WHAT DOES THE HISTORY OF POETRY LOOK LIKE?

 

Thomas Eliot set the old poetry world in order, by george, he did!

T.S. Eliot was correct to remind us that the Tradition—Works in Time that We Read Now—evolves constantly as a whole by every present addition, is a unique living creature, and is not simply a chronological collection, to be ‘got at’ in a haphazard (even if the ‘getting’ is rigorously chronological) manner; Eliot’s formula only works if we see the Tradition as a whole—not that we can really see it ‘all at once,’ because, of course, it is too big for that—which we grasp in its essence (characterized by its best examples going back to its hazy but finite beginning) as that which simultaneously enriches our present efforts as poets and is enriched by our present efforts. As Eliot points out—but it goes without saying—this is a major task: first, to read and be acquainted with the Tradition, and then to be good enough to effectively add to it. And nothing less than this is required if we take ourselves seriously as poets.

Two temptations face those who would somehow fight free of the Tradition.

It is tempting to say, here’s me, the poet, and here’s the world, and that’s enough; and the Tradition—which is over here, well, we can take it and toss it in the sea. Eliot, after all, was a conservative wretch, and making the Tradition, with all its weighty past, essential, was just his way of preventing change. We can toss the Tradition in the sea, but it will just emerge again; the Tradition is the Sea; the Tradition includes the very desire to erase itself, all for the sake of change; the temptation to destroy Tradition lives and breathes in the Tradition itself; as Eliot so pointedly observed, the past is what we are; Eliot’s is not a piece of advice—it is the primary literary fact. We are not standing on the shoulders of giants; we are the shoulders, and thus, the giants.

Another temptation is to treat more recent works in the Tradition as more essential, because they are closer to us in time. This is to fall into the chronological error: more recent works are assumed—within Eliot’s very definition—to be participating in Eliot’s formula: adding and altering the past with their novelty; but new works don’t succeed on their own; they only succeed in altering the Tradition—chronology does not exist in some worldly sense; we might read a 16th century work and the Whole Tradition grows a new limb for us; to bite off what is nearest to us in time is merely the world’s chronology, not the Tradition’s, nor ours. We are learning the Tradition, not where it “fits” in the world; to fit the Tradition “into” the world, even as we regard it with scholarly and historical respect, is to drift dangerously into the error of the First Temptation, above. The Tradition is not what we know; it is how we know, and we learn it to know both it and ourselves simultaneously—once we try and observe it objectively from afar, we are lost in that profound error of the egotistical scholar and the manic, irresponsible poet, publishing in a newspaper: the news, not poetry.

The progress of the Tradition and Us in Time is not a smooth or simple one. If this were so, it would be a lot harder to grasp. It is only possible to grasp the Tradition at all, precisely because it includes those authors who are of such primary importance that they obliterate, eclipse, swallow, subsume, assimilate, join, conquer, raze, and eat thousands of lesser scribblers, including the most advanced minds of our time: Shakespeare, for instance; once your professor has finished showing you what he or she knows of Shakespeare, your professor is eaten by Shakespeare, and Shakespeare now belongs to you, and Shakespeare of the Tradition now belongs, in a living, and ever changing sense, to you. The Tradition belongs to Shakespeare, not the other way around.

The Program Era is naturally a bit wary of the Tradition, for the Creative Writing Industry is driven by a more immediate and practical concern—training the student, for a price, to be a writer—and it naturally seeks a shortcut past the giant, devouring Tradition—which the Creative Writing student—the old “English Major,”—has neither the time, nor the inclination, to read.

There is also the matter of present politics—politics as it exists and is practiced in the present (“Current Events”)—not literally ‘present politics,’ the practice of reading, as much as possible, present works, regarding their recent existence as more important because more recent—which we already covered in the Second temptation, above, but those recent politics that puff themselves up with great importance, which of course has the advantage of appealing to contemporaneous minds embroiled in all sorts of specific moral issues of the day; but the danger is: in as much as these issues come to the foreground, poetry fades into the background, where it apparently still exists for those whose moral indignation is fed by an outside source without poetic qualities. The dynamic is a slippery and subtle one, but is sufficiently lawful to kill poetry completely. A moral skin, a moral appearance, hides the emptiness.

Poetry does not live in the abstract; it lives in poetry: “Ode On A Grecian Urn.”

Thou still unravish’d bride of quietness,
       Thou foster-child of silence and slow time,
Sylvan historian, who canst thus express
       A flowery tale more sweetly than our rhyme:
What leaf-fring’d legend haunts about thy shape
       Of deities or mortals, or of both,
               In Tempe or the dales of Arcady?
       What men or gods are these? What maidens loth?
What mad pursuit? What struggle to escape?
               What pipes and timbrels? What wild ecstasy?
Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard
       Are sweeter; therefore, ye soft pipes, play on;
Not to the sensual ear, but, more endear’d,
       Pipe to the spirit ditties of no tone:
Fair youth, beneath the trees, thou canst not leave
       Thy song, nor ever can those trees be bare;
               Bold Lover, never, never canst thou kiss,
Though winning near the goal yet, do not grieve;
       She cannot fade, though thou hast not thy bliss,
               For ever wilt thou love, and she be fair!
Ah, happy, happy boughs! that cannot shed
         Your leaves, nor ever bid the Spring adieu;
And, happy melodist, unwearied,
         For ever piping songs for ever new;
More happy love! more happy, happy love!
         For ever warm and still to be enjoy’d,
                For ever panting, and for ever young;
All breathing human passion far above,
         That leaves a heart high-sorrowful and cloy’d,
                A burning forehead, and a parching tongue.
Who are these coming to the sacrifice?
         To what green altar, O mysterious priest,
Lead’st thou that heifer lowing at the skies,
         And all her silken flanks with garlands drest?
What little town by river or sea shore,
         Or mountain-built with peaceful citadel,
                Is emptied of this folk, this pious morn?
And, little town, thy streets for evermore
         Will silent be; and not a soul to tell
                Why thou art desolate, can e’er return.
O Attic shape! Fair attitude! with brede
         Of marble men and maidens overwrought,
With forest branches and the trodden weed;
         Thou, silent form, dost tease us out of thought
As doth eternity: Cold Pastoral!
         When old age shall this generation waste,
                Thou shalt remain, in midst of other woe
Than ours, a friend to man, to whom thou say’st,
         “Beauty is truth, truth beauty,—that is all
                Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.”

Poetry is not abstract. Even “the abstract” is not abstract. The abstract, by definition, is the boiled down essence of the forms, motions, shapes, speeds, accelerations, masses and vectors of the universe.

Useful abstraction aids the true understanding, which like Eliot’s Tradition, does not advance by accumulation of facts—which can make us dumber, loading us down with the mere puzzling plurality of the useless (the dull, wooly idiocy of the modernist gizmo school)—but rather by the shedding of facts, and so by careful elimination, the necessary necessarily enlightens the necessary.

The larger world, perceived by the mature person, has a use attached to every fact, and uses further attached to uses, in various and hierarchical ways. The best is not shied away from; transcendent inventions and breakthroughs are eagerly seized upon; poems are not treated as the learned expression of a scientist, nor as a scientific attempt at abstraction (the great error of Modernism) but rather as a great counter-expression to science and learning: otherwise the poem would drive the Tradition and not be driven by it; the poem and Tradition would not be distinct, and they must be, for either to properly exist; we study the Tradition, but not the poem—whose property is beauty, which can never be ‘got at’ by study. To miss this distinction is to miss everything.

We look at Keats’ Ode through the lens of the Tradition, and this is how we understand its greatness.

The person who does not find exquisite pleasure in reading Keats’ Ode certainly lacks those qualities that we look for not only in a poet, but in a human being; but this is not the same thing as reading the Ode through the lens of the Tradition, which we perform only in the aftermath of its beauty devouring us. The poets who attempt to reverse this process, by writing a Tradition-worthy poem before they experience the pleasure necessary to write a pleasurable poem, are barred from the glory which we find in Keats’ Ode.

The phrase “what maidens loth?” in the context of Keats’ Ode—the urn stands for the world in Keats’ poem, laid out before us, in mystery, in beautiful miniature (find another poem which replicates all existence as well)—contains a great deal: maidens pursued, maidens who resist this pursuit, the question, “what maidens?” as the misty yet clear world of the urn is gazed at, manifests greatness by saying a lot with a little.

The objective excellence belongs to the poem of the Tradition, but not to the poem—even though we feel what is objectively excellent as we experience the poem’s beauty.

Keats, feeling pure sentimental love (which the Moderns in their sophistication revile and ridicule and curse) dares to confront a great black hole of existence: maidens and the essence of maidenhood—which flashes at us quickly in the amoral, rolling-eye ecstasy of Keats’ ur-landscape, which offers sacrifice, rape, and love, and the stopping of a kiss (desire) which therefore preserves the lover’s beauty—the stoppage, ironically, driving the urn’s immortal journey through time; enabling the urn (and the poem!) to outlive us and our apparently more active life:—it is we who are stopped, while the poem/urn is that which, in an ironic reversal, moves, just as the delirious, metrical wonder that is Keats’ poem pitches forward with its music, and, in loving it, we move backward to read it again, our admiration turning the poem into an object of admiration that nonetheless constantly moves, imitating the ever-still, ever-moving universe, both beautiful/tragic in its stillness and beautiful/tragic in its moving. Did Keats consider all this before he wrote his poem? Obviously not; but surely the poet in him quickly fixed on the urn-idea for a poem; genius grasping and teasing out the many in an essential thing.

The simpleton, who sits passively in front of a film while it unpacks its frozen pictures to describe its story, finds it impossible to conceive how a poem merely sitting on a page could produce more insight and pleasure than a movie (with popcorn). Poor simpleton! The simpleton belongs to the world, not to the world and God. If we cannot appreciate a Keats poem and the Tradition, we are just like that simpleton, who may indeed feel as much pleasure as us, and in that sense, be as worthy. We cannot judge a simpleton or a poem; we bring about judgment (as we are doing here) only as we think with the self-consciousness of the Tradition.

 

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22 Comments

  1. December 3, 2014 at 3:16 am

    Your discussion of poetry is very inspiring. After reading that most famous ode by Keats, I composed one I call Ode On A Television.

    • thomasbrady said,

      December 3, 2014 at 1:03 pm

      Thank you, Simon! You may copy it here. Ha! We don’t mind.

      • Mary Douglas said,

        December 3, 2014 at 2:51 pm

        Works closer in time are not necessarily closer (to us) in beauty and truth, who could not agree with this? (and yet many don’t) This is a beautiful essay that itself already stands outside of us in time (and did, as soon as it was written) as it deals with the immortality of Poetry and the seriousness of the poetic vocation a viewpoint lamentably lacking in the current (sham) discussions on poetry.

        Every time I reread Keat’s Ode I am as astonished by its snowy freshness as I was the first time I read it and how in the world is it possible for a poem to be this perfect I might wonder. And yet, it is.

        I had a consoling dream once when I was very worn down on unemployment and selling my books to survive as well as picking up garbage on the grounds of the apartment complex where I lived in order to make ends meet-and the dream was this.

        I was in Heaven and every poem I had written was a little house, each one vivid and wonderful to stand in and I was very happy.
        When I woke up I felt a kind of brightness from this dream I can still recover just by thinking of this.

        Today reading this essay I thought of this dream again because truly in reading Keat’s poem I felt as I always do that I have entered a house or perhaps a vast room of unbelievable serenity and beauty.

        Reflecting on this again I ask myself about all the poems I love? Could I live in those poems? Would I want to? Be careful when you write perhaps the dream said – you may have to live in it for a long time. It is anyway, for me, a fun test of a poem. Many poems I wouldn’t want to live in; I wouldn’t even want to visit the neighborhood. Too many barking dogs. And garbage piled up on the curbs…

        • thomasbrady said,

          December 3, 2014 at 7:17 pm

          Mary,

          This is a great test: would you want to live in the poem? There are intellectual sourpusses who feel art should be horrible and ugly ‘because the world is horrible and ugly,’ but all they do, then, is add to the ugliness. Some can’t do beautiful or sublime, so out of jealousy and sour grapes, they aspire to ugliness as a criterion of art. We can spot these intellectual sourpusses from a mile away. Of course, some ugliness can be introduced into the poem as contrast, but, finally…

          Tom

          • Mary Douglas said,

            December 3, 2014 at 7:30 pm

            Thank you Tom. I take zero credit for the metaphor as it came to me from Dreamworld. So theo Dreamworld thanks you (through me as a puny but happy representative). I think there can be ugliness in a poem too but I always in my own poems made sure when I was writing from a dark mood to leave the light on somewhere in the poem or to have some kind of trapdoor into the next poem or day.

            I also meant to say I REALLY liked your image of Poetry (tradition of
            Poetry) after being thrown overboard by the whoevers bobbing up again in the waters. Like ivory soap it FLOATS!!!

      • Surazeus said,

        December 13, 2014 at 4:03 am

        I am sorry, I had forgotten to come back and read comments, so I just noticed your invite to post it. I plan to submit the poem to some journal or other, though I am haphazard and lazy about submitting, since I spend so much time writing my epic Hermead. Most of my work gets rejected anyway, but I figured I would try. If it happens to get accepted sometime in the next decade, I will share the link.

  2. Mary Douglas said,

    December 3, 2014 at 3:57 pm

    Thinking of it a little more I realized in the current discussions of poetry things have degenerated even further than I thought because truth and beauty are not even considered germane to the discussion at all and I don’t even know what they have been replaced with.

  3. Andrew said,

    December 4, 2014 at 12:39 pm

    “…to read and be aquatinted with the Tradition…]

    An interesting way of putting it. Am I aquatinted – or merely stained by it?

    • thomasbrady said,

      December 4, 2014 at 12:57 pm

      Or killed by it.

      • Andrew said,

        December 4, 2014 at 1:10 pm

        So it was not a typo then…

        It’s a catchy and colorful phrase ☻

  4. Andrew said,

    December 4, 2014 at 12:52 pm

    RE: “…the matter of present politics” above –

    Tom, would you call T.S. Eliot a wretch had he been liberal?
    Are all conservatives wretches by nature or did his wretchedness arise from his human (rather than political) character ?

    • thomasbrady said,

      December 4, 2014 at 12:56 pm

      Andrew, I was being a bit tongue-in-cheek when I called Eliot a “conservative wretch…” In Letters today one has to acknowledge the overwhelming liberal atmosphere, at least ironically…

  5. Andrew said,

    December 4, 2014 at 1:05 pm

    A very interesting read – thank you Scarriet.

    Ah well – back to pursuing that maiden with the harp…

  6. rimbaudboyo said,

    December 12, 2014 at 2:40 am

    I gotta admit I cannot stand this Keats guy. I prefer the sarcastic Byron Don Juan style of writing. I guess its personal like my name sake!

  7. rimbaudboyo said,

    December 12, 2014 at 2:44 am

    I would not imitate the petty thought,
    Nor coin my self-love to so base a vice,
    For all the glory your conversion brought,
    Since gold alone should not have been its price.
    You have your salary; was’t for that you wrought?
    And Wordsworth has his place in the Excise.
    You’re shabby fellows—true—but poets still
    And duly seated on the immortal hill.

    Your bays may hide the baldness of your brows,
    Perhaps some virtuous blushes; let them go.
    To you I envy neither fruit nor boughs,
    And for the fame you would engross below,
    The field is universal and allows
    Scope to all such as feel the inherent glow.
    Scott, Rogers, Campbell, Moore, and Crabbe will try
    ‘Gainst you the question with posterity.

    ___ I know Byron was a pal of Shelly and the lived in the same castle with Mary but Keats? I don’t think Keats was a part of that circle… Poor Keats! Anthony Burgess? wrote a book about him that was quite emotional!

    • thomasbrady said,

      December 12, 2014 at 12:53 pm

      Burgess and Keats? That’s no fit. Burgess wrote on the Bard and Joyce. Also the screenplay for Zeffirelli’s film on Jesus.

  8. JudytheScholar said,

    December 12, 2014 at 6:15 pm

    Abba Abba Anthony Burgess.As usual you are out of your depth
    Abba Abba https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Abba_Abba

    The title in case you are too dense to get it is the well known rhyme scheme Keats used.

    • thomasbrady said,

      December 12, 2014 at 9:10 pm

      Judy of the Depths,

      Thanks. Burgess published A LOT, and his Keats work Abba Abba doesn’t get a lot of attention. The work is more of a take-off and not REALLY about Keats. Just as his work on Shakespeare is complete speculation, and one could argue a step backwards in really knowing about Shakespeare, because it is all vindictive, wrong-headed Burgess, and not Shakespeare. That’s why I hate most fictional biography–it’s often nothing more than a libel exercise. So my original observation IS correct: Burgess and Keats are NOT a good fit. It’s not enough to simply look things up on Wiki. But I do appreciate your feedback. So again, thanks. Brady doesn’t know everything.

      • noochinator said,

        December 12, 2014 at 9:33 pm

        “So my original observation IS correct: Burgess and Keats are NOT a good fit.”

        That’s a hasty conclusion to make about a book you’ve never looked at.

        “It’s not enough to simply look things up on Wiki.”

        No, but it’s a start — and how do you know that’s all JudytheScholar has “simply” done? She may have read the book cover-to-cover….

        • thomasbrady said,

          December 12, 2014 at 10:08 pm

          I know Burgess and I know Keats.

          If Judy has read that work and that work is a true evocation of Keats, I will humbly stand corrected.

  9. Ashu अशु said,

    January 14, 2015 at 11:50 am

    [The person who does not find exquisite pleasure in reading Keats’ Ode certainly lacks those qualities that we look for not only in a poet, but in a human being.]

    This is a really monstrous statement, like all statements that seek to define humanity on the basis of belief and taste. What about a reader who does not find exquisite pleasure in this poem but finds it in Tennyson’s Ulysses? Or who finds exquisite pleasure in poetry but not in music? Or the other way around? Or in the Beatles but not in Brahms?

    • thomasbrady said,

      January 14, 2015 at 1:19 pm

      Oh Ashu, I just don’t see how someone could not like Keats’ Ode, but like Tennyson’s Ulysses. Or love poetry but not music. I could never choose between Beatles and Brahms. Beatles I like. Brahms I like. On certain days I might find Brahms intolerable, or the Beatles intolerable. But if someone told me they could NEVER appreciate the Beatles or Brahms in a million years, I would ask them, “Well, what do you like?” That’s the only question to ask. So, I guess in that sense, you are right. If you don’t like this, you MUST like something else. And if both are true, then, yes, I suppose someone could be exquisitely justified in disliking Keats’ Ode. Perhaps that is a monstrous statement, then. Belief and taste are both involuntary. But I don’t think I’m wrong to at least attempt to define humanity with them.


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