Tuesday, 15 May 2007

Don't Quit Your Day-Lewis Job

One of the mysteries of poetry is that one can be hard pressed to tell, from among one's many contemporaries, whose poetry will "last" - but after only 35 or 40 years, the mist has lifted, and it is as if the chaff or dross had never existed, so clear is the view to the gold of the wheat fields. Consider Yeats, or Larkin, who both famously anthologized shiploads of dud poets in their Oxford anthologies, presumably because they thought it was "good" poetry.

Ian Hamilton's Against Oblivion is worth reading, concerning the point at which a poet, a body of work, a reputation, is beginning, like New Orleans, to sink, or like the Pisan tower, to lean. The movement can be in the other direction, too - poet-editors and critics are now rediscovering worth in Lynette Roberts, for instance - but more often than not, the direction is conclusive, and it is towards a reputation at rock bottom.

Cecil Day-Lewis (pictured) seems to be at that stage now. The recent review, by the current Poet Laureate, Andrew Motion (see link), is fascinating for a number of reasons. But one of the most striking aspects of the piece, is that for all the age's apparent indeterminacy on aesthetic and textual matters, bad writing is bad writing, and usually gets outed, sooner or later. Particularly, poetry - often thought to be rather easy to write by those who don't write it, or who simply dabble - is an extraordinary litmus taste for a good mind. It is simply not possible to fool a poem into existence, hard as one might try. Beneath the surface - indeed, on the surface - each choice the poet makes betrays their intelligence - and their knowledge - of their art. Poetry is so often compared to magic, it might be a corrective to instead compare it to the game of chess, if only to see if that makes metaphoric sense, too. I think it does. Each line is a move in a game where no false move can win.

As Paul Muldoon has shown, a poem is a complex web of allusion; words, images, phrases, echo and rebound, through the words. At the end of the day, the poet's choice of diction and syntax (the words, and their order) combine with whatever formal patterns are employed (metre, rhythm) to project a sense of a personality - what Alvarez - among others - calls "voice". This voice either stales or stays fresh, over time.

Auden, whose under-celebrated centenary this is, cannot wither or stale. As Hamilton wrote, he was oblivion-proof. Day-Lewis, who worked in the shadow of Auden, and aped his style, could not evade oblivion, because he never managed to find a style, a voice of his own. There is a force, a fuse, a fire, in an original poet, that lights them home, and keeps their work alive. Dylan Thomas - so often maligned now - had it. W.S. Graham had it. Some do. But some poets can't lift their writing off the page, and into that space that sustains. Can you?

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