Salient. Victoria University of Wellington Students' Newspaper. Vol. 32. No. 25. October 9, 1969
Last Retreat Of A Senile Poet
Last Retreat Of A Senile Poet
It is no doubt the last retreat of a senile poet to spend time writing about the verse of others; but as the girl said to her mother, somebody asked me to do it and I did it.
I have just finished reading an assorted wad of verse by different writers, submitted for publication in Critic. When 1 read other people's verse it always strikes me forcibly that th successful or unsuccessful husk of words presented is the product of the most sensitive area of somebody else's mind.
It is not a crime to write badly. Everyone who writes writes badly quite often.
But it may be a crime to tell somebody that he or she has written badly, at the moment when the new shoots are just appearing above the ground, as it were. 1 can't remember ever having been helped by negative criticism. So what I say negatively will be general; and what I say positively will be particular.
What ruins most verse that people give me to read is the habit of moralising. Good didactic verse is the hardest of all to write; but for some reason people begin with it instead of ending with it or leaving it alone.
It seems to me best to have a bash at the Government or the state of society in prose.
Poems should reveal inner dimensions in the life of the poet. A sincere dislike for this or that is an extremely shallow inner dimension and it does tend to block the way to any other dimension.
Somebody says in a poem that governments have not got the right to make wars because individuals should have the right to determine the manner of their own deaths; and furthermore, that democratic governments should grasp the fact that life is worthwhile. Some of the words are in capitals.
I agree broadly with the statement. It is by no means novel to me. But it uses the language of a newspaper editorial. It is not even verse, let alone poetry.
I think I could number on the fingers of one hand the poets who have written well and didactically in English. Alexander Pope was one of them. When he writes—
"The proper study of mankind is man"— you notice (even if the statement doesn't grip you by the hair) that he has made an exact, intelligent remark in rhythmical language.
But when he writes in a satirical description of a contemporary—
"This painted child of dirt that stinks and stings"—it is quite different language. He has ceased to be a competent versifier and become a poet.
The difference lies in the use of sensory language. Without sensory langauge poems can hardly exist.
God alone knows why two-thirds of those who write verse at all write didactically. They haven't got a dog's chance of success.
To write well didactically you need the rare combination of a rough, lively sense of humour, a steel-hard mind wholly devoid of sentimentality, an eye sharp as a needle for the follies of your neighbours (and your own follies) and years of clinical observation of those depressing habits—all this joined to a great mastery of phrase and image and metaphor.
My advice to anyone who is trying to write good verse is simply this—
"Write about yourself. Write about the beach you last walked on. Write about the way your guts curl up in the library. Write about a goat having a crap, if you like. Write about the man or woman you are shacking up with. But don't tell us that God is good (or doesn't exist) or that the world should be a beter place. It may be true. You may feel most deeply that it's true. But it can't be poetry because it's a statement of abstract opinion."
Of course nobody who's writing that way will take any notice. They want to tell you what's right. They're not really interested in what happened.
Somebody else writes—
it must be done,
with easy charm and doting tongue;
I'll greet the goddess, so, and so
a god become ..."
This is an honest attempt to write epigramatically. There's an element of metaphor in it. Somewhere behind the poem there is an experience of a transforming human relationship, or at least the hope of one.
But later on the poem weakens; and chiefly, I think, because this kind of writing requires a rigid verse structure and the poet isn't quite up to the job.
I've been writing for 30 years myself; and I still find it damned hard to handle verse structure. Perhaps many poems are wrecked at the start because the writer took on too heavy a technical task.
And this kind of verse tends to be backward-looking. Echoes of older poets creep in. Before long it becomes pastiche.
There's not much point in trying to write in the style of Herrick or Milton. In their day their style was new: it sprang up out of the ground. But it's more to the point for one of us to read Ginsberg or Sylvia Plath. The times have changed a hell of a lot between Charles I losing his head and the Bomb dropping on Nagasaki. I don't think one can put the clock back.
And somebody else writes:—
"a thousand of her eyes
smile from the rainy pavement.
"a toss of her head shows in the frail long tendrils of watery weed . . ."
This is poetry all right. Later the poem drops with a thud into comment and abstraction. But these six lines are working for themselves very successfully in the imagist idiom.
It would still make sense to go back and read the introduction to the Faber Book of Modern Verse. It would at least give most of us our rough bearings.
But this bloke has noticed that his girl friend is part of whatever is going on in the sensory world. He states it (the only way a poem is able to) by two exact simple lively metaphors. But he can't find the metaphors to express the human truth that she has become for him an image and not a person.
And so the poem goes clunk.
And another writes— "Also John Webster saw red. I said,
Good ladies that rock, though
The new blooms be fierce as snow
On wheat, I said cannibal wind
Would win . . ."
I think this net is on the move. His subconscious mind is working for him. The obscurity isn't only verbal. As my old man, a farmer, used to say. the creek has to run muddy before it can run clear.
Good poems may come from the place these lines emerged from. But it is private language still.
Private language and a very fluid style is characteristic of most of the poetry I have read belonging to the late Sixties. It has a very personal wave-length.
I don't think the editors will be used to it for a while. But then a few anthologies will come out and they'll get used to it; or else some of the young ones will edit the new anthologies.
I hope I haven't been speaking through a hole in my neck, For myself, I don't give a damn what style the poems are as long as they put a bomb under me.
Drugs don't help. They only open another room in the mind. What one wants to do is combine the room inside the mind with the room outside the mind.
And poets are storytellers. "I had a dream once, sister. And in that bloody endless dream . . ."
S. du Fresne.