“Can I help you?” That annoyed, bookworm look.
For too long now, since the early 20th century, poetry has become a vessel for pedantry—everything that poetry is not: gnarly, dweeby, bitter, pretentious, digressive, unpleasant, mumbly, claptrap.
“Difficult” is the icy, vampire-breath spell that needs to be broken—with our warm Shelley and Keats.
Fight off the New Critic specters, find T.S. Eliot in his coffin, and stab him through the heart.
Then the boil known as Geoffrey Hill will burst and dribble away.
But at the present, no birds sing.
Hill, who some in tweedy academia call the “greatest living poet,” used the “difficult” approach when he went off recently on Carol Ann Duffy; the current British poet laureate innocently called poetry the original texting message: after all, poetry is known for its ability to say a lot in a few words. No, thundered the greatest living poet; difficulty is the essence of poetry, not brevity. But really. Duffy’s point need not be burned to the ground, even if it is just another one of those vain attempts to make poetry seem more relevant in a world that ignores or hates it today. Over here, we have Shelley’s Defense of Poetry. And over here…a observation that texting youth are making poems—sort of. OK, maybe it’s pathetic. But worse, far worse, is Geoffrey Hill’s “difficult” maneuver, which is a complete turning away from Shelley’s Defense. Any defense of poetry that says “poetry is difficult is no defense at all, but don’t tell that to a pundit like Sir Geoffrey. Shelley, nor any of the Romantics, ever thought of defending, or describing, poetry as “difficult.” Shelley at 22 was more learned than Geoffrey Hill will ever be, and Shelley stretched out on the sand before the sea is difficulty enough. “Don’t treat readers like fools,” Hill tells Duffy, but to be intentionally difficult ranks as the most foolish effort of all. Difficult exists in poetry or elsewhere, but not as a goal—that would be, quite simply, insane.
The difficult school produces poetry which is a series of impressions that may, at best, produce a state of strange befuddlement—which we might convince ourselves has some kind of intellectual worth.
Shelley, by contrast, is like drinking from a cold spring after one has been hiking for hours.
The experiences are quite different.
The tradition from which Hill springs can be traced back to the early 20th century British academic tradition which produced plain language philosophy and language poetry. The Cambridge Apostles, Kim Philby, Bertrand Russell, T.S. Eliot, Anthony Blunt, G.E. Moore, Lytton Strachey, Leonard Woolf, Rupert Brooke, John Maynard Keynes, Guy Burgess, Clive Bell, Roger Fry, Duncan Grant, Ottoline Morrell, and F.R. Leavis. “Difficult?” Sure. The poetry of government spies, double agents, closeted homosexuals and language philosophers is bound to be difficult. The source of the “difficult” tradition has a place and a name: Bloomsbury, Oxford, Cambridge.
The New Critics, who dominated American poetry for 50 years, were all Rhodes Scholars in England. They were Southern Agrarians (basically defending the Old South) before they became New Critics. Figure that one out. Difficult? Oh, yes.
Then there’s poetry for people, poetry in the universal, democratic tradition. Hello, Shelley. Hello, Poe.
The other poetry is that of the priesthood, not for those who entertain people, but for those who want to manage people—the so-called difficult school, which appeals to language philosophy professors and those trained in various types of intelligence and social engineering. Sir Geoffrey Hill. The New Critics. Pound, Eliot, Guy Burgess. The difficult ones.
Those in the second group hate and fear those rare artists like Poe and Shelley—populist geniuses savvy enough to expose them for what they are.
Here is a good example: New Critic Robert Penn Warren’s essay, “Pure and Impure Poetry,” first delivered as a lecture at Princeton in 1942—this is where Allen Tate was seting up an early Poetry Workshop. Warren’s lecture was later published in John Crowe Ransom’s influential Kenyon Review. But before we look at Penn Warren, let’s quickly take a peek at another essay, a more famous one:
IN speaking of the Poetic Principle, I have no design to be either thorough or profound. While discussing, very much at random, the essentiality of what we call Poetry, my principal purpose will be to cite for consideration, some few of those minor English or American poems which best suit my own taste, or which, upon my own fancy, have left the most definite impression. By “minor poems” I mean, of course, poems of little length. And here, in the beginning, permit me to say a few words in regard to a somewhat peculiar principle, which, whether rightfully or wrongfully, has always had its influence in my own critical estimate of the poem. I hold that a long poem does not exist. I maintain that the phrase, “a long poem,” is simply a flat contradiction in terms.
I need scarcely observe that a poem deserves its title only inasmuch as it excites, by elevating the soul. The value of the poem is in the ratio of this elevating excitement. But all excitements are, through a psychal necessity, transient. That degree of excitement which would entitle a poem to be so called at all, cannot be sustained throughout a composition of any great length. After the lapse of half an hour, at the very utmost, it flags — fails — a revulsion ensues — and then the poem is, in effect, and in fact, no longer such.
There are, no doubt, many who have found difficulty in reconciling the critical dictum that the “Paradise Lost” is to be devoutly admired throughout, with the absolute impossibility of maintaining for it, during perusal, the amount of enthusiasm which that critical dictum would demand. This great work, in fact, is to be regarded as poetical, only when, losing sight of that vital requisite in all works of Art, Unity, we view it merely as a series of minor poems. If, to preserve its Unity — its totality of effect or impression — we read it (as would be necessary) at a single sitting, the result is but a constant alternation of excitement and depression. After a passage of what we feel to be true poetry, there follows, inevitably, a passage of platitude which no critical pre-judgment can force us to admire; but if, upon completing the work, we read it again, omitting the first book — that is to say, commencing with the second — we shall be surprised at now finding that admirable which we before condemned — that damnable which we had previously so much admired. It follows from all this that the ultimate, aggregate, or absolute effect of even the best epic under the sun, is a nullity: — and this is precisely the fact.
In regard to the Iliad, we have, if not positive proof, at least very good reason for believing it intended as a series of lyrics; but, granting the epic intention, I can say only that the work is based in an imperfect sense of art. The modern epic is, of the supposititious ancient model, but an inconsiderate and blindfold imitation. But the day of these artistic anomalies is over. If, at any time, any very long poem were popular in reality, which I doubt, it is at least clear that no very long poem will ever be popular again.
That the extent of a poetical work is, cœteris [[ceteris]] paribus, the measure of its merit, seems undoubtedly, when we thus state it, a proposition sufficiently absurd — yet we are indebted for it to the Quarterly Reviews. Surely there can be nothing in mere size, abstractly considered — there can be nothing in mere bulk, so far as a volume is concerned, which has so continuously elicited admiration from these saturnine pamphlets! A mountain, to be sure, by the mere sentiment of physical magnitude which it conveys, does impress us with a sense of the sublime — but no man is impressed after this fashion by the material grandeur of even “The Columbiad.” Even the Quarterlies have not instructed us to be so impressed by it. As yet, they have not insisted on our estimating Lamartine by the cubic foot, or Pollock by the pound — but what else are we to infer from their continual prating about “sustained effort?” If, by “sustained effort,” any little gentleman has accomplished an epic, let us frankly commend him for the effort — if this indeed be a thing commendable — but let us forbear praising the epic on the effort’s account. It is to be hoped that common sense, in the time to come, will prefer deciding upon a work of art, rather by the impression it makes, by the effect it produces, than by the time it took to impress the effect, or by the amount of “sustained effort” which had been found necessary in effecting the impression. The fact is, that perseverance is one thing, and genius quite another; nor can all the Quarterlies in Christendom confound them. By and by, this proposition, with many which I have been just urging, will be received as self-evident. In the mean time, by being generally condemned as falsities, they will not be essentially damaged as truths.
On the other hand, it is clear that a poem may be improperly brief. Undue brevity degenerates into mere epigrammatism. A very short poem, while now and then producing a brilliant or vivid, never produces a profound or enduring effect. There must be the steady pressing down of the stamp upon the wax. De Béranger has wrought innumerable things, pungent and spirit-stirring; but, in general, they have been too imponderous to stamp themselves deeply into the public attention; and thus, as so many feathers of fancy, have been blown aloft only to be whistled down the wind.
A remarkable instance of the effect of undue brevity in depressing a poem — in keeping it out of the popular view — is afforded by the following exquisite little Serenade.
I arise from dreams of thee,
In the first sweet sleep of night,
When the winds are breathing low,
And the stars are shining bright.
I arise from dreams of thee,
And a spirit in my feet
Has led me — who knows how? —
To thy chamber-window, sweet!The wandering airs they faint
On the dark, the silent stream —
The champak odours fail
Like sweet thoughts in a dream;
The nightingale’s complaint,
It dies upon her heart,
As I must die on thine,
O, beloved as thou art!O, lift me from the grass!
I die, I faint, I fail!
Let thy love in kisses rain
On my lips and eyelids pale.
My cheek is cold and white, alas!
My heart beats loud and fast:
Oh! press it close to thine again,
Where it will break at last!
Very few, perhaps, are familiar with these lines — yet no less a poet than Shelley is their author. Their warm, yet delicate and ethereal imagination will be appreciated by all — but by none so thoroughly as by him who has himself arisen from sweet dreams of one beloved, to bathe in the aromatic air of a southern midsummer night.
Poe’s remarks made this little poem by Shelley one of Shelley’s more popular poems
In his essay, Robert Penn Warren sets up a staw man: pure poetry. Pure poetry, in Warren’s view, is what poets like Poe and Shelley are after. Pure poetry is the target which Warren, the New Critic, attempts to destroy.
Warren looks at “The Indian Serenade,” as well, and one can tell Shelley’s poem is now better known. One can see the shift from Poe’s “Very few, perhaps, are familiar with these lines” to Robert Penn Warren’s introduction to Shelley’s poem in his essay:
And we know another poet and another garden. Or perhaps it is the same garden, after all:
I arise from dreams of thee
In the first sweet sleep of night,
When the winds are breathing low
And the stars are shining bright.
I arise from dreams of thee,
And a spirit in my feet
Hath led me—who knows how?
To thy chamber window, Sweet!
We remember how, again, all nature conspires, how the wandering airs “faint,” how the Champak’s odors “pine,” how the nightingale’s complaint “dies upon her heart,” as the lover will die upon the beloved’s heart. Nature here strains out of nature, it wants to be called by another name., it wants to spiritualize itself by calling itself another name.
The ideality of Poe and Shelley are faulted by Warren as “nature” which “strains out of nature,” and “nature” that wishes to “spiritualize itself.”
Prior to his discussion of Shelley’s “garden” from “The Indian Serenade,” Warren presents the various elements of the famous balcony scene from Romeo and Juliet so he can refute “pure poetry” in the following way: Romeo swears his love for Juliet by the moon: Juliet objects because the moon is changeable. Warren assigns “pure poetry” to Romeo’s “purist” moon metaphor and Juliet’s objection represents, for Warren, the more sensible “impure poetry” of the moderns—who laugh at the straining, spiritual sentimentalism of purists, Poe and Shelley—and, in this case, Romeo. Here are Warren’s exact words:
Within the garden itself, when the lover invokes nature, when he spiritualizes and innocently trusts her, and says, “Lady, by yonder blessed moon I swear,” the lady herself replies, “O, swear not by the moon, the inconstant moon/That monthly changes in her circled orb.” The lady distrusts “pure” poems, nature spiritualized into forgetfulness. She has, as it were, a rigorous taste in metaphor, too; she brings a logical criticism to bear on the metaphor which is too easy; the metaphor must prove itself to her, must be willing to subject itself to scrutiny beyond the moment’s enthusiasm. She injects the impurity of an intellectual style into the lover’s pure poem.
Juliet, and “her rigorous taste in metaphor!” According to Warren, the New Critic, the “logic” of Juliet “injects the impurity of an intellectual style” into the “pure poem.”
Of course this is imbecilic. Here is a classic case of pedantic over-thinking by a New Critic determined to push out the Shelley/Poe influence in poetry. Juliet does not object to the “metaphor.” She objects to the inconstant moon. Warren is attempting to work up an intellectual case against “purity” (and Shelley’s “Indian Serenade”) by linking “pure poetry” to an inexact use of metaphor. But the metaphor does not fail here; the moon fails. And the moon fails for the woo’d girl because of its inconstancy. There is nothing “impure” here—except in Warren’s reasoning. Nothing in Juliet’s objection signals “impurity,” or a rebuke to Poe or Shelley’s poetry, or their Platonist philosophy. The implied Shakespearean rebuke of Shelley’s “purity” is all in Warren’s New Critical head.
Warren continues the attack on Shelley’s “purity” by “installing Mercutio in the shrubbery” of Shelley’s “Indian Serenade.” (Mercutio is outside the garden in the Romeo and Juliet balcony scene—why not put him in the Shelley poem?) “And we can guess what the wicked tongue would have to say in response to the last stanza,” says Warren, rubbing his hands together in glee.
Warren then works up an elaborate trope about how all poets must come to terms with the bawdy Mercutio when writing love poems—one cannot exclude Mercutio entirely without consequences. Warren’s point is certainly apt—if only he were not comparing a brief lyric to a play. Poe (who was always very vigorous about metaphor) made this precise point regarding “undue brevity” one hundred years prior—which Warren seems to have completely missed.
Poe appreciates the beauty of Shelley’s poem, remarking that its brevity prevents it from being a popular poem. Warren, however, blames the beauty that is there in Shelley’s poem—by comparing it to a Shakespeare play—and implying there is something intellectually lacking in Shelley’s lyric.
Warren says a lot more in this essay: how there are many types of poetic purity, so many, in fact, they contradict each other; that purity implies exclusion—as when Poe says poetry should exclude truth and passion except by contrast, and strive for unity—and since there are as many types of exclusions as types of purity, the exclusionary strategy is fruitless; hence Poe is wrong, and all poems benefit from being impure.
Warren then examines two poems; first the famous four-line “Western wind, when wilt thou blow,” and then his friend John Crowe Ransom’s “Bells for John Whiteside’s Daughter.” We get the sort of New Critical analysis that mingles the obvious with the obscure in such an over-reaching manner that it ends up making one feel less acquainted with the poem. No one will remember Warren’s essay—except for perhaps Harvard’s Stephen Burt, who stole the concept “Elliptical Poetry” from its pages.
The New Critics began something wicked—even as they, themselves, now fade from our collective memories. It is the seed planted by the New Critics that makes us declaim today that the ghastly Sir Geoffrey Hill is the “greatest living poet.”