Wednesday, October 07, 2020

'Uncommon Felicity of Phrasing and Metre'

I enjoy these happy convergences in reading. You can’t plan them. You can ready yourself only by reading broadly and remembering in some detail what you have read, though it helps to recognize that all books (at least the good ones) are one great big book in the Borgesian sense. The linkages are always there, waiting for the attentive reader to notice. In his essay collection The Abomination of Moab (Maurice Temple Smith, 1979), Robert Conquest includes “A Note on Kipling’s Verse,” in which he writes:


“Much of his verse is of an expository, even didactic nature which it would not be unreasonable to call journalistic. In the role of political rhymester, he sometimes over-simplifies or vulgarizes for the larger audience—the fault (or one of the faults) of modern ‘committed’ poetry, though often redeemed in Kipling’s case by uncommon felicity of phrasing and metre.”


Kipling wrote in many modes. He had no single voice or even overriding subject matter. Among his chief qualities as a writer is knowledge of many worlds. Some of his verse, Conquest argues, “would give the impression of Kipling as a poet of sensitivity and sorrow.” He goes on to say that “attention to clarity is at the heart of Kipling’s attitude to poetry.” These attributes, as noted by Conquest, bring to mind another poet (as well as Conquest himself) – Turner Cassity, whose first collection, Watchboy, What of the Night? (1966), I happened to be reading at the same time. In a section titled “Oom-Pah for Oom Paul,” the first poem, “The Flying Dutchman,” carries an epigraph from Kipling’s “The Broken Men”--


“Day long the diamond weather,  

            The high, unaltered blue—”


--beautiful lines even without the rest of the poem as context. The “journalistic” impulse in both poets is strong. Both document the world in verse – and much more.  In the essay he devoted to Kipling’s verse, “He the Compeller” (Politics and Poetic Value, ed. Robert von Hallberg, 1987), Cassity writes:


“…Kipling became a political poet because he preferred writing in the second or third person to writing in the first person. In the 834 pages of the collected poems there is exactly one lyric written in propria persona, and that is the final one [“The Appeal”]…The poems give delight frequently, but they also raise disquiet. To read them (as to read Crabbe) is to suspect that meditation and the first person have rather paupered English poetry. The hermetic lyric of personal emotion and its sloppier successor, the psychological self-search, account for an appalling percentage of all verse.”


Cassity is recasting Kipling into his own image of what a poet ought to be – not a navel-gazer but an observer of the real world. Poems have subject matter. They are about something other than the poet and his precious feelings. Part of the explanation might be that Kipling was a rare writer equally gifted at prose and verse. Prose is – well, prosaic. If about nothing, it is nothing.

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