Sunday, 13 December 2009

Writing for occasion

Titian, Flaying of Marsyas, c.1570s

The wind may blow where it listeth but there are times when it is actually drawn or desired to list here or there: these are what we might call the occasions of verse, and what such occasions may well occasion is occasional verse.


One view of poetry posits a world that is mysterious and possesses independent will, or indeed a number of separate, discrete wills. These are the individual, often contrary, wills of spirits that may be addressed, appeased, aroused or summoned. The wind is under their control and bloweth where they listeth. Robert Graves referred to those who were in thrall to them as Muse poets, and pointed to Keats's La Belle Dame sans Merci as the true figure of the Muse. Like the lady of the poem, the Muse was capricious: she rode the poets, possessed them, then left them. The best the poet could do was pray to the moon, to enter the appropriate trance under her influence, and prepare to be discarded. In this version of poetry it is not exactly an engagement with the irrational, but whatever reason there is in it lies beyond mortal wits. The Muse poets line up with Dionysos.

And you can see why they, and any poet, might do so. You cannot, they would rightly argue, reason your way to a poem. There is about the act something instinctive and capricious: now it works and now it doesn't for no known reason, and even when it does work you can't tell exactly what it does. And since the cult of Dionysos is an ecstatic, drunken cult, the best thing you can do is to go out of your head then stick your head into the wind and hope the wind listeth your way. You do, don't you, want a total disordering of all the senses, along with Rimbaud? The rest is nothing.

Flaws? Getting drunk or stoned or out of your head in any way you choose does not make you a poet. Nor does lying by the road hoping for La Belle Dame to come along. Excuse me, lady, you look very like La Belle Dame... but then so do you, madam... You do understand your serious calling to be a Muse, don't you? You do understand it is a privilege to feel my inspired hand on your inspiring etcetera? Won't wash. A bad poet isn't a better poet for being drunk or for imitating Nature grown wild.


In the opposite camp is the poet of parallelograms, Apollo's boy or girl (more often boy traditionally) to whom poetry is a kind of gradus ad parnassum, the steps of which include intellect, learning, the social graces, irony, the form, structure. To him, a poem is a rational task in a reasonable, albeit highly complex world. Poems embody ideas, preferably interesting ideas. Poems behave in orderly, almost courtly fashion. They follow rules, however complex, because beyond rules there is only chaos. It is up to him, the Apollonian poet, to preserve the essential order of things, to deride that which departs from such order, to create reasonable orchards and magnificent glass orangeries with the wholly reasonable figure of Apollo at the centre of the fountain, preferably shown in the process of flaying Marsyas. And if Apollo happens to look like Alexander Pope flaying Lord Hervey that just goes to show what intellect may aspire too. Pope lisped in numbers, he says, 'for the numbers came'. The shape comes from the numbers or meters.The energy required to fill the shape comes from somewhere else, a rage against chaos: which too is a kind of ferocity.

Graves, naturally, had no time for Pope, or for Dryden, or for Johnson, or for Auden. But then he had no time for Eliot or Dylan Thomas either. Graves was following other orders. The Apollonian poet sits in his Palace of Art and constructs parallelograms and crystals against danger. The Gravesian ducks through the intoxicating forest seeking Diana and her nymphs, seeking danger.

Both models have certain attractive, not to mention entertaining, features. Without contraries is no progression, wrote Blake, and wanted them to remain contraries. They should not, he believed, be reconciled.


We do have doubts about occasional poems. They seem foredoomed to be duds. Who would wish to be the laureate of birthday cakes, or worse still, of royal encomia? Only a sell-out. The best you can do in the situation, so goes the argument, is manners, and manners are a form of toadying.

But there are and always have been good, sometimes great poems, written for specific occasions, or out of specific occasions. I call Ben Jonson, Andrew Marvell, Byron on his own thirty-sixth birthday, Dylan Thomas on his thirtieth or on the funeral of Ann Jones. Rites, celebrations and ceremonies are part of the job. There are, of course, private occasions and public occasions for poetry. The private are expected to be sentimental: the public to be sententious.

The problem is expectation. The occasion can determine too much: that the poem should be constrained to say worthy things; that it should mind its manners; that it should avoid offence; that it should say in verse what might be better said in prose, or take the place of a vow or a gift. Yet even if writing such a poem were a problematic act, it might still be possible to argue for the poem as an example of humane art, as a fitting structure for what is properly felt to be important.


There is something in poetry of the offering in any case: as speech offered to commemorate a birth, a wedding or a funeral. The poem might be song, the part song-part speech of the event, an event that naturally invites reflection. It might look to be the fitting structure. Poetry is, after all, a shape in language, whether raw or cooked, whether drunk or sober. Poetry without shape is not poetry.

But energy and opposition are also required.

There is bound to be an element of both the Dionysiac and the Apollonian in art. The two elements cannot be reconciled but they cannot be entirely without each other. Those who on honeydew have fed and drunk the milk of paradise, are quite capable of composing poems about poetic meter for their children, as Coleridge did.

I have loved writing poems for occasions: they were excuses to write. Sometimes they had a spinning headiness that was set to spin right off but just held in. Those I think were the best poems, language setting off, getting lost, landing eventually in the world of the living. Others were simply as well made as I could make them, looking for a door to get lost through, but staying where they were. Sometimes the pattern in them compensated. If I hadn't started the best ones they wouldn't have existed.

In the end, poems make their own occasions, their own necessary ferocity. But they need occasions. It is their ferocity that saves them. Apollo flaying Marsyas.

1 comment:

Gwil W said...

Dylan Thomas always worth a mention. The following is almost a premonition..

'On a Wedding Anniversary'

The sky is torn across
This ragged anniversary of two
Who moved for three years in tune
Down the long walks of their vows.

Now their love lies a loss
And love and his patients roar on a chain;
From every true or crater
Carrying cloud, Death strikes their house.

Too late in the wrong rain
They come together whom their love parted:
The windows pour into their heart
And the doors burn in their brain.

(Countess Caitlin's body was flown back to Wales from Italy as per her Last Will & Testament to be once again united untitled with Dylan. Not exactly 'side by side like two kippers in a box' as one newspaper of the time quoting Dylan would have it - but more like head to toes - under matching white crosses.