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The poet as ‘strategic’ ironist.

By ALEX WONG.

ddavieSOME CONSIDERABLE CRITICS—and I am thinking primarily of Donald Davie—have been troubled by an apparent surplus of irony in English poetry since the early or middle twentieth century. It is not hard to see why. And perhaps the tyranny of what Davie called ‘strategic’ irony (distinct from ‘cosmic’ irony and local ironies of theme) has become even greater in the decades since Davie was concerned with it.

The problem is not imaginary. And yet the problem itself is only marginally more troubling than the depth of distrust felt by such an important critic for stylistic irony in general; because the problem of the excess of irony in contemporary poetry is really, it seems to me, a problem of the excess of the kinds of irony that simply do not work. The principle of stylistic irony, which can achieve great things, needs to be defended. And the bulk of poetic work that has arisen from a supposed abandonment of irony—not all of it, but the bulk of it—now presents an answering problem, which, to many readers, may seem rather more disquieting.

RNCslug150Davie’s impatience with ‘strategic’ irony is a preoccupation arising in part from personal circumstances. He had been a poet associated with the ‘Movement’. Later he repented of the Audenesque wryness and coyness which had pervaded, he felt, both his own earlier poetry and that of his peers. Indeed, even in his later verse it is impossible not to see that the struggle is ongoing. Although without doubt a ‘serious’ poet, too earnest for some, Davie is nevertheless habitually drawn to an ironic tone. The struggle for him is to shake off the habit—the automatic ‘strategy’ of irony regardless of subject—even if this deliberate eschewal leaves him seeking, instead, for subject matter which is inherently ironic, and for which an ironic tone is licensed as it were by reference to the qualities of the thing itself.

The problem with strategic irony is that it…puts the emphasis on the writer’s relationship with the reader, rather than on the matter of the poem.

The problem with strategic irony is that it avoids responsibility; it is ‘defensive’, ‘pusillanimous’, ‘craven’—a mere ‘manipulation of tone’, little more than ‘attitudinizing’. It puts the emphasis on the writer’s relationship with the reader, rather than on the matter of the poem, and so it is both tiresomely ingratiating and contemptibly apologetic. The 1959 essay ‘Remembering the Movement’, from which these terms are quoted, put the case strongly; and in his 1972 book Thomas Hardy and British Poetry, Davie returned to the problem, now formulating in neater terms the division between the ‘strategic’ irony which pervades the writer’s relationship to any subject, and the ‘cosmic’ irony which is discovered in the world, and therefore has at least the appearance of a relative objectivity. The former comes from within, the latter from without. In preferring the terms ‘stylistic’ and ‘thematic’ irony, which are a little more neutral, I follow the example of Michael Schmidt, who talked about this matter with Davie himself on many occasions and continues the debate in his book Lives of the Poets.

The putative problem with stylistic irony is that it gives the poet permission to be irresponsible about the matter of the poem: to stand outside it. There might, then, be something trivial about such a poem. The experience it evokes might be too insubstantial, if bets are hedged in this way. But it is no simple matter to separate irony of style from irony of theme, since the former is normally introduced in order to reinforce and identify the latter. How, for example, should one think about pastiche, and parody, and the spaces between them? In such cases, does irony reside in the realm of style (the style adopted) or in the realm of theme (the adoption itself, with its referent)? If stylistic irony is to be distinguished from thematic irony, it must be habitual—a tendency of tone or perspective which becomes part of a writer’s style, and helps to determine the verbal textures of that style.

Perpetual irony (in the common sense of the word) tends to be tedious, especially when it comes to seem lazy. The escape from irony, on occasion, indeed on many occasions, is undeniably something to be desired by the poet. It is a thing not at all easy to manage, since it requires great tact, and surely puts more stress than usual upon technique. The impression of unironic feeling in any passage of verse which nevertheless avoids crassness or pomposity, is one of the poet’s most impressive tricks. But so is the intelligent use of irony. There is such an enormous space between the irony that helps to produce a great work of art, and the shallow, patchy irony that is always commoner, because easier, and perhaps now more than ever.

IT MAY BE that I am trying to make ‘irony’ mean too much. I would say that, more often than not, a poem without irony (to the extent that such a thing is possible) is a poem which has failed to recognise, or failed to come to terms with, the fundamental irony inherent in poetry, in the idea of poetry. A very good poet can sometimes overcome the need explicitly to acknowledge this, by looking at the inherent strangeness or artificiality of the medium not as irony but as the domain of Form. In other words, the successful unironic poem can be achieved only by utter formal integrity, which is just what many of the poets who want to eschew the ironic are disinclined or ill-equipped to be hostage to. In short, one can choose whether or not to regard this imperative, the art-ness of art, as an irony; but, one way or another, poetry, with all its demands as an art-form, does mediate experience in peculiar ways; and poetry is not an ideal medium through which to represent ‘real-life’ personal experience in a direct way.

Unhappily, this is just what many poets try to make it do. This kind of poet is the kind that has ‘something to say’ rather than a way of saying things. ‘Something to say’, unless it is really a method or a style, is likely to be prosaic at bottom, and turning it into poetry can often make it aesthetically worse—and less poetic—than it would have been if written in decent prose.

Personal earnestness in poetry always runs the risk of vulgarity. To avoid being vulgar, it must be perfectly handled in terms of all the things that differentiate the poetic from the prosaic.

Personal earnestness in poetry always runs the risk of vulgarity. To avoid being vulgar, it must be perfectly handled in terms of all the things that differentiate the poetic from the prosaic. Again it must be said that, looked at in a certain way, this type of handling is, in itself, a kind of irony. Nobody really has poetic feelings except in relation to poetry (conceived in a wide sense). To think poetically is to think about poetry, or to think into poetry, or to look at certain objects or circumstances in potential relation to poetry existent or non-existent. But if you declare your love for someone, and they respond ‘poetically’, you have a right to be sceptical; and if someone reacts ‘poetically’ to the news that a friend has died, you will certainly be suspicious. (If, after some time has passed, they produce an actual poem, that is, of course, a different matter entirely.)

AESTHETIC EXPERIENCE, PROBABLY the ultimate subjective experience of the objective, in which both subjectivity and objectivity are peculiarly emphatic, is perhaps not prosaic; and it is, I think, essentially a poetic function to translate that experience into verbal terms. But it is translation; the experience itself is poetry only insofar as such translation occurs. To make a ‘poem’ of it, the translation must be very thorough and very careful. And if some people do think in this way, and the process of translation becomes automatic, then they are thinking poetically, but only because they are thinking out of prose (if you like), but at any rate into poetry. Moreover, since aesthetic experience is specially concerned with form, the translation it undergoes is likely to be similarly determined by formal impulse and criterion. The more concerned one is with the outwardness of form, the reality which constitutes the basis of one’s subjective response, the less likely one is to be ‘earnest’ in a vulgar or indulgent way, for this often results from an over-emphasis upon personal subjectivity—particularly when it is examined with too much sentimentality and not enough discipline. Form (and this is a point I want to come back to) is one kind of discipline which can compensate for a lack of discipline in the detection of silly sentiment, and I think we can all name a few poets whom we love in spite of certain absurd things they say—things which would not pass in strictly utilitarian, everyday prose, and which we would censure in our own acquaintances, and ourselves. Self-consciously silly sentiment might also do the trick, saving one from a more embarrassing silliness. And this is where ‘strategic irony’ steps in. Needless to say, these two methods, of which the second seemed so much less acceptable to Davie, can also be combined in very many different ways, and both form and irony are subtle things with almost infinite possibilities.

The immediate experience of the poem of ‘personal earnestness’ is not ironic: the irony drops away, at least in effect.

There is, then, an ironic gap—if you choose to describe it in this way—between the poetic experience created in script or type, and the putative ‘real-life’ experience it evokes. But the immediate experience of the poem of ‘personal earnestness’ is not ironic: the irony drops away, at least in effect. This can be fatal, unless there are other qualities present that can keep the poem afloat.

Many contemporary poets make the mistake of thinking that the poetry-reading public must be interested in hearing about their private lives, or their mothers’ childhoods in rural wherever, purely for the sake of knowing. If these subjects were (as sometimes they are) presented in real poetry, moulded by the exigencies of form and giving formal satisfactions and surprises of a more than merely fatuous kind, then there would be interest: in the poetry as poetry, and then, by virtue of that, in the theme or narrative also. Without this, it is simply gushing self-indulgence and will appeal only to the poet, and the poet’s family and friends, maybe a few reviewers not sharp enough to avoid being disingenuous, and an audience of sentimentalists who respond appropriately to this variety of kitsch. The latter constituency has not perhaps grown in number, but has lately increased in influence.

DAVIE CERTAINLY DID NOT prefer this. In an essay published in the same year as Thomas Hardy and English Poetry, he complained that too much contemporary verse was motivated and sustained by what he called, in his title, ‘The Rhetoric of Emotion’. One sees immediately that Davie has inherited Pound’s anxiety about the rhetorical, but he takes the argument down a slightly different route. Like strategic irony, emotional rhetoric in a poem is a slavish pandering to the reader, seeking above all to ingratiate. It is governed by, dependant upon, the reader’s demands—when it ought to be answerable primarily to the exigencies of subject and form. The unsophisticated reader wants, above all, to be taken on an emotional journey: wants to be made to emote; and requires from poetry no more nor less than a series of efficacious and unmistakable prompts which allow the right emotion to be elicited. Several decades later, nothing has changed; the description is still familiar. The curious thing is the way in which unsophisticated forms of irony can be made, and have been made, a part of this ‘rhetorical’ system and its sentiment.

But between the simple sentimental and emotive mechanisms Davie condemned, and the poised ambivalent ironies of style that he distrusted, what was the ideal character of modern poetry? An emphasis on form, he argued, might allow a poet to escape emotive rhetoric, and disarm the reader wanting to approach the poem in that ‘rhetorical’ manner. For him, this way of escape from the rhetorically sentimental seemed better than the way of irony, the wry and the slippery. But it seems clear enough that both ways are viable. And so Davie seems implicitly to recognise the strange—not identity, but equivalent value, in some sense, of form and irony, which I have tenuously suggested above.

When you subtract irony from the reading-experience of a poem, there is a danger that you will be left only with self-expression…

When you subtract irony from the reading-experience of a poem, there is a danger that you will be left only with self-expression—the ‘confessional’, and so on. Not that this is always the case; for that is belied by the evidence of a large amount of unironic but (in the Eliotic sense) ‘impersonal’ poetry. But it is often the case. And when this is the intention, when the poet goes for ‘truth-priority’, form usually plays second fiddle, and suffers. I do not think that ‘truth’ in any normal sense is a major part of poetry: truth in the normal sense is prosaic. It is partly an illusion, of course, even in the most direct and quotidian prose expression. But the nature of the illusion is of interest primarily to philosophers and psychoanalysts. The feeling of ‘truth’ in a poem, on the other hand, is an illusion with artistic interest, an illusion to admire—and all the more so if the sense of the illusion strikes us, at the moment, as being not at all illusory. It is what Adrian Stokes called ‘aesthetic truth’.

The integrity of a well-achieved poem, however slight, may be equivalent to truth, or may even be experienced as truth (especially when we discover what we are predisposed to feel as truth in the semantic content, crudely taken); but I don’t think it is truth, except in the sense in which ‘beauty is truth, truth beauty’—which, properly understood, is (one declares without irony) perfectly true.

NOTHING COULD BE more stupid than an enmity towards the unironic, and I want to be careful to clarify my position. Many of the works of art which mean most to me—as is the case, I suppose, for most people— are works which do not strike one as particularly ironic, from a stylistic point of view. In these cases it is form that triumphs. But very many other works, which mean just as much, and are just as extraordinary, do make much of ‘stylistic irony’, and this does not necessarily make them any less serious or intelligent. It is possible to be moved to tears again and again by a work of art in which emotion is heightened, not lessened, by the presence of stylistic irony in the tonal make-up.

Taking one point of view, one might very well conclude that there is too much irony in contemporary poetry, at the expense, that is, of ‘truth’. And yet, might one not just as well feel, as I do very often, that contemporary poems are, on the contrary, not ironic enough? So it may seem, but this is not the most useful way of formulating the problem. What it really means is that they, the poems in question, are either pure sentiment in a really earnest but uncompelling way, which might be improved by the sobering or qualifying distance that an ironic consideration might provide; or (how often now!) that they are ironic, but in an unsophisticated way. In some ways the too-ironic is the same as the not-ironic-enough, because (I am convinced of this fact) the half-ironic is really the most ironic of all. It must be responsible, accountable, not all mere shrug and wink; but at the same time it will be enigmatic and ambivalent—in a way that appeals, produces frisson, provokes thought.

When so-called ‘confessional’ poetry comes off, and seems neither embarrassing nor over-indulgent, it is almost always the quality of the irony that redeems it.

When so-called ‘confessional’ poetry comes off, and seems neither embarrassing nor over-indulgent, it is almost always the quality of the irony that redeems it. Or else it can succeed by coming in the midst of more ironic material: smoke and mirrors can rouse the curiosity of the reader, and so make more interesting any apparent lifting of the veil, so long as it is not too blatant. In any case, a writer with a fine sense of stylistic irony is in much less danger than the ‘truth-priority’ poet of falling into the habit of personal posturing and sentimental pretentiousness. There is nothing wrong with the idea of ‘confessional poetry’, so long as it is more than a mere reporting of personal feelings, which tends to add up in the end to a kind of romantic mystique of the poet. Personal experience has to be treated and made into something else (i.e. ‘poetry’). There are some poets who simply do not understand that they would need to become canonical before most of their readers might actually want to know about their private feelings—I mean, once again, just for the sake of knowing.

THE NOT-IRONIC-ENOUGH is not ‘half-ironic’ in the sophisticated sense that I mean: it is, rather, badly or stupidly ironic. Unreflecting affectation is normally the cause of this bungling. Something is felt to be not-ironic-enough only when there is palpably an element of irony already present, but it appears unintelligent or half-arsed. (Irony can be intelligent and half-hearted, but cannot be intelligent and half-arsed.) Fake or superficial irony is worse than fake or superficial earnestness, although both are irritating and both, unfortunately, beguiling.

Ultimately, whether a poem is sufficiently or insufficiently ironic is not the best question to ask. Better questions would be these:

  1. Is the irony intelligent, responsible, humane?
  2. Is it interesting, or is it commonplace? (Is it interestingly commonplace?)
  3. Does it energize the poem in aesthetic terms?

We need to discriminate between the many gradations of irony, and its many functions. If the objection to ‘stylistic irony’ is principally that it allows poets to avoid commitment by standing outside of the ‘experience’ of the poem, then one must ask what precisely is meant by ‘experience’. Presumably what is meant is the experience communicated by the poem—an experience with a prior existence, whether genuine or fictive. But there is such a thing as ironic experience, in life and in art. The poem can, therefore, communicate an experience of irony, within which the poet assumes what Rossetti called an ‘inner standing-point’. Or the poet can simply stand inside the autonomous ironic experience of the poem itself. The irony may make the poet’s personal preferences and beliefs inapprehensible, but is this such a loss? An enthusiast for the poetry of the last three-thousand years, in general, must confess that it is not necessarily a loss at all.

Nevertheless—leaving aside the realm of satire—some commitment, some responsibility to the subject, is required of the ironic poet. Stylistic irony at its best relies upon our receiving hints about the author’s position, and our being interested in the author’s interest. If ‘stylistic irony’ actually meant disinterestedness amounting to a lack of care, then its ascendancy in modern poetry should rightly be mistrusted and condemned. I take it to mean something different. Good irony is to be mistrusted in an enlivening way, and not condemned; and there is nothing especially modern about it. What there is far too much of in contemporary culture (not just poetry) is the automatic, unreflecting irony of pose—unloving, unintelligent, egoistic; not warm enough to be really humane, nor sufficiently clear-sighted to be actually cynical.

‘Unloving’ may need explanation. To my mind, the most effective and estimable works of art which might be called ‘ironic’ in style are usually those in which warm enthusiasm, or empathy, or affinity, makes up part of the ambivalence: love of things, styles, ideas, ways of being, or thinking, or speaking. ‘Love’, therefore, if you like—or at least an authentic enjoyment, a participation.

There is indeed too much irony around these days: too much bad, half-arsed irony, which has become automatic and really does, to a regrettable degree, let poets off the hook (or so they may think).

IF WE BELIEVE in ‘postmodernism’, then I think it is fair to say that postmodern culture has been both good and bad at irony. Some of its most interesting achievements, and some of its most boring symptoms, have been in the realm of irony. Certain ironic effects, certain elements of ironic sensibility, have flourished in genuinely vibrant ways, but the prevalence of low-level irony has reached a dismaying level, and it has offered an excuse for all sorts of dullness. There is indeed too much irony around these days: too much bad, half-arsed irony, which has become automatic and really does, to a regrettable degree, let poets off the hook (or so they may think). Yet the solution cannot be to persuade the poets away from irony and towards personal earnestness, since there is already too much of that, too. And it has just as many dangers.

Can poetry exist without any kind of affectation? I am not quite sure. Affection without irony—without intelligent irony—is, however, a vice; just as it is better to know when one is being hypocritical than not to know (hypocrisy being so very hard to avoid). Intelligence with regard to form, which is, or at least should be a basic prerequisite of all poetry, may be the only thing which can, when raised high enough, replace affectation with artfulness, and remove the obligation to irony—for those who wish to avoid it. I mean to suggest that both affectation and artfulness, which are usually taken for bad qualities, are in another sense fundamental elements of poetry (and lyric, perhaps, especially). They can certainly be combined, and give at least an impression of identity. My question is whether they can also be equivalent in functional value, taken singly—that is, divided, distinguished one from the other. But, in the end, is it possible, or even desirable, to make such a distinction between the terms thus understood?

And, of course, the real emphasis is on the ‘intelligence’ which must shape the form, and direct the irony. But it is extremely difficult to be intelligent, and there is no solution to that problem.


Alex Wong is a literary scholar at the University of Cambridge. His edition of Selected Verse of A. C. Swinburne will be published by Carcanet in July 2015.

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