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With Stories Like These, Who Needs Talent? Part II: English as a Dead Language

It is hard to pinpoint when the traditional canon of English poetry began to disintegrate in educational institutions.

· 18 min read
With Stories Like These, Who Needs Talent? Part II: English as a Dead Language

This is the second part of a 4-Part series of essays by the author, entitled “With Stories Like These, Who Needs Talent?” Part One can be found here.

It would be fair to characterise poetry as dead, at least in English-speaking countries. Right now it might be easier to meet people who write poetry as an emotional outlet than it would be to encounter anyone who regularly buys books of poems or reads verse for pleasure. Amateur poets rarely entertain any reasonable hope of being read by anyone; but nor do ‘professional’ poets, whose readers tend to number in the dozens at best rather than the hundreds. Most of these readers end up being other poets.

Poetry occupies a diminished status in ‘high culture.’ Very few educated people under seventy have been compelled to learn poems by heart at school; committing even stray lines of Shakespeare or Shelley to memory has become a rare, eccentric habit. This means that contemporary poets can rely on little or no shared poetic tradition with such readers as they have. There is little incentive for a public figure to quote ‘famous’ verses in a speech, because there are so few people, even with advanced academic degrees in literature, who would get what he is talking about or recognise the reference.

The death of poetry as an active, dynamic element in literary culture likely has a great deal to do with various international developments in mass education since the Second World War. It is hard to pinpoint when the traditional canon of English poetry began to disintegrate in educational institutions; though an English literature student who earned a BA between 2000 and 2004 likely has more in common with a 1950-1954 English BA than a 2010-2014 or 2014-2018 BA in English, certainly in terms of the curriculum and range of texts studied as part of the degree course.

Students of English in schools and universities alike are rarely introduced to any coherent or stable body of literary works. Nor are they often taught the fundamental features of verse (metre, rhythm, form) that would enable poems easily to be committed to memory. Critical precepts, interpretative methods, and social or political questions now drive the teaching of English literature; these new focuses come at the expense of traditional conceptions of literary instruction. The teaching of literature naturally has an effect on what is written in a society: you cannot aspire to be (say) your generation’s Keats when nobody in your generation has read any Keats, or knows who he was. Or you can aspire thus, if you are prepared to yell alone in the dark.

Traditional poetry is inseparable from memory: it was composed to be memorised. Verse is fundamentally a mnemonic technology: all its conventional features – metre, rhyme, rhythm, regular line length, repeating patterns, wordplay – are meant to ensure that words stick in your head in a specific order that is difficult to forget. There is a point to remembering poems accurately: poetry potentially enjoys a range of social functions that go far beyond mere personal self-expression.

Roman bust of Homer, Second Century AD

In the classical Greek tradition, epic verse developed to tell a defined group of people who they are, what they came from, and how they have come to be as they are (Homer’s Iliad, Hesiod’s Theogony), or else provide them with examples of how to live (Homer’s Odyssey, Hesiod’s Works and Days). Dramatic poetry in its ancient Athenian forms (5th to 4th Century BC) deals with conflicts in society, by either engaging with mythological/historical narratives that the audience already knows (tragedy) or ridiculing well-known elements in social life (comedy from Aristophanes to Menander). Classical Greek hymns (such as the so-called Homeric Hymns) are philosophical as well as spiritual, and explore divine-seeming forces whilst also praising the gods; there are also odes (most notably Pindar’s) that are meant to commemorate the great achievements of leaders and athletes, and help ensure that their names survive their deaths. Various forms of lyric poetry, in the Greek tradition, were originally intended to be sung to music after dinner during drinking parties of a dozen or so men (the best introduction to this phenomenon remains Oswyn Murray ed., Sympotica, Oxford University Press 1990). This list is neither comprehensive nor exhaustive; it is meant merely to illustrate some of the roles of poetry in a particularly rich literary culture – one which forms the foundations of Western-European literature as we know it.

A living tradition of poetry is not necessarily an inclusive one. Classical Latin verse has been studied continuously (if in diminished numbers now) for 2,000 years; translations, imitations, and responses to it have been the basis of literary activity in the West ever since. The body of work generally understood as ‘classical Latin verse’ was produced in Rome between around 55 BC (Lucretius’ De rerum natura) and 8 AD (Ovid’s Metamorphoses). Vergil (70-19 BC) and Horace (65-8 BC), who were essentially the official poets of the Roman Empire under Augustus, could rely during their lifetimes on an intelligent, well-informed, highly responsive audience of a few hundred men at best. Yet their poems went on to become standard school texts, and influenced every subsequent major literary movement in Europe and America until at least the First World War, beginning with the Silver Latin poets of the first and second centuries AD, who also occupied high positions in Roman Imperial society, yet struggled to emerge from the shadow of Vergil and Horace.

Poetry’s relationship to music is difficult to trace through history because so few of the melodies to which ancient Greek lyric poems (for example) were sung have been lost, were never recorded, or are difficult to read in the forms in which they have been preserved. At least it seems clear that a repeated melody can help imprint the lyrics of a song in the memory. Catholics who sing ancient Latin hymns in Gregorian chant during Mass on a Sunday will tend to learn the music first, then the words, then the meaning. Through regular repetition over the years they come to know these hymns intimately, even if they have never learnt Latin. This is why, even in the face of liturgical ‘reforms’ in the 1960s, and the near-total disappearance of Latin in the Church since then, the Vatican still affirms Gregorian chant as the music most suitable for Christian worship.

With Stories Like These, Who Needs Talent? Part III: The Spirit of the Age
Sydney. London. Toronto.

There is no need to fixate on historical or religious examples to understand the traditional functions of poetry in Western cultures. One need only consider recorded popular music since the 1960s. The best-known songs, from the Beatles onwards, tend to have simple melodies that stick in the memory even if you only hear them once. The lyrics are simple too, and easy to repeat. Successful lyricists consciously try to come up with ‘earworms’ – songs which haunt you even after you have stopped listening. Words alone rarely create this effect.

Over the past fifty years, pop music has come to replace most of the social functions of traditional poetry even among educated people. Nobody would think you strange if you could not recite lines from Milton’s Paradise Lost; though you would seem an alien if you were unable to recognise and identify any of the pop songs which most people around you have passively absorbed, through mass media, widespread internet dissemination and use as background music in public places. If you refer to certain pop songs in public, you can take for granted that strangers will generally pick up the reference. To signal your taste, intelligence, and culture to a member of the opposite sex, you might get away with talking knowledgeably about Leonard Cohen or Bob Dylan, whose names and bodies of work are recognised as those of their most famous poetry-composing contemporaries are not. In the same situation, try mentioning Robert Lowell (1917-1977), whose 1959 volume Life Studies is one of the most influential poetry books of the post-war period, and who was once well-enough known to appear on the cover of Time magazine in 1967. Nobody reads Time anymore, of course. But clearly the name-recognition of even the most celebrated poets has diminished, as mass culture has come to preoccupy more and more of the general public’s consciousness.

Trends in élite poetry since the First World War have eroded many of the mnemonic features that are so obvious in the work of genuinely popular poets such as Alfred, Lord Tennyson (1809-92), Rudyard Kipling (1865-1936), or AE Housman (1859-1936). Twentieth-century Modernism as seen in the work of the American-born poet/critic/scholar/editors TS Eliot (1888-1965) and Ezra Pound (1885-1972) involves a deliberate refusal to let the reader take any regular, repeated, predictable formal elements of poetry for granted. Not all Modernist poetry is as perplexingly enigmatic as the work of Wallace Stevens (1879-1955), whose 1923 volume Harmonium demands to be read and re-read multiple times over weeks if it is to be understood as anything more than attractive word-music. Modernist poetry made considerable demands upon the reader, which may well have been more than most readers could take.

The most influential poets in terms of contemporary English and American verse are Frank O’Hara (1926-66) and John Ashbery (1927-2017); the most academically prestigious is the Cambridge poet-scholar J. H. Prynne (1936- ). O’Hara and Ashbery were well-known figures in the art world of 1960s New York: O’Hara was a curator at the Museum of Modern Art, whilst Ashbery worked for ARTNews, and as an art critic for Newsweek and New York magazines. They were both attracted to Surrealism, Dadaism, and various other twentieth-century French artistic movements which did not favour traditional formalism or straightforward intelligibility. Prynne, former Director of Studies in English and Librarian at Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge, is harder to describe, because his work is so profoundly subversive and radical; he is best thought of as an aristocratic Maoist. He has even attempted to write poems in classical Chinese under the name Pu Ling-en.

O’Hara’s work is flippant, evasive, and disposable: it often has the effect of having been dashed off on a napkin during the writer’s lunch break. This apparent carelessness is meant to give the impression of immediacy and intimacy: these poems often feel like notes surreptitiously passed at the back of a classroom. Even the longer, more ambitious poems studiously avoid looking like the effect of hard work or second thoughts. As a result, there is often a lively freshness to O’Hara’s poems.

The downsides of O’Hara’s attitudes to composition are that his poems are repetitive, and have in general dated badly. The references to contemporary pop culture and the details of urban life in the 1960s have in many cases become obscure, or simply lost their impact. O’Hara’s technical skills are too limited to help sustain a reader’s interest for long when his preoccupations are so self-consciously minor and negligible. There is no obvious reason to read these poems when they have such perversely modest ambitions and so little of importance to say. Not even their author would argue for them, it seems. For all the humour and sometimes vividly plainspoken imagery, O’Hara’s work is forgettable. It is also easy to imitate, because it fixates on the author’s most banal everyday observations, and relies on no substantial grasp of literary tradition or technique. The only learning Frank O’Hara ever shows off involves the work of faded movie stars.

John Ashbery in 2010. Pic: David Shankbone.

John Ashbery’s oeuvre seems to follow on in the tradition of Wallace Stevens; though Ashbery’s references are more frequently to French writers. Two volumes of his collected translations from French poetry and prose were published in 2014. These, along with selections from Ashbery’s art criticism and literary essays, are perhaps the best introduction to this writer and his preoccupations. Ashbery, like O’Hara, came of age as a gay man long before the advent of the gay liberation movement of the late 1960s. The context in which he grew up helps explain Ashbery’s evident reluctance to say anything simply or directly. Though there is something else going on too, as is clear from the writers Ashbery chose to discuss at length, the poems and prose pieces he decided to render into English, and the art he favoured.

Ashbery’s preferred writers all seem to be isolated, long-suffering lesbians (Gertrude Stein, Marianne Moore, Jane Bowles, Elizabeth Bishop), or else mentally-unbalanced ‘experimental’ authors such as Raymond Roussel (1877-1933) or Antonin Artaud (1896-1948), whose work is more entertaining to read about than it is to read. A high proportion of Ashbery’s chosen subjects committed suicide; most seem to have lived thwarted, miserable lives. As a translator Ashbery favoured opaque, eccentric, little-known literary works. It is refreshing to come across one of the rare instances where he translates or writes about a well-known author.

Ashbery’s French translations include renditions of the best-known ‘Decadent’ poets of the nineteenth century, Charles Baudelaire (1821-1867) and Arthur Rimbaud (1854-1891). Rimbaud’s Illuminations, a dense collection of surreal prose poems, which also includes two of the first attempts in French at ‘free verse,’ ought to have been an ideal fit for him. Yet Ashbery’s versions of the Illuminations turn out to be disappointingly pedestrian, and miss the rich sensuousness of the original. The language is strangely flat, and there is no attempt to reproduce the rhythmic or sonorous qualities of Rimbaud’s prose. Even Rimbaud’s haunting imagery loses its vividness in this version. The overall effect is of a writer whose French is imperfect, and who speaks English as a second language.

Ashbery’s Baudelaire is simply undistinguished. His “Landscape (After Baudelaire)” (first published in the New York Review of Books, 1 April, 1982) is awkward and uncomfortable, and completely misses the buoyant verve of the original. Compare this to Roy Campbell’s 1952 rendition of the same poem, “The Landscape.” Campbell (1901-1957) may be the twentieth century’s finest translator of French and Spanish verse. His sensitive ear, linguistic resourcefulness, and sheer mastery of old-fashioned poetic technique make his versions of Baudelaire in particular a joy to read. After all, Baudelaire too revelled in his skills as a traditional poet, and often sounds disconcertingly like a Renaissance French sonneteer when describing grim modern urban scenes. Ashbery, by comparison, gives us a Baudelaire who is at once impotently whimsical and stiff.

In general Ashbery seems to have devoted most of his energies as a translator to bizarre or surreal works that cannot easily be judged by ordinary standards. He also appears to have shied away (for the most part) from the possibility of being judged, or compared to other translators. The two 2014 volumes make one question just how well he understood French, even though he lived in Paris between 1955 and 1965, and sometimes supplemented his income by translating French detective novels into English. His renditions of French prose and poetry alike are not notably precise or stylish, and do not reward being read for their own sake. Still, they do allow the reader to develop a measured appreciation of Ashbery’s gifts.

Undeniably, John Ashbery had a special talent for putting words together and making a kind of music. His 1975 collection Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror is impressive, in its idiosyncratic way. Ashbery’s range and intellect are on full display here, and in putting this collection together he demonstrates how well he could understand his strengths, and limits, as a poet. This is his most accessible volume by far, and the one by which he ought to be judged. The long poem that gives its title to the book is subtle and difficult, but thought-provoking in its distillation of Ashbery’s impressions after decades spent looking at and thinking about art. His conclusions might not be original, but they are memorably expressed; and the poem has depths of emotion that are otherwise lacking in Ashbery’s work. The main problem with the poem is its lack of coherence, which gives it a false sense of complexity. This reflects a bigger flaw in the volume as a whole. Ashbery’s manufactured enigmas and studiously mysterious approach to composing poetry is ultimately perverse and self-defeating. He overestimated the degree to which his thoughts, emotions, and experience were inexpressible.

Compare Ashbery’s work to that of Paul Celan (1920-1970), the Romanian poet who lived in Paris, wrote in German, made a living teaching German language and literature at the École normale supérieure, and tried to come to terms with the Holocaust, the loss of his home, the deaths of his parents in a concentration camp, and all the overwhelming grief, horror, tragedy, and suffering of his life, in dense, compressed, cryptic language. Celan’s enigmas have a point; he can be forgiven if his poems do not immediately reveal themselves. How could he even try to talk about anything he experienced?

Nothing Ashbery wrote has anything like the terrible power of one of Celan’s bleak later lyrics; Ashbery’s opacity is fundamentally neurotic and self-indulgent. There is no real justification for it; as an artistic strategy it ultimately seems lazy. When you compare his long, richly-rewarded, fairly comfortable life to the bleak, tortured anguish of Celan’s, then you begin to see that he really had no excuse for pretending that he couldn’t express himself clearly and straightforwardly. You start to wonder whether he had anything to say. Nonsensical word-music quickly grows tiresome. Yet Ashbery sustained a remarkably consistent level of output for over sixty years, with little visible development, refinement or advance, especially after the publication of Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror. It is hard to tell whether he wrote a given poem in 1977 or 2011, because it all looks and sounds the same.

J. H. Prynne takes deliberate incomprehensibility to new depths. His ingenuity, learning, and extreme conscientiousness were applied to a dogged pursuit of revolutionary principles: he tried to overturn English literature, and the nature of communication itself, through compulsive reading of scientific literature he didn’t quite understand, and application of what he thought were classical Chinese literary principles. The result is a body of poetry that has been acclaimed by various radical-leaning scholars, and has won no readers who are not themselves radical-leaning scholars and/or experimental/avant-garde poets. There is no obvious satisfaction in reading Prynne’s poetry. It demands great patience, attention, and concentrated effort in return for neither pleasure nor illumination. Prynne’s enthusiasts at Cambridge would dismiss the very idea that anyone reads poetry for pleasure or illumination, of course. Is the less dedicated reader missing something?

A reader might feel self-conscious and intellectually inadequate in the face of Prynne’s bewilderingly un-reader-friendly output. Let all such anxious readers put their minds at rest by tracking down copies of Prynne’s three privately-printed commentaries on canonical poems by Shakespeare (They That Haue Powre to Hurt; A Specimen of a Commentary on Shakespeares Sonnets, 94, 2001), George Herbert (George Herbert, Love III: A Discursive Commentary, 2011) and William Wordsworth (Field Notes: ‘The Solitary Reaper’ and others 2007). Prynne has read a great deal, and writes many thousands of words; but no honest reader can claim to find that any of this substantially assists in understanding these important poems. There are interesting facts to be extracted from these commentaries, with a little work; but Prynne simply spews and rambles, not obviously exercising any judgment in choosing what to write, or how to organise his materials. Such is his scholarship. It does not inspire confidence in his literary output.

The most accessible of Prynne’s poetry collections, The White Stones (1967), was reissued in 2016 by New York Review Books. Readers may be interested to try to make sense of it. There is undeniable effort involved in producing work like this; though Prynne’s ability simply to put words together in some attractive or striking way does not match Ashbery’s. His poems boast little in the way of rhythmic features, patterns of sounds, or innovative diction; even more than Ashbery’s, his oeuvre seems morbidly neurotic and neurasthenic. To read his Collected Poems (fourth edition, 2015) from cover to cover is to watch tendencies inherent in The White Stones blossom and flourish, unchecked by responsible editors or the attention of honest readers. Prynne may have written poetry out of some unexamined compulsion; though as a Fellow of a Cambridge college he and his eccentricities have been indulged as those in less protected milieux might not have been.

Prynne’s poetry has the superficial appearance, at least, of a high intellectual endeavour, accessible only to the finest, subtlest minds. Certainly it cannot be defended in plain language to a reasonable, open-minded reader who is neither a professional academic nor an experimental poet. But Prynne’s disciples, though small in number, are energetic and fiercely loyal in defending his practices. Some occupy important posts in universities, and in the small, heavily-subsidised world of experimental-poetry publishing. Prynne’s approach to literature and scholarship has been validated thanks to the prestige of his academic position; it will not quickly go away, even though it does not attract readers in significant numbers.

No intellectual historian has so far investigated why Frank O’Hara and John Ashbery became the pre-eminent American poets. Undoubtedly they were both intelligent, verbally gifted, and professionally canny. O’Hara, at least, was charming and socially adept. He also had access to influential figures through his work at the Museum of Modern Art. Both O’Hara and Ashbery attended Harvard, which cannot have hurt their careers. Ashbery won the Yale Younger Poets Prize in 1956, and gained the attention of WH Auden (1907-1993), the controversial and prolific English poet who became an ‘elder statesman of letters’ after moving to New York during the Second World War. Ashbery also enjoyed some financial support from the private foundation set up by James Merrill (1926-1995), a wealthy, handsome, clever dilettante who became noted as a poet. But savvy networking alone cannot explain these poets’ current prominence, just as institutional validation alone cannot explain Prynne’s.

Ashbery, O’Hara, and Prynne are anti-traditional poets. You do not need to know anything about literature, history, philosophy, or art to grasp what is most important in their work; you do not need to have mastered foreign languages, or even have a secure grasp of English. All you need is a good dictionary, for Ashbery’s and Prynne’s instances of rare vocabulary, and Wikipedia and YouTube for O’Hara’s references to obsolete brand names and forgotten camp icons. Otherwise, you learn how to read these poets as you go along. Their work has attracted the attention of poetry critics and scholars such as Helen Vendler (Harvard) and Marjorie Perloff (Stanford), who have a vested interest in ensuring that various Modernist and Postmodernist strains in poetry survive; without writers like these, their entire academic careers become obsolete. They have spent decades promoting this sort of work, because their own reputations have been painstakingly built on coming up with plausible-seeming strategies for reading this sort of thing and enjoying it.

As for Creative Writing institutions: what better models could there be for poetry than poets whose work can be understood, and imitated, without any prior education in literature? To imitate O’Hara, you need nothing more than your own experience, and some knowledge of pop culture; for Ashbery, a sense of whimsy and a copy of Roget’s Thesaurus; to write like Prynne, it helps to have an iron will, uncompromising determination, and access to a variety of random technical materials that you are willing to turn into free-verse poetry. These poets are a Godsend for Creative Writing instructors who earn their living trying to teach students who know nothing about literature, and want to produce it anyway.

Within Creative Writing institutions there is, of course, no need to satisfy an audience, other than the one made up of your Creative Writing class and the instructor. If you succeed in mimicking your chosen model to the satisfaction of your peers and superiors, your work will be published, first by an institutionally-based Creative Writing journal, then by a university press or state-funded publisher, and the rest of your career will depend on how much luck you have building a career in institutions. At no point in this process do you ever need to satisfy any ordinary readers, or find yourself exposed to their judgment, or risk uncomfortable questions such as “why are you writing this?”

Mass culture has no room for poetry, which is neither instantly accessible nor quickly gratifying. Yet traditional literature’s former prestige ensures that something called ‘poetry’ is still at least nominally taught in educational institutions, and paid for by both private foundations and government-funded arts councils. The walking corpse that is contemporary poetry is kept upright in Weekend at Bernie’s fashion by bureaucratic structures that have no reason for existing if no more poetry is being written. Luckily for those who earn a living within these structures, nobody is counting book sales, or investigating whether those who buy books of contemporary poetry are themselves a part of this insular, circular system.

It is now possible to have a distinguished career as a professional poet, and win literary prizes, subsidies from the state, well-endowed fellowships, secure teaching posts, and all-expenses-paid residencies abroad at institutions like the American Academy at Rome and American Academy in Berlin, all without having more than a handful of colleagues and students as your readers. None of what is produced is necessarily ‘poetry’ in any traditional sense of the term. But as long as the system carries on paying poets for their activities, with no complaints save from bitter would-be poets who aren’t part of the institutional system, who cares?

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