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The Death of Poetry: A Second Inquest

On poetry of lasting value.

Near the end of last year, in Another Publication, I took the occasion of the centenary of The Waste Land to argue that English poetry is a dead art form. For reasons of space I was unable to say everything I might have liked about the subject; important distinctions were sometimes collapsed, and I am afraid that some readers came away with a mistaken sense of my views.

This isn’t a big deal. It’s what happens when you write for publication; writers and editors have different ideas about what matters, and the latter are usually right. Editors tend to care about their audience, and the readers of newspapers are unlikely to be interested in, say, an author’s sincerely held views about Eliot.

Readers of The Lamp are, of course, a notoriously highbrow lot, and because it is a Friday, and (more to the point) because the prospect of writing about the new prefect of the dicastery formerly known as the Holy Office fills me with unholy dread, I thought I would offer a few scattered observations about poetry and Eliot following from my earlier essay.

The most regrettable misapprehension at which many readers seemed to have arrived was the impression that I think no good poetry was written after Eliot—or, even more strangely, given that the piece ended with a long-ish quotation from Ash-Wednesday, after The Waste Land. This is not, in fact, my position.

When I say that poetry is dead, I mean that no living poet, or indeed any poet who has written in English since the death of Philip Larkin, has produced anything likely to be of lasting value. How can I make this claim with such unbridled confidence? For me there is a simple test: unconscious staying power in memory. I challenge anyone who wishes to defend the honor of contemporary verse to rattle off, unaided, any ten lines of the stuff. (I have been asking people to do this for more than a decade, and I have never once found anyone who could recite so much as a line of—but no, we won’t go into names, lest the boys at Big Poetry put out a contract on my head.) Thus, like Athenian theater or the early modern drama, English lyric verse is one of those art forms that has a complete and fixed canon; it is a subject that could be taught after the manner of classics, beginning with Cædmon’s Hymn and ending with Philip Larkin’s “Aubade,” which was published in 1977.

More baffling was the response of some readers who asked whether I was aware that lots of poetry is published. I am, in fact, aware. Indeed it seems to me likely that more people are poets now than at any time since Sicily in the days of Theocritus, when every rude swain or ferryman sang in praise of his beloved Daphne as a matter of course. But the contemporary state of affairs prophesied in tones of mock—and perhaps more than mock—horror by P.G. Wodehouse in his wonderful essay “The Alarming Spread of Poetry” is not exactly what one means by saying that poetry is alive and well.

I am sure that my argument would not have been strengthened if I had pointed out that my own small children know reams of Blake, Stevenson, and Housman or that, as countless secular critics have themselves pointed out, biblical illiteracy has rendered most English poetry unintelligible to modern readers, including otherwise well-educated ones, or if I had dragged in Heidegger to talk about how trees, flowers, rivers, and even the human form itself have been subsumed into the “standing-reserve,” an undifferentiated mass of resources to be exploited and instrumentalized.

I do, however, regret not having said that I don’t rule out the possibility that poetry may be written one day. It is just possible, of course, that some child raised in decidedly alternative circumstances might emerge—the Keats of the Amish! the Tennyson of the Bruderhof Anabaptists!—like some kind of latter-day pale-mouth’d prophet, a new Adam naming a forgotten creation. But who would make up his or her audience? In any case, the kinds of people who are allowed to be poets nowadays—the graduates of M.F.A. programs—are not composing neo-eclogues or paeans to Thelxinoe from the beds of their Ford F-150s.

Finally, I wish I had found more space to talk about Eliot himself, his poetic voice and his influence on subsequent poets, and about C.S. Lewis, whose brilliant parody of the opening of “Prufrock” I love just this side of idolatry: “For twenty years I’ve stared my level best / To see if evening—any evening—would suggest / A patient etherized upon a table; / In vain. I simply wasn’t able.” Lewis’s attitude toward Eliot’s verse was not as light-hearted as this good-natured ribbing might suggest. For him, Eliot’s grotesque simile was a moment of rupture, a discarding of the entire established tradition of poetic diction and imagery. (This was a subject about which Lewis had very definite views; he once singled out a line from Chaucer’s Anelida and Arcite—“Singest with vois memorial in the shade”—as “the germ of the whole central tradition of high poetical language” in English.) On Lewis’s reading, Eliot was little better than a vandal.

Naturally I do not agree with Lewis about this, but one sees what he means. The point worth making about him is that his voice was so “strong” (to borrow the agonistic language of Harold Bloom) that it determined the entire future course of English poetry.

Eliot was of course a distinguished critic as well as a poet. While his verdicts were often far-fetched, with more than a hint of piss-taking bravura (at the age of thirty-one, he famously pronounced Hamlet “an artistic failure”), he was perhaps the most insightful writer of the twentieth century on the complicated question of how society-wide changes in perception circumscribe creative activity. In an essay originally published in 1936, he blamed Milton for the stilted Latinate diction and cardboard imagery of much eighteenth-century verse, arguing that whatever its merits, Paradise Lost had stunted the growth of poetry at worst possible moment, when English men and women were experiencing a collective breakdown in their ability to think and feel in unison. One could say that Eliot himself was just as guilty of the sin of which he accused Milton.

Finally, it would be remiss of me to introduce the subject of Eliot parodies without mentioning Joyce’s lampoon of The Waste Land:

Rouen is the rainiest place getting
Inside all impermeables, wetting
Damp marrow in drenched bones.
Midwinter soused us coming over Le Mans
Our inn at Miort was the Grape of Burgundy

But the winepress of the Lord thundered over that
grape of Burgundy
And we left in a hurgundy.
(Hurry up, Joyce, it’s time!)
I heard mosquitoes swarm in old Bordeaux
So many!
I had not thought the earth contained so many
(Hurry up, Joyce, it’s time!)

Mr Anthologos, the local gardener,
Greycapped, with politeness full of cunning
Has made wine these fifty years
And told me in his southern French
Le petit vin is the surest drink to buy
For if ‘tis bad
Vous ne l’avez pas paye
(Hurry up, hurry up, now, now, now!)
But we shall have great times,
When we return to Clinic, that waste land
O Esculapios!
(Shan’t we? Shan’t we? Shan’t we?)

Anyway, that’s all I have I’m afraid. In a few weeks this column will be moving to Tuesday, and The Lamp’s weekly newsletter will be bifurcating into two separate emails. Friday will still bring the usual fare—news, numbers, polls, poems, prayer requests, and so on—but the Tuesday edition will be something more personal. See you then!