Skip to content

What are poets for?

A Fortnightly Review. 

Atlantis An Autoanthropology

By Nathaniel Tarn

Duke University Press, 2022 | pp. 300 | $24.95 £20.45


WHAT DOES POETRY do? It enriches, linguistically and perceptually. It quickens the spirit, and it defamiliarizes the world. Poets labour away at the core of things, mostly unnoticed, almost always unpaid. So why do they do it then? There’s only one good reason: because they can’t stop themselves. Some turmoil inside demands a resolution. For a ballet dancer or a violinist it would be a different outcome, but for the word-obsessed versifying monomaniac, the battle with silence ends in a poem. But what are the poems for? Some regimes have always believed (and Plato wasn’t far from agreeing) they exist so that their progenitors can be put in gaol. Going around propounding alternative realities, as though it isn’t hard enough keeping this one law-abiding.

Wozu Dichter in dűrftiger Zeit? So asked Hölderlin. The phrase is curiously ambiguous. It leans on one leg of amibiguity: what use are poets in hard times? The other meaning is: where can poets possibly go in hard times? Both are interesting enough questions. If you are a good enough poet now in the Ukraine you stand a fair chance of getting banged up by a regime not dissimilar to the one that banged up Osip Mandelstam, then killed him. But let’s not simplify. One of the greatest of the modern poets, T. S. Eliot, was bedecked with every prize and honour available to the modern state. He was garlanded. Britain has always been better at ignoring its poets than doing them in. Think of William Blake, known to his confreres as the Interpreter, ignored by virtually everyone else.

There are very few people in Britain today who, asked what they do, would answer, ‘I’m a poet’. One reason for that is because of the near-impossibility of making a living out of the writing of verse. T. S. Eliot always had another job. If you don’t have a job, then a private income comes in handy. Ezra Pound had one of those. Well, actually, his wife did – but let’s not quibble. Robert Lowell was pretty much a full-time poet, but he held teaching posts up until the end. So Nathaniel Tarn’s wish to proclaim himself, above all other things, a poet, is both refreshing and intriguing. Even more so, since he was once a respected anthropologist. He transitioned. Even academically. He went from teaching anthropology to teaching comparative literature, a subject he does not believe exists. He has a point. Like comparative religion, both subjects start off with comparisons which have no meaning. I can no more compare Buddhism with Christianity than I can compare a bicycle with a tomato. And literatures have their own mediums, their own histories,  their own geographies. You could spend a year comparing the Iliad with Beowulf, but to what end? You will find the northern epic is much wetter than its Mediterranean counterpart, and the boozing in the meadhall more egregious, quantitively speaking. Compare and contrast.

Like most poets he has a savage memory. He harbours in his heart an anti-garland, a wreath made up of bitter memories…a highly entertaining read.

Tarn does not tell very happy tales of his time in academia, which means he does not tell very happy tales of his life, since most of it (aside from a remarkable tenure as a visionary book editor at Cape Editions) has been spent there. He is 94 now, and lives in New Mexico. Like most poets he has a savage memory. He harbours in his heart an anti-garland, a wreath made up of bitter memories. Peter Porter, with whom he shared the Penguin Modern Poets,  said disparaging things about him many years ago. His status now? ‘An Australian scribbler.’ Helen Vendler would be better advised not to look up her description in these pages. And there are countless academics who, let’s be frank, just shouldn’t have been there. Their crime is frequently inattention to Tarn, who, like many artists, feels entitled to a lot of attention. He buttonholed Levi-Strauss after one of his lectures and effectively demanded a career advisory session. Claude wasn’t having it, and seems to have become a trifle crabby at the uppish youngster. You might think Tarn could see the funny side of this now, after so many years, but he doesn’t appear to.

This book can be a highly entertaining read, despite some litanies of names and places that can snag the mind at times. It is a fragmented account of Tarn’s life laid out in numbered sections, like Wittgenstein’s Tractatus. Though forthcoming in some ways, it can be remarkably coy in others. How about this for coyness? ‘Wendy is about to move to Germany to marry an R.A.F. officer but teaches her ungrateful friend a few things about sex that he had never known before. For sheer gentility she is remembered with unearthly affection ever since.’ What do we make of that then? This must be seventy years ago, so the laws of chivalry might surely be relaxed a little. I can’t help wincing a little on behalf of the airman who is awaiting his fiancée, but then I always solidarise with wronged men. But what were these mysteries into which our English rose inducted the future poet? And how do you smuggle sheer gentility between even the most silken sheets? Search me, guv. A fair number of women come and go like this through Atlantis, waving their mysterious coda as they disappear like scotch mist.

He made a big jump, existentially speaking, around the year 1969. Having done substantial work in anthropology in Burma and South America, he switches to the non-existent subject of Comparative Literature, and then spends many years teaching at Rutgers, where he is not appreciated and some even think him unqualified. His qualifications would be regarded as a bit iffy, in most such places, even today. He would qualify as a writer, but then that might put him into the dread realm of Creative Writing, which would be even worse for him than Comparative Literature. He took a summer school in writing one year, and it did not lift his spirits at all. In fact, Tarn has a fair old thwack at wokeness, which travels here under another set of names. Whatever you call it, he’s not keen. He can also be pretty negative about some of the effects of feminism. He reckons it killed the improvisatory affections possible between a man and a woman, since people started to live in fear of breaching the new rule book, the contents of which could be unknown until they were brought to bear against you.

For a time in the book, Tarn becomes Janus, the Roman god of entrances and exits, of demarcations, of looking forward at the same time you are looking back. This ties him up with the Wordsworth of Lyrical Ballads who thought the poet connected the retrospective look with the prospective one, and described the vista using the common language of men. Well, Tarn spends a lot of time looking back, including over the religions and the peoples he has studied. He has an insatiable curiosity where cultures are concerned. He looks forward too, with Solomonic gravitas. He tells us that his explorations of the world’s great religions have led him to a state of pronounced anagnorisis. We don’t and can’t know any ultimate truths and shouldn’t waste our time trying to find them. Unfortunately, this condition leads not to a happy-go-lucky relativism, but to a state of anhedonia – where nothing is any fun any more.

On the last page of the book, Tarn remarks that he is appalled at the ignorance of people who continue to bring children into the world. The dark prophet appears to have forgotten the anthropologist here. It is said that one of the hardest things to do, culturally speaking, is to change people’s diets. But to stop them all procreating would surely be even trickier. How, after all, would you do it? Tarn himself has children, in whom he is evidently well-pleased. And one grandchild is proudly displayed in a photograph. So is it a case of, do as I say not as I do? And if we were to save the world by de-peopling it, who would be left to hear the victorious poems?

Alan Wall was born in Bradford, studied English at Oxford, and lives in North Wales. He has published six novels and three collections of poetry, including Doctor PlaceboJacob, a book written in verse and prose, was shortlisted for the Hawthornden Prize. His work has been translated into ten languages. He has published essays and reviews in many different periodicals including the Guardian, Spectator, The Times, Jewish Quarterly, Leonardo, PN Review, London Magazine, The Reader and Agenda. He was Royal Literary Fund Fellow in Writing at Warwick University and Liverpool John Moores and is currently Professor of Writing and Literature at the University of Chester and a contributing editor of The Fortnightly Review. His book Endtimes was published by Shearsman in 2013, and Badmouth, a novel, was published by Harbour Books in 2014. A collection of his essays was issued by Odd VolumesThe Fortnightly Review’s publishing imprint, also in 2014. A second collection, of his Fortnightly reflections on Walter Benjamin, followed in 2018, and a third collection, Midnight of the Sublime, has just been published. An archive of Alan Wall’s Fortnightly work is here.

Notify of

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Would love your thoughts, please comment.x