Clive James covers much ground in a small space in “Technique’s Marginal Centrality,” and surely that’s part of his message – deft, understated mastery earned through discipline. James combines a serious theme, nicely condensed in his title, with casually broad learning, sharp wit (the Yoko Ono crack is priceless) and anecdotal ease, deploying a remarkable range of reference from Hokusai to Herrick:
“…the general assumption that beginning poets had to put in their time with technical training, like musicians learning their scales, is everywhere regarded as out of date. This near-consensus is wrong, in my view, but you can see why it prevails. And it does have one big advantage. Though a poet who can’t count stresses and syllables might write mediocre poetry, there is a certain kind of bad poetry that he won’t write.”
That James’ essay shares space in the January issue of Poetry with precisely the sort of bland, prosy, under-crafted or non-crafted poems he indicts (excluding some by David Ferry and A.E. Stallings) is an irony sweet to savor. Writing verse is rapidly becoming a lost art, like making a dovetail joint or a good meatloaf. Earlier this week, at a site devoted to the art of gnomonics – making sundials – I found a fitting passage from an essay written in 1940 by Hilaire Belloc:
“Civilization loses its treasures by an unconscious process. It has lost them before it has appreciated that they were in the way of being lost; and when I say 'its treasures' I mean the special discoveries and crafts of mankind."
Surely that includes poetry, though not all the loss is unconscious. Many are forthright about writing, reading and admiring bad poetry. Because the stuff is so easy and slipshod, non-poets crank it out like sausage. James notes the “clear division between poets who are hoping to achieve something by keeping technical considerations out of it, and other poets who want to keep technique out of it because they don’t have any.” Writing poetry is the most difficult task I have ever undertaken, and I stopped trying long ago. I don’t have the chops. I learned only enough technique to “count stresses and syllables,” never enough to conceal it.
James makes an acute point when he notes that Pope gets credit for perfecting couplets, though Herrick “invent[ed] the possibilities.” In the final lines of “Delight in Disorder,” Herrick writes:
“A careless shoe-string, in whose tie
I see a wild civility:
Do more bewitch me, than when art
Is too precise in every part.”
Like most apprentice poets, many of whom never retire, I couldn’t achieve that note of “wild civility.”