What a marvelous initial reaction to spark in a reader: “repellent; unattractive; objectionable.” If we’re lucky, some writers who become favorites provoke that sort of first impression. Take Catullus or Swift. Of course, implied in the statement quoted above is a subsequent reformation of judgment. We’re not talking about Bukowski or Ashbery. With them, disgust (and I mean aesthetic disgust triggered by self-indulgence and lousy writing) deepens with further acquaintance. Michael Schmidt is referring in his 975-page Johnsonian behemoth, Lives of the Poets (2000), to C.H. Sisson. Schmidt is founder and managing director of Carcanet Press, and founder and editor of PN Review. Both enterprises fostered Sisson’s career as poet and critic, most of which transpired after he retired from the British Civil Service. About that, Schmidt writes:
“. . . [Sisson] is rare among contemporaries in his belief that a writer serves best as a man engaged with the social machine, guarding the integrity of social institutions even as he criticizes and perfects them.”
That’s not the same as merely spouting politics, the hobby of most poets today. Sisson is that rare entity, a grownup, when it comes to the challenges and responsibilities of social engagement. He admired Andrew Marvell, William Barnes and Swift. “Their writing,” Schmidt says, “matured in a world of actual responsibilities.” They, and he, were the opposite, as writers and men, of hipsters. His verse wears a suit and tie, though neither is pressed and the tie is discretely stained. Of Sisson’s work Schmidt writes:
“His poems can seem Augustan, but his poetic logic is, like Marvell’s, a language of association, not analysis (which belongs to prose). The poetry does not anatomize experience: it establishes connections on the other side of reason, communicating to the pulse through its distinctive rhythms.”
It occurs to me after reading Schmidt on Sisson that I found most of my favorite twentieth-century poets, in their diverse ways, rebarbative at first. It wasn't love at first sight when I happened on Yvor Winters, Stevie Smith, Edgar Bowers, J.V. Cunningham, Philip Larkin or Geoffrey Hill. They form no “school” but teach us how to read and appreciate precisely the sort of poetry they were equipped to write. Schmidt quotes the ninth of ten epigrams in an Ovidian sequence titled “Tristia” (Collected Poems, 1998):
“Speech cannot be betrayed, for speech betrays,
And what we say reveals the men we are.
But, once come to a land where no-one is,
We long for conversation, and a voice
Which answers what we say when we succeed
In saying for a moment that which is.
O careless world, which covers what is there
With what it hopes, or what best cheats and pays,
But speech with others needs another tongue.
For a to speak to b, and b to a,
A stream of commonalty must be found,
Rippling at times, at times an even flow,
And yet it turns to Lethe in the end.”
Schmidt’s touch is direct but light. In “Tristia,” he says, Sisson “makes unconsoling sense of old age and what an older poet called `the vast shipwreck of my life’s esteems.’” The “older poet” is the very un-Sisson-like John Clare.