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COLUMN: UNPOETIC POETS

April 28, 2019

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Much of today’s English-language poetry seems to be written by people who believe themselves to be poets, but have little knowledge of poetry. They remind me of a student I had some years ago, who drove around in a car with ‘POET’ as the license plate. Supposedly, to see ‘POET’ marking the car behind one on the highway was like seeing ‘POLICE’ or ‘AMBULANCE’; one’s immediate reaction was to pull aside and let him advance. His car’s nose always in front of him, he was ahead of his time, and his followers, all proclaiming, “I am a poet, therefore whatever I produce is poetry”, which nowadays seems to be the conviction of many a compiler of broken lines, are causing quite a traffic-jam.

No doubt there could be a new, exceptional genius whose work has not yet come to light, but most current poems, even by poets enjoying a prominent reputation, seem to be the work of people eager to be seen as poets without giving evidence that they have absorbed the important developments in American and European versification. It’s akin to lifelong vegetarians writing recipes for beef.

These thoughts came to me when I opened Octavio Paz’s Alternating Current to check a quotation and found myself re-reading his book. Any poet writing today is fortunate to have among his or her predecessors of the last hundred years some very great poets who also wrote some of the finest literary criticism, and for the new poets to remain ignorant of their ideas is like a botanist describing lush jungle fauna and flora while living in the desert. Let me rehearse some of the key ideas of the principal predecessors whom I’ve no doubt repeatedly quoted before.

Paz says, on the first page of Alternating Current, “The object of poetic activity is essentially language: whatever his beliefs and convictions, the poet is more concerned with words than with what these words designate.” This is a radical and, for most people — if they comprehend it at all — an unpalatable idea, for all humans are cocooned in a nest where each twig is a carefully selected prejudice. We’re so centred on ourselves that we attach a religious truth to our beliefs when any objective perception will show that all ideas are a speculative rearrangement of words to arrive at a plausible confirmation of reality, a passing conviction that a poet’s language transmits singularly in a moment’s illusionary vision. This is why we value originality, for, as Paz states, “the invention of new forms, or a novel combination of old forms” leads us to “the discovery of unknown worlds”; tradition comes to us as a series of sharp breaks. “From the Romantic era onward,” Paz writes, “a work of art has had to be unique and inimitable. The history of art and literature has since assumed the form of a series of antagonist movements: romanticism, realism, naturalism, symbolism.” And since then, modernism and post-modernism, now seemingly hurtling towards gibberish-ism.

We can generously assume that every English-language poet on the planet will have read the essays and letters of Ezra Pound and T.S. Eliot, and will recall their rebellion against the post-Tennysonian complacency that had reduced English poetry to a wearisome repetition of familiar ideas in exhausted forms. The formal amnesia that had settled over England by the end of the 19th century still kept the nation in a drowsy dream early into the next when, seven years after Eliot had published The Waste Land, the poet laureate Robert Bridges was not embarrassed to have the image “We sail a changeful sea through halcyon days” — which would have been trite coming from a schoolboy — in the third line of The Testament of Beauty, his poem of over 4,000 lines with its pretensions to being the Paradise Lost of his age. By then, Eliot and Pound, and W.B. Yeats, Wallace Stevens and Hart Crane had already shown the new direction that poetry needed to take not to be stale, or repetitive to the point of becoming meaningless, or constantly accessing readymade worn-out images — which is precisely the history that many poets today are repeating.

They should learn from the understanding of his art expressed by Crane in a letter written when he was 22: “I am only interested in adding what seems to me something really new to what has been written. Unless one has some new, intensely personal viewpoint to record, say on the eternal feelings of love, and the suitable personal idiom to employ in the act, why write about it? Nine chances out of ten, if you know where in the past to look, you will find words already written in the more-or-less exact tongue of your soul.” ‘Make it new!’ was the slogan of that time, though Paul Valéry was correct in cautioning that we should not mistake “mere change” for the new.

Valéry, one of the greatest poet-thinkers of our time, says of the art of writing: “The myth of ‘creation’ lures us into wanting to make something from nothing. So I imagine I discover my work little by little, beginning with pure conditions of form…” The idea asserts itself, demands it be given a shape unwitnessed before in the act of writing and its very essence, which induces an ecstasy in the mind, remains a mystery continuously bemusing one’s thoughts like a lingering aftertaste. Valéry makes this comparison: “Thought should be hidden in a poem as its nutritive essence is hidden in a fruit. A fruit is nourishing, while seeming to be no more than delicious; all we notice is the pleasure, but we are assimilating a substance. An enchantment veils the nutritious element which it imperceptibly conveys.”

It is as when we eat a perfect mango, its just-ripe flesh oozing an indescribable sweetness while its perfume curls lingeringly in our brain, a taste that we have experienced before, but each time it is a new, original thrill, a deeply felt beauty of which we cannot speak. Is that not why we nominate the poet as the creator who brings to the void the inexpressible mystery of being? As for my former ‘POET’ student, he ended up becoming a social scientist, which is like being sentenced to a lifetime of community service for the crime of proclaiming yourself a poet when you have only your ignorance to broadcast.

The columnist is a poet, novelist, literary critic and Professor emeritus at the University of Texas. His works include the novel The Murder of Aziz Khan and a collection of short fictions, Veronica and the Góngora Passion

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, April 28th, 2019