in English is dead.
Well, maybe not dead, but cataleptic.
It died (or went comatose) at some time between Eliot's Waste
and his vapid Four Quartets.
Perhaps around the time of the Spanish Civil War, which inspired
no significant poetry in the British Isles.
or what killed poetry in English ?
Did Eliot have a large hand in it, as Picasso did in the near-death
of painting ?
Wall has suggested that the creation of Arts Councils was
largely responsible. The UK Arts Councils were founded just after
World War II, and the Irish Arts Council a few years later.
"...at no time in the recent past have
writers been so integrated into the fabric of power and at the
same time strikingly powerless as they are now.
Writers, integrated into the fabric of power,
I hear you ask, how can that be?
The [Irish] Arts Council, established in 1951
with Sean O Faolàin as its chairman, was originally conceived
as a conduit for state funding for the arts, including grants
and bursaries to writers and artists; Aosdàna, a national
body for writers and artists was established in 1981, its only
useful function to disburse a cnuas or bursary to deserving members;
two further organisations manage grants for translators of Irish
literature and grants for Irish artists and writers to travel
abroad. Most probably all of the festivals that
take place around the country on a regular basis are part-funded
by these government bodies; most travel by Irish writers benefits
in some way from these organisations; many writers who would otherwise
be in straitened circumstances draw an honourable pension from
Aosdàna. It is, in fact, difficult if not impossible to
be a writer in Ireland and not to become the beneficiary of government
largesse in some form. And in addition to government funding,
most arts organisations draw the balance of their sponsorship
from local, national or international business, and, of course,
government anyway sees its interests as virtually identical to
those of commerce. I do not wish to suggest that a withdrawal
of government funding is a good idea quite the contrary,
it is the business of government, among other things, to support
the artistic life of the community rather I am suggesting
that it has never been easier for writers to abandon their traditional
oppositional stance and cosy up to the political establishment.
Of course the political establishment for the most part don't
give a damn about them so long as they're not rocking the
boat the day when an Irishman might agonise about whether
a play of his sent out certain men the English shot'
is long gone."
in the USA, Canada and other anglophone countries has also died.
It cannot be due merely to Arts Councils.
of modern pseudo-poetry (whether written by a Great Writer such
as Margaret Atwood or Samuel Beckett, or a Nobel Laureate appointed
by a trend-following and politically-motivated committee) is that
it is anecdotal. It seeks to entertain, to calm,
to confirm our status as Civilised And Cultured People. It is
excruciatingly well-crafted, tedious and mostly banal. It lacks
outrage, it lacks ecstasy, it lacks edge. Edge is something
which, ironically, only doggerel (written as such) now retains.
'Literary' poetry is a corpse given creepy afterlife by performance
Wall describes most modern poetry in English as 'potted narrative',
whose language "is flat, undifferentiated,
yellow-pack. The even, solitary voice is interchangeable across
numerous poets. The syntax is straightforward. The subject matter
is generic. Allusion is mainly confined to titles. Borrowing is
rare. There is no ego [by
which he means personality, an all-too-common confusion]."
He exemplifies the drearily-ubiquitous 'confessional' type of
I remember how you used to do
And I've been thinking a lot about it.
It exemplified some aspect of your character
Or your situation.
Now when I watch other people
I sometimes see them doing something similar
And it reminds me of you.
Join with me in wondering
Whether your character or your situation
Might actually have been universal.
I have never had a television and never will have one. I have
noticed that people more and more are entranced by soporific anecdote,
whether 600-page biographies of historical figures (which the
English can't get enough of) or TV "soaps". Everyone
wants to be part of a narrative ('Reality TV') and to see the
world - simplistically - as mere narrative. The USA does not have
Arts Councils, so might television also have played a part, through
its 'anecdotalization' of everything ? Other countries now have
"soaps", however, and many of them are not producing
the stifle that passes for utterance in anglophone countries.
can only harm poetry, because television is performance, transient
spectacle. It has great difficulty with subtlety. Unfortunately
almost everyone looks at television- and becomes innerly blind.
Television has drowned politics.(writes
William Wall). Listening and looking have drowned hearing
and seeing. To see any of this as an aberration of capitalism
that ought to be corrected in some way is to miss the point: this
is capitalism. What you see is what you get.
century has been defined as 'The Century of the Self'. The idea
of 'identity' was invented, and, along with rampant individualism,
came the pseudo-educational idea of poetry as 'self-expression'
from which the critical and philosophical elements were expelled.
Arts Councils and post-war Education Acts, aided and abetted by
the dead hand of Faber & Faber, killed poetry first in Britain,
then in Ireland, what was the reason in the USA and Canada ? Wallace
Stevens, after all, did not die until 1955. Might the trendy 'liberal
bourgeois' newspapers who trumpeted Consumerism (and have nothing
to say now that they are swamped by it) also have been a contributing
factor ? Might the dramatic rise and increased scope of the novel
have killed the appetite for the ruminative and allusive in increasingly
pseudo-literate societies ? Might universal secondary education
- which ditched Latin and Greek in the ever-increasing tendency
towards 'vocational education' (which is no education at all)
-have helped ? The march of the ego ? The invention of the plastic
bag ? The rise of mindless popular music with its fatuous lyrics
? (Some of those lyrics - by such luminaries as Bob Dylan and
Leonard Cohen - have actually been hailed as poetry by callow
college-professors - thus showing how low we have sunk.) The narrow
'ideological hegemony' of the West, whose vaunted democracy is
only the fence around Guantanamo, or the lies that led to the
invasion of Iraq ? Or simply the turbo-capitalism which hates
critical thought and denies reflective inspiration ?
the cynical rise of moneyspinners such as "Creative Writing"
Courses and Workshops, whose existence depends on the centrality
of mere narrative in poetry, merely decorated by language, especially
onomatopia and folksy words such as 'clabber'. Thus message
escapes medium, leaving a well-crafted philosophical void, which
critics and English faculties can fill like twittering souls in
horribly ironic that there is an academic industry around Emily
Dickinson, headed by people who seem not to have the faintest
idea what it was that impelled her to write. The same is true
in England of the admirers of William Blake, an embarrassingly
awkward poet of anger and outrage who, incomprehensibly, has been
latched on to. Anger and outrage are, of course, anathema to the
poetry magazines and publishers today. The hundreds of poets-in-residence
across the Anglosphere have been chosen precisely because of their
blandness - their political, philosophical and poetic nullity.
modern relativism - which seemed so 'advanced' - must
have played its part in the poetry-morgue. Thus anything is poetry
if Someone Important on television or in a university says it
is. Faber & Faber under Belfastman Monteith hailed Heaney
and Muldoon (leading lights of the Ulster Poetry Mafia), Larkin
and Hughes - all safe wordsmiths, and no threat to any person
or institution - so they became benchmarks, cynosures. The narrative
of Sylvia Plath (again ironically) encouraged the vacuous idea
of poetry-as-therapy, when it patently had no therapeutic value
for her. Indeed, the great poet MUST end
in despair, as Yeats and Plath did. As Rilke and many others also
Or in madness.
the lyrics of his famous and high-pitched admirer, the vacuous
Nobel Laureate Robert Zimmerman, I wonder if the great raconteur
and playwright Dylan Thomas may also have laid a cold hand on
poetry. If callow lines such as "Do not go gentle into
that good night / Rage, rage against the dying of the light"
almost become a mantra, what can we say about contemporary thought
? How can we rate as 'great' a poet who is haplessly,
drunkenly unaware of Diogenes, Schopenhauer, Kropotkin, Dostoyevsky,
Rilke or the Buddha ?
and MacNeice also have helped to dumb poetry down towards its
present demotic level ? Or, paradoxically, their contemporary,
the ridiculously over-rated Lorca ? For those hispanophone poets
most admired by anglophones are the most shallow: Neruda is another
such - while the magnificent, continually-questioning Lusitanian,
'Pessoa' in his various avatars, remains largely unknown.
in a time of froth. My tastes are shockingly sedimentary. Who
today in the English-speaking world would dare to follow Donne,
Hopkins, FitzGerald writing as Omar Khayyam, Matthew Arnold -
or even Edward Dowson ?
is pretty well dead in France, too - a fine tradition (Villon,
Ronsard, Baudelaire, Lamartine, de Musset, etc.) finally and unsurprisingly
blotted out by self-serving academics and the Literary Bureaucracy.
France- unlike Germany - is a country where philosophy has rarely
thrived, producing historic ghosts such as Descartes, Pascal and
La Rochefoucauld. Probably the most original French thinker (apart
from 'Property-is-Theft' Proudhon) is the great
- who, alas, was a terrible poet.
I am told
that César Vallejo ushered out great poetry in Spanish;
maybe Pessoa did the same for Portuguese (if not Brazilian) verse.
the novel (if we discount Don Quixote) was largely an English
invention, quickly taken up by the French, and the novel is, essentially
anecdote, story, narrative. Much modern 'poetry' in English is
simply compressed prose: the novel reducing itself well beyond
the short story (which preceded it) to a mere observation or account.
also had Shakespeare, the most narrative (and in my view unwatchable)
of playwrights. Compared with the Greek giants of poetic theatre,
or even with Racine, Shakespeare is extremely anecdotal and 'busy'.
Thus it was in England that newspapers first bloomed. Hence, I
believe, there is a strong tendency within the Anglosphere against
the poetic, against mystery and the mysteries of destiny. Prose
itself (alongwith the whole culture) has moved in the direction
of the 'businesslike'. And so poetry has withered away
leaving only the starkness of chopped-up prose. (Or, in my own
case, repetitive polemic.)
indeed, so many wonderful novels, packed with insight, that the
short and pithy philosophical reflection might seem to have no
more function in our time than the epic poem. But the novel 'doesn't
do' aphoristic or ambiguous much more than newspapers do.
Ambiguity and 'packed', multi-layer verse seem to have flown away
with the knowledge of Greek. And this will affect poetry everywhere,
just like the terrible Industrial Revolution, engendered in England
by greed and fire.
from the poems of Tomas Tranströmer, at least as translated
by one of the worst translators known to English, Robert
Bly, Sweden is another poetic and philosophical
black hole. Tranströmer has been translated into 46 languages,
and claimed to be 'spiritual' by hundreds of thousands of the
spiritless. I would venture the opinion that Catullus is more
'spiritual' than he.
is, for the moment, alive in other parts of Europe: Serbia, Albania,
Romania, Spain, Portugal, Macedonia, Germany, Ukraine, Russia
and Finland (to name those I know about) all have vital contemporary
verse and continuing traditions of philosophical and/or dissident
writing. Why is this ?
on more than a postcard, please.
unassuagable hunger for narrative, the future of poetry may lie
either in some new kind of poetic novel, or in the kind of prose-poem
that Margaret Atwood produced in Good
Bones, where she wrote:
we want of course is the same old story....We want it all to go
on and go on again, the same thing each year, monotonous and amazing...'