LONDON, ONTARIO – It’s the funniest darn thing about poetry; or at least it used to be back in the day when I was making my first forays into the publishing world. There was this alarming disparity between the rather large number of people who fancied themselves as poets with a bundle of gems in their haversack that the world urgently needed to imbibe, and the actual number of readers who would ever be willing to take up any sort of poetry and give it a chance. When I submitted my first novel to London publishing house, Applegarth Follies, in September of 1975, they were so thrilled to finally have something other than poetry to consider that they raced my book up to the head of their queue (dislodging a few poets in that process) and brought it out by Christmas.
My twenty-three year old self was delighted to make it into print so quickly but with the passing of just a couple of years, I regretted that haste and wished that someone in authority there had suggested a few changes and tweaks and an overall tightening before firing up the press. (I haven’t exactly suppressed that book but perhaps you notice that I haven’t given you its title.)
There’s a sort of distillation at work in poetry – a heightened intensity in what is expressed and a casting away of anything that doesn’t diligently serve that more focused expression – which many readers find foreboding and a little penitential. “Hey, I’m not the writer here. Why are you making me do all this work?’
Even the Wrinklings, my Christian men’s reading club who’ve gathered every month for twenty-six years to discuss all manner of books, can get a little shirty if you don’t take care in the poetry that’s assigned. The member who assigned Gerard Manley Hopkins about twenty years ago (who admittedly can be at least as gnarly a nut for readers to 'get' as Gertrude Stein) resigned from the club because our reactions were so abusive.
Hell, they even gave me grief a few years later when I assigned anything by or about the English metaphysical poet, George Herbert (1593–1633). There are only about ten Wrinklings on a well-attended night and I swear I fielded half a dozen calls from negligent members in the week before that meeting, asking me to jog their memory on the next selection. “What's the book for this month?” they asked with the forced carelessness of a kid who's walked in the door and smelled frying liver but still asks, “What's for dinner?” They were hoping against hope that it was some C.S. Lewis or George Orwell title that somehow slipped their memory.
“George Herbert,” I reminded them, eliciting responses from a dull, “Oh yeah,” or “That's right,” to an irritated, “Damn,” or “Who the hell is he again?”
A younger contemporary of William Shakespeare, George Herbert, along with William Blake and John Donne, is one of the supreme religious poets of the English language. He was a divine of the early Anglican Church, writing at a treacherous time when passions and animosities ran dangerously high and a careful path had to be trod between the characteristic excesses of either Roman Catholicism or Puritanism.
That also happened to be the period of the English language's most perfect flowering. Herbert's era saw the development of the first English Bible and Cranmer's Prayer Book as well as the plays of Shakespeare. Those contradictory pressures – such lavish literary expansiveness occurring within a political/religious climate requiring meticulous circumspection of what could and couldn't be said – served to distil Herbert's voice so that his poetry achieves a simplicity and naturalness of tone with which it effortlessly attains sublime heights of religious thought and expression.
His single most famous lyric, beginning, “Love bade me welcome, yet my soul drew back,” frames the encounter between man and God in the same sort of terms as that first fateful exchange of recognition between a lover and his beloved. At such a time, even the worthiest suitor knows that he doesn't deserve and cannot earn reciprocation; that if he should happen to be loved back, then that love will be a gift.
About a dozen of Herbert’s poems have long turned up in anthologies and British composers adapted some of those same poems for hymns, but I was never able to lay my hands on more than the slimmest volumes of his verse until stumbling upon an 80 year-old edition of his Collected Works. It was coming upon that motherlode of 600 gem-packed pages that inspired me to set him as an assignment.
In addition to his verse, I was delighted to find that Herbert compiled nearly 1,200 of what he called, Outlandish Proverbs. Like even shorter distillations of imagery and meaning, these witty, earthy and homely proverbs are like wonderful explosions of common sense. “It's a bold mouse that nests in the ear of the cat.” “Critics are like brushers of noblemen's clothes.” “Love and a cough cannot be hid.” “Good and quickly seldom meet.”
Eventually I took mercy on the poor lead-footed Wrinklings and simultaneously expanded and diminished the assignment. “Just read a poem,” I told them. “I don't care if it's Casey at The Bat or Paradise Lost, The Highwayman or The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock. I just want you fellows to acknowledge that that there are places in the human heart that only poetry can reach.”
At least as discouraging to contemplate as how few people will read poetry at all, is the reputational lifespan of those few poets who do manage to amass an audience in their day. For a bracing discussion of this freighted question, I commend to you English literary critic Ian Hamilton’s final collection of essays, Against Oblivion: Some Lives of the Twentieth-Century Poets (2002). With cruelly ironic timing, Hamilton himself passed through oblivion’s golden screen just after finishing this book. Hamilton’s very productive career included editing the Oxford Companion to 20th Century Poetry and writing definitive biographies of some very elusive poets and writers including Robert Lowell, Matthew Arnold and J.D. Salinger.
While working on his Salinger opus, doggedly trying to tell the life story of a cranky and hostile subject who made Howard Hughes or Greta Garbo look like gregarious mixers in comparison, Hamilton conceived my favourite of his earlier books. Keepers of the Flame: Literary Estates and the Rise of Biography (1992) is a fascinating survey of control freak writers and their over-protective families and heirs who seek to preserve an idealized, unblemished picture of the great one for posterity. These folks move litigious mountains to frustrate the aims of any biographer who snoops around, trying to assemble a more truthful or plausible account.
I don’t mean to imply that Hamilton was a mean or dirt-dishing writer. He had a generous and instinctive compassion – a ‘hail fellow well met’ admiration – for any compatriot who made a go of it in the notoriously unstable world of letters. But he also maintained a deep curiosity in the complexities of character and understood the necessary complications that trouble and enrich every life. He wasn’t out to smear anyone but was always determined to render a complete account and usually managed to do so in an informed, witty and elegant prose.
For his final book Hamilton took as his model Samuel Johnson’s Lives of the Poets, which lightly sketched the biographies and surveyed the accomplishments of fifty 17th and 18th century poets, many of them Johnson’s peers. Of Johnson’s original fifty, Hamilton estimated that maybe four of them – Pope, Swift, Milton, Dryden – still enjoyed wide currency today and he anticipated that his 20th century round-up of poets was unlikely to fare any better a couple of centuries hence. In fact, in an era when poetry continues to interest an ever-dwindling minority, Hamilton suspected the odds of modern poets emerging victorious ‘against oblivion’ had never been piled more discouragingly high.
Here’s a little game you might be interested in playing if you’ve stuck with this essay so far. Hamilton named the four 20th century, English-language poets that he believed were most secure in their current reputations and likeliest to endure. The criteria were that 1) the poets must be dead and 2) while they might’ve been born in the 19th century, their major impact had to have been in the 20th. So, cover the rest of this paragraph with your hand and see if you can name any or all of Hamilton’s immortal four. No peeking now. Are you ready? Here they are then: W.B. Yeats, T.S. Eliot, Thomas Hardy and W.H. Auden.
Then there were a few poets still enjoying very positive reputations in 2002 that Hamilton did his best to usher off stage right away. He had precious little use for Alan Ginsberg (who always struck me as windier than Walt Whitman with even less to say), John Betjeman (who I knew wasn’t deep but gosh, he was charming) and, perhaps most surprisingly and challengingly, a lot of people’s most perfect personification of a 20th century poet: Dylan Thomas.
Hamilton’s dissection of six impenetrable lines from one of Thomas’ most anthologized poems (“Altarwise by owl-light in the half-way house/ The gentleman lay graveward with his furies;/ Abbadon in the hangnail cracked from Adam,/ And, from his fork, a dog among the fairies,/ The atlas-eater with a jaw for news,/ Bit out the mandrake with tomorrow's scream") reminded me, come to think of it, how much more I’ve always enjoyed Thomas’ prose than his poetry. In addition to his biographical and critical write-ups, Hamilton included two or three representative samples of each poet’s work (and not just the usual choices), thus making Against Oblivion an enjoyable anthology as well as an insightful study of modern poetry.
16th-century poet Laura Battiferri painted by Agnolo Bronzino
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