These three samples of my prose address hows and whys of writing poetry. The first is on Byron, whose agile use of intricate rhymed stanzas for long poems has fed into my own longer poems, and whom I admire and feel affinities with almost as much as I do Wordsworth, whom Byron is very funny in denigrating. The other two pieces are excerpts from articles I have been asked to write on my own poetry, its sources and processes.
BYRON’S LOOSE AND BAGGY MONSTER
A paper given on 13 July 2007 at the International Byron Society conference in Venice.
In the ‘England, with all thy faults I love thee still’ stanzas of his Venice poem Beppo, Byron is indulgent, though only the ‘beef-steak’ and ‘pot of beer’ escape an irony highlighting faults more than love. Nor, among ‘Our cloudy climate and our chilly women’ and the rest, does he here address what, in a letter of 1821 to John Murray, he would name as the national vice:
‘The truth is, that the grand primum mobile of England is cant; cant political, cant poetical, cant religious, cant moral; but always cant, multiplied through all the varieties of life. It is the fashion, and while it lasts it will be too powerful for those who can only exist by taking the tone of the time.’
Just like England today, cringing before the beast of ‘political correctness’. History shakes its kaleidoscope, the pattern of our taboos changes. In Byron’s time homosexual acts could incur hanging, women had few rights, ending the slave trade freed no slaves. But way ahead of Victoria’s ascent to the throne, the modes of moral squeamishness and attendant hypocrisies that would take her name were already rampant. And a burgeoning middle class and the gentry Jane Austen depicted bought books, and knew what they didn’t want to read.
For Murray the reading public was his living, and publishing Britain’s celebrity poet had fattened it. But the first cantos of Don Juan had sparked scandal, by showing female passion as other than pure sentiment: Byron’s Juan is the seduced, not the seducer. Later instalments arriving from Italy were too much for Murray: after much dithering, he wrote, in October 1822, declining to publish matter so ‘outrageously shocking’ – as a man of commerce adding, ‘by a reaction, even your former works are considerably deteriorated in Sale.’ John Hunt became Byron’s main publisher.
Byron belongs within our invaluable tradition of quintessentially English writers in whom an itch to unmask and mock things quintessentially English is a creative mainspring. Others include Dickens, Samuel Butler, E.M. Forster, D.H. Lawrence.
For his English Bards and Scotch Reviewers and the other early satires, all written before he was twenty-five, Byron tried the heroic couplets of the Augustans he revered. His occasionally fashion a point neatly – on Wordsworth, ‘Who both by precept and example shows / That prose is verse, and verse is merely prose’ – but are mostly galumphing stuff lacking the sureness of tone and conciseness of Pope and Dryden. Byron needed a poetic vehicle collaborating with, not rebuking, his openness to impulse.
It took him a bit of time to find this. In the poems which won him fame, Childe Harold and the Eastern Tales, among the glooms of the former and narrative energy of the latter, the flash of a magnificent line from others inert or slapdash – the dying gladiator ‘Butchered to make a Roman holiday’ – we miss the agile, quipping immediacy that was always a hallmark of Byron’s letters. It is in Beppo that he identified his true creative temper:
‘I fear I have a little turn for satire,
And yet methinks the older that one grows
Inclines us more to laugh than scold…’
It is precisely this response to things which makes Byron’s poetry so potent a force: his acceptance of, rather than rage to amend, our contradictions is what hypocrisy flinches from and would pretend or bully out of existence.
Beppo brings contradictions alive. Laura, when her long-lost husband Beppo reappears at a Carnival ball she is at with her cavalier servente the Count, fails to recognise him in his Turkish dress (he has been captive in that country). Beppo declares himself at their palazzo when she and the Count return by gondola. Laura is no swooning Englishwoman. She flails out at her husband with a barrage of questions:
‘”And are you really, truly, now a Turk?
With any other women did you wive?
Is’t true they use their fingers for a fork?
Well, that’s the prettiest shawl – as I’m alive!
You’ll give it me? They say you eat no pork.
And how so many years did you contrive
To – Bless me! Did I ever? No, I never
Saw a man grown so yellow! How’s your liver?”‘
The upshot? Beppo doffs alien attire, ‘borrowed the Count’s smallclothes’ and, ‘Though Laura sometimes put him in a rage, / I’ve heard the Count and he were always friends.’
Byron’s handling of a potentially explosive situation is comic. England would shudder at this set-up. Venice accepts it; and it is not hypocritical. Equally free from English ‘morality’, but resting not on worldly pragmatism but innocence, is the lovemaking, in Don Juan, of Haidée, that ‘had never heard / Of plights and promises to obey a spouse, / Or perils by a loving maid incurred.’
The form in both poems is ottava rima – used by Italian narrative poets since Boccaccio, as Byron was well aware. But it was reading, in 1817, John Hookham Frere’s mock-heroic Arthurian poem Prospectus and Specimen of an intended National Work, by William and Robert Whistlecraft, written in ottava rima, that alerted Byron to the form’s comic possibilities in Englaish. He wrote Beppo that autumn, and liberated into his poetry the full range of his responses.
The formal demands of a stanza rhyming ABABABCC, Byron makes a play zone for rhyming acrobatics: in Beppo, noting that unlike their English counterparts Turkish wives, kept confined and illiterate, can devise neither ‘criticism’ nor ‘witticism’ against their lot, he concludes: ‘In harams learning soon would make a pretty schism’ The stanza’s final couplet fosters clinching a point, or ironic deflation. Juan reads Julia’s letter as his ship meets choppy waters: ‘“Beloved Julia, hear me still beseeching!” / (Here he grew inarticulate with retching).’ Byron is having a giggle • but its matter stuck in the craw of English primness.
But ottava rima also flows, can bowl along, where the Spenserian stanza Byron had used for Childe Harold slews to a stately halt at each closing alexandrine. As a form, it abets his quick shifts of topic and key, between action, reflection, laughter; serpentine elaboration that can be twitched into narrative rapidity. It admits frivolities precluded by the Augustan rhetoric of Byron’s youthful satires. And ottava rima is hospitable to that crucial ingredient of his effects, his conversational idiom, itself shocking to those with stuffier notions of epic style. Thus, at Lord Henry and Lady Adeline Amundeville’s Norman Abbey,
‘… ’twas a public feast and public day, –
Quite full, right dull, guests hot, and dishes cold,
Great plenty, much formality, small cheer,
And every body out of his own sphere.’
And the form accommodates graver registers: as when in Canto 3 evoking twilit woods around Ravenna, as the vesper bell sounds, tenderly fusing meditation and memory.
Noteworthy is the way Byron lets the workings of composition show in the poem. It confesses dud lines, problems of tweaking sense into metre. Byron starts a simile on Adeline, ‘As a volcano holds the lava more / Within – et caetera. Shall I go on? No’ – he tries afresh, turning for image from hackneyed nature to a frozen bottle of champagne, at its heart ‘a liquid glassful’ of explosive potency. Most poets expunge false starts. We know from his manuscripts that Byron rewrote extensively. His effects are artfully calculated. So there is that volcano in the published poem, owned-up to. And such owning-up augment his persuasiveness.
The main means whereby Byron wins our complicity with what he is up to is the digressions – not distraction from his poem’s substance, but at its heart. Juan’s story takes him from his native Spain, via shipwreck to a Greek island, then Constantinople, bloody warfare on the Danube and St Petersburg, before two-thirds through he reaches England. Byron has dramatised foreign modes of both sophistication and innocence which contrast with England, the digressions standing clear of events. When England becomes the setting, they blend.
There are digressions on life’s meanings, if any, and mutabilities. Personal reminiscences. On individuals: Washington, Milton, Wilberforce, Daniel Boone, celebrated as non-selfserving enemies of oppression; on Wellington and ‘that long spout / Of blood and water, leaden Castlereagh’, who harm the world and Byron would discredit. On Southey and Wordsworth, as bad poets and political turncoats • satirised with a comic gusto which becomes an end in itself.
And Byron on English life, in the later cantos illustrated by direct presentation of the vacuous rituals of the aristocracy. And their manipulations, such as the chicaneries attendant on women until,
‘… when at last the pretty creature gets
Some gentleman, who fights, or writes, or drives,
It soothes the awkward squad of the rejected
To find how very badly she selected.’
The tone is bantering, but plainly Byron hates it all. Our reaction to the feast it lays on, lines on which I have quoted, is: What a bunch of shams and mugs! what pointless flummery! As for their performance as ruling class, here is Lord Henry’s notion of himself:
‘He was as independent – ay, much more –
Than those who are not paid for independence,
As common soldiers, or a common – shore
Have in their several arts, or parts, ascendance
O’er the irregulars in lust or gore,
Who do not give professional attendance.
Thus on the mob all statesmen are as eager
To prove their pride as footmen to a beggar.’
This nails its target: Henry, in his aristocratic complacency, is nothing more than a hired flunkey. He, we read, ‘gloried in the name of Englishman’. In the Government, fixer of elections, a negligent Justice of the Peace, he is, grumbling that his breakfast muffin is incorrectly buttered, a hugely representative figure.
Byron’s ‘loose and baggy monster’ – his poem knows nothing of Henry James’s pleas that every part of a work must serve one overall theme – is a wonderful predator of cant. But not only that. I’d end by claiming that in the final cantos, at the Amundeville’s country estate it enables Byron to achieve one of the finest things in our literature. The narrative – stalled since Juan’s immersion in battle carnage and sexual servitude to Catherine, the Empress in whom life-energies and destructiveness, hitherto opposed, merge – revives, with a shift from its previous adventure-romance mode to something more novelistic, with interplay between several characters within a stable setting. And with astonishing new resonances. Against the secular daytimes of aristocratic routine is invoked the abbey their forebears seized – which persists in the wind’s music in the ruined choir, the nocturnal pacings of the ghost of the ‘Black Friar’. The new dimension is embodied in Aurora Raby, herself a Catholic, a pure being immune to the fatuity around her. She reminds Juan of Haidée, the love of his innocence. But with a radical difference: that idyll belonged to an irrecoverable Eden. Aurora, we read, seemed ‘as if she sat by Eden’s door, / And grieved for those who could return no more.’ For the fallen human condition. Adeline disparages her to Juan; but he, watching his hostess ‘play her grand role’, ‘began to feel / Some doubt how much of Adeline was real‘. He is drawn to Aurora. After what has gone before, only through some spiritual opening-up can he, and the poem, recover faith in life. And then – the ghost’s second visitation turns out to be ‘her frolic Grace’ the Duchess of Fitz-Fulke hoaxing her way into Juan’s bedchamber. Mingling seriousness, fear, satire, farce, never losing lightness of touch, Byron demonstrates the full range of his ottava rima, of his ‘versified Aurora Borealis, / Which flashes o’er a waste and icy clime’.
But freighted with facts, for which Byron had a passion. Geographical, historical – and social: of dress, furnishings, and behaviour. As he claimed writing to Douglas Kinnaird, ‘It may be profligate, but is it not life?’ Which his compatriots didn’t want to give living-space, let alone space in literature.
from SOUNDINGS ALONG THE LINES
(Published in Visible Language, vol. XXIII no.. 1, Wonter 1989 (USA), pp. 123-133)
A poem begins not from ratiocination but from experience • with a fermenting in one’s mind of something, perhaps overtly trivial, one has in some sense lived through. It may be a landscape, an incident in a supermarket, a gesture or a conversation witnessed or recalled, a personal relationship, a dream, or an attunement to some historical or geographical elsewhere; even such an abstract concept as relativity theory, which has metaphoric suggestiveness. And very often an uncalculated collision and fusion in one’s imagination of more than one such detail, probably scattered in real life, triggers things off. A pressure generates, that nags one into taking out pen and paper • and only the actual writing, altering, deleting, redraftings, verbally exploring possibilities, holding yourself alert to further sleights and glints, discovers what, if anything, can be won into a poem, and what the poem needs to be. The whole process is analagous not to constructing from a blueprint, but to extricating a tenuously conceived sculpture entire from the given mass which is its raw material. • and at the end a rubble of discarded phrases and details litters the draft sheets.
In all this, technique and style are not things extrinsic, respectively applies like spanners and chisels to the matter in hand and spread on the poetry’s substance like jam, but are integral to vision; and crucial to getting a poem under way is sensing its appropriate form, rhythms and movement, voice • vital determinants of its perspective and texture.
[Retrospective note: This was written (shortly) before I got a word processor, the keyboard of which has since been, rather than pen and paper, the instrument a creative nag takes me to. The process remains essentially the same; but (libraries and others interested in seeing manuscript evidence of how a poem comes to be will lament this) the chipped-away details, discarded material, deletions and amendments and false tries, no longer all survive on paper drafts, but mostly get vaporised at a touch of the ‘delete’ key in the course of writing. Though not entirely, for I do occasionally print out pages to see what things look like on paper, as opposed to on-screen, at various stages of composition; also, of course, when I suppose I might have finished a poem which I then decide needs furhter amendment, sometimes radical.]
from WRITING POETRY
(Published in Critical Quarterly vol. 24 no. 1, Spring 1982, pp. 2-16)
‘I believe in technique as the test of a man’s sincerity,’ wrote Ezra Pound about poetry in his essay ‘A Retrospect’. The impulse to find for something its most precise and telling definition is is a measure of its worth; one’s caring for worth intuited amid life’s disorderly occurrence triggers the effort.
* * *
Among the incoherences and contingency of daily life we all perforce slide towards lazy, formulaic or over-hasty utterance. I sit here at a cluttered desk attampting this, other awarenesses flickering like fishtails in my mind: thoughts on King Lear for an imminent class; administrative trivia, and letters to write; tonight’s chess fixture’ fragments of lunchtime’s conversation about historical studies; wondering whether I shouldn’t be marking essays instead of doing this now; not to speak of my personal life; and all this within the bewildering sea of life in general. Except that that was then, at first-draft stage, and some of the contextual details would be quite different were I to itemise them as I finalise this essay now.
Among and out of all which, when possibility shapes itself and one can for long enough retain imaginative perspective, one writes poems…
Poetry, then, an art expressing human vision and not some mere design of aural or visual wallpaper, utters matters central to life, is not a cosmetic upon it. Doing it, if a special activity, emerges from the non-specialist hankering at the core of everyone to sort from inchoate experience some pattern of significance however incomplete or transient. Writing is a special extension of the distinctive human process.
* * *
Imaginative literature is not immune to cliché, only more alert to it, aided by its distinguishing feature as utternce indicaated by Wallace Stevens: Apoem is the cry of its occasion, / part of the fes itself, and not about it.’
* * *
The impulse began for me when I was about fifteen. No thanks to formal schooling, where I recoiled from ‘classics’ prescribed by those who had designs on me… But I had otherwise been an omniverous reader, aged ten a local oddity jaywalking with a ball at my feet as well as a book open before my nose. The lush romantic sensations of adolescence topped things up to a point where I knew I ‘had to write’. And while fragmentary attempts upon my own experience helplesslyextruded lush romanticism, my fascinated discovery of how words variously shaped and coloured the world they apprehended in the writings of Thurber, Perelman, Runyon, Sellar and Yeatman, D.B. Wyndham Lewis, ‘Beachcomber’, and after I got clear of humourists Samuel Johnson’s prose, transfigured my school ‘compositions’ on run-of-the-mill set topics into a serial anthology of loving pastiches. Serious content I had a wise instinct to defer. Wordsworth could not phrase ‘the sounding cataract / Haunted me like a passion’ when it was actually doing it in his adolescence. But verbal styles and idioms for escited trying-on presented themselves in richer array than fashions in the Croydon clothes-shops. Poetry came to matter to me intensely also:initiated by my excited discovery of Keats during the summer holidays after GCE O-levels. His ‘The Eve of St. Agnes’ (first perused in Ashburton Park, where nightly promise of the arrival of certain girls infused the poem’s languorous narrative of romantic elopement) seemed to consummate our language’s possibilities for sumptuousness, and a line such as ‘And lucent syrops tinct with cinammon’ was scrumptious enough to eat. A hare was started, rapidly leading me through many other and different poetic satisfactions: ‘A crowd flowed over London Bridge, so many / I had not thought death had undone so many…’
The journal I then kept became a repository for notes on what to write and how. On effects and polarities of light: ‘light/dark; radiant/dull; refracting/absorbing; intermingling/contrasting; indistinct/vivid.’ And: ‘Notice textures, spaces, proportions, notion (Hills push and roll).’ And so forth.
Meanwhile, to get on with such serious stuff,… and wanting, as I then formulated it, to throw myself into the sea of life to discover if I could swim rather than sink, rather than be conveyor-belted to university I had quit school during my sixth-form course, and embarked on a reader’s equivalent of a solitary pub-crawl, while throughyears of bedsitter life working at a variety of clerical and manual jobs.
* * *
One hopes also that a poem may digest (just biting off is not enough) more than it chews; that words will be gifted to catch somethong beyond the words’ mesh. Something one cannot calculate, only collaborate with. I recognise such creative serendipity in poems as varied as Stevens’s ‘The Emperor of Ice-Cream’, Hopkins’s ‘Spring’, Larkin’s ‘Money’. It was Shakespeare’s Midas touch. The effect arises from the fact that poetic language is not merely instrumental to theme. Its creative energies can loop out to encompass things beyond the declared content. In his poem ‘Snow’ Louis MacNeice, wanting to state that (a) life is hererogeneous and (b) that he feels exhilarated about this, magically comes up with, ‘I peel and portion / A tangerine and spit the pips and feel / The drunkenness of things being various.’ His phrasing, creating activity as image, fusing concept and response, blazes resononaces.
* * *
The close affinity I feel with Edward Thomas has its part in the history of my own writing. When I arrived at Oxford to take up a postrgraduate scholarship that had unanticipatedly been put in my way (having just completed a BA degree at Leicester I was working on the railways with no notion what to do), the University sensitively let me spend some time just browsing around while looking for a ‘subject’. Thus I chanced to read Thomas’s poetry for the first time, got intensely involved, and began a critical study of his work for my doctoral thesis. This never got finished. Having hitherto written mostly written prose fiction (shown to no-one, and discarded), I now started writing poems. The first I sent out, to the Anglo-Welsh Review, was titled ‘A Landscape for Edward Thomas’, and was published. At that time, though I was due for a third year at Oxford, having enjoyed a first holiday in Ireland in the summer of 1967, I applied for and was offered my present university teaching post in Coleraine in NorthernIreland. I felt the best justice I could do to Thomas was to follow the example he set (sadly so late in his war-truncated life, and in such different circumstances), and give writing poems priority over prose criticism. I wrote to Oxford and disenrolled myself.
I used the term ‘affinity with’ for the relationship I felt, and still do, to Edward Thomas’s poetry, not (though I am clearly acknowledging a debt) ‘influence by’… ‘Influence’ is a pet notion of academics,who busy themselves constructiong genealogies of it… But, as often happens withinthe hum range, it may be that poets just have something temperamentally in common with each other. It was a matter of recognition when I read Edward Thomas. I was twenty-six at the time, and already very much myself.
[Retrospective note. Some of the foregoing, and the way it is put, might in the twenty-first century strike some people as a bit grandiloquent in its assumptions that poetry and its responsibilities are important, and central to our human enterprise. I still agree with its substance. Historically, there has been an assumption among poets and readers that the essential aim and point of poetry is to enact and embody in memorable language exploration of human experience. This might vary hugely in scale and profundity; and of course ‘light’ and ‘occasional’ verse have their validity; but it has been what poetry is for, and it is from successful achievement in this enterprise that poetry’s satisfactions traditionally derive. Through the great Romantic, Victorian and twentieth-century poets, strikingly individual and different as they are in their themes and preoccupations, ways of going about poetry, and verbal textures (and of course one doesn’t have to be solemn to be serious), this assumption has held, a tacit consensus linking Wordsworth and Byron, Tennyson and Walt Whitman, Yeats, T.S. Eliot, Wallace Stevens, W.H. Auden and Louis MacNeice; persisting more recently in Philip Larkin, Geoffrey Hill, Tony Harrison, Seamus Heaney.
But in the cutural melt-down of recent decades (and it is the British Isles I focus on), all this can seem under threat. People want instant and easy gratification rather than challenge; often, to be ‘performed’ at by poets rather than to read them. There are versifying gagsters and anecdotalists, rarely much good even at being funny: were they billed as stand-up comics rather than under the raptness-inducing banner ‘Poetry’ they’d be howled off the stage. There are poets ‘in residence’ – in schools, supermarkets, prisons, banks, here in Norfolk some years ago in ‘refuse disposal’, even on trains. (Now, if on a train I’m deep in Yeats, and someone such creature jabs me in the chest insisting that I attend to him doing his thing, I could behave angrily…)
Poets want an audience; and I’m in favour of poetry reaching one – readers, and also people listening to a poet reading his or her work. Indeed, a poem completes itself in communication: its full responsive reception by others attending to it. But the instant knee-jerk reaction many contemporary poets seek neither courts nor allows this. Commonly, instead of poetry enlarging or challenging the assumptions of those it is delivered to, the poet sucks up to them, giving them what they want because they know it already. Especially when presenting his work to them live, face-to-face. (Poet (reading): ‘So there I was sat in Mooney’s in Dublin / with a pint of stout and / a beef sandwich…’ Audience (thinking, ‘Been there, done that, this is my life!): ‘You’re a great poet!’ All very cosy.)
One can set aside what dubs itself ‘performance poetry’ and whatever goes on at self-styled ‘poetry slams’ as a separated-off genre. But among those who regard themselves as, and are taken to be, ‘mainstream’ poets. there are nowadays very many of whom it can be fairly said that it is not that they are tryng to fulfil the old high aspirations and failing, as poets have always done, but that they are not even trying. They neither know nor care about all that. Theirs is an entirely different game.
Of course, there are current poets writing the real stuff. One can only trust that, as in the past, Time the great sifter will sort things out, its tides wash the detritus away. Yet our present differs from previous periods. ‘The age demanded an image / Of its accelerated grimace’ – since Ezra Pound published these lines in Hugh Selwayn Mauberley in 1920, the affliction they identify has become almost overwhelming in our own age of dumbing-down and ‘celebrity’-culture. Our new techniques and media enable and foster all this, and on a scale never possible, or even conceivable, before. And it affects our arts, as well as all other areas of life, pushing poetry towards being just another fashion-driven commodity, often intended to be disposable rather than durable. Digging into the human condition, even though this can be made funny, if that is what one wants, as for example by Philip Larkin, as well as searing or heart-stopping, isn’t getting much of a look-in these days.
Yet even in an inimical context the central human longings, fears, joys, curiosities, the hankerings after eternal verities and to clarify particular experience and why certain things move us, continue. For such things are, above all else, what makes us human. And the impulse to shape them into memorable verbal contraptions, poetry which matters and lasts, will continue.