WITH POETRY, you are on your own.
Obviously it is not a social art and doesn’t bring people together the way theatre or music do, but the solitude of poetry goes deeper than that, and concerns the reader as much as the poet. When it comes to the actual confrontation, you and the poem, there are finally no alternatives to your own mental resources and life experience in order to cope with it.
There is of course an entire culture, with attached industries, eager to tell you that you are not alone in poetry and to make your choices for you. There are critics, festivals, prizes, courses, reading tours, institutional endorsements, etc., always ready to guide you firmly to ‘the best’ (since the Trade Descriptions Act seems not to apply, the word ‘best’ is used a great deal). This is the big public arena of poetry (actually quite small) and its message is that poetry is one happy thriving world. Art and commerce are united in this paradigm: what is most popular (within certain limits of respectability and caste) is clearly the highest quality, and what is rejected is what doesn’t sell because it’s weird and ‘nobody wants it’.
It is outwardly a very simple structure. In fact, of course, the popularity is largely created by the publicity, so that the value of the guidance offered is questionable, and when you look at the poetry elevated by these routines it turns out to be extremely varied in both nature and quality.
IT IS NOT surprising that many readers depend on these mechanisms in the quest for the real thing, since there has been such a violent splintering of the poetical function, which now comprises such diverse activities under the one heading that nobody really knows what poetry is any more. Plenty are willing to say what poetry does – invariably something very good for you -– but there is no definition. Something called ‘poetry’ may be verse or prose or not a linguistic entity at all, and may include anything from a few purple letters upside-down in the middle of the page, to people on trapezes wearing lettered underwear, and even more disturbing performances.
Guidance out of this chaos is by means of categories and sub-categories, which lead you by the hand into cults and enclaves (read ‘markets’) which ask your allegiance – ecopoetry, political (or ‘revolutionary’) poetry, ‘linguistically innovative’ poetry, performance poetry, women’s poetry, queer poetry (currently the preferred term), poetry of particular ethnic groups and regions, ‘survivors’ poetry’, ‘concrete’ poetry, and many more, including unnamed cartels. Obviously you would patronise most of these markets through considerations or inclinations which are not primarily poetical, so that poetry itself is to some extent sidelined, or poetry’s solitude is avoided by a group engagement. Can a poem be good for solely ecological or political reasons, or because it violates normal linguistic usage? Some of the camps are exclusive and aggressive; the militant political poet for instance may well believe that if you are not with us you are against us, so if you are a ‘landscape poet’ you are probably an enemy.
This galloping cell division is an elaboration of the big split in the early years of the twentieth century between advanced and reactionary poetry from which the term ‘modernist’ derives. Poetical modernism is held by an influential critical tradition to be dead, except that it continues and thrives everywhere, and the argument continues. But when you look into the details of the history it is not such a straightforward map. Ezra Pound, for instance, respected and was on good terms with a number of poets whom current ‘Poundians’ would despise or ignore, such as Laurence Binyon, whose version of Dante he particularly admired. (Unfortunately by the time Pound wrote an essay on Binyon, 1934, he was sinking into the ranting nonsense which occupied him for the rest of his life).
I came across a similar instance when I was researching the career of the poet Nicholas Moore, who did important editing in the early 1940s and was thought of as a radical poet influenced by European modernism. Among the young bloods he included in his collections Andrew Young appeared regularly, a Scottish vicar who wrote an entirely traditional poetry in which Moore recognised a virtue of sheer craft, and to whom he always remained faithful. The question raised in the current context is whether there is a poetical quality as such, which transcends categories, and whether the term ‘craft’ covers it.
CAN YOU NOT then treat poetry as one vast department store, and pick and mix, guided by a sense of ‘craft’ or something else? Indeed you can, and I think probably you should, rather than throw in your lot with a singular option. The most culturally threatening aspect of the situation is that most of these camps claim a central position, from which all others are peripheral or negative. Not only do we then have a state of permanent internecine warfare, but, to borrow a thesis from Roger Berkovitz’ lecture, ‘Truthtelling‘, we no longer know what ‘the truth’ is. All we have is versions or opinions. Poetry as an art of the totality is lost, except from within particular air-raid shelters.
Poetry is a personal art by which the solitude of the poetical experience makes possible a meeting of minds untainted by prejudicial issues. The persona confronted in the poem is a recognisable reality, recognisably involved with the world, no matter how idiosyncratically. A thread of language passes from writer to reader, and any bit of bar-room chat can supply that (so many admired poems are no more than that) but the speech of the poet is enlaced with the world, and the poet is masked and sculpted. Then narrowness is avoided because what you face is simultaneously both open and closed, transmissive and inert, and through this paradox the real is sighted, and once you have the real in view the world starts to come into focus. What, after all, do we ask of this privileged activity but that it furnish some grounds for hope in the condition of the world, for which we need to know the possible varieties of experience, and which can only stand on this scale of recognition.
I hope to examine these issues further in The Fortnightly Review by attention to particular publications, personalities and events in the poetry world.
Peter Riley, the poetry editor of The Fortnightly Review‘s New Series, is a former co-editor of The English Intelligencer, the former editor of Collection, and the author of fifteen books of poetry – and some of prose. His latest book is The Glacial Stairway (Carcanet, 2011). He lives in Cambridge.