Monday, 17 September 2007

Horizontal Position In An Age of Anxiety

Eyewear was flipping through an issue of Horizon the other day - Vol. XIX from May 1949 - and came across a review by one Mr. Patrick Dickinson. The shameful notice by Dickinson of Auden's The Age of Anxiety was not seemingly sympathetic to his kind of writing.

He writes that "a general kind of obscurity suits best the superficially oracular as it also suits best any literary period dominated by homosexual taste which causes the expression of the emotions to be obscure, or symbolic, or dishonest, Such taste prefers a precocious adolescent kind of literature and criticism - it is a taste which has perforce certain gaps in experience, violent prejudices, and whose critical judgements are formed for other than literary reasons."

This example of its own kind of violent prejudice would be startling, if not sadly quite a common position, then (and now) with regards to certain tendencies in Modern British (and American) poetry of the 1940s (and beyond). It's curious that the obvious bias of some evaluative criticism is not more clearly recognised by those doing the critical judging.

Mr. Dickinson, of course, tries to conflate the terms "obscure", "symbolic" and "dishonest" - and can just about get away with this, given that, from Wordsworth on (and surely via F.R. Leavis and Scrutiny) a kind of honesty was earned by a lack of complex, rich, or overtly oracular diction. What is interesting is how this so-called "homosexual taste" - basically, the opposite of the coming Movement's austerity - is still active in American poetry, via, say O'Hara and John Ashbery - and happily so.

In the UK, though no longer publicly expressed in the crude way of this Horizon notice, many similar prejudices of taste occur among some reviewers who desire a robust, clear, and vocally mainstream (less ornate, less oracular) approach in poetry. Several major contemporary British poet-anthologists have lamented the "hysterical" and "florid operatics" of Dylan Thomas, for instance. According to one critical perspective, the kind of rhetorical exuberance that Auden - and also Thomas, in his own way - expressed - was not what poetry was meant to be. I think, and often write, otherwise.
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