Monday, January 05, 2015

`He Followed the Eloquence'

A belated Christmas gift: A C.H. Sisson Reader (Fyfield Book, Carcanet), edited by Charlie Louth and Patrick McGuinness, and published to coincide with the centenary of the poet’s birth on April 22, 1914 (annus horribilis). Sisson’s American reputation is almost nonexistent, and I only started reading him seriously a few years ago. He writes for grownups and gives the lie to every post-Romantic myth about poets and poetry, literature and the conduct of life. In “Poetry and Sincerity,” an essay collected in the Reader, Sisson begins: 

“Modernity has been going on for a long time. Not within living memory has there ever been a day when young writers were not coming up, with shining faces and a threat of iconoclasm, to destroy the illusions of their elders and the forms and rules into which they had hardened. Indeed such conduct has, for several generations at least, been so perfectly the tradition that most of the old now belong to it. It is the tradition, so far as the literature of the twentieth century is concerned, just as revolution, in some degree or other, has become the political tradition—the amount of novelty, in both cases, being much exaggerated by the patter that goes with it.” 

In the film of The Maltese Falcon, Sam Spade says of the gunsel: “The cheaper the crook, the gaudier the patter.” Sisson is skewering another sort of crook.  Not only does he write for grownups, he is one. Sisson is a master of corrosive irony coupled with tonal modulation. At his angriest he is most fully and coolly in control, like Swift, one of his masters. Later in the same essay he describes poetry as “a receptacle for sense which cannot be put into prose,” and continues: 

“It might be too much to say that no one who cannot write prose should be allowed to write verse, but certainly no one should be admitted to any of those myriad courses which purport to teach the writing of verse, until he has read at least one book each of Swift and Defoe and can write a page which is not too utterly disgraceful by their standards.”
Here is Sisson's “Thomas de Quincey” (Numbers, 1965): 

“Thomas de Quincey lying on the hearth-rug
With a finished manuscript at his side,
His bare feet in slippers and, tied up with ribbon,
There was his mind. 

“Of course it was stupor that he wanted
But his mind would work.
He followed the eloquence whose end is silence
Into the dark.”

1 comment:

Subbuteo said...

An apposite and entertaining prose poem by a minor British contemporary poet:

The Quarantine of Eloquence

"The tongue is a fire. Consider how large a forest a small fire ignites. No man can tame the tongue." James 3:5-8

Breaking News: In recent developments in the provinces of the mealy-mouthed, where language is not prized, an announcement has been made –

‘A conspiracy of dullards has placed a cordon sanitaire around the articulate. Enlivening vocabulary has been proscribed with immediate effect.’

The move came when embarrassment was felt in high offices. Language permitting the making of fine distinctions has been banned as it was making people feel uncomfortable. Measures have been put in place to delimit the boundaries of verbal inventiveness.

A spokesman went on to say – ‘It is important that people don't let their tongues run away with them.’