Can I wait until tomorrow to know this?
"The love of form is the acceptance of mortality." - Charles Simic
Once again it is April, the month poetry creeps out of its hole and into the public arena with somewhat more insistence than it does during the other eleven months. It gets in the news. It even becomes news. But, in spite of what Ezra Pound said, “Poetry is news that stays news[,]” it really can’t hold its own against the big guns: CNN, Fox, Al Jazeera, The BBC, etc. It remains private discourse artificially raised to the level of public discourse by having its own special month. Normally that isn’t an issue.
But one of the reasons that these thoughts now come time mind is that this, by anyone’s standards, has been a bad year. The world, whether on its own, or with the help of the human race, has behaved horribly and many have faced (are facing) intolerable suffering or death because of it. It is at times like these that one feels one’s private life most hollow and inconsequential. This puts poets in a bind, since it is that very thing, private experience, that is traditionally the stuff of lyric poetry.
Here’s the rub: when our consciousness of our own imminent demise – that most private of private experiences – is viewed vicariously and incessantly through the deaths of masses of others, we become numb to what is at the very center of self-knowledge. Death, to rephrase someone who was in the business, becomes statistical. This is how television works, how the internet works, how, in fact, the information age, social networking and, in general, the digitalization of everything works – by robbing us of our most intimate possession and replacing it with a communal one, a one-death-fits-all scenario, ersatz termination in ersatz catastrophes. It is a question of scale.
What tests us as poets is the disparity that is created between what is ours and the banal diffusion of death as information, death made massively public and impersonal, death presented along side (or as a form of) entertainment. Watch the eyes and facial muscles of your newscaster as she segues between death tolls, stock gains and then on to cricket.
“Honey, come quickly, there’s something terrible happening in Japan.” “I can’t right now, I writing a poem about something terrible that is happening in me.” As a poet, what am I more responsible to, a city washed out to sea, or some private concern that I am trying through my craft and my “love of form” to go public with – because isn’t that what we do when we write a poem, try to match our own predicament to the universal one.
This paradigm comes up with crystalline precision in one of Álvaro de Campos’s great poems “The Tobacco Shop.”
Today I’m torn between the loyalty I owe
To the outward reality of the Tobacco Shop across the street
And to the inward reality of my feeling that everything’s a dream.
W.H, Auden eventually denounced what is arguably one of his greatest poems, “Spain, 1937” because he concluded, in Edward Mendelson’s words, that he had failed “in an effort to join private emotion to a public myth of meliorative history.” “September I, 1939” was worthy, in the eyes of its author, of similar damnation. In Early Auden, Mendelson tells us that some years after he wrote the latter he concluded that it was “infected with an incurable dishonesty.” Mendelson’s response goes right to the point; “infection, like that of his other large public poems, was its implicit claim to have joined the realm of the private will to that of the public good, when in fact the union had been made through force of rhetoric alone.” “No real meeting” in Auden’s words, only “vain fornications of fancy.” Both poems were dropped from the last “Collected Poems” compiled before his death in 1973. The poet’s final word.
Something Auden says in The Dyer’s Hand pertains directly: “What makes it difficult for a poet not to tell lies is that, in poetry, all facts and all beliefs cease to be true or false and become interesting possibilities.” In the case of “Spain, 1937” it was the “the conscious acceptance of guilt in the necessary murder” which raked his poetic skin like a thorn. In “September I, 1939” it was, the rhetorical lie embedded in the statement “we must love each other or die.” One wonders of both poems if the problem was with generalization, the traditional carburetor of the lyric engine (albeit, in its loftier form of epiphany), or rather the quality and character of the content, the “interesting possibilities” that led to those generalizations. The question Auden leaves us with is: how [or should we] make the news of the day suitable material for lyric expression. Can we say anything useful? I mean this in the broadest terms of provoking a more powerful effect in the reader by taking public information and putting through the private sieve of formal re-creation; or, on the other hand, to play on some other famous Auden lines, is poetry confined to the valley of its making where it makes nothing happen. If it leaves that valley it turns quickly rhetorical.
NOTHING HAPPENING has been interpreted in many ways, both filling the cup and draining it. Don Share takes up the issue in a 2009 blog entitled “Poetry makes nothing happen… or does it?” He leads us to both the origin of the statement and provides us with a gloss of what Anela Leighton has to say on the same. Shore concludes that for Auden “the job of the poet is not what he called, at about this time, a ‘crusader’ – but to make poems happen,” there-by upending Auden’s orginal statement, and removing one edge from what I believe to be a double-edged challenge.
William H. Pritchard, reviewing Frank Kermode’s History and Value in 1988 for the New York Times tells us that Kermode makes a case for disregarding Auden’s strictures against his own work.
‘Auden notoriously rewrote or suppressed certain of his poems because he thought they said untrue or silly things, and Mr. Kermode is at his most effective in showing why he admires and why we should admire, no matter what Auden thought about them, such discarded poems as the opening ''Prologue'' to ''Look, Stranger!'' (''O Love, the interest itself in thoughtless Heaven'') or ''Spain, 1937,'' which he claims… is the best political poem since Marvell's ''Horatian Ode…'' Yet even Orwell, who rightly scoffed at Auden's line about ''the conscious acceptance of guilt in the necessary murder'' (Orwell had fought in Spain, and so didn't want to hear about ''necessary'' murders), called ''Spain'' ''one of the few decent things that have been written about the Spanish war.'' By directing our attention to the poem's effects of ''magniloquence and wit,'' Mr. Kermode shows us why this is so.’
Perhaps they are right and as readers we should take their advice. But neither Pritchard nor Kermode addresses the dilemma of the poet himself struggling between public and private realms of thought. Once more, Auden proves to be his own harshest critic. “The most painful of all experiences to a poet is to find that a poem of his which he knows to be a forgery has pleased the public and got into the anthologies. For all he knows or cares, the poem may be quite good, but that is not the point; he should not have written it.” (The Dyer’s Hand.)
Auden was caught between his role as a very public poet, the spokesperson of the left for a generation under threat during of Europe’s slide toward fascism and war, and his private version of himself as kind of Kierkegaardian figure enmeshed in an inner battle between truth to self and the obligation to conform to the ideological precepts of the various vanguards of the day. Later her traded Freudianism and socialism for Christianity. To the end he needed some form of over-arching system to wrestle with, to galvanize his own thinking. Unlike Cavafy, one of his heroes, he never managed to create, to his own satisfaction, a public persona that would willingly bend to his inner poem-making self.
Could it be that April is less about the reading public and more a wake-up call to poets themselves, to remain private? To be citizens who happen to write, not for the good of the world, but for the good of themselves. And let the world read it as it may.
- I came across the quote from Charles Simic in Howard French’s profile on his Flickr Photostream. I knew about French’s incredible portfolio, but was reminded of it while looking for material in another Flickr colleague’s list of contacts, Teresa Teixeira’s to be precise. French is more known for his work as a journalist.
- The translation of Álvaro de Campos’s lines was done by Richard Zenith (Pessoa & Co., Grove Press, 1998).
- Don Share’s blog can be found on Harriet at [http://www.poetryfoundation.org/harriet/2009/11/poetry-makes-nothing-happen-or-does-it/]
Martin Earl lives in Coimbra, in central Portugal. From 1986 until 2001 he lectured in English, translation, and American culture at the University of Coimbra. For the last ten years he has worked as a translator and a journalist. Earl has blogged on Harriet, and his translation of Antonio Medeiros’s...