Monday, March 10, 2008

Why Poetry Still Matters, by Boyd Tonkin

This article ran in the Sunday Books section of The Independent. It's a British take on the reasons poetry still matters, but it's worth the read. In essence, this series on major poets in the English language -- for which this article serves as an introduction -- is a defense of the classics and of the communication between poets that constitutes the tradition. All great poets are responding in one way or another to the poets who came before them, and this article highlights some of that interaction and how it serves to grow the world of poetry.

Here is a bit of the article:

Tomorrow, The Independent print edition begins a series of 14 booklets devoted to "Great Classic Poets" in English. They will be written by Michael Schmidt, professor of poetry at Glasgow University and a publisher of modern and classic poetry at Carcanet Press. His ongoing books in the Story of Poetry series tell this never-ending tale of conversations between poets with unrivalled clarity and scope. Readers could not wish for a better guide.

Yet critical talk of the ways in which great poets recruit and transform their predecessors' work can deter poetry lovers. They often prefer plain text to muffled context. Besides, our ruling metaphors of poetic interchange somehow misfire. "Influence" sounds dull, or medical (too close to influenza). "Canons" seem to fit in best with medieval church law. "Tradition" and "heritage" fall like lead on modern ears. Even in 1920, when TS Eliot published his ground-breaking essay on "Tradition and the Individual Talent", he knew that the concept had set him a steep uphill task. "You can hardly make the word agreeable to English ears," he grumbled, without some "comfortable reference to the reassuring science of archaeology".

Modern variants such as "intertextuality" belong to the geeks on the rusting Star Trek bridge of academic theory. As for "classic" poetry, Henry Miller's Tropic of Cancer delivered a popular verdict: "Every man with a bellyful of the classics is an enemy to the human race". When the French theorist Roland Barthes deprecated the stuffy "classic" work in favour of texts that counted as "modern", the peerless Frank Kermode nimbly riposted that what Barthes called modern, he would call "classic". And what Barthes called classic, he would call "dead".

However defined, the line of English poetry that begins with Chaucer is not dead. Even a verse epic four centuries older – Beowulf, whose sole Old English manuscript dates from around AD1000 – can still prompt a hi-tech blockbuster movie. And Hollywood's interest in the slayer of the monster Grendel (and his mama) would never have flickered into life had Seamus Heaney not published his flinty, gripping translation of the poem.

Turn to Heaney's Beowulf, though, and you find that this canonical starting-point thinks of itself as a latecomer. After our hero has despatched the monster, feasting revellers are entertained by a bard with his ear to history: "a carrier of tales/ a traditional singer deeply schooled/ in the lore of the past, linked a new theme/ to strict metre". Even within his own poem, Beowulf's feats take shape in time-honoured verse. Eliot's essay quips that "some one said: 'The dead writers are remote from us because we know so much more than they did.' Precisely, and they are that which we know." More than a millennium ago, the Beowulf poet would have agreed.

So, in the classroom or at the multiplex, the canon survives. But over the past century, its creation has come under closer scrutiny than ever. Critics such as Eliot and Pound re-ordered the monuments as part of their own artistic mission: down with Shelley, up with Donne. Feminist writers and critics cleared space for women; their post-colonial counterparts for non-European authors – and so on, in a familiar tale of reclamation and renewal.

Now, the dust has in part settled on this labour of revision. Yes, many poetic monuments have shifted position. But, remarkably, almost all of them still stand. Far from ushering in the slaughter of "dead white males" feared by right-wing punditry, the new canon has spread at the pace of a boom-time metropolis. Within it, poets such as Kipling – dismissed not long ago as a tub-thumping throwback – attract more serious attention. Philip Larkin has survived his spell in the critical dock (on charges of misogyny and racism) to beguile not only poets, but novelists such as Martin Amis and Ian McEwan.

Carol Ann Duffy, surely the best-loved living British poet, keeps up an endless dialogue with the "tradition" as she grapples with the words and thoughts of Larkin, Auden and others. The title poem of her new collection for children, "The Hat", embodies the history of English verse as it trips over time from skull to skull, mouth to mouth: "Whose head, whose head, whose will I settle on next?" Duffy's game of pass-the-bardic-crown ends with Ted Hughes. Many would now place it on her head.

This stubborn persistence of the canon enrages the poetic avant-garde. In which case, these must be furious times for them. Recently, one of the poetic bestsellers V C on Faber's list has been a 600-year-old verse narrative: Simon Armitage's galloping new translation of the Arthurian myth-adventure, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Armitage writes that, within a week, the idea of transforming Sir Gawain from Middle into Modern English had gone "from a fanciful notion to a superstitious (and preposterous) conviction that I was put on the planet for no other reason than to translate the poem".

The article is much longer than this, and it concludes with a few people selecting the poem that most influenced them, and the voices include Rowan Williams, Archbishop of Canterbury, as well as Andrew Motion, England's Poet Laureate.

Here is the list of poets they will be looking at -- too bad we can't get these little books, but I didn't see any way to order them (they are free with the print edition of the paper).

Saturday 8 March Geoffrey Chaucer

Sunday 9 March William Shakespeare

Monday 10 March John Donne

Tuesday 11 March John Milton

Wednesday 12 March Alexander Pope

Thursday 13 March William Blake

Friday 14 March Robert Burns

Saturday 15 March William Wordsworth

Sunday 16 March John Keats

Monday 17 March Robert Browning

Tuesday 18 March Walt Whitman

Wednesday 19 March Emily Dickinson

Thursday 20 March Gerard Manley Hopkins

Friday 21 March Thomas Hardy

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