Sunday, September 20, 2020

The steady shape of the mind

A few quotations from the foreword of Jacob Bronowski's wonderful book The Poet's Defence, which I have referred to before, a book in which he “tried to write criticism as reasoned as geometry.” [p. 8]. 

“One belief is that poetry is worthy in itself. Another is that this worth must be judged, not measured. That is, this worth cannot be abstracted from the poem like the wavelength of a light from its colour, and given a measure. It must be judged, as it must be made, by the whole soul of a man. That is why great criticism, like great poems, has not been written by little men.” [pp. 8‒9]

He observes there has been a historical development of ideas against this belief, a denial of the belief “by Coleridge and now by his pupil I.A. Richards” who hold the contrary “unspoken belief that only that can be judged which can be measured. It is the belief that science is the only way to knowledge. This belief has grown as science has grown wider. From the hopes of the Augustans it has grown to the boundless pride of to-day. I do not think that it is chance that poets have grown so much worse in the same time.” [p.9]

Bronowski, a passionate advocate for the role of science in the world, and famous for his TV Series The Ascent of Man, stands for the distinct form of truth which poetry strives for, distinct from the kinds of truth accessible by science. 

“In science, that is true which can be checked by others. Science therefore finds its knowledge of the world by mass measurement, that is by social means. It finds it through the senses, and what it finds is never true but more and more nearly true. This holds of physics, of history, and also of psychology.” [p.10]

The kind of truth that poetry can access is of a different order: “I believe that the mind of man has a steady shape which is the truth. We know the truth about the mind by looking from this a priori truth outward.” [p.10]

“Great poets have thought that poetry is its own end. Had they thought otherwise they would have turned to something which is an end. Only small poets like Shelley have held to poetry although they have not thought it an end.” [p.16]

Saturday, September 5, 2020


It has been observed (but where? I don’t recall) that to some extent all words are onomatopoeic: ‘dog’ after all is a very doggy word for native speakers. But this is a reductive notion, and as little use as limiting the meaning of onomatopoeia to the trivially obvious: boom, bang, crash, clang, murmur and the Classical Greek root of ‘barbarian’ οι βάρβαροι: the people who made a sound like ‘bar bar bar.’

Context can heighten the sense of onomatopoeia in words. A good example is in the opening lines of Kubla Khan, where Coleridge uses a restricted range of vowel sounds at the lighter end of the spectrum so that when the word ‘down’ comes at the start of line 5 it comes as a change to a lower aural register and thus enacts its meaning with its sound:

In Xanadu did Kubla Khan
A stately pleasure-dome decree:
Where Alph, the sacred river, ran
Through caverns measureless to man
   Down to a sunless sea.

Sunday, August 30, 2020

The Great Forms Disappear

A. D. Hope in 1963 

In his 1965 book of essays, The Cave and the Spring, A. D. Hope compares the landscape of poetry with its diverse forms to a natural ecosystem, and laments the loss of so much. “One after another the great forms disappear; the remaining forms proliferate and hypertrophy and display increasing eccentricity and lack of control. A general erosion of the mind proceeds with more and m ore acceleration. A desert ecology replaces the ecology of the rain forest. The forms a few, small, hardy, and reflect the impoverished soil in which they grow.”

Mary Kinzie, in her essay ‘The Rhapsodic Fallacy’ echoed and cited Hope’s essay, down to similarly laying blame at the feet of Edgar Allen Poe, and his The Poetic Principle, for the malaise of modern verse. 

Hope quotes Poe's statement “That degree of excitement which would entitle a poem to be so called at all, cannot be sustained throughout a composition of any great length.” He then goes on to entertainingly remark: “Poe's opinion hardly deserves a serious answer. He might just as well have maintained that love consists only of brief passages of intense excitement in secual intercourse, and that, because a man cannot prolong these moments indefinitely, he is never in love except when he is in bed.”

Tuesday, September 3, 2019

Best poetry fertilizer

Zbyszek Herbert
Leopold Tyrmand’s diary describes his friend Zbigniew Herbert’s office work in the peat industry, one of a long series of underpaid low level jobs he held.

“Wieczorem Herbert i czytał nowe wiersze. Wydaje się, że praca w torfie wpływa nań użyźniająco. Do roboty nie ma tam nic, czytać gazet w godzinach urzędowych nie wypada, wobec tego Zbyszek siedzi przy biurku i pisze wiersze i bajki. Każdy myśli, jaki on przykładny i gorliwy, podczas gdy Zbyszek boryka się z obsesją zmarnowanego życia, co - jak wiadomo - stanowi najlepszy nawóz sztuczny poezji. W wierszach daje wyraz obawom i przygnębieniu, że nie zostawi śladu istnieniem. Przeraża go grząskość ludzkiego losu. Powiedziałem mu, że jest to uczucie naturalne wśród torfowisk. Musi zmienić pracę i poszukać czegoś w cemencie czy betonie .” (Dziennik 1954, s.168)

“February 5: Herbert in the evening ... read new poems. It seems that work in peat has a fertilizing effect. There is nothing to do there, you shouldn't read newspapers during office hours, so Zbyszek sits at his desk and writes poems and fables. Everybody thinks he’s an exemplary and zealous worker, while Zbyszek struggles with his obsession — that of a wasted life, which, as we know, is the best fertilizer for poetry. In his poems, he expresses his fear and depression that he will not leave a trace of existence. The mire of human fate scares him. I told him it was a natural feeling among the peat bogs. He has to change jobs and look for something in cement or concrete.”

Saturday, July 6, 2019

Hoping for lightning

John Berryman

Here’s the last paragraph of Adam Kirsch’s article on John Berryman ‘That thing on the front of your head’ from the Times Literary Supplement, Feb 6, 2015:
Randall Jarrell wrote that a poet was someone who stands outside in storms hoping to get struck by lightning. Berryman, who spent so many years waiting for genius to find him, eventually lured it by making the waiting around, with all its attendant boredom, guilt and vice, the very subject of his poetry. In 77 Dream Songs, he used every technique of artificiality — in diction, syntax, allusion, rhythm — to create a voice of shocking honesty and directness; and by achieving this paradox, he liberated himself from the impersonality (itself, perhaps, no more than ostensible) of high Modernism. If we have no poets like John Berryman today, it is not because we are less ingenious than he is, but because our poetry seems to have so much less at stake.
Randall Jarrell
Kirsch is referring to Jarrell's remarks at the very end of his essay 'Reflections on Wallace Stevens' from Poetry and the Age:
How necessary it is to think of the poet as somebody who has prepared himself to be visited by a dæmon, as a sort of accident-prone worker to whom poems happen — for otherwise we expect him to go on writing good poems, better poems, and this is the one thing you cannot expect even of good poets, much less of anybody else. Good painters in their sixties may produce good pictures as regularly as an orchard produces apples; but Planck is a great scientist because he made one discovery as a young man — and I can remember reading in a mathematician’s memoirs a sentence composedly recognizing the fact that, since the writer was now past forty, he was unlikely ever again to do any important creative work in mathematics. A man who is a good poet at forty may turn out to be a good poet at sixty; but he is more likely to have stopped writing poems, to be doing exercises in his own manner, or to have reverted to whatever commonplaces were popular when he was young. A good poet is someone who manages, in a lifetime of standing out in thunderstorms, to be struck by lightning five or six times; a dozen or two dozen times and he is great. 
The mathematician referred to is the Cambridge mathematican G. H. Hardy who wrote in his 1940 book A Mathematician's Apology:
I do not know an instance of a major mathematical advance initiated by a man past fifty. If a man of mature age loses interest in and abandons mathematics, the loss is not likely to be very serious either for mathematics or for himself. 
The image of the poet standing in a thunderstorm also puts me in mind of another figure from Cambridge: Ludwig Wittgenstein, whose explanation to his sister of his choice to be a primary school teacher after not only beginning to gain a reputation as one of the world's foremost philosophers, having already published his Tracatus, but also having given away one of Europe's largest personal fortunes which he had inherited from his father. As Norman Malcolm explains in a London Review of Books article from 19 November 1981, “Hermine Wittgenstein tells of the bewilderment of the family over Ludwig’s determination, immediately upon his return home at the end of World War One, to rid himself unconditionally of his whole fortune; and of her own dismay at his decision to become a country schoolteacher. She protested to him that his teaching in an elementary school would be like ‘using a precision instrument to open crates’. She was silenced when he replied ...
You remind me of somebody who is looking out through a closed window and cannot explain to himself the strange movements of a passer-by. He cannot tell what sort of storm is raging out there or that this person might only be managing with difficulty to stay on his feet. 
The very young Ludwig Wittgenstein
On several occasions Hermine observed Ludwig’s teaching in the boys’ school. He encouraged his pupils to invent a steam-engine and to create other constructions, steering them to correct solutions by means of questions. Tremendous interest was aroused: the boys ‘literally crawled over each other in their desire to be chosen for answers or demonstrations’. But he was impatient with untalented or lazy pupils, and his inability or refusal to soothe unsympathetic parents eventually led to his resignation.”

Tuesday, December 27, 2016

Sad similitude

In the early poems of Lawrence Durrell we find lines with a rhythmic and syntactic similarity which almost amounts to a tic:

In all the sad seduction of your ways


When all the slow destruction of the mind

A short Teutonic word followed by a long Latinate word is a well-used tactic:  “sad seduction,” “slow destruction.”

There is nothing particularly good about these lines; in fact, they both suffer the minor flaw of having the word ‘of’ bear an albeit secondary iambic stress. This is a bit of awkward panel-beating in the line, denting the language a bit out of shape.

But behind these lines lurks the ghost of a line of a far greater craftsman: Alexander Pope.

In sad similitude of griefs to mine.

Here not only is ‘of’ not asked to bear an unnatural stress, but the fine balance of syllabic quantities across the line is expertly done. If we mark the caesura:

In sad similitude | of griefs to mine

We can see that in the first half of the line there are five short quantities and only one long: the -ude of ‘similitude.’ In the second half of the line there are three long quantities and only one short. If you crudely count a long quantity as twice a short, then each half line carries the exact same weight.

Monday, December 26, 2016

Who has the time?

Eliot at his desk at Faber & Faber
T.S. Eliot, from the age of 29 until he was 37, worked at Lloyd’s bank. This was from 1917 until 1925. His hours would have been 9:15 am to 5:30 pm Monday to Friday, plus one Saturday a month. There were two weeks of vacation a year. During this period, which starts around the publication of his first book Prufrock and Other Observations, he published the collection Poems 1920, influential essays such as ‘Tradition and the Individual Talent’, and in the year 1922 he published The Wasteland as well as founding the quarterly The Criterion which he edited for the next 17 years.

Recall Cyril Connolly’s observation that “we cannot think if we have no time to read.” Eliot in a letter of 29 April 1927 (in Vol 3 1926-1927) to editor of The Evening Standard writes how contributors to The Criterion are “supporting themselves and their families in the Civil Service, or in museums, or in universities, or in banks and commercial houses, and are thus able to think, and read, and write independently of a livelihood.” As Stephen Collini observes in his recent book Common Writing, “Several kinds of social and economic change thereafter combined to bring about a much sharper contrast between a university post and these other occupations; in the early twenty-first century we hardly think of a job in a bank or a commercial house, or even perhaps in the civil service, as allowing much leisure to ‘think, and read, and write’ about literary and intellectual matters.” Perhaps the absence of television or the internet might also partly explain how normal employment could leave time for literary pursuits, that and — amongst the middle classes — the universal use of servants, live in domestic staff and ‘dailies’ to tend to the business of running a household. The lighting of fires, the cleaning of the house, the laundry, the shopping, the preparation of meals: all this was done by domestic staff.

In her book The Mrs Woolf and the Servants: The Hidden Heart of Domestic Service, Alison Light states that “without all the domestic care and hard work which servants provided there would have been no art, no writing, no ‘Bloomsbury.’” Rosemary Hill, in her LRB Review of that book starkly describes Virginia Woolf’s last months:  “With the winter her state of mind deteriorated and as her final illness began she found comfort in cleaning, telling her doctor that she had ‘taken to scrubbing floors when she couldn’t write’. Leonard hoped the mechanical tasks might be therapeutic and encouraged her to help Louie Everest, their daily, who was somewhat surprised: ‘I had never known her want to do any housework with me before.’ Woolf, who had once found it humiliating to do her own shopping, spent the last morning of her life dusting with Louie, before she put the duster down and went to drown herself.”