“Of course, poets have certain traits in common. Generally, they do not dress well. They do not arrive on time. Their squabbles when they congregate make Dallas seem like the Vienna Boys’ Choir. They tend to be earnest.”
Ah, earnestness, the death of poetry. And of conversation and all that makes life worth living. Poetic and otherwise, earnestness comes in many guises: the familiar Jehovah’s-Witness-at-the-door, the political scold, Zen adepts and punk nihilists. All share an infatuation with approved uniforms, whether tie and tweeds, or Che t-shirt; an approved set of opinions; and indifference to language. Twenty-five years ago I interviewed a poet and self-described anarchist who had published a book about the virtues of not having a job. It was 10 a.m., his apartment was dangerously dirty and disordered, and he was finishing his first or second six-pack of the day, ostentatiously dribbling beer down his chin and onto his shirt. The performance, old when Verlaine was refining it, was intended to assure me he wasn’t beholden to bourgeois niceties. He ordered me to remove my necktie. And his smell was unpleasant, a mélange of new beer, old beer and corruption.
I found the quoted passage above in Britain in the Eighties: the Spectator’s View of the Thatcher Decade (ed. Philip Marsden-Smedley, 1989). “Poetic Pains,” published in the Spectator in 1987, may be the earliest piece by Anthony Daniels, aka Theodore Dalrymple, I have read, and it confirms my sense that the avant-garde is, in fact, the derriere-garde endlessly recycled. Of a London poetry “workshop” (Kingsley Amis, Jake’s Thing, 1978: “If there’s one word that sums up everything that’s gone wrong since the war, it’s Workshop. After Youth, that is.”), Daniels writes: “Into this world of causes, claimants’ rights, etc., no complexity, irony, ambiguity, melancholy, joy, tragedy or even love is ever allowed to enter.” Of course, in twenty-eight years, things have only further decayed. Daniels concludes:
“But whether anyone in a hundred years will recite the verse that is written now is a question as open as whether anyone then will go around humming Stockhausen. For my own part, I heard nothing that gripped my heart like Shakespeare or Keats, but when it comes to modern verse:
“`Don’t ask what it was all about
I haven’t got a clue.’”
[Britain in the Eighties collects a second Spectator essay by Daniels, “Why I Don’t Feel Well,” this one devoted to another crackpot subculture, “alternative” medicine: “To read books written by alternative therapists is to regress to the 18th century, or beyond.”]