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.
The work of Ashbery clearly transmits stimuli and sensations, and has music and form, but often lacks an obvious paraphrasable solar meaning (the “what actually happened here”), and thus under Maxwell’s Law is disqualified. Frequently in Ashbery’s work a loose context can be discerned, an undercurrent of the “I” and the “you” (often corresponding to the wounded and the loved), but nothing that could be translated as a logical narrative. But should poetry be limited to the equivalent of portraiture and landscape painting? Can it follow a line for the sake of it, as Paul Klee did? I think of what Frank O’Hara almost said: If you don’t like this sort of poetry, bully for you. The cinema’s good too.
Maxwell, seemingly suspicious of that negative capability prized so much by Keats, “that is, when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts,” is always reaching irritably after fact and reason. But maybe there is a good reason for NOT SAYING: maybe we don’t know what or how we are experiencing. Maybe Ashbery’s retreat into comic-seriousness, his sifting of low and high culture, his willed ambivalence and resistance to expository conclusion, are just as surprising and exciting and memorable to the reader as a linear narrative. It often seems so to me when I read Ashbery—though it’s also true to say that I don’t return often to his work, and I suspect it’s because if you know a poem can go anywhere, all the terrains begin to seem alike, dreamscapes where anything can happen but nothing is real. Not everyone need write like Ashbery but we wouldn’t willingly give up his work. After all a dream, when you’re in it, is completely consuming, even if it can’t be retold—that is paraphrased—successfully.
Maxwell is at his best when he discusses particulars, coming at well-worn poems from unusual angles. He compares, and asks the reader to compare, the flavors of silences that precede certain first lines; for example, what kind of mood engenders “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?” (Shakespeare) or “Had we but world enough and time” (Marvell) or “There’s a certain slant of light” (Dickinson). His reading of these canonical pieces is crisp and impressive, and the tone engaging. His shortness with prosody, though, is slightly depressing, and a little bullying: here’s how he discusses the “most famous lines” of Marvell’s “To His Coy Mistress”:
But at my back I always hear
Time’s wingèd chariot hurrying near;
And yonder all before us lie
Deserts of vast eternity.
Want to hear how fast time moves? Not with the regular step of, say, “The wingèd feet of Time draw near”—no, the word slams hard to the top of the line: “Time’s wingèd chariot hurrying near….” You want to talk about iambs and dactyls and stress and unstress, as if the English language were some binary read-out, then you are missing the picture.
But it doesn’t have to be a binary read-out: no one disputes the existence of metrically relative stress, and if you want to discuss “patterning,” which is what Maxwell claims most poetry is missing, then you require some sort of terminology. “Slams hard” isn’t going to cut it. As you read it, the shock isn’t just the way the word slams to the top of the line—it’s the spondee, the double syllabic stress with “wing,” and the way the word “time’s” is not just stressed but elongated by that s. There’s a real tension with the way we are forced to hold the syllable in “time’s” and the way we want to hurry on, to complete each rhyming couplet, to get away from time. The lines before and after it are solid iambic tetrameters—de dum de dum de dum de dum—but the pentameter of “time’s wingèd chariot hurrying near” has something free-floating about it. It’s the entrance of something temporally disruptive, something terrible and strange.
That spondee on “time’s wing” is the unexpected thud thud of those wings beating, of time rearing up behind you. To shy away from the terminology that permits discussion of a poetic event like this smacks of anti-intellectualism, blokeishness. It’s hard to talk about the meter of a poem without using the received terms, otherwise you end up saying things like “the word slams hard to the top of line.” (And if you want to discuss the “truly great” mastery of line break in, say, George Oppen or William Carlos Williams, you need to be able to discuss meter, since successful lineation of free verse depends on stress.)
Maxwell anyway doesn’t think the detail pedestrian, as he makes clear when he gets to prosody (in the chapter called “Pulse”). “I don’t say you can’t point out stresses and unstresses, I merely say there are infinite degrees of stresses and unstresses.” Convincingly, he says one should think of “the stresses—the beats, the meter—as the bars, not as the notes, not as the crotchets or minims or breves. The meter should be time passing in the background.” To Ezra Pound’s dictat that poetry be “composed in the sequence of a musical phrase, not in the sequence of the metronome,” he answers, accurately if immoderately:
Well, musical phrases can show infinite variety and still be supported by a regular structure of bars, 4/4 can turn to 3/8 or 9/16 or 2/4 and turn back again. These are called time-signatures—what’s poetic meter but time-signature? The metronome does its boring job, but only a fool—literally an idiot—would write upon its strokes…. It seems to me some poets extrapolate Pound’s critique of late Victorian pentameters—or the general Modernist argument against metrical form—to include, frankly, Shakespeare.
Again and again he offers superbly insightful readings of extracts or poems by Dickinson, Edward Thomas, even Yvor Gurney. Writing of Thomas’s “Old Man,” a poem seemingly about nothing more than the contradictory names of a common herb known as both “Old Man” and “Lad’s-Love,” Maxwell singles out the penultimate line of this section of the poem:
Even to one that knows it well, the names
Half decorate, half perplex, the thing it is:
At least, what that is clings not to the names
In spite of time. And yet I like the names.
“How does one say that line?” Maxwell asks.
The lips, the tongue, the throat, the brows, all are working, willing to know, falling short of it.
Technically, it’s a pentameter like these are: “I’ll leap up to my God—who pulls me down?” “And flights of angels sing thee to thy rest….” Those are lines I used to look at like I look at stained-glass windows. But when I heard this—“At least, what that is clings not to the names”—what I heard was the mind, my mind at work, I heard English now…. Light meeting the mind, recorded on the breath and returned in thought—or half-thought—or no thought at all.
Here he is on repetition, citing Frost’s repeated line “And miles to go before I sleep”:
Recurrence of words isn’t repetition. Ever. Try saying the above couplet in exactly the same way twice. Not only will you not sound like Robert Frost, you won’t sound normal. The second line is likely to elongate, its last word probably fall in tone…. What’s intervened between the two technically identical lines is the need to say the same again. Either side of that are different worlds. The relation of the two lines to thought is entirely different. One line outran thought, the second walks in step with it.
Here he is on terza rima:
This is the creature on the move through life. A new rhyme comes out of the mist, is developed in thought, is left behind…. Each bright new thought is escorted by a couple of now fading rhymes. If you imagine each rhyme-sound a thick strand of a certain colour, the form would soon resemble DNA, winding and recurring, always changing and never.
When it comes to form Maxwell repeats “you master form you master time,” though he never quite explains what this means. Does form necessarily add stringency? It does in, say, Frost but that’s because, as Maxwell might say, he’s a “truly” great poet. But doesn’t form often lead to padding and routine? Many authors write compacted lines of verve and rhythm and power without forms—or without exact forms. Is a seventeen-line poem by Louise Glück weaker in some way for not being a sonnet? Is it in reaction to that sonnet form or is it uninterested in it? Is it somehow more stringent for forgoing a fourteen-line frame for a length of its own organic necessity, dictated by the rhythms and value and content of the words, not the numbers of lines it contains? I don’t know the answer to these questions, but they aren’t even raised here. Form is taken as a given fact, and when a difficulty arises it’s elided.
His big thesis is that Eliot and Pound and the modernists were revolting against
a stale late-Victorian formalism which dragged on into the Edwardian and Georgian years, and which seemed to them inadequate in the face of a world changed not only by the horrors of the Great War, but by industry, technology, mass culture, migration to the cities with its attendant miseries of poverty, anonymity, pollution.
Maxwell thinks, rightly, that “a century’s gone by and we’re somewhere else in the story.” The speeding up of technological development and the rampaging of social media, the comfort and security of the literate Western world, have contributed to a sense that nothing can amaze us, that there is “a kind of antiseptic sealed quality to our time.” The upshot of this is that “the once-vital, visceral responses of early Modernism have dwindled over a hundred years into thoroughly private habits.” In effect, late-modernist antiformalism has dragged on into the twenty-first century.
To counter this, Maxwell posits a different progenitor from Eliot and Pound that young poets could follow, Edward Thomas, whom Ted Hughes called “the father of us all.” Though Pound might have said “Breaking the pentameter, that was the first heave,” Maxwell lists the poets—Heaney, Longley, Mahon, Walcott, Murray—whose work shows a faith in the line of five beats, “the line that takes the time of a breath.”
If the book is witty, and occasionally glib, it’s also profound:
Any form in poetry, be it meter, rhyme, line-break, is a metaphor for creaturely life. It looks to me as if the most durable are those most closely fused to what we are most deeply: organisms that breathe and move and have, who one day horribly learn they can’t breathe or move or have forever…. The sound of form in poetry, descended from song, moulded by breath, is the sound of that creature yearning to leave a mark. The meter says tick-tock. The rhyme says remember. The whiteness says alone. The poem forms in space and time. It, at least, can be made to last.
Arguing with this book is part of the joy of it: it’s provocative and opinionated and personal and urgent; by turns good-humored and intemperate; and full of earned advice on the writing and reading of poems. Even if it feels like a partial explanation and a limited taxonomy in the battleground of contemporary poetry, it’s still a fine addition to “what we’ve got.”
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.) ↩