On New Years day, LI had dinner with a group of very literate folks in Mexico City. One of them, our friend L., was talking about poetry – we were all trying to think of appropriate poems for New Years Day – and she mentioned that she considered, at one point, translating Dylan Thomas into Spanish. But then she learned (she sadly said) that critics say that Thomas is a bad poet.
I know that feeling: the fear of having bad taste, of some soft spot in one’s intellectual armor. Taste, one imagines, is corrected by the larger experience. There are critics I admire who have condemned Thomas’ poetry – Kenner, apparently, couldn’t stand it, or separate it from the man who made it. We respectfully disagree.
Jan Morris, in a review of a bio of Dylan Thomas in the New Statesman, quotes two disparagers:
“Dan Davin of Oxford University Press thought that Thomas's brain was not of the first class and that he spent "a great deal of noise on perceptions which are either obvious or absurd". Stephen Spender once dismissed his art as "turned on like a tap ... no beginning or end, shape or intelligent and intelligible control". Thomas spoke no foreign language, first went abroad when he was 32, and had a taste for westerns and cheap thrillers.”
One feels, like a chill coming on, that sooner or later someone will roll out Johnson’s judgment on the poems of Ossian: "Sir, a man might write such stuff forever, if he would abandon his mind to it."
In fact, of course, nobody has ever successfully written a Dylan Thomas poem except Dylan Thomas – and even he lost the knack at the end of his life, poor sod. What academics suspect is that Thomas’ poetry is all effect – the marvelous words end up echoing no larger substance. While I have some sympathy for the idea that poems should be separated from their mere effects, a little moderation, please. Academia has now created, in creative writing programs all over the world, poetry that has no effect whatsoever. Striving to be pure, it has become purely forgettable. Too often, very very smart people will confess that they read no poetry whatsoever.For which, frankly, I blame contemporary poets, who should make a collective prison break out of the world of teaching. Do anything else.
I like a poem that, at some point, I can say to myself. That moment of saying the poem to oneself is not all a poem is about, but without it, the poem has no skin, no place where the nerves end. Anatomical dolls are not our idea of beauty.
J.S. Mill, as we know from his Autobiography, was saved from the horrid erudition shoveled on his head by his pa by poetry – specifically, Wordsworth’s. He tried to define poetry in an interestingly wrong headed essay, making, among other distinctions, this one between poetry and fiction:
“Many of the greatest poems are in the form of fictitious narratives; and, in almost all good serious fictions, there is true poetry. But there is a radical distinction between the interest felt in a story as such, and the - excited by poetry; for the one is derived from incidence, the other from the representation of feeling. In one, the source of the emotion excited is the exhibition of a state or states of human sensibility; in the other of a series of states of mere outward circumstances. Now, all minds are capable of being affected more or less by representations of the latter kind, and or almost all, by those of the former; yet the two sources of interest correspond to two distinct and (as respects their greatest development) mutually exclusive characters of mind.
“At what age is the passion for a story, for almost any kind of story, merely as a story, the most intense? In childhood. But that also is the age at which poetry, even of the simplest description, is least relished and least understood; because the feelings with which it is especially conversant are yet undeveloped, and, not having been even in the slightest degree experienced, cannot be sympathized with. In what stage of the progress of society, again, is story-telling most valued, and the story-teller in greatest request and honor? In a rude state like that of the Tartars and Arabs at this day, and of almost all nations in the earliest ages. But, in this state of society, there is little poetry except ballads, which are mostly narrative, --that is, essentially stories,--and derive their principal interest from the incidents. Considered as poetry, they are of the lowest and most elementary kind: the feelings depicted, or rather indicated, are the simplest our nature has; such joys and griefs as the immediate pressure of some outward event excites in rude minds, which live wholly immersed in outward things, and have never, either from choice or a force they could not resist, turned themselves to the contemplation of the world within. Passing now from childhood, and from the childhood of society, to the grown-up men and women of this most grown-up and unchild-like age, the minds and hearts of greatest depth and elevation are commonly those which take greatest delight in poetry: the shallowest and emptiest, on the contrary, are, at all events, not those least addicted to novel-reading. This accords, too, with all analogous experience of human nature. The sort of persons whom not merely in books, but in their lives, we find perpetually engaged in hunting for excitement from without, are invariably those who do not possess, either in the vigor of their intellectual powers or in the depth of their sensibilities, that which would enable them to find ample excitement nearer home. The most idle and frivolous persons take a natural delight in fictitious narrative: the excitement it affords is of the kind which comes from without. Such persons are rarely lovers of poetry, though they may fancy themselves so because they relish novels in verse. But poetry, which is the delineation of the deeper and more secret workings of human emotion, is interesting only to those to whom it recalls what they have felt, or whose imagination it stirs up to conceive what they could feel, or what they might have been able to feel, had their outward circumstances been different.”
This seems to me to get one of the main things right – the last sentence especially – but the main thing wrong, as well as the anthropology. Children love verse that tells no tale, but sounds funny or interesting, for one thing. As for the rude people's line, our friend at Brooding Persian probably could tell us a little bit about that. The main thing, though, is that Mill gets entangled in the distinction between emotion and incident. This is a familiar and endlessly tugged against trap. I think it is just the wrong way to talk about poetry. Mill is not alone, of course – Eliot has a similar notion, and the distinction has had a long and hale life that continues today. With nefarious consequences, insofar as it empties out what we can say when we talk about a poem.
Myself, I prefer to think of poems in terms of orientation, or maps. Pound's periplum. What does this mean?
Let me explain by way of an illustration. There is a story in Oliver Sacks The Man who Mistook Himself for a Hat. A music professor was examined by Sacks. The professor was, according to all tests, physically blind. The blindness was caused by the deterioration of the retina. Yet the man claimed to be able to see. In order to understand the case, Sacks went to the man’s home. And, indeed, he seemed to get around the house, and to say things about the house, which only a man with sight could similarly do and say. Or so Sacks thought. Then they had dinner, and Sacks noticed, during dinner, that the professor was “singing” the dinner to himself. He had a song, a sort of hum, that he used to orient himself to all the things on the table.
This is what poetry does for me. Bruce Chatwin, in The Song-Lines, recounts (with, perhaps, some exaggeration) that Australian aborigines, who have widely varying languages, are nevertheless able to sing directions to each other, since the directions are encoded in the intonations, and not the words, of their songs. Chatwin cites an anthropologist who was so fascinated by this cultural ability that he began to apply the song-line principle to poetry in Europe, claiming that the Odyssey was a song-line.
Well, the latter seems a little fantastic, but as a principle, this corresponds to part of what I get from poetry. And this orienting moment is what I would call the "poetry" in fiction -- not sentences highly spiced with adverbs, or that drift from specificity into spindrift.
At this point in the post, I wanted to get to Mina Loy, some of whose Lost Lunar Baedecker is published on the web at this site. But I’ll postpone that – since humanity can only bear a certain length in blog posts, n’est-ce pas?
As we splutter to set up the LI donation week, or month, we were pleased to get fifty dollars from a donor yesterday. We will soon be putting up more info. Thanks!