If nobody reads poetry anymore, as even people who ought to know better seem to believe, who then bothers to read books about poetry? The answer is, someone obviously must since they do get published and our publishers are not known for being sentimental fools. For those skeptical of any claims made on behalf of poetry, especially of the modern variety, the probable assumption is that these books are even more obscure, even more irrelevant than the poems themselves.
Like most widespread beliefs about poetry, this one is also wrong. Not only is much contemporary verse readable and worth anybody’s time, the same can be said of some writing about poetry. This collection of lectures James Fenton delivered at Oxford, most of which were first published in these pages, demonstrates that to be the case. Notwithstanding what one thinks about Fenton’s treatment of various poets under discussion, he has written a fine book, one that any general reader of literature would have absolutely no difficulty understanding and enjoying.
Fenton’s writing is conspicuously free of contemporary scholarly jargon that has made most academic writing on poetry an ordeal to read. There are no trendy terms such as “logocentricism,” “signification,” “slippage,” “code,” “textuality,” “patriarchy,” “hegemony,” or “post-individualism” in these lectures. Academic critics, working on the premise that the issues they are dealing with are of such complexity that ordinary words simply won’t do, use these concepts repeatedly to give the impression that they have reached an advanced, more radical stage of thinking about literature. At their worst, they remind me of the way literary critics in Communist Russia peppered their pieces with all-purpose catch phrases of Marx, Lenin, and Stalin even when they came to write about Homer and Shakespeare. Of course, they were obliged to do so, often at the point of a gun, and our critics are not. Nonetheless, like their Marxist counterparts, others have some legitimate questions about literary works. For instance, who is the real author of a poem? Is it the poet’s social class, gender, or race that writes the poem? Schools of literary criticism and the writings of poets themselves can be divided by how they answer that question. Here are just a few possible ways:
1. The poet and no one else writes the poem.
2. The unconscious of the poet writes the poem.
3. All of past poetry writes the poem.
4. Language itself writes the poem.
5. Some higher power, angelic or demonic, writes the poem.
6. The spirit of the times writes the poem.
Probably all of these have a role in any work, but dogmatic criticism likes to pretend that there is only one correct viewpoint, be it linguistic, semantic, rhetorical, formal, structural, archetypal, or ideological. Instead of engaging the work at hand from various standpoints, it concentrates on one of these aspects of the poem to the exclusion of all the others. A critic like Fenton, who works on the assumption that any single, overall theory of poetry cannot succeed, is bound to be regarded as a relic of an earlier, unenlightened age when literary interpretation was not a science but merely the intuitive findings of an attentive reader who is not ashamed to admit that he mostly reads for pleasure.
Not surprisingly, with all its latest tools of exegesis, academic criticism has a difficult time with the lyric poem, which in most cases tends to be either unparaphrasable or completely transparent, making it difficult to erect a theoretical frame around it. In other words, it seems to resist interpretation. It won’t reveal to us the secret of how it came about or how it se-duces the reader. As Fenton puts it succinctly:
There must be such a thing as causality, we assume; but we cannot expect to understand its workings. In the writing of poetry we may say that the thing we predict will not happen. If we can predict it, it is not poetry. We have to surprise ourselves. We have to outpace our colder calculations.
This is the crux of the problem. If there’s no clear relationship between cause and effect—goodbye theory. And if there’s no theory, how is the intellect going to revenge itself against the imagination by locking it up in some conceptual cage? It is worth emphasizing that the poet is not in control of his poems. He is like someone who imagines he is driving from New York to Boston only to find himself in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. The point being, we cannot turn to our imagination and say, give me an original description of what the moon looks like tonight because I need it for the poem I’m writing. An image like Rimbaud’s famous “Madame X installed a piano in the Alps” literally pops out of nowhere. Our intellect wants to understand how poetry works, but it has no ability to cough up a single poetic image worth making a fuss about.
Here’s a poem by Seamus Heaney that Fenton says went straight into his personal anthology:
Who carved on the butter-print’s round open face
A cross-hatched head of rye, all jags and bristles?
Why should soft butter bear that sharp device
As if its breast were scored with slivered glass?
When I was small I swallowed an awn of rye.
My throat was like standing crop probed by a scythe.
I felt the edge slide and the point stick deep
Until, when I coughed and coughed and coughed it up,
My breathing came dawn-cold, so clear and sudden
I might have been inhaling airs from heaven
Where healed and martyred Agatha stares down
At the relic knife as I stared at the awn.
His explanation why he admires it so much will further explain what I have in mind:
“The pleasure and surprise of poetry,” says Heaney, is “a matter of angelic potential” and “a motion of the soul.” When I look at a poem like this for the first time, I ask myself: How did it do that? How did we get from the butter-print to heaven and back down to the “awn” so quickly? It’s like watching the three-card trick in Oxford Street. Suddenly the table is folded up under the arm and the trickster vanishes in the crowd—excepting that, when you tap your pocket, you find you have something valuable you could have sworn wasn’t there just a moment before.
How one deals with these methodological issues depends on what one believes poetry to be in the first place. Is poetry a state of mind anyone may have from time to time or a gift only a rare few are blessed with? Should our readings and interpretations of poetry follow the same ground rules as our interpretations of deeply felt experiences or do we need experts? Is the work of a true poet an original creation that sets its own rules or the product of socially constructed reality? Does poetry take place on the deepest level of being or in that part of consciousness where our ideas and opinions are formed? Finally, is poetry more at home at the town dump or in the town library?
When one writes about a poet, one’s primary effort involves trying to locate some quality of the imagination or voice—that one-of-a-kind aspect—that is present regardless of whatever purpose it has been put to. Note that I say nothing of the subject matter, nor is Fenton overly concerned with it in his lectures. How he brings to light that unique quality in the poets he is discussing, I find most interesting. What he does is not unlike what a novelist strives to do in conveying the peculiarities of his characters. Obviously, we have to see them, hear them, and feel their singularity if they are going to make an impact on us in the story. Fenton achieves that effect in his book by a kind of collage of different approaches. He does not shy away from literary ideas and very close reading of poems, but he combines them with close scrutiny of poets’ biographies in search of small, revelatory details that not only bring the individual to life but also make us recall their poems.
He loves a good anecdote. For example, he tells about Marianne Moore’s father, who went mad briefly after losing his fortune in the development of the smokeless furnace, and how, when he recovered sufficiently, he got employment at the same mental institution where he had been committed. Then there’s the one about Elizabeth Bishop as a college student going to hear Edna St. Vincent Millay read her poetry. On that solemn occasion, for which Millay wore a long artistic robe and clutched a curtain while she recited her poems, Bishop and her friends sat doubled up with laughter. These lady poets, she thought, were always boasting about how “nice” they were. They had to make quite sure the reader was not going to misplace them socially. Of course, that kind of anxiety interfered with what they wrote. This is what she called “our beautiful old silver” school of female writing, and this little tableau of Millay tells it all.
The Strength of Poetry has chapters on Wilfred Owen, Philip Larkin, Seamus Heaney, Marianne Moore, Elizabeth Bishop, Sylvia Plath, D.H. Lawrence, three chapters on Auden, and separate chapters on poets’ vicious rivalries and on poetry that celebrates imperialism. Fenton is both a debunker and defender of various claims made by poets. If it is true that poets do not really know how their poems came about, it is best to take both the statements they make about their work and the persona that emerges from their poetry with a grain of salt. Larkin’s poems, as Fenton reminds us, seem to say:
I detest dishonesty in writing; I detest self-mythologizing; if nothing of note happened in my childhood, I’m the kind of guy who’s prepared to say so, rather than dress up non-events as events. Taken as lyric, the poem asserts its own right. It stands alone, as any lyric stands alone, to convince us, or not, on its own terms.
It sounds as if Larkin’s telling the truth, but he is not. Behind his pose, there are many evasions. When he wrote in the famous poem of his, “They fuck you up, your mum and dad./ They may not mean to, but they do,” he may have expressed something true of us all, but he got the idea at home. His father was an admirer of Hitler and even attended Nuremberg rallies. He didn’t alter his views during the war and continued to praise the efficiency of Germans even during the blitzing of Coventry, where the family lived. As Fenton says, having his father call down a curse on the city must have made quite an impact on young Larkin. His other concealment was his wartime rejection from military service for medical reasons. Under his air of indifference, he was a troubled man, so perhaps cause and effect do operate after all in the creative process, however sneakily? Isn’t this also the case with Moore, Plath, Bishop, Auden, and so many other poets with their complicated personal histories?
Fenton, for the most part, is an astute psychologist. He knows that there are times when biography helps unlock the poetry. Certainly, if in one’s youth one’s parents paraded naked around the house and chased the mailman down the block in that condition, that just may turn out to make a difference. He also knows that luckily for poets, poems often end up by having a more wholehearted vision than their authors have. Nor does he believe that there’s such a thing as an artistic personality. The genius of poetry makes house calls, but he or she is not picky and may often seek out some worthless human being.
As for women poets, Fenton has this to say:
Something held women back when it came to the writing of poetry, and since whatever it was that held them back failed to hold women back from writing novels, we must suppose that the inhibition had something, at least, to do with the antiquity and prestige of the art.
This doubtlessly is historically true. He goes on to quote Germaine Greer to the effect that it was women who deified the poet, who fainted when Byron came into the room, and yet because of that adoration they were not able to write poetry. What’s missing from this account is Sappho, who did originate a type of intimate lyric that after twenty-six centuries still sounds fresh. Not only that. It is still in my view the most radical invention in all of poetry. Thanks to that kind of lyric poem, ordinary mortals make their appearance in literature for the first time. Instead of myths, with their gods and heroes larger than life, we get the first breath of realism, someone’s solitary voice speaking to us directly about what concerns her at that moment.
We know the fate of Sappho’s poems, how thoroughly they were censored and destroyed, first by antiquity and thereafter by the Christian zealots. They knew what she had committed was an outrage. She made the lyric self into the sacred center, if not sacred cow, of poetry while the tribe with its beloved epics was relegated to the background. Subsequently, it was all right for a man to write like that, to be a Catullus or Propertius, but no woman could get away with it until mod-ernism made scandal a part of its bag of tricks.
I bring this up to amplify Fenton’s point that neither Moore nor Bishop seems to have traced her ancestry back through the line of women poets. True enough. On the other hand, one can imagine Sappho understanding where many of Plath’s poems were coming from. I doubt there were elms in ancient Lesbos, but this great twentieth-century poem by Plath would have sounded familiar to her.
I know the bottom, she says. I know it with my great tap root:
It is what you fear.
I do not fear it: I have been there.
Is it the sea you hear in me,
Or the voice of nothing, that was your madness?
Love is a shadow.
How you lie and cry after it
Listen: these are its hooves: it has gone off, like a horse.
All night I shall gallop thus, impetuously,
Till your head is a stone, your pillow a little turf,
Or shall I bring you the sound of poisons?
This rain now, this big hush.
And this is the fruit of it: tin-white, like arsenic.
I have suffered the atrocity of sunsets.
Scorched to the root
My red filaments burn and stand, a hand of wires.
Now I break up in pieces that fly about like clubs.
A wind of such violence
Will tolerate no bystanding: I must shriek….
Moore and Bishop would have been unintelligible to Sappho for numerous reasons. Fenton reminds us that every line of Moore’s “went first past her mother’s censorship and was later offered to her minister brother, who considered each of her poems as a spiritual event.” Women unquestionably had a tradition which men helped themselves to for centuries, but from which women stayed away because their upbringing would not allow them to acknowledge something so disrespectful. Bishop herself was extremely shy. She did not like intimate sexual details spelled out and was upset when her friend Robert Lowell started confessing them in his poems. It was not gushiness but the power of reticence that she valued in a poem. Still, one suspects that occasionally she would have preferred to write more freely about personal matters, as some of the posthumously published poems show. As for Moore, who, too, was a rebel against poetic conventions, even without her mother peeking over her shoulder as she wrote, it is hard to imagine that her oddly sexless poem “Marriage” would have turned out any differently.
The concluding three lectures in The Strength of Poetry deal with W.H. Auden, his writings on Shakespeare’s sonnets, the influences on him of Blake and Henry James, and the final moving chapter on the poet’s peripatetic life and melancholy old age. In Fenton’s account, Auden experienced firsthand the political and moral crisis of the age, the conflict between reason and heart, individual and collective, as he clung to impossible ideals, failed, turned on himself, kept his integrity, only to find himself hated and have his greatest moment of courage taken for cowardice when he remained in the United States while England was at war. At the end, in his homelessness, he comes across as a tragic figure:
Blake sat at Auden’s left when he wrote, urging concision, definite views, plain language. He was not the Blake of the long line, of the interminable prophetic books, but the fiery Blake of The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, the Blake of the notebooks.
Henry James sat on Auden’s right, suggesting fascinating syntaxes and ways of prolonging a sentence, giving a nuance to a nuance.
Auden needed influences, Fenton writes—and who doesn’t? “We steal from our masters. We steal from our friends, from our enemies even,” he says elsewhere. I would also reiterate that men steal from women and women from men. Poets have always been thieves. In the last hundred years, with the proliferation of translations, it got even worse. Everybody was reading everybody else and being influenced by someone from another culture. That’s why anthologies based on race and gender are suspect. Reading the poems by Auden that Fenton quotes, I was struck again by how inbred poetry is, how many echoes of our long lyrical tradition are to be found in them.
Dear, though the night is gone,
The dream still haunts to-day
That brought us to a room
Cavernous, lofty as
A railway terminus,
And crowded in that gloom
Were beds, and we in one
In a far corner lay.
Our whisper woke no clocks,
We kissed and I was glad
At everything you did,
Indifferent to those
Who sat with hostile eyes
In pairs on every bed,
Arms round each other’s necks,
Inert and vaguely sad.
What hidden worm of guilt
Or what malignant doubt
Am I the victim of,
That you then, unabashed,
Did what I never wished,
Confessed another love;
And I, submissive, felt
Unwanted and went out?
Poets seek that elusive something called poetry, and so do those who write about them. Fenton is very much aware of that in his lectures, and that is part of their strength. Paradoxically, what is most important in a poem, that something for which we go back to it again and again, cannot be articulated. The best one can do under the circumstances is to give the reader a hint of what one has experienced reading the poem, but was unable to name. And when that fails, one can quote the poem itself in full, because only poems can trap the “poetic”—whatever that is. Poetry’s strength lies in its endless elusiveness to the intellect. This is the reason why poems continue to be written everywhere in the world and why there are still people trying to convince others that reading them will not only give pleasure but also remind the reader of poetry’s strange ability to safeguard the power of our most ordinary words.
July 19, 2001