Friday, October 11, 2013

`The Poetry I Used to Hear in My Head'

After musical composition, world-class chess and the farther shores of computational mathematics, writing poetry, once the avocation of millions and now the avocation of less talented millions, is the most difficult of human endeavors to master or even perform with an amateur’s respectable competence. For me, it remains impossible, a once-bitter fact I had to accept a long time ago. Even if I were to internalize the rules of prosody, finish reading all of Milton and Pope, and practice every day, I still would never transcend mediocrity as a poet, which doesn’t slow down those previously mentioned millions. We can usefully reduce the causes of bad poetry to two essential qualities: narcissism, in which the thought, the animating impulse within the lines, is insipid and of great importance to the poet; and a militantly tin-eared indifference to sound. 

That contemporary verse is aggressively dreary is often noted. The latest voice in that unhappy chorus is the essayist Arthur Krystal in “The Missing Music in Today's Poetry,” and he emphasizes the second of the two qualities identified above. Krystal makes his point – bravely, given the Irish poet’s recent death -- by noting that “even the estimable Seamus Heaney, who was unsurpassed in joining the singularity of objects with the poignancy of moods and memories, sometimes stopped in his melodic tracks to make a point rather than let the music play on.” 

At least Heaney, in a poetic sense, carried a tune with some regularity. Most poets never try. Even as prose their poetry is misbegotten. Wednesday evening, before learning of Krystal’s essay, I read several poems merely out of a desire to enjoy the pleasure of their company. I customarily reread George Herbert and Philip Larkin, among others, as though I were renewing acquaintance with old friends. Both offer the solace of familiarity, but also the satisfaction of seeing a difficult task performed with skill and grace. Both confirm the simple-seeming observation made some eighty years ago by Yvor Winters:  “The poem is a statement in words about a human experience.” Among the poems I reread – and all are in high rotation on my bedside table – is Herbert’s “Church-monuments”: 

“…thou mayst know,
That flesh is but the glasse, which holds the dust
That measures all our time; which also shall
Be crumbled into dust.” 

We savor the punning scriptural echo, and the wit of dust doubling as the human body and as the contents of the hourglass, marking the passage of time. Herbert is writing not about himself but about each of us and our essential nature. Without planning any thematic unity, I also read Larkin’s “Church Going,” with its wrenching final stanza: 

“A serious house on serious earth it is,
In whose blent air all our compulsions meet,
Are recognized, and robed as destinies.
And that much never can be obsolete,
Since someone will forever be surprising
A hunger in himself to be more serious,
And gravitating with it to this ground,
Which, he once heard, was proper to grow wise in,
If only that so many dead lie round.” 

Both poems enact a communion with their readers. Both honor us with their seriousness and wit, and treat us like grownups, people of maturity and discernment who, in musical terms, know a clam from a resonant chord. Both, like old songs, I can mostly remember, unlike most recent verse. As Krystal says: 

“Simply put: I miss what I used to enjoy. I miss the poetry I used to hear in my head after reading it on the page. I miss the sound it used to make. Very little of what I read now seems truly memorable in the sense that it lends itself to memorization.”
And that is precisely the criterion for judging great poems.

1 comment:

marly youmans said...

I can't argue with this--feel it myself. But the ocean of poetry has grown very large (drowning the audience, it seems), and it is hard to compass every direction and all the big and little fish these days.