On Poetry and what it can do for us
A few years ago, I had a phase of reading literary biographies. I planned to write the fictitious biography of an Italian-Jewish pulp fiction author who was catapulted to mainstream literary success as a practical joke by Gore Vidal. Plus, it took less work than reading literature.
It was a good way to be disillusioned. Some of the books offered no surprises. Kingsley Amis drank a lot and was angry. Norman Mailer fought a lot and was angry. Evelyn Waugh was Catholic and angry. John Updike was middle-class and had lots of affairs. (Actually, that book had one surprise. Updike was college pals, it turns out, with Christopher Lasch. Yes, the greatest poet of post-war narcissism was buddies with its greatest critic.)
When the others had surprises they were generally grim. I had always thought that Arthur Koestler must have been a relatively twinkly chap, but the parade of fuck-ups detailed in Michael Scammell’s The Skeptic made his habit of drunk-driving look like one of his more endearing characteristics.
The most depressing of the books I read was the biography of Philip Larkin. No one who knows anything about Philip Larkin would have approached the book expecting a cheerful time. Still, the gloomy atmosphere was relentless.
Larkin did not shoot his wife (like William Burroughs), or stab his wife (like Norman Mailer) or commit double suicide with his healthy younger wife (like Arthur Koestler). In fact he never had the stomach to get married. The man was forever caught between bemoaning his lack of female attention and fearing that which he received.
Beyond this, Larkin was consistently depressed, morbid, crass and misanthropic. The admirer of his poems, reading Andrew Motion’s biography, shifts in their seat as they read Hull’s finest trade reviews of BDSM magazines with his dwindling number of friends or write little poems about his wish to see poor people starve.
Alan Bennett had an even stronger reaction to reading a biography of W.H. Auden. “Auden was wise to want no biography written,” he commented, “The more one reads about him, the harder it is to see round him to the poetry beyond.”
Well, there are two things to say. Firstly, how many of us would welcome the chance to have our private experiences, emails and DMs exposed to the world? Okay, I have never wished death on poor people (or stabbed my wife). But I’m sure it would be embarrassing nonetheless, and I feel safe in saying that it would embarrass the average person.
Secondly, how much should one connect the life of an artist with their creations? A crowd-pleasing answer is “not at all”. Separate the art from the artist! Arthur Koestler had nothing to do with Darkness at Noon! I don’t even know who Norman Mailer is!
While this salvages art with convenient haste there is at least some extent to which it lets down its creators. Art transcends an individual mind, if it has any value, but it expresses some of its qualities nonetheless. Literature does not emerge from a vacuum.
When Larkin wrote “Faith Healing”, for example, about the “immense slackening ache” of common women seeking kindness and connection, he was expressing himself as much – if not more so – as when he groused malignantly about the working classes. When he wrote “Lines On A Young Lady’s Photograph Album,” about “a real girl in a real place,” his tenderness was as true as his spite when he denounced womankind. Nothing can excuse his treatment of the perpetually un-proposed to Monica Jones but no one who reads “An Arundel Tomb” could claim that he had no heart:
Time has transfigured them into
Untruth. The stone fidelity
They hardly meant has come to be
Their final blazon, and to prove
Our almost-instinct almost true:
What will survive of us is love.
Similarly, Auden might, as Bennett said, have been something of a domestic nuisance and romantic fool but he was still a man who looked across Ischia and wrote:
… when I try to imagine a faultless love
Or the life to come, what I hear is the murmur
Of underground streams, what I see is a limestone landscape.
This is deserving of attention not just to redeem poets but because there is a sense in which poetry redeems us all. Much of human life is inevitably unpleasant. A great deal of human speech and thought is doubly so: boring, petty, snide, deceitful, crass and cowardly. If a lifetime’s worth of words could be arranged in one place, it would resembles a heap of detritus, studded with dog turds, condoms and needles.
But there can be gold. Poems shine like nothing else. Poetry concentrates speech and thought down to their purest forms. At its best, it is language at its most beautiful, not because it is pleasant and flowery, though it can be, but because it is vivid, elegant and it is truthful. That which is morbid and sad can be included, to be sure, but not that which is thoughtless, careless, dishonest and confused. It is, as Czesław Miłosz said, the passionate pursuit of the Real.
Some of the beauty lies in that which poets describe. When Robinson Jeffers – that great literary misanthrope, who commented in one of his poems that he would “sooner, except the penalties, kill a man than a hawk” – describes the animals around his Californian home, it evokes the savage beauty of the natural world. But there is also inherent beauty in being able to evoke a scene and its significance such that it resonates with people from another time and place. That is a human gift. That is poetry.
The marginalisation of poetry in the modern world is a phenomenon I am not enough of a scholar to critique with great insight and force. My suspicion, though, is that it suffers from its “narrowing and dessication” – to quote Miłosz again – at its higher end and the free-falling of standards in its popular forms. (John Betjeman wrote poems. Rupi Kaur writes half-literate Instagram updates.)
Beyond this, we have an impoverished sense of what poems do for us. We do not know what is for. A poem does not have the immediate captivating qualities of a painting or a photograph. One has to read rather than look at it. A poem rarely provides the engrossing entertainment of a novel, or a film, or a serial.
Is poetry educative? An embarrassingly bland, chirpy piece in praise of poems that I wrote as a bright young bushy-tailed opinion columnist mentions connecting with history and understanding other perspectives among aspects of their appeal. To be sure, any form of art contains the capacity to inspire moral and intellectual elevation (or, indeed, moral and intellectual decline). Here, though, its powers are limited. If nothing else, a shaft of light into a room leaves ample space for darkness.
But to dwell on questions of functionality is to miss the point. What poetry inspires is resonance. One experiences truth at its most vivid. This can be a call, if not to virtue, then to existential seriousness. The babbling of our lives, which can be pleasant but which can be trivial, is pierced by the sound of trumpets, or of thunder, or of hawks. It is a sound which echoes in our minds. It is a sound which stills.
That resonance depends on style as much as subject (still less sentiment). “April is the cruelest month.” What does it mean? I’m damned if I know. But we remembered it. Many good-hearted poems about the horrors of war, meanwhile, have sunk into the mud. Their message was righteous but it could have been just said. Still, poets must speak to the world. Pure abstraction has no resonance. Even the joy of mathematics is the joy of discovery.
I hope that poetry enriches life in a holistic sense. I hope that it can make us more appreciative, sensitive, passionate, grounded, thoughtful, knowledgeable and wise. Some people claim to have had such experiences. Rod Dreher’s book How Dante Can Save Your Life, for example, explores how the author of The Divine Comedy can be a source of “solace and strength.”
Yet the impact of poem can be enough. Amid the ceaseless chatter of 21st Century society it is enough to be stopped in your tracks by the ringing of a church bell or the howl of a wolf. In such moments, life means something, and its meaning can be measured not just by our words but by the tingle in our spine and the lump in our throat.