Sunday, July 12, 2015

`Words and Rhythms in Hopeless Conjunction'

“So, what’ve you been reading?” asked the librarian as she checked out my books. Careful, this can be a trick question. Serious readers want a detailed list. Others may ask out of social obligation, wanting to fill time and appear concerned about your welfare. The librarian in question I don’t know well and I know nothing about her reading habits. I mentioned Oliver Sacks’ On the Move, Paul Seydor’s The Authentic Death and Contentious Afterlife of Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid (abbreviated to “a book about Sam Peckinpah”), and poetry by Jonathan Swift, C.H. Sisson and Eric Ormsby. “I have trouble with poetry,” she said, shaking her head guiltily. “I don’t get it.” I probed a bit, asking if teachers had contributed to her distaste for verse, which she confirmed. I paraphrased Eliot’s line about good poetry communicating before it is understood. She confessed to liking nursery rhymes, Walter de la Mare, and Lennon and McCartney when she was a girl, and Emily Dickinson later on, but like millions of others she has come to think of poetry as something probably good for you but unpleasant, like Brussels sprouts, and one can only sympathize. 

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.

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