Friday, February 12, 2016

`Enthusiasm Is Not an Artist's State of Mind'

Labels permit journalists and others who are lazy to mistake pigeonholing for understanding. “The Movement” was the name given to a mixed bag of English poets in the nineteen-fifties who had little in common apart from not being Dylan Thomas. Members of this non-group included Philip Larkin, Kingsley Amis, Donald Davie, D.J. Enright, John Wain, Elizabeth Jennings, Thom Gunn and Robert Conquest. Though aligned only, on occasion, by friendship, never ideology or style, they represent the last great eruption of poetic talent in the English language. Gunn had the distinction of overlapping with the previous such upsurge, Yvor Winters and the Stanford School. The rest of the best are what Melville called “Isolatoes.” In his essay “New Lines, Movements, and Modernism” (ed. Zachary Leader, The Movement Reconsidered, 2009), Conquest affirms the group’s disarray and composes lines he says “are to be taken in a very latitudinarian way on how, on the whole, poetry should be”:

“Neither too wet nor too dry,
Neither too low nor to high,
Neither too loose nor too tight,
Neither too dark nor too bright,
Neither too mad nor too mild,
Neither too tame nor too wild,
Neither too thick nor too thin,
Neither too Out nor too In.”

This points up The Movement’s only other unifying quality: contrariness and independence of thought. Critics and readers looking for consistency among such a wildly diverse set of writers must resort to fabrication. Conquest goes on: “Nor did we (or I) think one could describe, even to this degree, how all poetry should be written. There were always fine poets of wild eccentricity like Stevie Smith or Emily Dickinson. We should have agreed with no less a product of classicism than Gibbon himself, who spoke of the alternative aims of poetry being to `satisfy, or silence, our reason.’” The Gibbon reference is from Vol. 1, Chap. XXXI., of The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire: “. . . the name of Hadrian is almost sunk in oblivion, while Claudian is read with pleasure in every country which has retained, or acquired, the knowledge of the Latin language. If we fairly balance his merits and his defects, we shall acknowledge that Claudian does not either satisfy, or silence, our reason.”

In his essay, Conquest defines Modernism as “a slice of enlightenment plus a tureen of pretension.” If members of The Movement had a common enemy it was the pretentious strain that runs through much of the writing done by the previous (and subsequent) generations. Their dissent was non-programmatic. In individual poems, for instance, Larkin both dismissed Romanticism and selectively embraced it. His poems were not written according to some manifesto but by the strictures of craft and his own complicated sensibility. Born-again Modernists, postmodernists and their camp followers, of course, are still objecting. Conquest says in his essay, “A common taunt was that we were philistine, and insular too” – a ridiculously snobbish accusation. He writes:

“If the vague, peripheral, and hypothetical knowledge we have is given the status of law we are worse off than before. This goes with an authoritarian attitude; and its products, because of the formality of their definitions, are hard and less able to evolve. Such are the approaches we rejected. The extremists on both sides are missionary types: the one of a highly organized and ritualized set of sacramental forms, the other of a theology of revivalist self-abandon. In either case, a sectarianism. As Paul Valéry wrote, `Enthusiasm is not an artist’s state of mind’ [trans. Robert Conquest, “Introduction à la méthode de Léonard de Vinci,” 1894].   

Conquest died last August at age ninety-eight, the last surviving member of The Movement’s rollcall. As a poet he is less well-known than as a scholar of communism’s crimes. Among his volumes devoted to Soviet history are The Great Terror: Stalin's Purges of the 1930s (1968), Kolyma: The Arctic Death Camps (1978) and The Harvest of Sorrow: Soviet Collectivization and the Terror-Famine (1986). All are essential for an understanding of how the twentieth-century worked. When a publisher asked Conquest to revise The Great Terror for a new edition, the poet said he wished to change the title to I Told You So, You Fucking Fools. In history as in poetry, schools, classes, cliques and movements mean nothing. Only individual poets writing individual poems matter.

[Go here for a recent tribute to Conquest by the Hoover Institution and here for a selection of his more recent commentary on the Soviet Union.]

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