POETRY ESSAY / The art of memory: Poetry enjoys a rising profile, but the poet Clive Wilmer wonders if standards are rising to match -and if aggressive marketing promotes immediacy at the expense of subtlety
Wednesday 19 October 1994
In Britain, until recently, I'd have feared a worse response. 'What's that?'
is the sort of thing I have in mind. But not nowadays. Nowadays, poetry has a High Profile and its most prominent practitioners have Street Credibility.
You can't get away from it. Next week, for instance, the Poetry International hits the South Bank. There have been Poems for Bosnia and poems to save the planet. There are Poems on the Underground and a Daily Poem in this paper, poets on Radio 1 and in the ICA. A couple of weeks ago, we had National Poetry Day - as if poetry were some worthy disability.
The trouble is that poets do not need these things. All they need is pen, paper and the freedom to imagine. Lunches and events are good for the marketing folk and may also be good, for a while, for the authors' pockets.
But the fact that books are sold does not mean that books are read. More especially, it does not mean that they are re-read, loved and remembered.
For that is what poetry is really about. I don't want to take an unbendingly elitist line, but it is unrealistic to imagine that poetry will ever sell in vast numbers. If we are to market poetry, the aim should be to be taken seriously, not simply to attract attention.
Worse, what this posturing achieves is a blurring of the line between good and bad. Surely even those who would look upon this as a very good thing could not be glad to note - as I have done - a shift from the good vs bad distinction to famous vs ignored. It is not that you can't be good and famous as well. Seamus Heaney is both, Thom Gunn is both, Lord Byron was both. It is that once you are famous, no one notices whether you deserve to be.
It means, moreover, that for lack of street cred and a pushy publisher many of the best poets are ignored. Think, for example, of Jeremy Hooker, whose Their Silence a Language combined his prose and poems with etchings by the sculptor Lee Grandjean, exploring the history of the New Forest. It's a fine, unusual, experimental book, and I don't think it had a single review.
Or take John Peck - for my money the best poet of my generation. He has published four books over the past 20 years, the two most recent enormously ambitious, but no one I speak to seems to know who he is. Part of the trouble may be that he is American but is published only in Britain. But there's more to it than that.
We need some evidence: He who called blood builder is now memory, sound.
Dear, if we called blood wrecker we'd not lie, but how thinly we should hear time's curved cutwater, and never the full song of the falling pine, that swish the nets make running through swells gone starry.
That is from Peck's latest book, Argura (Carcanet Press pounds 9.95). Once I had noticed it - and it didn't grab me immediately - it would not leave me alone. Why? How? Well, first of all, it is spine- tinglingly beautiful - the music, the play of images, the hauntingly authoritative tone, the unsettling angle it takes on its subject, the presence of the unnamed interlocutor, the slight deviations from the metrical norm. I could go on, but surely the sheer sound of it is enough.
It would appear not, for to my knowledge the book has hardly sold at all - partly because it, too, has hardly been reviewed - the Poetry Boom has coincided with the disappearance from most of the national press of serious poetry criticism. The columns that do survive confine themselves, by and large, to books that are already thought important.
But I would guess that there is another reason: Peck's verse is difficult.
Now difficulty, in spite of the fame of T S Eliot, is something the marketers have not prepared us for. The circuit of poetry readings and writing workshops, which transmits the poetry boom to its wider public, depends on two unspoken assumptions: 'If you don't get it the first time, don't bother with it,' and 'Anyone can do it: it's only words.'
John Peck, poor devil, has skill, born of hard labour and dedicated reading.
To write a good poem, you cannot afford to economise on time. Sometimes, blessedly, a poem comes all at once. At other times, you spend weeks on a single line.
In quoting a single stanza I have not been quite fair. It emerges subsequently that the 'He' of that first line is Aeneas, the founder of Rome and 'the Latin race' (as Virgil says). So 'blood' is partly race and partly the slaughter that the triumphs of race depend on. The memory and sound, then, are the presence of Aeneas in the long history of European poetry.
'Ah]' comes the response of the Street Cred Gang. 'This is passe, and a clear case of hegemony. Hence the power-game of difficulty that calls for a priesthood of exegetes.' Yet the poem, in attending to the myth, explores by means of it the evils of modern war. Those who call for new poems for Bosnia from poets who've seen it on telly would do well to notice that here they already have the poem they seek.
Nor does Peck write only for the exegetes. He is as indifferent to academic fashions as he is to those of the poetry market. A psychotherapist by profession, he lives a quiet life in rural Vermont, unnoticed by the big wide world. If his poetry is 'literary', that is because he knows that language has a history, that poetry has always been richer and more resonant when it has drawn on its past. Without the historical echo-chamber, you might argue, there can be no poetry at all.
Good poetry has always been written in this way. In 1797, for instance, the young William Wordsworth settled in the Somerset countryside to recover his equanimity after the Reign of Terror in France which so shocked British observers. In utter seclusion, he set about composing some of the greatest poems in our language - from the casual lyricism of 'We are Seven' to the grandeur of 'Tintern Abbey'. He wrote about memory. What he wrote about it, once read, is unforgettable. He wrote with such intensity that the quiet of his words resounds with his whole experience. The Terror is there in the quiet.
Clive Wilmer's 'Poet's Talking' ( pounds 12.95) and 'Of Earthly Paradise' ( pounds 6.95) are published by Carcanet (Photograph omitted)
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