Monday, December 01, 2014

`Bound Up With Giving Pleasure'

Originality is no virtue, or rarely so, and never in isolation. Gertrude Stein was original but unreadable, as were Charles Olson, Alain Robbe-Grillet and every surrealist who ever intimidated a reader with tedium. Art is variation on theme, collaboration with forebears across time, not a one-of-a-kind freak show. Artists open eyes and ears and make the familiar suddenly wondrous, and vice versa. In The Idler #85, published on this date, Dec. 1, in 1759, Dr. Johnson puts it like this: 

“To exact of every man who writes that he should say something new, would be to reduce authors to a small number; to oblige the most fertile genius to say only what is new, would be to contract his volumes to a few pages. Yet, surely, there ought to be some bounds to repetition; libraries ought no more to be heaped for ever with the same thoughts differently expressed, than with the same books differently decorated.” 

I thought of Johnson’s common-sensical observation often while reading James Booth’s Philip Larkin: Life, Art and Love (Bloomsbury Press, 2014), and again when reading Joseph Epstein’s review of it in the Wall Street Journal. Epstein reminds us that Larkin “passes the ultimate test of having written poetry that is memorable.” The poet himself reminds us that poetry is “inextricably bound up with giving pleasure, and if a poet loses his pleasure-seeking audience he has lost the only audience worth having . . .” Not even their most rabid enthusiasts would claim that Stein & Co. give pleasure – too bourgeois, too conventional, reader be damned. 

“. . . or the vast most part, far from being depressing, Larkin’s poems, written with a wondrous precision and lucidity, and a comic élan that can produce outright laughter, have the effect of lifting one’s spirits, as truth-telling often does. Not only aesthetically but in just about every other way, Larkin was a man set against his time: modernism in the arts, left-wing politics of the kind that appeals to academic intellectuals, admiration of youth—none of it was to his taste.” 

Larkin didn’t make it new; he made it well-written.


Subbuteo said...

Baudelaire and Larkin found life a mixture of grim and exhilarating. Both had a sense of their own moral failure and saw art as a redemptive process. "Tu m'as donné ta boue, et j'en ai fait de l'or" said Baudelaire, addressing the city. Rhyme and verse charmed the bad faith away. As always the jury is out as to whether this alchemy is sufficient. Fans of Larkin might suggest that his reputation proves that it was? It's an interesting equation. One might think that Shakespeare was well-adjusted, happy and a great poet, and, therefore, knew more.

George said...

"didn’t make it new; he made it well-written" makes for a catchy antithesis, but seems to me to misrepresent what Pound meant by "Make it new."