Tuesday, 9 March 2010

Defence of Poetry

Tomorrow to Leeds to take part in the discussion as per the title above. I am to speak for 7 - 10 minutes. Naturally enough I go back to Sidney and Shelley who wrote defences of poetry, because they thought it needed defending, and I suppose it always does.

And yet it doesn't and never has. It has been there since the beginning of language, possibly preceding the story which needs elements of established syntax. Poetry comes from song and cry, and that requires only rhythm and the resonance of living things. It is why songs could afford their fa-la-la's and nonny-no's, when prose can't be doing with such matters. The sound has semi-independent life. For that reason poetry has always been associated with magic. It conjures not so much the idea of things but the presence of things, and that is because it works as much through the body as the mind. Because the word is not only a signifier but a physical experience - a piece of nonsense with flesh on.

None of this exactly a defence. It just is so. Furthermore we know it just is. It is proved not in the mind but on the pulse. Elements of poetry constitute our attempt to represent the sensation of experience, though, of course, we experience our thoughts and feelings as well as the physicaliities of touch, taste, sight, hearing and smell. The logicalities of syntax tell us about these things and organise them into chains of cause and effect, but poetry brings them before us as experience in language.

So when it comes to education that is where I would begin - with the extraordinary strangeness, startlingness, beauty and horror of language. I would not, as Billy Collins puts it, torture the single significant meaning out of a poem then throw away the rest. The trick is to hear it, to listen really hard, almost in the spirit of rebellion, almost with the kind of contempt Marianne Moore writes about, because, down there, in those imaginary gardens, there are, there really are, real toads. The trick is to sense the language toad, not to find a use for the poem.

Uses exist, of course, but the chief use of poetry to sense the presence of the toad in language, without which sense nothing happens, without which the language enterprise is all imaginary gardens in which only ghosts can live. Shelley understood that.

But poetry in a more restricted sense expresses those arrangements of language, and especially metrical language, which are created by that imperial faculty, whose throne is curtained within the invisible nature of man.

That will do for a start. And so will this:

… Poetry is ever accompanied with pleasure

Without pleasure, nothing. Teachers: teach them pleasure. Something like this, anyway.


Anonymous said...

Hello, I attended your defence of poetry event and, while I am an enthused reader of your Kraszhnahorkai translations, I have to admit that I found the panel's defence of poetry weak in the extreme. Since the thirty members of the public who attended had paid for this event, there was little doubt that they were all converted readers of poetry. The occasion for the evening was the censorship of Carol Ann Duffy's knife crime poem from the school syllabus. This raised the problem of censorship in Britain more generally and I brought up the fact that, while the Yorkshire Evening Post reported in 1980 that Leeds library had 750,000 volumes, after the 'updating' of the library around ten years ago, Leeds council sent out a brochure boasting of the 250,000 books it then possessed. The library had evidently jettisoned (or burnt?) half a million books. This was an obvious (and documented) instance of British censorship. possibly more alamring than the Duffy case, since nobody appears to have noticed it. The reaction from the panel was largely one of indifference - probably few of them live in Leeds. I felt that your panel hardly needed to search any further for the reason for such censorship. When it is a question of authors having to take up a controversial political stance on an issue such as this, it is much more comfortable just to duck out of the whole matter. After all, aren't we continually told through all the media that we live in a country which is vibrant and multicultural, despite the fact that bookshop window displays are frequently one book affairs nowadays? Don't we have the internet? I have searched the internet for hundreds of hours and doubt if I have found more than five articles worth reading - a couple by Michael Lowy and one on Christina Stead, plus a couple of unpublished works by George Meredith. Best wishes. I'm looking forward to Satantango, Andrew

George S said...

If you recall I tried to answer you by pointing out that libraries had been thinning out books since the 1970's, a time of revisionism, in which the agenda became not to provide something like the 'the best literature can offer' (add to the category literature' anything else people might write about), but to 'give the public what it wants' and not imposing suspect values on them.

I said this yesterday and believe it to be the case. So the disappearance of your Graham Greene volumes is not a product of censorship but the natural product of an ideology that began by reasonably questioning the values of 'high art' and has ended by selling out to the commercial pressure and short-term political expediency.

We have had about forty years of this now so it is nothing new. I guarantee you that the number of books in 1980 will have been fewer than the number of books in 1970. I know because from 1973 on I was getting the throw-outs of the Brent Town Hall library and was discussing these issues with a close friend who was a librarian. (And, incidentally, defending the policy.)

For what it is worth I opposed it then and I oppose it now, because - and I agree with Michele Ledda here - I do ultimately believe in the notion of a canon (albeit one that can alter and be expanded, rather than something quite as stable as, I think, he was suggesting).

Nevertheless, I suggest censorship is entirely the wrong word here. If I were Matthew Arnold I would call it philistinism, which is something quite different.

Anonymous said...

Hello George,
Thank you very much for your detailed and reasoned answer to my queries. I know that the ostensible reason for the jettisoning of half a million books in Leeds libraries was that 'we must give the public what it wants and not dictate some super-refined tastes to them in an elitist fashion'. On the surface, this sounds quite convincing until one begins to think about it. I was an intensive and almost daily user of the libraries for ten years and the books that I pored over every day were precisely those that I am incessantly assured in newspapers that I don't want to read. This 'anti-elitist' diktat was itself quite undemocratic and, of course, was wholly indifferent to and oblivious of, my tastes in reading. The populist approach simply consists of bombarding the public with propaganda in the interests of a homogenised capitalist market where greater profits will accrue to publishers if millions of copies of a single book can be sold (or borrowed). In reality, those who decided this 'populist' policy have an absolute contempt for the reading public and no regard whatsoever for great variety of reading tastes when these are allowed to proliferate freely. The multiculturalism of postmodernism has turned into such a narrow elitism that the old elitism of the modernists, with their difficulties and mixages of styles, can hardly compare with it. The books left for the Leeds reading public in the central library include, for example, four identical copies of a recent Robert Harris novel. The discoveries in the library that I made in the past when I was a penniless student (of Meredith, Peacock, Gissing, Reverdy, Schwitters, Camus, Heinrich Mann and so on)would be very difficult, if not impossible, to make now. It would be comforting to think that this could be ascribed to old-style (or even new-style) philistinism. Arnold attacked the philistines of the Victorian age yet this age saw a considerable development in public libraries and in the variety of books on offer (including the proto-modernist George Meredith, even if his 'Ordeal of Richard Feverel' was banned by Mudie's library). The action, though, of placing largely pre-decided and approved volumes on the shelves of public libraries; of not encouraging the public to think or judge for itself; of 'knowing better', constitutes both cultural and political censorship. It enormously helps to mould and manipulate public taste in reading and to short-circuit any dangerous preference for more radical art forms or books. If the powers who run libraries cared about the tastes of the public in reading, would they not have enquired about mine and those of my friends, all of which tend far more to Dostoyevsky, Kraszhnahorkai and Angela Carter than to Robert Harris? Nobody ever asked for the simple reason that these completely elitist decisions are made behind closed doors and in contempt of the public they are supposed to cater for. They preclude debate, confront the public with a fait accompli and, unfortunately, end up in censorship, independently of whether they started off as ignorance, philistinism, or just a belief that it is much cheaper and more convenient to immensely narrow the choice of books. Looking forward to your Satantango, by the way. Andrew

George S said...

I suppose what I would say Andrew is that though the effect is of contempt, the intention was ideologically rather than commercially based. Your generation - and mine, because I imagine our ages are similar - was brought up in the last days of self-improvement through culture. These were the days of the WEA, the founding of the Open University, and indeed of the new redbrick universities. Out there was Dante and Shakespeare and Joyce and Beethoven - the best the human spirit could offer. It is what we believed, and go on believing.

But in the seventies there grew the suspicion that all these high art articles concealed oppressive, elitist values. Why should the working man, whose culture was just as valuable as that of the opera buff, go on paying for a public service that serves people of the opera buff's cast of mind.

This did not ask whether opera was worthwhile or not - it looked at Glyndebourne and noted the class of people attending.

The tragedy really is that all this was done out of, what seemed to those who did them - behind closed doors if you like - good intentions, with which the road to hell is often paved.

I presume they didn't ask you or your friends - or indeed me - because they assumed you, they and me were all, spiritually, at Glyndebourne.