Saturday, November 07, 2015

`To Make the Reader See What's There'

I remember reading “The Highwayman” as a boy, without the poet’s name attached, at least in memory. Alfred Noyes’ poem stirred me the way H. Rider Haggard, Edgar Rice Burroughs and Dumas père did -- or, even better, a good movie. Kingsley Amis included it in The Amis Anthology (1988), his “personal choice of English verse.” In his notes, Amis says “we tend to be more responsive to the poems we meet in our adolescence,” which certainly was true in my case. Only later did the wish to tow the orthodox literary line and please professors outweigh the craving for honest pleasure. This is a common progression among readers, rooted in snobbery, a misguided understanding of literary sophistication and what Michael Dirda recently called “the excessive privileging of the present.” Some of us recover from it. That “The Highwayman” is fun to read, and to hear being read, and certainly preferable to much of the poetry written in the last century or so, is somehow shameful. All of which makes an eight-year-old girl’s resolve to memorize the poem’s 102 lines, and recite them aloud in public, even more heartening.   

Noyes, then twenty-four years old, first published his ballad in the August 1906 issue of Blackwood's Magazine, and collected it the following year in Forty Singing Seamen and Other Poems. “The Highwayman” has repeatedly been filmed, animated, set to music and otherwise adapted and reinterpreted. On Friday, the poet (and father, and grandfather) Marius Kociejowski wrote to me:

“One of the great morale boosts is that Claire should have fixed upon `The Highwayman’, which, in my sillier moments, I nominate as the greatest poem in the English language. With the sureness of line and the author’s ability to make the reader see what’s there, it has turned a thousand heads in the direction of poetry. It certainly did mine, and consider, too, the sheer eroticism of that poem. Brava, Claire!”

No comments: