Salient. An Organ of Student Opinion at Victoria College, Wellington, N.Z. Vol. 9, No. 9. July, 24, 1946
[Letter from W. H. Mabbet to Salient Vol. 9, No. 9. July, 24, 1946]
Dear Sir,—PSW's poem, "Midsummer Ending" obviously provokes some thought as to whether it and similar works are in fact poetry. The author seems to entertain a certain distrust of intelligibility. To my mind a lack of intelligibility is justified only if the poet has something to say beyond the ability of his fellows to comprehend. I do not think PWS is saying anything that could not be comprehended.
I put the material of poetry into two classes: feelings so vague that they cannot be analysed in their entirety although they can be interpreted and recreated, and ideas which are associated with them, ideas which can on analysis be reduced to actual worded thoughts, although normally they remain a mere vague, unclear succession. A mere statement of this succession is scientific, not artistic—the poet must and can work out these ideas and the value of his thought is in proportion to the depth of these logical ideas and the skill with which he works them out. Admittedly a part remains which cannot logically be formulated and the greatness of a poet largely depends on his success in re-creating this part, but I think, although I cannot prove, that his chances in this direction depend largely on his success with the worded ideas which found an indispensable foundation from which he can pass beyond thought into feeling.
Moreover, this "worded idea" part is not something extraneous. The human mind, faced with any experience, insists on throwing up explanatory ideas and they are, I think, the natural and inevitable accompaniment of any experience, since if a thought can be made intelligible, it should be made so. Intelligibility is not only desirable, it is also, in a poet of merit, natural. Examples of this fusion of the intellectual associations with the emotive experience are very common in English literature—a couple of examples would be Tintern Abbey and The Hollow Men.
The two chief reasons. I think, for the present cult of unintelligibllity are: (a) the poet's thought is banal and he prefers to preserve the illusion in his reader's mind that he is worth reading by concealing his banality in, (b) he is too lazy to work out his Ideas. I do not consider that good poetry can be written without effort or thought; it demands far more from the writer than the most clearly-responed prose. The poet must see clearly: if he is confused and his work is confused, his thought is valueless. I said before that thought in poetry is natural—it is, but worked out thought does not fall from the lap of the gods. Only very rare geniuses, e.g., Keats, have their mind in a permanent, clarified ecstasy, and with them the thought is just as clear, although the process of clarification does not offer the same difficulty. I do not think PSW recognises this: he seems either to distrust thought or not to bother to work it out.
If he has worked out his thought (and I do not think he has) it is possible that the obscurity is due to his choice of symbols. If a poet employs obvious symbols obscurity presents no difficulties, but he will be reduced to employing more synonyms, not symbols, which can gather up in one word a group of related concepts. His symbolism must, therefore, be new and fresh, but he must enable the reader to comprehend it through the context. Symbols no doubt have a permanent psychological background but the meaning of each Is largely conventional, e.g., white is to us a symbol of purity, to the Chinese of mourning; a red rose conventionally signifies nobility: apart from the convention it could, I think, admirably symbolise hunger. PSWs symbolism is largely personal and not generally intelligible. Eliot employs fresh symbols but they are far easier to Comprehend in their context than PSW's, and I think even Eliot's are often unnecessarily obscure.
Accordingly it seems to me that the writers of obscure poetry are creating nothing of value. If their own thought is not clear they have nothing worth saying: if it is clear they should endeavour to master the technique of expressing it clearly. Until they do their work is valueless.
W. H. Mabbett.