In his review of Ted Hughes’ unreadable Shakespeare and the Goddess of Complete Being, Sisson questions Hughes’ claim that as a boy his interest in mythology and folklore preceded his interest in poetry. Sisson says: “The sequence must be unusual, not only in poets but in anyone for whom poetry has any real importance. To be alerted by words and rhythms in hopeless conjunction, before there is anything of the analytical apprehension which passes for understanding, must be the normal condition of a child still in the world of lullabies and nursery rhymes.” Rhythm is pre-eminent, the reason one seldom meets a child indifferent to music. Most of us sing before we can read. Most of us have memorized, without effort, more songs than poems. By heart I know many lines of verse I don’t even particularly like: “In Xanadu did Kubla Khan / A stately pleasure-dome decree.”
In English Poetry 1900-1950: An Assessment(1971), Sisson praises In Retreat (1925), a prose memoir of World War I by Herbert Read (1893-1968), but eviscerates Read’s flat, charmless poetry. Read was a writer we might recognize as a “progressive,” always dedicated to the latest fashionable crusades. Sisson says Read was “certainly the most intelligent and attractive figure who ever lent himself to so much nonsense.” He devoted himself to “peace, freedom, and art, things so patently good that one wondered why so much explanation was necessary to recommend them.” Read’s poems were suffused with such sympathies, but Sisson will have none of it, at least as poetry: “The rhythm is secondary to the effect of the poem, and unpromising. This idiosyncrasy recurred in most of Read’s work throughout his career. For those who regard rhythm as of the essence of poetry, this marks a limitation which leaves him with a very modest place as a poet.” Poetry sings, in other words, before it is sung.