Tuesday, 23 March 2010

Nations Of Nothing But Poetry

As Philip Hobsbaum writes in the Preface to Tradition and Experiment in English Poetry - tradition being the "native" English (sic) tradition starting with Piers Plowman - and experiment - well, as he puts it: "The mistake, as I see it, has been to imitate, from time to time the style, as well as the subject-matter, of foreign modes; and this is what, in the book, is termed 'experiment'. He goes on to mention how this foreign mistake, this experimental element, has unspooled, through the invidious works of Chaucer, the "Italianising tendencies of Spenser" - Milton, Tennyson, Housman - and then again Imagism - with damage done by Pound and Eliot too. Written in Scotland, in the 70s, this book is about as reactionary, anti-modernist, and invaluable a guide to the current "British and Irish" mainstream ascendancies poetics, as one could ask for.

Against foreign, American, and experimental styles and themes and language, is put the ideal Tradition: "earthy, alliterative, colloquial, with a strong regard for structure and the claims of plot." This narrative, spoken-voice lyricism, against baroque, or modernist or latinate syntax and diction, was at work when Douglas Dunn savaged Hart Crane in a review. It informs the poetics of Heaney and his line.

Poetry makes decisions; or demands that poets make decisions despite their best wishes - because poetry is action, and action always demands character and values react and therefore expose their lineaments, their core. The reason poets tussle, and worse, is because things are at stake - decisions, positions, beliefs. Whole ways of living (and breathing, since poetry is breathing and living most intensely). Eyewear looks forward to a new book which looks at great Scottish modernists, and others who created a synthetic vernacular style, breaking the us-or-them tug of modernist-anti-modernist that has bedevilled some in these complex isles for too long. Nations Of Nothing But Poetry, as a title, reminds us that the only country, the only tradition, is poetry itself. And that poetry speaks a singularly multiple tongue.
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