The Mirage of Poetic Evolution in Britain since Eliot
When does poetry begin to capitulate? turn back in on itself? When it fails to assimilate the new, the foreign, when in the words of Nietzsche in The Birth of Tragedy, the human remains in a perpetual state of individuation; or what in this country, England, has always been its burden, the totality of the influence of one poet: T.S. Eliot. The Russian futurist poet Vladimir Mayakovsky playfully opened the door on “influence” in 1917 by saying: “we mustn’t squabble with the poetry of the past – it provides us with a textbook to study.” All too true, but to the detriment of British poetry today Eliot’s “textbook” is still read with the same kind of reverence usually reserved for the Old Testament; and so what of those who still believe in Eliot’s work today? Well, the critic, with an hourglass in one hand, and a metronome in the other, bears down on those poets of too weak an imagination to free themselves from the destructiveness of his influence, which is amplified by each reviewer’s need for self-replication, transparency, or worse, literary objectivism.
The influence of The Waste Land on British poetry today need be no more than a simple genetic modification of what, in a genealogical sense, is already burnt-down; for Eliot of course achieved his purpose early by making himself despair of the world, and soon after, us also. In a recent book of philosophy/economics, Straw Dogs, John Gray writes:
“Humans are the most adventitious of creatures – a result of blind evolutionary drift. Yet, with the power of genetic engineering, we need no longer be ruled by chance. Humankind – so we are told – can shape its own future.”
So surely the question must be, after Eliot, can poetry? Yes, if it does what it has so far never done, and pull away from the crippling hold on its imagination by those principal culprits of poetical atrophy in this country, Eliot, Auden and Larkin; three poets who have left English poetry with an infertile and barren womb, and a poetry that has no great or imperative subject matter, but which through a series of fractious vignettes of domesticity, love, and personal history, strives in vain for one.
Maybe only “nature” (a hundred and fifty years after the death of Wordsworth) exists still today as any kind of a notable “theme” in the work of British poets, but it is an already unsustainable one; today especially when little, if any, of that nature poetry deals with the natural world edifice that is itself beginning to crumble. Over a hundred years ago, at the beginning of the last century, the Futurists deemed “nature” even then as being “not-up-to-date-enough” to be suitable subject matter for literature, preferring as they did to write of more modern concepts, such as electricity, the engine and the machine. The notion of writing today of anything approaching the modern age is, in this country, still an act of imaginative aridity, the “de-potentiation” of a language still in the process of what Heidegger described as “a process of deformation and decay.”
The last hundred years of British poetry consist (in comparison to the major European movements, Modernism, Symbolism, Futurism, Expressionism) of very minor movements: Pre-War, Post-War, The Movement, Scottish Poets, Liverpool Poets, Belfast Poets; but what remains active is the populist and careerist atmosphere of these very old literary schools, the petty concerns of malevolent coteries, the mutual back-scratching; for language itself, of any country, can only ever be subjugated, enfeebled and made redundant, if the poet using it constructs his or her poems from an already existing tradition, those unable to throw it off the scent of stagnation and decay, or step free suddenly of the rubble-heaps of mediocrities that surround us. This brings us to what has always been the great problem for British poetry, influence, or the lack of it, reading of the great literatures of Europe, the assimilation of its poetries into our own; and ironically Eliot knew this. This self-evident truism is best described by Michael Hamburger in his seminal book The Truth of Poetry:
“It still seems self-evident to me that in trying to understand what poetry does, can and cannot do, one must draw one’s exemplars from as wide a range of it as possible.”
It sounds obvious, yet British poetry has always failed, either willingly or unwillingly, to acknowledge this sane poetic truth. But what a different outlook, approach, and reality our poetry might have had today if, notwithstanding the always trite and facile English arguments concerning translation, our main poetic influences in this country were all of a European or world variety? If say instead of The Waste Land, we had fully absorbed The Twelve by Aleksandr Blok or (the poem that kick-started the 20th century for me) A Cloud in Trousers by Mayakovsky, or instead of say W.H. Auden we had turned to the poetry of Austrian poet Georg Trakl for our reports from a declining world empire, and then (and even more impossible to believe) in times of conflict and war we turned not to the poetry of Siegfried Sassoon or Wilfred Owen, but to the poetry of say August Stramm, Apollinaire or the strong chiliastic visions of the German Expressionist poet Georg Heym? A deliberately provocative fantasy it’s true, but I am daring to imagine an alternative poetic terrain for these shores; and while it is also true that “influence” of any kind, at best, can become a hindrance, at worst, as in the case of Eliot, a cataclysmic unfolding of an inner irrational cancer. This is why thirty years after Larkin, poets in this country still feel drawn to the safety of an English librarian in a raincoat, in bicycle-clips, and of a sensibility so doom-ridden it’s a surprise that he ever managed to get out of bed in the morning, let alone write those insufferably beautiful poems of the Everyman.
I am of course being deliberately provocative, simplifying, laying bare what can’t be, but so what? A correct approach of course when writing this would be to evaluate all “styles” and modish concerns, yet innovation is still the undreamed-of truth in British poetry; hence we are forced to endure long and verbose two-part essays on the importance of the lyric (Don Paterson, Poetry Review), another “old” revolution that began as a whisper, and still, today, is passed on, from ear to ear, by those either too old, or too used to repetition to clamber up onto the scaffold of any one new construct of language. I say that the “forms” of the future will become no more than irregular scaffolds, sturdy enough only to withstand the poet’s bodyweight above the rising sea-levels.
The poet of the 21st century will, like any animal, be subject only to the continuing process of adapting to his own biological environment, a poetry that must strive in its imagination to actually affect the planetary balance. So what of our own poets today? Well, after the work of the “New Generation” had inevitably fragmented, re-isolated itself, drew back to its (always) disparate earlier parts, we find ourselves, amid the cheerful hubbub of literary tittle-tattle, back in the classroom, the creative workshop. The majority of the fin-de-sièclepoets here in Britain, and those so far of the new millennium have dealt, ostensibly, in “minor things,” its authors contaminated with the need to sound universal, but with the obsession always of trying to condense their metaphysical condition, or attitude, or both, into the necessary British mould.
Two poets, often cited as the leading poets of their respective sexes, Simon Armitage and Carol Ann Duffy, (currently being taught at G.C.S.E. Level at a school near you) are classic examples of what happens to poets when nearly all influence from abroad is obliterated, forgotten, leaving us either, in Duffy’s case, with an award-winning book of conventional love poems (with a tincture of Éluard and a dollop of regurgitated Neruda) or in the case of Armitage, an ever-ready stock of extraordinarily fixed metaphors, demystified verbal snap-shots, of a poet too long used to posturing to produce anything immortality might want ever to get its teeth into: (from a series of poems on dogs)
“Well, beginning tomorrow
You can feed for free at the butcher’s bin
On festering meat and sickening marrow”
Yes, well, quite; Armitage of course is a symptom of his age who, like the pseudo-artist Damien Hirst, sees eternity in the diamond, the dollar, the cheap fix, the exaltation of witnessing their own names flash up in neon. But it is a cold and uninviting fame for a writer or artist who edits and bowdlerizes another century’s work and then decides himself as the “author” of that work. The pen in the poet’s hand today, need be no more than the needle of the seismograph, recording and tracing across the page, the polysemic tremors of the mind of the modern man, especially now when living on a planet of such incomparable fragility, a planet so rubbished by impurities, and eschatological palpitations, when “right” and “wrong” feel now like some dialectical disease of the heart. I desire only, at the beginning of this new century, to talk about (and read) poetry not as a pedagogical need or want, but as a biological necessity. And Mayakovsky again said it well at the beginning of the last century:
“Protectors of the old hid from new art behind the
backsides of their favourite monuments”
Which brings us conveniently back to Eliot, and to a poetry that neither lives nor dies, but merely exists inside all of us, like some unapproachable bacteria, and whose seed still causes the germination of a quite devastating attitude towards our poetry in the minds of poet and critic alike; we mourn his loss, and the loss of eternities in his mind that will never now get to wrinkle the imaginative flesh of the critic in this country. I am being again contentious, foolhardy, irreverent? Yet I am merely struck by an always unrelenting boredom when stood before the pre-determined cathedral of his work, likewise Auden and Larkin. The tragedy of Eliot of course both as a man and poet was the wrong choice he made. An American Modernist with the whole of European poetry in his pen-nib who chose England and, worse still, the crumbling structures of the English Church-system. True, he started out radically with Prufrock and to some extent The Waste Land, but ended his literary journey in the Anglican insularity of The Rock and Four Quartets, and the mostly uninspiring verse dramas. A comparison with his American and Modernist compatriot Ezra Pound wouldn’t go amiss here, for while Pound stuck to the Mediterranean and became a truly European poet (despite at times his wrong-headed passion and idiotic fervour), Eliot seemed content to revert back to his static and always provincial tendencies. The outcome of this “tragedy” for modern literature of course is that the English-speaking poetry world chose Eliot, not Pound, thus cementing the creative and teleological milieu in this country for the rest of the century. So then, the poet today needs to decide, Eliot, a clay-like deity still moulding our every poetical thought, or rather the unbearable melodious agitation of our nerve-ends by the mutilation of his “music”? I say only that English poetry must find a great subject matter again before it is too late, which is out there awaiting us. In these dark times, we would do well to recall the still prophetic words of W.B. Yeats:
“The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity”
So I place a spirit-level filled with the ink of the British pen alongside the supine form of Eliot and regain some new and quite alien equilibrium. A new modernity? But did we ever have the first one? Modernity being in this country a movement that could only ever have fleetingly existed, for its heroes are always (even today) lumped together in imitation of someone either from Medieval literature, Latin, Greek or more recently, through a plethora of uninspiring versions of Dante. And thus modernity for British writers is a constant giving away, an ongoing rejection of a prevailing world-view. Of course, great European poetries are still translated in this country (check out the fantastic Arc list) but never learned from. And so maybe the French poet Paul Valery was correct when in 1920, he wrote:
“Nothing so pure can co-exist with the circumstances of life.
We only traverse the idea of perfection as a hand passes with
impurity through a flame; but the flame is uninhabitable”
I have talked at length on this subject, in all manner of literary discussions, to myself, and to anyone who’ll listen, in conversations with poets, editors, in reprisals against both critic and poet alike, in which I have felt the incessant need, if not to dismantle, or smash apart, then at least to dislodge this Eliot-like millstone around our necks, to entertain the occasional and inappropriate fiction of a poetical terrain without Eliot, and to allow this transition from the old to the new to be renovated by a new world insight, perspicacity, but never by using the lingua franca of the intellect, only the soul. And so today, as English poetry moves on effortlessly into the vacuum of its own concerns, and its energies dissipate and interchange, we can only hope for some kind of a turnaround; for I say English poetry must stop recoiling from the horrors and quite inscrutable realities of the world, and instead of self-dramatizing itself by creating an always domestic enclave, in which the religious, cosmological and eschatological are squeezed out, it must learn to embrace something other than the infliction of the banality of the everyday and the personal. The “I” in English poetry today that seems no more than a dusty old hat-stand on which to hang the masks of the faces of the poets too long dead. Let us abandon the workshop, the poetry schools, the egotistical concretion of the poetical “facilitators,” the editors of our most important periodicals whose own “likes” and “dislikes” hold too tyrannical a bearing on a reader’s ability in this country to make up their own minds on who or what they should be reading. Let them separate the good from the bad for themselves.
The great innovative poetry of the 21st century will be forced to assimilate new religions, genetics, nanotechnologies, robotics – I hope, for its own survival, that British poetry can learn to un-rope itself from its own (always) island-bound verbiage, to become for the first time, what it has never been, in any era, a truly World poetry; for our poets to become (how Ted Hughes described Eastern European poets to be) “the most wide-awake of poets”. And then, only then, might English poetry learn to become unfamiliar again with itself. “To either dissolve self-consciousness, and lose oneself forever in animal innocence or liberate oneself from history” – Octavio Paz noted this after a lifetime’s search for the poetical self. Let us hope that the British poet, susceptible finally to the ills and ultimate catastrophes of the world, learns himself to develop such a poetical affront.
First published in 3:AM Magazine: August 4th, 2009.
Republished with minor amendments in The Fiend, December 2010.