Two years ago in his StAnza lecture Neil Astley launched an attack on what was referred to by someone before him as the poetry police, among whose officers he named Michael Schmidt, who then replied in last year’s lecture. I, for my part, am aware of following two remarkable, important and prolific publishers without whom there would be infinitely less for the police to patrol. I had thought of making a gesture at a roll call of the important poets whose works they have introduced and nourished, but then thought better of it. It would be superfluous. Those they have introduced and nourished are everywhere around you in St Andrews as elsewhere.
The terms of the discussion were confrontational: issues of populism, selling out, the publishing and reviewing of women and ethnic minorities, and the value of thematic anthologies as therapy or literature among other things. I have not checked the facts Neil Astley produced for the original StAnza lecture, but my impression is that they are generally correct, that women and ethnic minorities do get much less reviewing space than certain white male poets, an issue that certainly ought to be addressed, though I can assure him that there are many white male poets that don’t get reviewed either. In fact they don’t even get published. Bloodaxe’s noble act of redress in favouring women poets means that very talented young male poets have really only had Michael Schmidt’s Carcanet to go to, before applying to less influential publishers, since houses such as Faber, Cape and Picador take on very few new poets of either gender.
It is tempting to regard these confrontations as partly commercial, partly ideological turf wars over what is assumed by most to be a tiny patch of turf, and by others, such as Neil Astley, as a somewhat larger patch. Being a poet I cannot help but be interested in both the commercial and ideological aspects – indeed as a human being I cannot help but be involved in ideology - but not to the extent that they become first considerations in my practice. My core interest therefore is as a poet rather than as a publisher. I am, of course, perfectly aware that both Michael Schmidt and Neil Astley are poets too but they spoke as publishers. My aim in this lecture is to explore the tension between what are perceived as opposites and the allegiances they may produce.
In a poem dedicated to his dead friend Miklós Radnóti, Rhapsody: Keeping Faith, the Hungarian poet István Vas wrote:
…You pastor of kept faith, accept me at the gate
Where those things are made whole which now disintegrate,
Where Either/Ors those tyrants, may not gain passage through
Where I’ll discover all I owe allegiance to.
Vas wrote this at the height of Stalinist repression when his judgment was constantly under pressure. Either / Ors were tyrants then, as they had been in the fascist period that resulted in the death of Radnóti. Vas wanted a more complex, more humane set of options, a place where he might discover all those things to which he owed what he called his allegiance. Poets as people do find themselves owing allegiance to all kinds of things but, as poets, their chief allegiance is to the principles of their art. This allegiance naturally carries with it the notion of value though they are rarely articulated as clear prescriptions.
Value, like taste, is a complex notion. Unlike taste, which is allowed to be personal, value has a moral aspect that allows for both allegiance and betrayal. Allegiance and betrayal, pure and unsullied against muddied with interest, good against bad: all of them either / ors. Michael Schmidt spoke in his lecture of wanting “a grown up readership for poetry, able to tell a hawk from a handsaw”. Grown up, that is, as opposed to infantile. That is the either / or I want to begin with and to pursue. To be grown-up in this case is, I assume, to know and understand more, to be able to make fine distinctions, to be able to cope with the difficulties from which a child is sheltered, to appreciate and honour value. Adulthood and allegiance are my theme.
The American poet Jorie Graham wrote an introduction to The Best American Poetry 1990 in which she described her feelings at hearing a poem:
A poem began. Not a little story told in musical rhythms, but a poem. Oh, it had story. And it was music. But it seemed to begin out of nowhere. And it moved irrationally--by the standards the fiction had set. It leapt. It went too suddenly to the heart of the matter. Why was I feeling so uneasy? I didn't feel myself thinking anymore. I wasn't feeling lifted or entertained. My hands felt heavy. My body felt heavy. The air into which language had been pouring for almost an hour felt heavy.
Then I started to hear it: the silence; the words chipping into the silence. It felt loud. Every word stood out. No longer the rush of sentences free and unresisted into the air. Now it was words into an element that was crushing in its power and weight. I thought of Sartre's notion that prose writers tame language and that it's up to poetry to set it free again. I thought of the violence from within summoned up to counter the violence from without. I looked at the man and listened. His words cut into the unsaid and made me hear it: its depth and scope; its indifference, beauty, intractability.
Listening, I became aware of how much each poem resisted the very desires that the fiction, previously, had satisfied. Every word was clear, yes, every image clear--but the motion of the poem as a whole resisted my impulse to resolve it into "sense" of a rational kind. Listening to the poem, I could feel my irritable reaching after fact, my desire for resolution, graspable meaning, ownership. I wanted to narrow it. I wanted to make it into a shorter version of the other experience, the story. It resisted. It compelled me to let go.
What she was offering in that introduction, referring lightly in passing to Keats’s idea of negative capability, was a passionate defence of mystery and difficulty, a defence based partly on personal grounds of taste –it being mystery and difficulty that moved her – and partly on not quite declared Marxist ideas about commodity. The poem’s obligation was, she implied, to resist commodification: difficulty and mystery were forms of resistance.
Her introduction stirred a considerable ongoing debate. Another American poet, Steve Kowit, has written of his unease with Graham’s stance and what he calls her,
“ overheated prose” [in which] “she captures (or invents, depending on your view of her credibility) the rapturous, revival-meeting spirit that overcomes her when she listens to the glossolalia of incomprehensible verse”
And he recalls his early experience of the, for him, similarly incomprehensible Hart Crane whose work he says began “to seem less enticing than the work of poets who, in addition to their engaging linguistic skills, actually seemed to have something coherent to say.” In the course of defending poetry with “something coherent to say” he has to dismiss the work of Eugenio Montale and many others in the Modernist canon and line Jorie Graham up with Charles Bernstein and the Language Poets as a fellow mystagogue and peddler of mumbo-jumbo. Nevertheless he argues, quite as passionately as Graham did for mystery, for plainer speech, a speech closer to prose syntax, and for the idea of having something coherent to say. He wants a poetry that is not cripplingly obscure, that does not depend on mystery or difficulty. It is no use arguing against commodification, he implies, if you are an elitist.
Let me think about difficulty then.
George Steiner in his essay On Difficulty described four main kinds of difficulty in poetry. The illustrative examples are mostly mine, not his.
The first difficulty he termed the Epiphenomenal a matter of arcane words and phrases, but also contextual, relating to references that one may have to research or require privileged knowledge to understand. They might refer to other branches of knowledge such as history, science, art, lexicography. This kind of difficulty can normally be resolved though research in dictionaries and reference books. It is, if you like, the crossword puzzle side of poetry, complete with the frustrations of obscurity and the pleasures of discovery. The Waste Land, with all its quotations, allusions and echoes particularly lends itself to such frustrations and pleasures. Most poetry presents us with such problems, even if only because we cannot know the specific formal circumstances that give rise to a poem.
The second difficulty is Tactical. Here the poet is deliberately withholding something for political or personal reasons, a withholding that we may at the same time find teasing and pleasurable. The Kremlin Mountaineer in Mandelstam is Stalin. The István Vas poem, Pest Elegy, celebrates the Hungarian capital after destruction. It appears to be about the second world war but is really about the 1956 uprising. Although this could not be proved by specific reference to the text it was, nevertheless, understood by many readers to be the case. Poetry in Eastern Europe before the fall of the Iron Curtain was popular partly because it aroused precisely this kind of complicity. In essence it was a kind of irony with a human centre. It was the civilized against the barbarians. It was the sensitive against the unfeeling. In some respects it was the bourgeois individualist against the party ideologue. We too like a joke when we are included and when there is nothing but joking left. We too are tactical. Tactical value is a kind of crisis value. Once the crisis goes away so too does a considerable part of the readership. The tactical is essentially subversive, says Steiner, sometimes of no less than “the common linearity of syntax”. I will come back to that because it touches on the fourth difficulty too.
Those third and fourth difficulties are more comprehensive and in some ways more elusive, indeed, more important.
Steiner illustrates the Modal difficulty – the term itself he takes from C.S. Lewis - by referring to a 17C lyric by Richard Lovelace, La Bella Bon Roba, (an epithet for a prostitute) in which Lovelace, in Steiner’s words – I edit a little - offers the sexual prescription ‘do not lose your swet [….] on a bony whore: pick a girl in Rubens vein’. Steiner asks whether this piece of what he calls “gamy advice” is anything with which we can engage “at any but the cerebral level”. There is, he further says, “something palpably unsettling, even repellent about the movement and lunge of the whole poem”. “Is this,” he asks, “the class of experience and concern which poetry is really about?” I think we can see that he is repelled first of all by the class of sentiment, the sheer loutishness of Lovelace. It is a kind of impropriety he is complaining about. “We are ashamed to concede any modal inhibition,” he says, “to confess ourselves closed to any expressive act however remote from our time and place. But this ecumenism of receptivity is spurious,” he adds. As Mandy Rice-Davis once famously remarked, “Well, he would, wouldn’t he?” Modal difficulties may be more a matter of taste than his spurious ecumenism of receptivity.
There is of course much more to modal difficulty than prudery. Modal difficulty is a question of appropriate seriousness, an issue that is often debated at high table. There the high-tablers weigh up the quality of the writer’s mind, experience and ambition and pronounce upon it as a value. Seriousness sorts out the men from the boys (and it often is men and boys rather than women and girls), the grown ups from the infantile. As Steiner shows there is something moral in the force of a modal argument, as there is when people talk of cheap poetry, of populism, of selling short and betrayal.
Steiner’s last difficulty is the Ontological difficulty. “This type of difficulty,” he says, “ implicates the functions of language and of the poem as a communicative performance, because it puts in question the existential suppositions that lie behind poetry as we have known it… Ontological difficulties,” he goes on, “confront us with blank questions about the nature of human speech.” He traces the ancient trope of “inadequate discourse” from Poe, through Baudelaire and Mallarmé - “For whom was the Master [Mallarmé] composing his cryptograms?” he asks. Moving via Heidegger to Paul Celan, he tells us that Celan’s ‘ Largo’ is “a profoundly moving statement, though we cannot say confidently or paraphrastically ‘of what’’. For whom? Of what?
Let me explore this further, albeit a little indirectly.
I think it self-evident that the poem is not the same as the paraphrase. The poem is that which cannot be paraphrased and replaced by another form of words. That is what makes it a poem. I also think that of Steiner’s four difficulties the first two – the epiphenomenal and the tactical – are proper functions of scholarship and matters of education. They are matters on which people may speak with some authority. I would be foolish to reject the researches of a scholar simply because I might feel patronized by his or her greater knowledge. That would indeed be childish. The scholars would be the grown-ups to my childishness. My only qualification would be that in Eliot’s own triumphant, and in my own experience, true words, “poetry can communicate before it is understood”, so I need not know everything about a poem before forming a passionate relationship with it, though, having formed such a relationship my feeling might well be enriched by greater knowledge of it, that knowledge being of the sort described by Steiner in his first two difficulties. This qualification would depend on privileging the states of communication, and indeed understanding, referred to by his third and fourth difficulties, the difficulties that may actually sort out the grown-ups, though they may not always be what they proclaim themselves to be.
Difficulty in language is not confined to poetry. Difficulty is present in everything, including ordinary speech. In the Eliot lecture I took an image from Edmund Blunden and imagined language as the thin ice over a murderous dark pond of chaos with the poet as the skater that dances patterns on it. The pond possibly corresponds to Julia Kristeva’s notion of the abject, the pre-symbolic physicality of death. Poetry, according to her, is “a language of want, of the fear that edges up to it and runs along its edges”. The dance in this respect is an act of apparently superfluous grace that emphasises the thinness of the ice, that edges up to the water and runs along its edges. From the utilitarian point of view all dance is superfluous unless it produces rain. But it is not only poets that have to move over the ice: given that the ice is language, we all do, dancing or not. That is why dancing exhilarates us: because it is possible. Because dancing confirms the ice. And because talking to each other is not simply a matter of business.
There is fine poem by W.S. Graham in Malcolm Mooney’s Land, ‘The Constructed Space’ the first verse of which goes:
Meanwhile surely there must be something to say,
Maybe not suitable but at least happy
In a sense here between us two whoever
We are. Anyhow here we are and never
Before have we two faced each other who face
Each other now across this abstract scene
Stretching between us. This is a public place
Achieved against subjective odds and then
Mainly an obstacle to what I mean.
There is, as he says, something to say, something, maybe not suitable but at least happy between us two whoever we are. An abstract scene lies between us – a public space achieved against subjective odds – and an obstacle.
And indeed there are the two of us – this you and this I – in this public space, this abstract scene which is also an obstacle. But say it is not you, grown ups as you are, and I, a grown up, but say it was just two of you, or a me and a you, the space maybe less overtly public, and yet not entirely private either, since language is not entirely private, and intimately as we may talk, there is the third, the public ear of language always present, listening in.
In a 1946 essay, ‘Notes On A Poetry of Release’, Graham wrote of “The labourer going home in the dusk” who “shouts his goodnight across the road and History has a new score on its track” That is the to and fro of language: it is the listening party at our private conversations and the shout of labourer into History.
There are conditions that make poets of us all, if only for moments, in our own peculiar ways. We are capable of listening intently, picking up tone, register, subtext – the finer details of the daily cryptogram – when it is important enough that we should do so. The figure standing just outside the door who hears himself or herself being discussed by two others unaware of his or her presence, will pick up every detail of a perfectly innocuous conversation. ‘What did he mean by “decent”? Was he being ironic? How ironic? And she was talking about my low voice. Is it good to have a low voice? Does she mean like a singer? Like a conspirator?’ It is also the lover hearing the beloved say, “I love you”, “I will miss you”, “You’re looking a bit tired” – the lover in fact hearing everything, anything at all. When something matters we analyse it no end, we hear all that is to be heard and implied, aware of the horrific vacuum beneath it.
In Sándor Márai’s novel, Conversations in Bolzano, the central figure, Giacomo Casanova, has escaped from the infamous Leads prison in Venice and has taken temporary refuge in a small North Italian town, Bolzano. Here, by chance, arrive the only woman he has ever truly loved, the beautiful Francesca, whom he had first met in a draughty, run down house when she was just fifteen, together with her husband, the powerful, menacing and elderly Duke of Parma, a very dangerous enemy indeed who has already once wounded Casanova in a duel. Francesca learns that Casanova is in town and sends him a note that the Duke intercepts. It is a very short note comprising, in English, only four words, those four words being: “I must see you” followed by an initial. Francesca, we learn, is practically illiterate. The Duke arrives at Casanova’s apartment, carrying the note with him, preparing to offer Casanova a deal based on it. Because the Duke is passionately in love, or just fiercely possessive of Francesca, he undertakes a close reading of those four words. I want to read you his exegesis of just one of them. It is quite a long quotation but entertaining.
And now, more than anything I want your opinion, a writer’s opinion, [says the Duke, in somewhat ironic mode, since he thinks of Casanova as a scoundrel rather than as a writer] of the style, of the expressive talent of this beginner…There are four words and one initial only, but consider the conditions that forced these four words onto paper, consider that their author, even a year ago, had no acquaintance with the written word: turn the order of the words over in your mind, see how each follows the other, like links in a chain hammered out on a blacksmith’s anvil… Surely it is impossible to express oneself more concisely, more precisely, than this letter. Shall we analyse it?… ‘I must see you’. In the first place I admire the concentrated power of the utterance. This line, which might be carved in stone, contains no superfluous element. Note the prominence of the verb, as is usual in the higher reaches of rhetoric, especially in drama and verse-play, with action to the fore. ‘See’ she writes, almost sensuously, for the word does refer to the senses. It is an ancient word, coeval with humanity, the source of every human experience, since recognition begins in seeing, as does desire, and man himself, before the moment of seeing is merely a blind, mewling, bundle of flesh: the world begins with sight and so, most certainly, does love. It is a spellbinding verb, infinite in its contents, suggesting hankering, secret fires, the hidden meaning of life, for the world only exists in as far as we see it, and you too only exist in as far as Francesca is capable of seeing you – it is, in the terms of this letter at least, through her eyes that you re-enter the world, her world, emerging from the world of the blind that you had inhabited, but only as a shadow, a shade, like a memory or the dead. Above all, she wants to see you. Because the other senses - touch, taste, scent and hearing - are all as blind gods without the arcana of vision. Nor is Cupid a blind god, Giacomo. Cupid is inquisitive, light-desiring, truth-demanding: yes, above all he wants to see. That’s why the word ‘see’ is so prominent in her discourse. What else might she have said? She might have written ‘talk with’, or ‘be with’ but both these are merely consequences of seeing, and her use of that verb confirms the intensity of the desire that drives her to take up the pen; the verb practically screams at us, because a heart smitten by love feels it can no longer stand the dark of blindness, it must see the beloved’s face; it must see, it must light a torch in this incomprehensible and blind universe, otherwise nothing makes sense. That’s why she chose a word as precise, as deeply expressive as ‘see’. I hope my exposition does not bore you?… I must admit it is of supreme interest to me, …. for letters can be as passionate and terrifying as kissing or murder .
And so he goes on analysing each word of the letter. Letters, he says, can be as passionate and terrifying as kissing or murder. The passage is not just a parody of pedantic procedure: it exposes a form of obsessive madness. And while we may think that the Duke, for all he says, is applying himself to a negligible text, to a commonplace statement of a transactional nature, we are aware that it is not so to the Duke. His life and honour are at stake there. And indeed when illiterate Francesca finally appears, she delivers the longest monologue and the most brilliant analysis of absolute love, something beyond either the Duke or, indeed, Casanova.
Words matter to everyone when something is at stake. We poke them, we prod them, we cut them open, stitch them up again, weigh them, sing them. And the illiterate ones, who can barely write a poor sentence or make do with a piece of doggerel rhyme to signal their feelings (“Look, they’re over here somewhere, those feelings!) may not be entirely grown up in terms of high-table seriousness; like Francesca, they do the best they can, writing words like: I must see you.
I want to be personal for a few sentences. My father is not a literary man. In four months or so he will be ninety. He will have survived Fascism, forced labour, war, revolution, emigration, a new start from scratch, the care of the volatile sickly woman whom he loved until she died long before her time. He is not a negligible person. None of us are negligible persons. A little while ago the thought occurred to me – the glimpse of a desire, no more – that I should write with him in mind too, just enough in mind so as to recognize him as a grown-up person. I don’t mean to write about him – I have done that – but somehow to bear him in mind, so that he is one of the ears at the door listening and hearing. To write for him in the sense we all write for those who have a presence in our imaginations, the poets we have admired in specific poems, the singers and artists who have touched us in some way, the individual acts and beings who have made up our understanding of the world, those who constitute our inner audience.
I am aware here of the danger of sentimentality. My mind goes back to W. S. Graham who, in the second verse of ‘The Constructed Space’, wrote:
It is like that, remember. It is like that
Very often at the beginning till we are met
By some intention risen up out of nothing.
And even then we know what we are saying
Only when it is said and fixed and dead.
Or maybe, surely, of course we never know
What we have said, what lonely meanings are read
Into the space we make. And yet I say
This silence here for in it I might hear you.
“And yet I say this silence here for in it I might hear you.” Later, however, in his essay on a Poetry of Release, Graham says: “…The most difficult thing for me to remember is that a poem is made of words and not of the expanding of the heart, the overflowing soul or the sensitive observer… All the poet’s knowledge and experience (as far as people who wait outside his gates are concerned) is contained in the language which is obstacle and vehicle at the same time.”
Indeed the poem is not made of the expanding of the heart. There is something a touch cold and glacial about it in the way it caresses the ice of language that is both obstacle and vehicle at the same time.
Graham then describes an evening out, a possible materia poetica, in the bar. “…I go my way. Then I find the muse laughing her fill in the Atholl Arms, fixing her face genteel not to be thought the whore she is. She’s drunk and says, ‘give us Kevin Barry,’ but singing’s stopped this long time, and the bar is thumped like a drum at the least hint of a note. Glasses go over and we are all at words. Shapes of language (right out of the gasp and gesture of speech) spill round our ears and I am at once the man of technique who books the phrases of drinking and affection so that later I might explore the mechanics of the memorableness and vitality.”
We are all at words, he says. Shapes of language spill round our ears. But he, Graham, is the man of technique who wants to explore the mechanics of memorableness and vitality.
Not the expanding of the heart then, but an exploration of the cold, icy mechanics of memorableness and vitality. The ice. Is it this that makes Graham more grown-up, that noting of the distinction between the expanding of the heart and the mechanics of vitality? It may be so.
It may be so, but I doubt it. There does exist the fallacy that the poem is evidence of some specific expanding of the heart, that the poem is a symptom of that expansion, and that the greatest poem must therefore be that which allows for the greatest expansion of the heart. According to this common romantic fallacy, the poem is the sleeve of language on which the heart is worn. But the poem is not on the sleeve: it is the sleeve itself, the sleeve that is the weaving together of life and language. I suspect there is a general understanding of the relationship between life and language in ordinary discourse, if only because we know that we are never as articulate about our feelings, experiences and intentions as we would like to be, that our feelings, experiences and intentions are in fact modified and shaped by the language that happens to come to our lips. I think we are quite capable of understanding that language resists our intentions.
What, after all, is a poetic intention? Steiner talks about the tactical poet labouring “to undermine, that “we are not meant to understand easily and quickly”. Labouring and meaning to are complex notions in poetry. They don’t work quite as Steve Kowit would like them to. This is what Sidney Graham says about intention:
“The poem begins to form from the first intention. But the intention is already breaking into another… I try to have the courage to let the last intention be now a dead step and to allow myself to be taken in hand. Yet I must not lose my responsibility, being that explorer who shoots at the sun, carries samples of air back to civilisation, and look his forward. The poem is more than the poet’s intention. The poet does not write what he knows but what he does not know…”
But isn’t this exactly how normal speech works too? We begin a sentence without knowing its end. However uneducated or ill informed we are we know at deep gut-level that discourse is not the articulation of a single intention but an adventure. Ask the man or woman composing a love letter, or indeed anything that refers to more than business, whether it is not so. Michael Schmidt, in his lecture, quoted Coleridge’s formula: when you want to understand a work ask first what it’s setting out to do, then ask how well it achieves its aim, and finally, only finally, whether it was worth doing. Well, yes, but what did Kubla Khan exactly set out to do? Is there such a thing as a setting out to do something specific, at the end of which we may it declare it done and worthwhile?
After the publication of Neil Astley’s lecture there was a fair amount of discussion in the press and on the web. In the course of one of these discussions one contributor wrote:
I don’t think there is such a thing as difficult poetry, only poetry that connotes or denotes. The former is always considered difficult by opponents of it. The Waste Land is more connotative than a Simon Armitage poem, for instance, that is why The Waste Land is seen as difficult. (Jeffrey Side)
I am not sure how this writer can draw a sharp distinction between connotation and denotation in any speech, let alone poetry. Connoting and denoting are simultaneous processes. As if one could control the act of connoting! As if the Duke of Parma were doing anything but connoting! As if the listener at the half-open door were capable of not connoting! Because, after all, Steiner draws no either/or divisions in his classification. Poems are not either of this specific class of difficulty or another. These elements of difficulty overlap and inform all poems. The echo is not merely the disruption of discourse or of connotation, not simply the noise of the epiphenomenal, or the tactical or the modal or the ontological, but of all of these.
This echoing is what haunts poetry, as it haunts all speech that is not directly functional or anecdotal, that is to say all speech that is personal or intimate in some respect, something that as Graham had it that goes on, “between us two whoever / We are” who “face each other across this abstract scene”, a relationship created by a text held in a single pair of unknown hands, however many there may be holding the book at any one time, each pair being single.
Graham is not talking about public speech, about the rhetoric of politics, advertising or lecture. He is not even talking about performance as we tend to mean it, in the sense of a sermon or a cabaret act. He is talking about a performance of one intense attention addressing another, such intense attention as we are capable of giving anything once we have decided it is important enough. And there is the crux.
But in arguing not so much for the desirability of difficulty or enigma, as for its unavoidability, I am wary of offering too much comfort to those who would make difficulty – particularly of the modal kind - more forbidding than it actually is.
What is the poetry police and who is the public they are protecting? What is it that causes its officers to bristle at anthologies about specific conditions andmailments? What makes Emergency Kit a valid anthology and Look We Have Come Through invalid? What is the notion of stewardship that drives both? I prefer the notion of stewardship to that of the poetry police, as I am sure they – those named by Neil Astley as the police – would also do. Stewardship is less policing than a position of trust to guard rather than arrest.
Editors and publishers are clearly stewards. They admit some and refuse entry to others. That is their prerogative, their job. It is what they are paid to do. Nor is it an easy job. It requires alertness, hard work and a dedication way beyond the actual material rewards. All it offers is a circumscribed range of power to put certain items into the restricted public sphere. Beyond that there is a hope of influencing the course of literary affairs, of offering a specific understanding of history and vision of the future. They are resented exactly to the degree that they succeed in this.
It is, of course, a competitive public sphere. A small turf. There is, so it is believed – and the book sales appear to prove it - a limited space, and a fierce struggle is necessary before one can occupy it. It is, so it is believed, a crowded island ever in danger of being overrun by castaways, a small balloon ever in danger of sinking. People naturally form alliances and develop criteria by which to include or exclude others. It is a desperate struggle. It will of course be concerned with value, so it is important to establish the right criteria of value. That is no country for children. At one extreme it is simply a bouncer declaring: Push off, sonny, can’t you read: FOR GROWN UPS ONLY.
The implication here is that that which is not our turf is not turf at all, especially when all kinds of non-grown ups seem to be playing on it; that their very playing distracts the average punter from recognising the trueness of our real turf. That is irritating to the stewards. They regard the poems, poets and endorsements of Staying Alive and Being Alive to be a matter of non-poets playing on non-turf for the entertainment and supposed comfort of dumbasses. That those dumbasses are capable of agonising over the terrible thinness of words as much as they do means little if nothing to them. The turf must be defended.
Lastly now, since it is most relevant at this point, I want to return to Steiner’s third difficulty, the Modal. Modal Value is associated with integrity. Stewardship is particularly wary of modal betrayal. Modal difficulty is concerned with impropriety, the wrong way of writing about the wrong subject, the wrong people writing in the wrong way about the wrong subject. Populism – by which the stewards mean appeal to a court beyond that determined and agreed by grown ups – is regarded as a form of betrayal because it is a betrayal of propriety.
The same poets circulate the lists and editorial offices of Faber, Picador and Cape. Sometimes the poets are the editors, sometimes the editors are the poets. Without Carcanet and Bloodaxe and the hordes they bring in tow, raving, reciting and maddening round the land they could just about occupy the turf. It would be good for them if they could restrict the conversation and the entrance. In order to protect the turf it is necessary to make the right appointments, to promote the right people in the face of the mob, the barbarians, the chicken soup masses who think poetry is some kind of therapy because they know no better, not being grown-up. It is in fact, Astley suggests, a kind of laddish careerism.
But what if there were considerably more grown ups out there to whom the art mattered, mattered in fact as much as the overheard conversation behind the half-open door? “A culture of reception,” said Michael Schmidt in his Stanza lecture, “is public, not contained within the academy.” He quotes Octavio Paz to the effect, that “criticism is the beginning of freedom of the imagination.” Schmidt wants a diversity of criticism, as does Neil Astley whose accusation was precisely that there was a lack of diversity: it’s just that they mean slightly different things by diversity.
There is certainly room for conflict in poetry. The interests of scholars and funding bodies may not coincide. The interests of high church and low church are different. The camps of the plain-speaking, the modernist and the more-modernist-than-thou rarely exist in harmony. The tribe of performance poets and the tribe of the textually complex have been known to call each other names. Without contraries is no progression, said Blake. As long as the contraries are allowed to exist.
The turf is bigger and is not owned by anyone. Think of the perfectly normal human being who can deal with more complexity, difficulty and connotation than he or she is ever given credit for and who is, I believe, a great deal more grown up – modally, ontologically, in every way - than the self-designated grown-ups concede.
Or think of the expansion in MA courses that teach Creative Writing – particularly poetry - in this country. How come the expansion? It is not merely because universities want to fill their coffers, though most certainly they want to do that, but they couldn’t do so if there were no students willing to take up the courses. Are these students all lured by some notion of a Fame Academy that will immediately set them up as rivals to Shakespeare, Eliot, Dickinson and Carol Ann Duffy? A few might be. And so what? Why do art students go to art college, why do musicians study music? They are fully aware that only a very few will go on to fame, fortune and the love of men or women. They might want the tricks by which a quick entry to Parnassus is effected, but I suspect many of them are grown ups too. They want to go because they are interested in the art, because they care for it. Because they think there is something in it. They are not to be despised as some affect to do. There is some confusion about the role of education in the arts. Art education has never been about producing genius: it is about developing a level of understanding, about ideas, about the fellowship of other artists, and – in the case of writing - about reading above all. The worst an MA course can do is to produce a generation of competent readers, reading, as it were from the inside. The genius will as ever transcend this.
It may be that art - poetry especially - is best understood from the inside, inside form, inside language itself, through practice. It is a sad fact that in schools children are encouraged to write poems for a while then are diverted away from it. If they are interested in literature at all, they move into critical mode and that is how they stay, a bit cowed, a bit disorientated, often loathing this complex, difficult, connotative art that is actually at the very heart of their own ordinary saying did they but know it and listen to it. It is the music of things they hear and are actually hungry for. Life gets in the way and before you know it, the sense of being inside language has slipped by you, at least until a crisis, a need, an occasion, like those births and marriages and deaths it is so easy to mock as occasions for writing, but which lie absolutely at the heart of poetry if only because they are crises and crises quicken the senses. A few clichés, a few truisms usually suffice as gestures. But inside the gesture is an impulse and inside the impulse is the understanding of difficulty that is an aspect of being grown-up.
Some ten years after my mother died I wrote a long poem called Metro that, with some trepidation, I eventually gave my father to read. Would it seem full of the wrong kind of difficulty for him? Would it seem an act of trespass? The poem referred to – in fact it tried to contain – something of her history and the experience I imagined she must have had on being removed from Budapest to Ravensbruck. My father read it and said in English, his second language: It is like walking about inside her.
I thought that was a grown-up view of a poem of almost 800 lines in a second language from someone who read very little poetry and whose idea of poetry tended to be something that was witty or sentimental and rhymed. Because in that respect he is not much more sophisticated than the writer of verses for births, marriages and deaths. Not sophisticated but grown up and to be trusted with a text when it mattered.
King Lear is wandering on the heath with Kent and Fool when he comes upon Poor Tom O’Bedlam in the storm and tells him:
Why, thou wert better in thy grave than to answer with thy uncovered body this extremity of the skies. Is man no more than this? Consider him well. Thou owest the worm no silk, the beast no hide, the sheep no wool, the cat no perfume. Ha! here's three on 's are sophisticated! Thou art the thing itself: unaccommodated man is no more but such a poor bare, forked animal as thou art.”
There is, I think, another model for grown-up in language that is unaccommodated, poor, bare, and forked that involves both the listeners at half-opened doors and the Duke of Parma perusing mysterious brief messages that must mean more than they say. The meanings are in him too.
It was, I argued, the thinness of the ice combined with the superfluous grace of the dancer that constituted the act of poetry. What I should have added, and what I want to add now, is the notion of weight. What I want to propose is that it is not just his own body that the dancer is carrying, but the weight of those he cares for, to whom he has an allegiance. He has to dance for them too and remember their weight, a weight that is not to be discarded, that is neither contemptible or inferior.
The third verse of W. S. Graham’s ‘The Constructed Space’ goes like this:
I say this silence or, better, construct this space
So that somehow something may move across
The caught habits of language to you and me.
From where we are it is not us we see
And times are hastening yet, disguise is mortal.
The times continually disclose our home.
Here in the present tense disguise is mortal.
The trying times are hastening. Yet here I am
More truly now this abstract act become.
There are the caught habits of language across which something may move between Graham’s you and me. Ask me what I am arguing for and I will tell you that it is for an understanding of poetry that is aware of the labourer shouting his goodnight across the road at dusk and of the listener at the half-open door; that keeps a place for the figure whose trying times are hastening, that is not contemptuous of the births, marriages and deaths of the same; a poetry that doesn’t talk down to people because there is no down and no one who may safely be presumed not to have grown-up; a poetry that is read for all and any kind of reason, none of those reasons being as simple as we sometimes think. In fact a poetry that is perfectly natural and naturally difficult, as difficult as it needs to be in order to be of meaning to those who are as aware of difficulties in language as in life, which means many more of us than poetry sales or attendances at readings indicate. It is not the turf but the ice that matters, and the weights we carry across that fragile ice, weights that are of poetry but are not purely the province of poets.
I think – in fact I know - that such poetry exists, that it is needed and that there is more of it than we think. Whose line is it anyway? The language’s. Who speaks the language? We do. Humanity does. We are grown-ups.