Tuesday, June 25, 2019

'The Ones Whose Minds Will Feed Yours'

Asked by an interviewer what a poet should write about, C.H. Sisson says: “Ordinary human experience. A poet has to live as the rest of the world has to live, as an ordinary member of the human race. If that produces poetry, that will prove you are a poet. Nothing else, but nothing else will.”

Sisson has the sort of defiant bluffness we admire in Dr. Johnson and Yvor Winters. In his foreword to In Defense of Reason (1947), Winters almost echoes Sisson’s words in his well-known definition: “The poem is a statement in words about a human experience.” By the commonsensical standards of Sisson and Winters, much that purports to be poetry is, in fact, not.

The Sisson interview, conducted by John Burney, is published in the Spring/Summer 1978 issue of Parnassus. He restates his theme: “In real life, what the poet is concerned about is not Literature or any of these great abstractions which people get so worked up about, and which are merely part of the journalistic claptrap of the age—but quite modest, specific things, things in the real world, specific ways of saying specific things. Much great poetry is in homely language of blinding directness.” That quality characterizes Sisson’s poems. There’s a roughness to their texture, a refusal of the prettily poetic, as in the final stanza of “In the Silence”:

“Perhaps silence is best,
But if there must be speech,
Then watch it closely, lest
It stretches out of reach.
The future is too far:
The past is all we are.’

Sisson’s poetry is bracing and free of comforting bullshit. It wakes you up. Sisson dismisses “poetry competitions, literary prizes, etc.,” what he calls “the sociology of literature.” He urges young poets – I would broaden that to all writers – not to “write more than you must. And burn some of that.” This too recalls Winters: “Write little; do it well.” Sisson goes on:

“[O]nce you have it clear that success is not what it is all about, you are ready to begin. A killing labour of years, with no programme except as you move from step to step, and you must be willing to stop when you cannot go on. Read what interests you, and as widely as you want to. . . . And go always for the key figures in the history of your subject—to the originators, not the popularizers. They are the ones whose minds will feed yours; they are the people who, fundamentally, are most akin to the poet.”

1 comment:

Mister Quigg said...

I believe that's why writers can be anything from saintly ascetics to crude and outright dregs of humanity: in order to write of human life, they have to be human, with all that entails. If they only listened to Bach and read Goethe and were all high-minded aristocrats of the spirit, our literature would be a rarefied & difficult stuff. Thank god for Larkin's porn & Thomas Bernhard's furies & Yeats' occultism & Shakespeare's oddly detailed knowledge of glove manufacture.