ROUND ONE IN POETRY: KEATS VERSUS BYRON

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Byron

It is fitting somehow, that Lord Bryon faces off against Keats in Scarriet’s Poetry Madness—these are the two greatest poets, in English, perhaps, and their vast differences bespeak of Man’s two extreme personalities: One, manly and mercurial, the other feminine and consistent.

Here is Byron reacting rather egotistically, and coldly, to Keats’ death, remarking that Keats was killed by a bad review, but he (Byron) wasn’t:

Is it true, what Shelley writes me, that poor John Keats died at Rome of the Quarterly Review? I am very sorry for it, though I think he took the wrong line as a poet, and was spoilt by Cockneyfying, and Suburbing, and versifying Tooke’s Pantheon and Lempriere’s Dictionary. I know, by experience, that a savage review is Hemlock to a sucking author; and the one on me (which produced the English Bards, etc.) knocked me down — but I got up again. Instead of bursting a blood-vessel, I drank three bottles of Claret, and began an answer, finding that there was nothing in the Article for which I could lawfully knock Jeffrey on the head, in an honourable way.

Byron was cruel and sentimental, cold and warm, by turns, a man of the world, who loved and hated, risked and lost, ranted and wept; where Keats, perhaps the slightly higher genius, was satisfied to live in a cottage and love the maiden next door; Keats was never sentimental, never cruel—but burned with a glow, everlasting.

This is not quite true.  Even Keats had his anger and his petulance.

Any good poet—as Poe pointed out—is irritable; reaching after perfection, one will naturally be annoyed at times.

And yet Keats’ bad moods must have resembled the bad moods of a flower.

The aesthetically critical mind can be argumentative, and still gentle.

Look at this sneering sonnet Keats wrote (he sounds like Byron!):

The House of Mourning written by Mr Scott,
A sermon at the Magdalen, a tear
Dropped on a greasy novel, want of cheer
After a walk uphill to a friend’s cot,
Tea with a maiden lady, a cursed lot
Of worthy poems with the author near,
A patron lord, a drunkenness from beer,
Haydon’s great picture, a cold coffee pot
At midnight when the Muse is ripe for labour,
The voice of Mr Coleridge, a French bonnet
Before you in the pit, a pipe and tabour,
A damned inseparable flute and neighbour —
All these are vile, but viler Wordsworth’s sonnet
On Dover. Dover! — who could write upon it?

It sneers, yes.  But it’s a sonnet.

It is one of the more interesting poems by Keats—because it reveals so much about him.  He liked coffee, etc.

“The House of Mourning” is not a well-known poem.

Nor is this line of Keats’s well-known either, “Soft went the music the soft air along.”

Connoisseurs of poetry will recognize instantly the genius and beauty of this line—chosen for the 2017 Madness.

“Soft went the music the soft air along” has no sentiment.  The line has beauty only.

The famous Byron line is beautiful—and also sentimental.

“So we’ll go no more a roving, So late into the night, Though the heart be still as loving, And the moon be still as bright.”

Keats wins.

WHAT IS A BAD POEM?

 

Image result for model trains

A good poem needs 2 things.

Most have the first: an anecdote, theme, or story which supports the poem.

The second is why 99% of poems fail.

It is because the anecdote, the reason for the poem, is a thousand times better than the poem.

One attempt to fix this is to write a poem which is so brief, the anecdote is the poem.

The other is to make the poem so lengthy that it forgets, for many lines, its theme. Both of these attempts fail.

99% of poetry stinks.

One might counter this with a list of exemplary qualities which every poem requires to be successful. But the problem with this is that such lists can go on forever. We believe the simple “anecdote” warning above beats every list in the world.

And further, any lengthy list of what makes a poem good can actually do harm, as striving to satisfy many elements of expression may destroy the poem’s unity. Wit lessens options; it doesn’t expand them.

Pope’s phrase is exemplary: ” what oft’ was thought, but ne’er so well expressed.” A poem needs but 2 things ever: ‘what people are thinking’ and the ‘better expression of it.’ The ‘better’ is the rub. And ‘what people are actually thinking’ helps, too.

Pope, the Augustan Wit, belongs to an era lost to our day—flying beyond the Romantics and the Moderns, so that Pope is hardly considered a poet at all to those who long ago bought into aesthetic statements such as the “Red Wheel Barrow.”

The fetish of the romantically tinged image of the early Modernists struck a blow against philosophical wit—to no effect, really.

Wit looking at objects is all poetry is, and has ever been.

The Romantics—who the Moderns and Post-Moderns have never quite escaped—countered the Augustan Wits with heart.

But as we examine the Romantics from our modern future, we see the Romantics were Wits, too.  Read Byron.

Today, most poetry has neither wit nor heart: no, that may not be quite true.  It often has heart, but no wit.  Or wit, but no heart.  The good poem tends to have both: a good theme sweetly expressed. But modern poetry has mostly left this combination behind, in the name of (what to call it?) a modernity which considers itself too modern for any broad sense of sweetness, virtue, or virtuosity.

Modernity has replaced the Muse. Today poets write as they are taught: to write against the past, instead of adding to its glories. One criterion exists in the Post-Modern, Creative Writing Program Era: Whatever you do, avoid the Iconic Past. Write in any manner you like, just as long as you don’t sound like Byron!

A good example of how this Modern Stupidity has replaced the Muse is the following poem which every modern loves.

In this poem, the ten year old who rhymes is secret code for Keats, Poe, Byron.

And the schoolteacher (cunningly dismissed, as well) in this poem is nothing more than tradition and poetry itself, replaced by the 20th-century, business model, vanity of the Creative Writing Program—which became a kind of solution during Bunting’s lifetime to the insulting woes described in the poem. Bunting’s clever poem seems to be a defense of poetry. It’s not. It’s a defense of modern poetry. And there’s a very important difference.

~

What the Chairman Told Tom by Basil Bunting (1900-1985)

Poetry? It’s a hobby.
I run model trains.
Mr. Shaw there breeds pigeons.

It’s not work. You don’t sweat.
Nobody pays for it.
You could advertise soap.

Art, that’s opera; or repertory—
The Desert Song.
Nancy was in the chorus.

But to ask for twelve pounds a week—
married, aren’t you?—
you’ve got a nerve.

How could I look a bus conductor
in the face
if I paid you twelve pounds?

Who says it’s poetry, anyhow?
My ten year old
can do it and rhyme.

I get three thousand and expenses,
a car, vouchers,
but I’m an accountant.

They do what I tell them,
my company.
What do you do?

Nasty little words, nasty long words,
it’s unhealthy.
I want to wash when I meet a poet.

They’re Reds, addicts,
all delinquents.
What you write is rot.

Mr. Hines says so, and he’s a schoolteacher,
he ought to know.
Go and find work.

~

We almost feel sorry for Tom, the sorry-ass modern poet who writes “rot,” but still wishes his “rot” to earn him a living. Is the speaker of the poem attractive? Not exactly, though his honest approach is the entire merit of the poem—take this away, and there’s no poem. Now, it is true: wrestling with how to make a poem better than “writing advertisements” or more significant than “a hobby” are valid questions, but Bunting’s poem isn’t interested in that; it only wants us to assume the poet is honorable—simply in the face of the “unkind” chairman’s remarks. Unfortunately, the “rot” the chairman mentions, as everyone who attempts to read most poetry knows, despite the poem’s self-pity, is depressingly real.

Bunting’s poem has heart—but no wit.

Bunting’s poem is good, raw anecdote—with a dubious agenda.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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