Prose from Poetry Magazine

The Necessary Minimum

Dunstan Thompson slides out of the shadows.

At a time when almost everyone writes poetry but scarcely anyone can write a poem, it is hard not to wish for a return to some less accommodating era, when the status of “poet” was not so easily aspired to.

At a time when almost everyone writes poetry but scarcely anyone can write a poem, it is hard not to wish for a return to some less accommodating era, when the status of “poet” was not so easily aspired to, and the only hankering was to get something said in a memorable form. Alas, we would have to go a long way back. Samuel Daniel (1562–1619) certainly wanted to be thought of as a poet—it was his career, even when he was working for nobles as a gentleman servant—and there must have been critics who wanted to deny him the title, or they would not have attacked him for too often revising his work, and he would not have defended himself thus:

And howsoever be it, well or ill
What I have done, it is mine owne, I may
Do whatsoever therewithal I will.
    I may pull downe, raise, and reedifie.
It is the building of my life, the fee
Of Nature, all th’inheritance that I
Shal leave to those which must come after me.

          —From To the Reader

The battle was fought out more than four hundred years ago, and Daniel won it. Unless we are scholars of the period, we might have small knowledge of his work in general, but this one stanza is quite likely to have got through to us. It is often quoted as an example of how there were poets much less important than Shakespeare who nevertheless felt that they, too, might be writing immortal lines to time, and were ready to drub any popinjay who dared to suggest that they weren’t. But clearly the stanza did not get through to us just because of the story it tells or the position it takes. It got through by the way it moves. Within its tight form, it is a playground of easy freedom: not a syllable out of place, and yet it catches your ear with its conversational rhythm at every point.

It would be tempting to say that any poet, in any era, needs to be able to construct at least one stanza like that or he will never even join the contest. Daniel’s technique was so meticulous that it can teach us how words were pronounced in his time. The opening line of one of the sonnets in which he complains about harsh treatment from his vainly adored Delia runs “Fair is my love, and cruel as she’s fair.” Thus we can tell that the word “cruel” was probably pronounced with a full two syllables, or there would be a syllable missing from the line. (If he had written “she is” instead of “she’s,” we would have known that he scanned “cruel” as one syllable, and presumably pronounced it that way too, as we do now.)  Unfortunately Daniel seldom wrote an entire poem—not even his beautifully entitled “Care-charmer Sleep”—in which every line was as vivid as that. But he did compose that one stanza, and we only have to read it once before we are drawn in to see how it is held together, and to start asking why we put up with so much unapologetic awkwardness from poets now. Limping numbers from poets writing in free verse are presumably meant, but limping numbers from poets who are avowedly trying to write in set forms must be mere clumsiness. The perpetrators might say that they are getting back to the vitality of an initial state, in which Donne demonstrated the vigor that roughness could give before the false ideal of smoothness arrived. But Daniel was already writing before Donne, and we have at least one stanza to prove that lack of vigor was not his problem. All too often his lines lacked semantic pressure, but they always moved with a precise energy, and he could put them together into an assemblage that danced.

Perhaps to ask for a whole stanza is asking too much, and just a few lines will work the trick. The drawback there, however, is that the few lines tend to break free not just from the poem, but from the poet’s name. Very few readers of poetry now, however wide their knowledge, would be able to give a name to the poet who wrote this:

At moments when the tide goes out,
The stones, still wet and ringing with
The drained-off retrogressive sea,
Lie fresh like fish on market stalls
And, speckled, shine. Some seem to float
In crevices where wavelets froth
Forgotten by the watery
Departure towards the moon.

As a thought experiment, I see myself presented with this fragment in a practical criticism class of the kind that I took in Cambridge in the mid-sixties. Even with the benefit of the knowledge that I have acquired since, I might still be at a loss to name its author, partly because it could have had so many authors. Almost certainly it stems from a period when free form Modernism was already being reacted against: all the scrupulous tension of Modernist diction is in it, but there is also a conscious heightening, as of a return to well-made elegance, so we are probably, at the very earliest, somewhere in the years after 1945, when the American formalists were already operating and Britain’s phalanx of Movement poets were on their way up. The line “The drained-off retrogressive sea” might have been turned by Philip Larkin, who was fond of coupling his adjectives into a train. The fresh fish on the market stalls might have come from “The Avenue Bearing the Initial of Christ into the New World,” the long poem in which Galway Kinnell took out the patent on fish imagery. Except that Elizabeth Bishop took out a rival patent when she, too, got into the seafood business. Could it be her? With my supervisor looking at his watch and pressing for an answer, I would have to say that the watery departure towards the moon sounds like Richard Wilbur writing just after the end of WWII, or perhaps James Merrill a bit later, or perhaps Stephen Edgar writing last year, or perhaps . . . But the flock of names, mere shorthand for a flock of tones, would only mean that I had found a single voice unidentifiable. And indeed the poet’s name is probably still unidentifiable when I reveal it: Dunstan Thompson.

I would have liked to say that Thompson (1918–1975) is the missing man from the post-WWII poetic story, but the sad truth is that he has gone missing for a reason. Born and raised in America, he had an enviably cosmopolitan education that culminated at Harvard, from which he went into the army. During the war, his poetic career started off brilliantly with his collection Poems (Simon and Schuster, 1943) and continued after the war with Lament for the Sleepwalker (Dodd, Mead and Company, 1947).  These were big-time publishing houses and he won big-time recognition, his name often included in the magic list of voices built to last. Stephen Spender gave Thompson a papal imprimatur, thereby, perhaps, signaling that there might be a fertile context waiting for Thompson across the Atlantic. When Thompson’s second book came out he had already resettled in England, and there he began the long business—difficult, for one so prominently placed in several of the “war poets” anthologies—of ensuring that he would be forgotten. There was quite a lot to forget, and how exactly he managed to translate prominence into oblivion raises some unsettling questions. He wrote one poem, “Largo,” whose qualities should have been remembered, even though it runs to some length and not all of it is in tight focus. Here is a sample stanza:

All friends are false but you are true: the paradox
Is perfect tense in present time, whose parallel
Extends to meeting point; where, more than friends, we fell
Together on the other side of love, where clocks
               And mirrors were reversed to show
               Ourselves as only we could know;
               Where all the doors had secret locks
With double keys; and where the sliding panel, well
Concealed, gave us our exit through the palace wall.
There we have come and gone: twin kings, who roam at will
               Behind the court, behind the backs   
               Of consort queens, behind the racks
On which their favorites lie who told them what to do.
For every cupid with a garland round the throne still lacks
      The look I give to you.

This majestic form, one of his own devising, is continued through all ten stanzas of the poem, with a scarcely faltering interplay between the hexameters, tetrameters, and trimeters—everything except pentameters, in fact. Anywhere in the poem’s wide panorama, the half rhymes are handled with an infallibly musical tact: the modular balancing of “well,” “wall,” and “will” in the quoted stanza is only a single instance of a multiple enchantment. You would say that a man who could build such an exquisite machine could do anything, technically. But even though bringing all this mastery to bear, he couldn’t do anything definite with the subject matter. From what thin biographical evidence exists, it is possible to conclude that Thompson was one of those gay male poets trapped between the urge to speak and the love that dare not speak its name. Auden escaped the trap by scarcely dropping a hint until the safety whistle blew decades later. But Thompson wanted to spill the beans, not just about Damon and Pythias and Richard II and A.E. Housman—whether named or merely alluded to, they all crop up during the poem—but about himself and his lover, evidently a fellow serviceman. Unfortunately he could spill only a few beans at once. There were limits to what he could say, and the result is a flurry of tangential suggestions, a cloud of innuendo.

“Largo” was a clear case—the only clear thing about it—of a poem written before its time, and by the time its time had come, the poem was gone. Oscar Williams, the best anthologist of the post-war years on either side of the Atlantic, published it in his invaluable A Little Treasury of Modern Poetry, but I have never seen it anywhere else. I would like to call the poem magnificent. But it gives only flashes of the total effect it might have had, and there lay the problem that dogged Thompson’s poetry for the rest of his career, and eventually buried him.

In England after the war, Thompson went on writing poems, most of which were collected posthumously in Poems 1950–1974. The book has an impressive physical appearance, rather along the lines of a Faber collection of the shorter poems of Auden or MacNeice. But the publishing house was an off-trail outfit called Paradigm Press, who can’t have printed many copies. During decades of haunting second-hand bookshops all over the world, I only ever saw a single copy, and that was in Cambridge in 2006. I picked it up, wondering who he was, read the lines about the seashore quoted above, and took it home to read it through.

Fragments of high quality were everywhere, but a completely integrated poem was hard to find. “Seascape with Edwardian Figures” came nearest, but even that one tailed off: when the tide departed towards the moon, the poem went with it. There was a long poem, “Valley of the Kings,” about Egyptian tombs. Freighted with his curious learning, it could have rivaled the stately march of “Largo,” but its points of intensity were scattered, like the momentarily illuminated wall paintings in the tombs themselves, and nothing held them together except the darkness between them. Flaring moments slid away into shadow:

This painted food will feed
Only imperishable people. Stars which glow
Like real stars lose
Their seeming lustre when you need
Them to disclose the way. From what? I do not know.

I talk about “Valley of the Kings” in the past tense because it is no longer alive, and the same applies, alas, to the whole of his later achievement. There is just too little of Samuel Daniel’s “It is mine owne,” and too much of Dunstan Thompson’s “I do not know.” Throughout the book, Thompson’s talent—in the complex sense that involves perception, precision, and musicality—is everywhere, but that’s just the trouble. It’s everywhere without being anywhere. The lesson, I think, is that a talent might be the necessary minimum, but it will not be sufficient if it can’t produce a poem, or at least a stanza, assured enough to come down through time and make us ask, “Who wrote that?”

James Merrill (1926–1995), another gay American poet who came to prominence a little later, wrote a poem about his upbringing, “The Broken Home,” that would have ensured his survival even if his every other manuscript had gone up in smoke. The poem doesn’t bring his sexuality into focus—other poems did—but it does illuminate his early life. This single stanza about his father would have been enough to prove that a masterful voice had arrived:

Each thirteenth year he married. When he died
There were already several chilled wives
In sable orbit—rings, cars, permanent waves.
We’d felt him warming up for a green bride.

He could afford it. He was “in his prime”
At three score ten. But money was not time.

I quote the stanza because it was the first thing I read of Merrill’s that made me realize I would have to read everything else. When I began to, I soon realized that the assurance of his early formal patterns provided the warrant for following him when his patterns became more complicated and finally ceased to be patterns at all. In the twentieth century, this was a not uncommon progression among revolutionary spirits in all the arts. Picasso had conspicuously mastered every aspect of draughtsmanship and painting that had ever been applied to the recognizable before he moved on into the less recognizable, and the best reason for trying to follow what he was up to was that he had proved he could actually do what he was no longer doing. Stravinsky composed melodies you could hum and whistle—I can still do my version of the major themes from Petroushka unless somebody stops me—before he moved on to composing what could only be listened to, and the best reason for listening hard was your memory of the authority he had displayed when the listening was easy. In poetry, Eliot went on proving that he was a master of tight forms even as he became famous for works that apparently had no form at all, and that was the best reason for supposing that those works still depended on a highly-schooled formal sense. So there was nothing new about Merrill’s progression from poems with apprehensible boundaries to poems whose lack of boundaries was part of their subject. It was in the tradition of Modernism. But it depended on an assurance that made paying attention compulsory.  

This compulsory quality was what Dunstan Thompson lacked even in his brightest moments. Thompson didn’t have Merrill’s vast financial resources—which enabled Merrill to do pretty much what he liked all his life, including, commendably, helping other poets when they were short of cash—but Thompson did have nearly all of Merrill’s technical resources. Exploiting those, he might have built an impregnable position for himself, but you can’t help feeling that he didn’t really want to. His relocation from America to England need not necessarily have been fatal. Earlier in the century it had worked triumphantly for Pound and Eliot, and the only reason that Lowell made a hash of it later on was that his intermittent psychic disturbance had become almost continuous, and had weakened his strategic judgment to the point where he failed to recognize that he wasn’t getting beyond the discipline of his wonderfully self-contained early poems, but was neutralizing that discipline in the name of an illusory scope. And it wasn’t as if Lowell lacked a welcome in London. (If anything, he was too welcome: the locals would print anything he gave them.) The possibilities of working on both sides of the pond were rich, as was proved in the next generation by Michael Donaghy, who was born in New York in 1954 and died in London at the age of only fifty.

At the time of writing, Donaghy’s complete works are being published in Britain by Picador in two neatly matched volumes: Collected Poems, which contains all four of the collections published in his lifetime plus a sheaf of previously unpublished poems uniformly excellent, and The Shape of the Dance, which amounts to his collected prose. I was asked to write the introduction for the prose volume and was glad to do so, because I think Donaghy was an important critic, even a necessary one. But the reasons to think so would be crucially fewer if he had not been so authoritative as a poet. Within the first few lines of any poem he writes, he has made paying attention compulsory. There are simply dozens, even scores, of poems by which this fact could be easily demonstrated, but let’s make it harder for ourselves, by choosing a poem where the reader has to dig a bit to figure out what is going on. That we feel compelled to dig is, I think, a further illustration of the quality of command that we are talking about. The poem, “Shibboleth,” was the title poem of the first collection he published in 1988. Here is the poem entire:

One didn’t know the name of Tarzan’s monkey.
Another couldn’t strip the cellophane
From a
GI’s pack of cigarettes.
By such minutiae were the infiltrators detected.

By the second week of battle
We’d become obsessed with trivia.
At a sentry point, at midnight, in the rain,
An ignorance of baseball could be lethal.

The morning of the first snowfall, I was shaving,
Staring into a mirror nailed to a tree,
Intoning the Christian names of the Andrews Sisters.
“Maxine, Laverne, Patty.”

For anyone of my generation it is obvious that this poem is about the Battle of the Bulge in 1944, when a special SS unit formed by Otto Skorzeny penetrated the American lines with a view to creating havoc. The SS men—most of them Volksdeutsche who had been brought up in America—wore American uniforms, carried captured American weapons, spoke perfect English, and could be identified only by what they didn’t know, because they had spent the last few years in Germany. One could make an objection based on just that point: none of the suspects would have shown an “ignorance of baseball” in general. They just would have been ignorant about the latest scores. (And one of the Andrews Sisters has her name misspelled: “Maxine” was really “Maxene.”) But Donaghy has a far wider audience in mind than just my contemporaries. For his own contemporaries, the whole episode might not be in their frame of reference; and he has done very little to clue them in. They have to figure it out. The reference to “GI’s,” to the Andrews Sisters, or perhaps to Tarzan’s friend Cheetah, would probably be a starting point to help them identify which war it was. Finally they will get it right, and thus find out that the shaving narrator can’t be Donaghy, who, at the time, was ten years short of being born. He has put his narrator into a war that could be any American war in which infiltrators have to be detected according to their knowledge of American culture. It’s a Battlestar Galactica scenario, with the Germans as the Cylons. The new generation, who are just coming to poetry now, might have that as their first thought. Donaghy future-proofed the poem by cutting back on its context. He often did that; or, rather, does that—let’s put him in the present, where he belongs.

The typical Donaghy poem isn’t typical. Each poem has its own form and, remarkably, its own voice. Underlying this protean range of creative expression there is a critical attitude, which is probably best summed up in a single essay contained in The Shape of the Dance. The essay is called “American Revolutions” and it sums up his lifelong—lifelong in so short a life—determination to make sense out of the twentieth-century conflict between formal and free verse. As a musician by avocation, Donaghy had no trust in the idea of perfectly unfettered, untrained expression. He agreed with Stravinsky that limitations were the departure point for inspiration. Donaghy believed that a living poem could emerge only from an idea in “negotiation” (the key word in his critical vocabulary) with an imposed formal requirement, even if it was self-imposed, and might be rendered invisible in the course of the negotiation. The split between form and freedom, in his view, had begun with the difference between Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson. He favored formality, to the extent of hailing Richard Wilbur as the supreme phrasemaker. But he could also see that freedom had been fruitful. He was ready to welcome vital language wherever it came from, even if it came from the uninstructed. (This readiness made him the ideal teacher of creative writing, even though he was suspicious of the very idea: there is a whole new cluster of young poets in London now who show the benefits of his example.) Form and freedom: in all my reading about modern poetry—as opposed to my reading of modern poetry—I have not seen anything to equal Donaghy’s treatment of this crucial matter for its extent, depth, and fundamental tolerance. As an underlying attitude for justifying the adventures of his own poetry, it could not have been better. But there is something underlying even the attitude, and for that I can’t think of a better word than confidence.

Confidence is the attribute that can’t be taught. It can be damaged by circumstance, and encouraged when it falters, but the poet has to have it. Samuel Daniel, whose courtly music played at the start of this disquisition, was confident enough to make a career out of his calling. When Thomas Campion questioned the need for rhyme in English poetry, Daniel set him straight. When Daniel’s critics upbraided him for too much revising, he told them to get lost. If Gerard Manley Hopkins, a greater poet who was all calling and no career, had come back from the future and accused him of being one of the founders of the deadly Parnassian measures whose default mode was an easy smoothness, Daniel would have known how to defend himself. He believed in his profession. The same could be said for James Merrill, whose financial support for other poets—one of them was Elizabeth Bishop—was motivated by his personal experience of the consuming nature of the art he practiced. The same could be said of Robert Lowell, who was right in never questioning his mission to speak, even though, at those times when sanity was subtracted from his awesome mental equipment, he so often spoke to his own detriment. The name we have to leave off the list, alas, is Dunstan Thompson. Auden once said that there are poets who have everything except the desire to step forward. Thompson stepped forward in the beginning, but later he stepped back, and fell into the oubliette. Possibly there is such a thing as being so concerned with the self that one loses sight of the poet’s privileged duty, which is to be concerned with everything, in the hope of producing something—a poem, a stanza, even a single line—that will live on its own, in its own time. 

Originally Published: July 1st, 2009

Critic, author, poet, and lyricist Clive James was born in Sydney, Australia, and educated at Sydney University and Cambridge University. James is the author of several collections of poetry, including Opal Sunset: Selected Poems 1958–2008, Angels over Elsinore: Collected Verse 20032008, and the satirical verse epic Peregrine Prykke’s Pilgrimage Through the...

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  1. July 3, 2009
     Stephen Rodriguez

    Interesting. I wish I could say that I understand everything of what you just said, but I'm too inexperienced to have read enough yet.
    The point that grabbed my attention most was the changing of what it means to be a poet. Today, anyone can be a poet by the loose definition of what poetry is.
    I'm glad to say that I started out by practicing and improving my abilities with the classical basics of poetry (meter, etc.)
    I didn't start trying free verse until I felt completely comfortable with the building blocks.

  2. July 4, 2009

    The article states: "Thompson stepped forward in the beginning, but later he stepped back, and fell into the oubliette." Thompson did convert to Catholicism in the 1950s, and some of his later poems appear in anthologies of Christian verse. One might be inclined to scoff, but we recall Miss Moore's statement: "If everything literary were deleted in which there is some thought of deity, 'literature' would be a puny residue."

  3. July 11, 2009

    It may not be Daniel's most vivid line, but, to me, his most thrilling was "The shipwreck of my ill-adventured youth." Maybe you had to have such a youth to appreciate it fully.

  4. July 12, 2009
     bad poet

    grumpy old man

  5. July 15, 2009
     Harold Haller

    In his recent “The Necessary Minimum,” Clive James argues against the current democratization of poetry and the subsequent proliferation of poets that cannot write poems. Certainly, most poetry is rubbish. Some current poetry even offers itself as not much more than rubbish, however, it is important to bear in mind that all attributes a given critic deposits on a poem are intrinsically and in a obvious sense not a part of the poem itself. Critics are free to add and interpret as they wish. That is the beauty and freedom of criticism. But we must insist that the poet resist all confinements given to him or her by outside parties. Which is to say that it is a tired practice for wrinkled-old-asses to presume to discuss among themselves and attempt to dictate to the young what a poet is or should be. Success is a necessary but insufficient condition of greatness, which in turn is something for us all to conjure individually. The democratization of publishing and in turn poetry, enabled by the Internet, is cause for rejoicing. No longer must the less ably born fill drawers with their tales to find. Let poets and poetry be judged and harshly, but for the love of sex and wine, stop whining about what a poet is or is not and what s/he needs to do or be to bear this word properly. It is all water. Like James, I enjoy digging around in dusty books, but what is there to find, what I find there, is what survives. I should hope that is no matter of greatness and the like for every passage discussed in university or on barstool.

  6. July 17, 2009
     Isaac M. Flores

    Bravo, Harold Haller.

  7. July 18, 2009
     Carolyn Cochran

    This article gives excellent guidance in composing poems of lasting value.

  8. July 20, 2009
     gary cummings

    Just like every major league hitter who hits well, no matter how different his stance, ends up hitting a fastball basically the same way; the only way it can be hit! every poet does the same no matter how different they seem to be. Jame's article is a gem.

  9. July 23, 2009
     Helena Nelson

    A beautiful piece of writing. Not only
    extremely interesting, but just a pleasure
    to read. And three cheers for bringing
    Dunstan Thomson off the shelf and dusting
    him down. He will be waving in his grave.

  10. August 3, 2009
     Charles H. Gragg

    Your opening line says it all.

  11. August 11, 2009
     Michael Mooney

    To the programmer behind "Harold Haller" - Bravo for your excellent attempt, but the HH Bot fails the Turing Test. No human would have written a random string of words like
    "I should hope that is no matter of greatness and the like for every passage discussed in university or on barstool."
    " No longer must the less ably born fill drawers with their tales to find."

    Nice try, though.

  12. August 20, 2009
     GregScott Houghton

    I do appreciate your effort to enlighten we the fools who aspire to senses rare.

  13. August 26, 2009
     Richard Hodgins

    Yes, bravo. When I discovered poetry, later in life than most, I made a solemn vow to myself never to attempt a single line of the stuff. And I've kept my word. I have not attempted so much as a couplet (except for doggerel and ad jingles as vocation demands) in thirty years. It has turned out to be one of the best decisions I ever made in my life. Instinctively, I knew that to try to write poetry myself would compromise my appreciation of others' work. Yes, I just said that. Because poetry hit me so hard in its late discovery, it is far too sacred a thing for one's unavoidable competitiveness to ruin for oneself. Oh how I wish more "poets" would take the same vow of chastity. They read very little of the modern canon, if any. I say just stop, stop writing it altogether. Please. Read the stuff for godsake. The world really doesn't need one single additional poet from here on in. An entire lifetime isn't nearly enough to even scratch the surface of the great and good poetry that is already out there. If you've got to write it, write it for yourself. Look up the late Judson Jerome for some tips. Do you not understand that if you won't read what we've got already, and I'm talking about virtually none of it at all, why should we read your "work"? That is the basic deal breaker and I am not encountering any exceptions in this supposedly wonderful new egalitarianism in electronic poesy. Every poetry website out there, including this one, arguably the ultimate one, has been infiltrated by non-reading poets. In fact, it didn't take forty-eight hours for my own brief site, "Readitdon'twriteit" to be pounced upon by someone wanting me to read her work. I can't even mention to new acquaintances that I like poetry else I'll get a fresh sheaf right quick. I'm not interested in patting any more little enthusiasts on the head. Unless, of course, you're willing to go away and quietly consume a few libraries of every variety of good writing for twenty years or so before you make your own first attempt at poetry. But that really would be too much to hope for.

  14. May 20, 2010
     kevin o connell

    Richard Hodgins makes some excellent points but maybe protests too much against amateur poets. If you refuse to read anything new, after all, you miss the handful of excellent poets who will always be around. He also overlooks one of James's vital points, namely that Donaghy's authority as a critic stemmed directly from his practice as a poet. And such is always the case. Think of Coleridge, Hopkins, Eliot, Frost etc.