Saturday, January 28, 2017

`Almost No Good Public Verse in English'

“Hazlitt, Marvell, Stendhal, Donne
Blest the bed I laid upon.”

This untitled, lopsided, off-rhymed couplet was written in the diary of a little-known and oddly named English poet, Edgell Rickword (1898-1982). The editor of Rickword’s Collected Poems (Carcanet, 1991), Charles Hobday, observes that had the poet “chosen to develop it he would presumably have improved the grammar.” What attracted my attention was Rickword’s choice of bed partners, all essential entries on the common reader’s reading list, and the way the poem echoes “A Bed for My Books,” the essay by Jirō Osaragi I wrote about earlier this month. Though Rickword was a Communist Party member from 1934 to 1956, his taste in books seems to have been respectable, and he wrote a readable poem about Jonathan Swift, “Incompatible Worlds,” and another titled “How Nikolai Gogol Failed to Save His Soul.” His political poems are not good, a conclusion that is almost a tautology. In The Dragons of Expectation (2005), the poet and anatomist of Communism, Robert Conquest, is usefully skeptical on this subject:

“There is an idea that expressing any reputable sentiment or opinion on politics makes good verse. No. In particular, apart from satire, there is almost no good public verse in English (except for Andrew Marvell’s `Horatian Ode [on Cromwell’sReturn from Ireland]’).”

Enthusiasm and sincerity are never sufficient. No one cares if Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton causes you to have a bad day. Fix yourself a drink or take a nap, but please stay away from the English language. Conquest gets specific: “I have come across one good poem about the nuclear bomb—by the Irish poet Thomas Kinsella (not actually a `political’ sort of poem). None of the hundreds on the death of Dylan Thomas is any good (and please don’t let us speak of Princess Diana). On AIDS, there are a few good poems by Thom Gunn—a great exception.” Art is difficult. Anger is easy. In “Better Left Unsaid,” Theodore Dalrymple explains the attraction felt by so many:
“Outrage is a substitute for religion: It convinces us that our existence has some kind of meaning or significance beyond itself, that is to say beyond the paltry flux of day-to-day existence, especially when that existence is a securely comfortable one. Therefore we go looking for things to be outraged about as anteaters look for ants. Of all emotions, outrage is not only one of the most pleasurable but also one of the most reliable.”

And addictive.

1 comment:

parochus said...

I had never heard of Rickword -- thanks for the heads up! -- but am pretty certain the couplet you cite derives at second-hand from Ronald Knox's 1913 pastiche of Swift called "Absolute and Abitofhell." Spoofing modernist biblical scholars of his time, Knox has some fun with the tendency of source criticism to multiply authorship ("Q" -- for German Quelle, source -- is the hypothetical "lost gospel" on which the evangelists Matthew and Luke were to have drawn):

Twelve Prophets our unlearn’d forefathers knew,
We are scarce satisfied with twenty-two;
A single Psalmist was enough for them,
Our List of Authors rivals A. & M.:

They were content MARK, MATTHEW, LUKE and JOHN
Should bless th’old-fashion’d Beds they lay upon:
But we, for every one of theirs, have two,
And trust the Watchfulness of blessed Q.