“The novelty meets with neglect; neglect provokes attack; and attack demands a theory.”
xxxxxxxT. S. Eliot, Reflections on Vers Libre – an article published in the New Statesman, 22 May 2013
You don’t have to like the person in these poems. Views that many espouse are not necessarily expressed by him. The person in these poems is no champion of rights; animal, vegetable or mineral. Let’s call that view-holding many the homogeneous majority: a far-from-silent community, it is made up of the middle-aged, partially open-minded middle classes, many of whom attend poetry workshops. Those chosen to award prizes must take this powerful readership into account. A poem should be of the approved length, should have a point, and point approved of by the aforesaid mob – if it is to be awarded any sort of a commendation. A poem is valued primarily for its humanity. Ideally there should be a theme that threads the poems together. Here a touch of novelty is called for. Most important of all, there needs to be a person in them who comes over as likeable, liberal, engaged in gender politics, preferably of a fashionable sex or hue or scion of an approved minority. Add pathos, and you’re in on the game. Pathos goes down very well indeed.
None of this is the case with the person you encounter when you start From Inside. This is because the person in these poems is a persona. Just as the ancient actors wore masks that expressed the spirits who spoke through them, spirits of those who might have murdered their children, slept with their mothers or flouted authority, these poems speak through masks. It is a strategy more often to be found in fiction, for it is fictive. It is a way of writing pioneered by Robert Browning – My Last Duchess provides the standard example, but that is just one poem among many that utilize a dramatic monologue.
So, underneath, I happen to be likeable, liberal etc, but in my poems I speak through masks, come from another location and stand in another’s place. Or so I would have you believe.
Pound refined the technique in Personae; and now I try to take it further by reducing the distance between the voice of the spirit and my own. I am trying to resolve the enigma of how one may fetchingly express the unpleasant – make it readable, entertaining even – but, if the character conjured forth bears little resemblance to my own experience, a distance weakens the impact. There is much to admire in the movies of Nicholas Roeg. For instance, in Bad Timing, a plausible young psychiatrist asserts the control over his girl that he has always hankered for by making love to her while she is in a coma – having turned back the clock by a few minutes, to give himself time to rape her before he calls an ambulance. The action that enables him to seriously endanger her life is in itself an innocuous one, a movement of a finger on the minute hand. It is a conceivable crime. I can imagine myself doing this. And that is what makes the film’s proposition so powerful.
In the same paragraph as contains the quotation above, Eliot goes on to suggest that “In a sluggish society, as actual societies are, tradition is ever lapsing into superstition, and the violent stimulus of novelty is required.” A violent stimulus is more than a touch, and I aspire to just such a jolt. I would revive satire, long out of fashion in poetry, but I can’t go along with Eliot when he asserts, in the same essay, that “we only need the coming of a Satirist – no man of genius is rarer – to prove that the heroic couplet has lost none of its edge since Dryden and Pope laid it down.” To my ear the couplet grows tedious, and seems nostalgically dated formally. Eliot was wrong about the sonnet too, which he thought long past its prime. In fact, the sonnet goes from strength to strength, but the Augustan couplet has lost its appeal.
Satire needs to discover a fresh and contemporary form.
The poems in this collection are uncomfortable. Often they may not seem to possess a “point”. For me, the presence of the poem itself must be equal to the presence of any meaning. As I attempt to resolve this inherent conflict between form and content, I find myself discovering the poem; and its presence, as that emerges, often overwhelms a neatly significant end.
“All art constantly aspires to the condition of music.” Thus wrote Walter Pater when considering the paintings of Giorgione. Music does not concern itself with referential meaning. It concerns itself with an empathy derived from harmonies – it means a feeling, the feeling of music. This may be achieved in arts other than music. Poetry, for instance, uses rhyme, rhythm, assonance, alliteration, and all the wiles of prosody in order to create what amounts to the actual music of thought. Here a further irony gets generated: the untoward, discomforting thoughts that may engage the person in these poems are offered to the reader as a music. Harmony is thus impressed into the service of the discordant.
Well, dear reader, as the Possum said, “neglect provokes attack; and attack demands a theory.”
To purchase a copy, here is a link to The High Window/From Inside
For a critique of “humane art” see Ortega y Gasset
Click for my essay on Immoralism.
Launch reading was 31 May at 19:00-21:00 at Housmans Radical Booksellers, 5 Caledonian Road, London N1 9DX