Saturday, April 21, 2018

`The English Do Poetry'

“Nations are definably different. Most importantly, they differ in what they do best. No nation has produced better essayists than France, none has produced better composers that the Germans, better painters than the Italians, nor better novelists than the Russians. America invented jazz and still masters the form and, though some may dissent, her record in film is unsurpassed. And the English? The English do poetry.”

Occasionally, we encounter a bit of writing that gels a thought we previously had left murky and undefined. Montaigne did that for Eric Hoffer. In his story “Zetland: By a Character Witness,” Saul Bellow describes a young man (based on Isaac Rosenfeld) who abandons philosophy after reading Moby-Dick. My experience is a little less dramatic. The passage above comes from an essay Bryan Appleyard published in 2007, “Poetry and the English Imagination.” Bryan is thoughtful and prolific, and I wasn’t expecting him to realign my thinking, but suddenly I understood that English is the nation of poets, and that Englishness, more than the essence of any other nation, is largely defined by its poetry. At the time I wrote: “Try to imagine your emotional, sensory and intellectual lives without the gift of English poetry.” No doubt, some will find the thought offensive. As Bryan says, “We are a nation defined by and consisting of poets. To deny this is to deny England.” There is no rival.

On his own, a reader sent me Bryan’s essay because, he said, “I thought you’d get a kick out of it.” He’s right, especially because I hadn’t read it in several years and because I had forgotten Bryan’s speculation as to why our cousins are poets:  

“But the truth, I suspect, is that it is the English language itself which made us poets. This is, of course, unprovable, not least because of the chicken and egg question – did the language make the English poets or did the English make the language poetic? But, if only subjectively, I think some kind of case can be made.”

For Bryan, the English line peters out after Auden. I can’t agree: Larkin and Hill, and down a notch, Stevie Smith and C.H. Sisson. But that’s quibbling. Yes, the Americans, for a brief spell, picked up the slack, but that tributary too has also run dry. Bryan’s fondness for Ashbery is an aberration we can forgive:    

“Nobody can understand England without some sense of her poetry. That means, of course, that very few now understand England. Perhaps that is the way it must be: “The roar of time plunging unchecked through the sluices / Of the days” (Ashbery) must sweep all away. But, though the signs are not good, English poetry is buried too deep in English soil ever to be quite eradicated; and so, like Hamlet, we must defy augury and send the brats home to learn at least a sonnet a night.”


Markku N. said...

An Englishman writing in English about the superiority of the English and their language over not just the rest of the Brits but about everyone else too. And they dare call the English parochial and insular!

Marly Youmans said...

"Yes, the Americans, for a brief spell, picked up the slack, but that tributary too has also run dry."

Well, that's fairly sweeping, isn't it? How can you possibly compass what has been done in the past decades? It is a Niagara of material. Admittedly, I find a terrific amount of poetry in plain style free verse that descends from prose, not poetry, and never pleases me.

How astonished the nineteenth century in this country would be to see Whitman and Dickinson as stars in the firmament of poetry.