“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.”