the machine, but the courtier’s life did not depend on his producing a slim volume every three years. Walter Raleigh was not beheaded because he’d been unable to find a publisher, because he’d been turned down by Knopf and Random House and Farrar Straus. But the career plight of the modern American poet obliged to protect his tenure by dutifully collecting up everything that he has written in the past year, and everything that has been written about him, to send off to some authority who will then assess the output—this is a relatively new humiliation for the writer and it is a menace to art.

But even without it, there is something in the spirit of the times that will tend to lure poets into overproduction—a vanity encouraging us to write for the bookshelf. Oh, to produce a nice big volume, or a series of volumes, something that could hold its head up high alongside the collected speeches of Kim Il Sung or Todor Zhivkov, something that could only possibly be published by arrangement with the late Robert Maxwell.

This tendency toward gigantism is a lingering part, oddly enough, of the Romantic legacy. Most poets I know, if offered the choice between being Catullus or being Victor Hugo, imagine they would choose to be Catullus—short, elegant, and to the point, unlikely to waste anyone’s time. However, like those people who supposedly set out last April to vote Labour but who found as they left the polling booth that they had actually voted Tory, at the very moment when our hands were reaching out to tick the Catullus box that inexplicable something would occur. We would plump for the comfortingly big oeuvre, the thing that would give us an outward and visible assurance that there was an achievement there, even if it was explained that a great deal of this oeuvre would remain forever unread. We’d prefer to read Catullus, but to be Victor Hugo.


The reason for this is that we lack reassurance, and this lack is a necessary part of our condition as poets. We are the very opposite of performing artists, who, except in very peculiar cases, will know whether or not they have succeeded in their art. (The reason why Florence Foster Jenkins’s case remains celebrated is that it was so unusual for a singer not to be aware that she was absolutely frightful.) It would be very odd to go to a concert hall and discover that the pianist on offer wasn’t any good at all, in the sense that he couldn’t actually play the piano. But in poetry this is an experience we have learned to take in our stride.

There are no forensic tests for poetry, in the sense that there are for musicians. It’s obvious that if I can’t pass Grade Five there’s no point in booking the Wigmore Hall. But who can prescribe the skills I must achieve before I publish a poem? Who is to devise the exercises, the examinations? No doubt it is depressing enough to be dedicated to an art such as music or dance, which puts you through a long, rigorous training and then at a certain point may say: Sorry, this is as far as you get—this is your level. But at least within a certain broad band of knowing, you know where you are. A poet like Auden, on the other hand—a poet so abundantly stocked with ideas—claimed never to finish a poem without the dreadful sense that he would never write again. My own experience is quite the opposite: when I am lucky enough to complete a poem, I imagine that I shall now be able to repeat the trick two or three times over. It is only later, as the wake of the excited passion recedes, that I realize I’m in for another long wait.

Some artists are blessed with the incontrovertible knowledge that they are working. However much they may fret about the standard of their work, they know they are spending so much time a day practicing, modeling, sketching, whatever. But if poetry is the expression of an excited passion, the idea of practicing seems somehow foreign to the art.

So how do I know whether I’m working or not? For most poets the answer must surely be that we will spend most of our lives not working, in the ostensible sense of putting down lines on paper. All that we can hope is that the lives we lead will be compatible with the writing of poetry, that with any luck they will stimulate us to write. It may be that a poet will find a thing to do which seems to be the equivalent of practicing scales—going for long walks or pacing up and down the garden, like Wordsworth—but whatever it is, it will always have the status of a Thing Which Seems To Do The Trick. That is the most we can hope for.

We work in an atmosphere of bemusement. I knew one Englishman who got a good start in poetry—magazine publication, slim volume, and then even a prize. The further it went, the less happy this guy became with his success, since he really had never had the foggiest notion what he was up to. He didn’t understand his own poems, and he didn’t understand the praise that came his way.

So after a while, seeing that the whole thing was in danger of ending in tears, he rather bravely gave up writing poetry. I won’t presume to add that he lived happily ever after, because I suppose there would always be, at the back of your mind, a feeling that all poets are con artists, and you might as well be in it for what you can get out of it. But my impression was that he was reasonably happy not to continue through life with this mysterious feeling of having wandered into the wrong party.

A young student, an American, put the matter to me like this: if it were a choice between achieving a normal, healthy, well-adjusted life on the one hand, and becoming a poet on the other, he would rather the normal, healthy, well-adjusted life. And this made things very much easier between us since he was, if a choice had to be made, much more suited to normality than he was to poetry. In fact, although I did not say so, if he’d just given up his very fast motorbike and perhaps eaten a bit more fresh fruit, he could have had his whole life’s ambition then and there. In poetry, he did not know what he was doing, but this not knowing was not a matter of surrendering to instinct, adventuring into the unknown. The problem was that, step by step and ineluctably, he had been persuaded to eliminate from his definition of poetry anything that might have made it identifiable as such, until he had been left with only one thing to hang on to—the notion that poetry “used heightened language.” What constituted heightened language was hard to define, since obvious heightening agents such as rhythm and rhyme had already been specifically excluded.


He was melancholy and incurious. Nothing in his education so far had persuaded him to take any profound interest in the existing poetry of his own language, the language which he shared with so many nations and cultures. He lived within easy access of bookshops and libraries, he had read the poetry of the various people who had taught him poetry, and he had listened to the work of other members of his group. But beyond this rather limited milieu his curiosity did not extend. The poetry of past centuries antagonized him, as did anything (he was from the American Midwest) that could be described as East Coast.

Put this way, the student sounds rather a dim case, but this was not entirely so. On the subject of his favorite music, and song in particular, he was lively, informative, and curious. His taste had its own natural authority. So much so that I began to wonder whether his education in poetry might not be to blame. His education had attempted to knock the poetry out of him but his natural taste had preserved an area that was education-free, protected by having been psychologically split off. If he was writing a song, he knew perfectly well the kind of thing he was after, even if he could not achieve it. But he never associated the song side with the poetry side of his life. Poetry perhaps overawed him, but he didn’t want anything to happen that might reduce its vacuous augustness. He didn’t want a hint of lightness, for instance, or humor, in a poem. I don’t think he really wanted it to be interesting. He preferred to keep it a bit awesome and a bit empty.

He was, in short, a victim of the tyranny of free or “open” form, but I should like to think the difference between us was not a matter of formalism (or neoformalism) versus free verse. That might have seemed to him and his group to be part of the problem when we argued. But I do not think the cause of poetry should be hijacked aboard the neoconservative gravy train. Nor do I think there is any sense in an attempt to turn back the clock, or to return to imagined premodernist values. There is modernism in the history of everything we write. Understanding it and benefitting from it is a part of our education as poets. But we live in a period rapidly becoming as remote from that of Eliot and Pound as theirs was from the Romantics—even if, in tribute to modernism, people still talk about it as something that has just happened. My bemused midwestern poetry group thought that modernism was a matter of readjusting our attitude to art after Hiroshima and the concentration camps. They plumped for the wrong world war.

The neoconservative take on all this, the reassertion of “values,” is an uncandid attempt to enlist poets in a political cause. The concern is not for the well-being of poetry itself, but to persuade the poets to come along to lend any aura they might have to the neoconservative event. Neo-formalism is a queer thing. It has a tendency to champion forms of poetry which, in the premodernist age, were only of marginal interest. All those sestinas, ballades, and villanelles so beloved of Auden and Empson can hardly be of the essence. They seem to attract the neoformalist because, when it comes to the teaching of poetry, they help provide the missing forensic test mentioned earlier. Maybe they could stand in as scales, as arpeggios; the sestina is Grade Five, the villanelle Grade Six, and so forth. Maybe they could be the things we oblige our students to practice every day: the Petrarchan sonnet could be the medicine ball, and we’d keep in shape by chucking it about for ten minutes every morning. But then again, maybe not. I think Pound liked the Troubadour forms because they struck him as fresh, not because they smacked of the gym or schoolroom.

Yeats told the Irish poets to learn their trade, which is fine as long as those Irish poets don’t come away with the idea that poetry is a trade. Learn your craft, laddy! Yes please, I should like to learn my craft, but I came under the impression that poetry was an art, and that an art was more than a craft. A poetry workshop may be a fine thing. But to talk of a workshop is merely a well-meaning attempt at demystification. Poetry is not fashioned on an anvil or thrown on a potter’s wheel. These are only metaphors, and we do danger to the art if we talk of it always in craft terms.

Indeed, one might question the motive of some of this demystification. A whole culture has grown up around the idea of poetry workshops, and it might be worth stepping back from time to time and asking: Am I being conned or am I conning myself about these groups? Am I here under a false prospectus? We are all familiar with those advertisements which claim that a publisher is looking for poems. Ian Hamilton once investigated the con: you sent in your poems and received what purported to be encouraging criticism; you were also encouraged to publish, and to pay for the pleasure of doing so. At the end of the process your work appeared as part of an anthology—an anthology of you and your fellow dupes, an anthology no one else would see.

Babies are not brought by storks, and poets are not produced by workshops. It’s worth keeping these truths in mind to avoid disappointment. A workshop can be many things: an encounter group, with all the rewarding and devastating possibilities that implies; a glee club; a mutual entertainment; a reading circle; a matter of joint research. Where it develops into a menace is where it is considered as something to be added to your CV, and those most at risk from this menace are the people obsessed with extending their poetic CVs. Look: all is well, I’ve acquired some more qualifications, I’ve added another inch to my stature as a poet!

And this adding of inches to the CV is bound to disappoint, as it becomes clear that the CV is moving in one direction and the career, mysteriously, in another. Until eventually my CV implies that I’m just about to become Goethe, and yet I have to admit that not even my cat believes this. The mistake was to think of poetry as a career. For if poetry is the product of an excited passion, and if there is no such thing as a life of passion, a continuous earthquake or an eternal fever, how much less likely is it that there would be a career of passion? If it is liberating to be told that a single poem can earn you the title of poet, there remains the depressing catch that we will never know whether we have written that single poem.

Plaudits are fun. Neglect is miserable. But we shall never be able to tell either from the plaudits or from the neglect whether we have come anywhere near the fulfillment of our aim. Keats died under the impression of failure. Mrs. Felicia Hemans (her gold-tooled, leather-bound volumes selling like hot cakes) had probably been lulled, one way or another, into a sense of significant achievement. What a shock she must have got looking down from Heaven or meeting the dead Emily Dickinson there. Such, you might say, are the risks of this vocation.

One thinks of Philip Larkin, beginning adult life with the overriding ambition to become a novelist. The poetry was what he wrote when the novels wouldn’t flow. And when that flow stopped altogether he was left with the dismaying realization that he must look elsewhere, he must rely on poetry, his second string. But in the meantime, since the poetry was not likely to come in a torrent, there was all that life to be led, all that consciousness to be got through, and death to be faced at the end of it all—and all this to be endured without the common consolations of a shared existence. A childless life with depression for a muse. Not exactly a course which one would rush to sign on for, if it were offered, and the prospectus were clear.

Copyright © 1992 by James Fenton

This Issue

March 25, 1993