Thursday, April 30, 2009

`Whom No Poet Sings'

Bad poetry hurts, even more than bad prose. The latter may fulfill some utilitarian purpose – documentation or the simple communication of data. If its badness doesn’t compromise understanding, it can be excused as artless but functional. Basil Bunting put the distinction like this:

“Prose exists to convey meaning, and no meaning such as prose conveys can be expressed as well in poetry. That is not poetry's business.”

When poetry is bad, it’s often because the poet ignores Bunting’s stricture and attempts with too much force and too little grace to convey meaning. The music and wit are disregarded. I’ve just finished reading and reviewing a new anthology of poetry that I found frustratingly inconsistent in this regard. The anthologist lards it with too much verse that barely meets the minimum standards of prose, and yet includes some of the great poems in the language – by Donne, Herbert, Hopkins, Elizabeth Bishop and J.V. Cunningham, among others. Living with the book for a month or so, I forced myself to read and reread the dreck while inevitably returning to the pearls. The bad poems hurt. Michael Drayton’s single entry did precisely the opposite. Reading it over and over was a form of bliss. Here is Sonnet 6:

“How many paltry, foolish, painted things,
That now in coaches trouble every street,
Shall be forgotten, whom no Poet sings,
Ere they be well wrapt in their winding-sheet!
Where I to thee eternity shall give,
When nothing else remaineth of these days,
And Queens hereafter shall be glad to live
Upon the alms of thy superfluous praise.
Virgins and matrons, reading these my rhymes,
Shall be so much delighted with thy story
That they shall grieve they lived not in these times,
To have seen thee, their sex's only glory.
So shalt thou fly above the vulgar throng,
Still to survive in my immortal song.”

While seducing his beloved with flattery and simultaneously insulting her, Drayton flatters and seduces us, his readers.


Nige said...

Gosh, thanks for that Drayton, which I'd never come across before - what dash, what nerve, what sprezzatura!

elberry said...

i think of what a friend said of a poetry reading we both attended a decade ago, by a minor Irish poet: "It was nice, nice poetry. But i don't want 'nice' poetry: i want GREAT poetry".

Poetry demands far too much attention - if it's less than very good, it is painful.