Saturday, 7 March 2015

Murky Waters: Hearing English Poetry in the 70s
The Kenneth Allott Memorial Lecture 2008:
Part 5

Martin Bell in Leeds c 1972

In his introduction to The Penguin Book of Contemporary Verse, Allott speaks of  “a representative collection of English verse written between 1918 and 1960” adding that it should be explained that “English verse means ‘written by English poets’, not verse in English. It was a typical English working definition. It did not stop him from beginning the anthology with Yeats and including Joyce, as well as, later, Arthur Waley’s translations from the Chinese and Sylvia Plath. He felt no need to explain the presence of the Irish poets, could argue for Plath on the basis that she married an Englishman, and proposed an even more interesting argument for Arthur Waley, in that his translations “are original poems for the English reader”.

 In other words, the body of Englishness, as much as Britishness, comprehended not an ideal, or ideological state of affairs, but whatever looked important on the ground. You might argue this as an extension of the English imperium but it is not hard to imagine now how many interesting doors it opened, and how complex a notion English poetry was thereby acknowledged to be. In much the same way, Philip Larkin included Martin Bell’s free translation, or rather adaptation, of Laforgue’s L’Hiver Qui Vient (as ‘Winter Coming On’ (the Bell poem here, scroll down) in his Oxford Book of Twentieth-Century English Verse (another, if later, key anthology of course). By the same argument, much more recently, Paul Keegan includes Miroslav Holub’s The Fly (in George Theiner’s translation) in his The New Penguin Book of English Verse and, in a bid to establish Scottish national aspiration as international inclusiveness, Robert Crawford and Mick Imlah’s The New Penguin Book of Scottish Verse includes poems translated from Latin, Welsh, Old English, Gaelic, Old Norse and Old French. Even more inclusive than the hated Sassenachs, as Crawford himself was saying the other night on Michael Rosen’s radio programme. Is that then an extension of the Scottish imperium? I wonder.

Characteristics of English verse, according to Kenneth Allott, require an examination of complexity. Complex, it most certainly is. Allott quotes Eliot on the necessity for modern poetry to be difficult, contrasts it with Matthew Arnold’s advocacy of plainness, and asks:

…how far can we really go along with Eliot’s view of his own poetry as ‘traditional’ development of the poetic inheritance…[?]

declaring, by way of answer:

…I see this particular poetic innovation as a Franco-American foreign body which English poetic anatomy has encapsulated and is in process of extruding…

So we have extrusion too. Allott goes on to criticise The Waste Land – one of my major touchstones – as “too clever”. Being too clever by half is a charge very much associated with received ideas of Englishness, the little England of a right little, tight little island. So the open door that welcomes Plath and Arthur Waley can also close. It’s a paradox I seem always to have been instinctively aware of. It could be confusing at times. Allott both includes and excludes, defines, undefines and re-defines. . But Allott isn’t really a little Englander. He has his reasons. He goes on, via Leavis, to identify the dangers in Eliot and Pound, who, he says, “show more than a normal distrust of democratic tendencies in politics because they approach the social problem too exclusively from the side of the maintenance of cultural standards.”

Reading that, I cannot dismiss it as nonsense, or parochialism. What Allott identifies in Eliot and Pound is clearly there to be identified. It is not simply aesthetics, but a notion of democracy that is at stake. Democracy, in effect, trumps aesthetics. It is the relationship between parochialism and democracy that lies somewhere near the heart of the Englishness question.

Where does the balance lie? How does it lie? Delicately, I would say. Eliot remains a great poet, whereas few of the fine poets in Allott’s anthology could claim greatness. It is interesting that the best translator of Eliot into Hungarian was the poet István Vas, a major figure in twentieth century Hungarian poetry who died in 1991. Vas was a Hungaricised Jew like myself, like the majority of Jews in Budapest. He certainly knew of Eliot’s anti-Semitism but that did not stop him admiring him and translating him. (For any Hungarian readers Vas's translation of The Waste Land is here.)

It is true of course that of the eighty-six poets represented in Contemporary Verse fifty were Oxbridge educated and about the same number were products of private education. Some of those voices then seemed distant, moated and out of reach to me but there were others that sounded from not too far away.

[Next: Norman Cameron, John Heath-Stubbs, Donald Davie on purity of diction


Poetry Pleases! said...

Dear George

And I've just read your Guardian review of Clive James' 'Poetry Notebook: 2006-2014' which is almost as good as the book it describes. Long live Clive!

Best wishes from Simon R. Gladdish

George S said...

Thank you, Simon. Such a multi-layered figure.

Gwil W said...

I'm waiting till you've finished so I can read all of them in one go. Thanks again for your encouragement with the translation.