Beauty in Poetry

My clever, inky daughter, who is doing Painting at Brighton for her degree, has been beating herself up for a term writing a dissertation on Beauty. Rather a wide subject, I opined, Daddy-fashion, but I spoke from ignorance. Beauty is in play in the world of Art. Literature is far too knowing for a word like that, but these simple painters are saying, at least some of them are, that Beauty Is Back, and my daughter’s thesis is that it has never really been away. She tries to make her own paintings beautiful. If they are socially relevant, then that’s all right, but beauty is what she does. And it occurred to me that that is, in the poetry line, what I do, what poets do, the ones I like anyway.

There is a splendid quote from Matisse. As an amateur in the visual arts I rate Matisse, and the big boys rate him too. You can’t diss Henri and get away with it. And he says (in French of course), “What I dream of is an art of balance, of purity and serenity devoid of troubling or depressing subject matter—a soothing, calming influence on the mind, rather like a good armchair which provides relaxation from physical fatigue.” Something beautiful, in short. No relevance. No commitment. No historical context. In fact no politics at all.

Now there is any amount one can put up against that. I shall choose Wilfred Owen’s “My subject is war and the pity of war. The poetry is in the pity”, an apothegm that will turn up in I don’t know how many tens of thousands of school essays in this, as in every other year. Owen is showing a good officer’s solidarity with his men; it is not his education or even his sensibility that informs his poetry. It is the pity, the pity that all men feel. Sincere? Yes, I think so. Democratic? Of course. Hogwash? Most certainly. And not at all in line with Owen’s own practice. He took a draft of his sonnet “Anthem for Doomed Youth” to Siegfried Sassoon and Captain Sassoon wrote revisions all over it. Some Owen accepted, some he did not. He made more revisions of his own. The poetry was, at least in part, in the revisions. Of course—though I am guessing here—that is not what the schoolchildren will be told. They will learn about the trenches and the suffering and it may well do them good. Though I do remember going to a comprehensive school many years ago to talk about poetry. I was shown the way out by a pretty girl of fifteen in Scholl sandals. “What poets are you doing?” I inquired. It was the First World War poets, well of course it was. Did she like them? She rolled her beautiful eyes and grinned. “The boys like it,” she said. “What poetry do you like?” She liked Keats’s Nightingale and certain poems about nature, whatever they may have been. Beauty rather than commitment and relevance, I might have said, but did not.

Matthew Arnold thought that great poetry could be recognised in very short extracts, “Sometimes even a single line”. Touchstones, he called them, a view rather out of favour but I think there is a lot to be said for it. A touchstone from Owen might be the final line of that sonnet—“And each slow dusk a drawing down of blinds”. It came to him almost whole as “And every dusk a drawing down of blinds”. What makes the final version better? Pope would probably tell us that “each slow” slows the line, which adds to its effect. Could we say that this final version is more beautiful? I think we could.

What do you make of this? 

How the days stretched out—each one the same as the one before, and they would continue to do so, tediously, until the end of history. And every day we have lived has been the last day of some other fool’s life, each day a dot of candle-light showing him the way to his death-bed. Blow the short candle out: life was no more than a walking shadow—a poor actor—who goes through all the emotions in one hour on the stage and then bows out. It was a story told by an idiot, full of noise and passion, but meaningless.  

This is something called “No Sweat Shakespeare”, making the bard intelligible to children by using the language of today. Would you give this to your child? I hope not. It is not Shakespeare for the modern age. It is not Shakespeare at all. The poetry has gone. Or perhaps, the beauty has gone. We remember, as one of Arnold’s touchstones, 

Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow
Creeps in his petty pace from day to day
To the last syllable of recorded time.
And all our yesterdays … 

I am sure you can go on. You can go on because you remember. You remember what is memorable, what is beautiful, what is poetry. I read the Shakespeare passage out to a group of ten-year-olds, giving them as much context as they needed. What was the result? Total silence for a good number of seconds. “That is beautiful,” said one boy. And so it is. 

Returning to my daughter for a moment, I was struck by a phrase she used about “the arrangement of form and colour within an artificial space”. Not Matisse this time but Georges Braque. The painter does not exactly depict. The painter arranges. And it struck me forcibly that I do not write poems about things. I arrange words within a space—within a sonnet space for example. Jorge Luis Borges went to California in the 1960s to lecture about poetry. He urged young Californian poets to begin, at least, by writing sonnets, because so much of the work was done for you, which, he asserted gamely, must be easier than writing free verse where you started from zero. Young California was not, in general, persuaded. This sonnet stuff would get in the way of self-expression, and self-expression was what art was about.

That was the zeitgeist then, is to a great extent the zeitgeist now. But why should the poet be expressing himself? What is so extraordinary about this self? W.H. Auden, asked what advice he would give a young man who wished to become a poet, replied that he would ask the young man why he wanted to write poems. If the answer was, “Because I have something important to say,” then his prospects were bleak. If on the other hand the answer was something like, “Because I like to hang around words and overhear them talking to one another,” then that young man was at least interested in a fundamental part of the poetic process. Auden is being cute here; he was rather addicted to cuteness in his later years, but all the same, is he not right? A poet does not express himself, or not primarily. He expresses the language, and that belongs to us all.

When I write a sonnet—and poets still do write sonnets—I am filling a fourteen-line space of iambic pentameter with a particular scheme of rhymes. When I began doing this seriously in my late twenties (I was a late starter) I found it difficult. Indeed, the difficulty was a good part of the attraction. I used to do crossword puzzles, but sonnets were more fun. I can remember the satisfaction of completing the first one, and the additional satisfaction of seeing it in print in some ephemeral journal. It was better than crossword puzzles because the result was shapely and, yes, beautiful. I am willing to concede that a crossword puzzle has its own kind of beauty, but that is for the compiler and far too difficult for me. I met once, many years ago, the compiler of crossword puzzles for the Independent. She felt when she compiled one with a theme it was indeed a thing of beauty. Auden, far from incidentally, was a solver of crossword puzzles all his life.

An American poet, R.S. Gwynn, has written a celebrated cento, which is a poem made up entirely of lines from other poems, a form surely inimical to the idea of poetry as self-expression. And extremely difficult to write, let me tell you. Here is the opening stanza of Gwynn. There are six more. 

All human things are subject to decay.
Beauty is momentary in the mind.
The curfew tolls the knell of parting day.
If Winter comes, can Spring be far behind. 

Of course I do not have to tell you that this Professor of Literature has something more than crosswords in mind when he writes thus. Nevertheless it is certainly not “the spontaneous overflow of powerful emotion” that Wordsworth thought—erroneously—was the essence of poetry. Powerful emotion perhaps (Matisse said that all his paintings sprang from powerful emotion) but spontaneous? “I am like Dylan Thomas,” said a would-be poet to me once at a workshop, “I do not believe in revisions.” But Thomas revised poems seventy, eighty times, rather destroying the spontaneity, one would have thought. 

What is this spontaneity thing? Are paintings, is music, spontaneous? I can imagine throwing a pot of paint at a canvas or freely improvising at a piano, but I cannot imagine getting away with saying that this method was the only way to go. And here Beauty lends a hand. You have to work to make your art beautiful. Matisse said (there he goes again) that every day of his adult life had been spent making beautiful art. Every day. I am not so pure. I take days off for parties and cricket. All the same … the life so short, the craft so long. The craft! There is no time to waste on expressing my self. It is not my self but my skill that I bring.

You would have thought that Modernists and Postmodernists alike, both in full revolt against Romanticism, would have had no truck with this romantic folly of self-expression. But they were as full of it as ever Whitman was. Politics as self-expression! Leader-worship and Jew-baiting for Pound and others; solidarity with and indeed abasement before the Working Class for others. “Yes, why do we all / seeing a red, feel small?” Cecil Day Lewis surely meant a big, muscular, working-class red, not a little guy with specs in the murder business. Though I am not so sure. “The necessary murder” is Auden’s phrase, though he later insisted he did not mean it. Then why say it? Self-expression is behind it. Self-expression and the need for revenge on those bullies back at boarding school, bullies described so well by non-communist, indeed non-political Betjeman in Summoned by Bells.

What am I saying? That a poet should have no politics? That a poet should have no self to express? No, of course I am not saying that. I am sixty-five and my self, poor thing that it is, has pretty well been expressed. I know what it is and if I don’t like it all that much, I am inured to it, I can live with it. And I have politics. I vote and I vent my spleen under an alias on various blogs. I believe Mr Blair and Mr Brown to be wicked men. But in general, in general, I keep them out of my verse. I fill in the spaces with all the skill I can muster.

But, you will certainly say, you cannot equate poetry with painting because paintings are made with paint, with line and colour, and poems are made with words. And words, however hard you try, mean things. Yes, they do. I am not suggesting we should embrace the Art of Kurt Schwitters or Edwin Morgan’s “Song of the Loch Ness Monster” (my favourite in that line); at least if we do it must be for only part of the time.

Seeing poetry in terms of a quite different art is not new. Poetry is architecture in that it is “the adjustment of all parts proportionately”. Poetry is music, or “aspires to the condition of music” in the words of Walter Pater. The music analogy is better in one way. Painting and architecture are apprehended at once, out of time. Poetry (and all literature) and music, cannot be grasped all at once. You need time to hear it, to read it. And literature—we said it before—is made out of words and so willy-nilly, nonsense though it purport to be, it must mean something. 

’Twas brillig, and the slithy toves
Did gyre and gimble in the wabe … 

You can see that, you can draw it (as indeed it has many times been drawn). You cannot draw a Beethoven symphony, or even a two-minute piece by Satie, or not in the same way.

Yet what does it mean? It means what it is. “A poem must not mean, but be,” said poet Archibald McLeish. When irritating people asked T.S. Eliot what The Waste Land meant he might have kicked them downstairs. But, being Eliot, he took refuge in the enigmatic and told them that he didn’t know, or perhaps that they could tell him because once the poem had escaped into the world it belonged to everybody and he had nothing more to do with it. I like his style.

A poem is a machine, a painting, a building, a symphony or a song. But it is not a piece of prose. “No Sweat Shakespeare” is no Shakespeare. If he had meant prose then why would he bother to put it into verse? Larkin, asked where the arrow shower image at the end of “The Whitsun Weddings” came from, smiled Eliot-wise and said it was pure genius, in other words that he didn’t know or, at the very least, was not prepared to say. My quarrel with a lot of poetry now is that it is a damn sight too prosy. Too much message, not enough beauty. Beauty is back, or it is with me.

As a coda let me quote Professor Nitta Daisaku in How to Write Chinese Poetry

You must never get the idea that you’ll just try expressing your own private thoughts … in Chinese characters. I’ll say it again: all inner demand for self-expression, all things related to … modern poetics, are forbidden.  

So who or what exactly is going to write the poem? “Why, the words will, of course … Listen to what they have to say.” 

More of John Whitworth’s poetry will be appearing shortly in Quadrant.

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