George Szirtes' TS Eliot Lecture 2005 | 23-Nov-05
Thin Ice and The Midnight Skaters
The most famous passage in English poetry about skating is to be found in Book 1 of Wordsworth's The Prelude where, in the 1805 version, the young Wordsworth hisses along "the polished ice, in games / Confederate, imitative of the chace" with "the Pack loud bellowing, and the hunted hare"
"... So through the darkness and the cold we flew," he writes,
And not a voice was idle; with the din,
Meanwhile the precipices rang aloud,
The leafless trees, and every icy crag
Tinkled like iron, while the distant hills
Into the tumult sent an alien sound
The experience is, as Wordsworth's subtitle tells us, part of the growth of the poet's mind. It is dark. The crags tinkle like iron and he senses an acute tension between the exhilaration of the movement and the melancholy of the hills.
Another skating scene forms the climax to a book for children, Philippa Pearce's Tom's Midnight Garden. Here Tom, the boy who has found his way through the back garden gate to an earlier time is skating with the young girl who later turns out to be the elderly neighbour he hasn't yet met.
"They skated on," writes Pearce, "and the thin brilliant sun was beginning to set, and Hatty's black shadow flitted along at their right hand, across the dazzle of the ice. Sometimes they skated on the main river; sometimes they skated along the flooded washes. Only the willows along the bank watched them; and the ice hissed with their passage.
They had stopped talking or thinking - their legs and arms and bodies seemed to throw from side to side with the precise, untiring regularity of clock pendulums - long before Hatty cried: "Look, Tom - the tower of Ely Cathedral!"
This being the girl's time Tom leaves no trace on the ice but they move together over the river where everything is frozen and where past and present are skating as one, speaking to each other. The tension between Pearce's past and present, and between Wordsworth's exhilaration and melancholy is an important element of the power of both scenes.
Edmund Blunden wrote of skaters too. This is how his poem, The Midnight Skaters, goes:
The hop-poles stand in cones,
The icy pond lurks under,
The pole-tops steeple to the thrones
Of stars, sound gulfs of wonder ;
But not the tallest there, 'tis said,
Could fathom to this pond's black bed.
Then is not death at watch
Within those secret waters?
What wants he but to catch
Earth's heedless sons and daughters?
With but a crystal parapet
Between, he has his engines set.
Then on, blood shouts, on, on,
Twirl, wheel and whip above him,
Dance on this ball-floor thin and wan,
Use him as though you love him ;
Court him, elude him, reel and pass,
And let him hate you through the glass.
Blunden was born in 1896, died in 1974 and served as a soldier in the First World War, out of which he wrote his well-known memoir, Undertones of War, published in 1928. His war poetry lends itself to less conclusion-drawing than Owen's or Sassoon's, though Sassoon was an early supporter of his. Blunden's more equable writing temperament, long career and love of cricket has had him marked down less as a war poet, more as a Georgian, a label that is almost next to saying May safely be ignored but this poem by him has proved a popular anthology piece.
If the poem has stuck with me over the years, it is, I suspect, because of its symbolic power or drag, the effect that follows after the poem is heard, read and gone; an effect beyond the poem's apparent slightness. Unlike an allegorical work The Midnight Skaters employs referents that are not absolutely clear: it retains some ambiguity yet seems to be pointing to a precise place, a magnetic north dense with the smell of reality just beyond and out of sight. But the ambiguity prevents direct identification. It works down the line of tension between a perfectly real magnetic and perfectly real terrestrial north. Melancholy and exhilaration, past and present exist together: both vivid, both true.
In her classic account of language loss and re-culturation, Lost in Translation, the Polish born writer Eva Hoffman talks of moving from the dense and meaning-laden brilliance of her native Cracow to the rare and meaning-thin city of Vancouver in 1959. The density and brilliance she misses is partly a function of physical space - the very interiors of the houses in Vancouver, she says, were "oddly flat, devoid of imagination". There was "nothing that gathers a house into itself, giving it a sense of privacy, or of depth - of interiority". Beyond this lay the problem of language. Once at school in Canada, she and her sister were renamed, and their original names differently pronounced. "The twist in our names," she tells us, "takes them a tiny distance from us - but it's a gap into which the hobgoblin of abstraction enters... These new appellations, which we ourselves can't yet pronounce, are not us. They are identification tags, disembodied signs pointing to objects that happen to be my sister and myself.... I am becoming," she goes on, "a living avatar of structuralist wisdom: I cannot help knowing that words are just themselves. But it's a terrible knowledge...I have no interior language...The verbal blur covers these people's faces, their gestures with a sort of fog."
Hoffman's is a remarkable account of language-loss and language-nature experienced as trauma. It bristles with sensitivity and intelligence. In linguistic terms, she tells us, the signifier has been divorced from the signified. The sound that means this is being painfully detached, torn from the this it stands for: another word is supplanting it, bringing with it not only the weight of the dictionary but the sheer tonnage of accumulated experience: of practice, transaction, association, imagination and dream, no part of which is yet hers.
When our own family of four arrived in England as refugees in the December of 1956 only my father spoke any English, and he spoke it reasonably enough to act as interpreter to groups of other refugees. After a few days stop at an army camp we moved to Westgate on the Kent coast and found signifieds for which we had signifiers but of which we had no direct experience. There was the sea for a start. None of us had seen one of those, though we did have the word tenger, that meant 'sea'. Tenger was a word from tales and fabulous stories, from other people's talk, from films: it had a set of meanings that we had not experienced at first hand. The transfer of our old vocabulary to a new set of experiences naturally took time: so English tea meant not quite tea, so English bread meant not quite kenyér. For what we received as tea and bread was not what we had been used to. George Steiner talks about this in After Babel, about how even transactional language is inadequate to experience: brot and pain are not innocent blank counters. It is not just that you will get different kinds of bread in Germany and France but that these breads come with a complex baggage of history, culture and association.
The family decision was to learn English as quickly as possible. My brother and I suddenly stopped hearing Hungarian. What we heard was our parents' broken English and the native English of our off-season boarding house landlord and his wife, the English of people in shops, offices and streets.
Not that I remember anything of this. It is all gone. It was a traumatic change. My brother stopped speaking entirely for three months. I learned English very quickly but have no memory of the process. This might have been because for a while there was no language in which I could register the experience: what you cannot register you cannot explore or define. The period of learning and forgetting is a blank patch; a fog so thick you cannot look behind or ahead. Worse than Eva Hoffman's verbal blur, it was a perfectly impenetrable British pea-souper. Shreds and wisps of this fog continued to hang about for years: they still do. I suspect my mother, who died early, never quite emerged from it.
Flatness, terrible knowledge, the hobgoblin of abstraction: Eva Hoffman's terms. Words are inanimate blocks full of sound and fury, signifying nothing; blocks and stones and worse than senseless things.
I don't think this is entirely secret knowledge even to the most native of native speakers: as my predecessor in this series of annual lectures, Don Paterson has pointed out, the simple mechanical repetition of a word is enough for us to experience the draining away of meaning from the sound that is supposed to contain it. We realise the terrible truth about words: their arbitrariness, their hopelessness, their hollowness and lack of substance. Language, it seems, is no more than a thin layer of convention stretched over dark inchoate matter of which we know nothing except fear and desire.
I suspect the reason I remember Blunden's The Midnight Skaters is because it offers, among other things, a haunting metaphor for language: language as the thin skin of ice over a fathomless pond with its black bed. With dark above and dark below, the ice is of various thickness, clarity and reliability: it is dynamic. It melts, thickens, supports and gives. Skaters move across it, forgetting for a time the pond that lies beneath, a pond where, Blunden tells us, death sits and watches with "his engines set", hating skaters and willing them to fall through.
The ice Blunden offers us is not simply a road. It is a surface. It may be thin but it refracts, gathers light and colour, produces reflections and allows the possibility of surprisingly graceful movement. Nor are the skaters simply travellers, people who have to get somewhere on business: they are there because, despite the risks, they enjoy skating, because, one might add, skating can be not only an occasional necessity but an ennobling, validating pleasure.
I suspect my own inability to remember learning English or forgetting Hungarian was the equivalent of falling through the ice but surviving the dip and being pulled out of the water.
In the meantime there were the expert and gifted skaters, moving over the ice, being awarded marks for Technical Merit and Artistic Impression, turning figures of eight and gliding like potential Olympic ice-dance champions, Torvills and Deans with rows of perfect sixes.
I don't want to get too fanciful about this. A certain irony about one's own metaphors is sane and befitting. Coleridge made a famous distinction between the fancy and the imagination and one of the dangers for a poet is to slip unwittingly out of the latter into the former or indeed never to enter the latter. Yeah, neat idea! So?
But this is not merely an idea. I think the cold of language, its potential mischief and treachery, is something we can all feel, just as we can sense the dark water and a few inches under the ice and the dark sky directly above us.
Thomas Lovell Beddoes, a sort of Romantic period Jacobean, writing out of his time in the 1820s wrote as follows in his play, The Last Man:
"Ay, ay, good man, kind father, best of friends -
These are the words that grow, like grass and nettles,
Out of dead men, and speckled hatreds hide
Like toads among them..."
Good man, kind father, best of friends. How treacherous such words are, and how good those toads and speckled hatreds are at hiding! What is their position under the ice? Not far away at all. We are not naïve. We know that truth tends to turns itself into truism, then cliché, then into its own opposite. We know that words can become not only inert sounds but scheming, manipulating liars.
Ay, we have made it perfectly clear,
Ay, a whole community mourns,
Ay, a city living in fear.
Ay, terrorist. Ay freedom fighter.
Ay good man, kind father, best of friends
Roland Barthes in his Mythologies has this pinned down in the case of the French peasant accused of murdering a visiting English aristocrat. The very terms employed by judiciary and press are borrowings from cheap bourgeois fiction, Barthes says. The terms and turns of speech are part of a discourse that determines outcomes and controls debate. The peasant's language is locked out of the process. The language in which his fate is decided is out of his reach.
Not that we ourselves are strangers to techniques of manipulation. We know about weasel words and decaying words. We know words are the weapons we use to protect our own interests while seeming to protect those of others. When it comes to ourselves and our interests we are suspicious and sensitive to a fault. The first time we are addressed as darling by someone we might possibly care for, the voltage is high, the power almost overwhelming; the next time it is less, then less and less. Or so we think. It might be so, mightn't it? Maybe the word is beginning to mean something else. It is the same word, the same sound but the ice has worn very thin and the skater goes on performing the same old trick on it, over and over again.
Life is hard. We use language to exercise a degree of control over our otherwise inexpressible, inarticulate, inchoate lives, and frankly who can blame us? I am deserving. I am a victim. I am owed. I have a moral right. I will not be blamed. We have devised entire litanies of control that suffer from premature wear and must regularly be replaced in order to function.
But I am less concerned with manipulation than with what a poem is and how it deals with truth to experience. I am concerned with the ice itself and what we do on it. The nineteenth century French poet, Mallarmé's notion of the poetic task was to purify the language of the tribe. Shelley described poets as the unacknowledged legislators of the world. Are these ridiculous claims?
I first began to write at the age of seventeen when a friend showed me a poem he thought was good. It was by a mutual acquaintance. It was the first time anyone had shown me a poem by someone I knew and I immediately felt, and felt very intensely, that it was bad. It was bad because it seemed to me to exaggerate and employ grand phrases that seemed excessive to the subject. In other words it was, wittingly or unwittingly, lying. I did not say so then - I wouldn't even have been able to articulate the thought - but that moment of perception changed my life. Having sensed that the poem was untrue to something, I immediately felt the power of the equal and opposite proposition: that truth could be told and that poetry was the form in which it might be told.
I had already realized that truth wasn't a simple thing. It was not like this statement or the next one. The truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth was not entirely a question of evidence, information, data or falsifiable statements, but a matter of peculiar dogged complexity that bore within it various competing levels of apprehension. Experience was not a stable diagram but a series of shifting planes that poetry could aspire to comprehend: both melancholy and exhilaration, both past and present. It was the curious tension between them in the ice. The poem was a vehicle for truth.
Like many major life-changing events it was an instinctive decision. In any case I began to write. I had read very little poetry and neither Mallarmé nor Shelley were familiar to me, but I knew that the language we used was muddy and that a clearer multi-dimensional language might be something that could be appealed to, as one might appeal to a law.
Blunden describes the ice as a crystal parapet. Crystal tells us about structure, refractions and angles; the parapet about defence and the possibility of falling. The writing of poems was a way of moving over the ice, feeling the precise dimensions of the ice beneath your feet and sensing the terror of meaninglessness beneath it.
When Torvill and Dean were in their heyday they drew a television audience of some 24 million viewers in this country. Much of this may be put down to patriotism and love of competition: people like winning. But the sport in which the two skaters were winning was not easy to judge: grace is secondary or incidental to the result in most sports, and ice dancing, in this respect, was only just a sport. Grace is hard to judge with absolute precision at the highest level. There are subjectivities involved. Nevertheless the range of grace the competition called for was not entirely recondite. Those 24 million viewers had a notion of what they were looking at. They made judgments. After all they used phrases like poetry in motion, and sheer poetry and meant something by them. In other words they had a notion of what poetry itself might involve, of the range of meanings and values embodied in the poetic.
People who never read poetry in their adulthood do nevertheless have some sense of poetry's function. They understand it as commemoration and celebration. The death of Princess Diana produced thousands of short homespun poems, as do birthdays, weddings and other common rites of passage. People with few poetic gifts understand that the peculiar verbal patterns we call poems achieve something more than statements do: that poetry is not simply a decorative way of speaking but something with a function.
The poems they produce will usually be poor as poetry: loose rhymes, doggerel, clichés, sentimental approximations: but that does not mean that the writers or the feelings out which their verses spring are themselves crude or negligible. It is not the quality of the product that I am concerned with here (those potential inadvertent lies against those potential advertent truths) as much as the instinctive understanding of the need to produce this category of writing and speech.
I now want to quarrel with my immediate predecessor, Don Paterson, and with his view of poetry that he dismisses as 'merely good' 'amateur', 'silly' and 'lousy'. Some poems are so because they are, he thinks, written by the wrong people. "Only poets can write poetry", he says and develops this by adding, "first you have to say who is a poet and who is not."
This seems to me entirely the wrong way round for an extraordinary number of reasons and I can only cover one or two. There are, for instance, many one-off poems, or groups of three or four poems by writers who have produced little else of value. There are on the other hand very fine poets who have written a few notably poor poems. Then there are the periods when people write well and others when they write badly.
It is the poems that matter not the poets: or to put it more clearly it is the poet that appears in the poems not the person claiming the category 'poet' about whom we have to make a judgment.
"First you have to say who is a poet and who is not," says Paterson. But who is the "you"? How does that 'you' appear and claim authority? There are, I suppose, some five major publishers of poetry in this country. At various times two, three or four of the editors are poets who publish each other's work. They are, they might rightly claim, very much in a position of telling the rest who is a poet and who is not.
I don't in fact quarrel with their choices. In general terms I trust their judgment to the degree that I admire their own poems. They are intelligent, perceptive editors who publish fine poets on the whole. They don't, as has been suggested by my own editor, form a poetry police. They can't arrest you. Within the spheres of their respective publishing houses' authority they are perfectly entitled to pronounce on a writer's condition. That is, after all, what they're paid for. But I do object to them sticking notices on Blunden's entire frozen pond saying KEEP OFF THE ICE. PRIVATE PROPERTY. MASTER SKATERS ONLY. LICENCES ISSUED ON APPLICATION TO THE COMMITTEE.
This is not an argument about elitism or talent. It is perfectly clear to me that talent and achievement are not evenly distributed and will not be regulated by the laws of wish-fulfilment. It is an argument about authority and hubris. And it is more than a personal argument: it is an argument about the perception and nature of poetry.
Paterson points to the twin dangers, as he sees them, of Populism on the one side and Postmodernism on the other. I'll leave Postmodernism out of it because it seems to me he uses the term loosely to mean people who are in fact Modernists in the post-Poundian sense. I am more interested here in his idea of Populism. He never quite defines the term, talking merely about "chicken-soup anthologies full of lousy poems". I have an idea what anthologies he might have been talking about, but it would have been good had he pointed to a few examples of lousy poems as illustration, for lousiness is a self-validating term. "Yeh, well that's just your opinion, man," as the Dude says in The Big Lebowsky. I don't see why anyone should have a problem with chicken-soup. Nor would anyone who was genuinely hungry. What are they supposed to do? Starve until they can eat what the committee has chosen to call cake?
There is a process I have often noticed in my teaching: that the understanding of poetry is not, as Paterson thinks, structured like an apprenticeship. There is, rather, a particular point at which the nature of poetry is understood for the first time. That first step on to the ice involves understanding both the point of the ice and something of ice's nature. It is in fact the realization of something we have known all along. We have always known what lies beneath: we are always feeling the ice under our feet.
Paterson says no real poet is ever an amateur. I think differently: that we begin as amateurs and that our apprenticeship starts only once we understand what it is we might be apprenticed to. That first moment of understanding is a moment of nervous joy. Whether the new apprentice becomes a famous 'professional' poet or not is not important at that stage, because the moment of understanding is what matters: it involves an understanding of the importance of the poetic act not just to other poets but to human endeavour at large. There is no private pond in human endeavour and if poetry matters at all it is because we, all of us - from the writer of sentimental doggerel through to the author of The Wasteland or The Cantos, or indeed of Landing Lights - can feel ice beneath our feet.
Poetry is the first of all literary cultures. It appears in the pulse of our mothers' wombs, in our heartbeat, in our childhood rocking, in our learning of names, our namings, our fantastical confusions, our awareness of the arbitrariness and sheer nonsense of the enterprise of language: the glorious terror and exhilaration of it.
Paterson defines a poem as "just a little machine for remembering itself". I am not sure how a machine remembers itself but in any case I think the poem is far more than mnemonics. I remember the advertising jingles of my youth:
You'll wonder where the yellow went / When you brush your teeth with Pepsodent!
You'll look a little lovelier each day / With fabulous Pink Camay!
I never made any effort to remember these but there they are: perfectly effective little machines for lodging themselves in our memory.
We remember these much as we remember popular songs or nursery rhymes, because of their associations and sound patterns. Hickory dickory dock. Eeny meenie minie mo. Round and round the garden / Like a teddy bear / One step / Two step / Tickle him under there.
One lovely little chicken-soup anthology I have long cherished is Aldous Huxley's Texts and Pretexts of 1932, with its helpful notes and sub-categories of verse such as Hocus Pocus, Nonsense, Obscurity in Poetry, and Magic. In the Magic section Huxley has a 12th century spell that goes:
Amara tanta tyri pastos sycalos sycalire
Cellivoli scarras polili psylique lyvarras
And another that he refers to as a spell used by witches when mounting their broomsticks:
Horse and hattock,
Horse and go,
Horse and pelatis, Ho, ho!
Sound pattern is indeed a useful mnemonic, but it is also a mysterious and potentially efficacious spell that might be supposed to touch the secret levers of the universe. If we occasionally suppose it to be capable of effecting physical change it is because it reminds us that language might be just a set of ridiculous, arbitrary sounds, but by employing sounds in naming we render the world comprehensible and thus, controllable. We seek out compulsive rhythms, imposing sounds, and imitative conjuring noises whose mysterious powers are balanced on the knife-edge between faith and scepticism, between meaning and non-meaning, between exhilaration and melancholy.
In Shakespeare's Twelfth Night, the clown Feste tells Viola that:
....the Lady Olivia has no folly: she
will keep no fool, sir, till she be married; and
fools are as like husbands as pilchards are to
herrings; the husband's the bigger: I am indeed not
her fool, but her corrupter of words.
The Fool in Shakespeare is ever the corrupter of words. Fool prattles and can be either tedious or witty, or indeed both at once, but he is necessary to remind the central characters of the nonsense that haunts their most serious and intense purposes. Fool reminds us that language is corrupt, that ice is thin, and that larking about on ice, making noises that imitate the dark water beneath us, hallooing to the distant stars in the dark sky is necessary to our health. Poetry without the Fool is not poetry but a forlorn pretence. Once Lear has made his full descent into madness the Fool disappears from the play, never to speak again.
Language, says the fool, is something we can only prove by cavorting on it.
...Then on, blood shouts, on, on,
Twirl, wheel and whip above him,
.. echoes The Midnight Skaters. To twirl and wheel and whip are, at first sight, gestures of superfluity. The skater tests and proves the ice by dancing on it. In the same way poetry partakes of the apparently superfluous in order to test and prove the load-bearing powers of language. Most poets still like to think of poetic language in the manner of Wordsworth's original Preface to the Lyrical Ballads as something close to the "language really spoken by men" and are careful to avoid tired conventions of poetic diction, archaism and romantic cliché: colloquial truths underwritten by a gorgeous street-and-field noise taste fresh in the mouth. At the same time we also know that talk as such is not poetry; that poetry is not simply colloquial speech, that it constantly draws attention to its difference. We can see how it differs by its division into lines, by its high profile rhythms, by its patterning in terms of stanza; we can see how it differs by all those devices that twirl and wheel and whip; that remind us we are dancing not merely moving along.
Apparent superfluities and patterns are the very heart of dancing, the sheer artifice of which brings home to us, as nothing else can, the presence of Blunden's "ball-floor thin and wan". Poetry is a dance on the ball-floor of language. Its closures are nowhere near so easy as people think they are; it is never a pretty way of saying something that could be said straight; its patterns do not restrict but liberate.
Rhyme is one of a variety of formal devices that liberates by distancing us from the terms dictated by overweening intentionality. The first published poet I met was Martin Bell, who died in 1978. He worked as an afternoon-a-week tutor in poetry at the art college where I was a student of fine art. Bell had been a soldier on the Italian front during the war and was a teacher of English for several years afterwards. He was also a leading member of a set of writers who came to be known as The Group. Not having studied English beyond O Level I felt ignorant and under-educated and strove to make up for all kinds of lack. One day I asked Bell what it was like teaching poetry in school. His reply is something I have locked into my heart ever since. He said: "Poetry should not be taught in schools. It should be a secret and subversive pleasure."
That immediately struck a chord with me, because it was as a secret and subversive pleasure that I first came to love poetry, reading poems when I should have been doing my A Level Physics homework. I felt the power of the pleasure principle, the secrecy and subversion of it, the way it acted, like the Fool, as both corrupter and confirmer of meaning.
This is not a counsel of despair for teachers: it is a criticism of the way poetry is often examined and presented. Quite apart from questions such as: Find five examples of simile in the following passage and comment on their appropriateness, and other such housekeeping matters, the question at the heart of most educational approaches to poetry can be summarised as:
What did the poet mean by calling April "the cruellest month"?
A reasonably intelligent student might be moved to ask if the poet - T.S. Eliot in this case - actually meant something else by the phrase, why did he not say so. Why is the poet prattling on in this supposedly impressive way? The question assumes that the intention of the poet is to embody a meaning that pre-exists, that he or she already knows, and to dress it up somehow using a wardrobe of metaphors, similes and other items.
Wrong. Utterly and fatally wrong.
The intention of the poet is to write the best possible poem starting out with some as yet incoherent perception relating to an experience or set of experiences. The poet is a person who has realized that language is not a tool but a medium: and, what is more, assumes - has to assume - that the instinctive reader knows this as well as he does. The poem explores the medium by executing a kind of dance across it. It sets out across the ice and begins to cut light patterns in it, following some trainable instinct about the direction and way of moving, the notion of meaning arising out of the motion of the dance as a series of improvisations on the pattern. These patterns present the poet with a number of apparently arbitrary possibilities at any one time. But that is the very nature of language: it is what language continually does. The poet's patterns, the twirls, wheels and whips of the dance, invite the chance interventions of language: you end a line with the word houses, say, and you are soon invited to consider the possibility of trousers or blouses or almost anything that carouses.
"O, reason not the need," says Lear to Regan: "our basest beggars
Are in the poorest thing superfluous:
Allow not nature more than nature needs,
Man's life's as cheap as beast's: thou art a lady;
If only to go warm were gorgeous,
Why, nature needs not what thou gorgeous wear'st,
Which scarcely keeps thee warm."
"If only to go warm were gorgeous," reminds us of our nakedness. Rhymes, stanzas, metres and other such apparent superfluities are not just mnemonics or forms of showboating and grandstanding: they remind us that new patterns spring out of accident and that accident, like nakedness, is part of our condition. It is an accident that article should rhyme with particle, or intellectual with henpecked you all, and Byron uses both in his great comic poem Don Juan. The fancier the rhyme, the funnier and more miraculous it is, but any rhyme is an accident waiting to happen; any rhyme is a trick of light in the ice that draws our attention to the ice. Rhymes are satisfying yet dangerous: they take us to the very edge of nonsense, to the thinnest part of the thin ice where intentionality has to accommodate itself to the world as it is, where in order not to fall through you have to keep moving.
The ice isn't any particular expert's to commandeer. It extends a long way and there are no notices there saying KEEP OUT. The thinness is part of the excitement and any so-called amateur may find himself over it, performing some instinctive act of grace. You wheel and whip over dark water. You don't use language: you experience it, all the while knowing that the experience or perception you began with is waiting to emerge out of this peculiar dance, that the truth of it is in terms of dance not statement. That, in effect, is your perception of truth.
T.S. Eliot, in whose name this lecture is being given, once said that poetry in his time had to be difficult. I don't think he meant it had to be deliberately obscure or only soluble with difficulty, like a crossword puzzle. I think he meant that life was difficult and complicated, and that as poets came to know ever more about it through being obliged to observe and understand events of immense scale and complexity, they would be compelled to make a whole of out fragments and shards. Difficulty wasn't the aim: it was the condition.
Uneducated and unread as I was, I read The Waste Land and it entranced and convinced me. I couldn't have said why precisely April was the cruellest month, though there were reasons it might have been so, nor have described the exact way in which memory and desire were mixed up in it. The Waste Land was a series of experiences in which shards and fragments forged themselves into a dance. There was certainly sex in there, and insecurity, and the war, and unhappiness, and trauma, and bats with baby faces in the violet light, and falling cities, and voices out of cisterns and exhausted wells saying things in French, German, Italian and Sanskrit. Viscerally I understood the poem in exactly the same way as I understood the anonymous, far simpler and far shorter:
Westron wind, when wilt thou blow
That small rain down can rain?
Christ, that my love were in my arms,
And I in my bed again!
In some respects life is as simple as rain and desire: fogs sometimes clear and there are moments when you seem to see achingly sharply. Clear ice. Westron wind is about human experience: in it one hears the voices of desire and loss meeting the world in language. The poem is a truth about both language and the intractable world. Intentionality wants the world to behave as we would wish but intention has less to do with the nature of the world and our own natures than is generally thought.
I have talked of form in terms of grace, mnemonic, power, superfluity and, above all, truth. I have also spoken of it as liberation from intentionality. Form can be a kind of courtesy too: it is the way we move towards others, the way we introduce ourselves and address our readers. We are not a generation much taken by courtesies. We suspect them of being false, like Beddoes's good man, kind father, best of friends. We distrust formulas and pat phrases. And yet, paradoxically, we are sticklers for terms: we are deeply concerned how we should address minority groups, how we ourselves are addressed. We are, I suspect, often hypocrites about form. We sport our warily ironic courtesies on our t-shirts: our manners are slogans, brandnames and gestures.
Personally I like poetic devices such as rhyme, stanza or meter. I enjoy their overt courtesies, find them productive and am not put off by their occasional tendency to showboat, thinking it is not the bravado but the location that matters: the height of the tight-rope, the provision or lack of provision of a safety-net, the thinness of the ice and the depth of the water. Poetry, as Frost said, begins in delight and ends in wisdom. Games, dancing, showboating and superfluity are delights. Wisdom is the understanding of thin ice.
I like poetic devices but I don't want to make a fetish of them. I have no beef about any kind of experimentalism. In fact I think all poetry is experimental or it's not poetry. What Don Paterson addresses as Postmodernism, or what I often think of as extensions of Modernism can be exciting, delightful and truthful. I often like the product: it is the po-faced, messianic, wounded and bullying solemnity of some of its manifestos that I find hard to bear. Poets like Edwin Morgan, the late, angelic Gael Turnbull, the diffident and self-labelled 1905 Modernist, Roy Fisher are proper blessings and consolations.
I was discussing blessing and consolation with the Australian poet, Alison Croggon. This is what she said about poetry offering consolation:
I don't think it does that. Perhaps it's because it radically doesn't offer it, but offers something else: a truth about the unbearable, intolerable contradictions that go with being alive...something of the kind of lightness that Beckett can offer, maybe...I remember watching a production of Endgame and thinking, what is it? It's so bleak, and yet you walk out with this lightness, this inexplicable joy - and I thought, maybe it's because you feel that Beckett isn't lying to you.
That bleak inexplicable joy, the lightness, and those intolerable contradictions that Croggon talks about, all of which together make up truth, lie at the heart of the whole enterprise.
In his The Death of Tragedy, first published in 1961, George Steiner quoted Marx, only to contradict him.
"Necessity," [Marx] declared, "is blind only in so far as it is not understood."
Tragic drama, Steiner believed, arose out of precisely the contrary assertion: that necessity was blind and that man's encounter with it robbed him of his eyes. He went on to argue that tragedy was dead because in tragedy: "Man is ennobled by the vengeful spite or injustice of the gods" and we no longer had such gods. It is true: we don't, but Steiner doesn't claim that our experiences may not be described as tragic, nor that we cannot imagine ourselves at the core of something approaching tragic form. For, individually, we imagine the gods, and imagine them constantly. It's just that we are aware that most of us, most of the time now, expect to be alone with our individual imaginings.
Croggon speaks about lightness and intolerable contradictions. The intolerable contradictions of our lives are perfectly evident at every turn. Dark sky above, dark water below. We want to live forever yet we want things to end. We long for happiness but cannot imagine happiness in perpetuity. We are restless yet desire rest. That is except when we are resting, when rest might be the last thing we want. We want life to be tolerable but the tolerable bores us. We desire and fear. Nothing much has changed in this respect.
The poems that appeared in the wake of the death of Princess Diana came out of the instinctive perception that poetry was the most appropriate way of responding to the event. Why was that? Who told those people that that was what they should do? One could regard such poems as votive objects: pious offerings at some basic level of craftsmanship to indicate that craftsmanship is appropriate, that shape is appropriate. The people who offered them would probably do much the same for anyone who lived in their imaginations as well as for those personally known to them. They don't compose music or draw pictures. They may not be able to sing or draw but they can speak. They can form sentences. They can articulate fears and desires. They make poems because words are to hand and because they have a certain confidence in handling them. They want closures and poetry offers a kind of closure. They don't think of themselves as amateurs or professionals or apprentices. Here are a few homely phrases that have seen good service, they say: let's try to stick them together in a way that might sum up something, that might even last the way the verses engraved by monumental masons do. If we cannot have immortal song let us at least have the karaoke of grief. At least we know what song is for.
Poetry does not console through what it tells: if it consoles at all it does so by creating marvellous, hopeful-yet-hopeless verbal structures of some sort. We may not be able to do anything about death, sickness, loss and pain but look: we can do this! We can make a shape that absorbs us, into which we may sink the energy of our loss. We can transcend private grief by creating firm impersonal events in language, events that begin to look like works of nature. Shelley may cry that he falls upon the thorns of life, he bleeds, but it is not the specific historical figure of Shelley who falls and bleeds for us: it is the human capacity to fall and bleed, to shape out of falling and bleeding something that appears as a shape in the language: the figure a poem makes, said Frost. The figure the skater makes in the ice.
Skating is the intolerable contradiction of lightness and body weight. References to a dark art of poetry are, I feel, unnecessarily obfuscatory. There is as much mystery about writing poems as there is about any improvisatory activity: no more, no less. Tell the world you are the mystagogue of a high religion or the keeper of a dark ceremonial secret and it will shrug its shoulders, call you a pompous fool and get on with its life. You can afford to be a fool because everyone is, but you cannot afford to be pompous about it.
I am not in favour of Populism if by that we mean selling people pap. Counting bums on seats achieves nothing of lasting value. Somebody once said that most people don't care about most poetry because most poetry doesn't care about most people. I am not sure it is incumbent on poetry to enter people's lives, pat them on the hand and tell them that it knows how they feel. When it comes to tragedy it is best not to patronise the affected. Poetry is not a social service: the closest you might come to that function is liturgy or popular song. The task of poetry is to tell the best truth it can about whatever it happens to be dealing with. After that it must trust the reader, and assume that the reader is deeper, stranger and wiser than the poet knows.
The popularity of poetry is a matter for accountants and journalists.
I believe - what else can I do? - that a marvellous poem is the same whether seven people or seventy-thousand people read it. I also believe - and have to believe - that the poem is not merely a machine that can remember itself but something lodged in language, locking the light of its moment, its own sense of desire, loss, delight and depth into something crystalline and parapet like.
One of the triumphs of poetry is its capacity to convince us, while we are in its presence, that language and experience are parts of a whole; that, to return to Eva Hoffman's Lost in Translation, signifier and signified are briefly, triumphantly, consolingly, connected. It does not tell us that everything will be all right, not even that anyone will feel much better after taking the pill of the poem. There are no guarantees. It is not that kind of closure. They are, after all, only words.
God knows where words go.
Dust to dust.
The poet likes and distrusts them.
It is through liking and distrusting words - the way the skater likes and distrusts the thin ice he skates on - that the poet somehow or other creates the sensation of purifying the language of the tribe, or indeed of being some kind of legislator, if only in so far that such purifying may render even the words of laws more tangible. The metallic clang of the crags contains the tension between Wordsworth's exhilaration and melancholy; the coming across Ely Cathedral after all that "untiring regularity of clock pendulums" in Philippa Pearce, contains the impossible meeting of past and present.
When Auden was dying he was interviewed by Robert Kee and asked what he was reading. Hardy, he replied. The poems? asked Kee. No, the novels, said Auden, Tess and Jude. But don't you find them depressing? Kee pressed him. No, answered Auden. They are joy.
A strange joy perhaps. It must, I think, have been the kind of joy that Croggon spoke about: inexplicable, unbearable, light. It is that kind of joy we can justifiably look for in poems. Death with all his engines set is waiting below, above it is the thin ice on which we twirl and wheel and whip in the dance with its crazy patterns, its superfluities, its secret subversive pleasures. Because dancing is not such a mystery: because it is in its way nonsensical, compulsive, inexplicable yet comprehensible to anyone, and the deeper the pond, the thinner the ice, the darker above and below, the more compulsive, exhilarating, melancholy and joyful the performance.
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