Continuing a series of classic essays on literature. This month sees the sagely intuition of TS Elliot in quintessential action (1919)
In English writing we seldom speak of tradition, though we occasionally apply its name in deploring its absence. We cannot refer to “the tradition” or to “a tradition”; at most, we employ the adjective in saying that the poetry of So-and-so is “traditional” or even “too traditional.” Seldom, perhaps, does the word appear except in a phrase of censure. If otherwise, it is vaguely approbative, with the implication, as to the work approved, of some pleasing archaeological reconstruction. You can hardly make the word agreeable to English ears without this comfortable reference to the reassuring science of archaeology.
Certainly the word is not likely to appear in our appreciations of living or dead writers. Every nation, every race, has not only its own creative, but its own critical turn of mind; and is even more oblivious of the shortcomings and limitations of its critical habits than of those of its creative genius. We know, or think we know, from the enormous mass of critical writing that has appeared in the French language the critical method or habit of the French; we only conclude (we are such unconscious people) that the French are “more critical” than we, and sometimes even plume ourselves a little with the fact, as if the French were the less spontaneous. Perhaps they are; but we might remind ourselves that criticism is as inevitable as breathing, and that we should be none the worse for articulating what passes in our minds when we read a book and feel an emotion about it, for criticizing our own minds in their work of criticism. One of the facts that might come to light in this process is our tendency to insist, when we praise a poet, upon those aspects of his work in which he least resembles any one else. In these aspects or parts of his work we pretend to find what is individual, what is the peculiar essence of the man. We dwell with satisfaction upon the poet’s difference from his predecessors, especially his immediate predecessors; we endeavour to find something that can be isolated in order to be enjoyed. Whereas if we approach a poet without this prejudice we shall often find that not only the best, but the most individual parts of his work may be those in which the dead poets, his ancestors, assert their immortality most vigorously. And I do not mean the impressionable period of adolescence, but the period of full maturity.
Yet if the only form of tradition, of handing down, consisted in following the ways of the immediate generation before us in a blind or timid adherence to its successes, “tradition” should positively be discouraged. We have seen many such simple currents soon lost in the sand; and novelty is better than repetition. Tradition is a matter of much wider significance. It cannot be inherited, and if you want it you must obtain it by great labour. It involves, in the first place, the historical sense, which we may call nearly indispensable to any one who would continue to be a poet beyond his twenty-fifth year; and the historical sense involves a perception, not only of the pastness of the past, but of its presence; the historical sense compels a man to write not merely with his own generation in his bones, but with a feeling that the whole of the literature of Europe from Homer and within it the whole of the literature of his own country has a simultaneous existence and composes a simultaneous order. This historical sense, which is a sense of the timeless as well as of the temporal and of the timeless and of the temporal together, is what makes a writer traditional. And it is at the same time what makes a writer most acutely conscious of his place in time, of his own contemporaneity.
No poet, no artist of any art, has his complete meaning alone. His significance, his appreciation is the appreciation of his relation to the dead poets and artists. You cannot value him alone; you must set him, for contrast and comparison, among the dead. I mean this as a principle of aesthetic, not merely historical, criticism. The necessity that he shall conform, that he shall cohere, is not onesided; what happens when a new work of art is created is something that happens simultaneously to all the works of art which preceded it. The existing monuments form an ideal order among themselves, which is modified by the introduction of the new (the really new) work of art among them. The existing order is complete before the new work arrives; for order to persist after the supervention of novelty, the whole existing order must be, if ever so slightly, altered; and so the relations, proportions, values of each work of art toward the whole are readjusted; and this is conformity between the old and the new. Whoever has approved this idea of order, of the form of European, of English literature will not find it preposterous that the past should be altered by the present as much as the present is directed by the past. And the poet who is aware of this will be aware of great difficulties and responsibilities.
In a peculiar sense he will be aware also that he must inevitably be judged by the standards of the past. I say judged, not amputated, by them; not judged to be as good as, or worse or better than, the dead; and certainly not judged by the canons of dead critics. It is a judgment, a comparison, in which two things are measured by each other. To conform merely would be for the new work not really to conform at all; it would not be new, and would therefore not be a work of art. And we do not quite say that the new is more valuable because it fits in; but its fitting in is a test of its value—a test, it is true, which can only be slowly and cautiously applied, for we are none of us infallible judges of conformity. We say: it appears to conform, and is perhaps individual, or it appears individual, and many conform; but we are hardly likely to find that it is one and not the other.
To proceed to a more intelligible exposition of the relation of the poet to the past: he can neither take the past as a lump, an indiscriminate bolus, nor can he form himself wholly on one or two private admirations, nor can he form himself wholly upon one preferred period. The first course is inadmissible, the second is an important experience of youth, and the third is a pleasant and highly desirable supplement. The poet must be very conscious of the main current, which does not at all flow invariably through the most distinguished reputations. He must be quite aware of the obvious fact that art never improves, but that the material of art is never quite the same. He must be aware that the mind of Europe—the mind of his own country—a mind which he learns in time to be much more important than his own private mind—is a mind which changes, and that this change is a development which abandons nothing en route, which does not superannuate either Shakespeare, or Homer, or the rock drawing of the Magdalenian draughtsmen. That this development, refinement perhaps, complication certainly, is not, from the point of view of the artist, any improvement. Perhaps not even an improvement from the point of view of the psychologist or not to the extent which we imagine; perhaps only in the end based upon a complication in economics and machinery. But the difference between the present and the past is that the conscious present is an awareness of the past in a way and to an extent which the past’s awareness of itself cannot show.
Some one said: “The dead writers are remote from us because we know so much more than they did.” Precisely, and they are that which we know.
I am alive to a usual objection to what is clearly part of my programme for the métier of poetry. The objection is that the doctrine requires a ridiculous amount of erudition (pedantry), a claim which can be rejected by appeal to the lives of poets in any pantheon. It will even be affirmed that much learning deadens or perverts poetic sensibility. While, however, we persist in believing that a poet ought to know as much as will not encroach upon his necessary receptivity and necessary laziness, it is not desirable to confine knowledge to whatever can be put into a useful shape for examinations, drawing-rooms, or the still more pretentious modes of publicity. Some can absorb knowledge, the more tardy must sweat for it. Shakespeare acquired more essential history from Plutarch than most men could from the whole British Museum. What is to be insisted upon is that the poet must develop or procure the consciousness of the past and that he should continue to develop this consciousness throughout his career.
What happens is a continual surrender of himself as he is at the moment to something which is more valuable. The progress of an artist is a continual self-sacrifice, a continual extinction of personality. There remains to define this process of depersonalization and its relation to the sense of tradition. It is in this depersonalization that art may be said to approach the condition of science. I, therefore, invite you to consider, as a suggestive analogy, the action which takes place when a bit of finely filiated platinum is introduced into a chamber containing oxygen and sulphur dioxide.
This is only the first part of the essay. There are two more parts.
Beginning a series of classic essays on literature. This month sees the brilliant 20th century Indian ascetic poet Sri Aurobindo discussing Sanskrit literature (1920)
The greatness of a literature lies first in the greatness and worth of its substance, the value of its thought and the beauty of its forms, but also in the degree to which, satisfying the highest conditions of the art of speech, it avails to bring out and raise the soul and life or the living and the ideal mind of a people, an age, a culture, through the genius of some of its greatest or most sensitive representative spirits. And if we ask what in both these respects is the achievement of the Indian mind as it has come down to us in the Sanskrit and other literatures, we might surely say that here at least there is little room for any just depreciation and denial even by a mind the most disposed to quarrel with the effect on life and the character of the culture.
The ancient and classical creations of the Sanskrit tongue both in quality and in body and abundance of excellence, in their potent originality and force and beauty, in their substance and art and structure, in grandeur and justice and charm of speech and in the height and width of the reach of their spirit stand very evidently in the front rank among the world’s great literatures. The language itself, as has been universally recognised by those competent to form a judgment, is one of the most magnificent, the most perfect and wonderfully sufficient literary instruments developed by the human mind, at once majestic and sweet and flexible, strong and clearly-formed and full and vibrant and subtle, and its quality and character would be of itself a sufficient evidence of the character and quality of the race whose mind it expressed and the culture of which it was the reflecting medium.
The great and noble use made of it by poet and thinker did not fall below the splendour of its capacities. Nor is it in the Sanskrit tongue alone that the Indian mind has done high and beautiful and perfect things, though it couched in that language the larger part of its most prominent and formative and grandest creations. It would be necessary for a complete estimate to take into account as well the Buddhistic literature in Pali and the poetic literatures, here opulent, there more scanty in production, of about a dozen Sanskritic and Dravidian tongues. The whole has almost a continental effect and does not fall so far short in the quantity of its really lasting things and equals in its things of best excellence the work of ancient and mediaeval and modern Europe.
The people and the civilisation that count among their great works and their great names the Veda and the Upanishads, the mighty structures of the Mahabharata and the Ramayana, Kalidasa and Bhavabhuti and Bhartrihari and Jayadeva and the other rich creations of classical Indian drama and poetry and romance, the Dhammapada and the Jatakas, the Panchatantra, Tulsidas, Vidyapati and Chandidas and Ramprasad, Ramdas and Tukaram, Tiruvalluvar and Kamban and the songs of Nanak and Kabir and Mirabai and the southern Shaiva saints and the Alwars, – to name only the best-known writers and most characteristic productions, though there is a very large body of other work in the different tongues of both the first and the second excellence, – must surely be counted among the greatest civilisations and the world’s most developed and creative peoples. A mental activity so great and of so fine a quality commencing more than three thousand years ago and still not exhausted is unique and the best and most undeniable witness to something extraordinarily sound and vital in the culture.
The early mind of India in the magnificent youth of the nation, when a fathomless spiritual insight was at work, a subtle intuitive vision and a deep, clear and greatly outlined intellectual and ethical thinking and heroic action and creation which founded and traced the plan and made the permanent structure of her unique culture and civilisation, is represented by four of the supreme productions of her genius, the Veda, the Upanishads and the two vast epics, and each of them is of a kind, a form and an intention not easily paralleled in any other literature. The two first are the visible foundation of her spiritual and religious being, the others a large creative interpretation of her greatest period of life, of the ideas that informed and the ideals that governed it and the figures in which she saw man and Nature and God and the powers of the universe. The Veda gave us the first types and figures of these things as seen and formed by an imaged spiritual intuition and psychological and religious experience; the Upanishads constantly breaking through and beyond form and symbol and image without entirely abandoning them, since always they come in as accompaniment or undertone, reveal in a unique kind of poetry the ultimate and unsurpassable truths of self and God and man and the world and its principles and powers in their most essential, their profoundest and most intimate and their most ample realities, – highest mysteries and clarities vividly seen in an irresistible, an unwalled perception that has got through the intuitive and psychological to the sheer spiritual vision.
And after that we have powerful and beautiful developments of the intellect and the life and of ideal, ethical, aesthetic, psychic, emotional and sensuous and physical knowledge and idea and vision and experience of which the epics are the early record and the rest of the literature the continuation; but the foundation remains the same throughout, and whatever new and often larger types and significant figures replace the old or intervene to add and modify and alter the whole ensemble, are in their essential build and character transmutations and extensions of the original vision and first spiritual experience and never an unconnected departure. There is a persistence, a continuity of the Indian mind in its literary creation in spite of great changes as consistent as that which we find in painting and sculpture.
The Veda is the creation of an early intuitive and symbolical mentality to which the later mind of man, strongly intellectualised and governed on the one side by reasoning idea and abstract conception, on the other hand by the facts of life and matter accepted as they present themselves to the senses and positive intelligence without seeking in them for any divine or mystic significance, indulging the imagination as a play of the aesthetic fancy rather than as an opener of the doors of truth and only trusting to its suggestions when they are confirmed by the logical reason or by physical experience, aware only of carefully intellectualised intuitions and recalcitrant for the most part to any others, has grown a total stranger. It is not surprising therefore that the Veda should have become unintelligible to our minds except in its most outward shell of language, and that even very imperfectly known owing to the obstacle of an antique and ill-understood diction, and that the most inadequate interpretations should be made which reduce this great creation of the young and splendid mind of humanity to a botched and defaced scrawl, an incoherent hotch-potch of the absurdities of a primitive imagination perplexing what would be otherwise the quite plain, flat and common record of a naturalistic religion which mirrored only and could only minister to the crude and materialistic desires of a barbaric life mind. The Veda became to the later scholastic and ritualistic idea of Indian priests and pundits nothing better than a book of mythology and sacrificial ceremonies; European scholars seeking in it for what was alone to them of any rational interest, the history, myths and popular religious notions of a primitive people, have done yet worse wrong to the Veda and by insisting on a wholly external rendering still farther stripped it of its spiritual interest and its poetic greatness and beauty.
The real character of the Veda can best be understood by taking it anywhere and rendering it straightforwardly according to its own phrases and images. A famous German scholar rating from his high pedestal of superior intelligence the silly persons who find sublimity in the Veda, tells us that it is full of childish, silly, even monstrous conceptions, that it is tedious, low, commonplace, that it represents human nature on a low level of selfishness and worldliness and that only here and there are a few rare sentiments that come from the depths of the soul. It may be made so if we put our own mental conceptions into the words of the Rishis, but if we read them as they are without any such false translation into what we think early barbarians ought to have said and thought, we shall find instead a sacred poetry sublime and powerful in its words and images, though with another kind of language and imagination than we now prefer and appreciate, deep and subtle in its psychological experience and stirred by a moved soul of vision and utterance. Hear rather the word itself of the Veda.
Ignored by the larger mainstream anthologists of America, Charles Bukowski is the ultimate proletarian anti-poet, an American hero their establishment would rather not possess on account of the fact he is by far their best, or rather truest poet. His style was refreshingly honest, a Tu Fu of the Beats, inspired by the twentieth century ‘Poetic Revolution‘ when poetry had, in Bukowski’s words, ‘turned from a diffuse and careful voice of formula and studied ineffectiveness to a voice of clarity and burnt toast and spilled loaves and me and you and the spider in the corner.’
Among Bukowski’s massive, almost industrial, output I have found a poem of his which is, in relation to the convetional poetic spheres, just so brilliantly curveball. It is found in a collection entitled ‘Love Is A Dog From Hell,’ a whirlwind of poems dated 1974-77. The book is midway between the publication of our poet’s first collection, ‘Flower, Fist & Bestial Wail’ (1960) & his death in 1994; & may be seen as the highwater-mark of his career. In this period Bukowski’s star was very much on the ascendency; success in Europe, breakthrough interviews with Rolling Stone Magazine & an acceptance into the American poetical elite as a notorious enfant terrible. On 25th November 1974, Bukowski read in Santa Cruz alongside Gary Snyder & Allen Ginsburg, an event memorialized by Ric Reynolds, who described Bukowski as; ‘a man of genius, the first poet to cut through light and consciousness for two thousand years & these bastards dont even appreciate it.’
The mid-seventies also saw Bukowski engaged in a string of affairs with women; including Linda Lee Beighle, Pamela Miller – who becomes Nina in his short story, Workout – & Jane Manahattan – the Iris Hall of his Women. Of her time with Bukowski, Jane commented, ‘he was funny all day every day. A great love of life, & an enjoyment – always to be seeing the funny thing, & making a comment. he was a comedian.
The poems within ‘Love Is A Dog From Hell’ are both sexually visceral & brutally protagonistic, with an incredibly poised ‘cogito, ergo sum.‘ Here we have the American sonnet sequence to Laura, but of course fashion’d via fabulously free ‘verse libre’ & the even freer love of the sex-addl’d seventies. In one of the poems, ‘how to be a great writer,’ he declares at its opening the creative & spiritual ordination of the entire collection;
you’ve got to fuck a great many women
and write a few decent love poems.
Ever since the publication of his first poem, ‘Aftermath of a Lengthy Rejection Slip,‘ in 1944 – at the age of 24 – the German-born Bukowski & his writing was dedicated to the holy trinity of Wein, Weib & Gesang – Wine, Women & Song. Thirty years later, his dedication to those core tenets was as strong as ever, only the delivery had changed to that of an ageing & cynical amourouse.
So to the poem I have chosen, artists: (Bukowski never respected the principle of capital letters), a classic laissez-faire love-affair with a groupie. Next to his omniscient genius – Bukowski almost breaks sweat telling us so – she is a minor writer, & not even that inspirational a lover. The scene is set for a droll masterpiece that could never find its way into an establishment canon, but for pure drama & in-the-moment magic it is unsurpass’d in all the poetry I have personally read. For the purposes of this essay I shall give the poem in full, adding a little critigloss in the interludes.
she wrote me for years.
“I’m drinking wine in the kitchen.
it’s raining outside. the children
are in school.”
she was an average citizen
worried about her soul, her typewriter
underground poetry reputation
she wrote fairly well and with honesty
but only long after others had
broken the road ahead
In eleven lines Bukowski brilliantly introduces his muse. We know so much about her already; a bor’d mother who writes to differentiate herself from the hum-drum. In a damning piece of critique on both her style & the state of modern poetry, Bukowski portrays her quite ruthlessly as lagging far behind the original poets who have ‘broken the road ahead.’
she’d phone me drunk at 2 a.m.
at 3 a.m.
while her husband slept
“it’s good to hear your voice,” she’d say.
“it’s good to hear your voice too” I’d say.
what the hell, you
In this next segment, Bukowski introduces himself into the poem – he is always the star -, converging on illicit daft-o’clock phonecalls with his faraway ‘mistress.’ There is no background to these calls, but the not-knowing encourages our minds to calculate why? She is a poet of an underground scene, did they meet that way? Did they sleep together then, or are these late night calls the first sordid steps towards her infidelity. We get all of that from just five short lines, which are followed by five superbly brusque words in which Bukowski’s soul & voice are eternised. He’s up for it, why not, wouldn’t you?
she finally came down. I think it had
something to do with
The Chapparal Poets Society of California.
they had to elect officers. she phoned me
from their hotel
“I’m here,” she said, “we’re going to elect
“o.k., fine” I said, “get some good ones.”
I hung up
the phone rang again
“hey, don’t you want to see me?”
“sure,” I said, “what’s the address?”
With another piece of blasé indifference to his groupie – this time, given to his muse directly – Bukowski reaffirms all what he has been telling us about the situation. She is a poetess & she wants to see him, while he is completely indifferent to both her place in the poetry world & whether he gets to sleep with her or not. The Chaparral Society, by the way – Bukowski spelt it wrong – is the oldest and largest poetry organization in California, founded in the Los Angeles Area in 1939.
after she said goodby I jacked-off
changed my stockings
drank a half bottle of wine and
drove on out
they were all drunk and trying to
fuck each other.
I drove her back to my place.
she had on pink panties with
Here, in its most poetically pungent, is the visceral sexuality I mentioned earlier. What stands out the most, & what for me first shone a light on this poem’s architectural majesty, is the brevity & poetry contained in, ‘I drove her back to my place / she had on pink panties with ribbons.‘ This is all we are allowed to hear about their sexual union, delicately tantalising & teasing us with what the poet secretly knows, but refuses to share, with just a hint of frilly lace to set our minds racing & our libidos rising.
we drank some beer and
smoked and talked about
Ezra Pound, then we
its no longer clear to
me whether I drove her to
the airport or
In this post-coital aftermath, Bukowski sounds almost bored with the scene – going through the motions. He was in his mid-fifities at the time, & one imagines hundreds of notches on his bedpost from literary groupies. Many, many beers & many, many conversations about Ezra Pound. He then reinforces our instinctive inquiry by completely forgetting the episode’s denoument. There is no teary farewell at the airport, his muse simply dissapears into the aether.
she still writes letters
and I answer each one
hoping to make her stop
In this short stanza we get a suggestion of the interplay between Bukowski & his muse – they have a relationship, the student-teacher-lover type – & it is the only moment when Bukowski shows any real humanity in the poem. The fact that he takes the time to answer her letters proves she’s got under his skin, when other groupies were simply swatted away. There is something about this lady that was incorrigibly annoying to Bukowski, but whose spirit he could never truly shake off.
someday she may luck into
fame like Erica
Jong. (her face is not as good
but her body is better)
and I’ll think,
my God, what have I done?
I blew it.
or rather: I Didn’t blow
meanwhile I have her box number
and I’d better inform her
that my second novel will be out in September.
that ought to keep her nipples hard
while I consider the posibility of
Francine du Plessix Gray.
The last two stanzas of Bukowski’s remarkable poem differ from the mental theatre of the earlier stanza, launching the poem into the more philosophical chambers of its creator’s mind. He is free now to pronounce judgment on both the affair & the poem, & does so with a flourish of bravura. Two leading literary lionesses of the seventies are dragg’d into the picture – one hardly expects Bukowski letting them know of his decision to do so – placed on pedestals beside his muse. Erica Jong ‘s 1973 novel Fear of Flying blew female sexuality wide open, while Francine du Plessix Gray was a Pulitzer-winning grand dame of the New Yorker magazine. To Bukowski, all three are simply sexual objects who just happen to write, & the most important happenstance here is actually his second novel – Factotum. This was published in 1975, giving us a terminus ad quem for the composition of artists:.
Personally, I find the ending a little abrasive – in the same way Millenials are being offended by some of the patter & subject matter of the Friends sitcom. But the honesty of artists: is what makes this poem transcend the confines of conscious dignity into the realms of cosmic genius. The afterburner proplusion of an already unchallengable classic. In a letter to Nancy Flynn (1975) our poet attempts some kind of explantion as to his psuedo-misogynistic style.
I’m no woman-hater. They’ve give me more highs and magics than anything else. but I’m also a writer, sometimes. and there are variances in all things
To conclude this essay, I would just like to show how Nancy Flynn could well be the muse of the poem. In a letter dated April 7th 1975, Bukowski asks Nancy, ‘what’s this here shit about going to Turkey? It rains there too.’ This of course connects with the poem’s opening scene of a bored houswife writing about the rain. In another letter, dated April 21st, Bukowski mentions slipping ‘a couple of poems past the APR‘ – the American Poetry Review. The informal substance of this comment suggests Nancy is familiar with the poetic establishment. This fits easily into his muse’s connection to the poetic establishment and her links to the The Chaparral Society.
Finally, in the letter of the 21st our poet also tells Nancy; ‘finished the 2nd. novel, FACTOTUM, at last. It should be out in Sept,’ which is a clear match to the poems, ‘I‘d better inform her that my second novel will be out in September.‘ Nancy Poole is a poet, on whose website we may read, ‘I spent twenty years in Ithaca, New York, working and raising a son, before moving to western Oregon in 1998 with my husband and cats.’ She rather does look a lot like the literary photfit painted by Bukowski in his poem, & with that I rest my case.
Damian Beeson Bullen
The Philosophy of Composition” is an 1846 essay written by American writer Edgar Allan Poe that elucidates a theory about how good writers write when they write well.
Charles Dickens, in a note now lying before me, alluding to an examination I once made of the mechanism of “Barnaby Rudge,” says—“By the way, are you aware that Godwin wrote his ‘Caleb Williams’ backwards? He first involved his hero in a web of difficulties, forming the second volume, and then, for the first, cast about him for some mode of accounting for what had been done.”
I cannot think this the precise mode of procedure on the part of Godwin—and indeed what he himself acknowledges, is not altogether in accordance with Mr. Dickens’ idea—but the author of “Caleb Williams” was too good an artist not to perceive the advantage derivable from at least a somewhat similar process. Nothing is more clear than that every plot, worth the name, must be elaborated to its denouement before anything be attempted with the pen. It is only with the denouement constantly in view that we can give a plot its indispensable air of consequence, or causation, by making the incidents, and especially the tone at all points, tend to the development of the intention.
There is a radical error, I think, in the usual mode of constructing a story. Either history affords a thesis—or one is suggested by an incident of the day—or, at best, the author sets himself to work in the combination of striking events to form merely the basis of his narrative—designing, generally, to fill in with description, dialogue, or autorial comment, whatever crevices of fact, or action, may, from page to page, render themselves apparent.
I prefer commencing with the consideration of an effect. Keeping originality always in view—for he is false to himself who ventures to dispense with so obvious and so easily attainable a source of interest—I say to myself, in the first place, “Of the innumerable effects, or impressions, of which the heart, the intellect, or (more generally) the soul is susceptible, what one shall I, on the present occasion, select?” Having chosen a novel, first, and secondly a vivid effect, I consider whether it can be best wrought by incident or tone—whether by ordinary incidents and peculiar tone, or the converse, or by peculiarity both of incident and tone—afterward looking about me (or rather within) for such combinations of event, or tone, as shall best aid me in the construction of the effect.
I have often thought how interesting a magazine paper might be written by any author who would—that is to say, who could—detail, step by step, the processes by which any one of his compositions attained its ultimate point of completion. Why such a paper has never been given to the world, I am much at a loss to say—but, perhaps, the autorial vanity has had more to do with the omission than any one other cause. Most writers—poets in especial—prefer having it understood that they compose by a species of fine frenzy—an ecstatic intuition—and would positively shudder at letting the public take a peep behind the scenes, at the elaborate and vacillating crudities of thought—at the true purposes seized only at the last moment—at the innumerable glimpses of idea that arrived not at the maturity of full view—at the fully-matured fancies discarded in despair as unmanageable—at the cautious selections and rejections—at the painful erasures and interpolations—in a word, at the wheels and pinions—the tackle for scene-shifting—the step-ladders, and demon-traps—the cock’s feathers, the red paint and the black patches, which, in ninety-nine cases out of a hundred, constitute the properties of the literary histrio.
I am aware, on the other hand, that the case is by no means common, in which an author is at all in condition to retrace the steps by which his conclusions have been attained. In general, suggestions, having arisen pell-mell are pursued and forgotten in a similar manner.
For my own part, I have neither sympathy with the repugnance alluded to, nor, at any time, the least difficulty in recalling to mind the progressive steps of any of my compositions, and, since the interest of an analysis or reconstruction, such as I have considered a desideratum, is quite independent of any real or fancied interest in the thing analysed, it will not be regarded as a breach of decorum on my part to show the modus operandi by which some one of my own works was put together. I select “The Raven” as most generally known. It is my design to render it manifest that no one point in its composition is referable either to accident or intuition—that the work proceeded step by step, to its completion, with the precision and rigid consequence of a mathematical problem.
Let us dismiss, as irrelevant to the poem, per se, the circumstance—or say the necessity—which, in the first place, gave rise to the intention of composing a poem that should suit at once the popular and the critical taste.
We commence, then, with this intention.
The initial consideration was that of extent. If any literary work is too long to be read at one sitting, we must be content to dispense with the immensely important effect derivable from unity of impression—for, if two sittings be required, the affairs of the world interfere, and everything like totality is at once destroyed. But since, ceteris paribus, no poet can afford to dispense with anything that may advance his design, it but remains to be seen whether there is, in extent, any advantage to counterbalance the loss of unity which attends it. Here I say no, at once. What we term a long poem is, in fact, merely a succession of brief ones—that is to say, of brief poetical effects. It is needless to demonstrate that a poem is such only inasmuch as it intensely excites, by elevating the soul; and all intense excitements are, through a psychal necessity, brief. For this reason, at least, one-half of the Paradise Lost is essentially prose—a succession of poetical excitements interspersed, inevitably, with corresponding depressions—the whole being deprived, through the extremeness of its length, of the vastly important artistic element, totality, or unity of effect.
It appears evident, then, that there is a distinct limit, as regards length, to all works of literary art—the limit of a single sitting—and that, although in certain classes of prose composition, such as Robinson Crusoe (demanding no unity), this limit may be advantageously overpassed, it can never properly be overpassed in a poem. Within this limit, the extent of a poem may be made to bear mathematical relation to its merit—in other words, to the excitement or elevation—again, in other words, to the degree of the true poetical effect which it is capable of inducing; for it is clear that the brevity must be in direct ratio of the intensity of the intended effect—this, with one proviso—that a certain degree of duration is absolutely requisite for the production of any effect at all.
Holding in view these considerations, as well as that degree of excitement which I deemed not above the popular, while not below the critical taste, I reached at once what I conceived the proper length for my intended poem—a length of about one hundred lines. It is, in fact, a hundred and eight.
My next thought concerned the choice of an impression, or effect, to be conveyed: and here I may as well observe that throughout the construction, I kept steadily in view the design of rendering the work universally appreciable. I should be carried too far out of my immediate topic were I to demonstrate a point upon which I have repeatedly insisted, and which, with the poetical, stands not in the slightest need of demonstration—the point, I mean, that Beauty is the sole legitimate province of the poem. A few words, however, in elucidation of my real meaning, which some of my friends have evinced a disposition to misrepresent. That pleasure which is at once the most intense, the most elevating, and the most pure is, I believe, found in the contemplation of the beautiful. When, indeed, men speak of Beauty, they mean, precisely, not a quality, as is supposed, but an effect—they refer, in short, just to that intense and pure elevation of soul—not of intellect, or of heart—upon which I have commented, and which is experienced in consequence of contemplating the “beautiful.” Now I designate Beauty as the province of the poem, merely because it is an obvious rule of Art that effects should be made to spring from direct causes—that objects should be attained through means best adapted for their attainment—no one as yet having been weak enough to deny that the peculiar elevation alluded to is most readily attained in the poem. Now the object Truth, or the satisfaction of the intellect, and the object Passion, or the excitement of the heart, are, although attainable to a certain extent in poetry, far more readily attainable in prose. Truth, in fact, demands a precision, and Passion, a homeliness (the truly passionate will comprehend me), which are absolutely antagonistic to that Beauty which, I maintain, is the excitement or pleasurable elevation of the soul. It by no means follows, from anything here said, that passion, or even truth, may not be introduced, and even profitably introduced, into a poem for they may serve in elucidation, or aid the general effect, as do discords in music, by contrast—but the true artist will always contrive, first, to tone them into proper subservience to the predominant aim, and, secondly, to enveil them, as far as possible, in that Beauty which is the atmosphere and the essence of the poem.
Regarding, then, Beauty as my province, my next question referred to the tone of its highest manifestation—and all experience has shown that this tone is one of sadness. Beauty of whatever kind in its supreme development invariably excites the sensitive soul to tears. Melancholy is thus the most legitimate of all the poetical tones.
The length, the province, and the tone, being thus determined, I betook myself to ordinary induction, with the view of obtaining some artistic piquancy which might serve me as a key-note in the construction of the poem—some pivot upon which the whole structure might turn. In carefully thinking over all the usual artistic effects—or more properly points, in the theatrical sense—I did not fail to perceive immediately that no one had been so universally employed as that of the refrain. The universality of its employment sufficed to assure me of its intrinsic value, and spared me the necessity of submitting it to analysis. I considered it, however, with regard to its susceptibility of improvement, and soon saw it to be in a primitive condition. As commonly used, the refrain, or burden, not only is limited to lyric verse, but depends for its impression upon the force of monotone—both in sound and thought. The pleasure is deduced solely from the sense of identity—of repetition. I resolved to diversify, and so heighten the effect, by adhering in general to the monotone of sound, while I continually varied that of thought: that is to say, I determined to produce continuously novel effects, by the variation of the application of the refrain—the refrain itself remaining for the most part, unvaried.
These points being settled, I next bethought me of the nature of my refrain. Since its application was to be repeatedly varied it was clear that the refrain itself must be brief, for there would have been an insurmountable difficulty in frequent variations of application in any sentence of length. In proportion to the brevity of the sentence would, of course, be the facility of the variation. This led me at once to a single word as the best refrain.
The question now arose as to the character of the word. Having made up my mind to a refrain, the division of the poem into stanzas was of course a corollary, the refrain forming the close to each stanza. That such a close, to have force, must be sonorous and susceptible of protracted emphasis, admitted no doubt, and these considerations inevitably led me to the long o as the most sonorous vowel in connection with r as the most producible consonant.
The sound of the refrain being thus determined, it became necessary to select a word embodying this sound, and at the same time in the fullest possible keeping with that melancholy which I had pre-determined as the tone of the poem. In such a search it would have been absolutely impossible to overlook the word “Nevermore.” In fact it was the very first which presented itself.
The next desideratum was a pretext for the continuous use of the one word “nevermore.” In observing the difficulty which I had at once found in inventing a sufficiently plausible reason for its continuous repetition, I did not fail to perceive that this difficulty arose solely from the preassumption that the word was to be so continuously or monotonously spoken by a human being—I did not fail to perceive, in short, that the difficulty lay in the reconciliation of this monotony with the exercise of reason on the part of the creature repeating the word. Here, then, immediately arose the idea of a non-reasoning creature capable of speech, and very naturally, a parrot, in the first instance, suggested itself, but was superseded forthwith by a Raven as equally capable of speech, and infinitely more in keeping with the intended tone.
I had now gone so far as the conception of a Raven, the bird of ill-omen, monotonously repeating the one word “Nevermore” at the conclusion of each stanza in a poem of melancholy tone, and in length about one hundred lines. Now, never losing sight of the object—supremeness or perfection at all points, I asked myself—“Of all melancholy topics what, according to the universal understanding of mankind, is the most melancholy?” Death, was the obvious reply. “And when,” I said, “is this most melancholy of topics most poetical?” From what I have already explained at some length the answer here also is obvious—“When it most closely allies itself to Beauty: the death then of a beautiful woman is unquestionably the most poetical topic in the world, and equally is it beyond doubt that the lips best suited for such topic are those of a bereaved lover.”
I had now to combine the two ideas of a lover lamenting his deceased mistress and a Raven continuously repeating the word “Nevermore.” I had to combine these, bearing in mind my design of varying at every turn the application of the word repeated, but the only intelligible mode of such combination is that of imagining the Raven employing the word in answer to the queries of the lover. And here it was that I saw at once the opportunity afforded for the effect on which I had been depending, that is to say, the effect of the variation of application. I saw that I could make the first query propounded by the lover—the first query to which the Raven should reply “Nevermore”—that I could make this first query a commonplace one, the second less so, the third still less, and so on, until at length the lover, startled from his original nonchalance by the melancholy character of the word itself, by its frequent repetition, and by a consideration of the ominous reputation of the fowl that uttered it, is at length excited to superstition, and wildly propounds queries of a far different character—queries whose solution he has passionately at heart—propounds them half in superstition and half in that species of despair which delights in self-torture—propounds them not altogether because he believes in the prophetic or demoniac character of the bird (which reason assures him is merely repeating a lesson learned by rote), but because he experiences a frenzied pleasure in so modelling his questions as to receive from the expected “Nevermore” the most delicious because the most intolerable of sorrows. Perceiving the opportunity thus afforded me, or, more strictly, thus forced upon me in the progress of the construction, I first established in my mind the climax or concluding query—that query to which “Nevermore” should be in the last place an answer—that query in reply to which this word “Nevermore” should involve the utmost conceivable amount of sorrow and despair.
Here then the poem may be said to have had its beginning—at the end where all works of art should begin—for it was here at this point of my preconsiderations that I first put pen to paper in the composition of the stanza:
“Prophet!” said I, “thing of evil! prophet still if bird or devil!
By that Heaven that bends above us—by that God we both
Tell this soul with sorrow laden, if, within the distant Aidenn,
It shall clasp a sainted maiden whom the angels name Lenore—
Clasp a rare and radiant maiden whom the angels name
Quoth the Raven—“Nevermore.”
I composed this stanza, at this point, first that, by establishing the climax, I might the better vary and graduate, as regards seriousness and importance, the preceding queries of the lover, and secondly, that I might definitely settle the rhythm, the metre, and the length and general arrangement of the stanza, as well as graduate the stanzas which were to precede, so that none of them might surpass this in rhythmical effect. Had I been able in the subsequent composition to construct more vigorous stanzas I should without scruple have purposely enfeebled them so as not to interfere with the climacteric effect.
And here I may as well say a few words of the versification. My first object (as usual) was originality. The extent to which this has been neglected in versification is one of the most unaccountable things in the world. Admitting that there is little possibility of variety in mere rhythm, it is still clear that the possible varieties of metre and stanza are absolutely infinite, and yet, for centuries, no man, in verse, has ever done, or ever seemed to think of doing, an original thing. The fact is that originality (unless in minds of very unusual force) is by no means a matter, as some suppose, of impulse or intuition. In general, to be found, it must be elaborately sought, and although a positive merit of the highest class, demands in its attainment less of invention than negation.
Of course I pretend to no originality in either the rhythm or metre of the “Raven.” The former is trochaic—the latter is octametre acatalectic, alternating with heptametre catalectic repeated in the refrain of the fifth verse, and terminating with tetrametre catalectic. Less pedantically the feet employed throughout (trochees) consist of a long syllable followed by a short, the first line of the stanza consists of eight of these feet, the second of seven and a half (in effect two-thirds), the third of eight, the fourth of seven and a half, the fifth the same, the sixth three and a half. Now, each of these lines taken individually has been employed before, and what originality the “Raven” has, is in their combination into stanza; nothing even remotely approaching this has ever been attempted. The effect of this originality of combination is aided by other unusual and some altogether novel effects, arising from an extension of the application of the principles of rhyme and alliteration.
The next point to be considered was the mode of bringing together the lover and the Raven—and the first branch of this consideration was the locale. For this the most natural suggestion might seem to be a forest, or the fields—but it has always appeared to me that a close circumscription of space is absolutely necessary to the effect of insulated incident—it has the force of a frame to a picture. It has an indisputable moral power in keeping concentrated the attention, and, of course, must not be confounded with mere unity of place.
I determined, then, to place the lover in his chamber—in a chamber rendered sacred to him by memories of her who had frequented it. The room is represented as richly furnished—this in mere pursuance of the ideas I have already explained on the subject of Beauty, as the sole true poetical thesis.
The locale being thus determined, I had now to introduce the bird—and the thought of introducing him through the window was inevitable. The idea of making the lover suppose, in the first instance, that the flapping of the wings of the bird against the shutter, is a “tapping” at the door, originated in a wish to increase, by prolonging, the reader’s curiosity, and in a desire to admit the incidental effect arising from the lover’s throwing open the door, finding all dark, and thence adopting the half-fancy that it was the spirit of his mistress that knocked.
I made the night tempestuous, first to account for the Raven’s seeking admission, and secondly, for the effect of contrast with the (physical) serenity within the chamber.
I made the bird alight on the bust of Pallas, also for the effect of contrast between the marble and the plumage—it being understood that the bust was absolutely suggested by the bird—the bust of Pallas being chosen, first, as most in keeping with the scholarship of the lover, and secondly, for the sonorousness of the word, Pallas, itself.
About the middle of the poem, also, I have availed myself of the force of contrast, with a view of deepening the ultimate impression. For example, an air of the fantastic—approaching as nearly to the ludicrous as was admissible—is given to the Raven’s entrance. He comes in “with many a flirt and flutter.”
Not the least obeisance made he—not a moment stopped or
But with mien of lord or lady, perched above my chamber door.
In the two stanzas which follow, the design is more obviously carried out:—
Then this ebony bird, beguiling my sad fancy into smiling
By the grave and stern decorum of the countenance it wore,
“Though thy crest be shorn and shaven, thou,” I said, “art sure
Ghastly grim and ancient Raven wandering from the Nightly
Tell me what thy lordly name is on the Night’s Plutonian shore?”
Quoth the Raven—“Nevermore.”
Much I marvelled this ungainly fowl to hear discourse so plainly,
Though its answer little meaning—little relevancy bore;
For we cannot help agreeing that no living human being
Ever yet was blessed with seeing bird above his chamber door—
Bird or beast upon the sculptured bust above his chamber door,
With such name as “Nevermore.”
The effect of the denouement being thus provided for, I immediately drop the fantastic for a tone of the most profound seriousness—this tone commencing in the stanza directly following the one last quoted, with the line,
But the Raven, sitting lonely on that placid bust, spoke only,
From this epoch the lover no longer jests—no longer sees anything even of the fantastic in the Raven’s demeanour. He speaks of him as a “grim, ungainly, ghastly, gaunt, and ominous bird of yore,” and feels the “fiery eyes” burning into his “bosom’s core.” This revolution of thought, or fancy, on the lover’s part, is intended to induce a similar one on the part of the reader—to bring the mind into a proper frame for the denouement—which is now brought about as rapidly and as directly as possible.
With the denouement proper—with the Raven’s reply, “Nevermore,” to the lover’s final demand if he shall meet his mistress in another world—the poem, in its obvious phase, that of a simple narrative, may be said to have its completion. So far, everything is within the limits of the accountable—of the real. A raven, having learned by rote the single word “Nevermore,” and having escaped from the custody of its owner, is driven at midnight, through the violence of a storm, to seek admission at a window from which a light still gleams—the chamber-window of a student, occupied half in poring over a volume, half in dreaming of a beloved mistress deceased. The casement being thrown open at the fluttering of the bird’s wings, the bird itself perches on the most convenient seat out of the immediate reach of the student, who amused by the incident and the oddity of the visitor’s demeanour, demands of it, in jest and without looking for a reply, its name. The raven addressed, answers with its customary word, “Nevermore”—a word which finds immediate echo in the melancholy heart of the student, who, giving utterance aloud to certain thoughts suggested by the occasion, is again startled by the fowl’s repetition of “Nevermore.” The student now guesses the state of the case, but is impelled, as I have before explained, by the human thirst for self-torture, and in part by superstition, to propound such queries to the bird as will bring him, the lover, the most of the luxury of sorrow, through the anticipated answer, “Nevermore.” With the indulgence, to the extreme, of this self-torture, the narration, in what I have termed its first or obvious phase, has a natural termination, and so far there has been no overstepping of the limits of the real.
But in subjects so handled, however skillfully, or with however vivid an array of incident, there is always a certain hardness or nakedness which repels the artistical eye. Two things are invariably required—first, some amount of complexity, or more properly, adaptation; and, secondly, some amount of suggestiveness—some under-current, however indefinite, of meaning. It is this latter, in especial, which imparts to a work of art so much of that richness (to borrow from colloquy a forcible term), which we are too fond of confounding with the ideal. It is the excess of the suggested meaning—it is the rendering this the upper instead of the under-current of the theme—which turns into prose (and that of the very flattest kind), the so-called poetry of the so-called transcendentalists.
Holding these opinions, I added the two concluding stanzas of the poem—their suggestiveness being thus made to pervade all the narrative which has preceded them. The under-current of meaning is rendered first apparent in the line—
“Take thy beak from out my heart, and take thy form from off
Quoth the Raven “Nevermore!”
It will be observed that the words, “from out my heart,” involve the first metaphorical expression in the poem. They, with the answer, “Nevermore,” dispose the mind to seek a moral in all that has been previously narrated. The reader begins now to regard the Raven as emblematical—but it is not until the very last line of the very last stanza that the intention of making him emblematical of Mournful and never ending Remembrance is permitted distinctly to be seen:
And the Raven, never flitting, still is sitting, still is sitting,
On the pallid bust of Pallas just above my chamber door;
And his eyes have all the seeming of a demon that is dreaming,
And the lamplight o’er him streaming throws his shadow on the
And my soul from out that shadow that lies floating on the floor
Shall be lifted—nevermore.
Continuing an occasional series of essays into the Art of Poetry
The poet must have an ear of a wild Arab listening in the silent desert, the eye of a North American Indian tracing the footsteps of an enemy upon the leaves that strew the forest & the touch of a blind man feeling the face of a darling child (ST Coleridge)
What of those champions of poetry, the poets themselves, or in Shelley’s words those, ‘ministers of a benificient power seated on the throne of their own souls.’ To these errant knights (& knightesses of course), the spirit of Poetry is a fire that burns within the psyche, sometimes fiercely, sometimes embers, but always there. Transmigrating mind-to-mind through the means of metempsychosis, Poetry is a symbiotic tutelary spirit which latches itself onto the soul & mind of a poet when, as Wordsworth said with perfection, these especial individuals ‘cannot chuse but feel.’ Imagine a tree reflected in a river… we all can see the image shimmering on the water, but the poet possesses an ability to reach into the water, pluck out a leaf & place it on a page. The elaborate & noble diction they have adopted to portray their inspirations affects a certain uniform & harmonious recurrence of sound that can at once be recognized only as poetry.‘I wanted not only height of fancy,’ said Dryden, ‘but dignity of words to set it off,’ & as the poets write they will instantly & innately know what is worthy of immortality & what is mere dross to be discarded at once.
On completing their poems, the creators are then propelled to sing their discoveries to the world, a driving spirit described by Shelley as the,‘essential attribute of poetry, the power of awakening in others sensations like those which animate my own bosom.’ Alas, as Don Marquis states with saccharine accuracy, ‘publishing a volume of verse is like dropping a rose-petal down the Grand Canyon and waiting for the echo.’ Fortunately, some of these petals are whipped back over our heads on a wafting breeze, to enter the clouds of fame which float by high above us, waiting for those stressless moments whenever we feel at peace with the world enough to lie on our backs & gaze at the skies. These skyset works belong to all time, as when Roman poet, Horace, declared;
I have completed a monument, more lasting than bronze & loftier than the majestic plan for the pyramids
According to Indian poetics, the principle cause of poetood is Pratibha, or genius, a certain gift received at birth. ‘I have discovered I am a poet, it is not my fault at all,’ said the vernal Rimbaud, for to be a poet is not a vocation, but a life. ‘There’s no money in poetry,’ said Robert Graves, ‘but then there’s no poetry in money, either.’ With Poethood, there first comes a feeling of stupendous affinity to the art, a moment of high epiphany, when the young & fertile mind is, as Alexander Pope reports, ‘fired at first sight with what the muse imparts!” CS Lewis noted such a poetic awakening in his poem Dymer;
For nineteen years they worked upon his soul
Refining, chipping, moulding & adorning
Then came the moment that outdid the whole
The ripple of rude life without a warning!
In his Prelude William Wordsworth has excellently described the early energies of Poethood when he ‘wantoned in wild poesy… with fancy on the stir from day to day & all my young affection out of doors.‘ Other poets have remarked on the sensations of falling in love with poetry.
I am seventeen. The hopeful, dreamy age, as they say – & I have begun, a child touch’d by the muse, to express my beliefs, my hopes, my feelings, all those things proper to poets – this I call Spring. (Rimbaud)
In this poor body, composed of one hundred bones and nine openings, is something called spirit, a flimsy curtain swept this way and that by the slightest breeze. It is spirit, such as it is, which led me to poetry, at first little more than a pastime, then the full business of my life. (Basho)
Each poet is the inheritor of a great tradition, & also its interpretor. It is as if a mystical engraved baton is passed down from poet to poet, with each new acolyte making their own individual notches in the wood. TS Elliot has given us perhaps the greatest description of the Poetic Tradition;
Tradition… cannot be inherited, & if you want it you must obtain it by great labour. It involves, in the first place, the historical sense, which we may call nearly indispensable to anyone who would continue to be a poet beyond his twenty-fifth year; & the historical sense involves a perception, not only of the pastness of the past, but of its presence; the historical sense compels a man to write not merely with his own generation in his bones, but with a feeling that the whole of the literature of Europe from Homer & within it the whole of the literature of his own country had a simultaneous existence & composes a simultaneous order
What happens when a new work of art is created is something that happens simultaneously to all the works of art that proceeded it. The existing monuments are an ideal order among themselves, which is modified by the introduction of the new (the really new) work of art among them. The existing order is complete before the new work arrives; for the order to persist after the supervention of novelty, the whole existing order must be, if ever so slightly, altered
‘The first study for a man who wants to be poet,’ continued Rimbaud, ‘is the knowledge of himself, complete… as soon as he knows it he must cultivate it.’ A poet must then daily attend the University of Life in order to produce experiences to fill their memory banks, creating a stock of images to draw upon when their rhyming manua is aroused. Longinus connects poetry directly to the life of the poet, laying down the principle that nothing short of sublime living yields sublime poetry. The three pillars upon which the poet must stand are literature, travel & love. ‘I believe that every English poet should read the English classics,’ said Robert Graves, ‘master the rules of grammar before he attempts to bend or break them, travel abroad, experience the horrors of sordid passion, and – if he is lucky enough – know the love of an honest woman.’ As regards the literary pillar, Indian theory lays distinct emphasis on scholastic Vyutpatthi (training) and Abhyaasa (steadfast practice) to fortify and regulate the gift of genius. The poet must be both industrious & a master of technique, for only a natural spirit backed up by artful skill, exploration of new methods & learning of the solid type may produce a work to treasure for its, as Mary Shelley noted, ‘complete enginery of a poet.’
The one thing that a poet should make the greatest relevance during their studies is a sense of the historuical nature & patterns of the art.‘What is to be insisted upon,’ stated TS Elliot ‘is that the poet must develop or procure the consciousness of the past & that he should continue to develop this consciousness throughout his career.’ Theis sense of the past constitutes the living fibre of all proper poetry, a light of direction with which ‘poets of genius,’ as Voltaire so prosaically stated, ‘make a completely new path thro’ Parnassus that never existed before, into a region where no man has yet trodden, & there seeks out & explores the unknown.’ Eventually, the new poet will find an untouched spot beside the streams of Parnassus & begin to brew their mead. ‘You must,’ wrtote the German poet Rilke ‘require a great deal of talent & maturity before contributing something of your own.’ Adding the ambrosia of their inspirations & the herbs of their own artistry, the new poets produce a new & unique manna, when they become, in Shelley’s words, ‘a portion of the loveliness which they make more lovely!’
A larger portion of the poet’s task is directed to the assimilation of poetic experience, the accumulation of which inevitably increases the poetical ability. To define the true poetic experience one must perceive it as a moment of exultation, the drawing together of aspects of existence in an epiphany of feeling. How was Spenser as he laid the Faerie Queene scrolls at the feet of Queen Elizabeth… how was Keats as he wrote a sonnet at the summit of Ben Nevis… how was Owen as he composed to the roar of the Kaiser’s shellfire… how was Byron as he swam the tantalising waters of the Hellespont betwixt Asia & Europe… how was Wordsworth as he took a first walk beside Rydal Water with his sister Dorothy… how was Dante as wrote ‘Abandon hope all ye who enter here,‘ a moment before entering the cantos of his Inferno. These moments, & the effect they have on a poet, have been perfectly summarized by Shelley when he declared;
I have been familiar from boyhood with mountains & lakes & the sea, & the solitude of forests: Danger, which sports upon the brink of the precipices, has been my playmate. I have trodden the glaciers of the Alps, & lived under the eye of Mont Blanc. I have been a wanderer among distant fields. I have sail’d down mighty rivers & seen the sun rise & set, & the stars come forth, whilst I have sail’d night & day down a rapid stream among mountains. I have seen populous cities, & watched the passions which rise & spread, & sink & change, amongst assembled multitudes of men. I have seen the theatre of the more visible ravages of tyranny & war; cities & villages reduced to scattered groups of black & roofless houses, & the naked inhabitants sitting famished upon their desolated thresholds. I have conversed with living men of genius
The majestic spirit of Poetry contains a spark of divine fire, & when placed upon a page woven into a line of true poetry, the fire should glimmer before the eye, & upon intonation enrapture the mind. This is known as analeptic mimesis & the poet should be able to recognize these moments which drive the art. When following a course of study in which these scattered divine moments are identified, appreciated & thus absorbed, the divine spark shall settle in the poets themselves. If you feel yourself a poet, when composing you should find or invent forms you feel most comfortable with, through which you may continue your personal conversation with the muse. You will see in these future works of art your own precious & appropriate inheritance, a piece of you which speaks with your own voice, & for the lucky few a voice that can speak down the ages. Most will find it difficult to be married to one’s muse for a lifetime, & there shall inevitably come a time when, following a gradual estrangement & diminishing of power, the muse abandons the poet. Sir Walter Scott perfectly captures the sensation of losing his inspiration with;
Receding now the dying numbers ring
Fainter & fainter down the rugged dell
& now the mountain breezes scarcely bring
A wandering witch-note of a distant spell
& now tis silent all…
When Byron noted, ‘my task is done, my song hath ceas’d, my theme has died into an echo!’ we may observe how a poet’s life & words are intrinsically connected, that being a poet is akin to writing a poem itself. The first onrush of poetry in youth matches a poem’s initial burst of life. This is followed by the calm & mature thought of a poem’s polishing, which mirrors the mature poet happy in their creative work. Then, when the poem is finally set in stone, the reign of fancy over, it hovers like an epitaph above a dead poet’s grave.
Eventually a poet’s work shall be concluded, thro’ retirement or death, or as Robert Graves opined, ‘something dies in the poet. Perhaps he has compromised his poetic integrity by valuing some range of experience or other – literary, religious, philosophical, dramatic, political or social – above the poetic.’ It is now that the true Parnassian prize awaits – a slow-moving posthumous accession into the eternal pantheon by the mutual agreement of futurity. Even Shakespeare was slow to permeate into society, for the court of posterity is measured in centuries & not years. The Bard himself wrote;
Your name from hence immortal life shall have,
Though I, once gone, to all the world must die:
The earth can yield me but a common grave,
When you entombed in men’s eyes shall lie.
Your monument shall be my gentle verse,
Which eyes not yet created shall o’er-read;
As the poet becomes dust & words & memories, time begins to sit in judgement upon their contributions to the art. As the years pass by, their posthumous fame becomes more solid, until they have earn’d a place in the Immortal Arena, upon the slopes of Parnassus where the pantheon of poets are gather’d. For posterity, their essence is contain’d in more than just the poetry they left behind. Minds & souls are reflected in their prefaces, letters, influences, life, libraries & those pencil-mark’d footnotes that litter the books therein, for poets comment upon their role even as they perform it.
One of the seminal essays by Langston Hughes
Which first appeared in THE NATION (1926)
One of the most promising of the young Negro poets said to me once, “I want to be a poet–not a Negro poet,” meaning, I believe, “I want to write like a white poet”; meaning subconsciously, “I would like to be a white poet”; meaning behind that, “I would like to be white.” And I was sorry the young man said that, for no great poet has ever been afraid of being himself. And I doubted then that, with his desire to run away spiritually from his race, this boy would ever be a great poet. But this is the mountain standing in the way of any true Negro art in America–this urge within the race toward whiteness, the desire to pour racial individuality into the mold of American standardization, and to be as little Negro and as much American as possible.
But let us look at the immediate background of this young poet. His family is of what I suppose one would call the Negro middle class: people who are by no means rich yet never uncomfortable nor hungry–smug, contented, respectable folk, members of the Baptist church. The father goes to work every morning. He is a chief steward at a large white club. The mother sometimes does fancy sewing or supervises parties for the rich families of the town. The children go to a mixed school. In the home they read white papers and magazines. And the mother often says “Don’t be like niggers” when the children are bad. A frequent phrase from the father is, “Look how well a white man does things.” And so the word white comes to be unconsciously a symbol of all virtues. It holds for the children beauty, morality, and money. The whisper of “I want to be white” runs silently through their minds. This young poet’s home is, I believe, a fairly typical home of the colored middle class. One sees immediately how difficult it would be for an artist born in such a home to interest himself in interpreting the beauty of his own people. He is never taught to see that beauty. He is taught rather not to see it, or if he does, to be ashamed of it when it is not according to Caucasian patterns.
For racial culture the home of a self-styled “high-class” Negro has nothing better to offer. Instead there will perhaps be more aping of things white than in a less cultured or less wealthy home. The father is perhaps a doctor, lawyer, landowner, or politician. The mother may be a social worker, or a teacher, or she may do nothing and have a maid. Father is often dark but he has usually married the lightest woman he could find. The family attend a fashionable church where few really colored faces are to be found. And they themselves draw a color line. In the North they go to white theaters and white movies. And in the South they have at least two cars and house “like white folks.” Nordic manners, Nordic faces, Nordic hair, Nordic art (if any), and an Episcopal heaven. A very high mountain indeed for the would-be racial artist to climb in order to discover himself and his people.
But then there are the low-down folks, the so-called common element, and they are the majority—may the Lord be praised! The people who have their hip of gin on Saturday nights and are not too important to themselves or the community, or too well fed, or too learned to watch the lazy world go round. They live on Seventh Street in Washington or State Street in Chicago and they do not particularly care whether they are like white folks or anybody else. Their joy runs, bang! into ecstasy. Their religion soars to a shout. Work maybe a little today, rest a little tomorrow. Play awhile. Sing awhile. 0, let’s dance! These common people are not afraid of spirituals, as for a long time their more intellectual brethren were, and jazz is their child. They furnish a wealth of colorful, distinctive material for any artist because they still hold their own individuality in the face of American standardizations. And perhaps these common people will give to the world its truly great Negro artist, the one who is not afraid to be himself. Whereas the better-class Negro would tell the artist what to do, the people at least let him alone when he does appear. And they are not ashamed of him–if they know he exists at all. And they accept what beauty is their own without question.
Certainly there is, for the American Negro artist who can escape the restrictions the more advanced among his own group would put upon him, a great field of unused material ready for his art. Without going outside his race, and even among the better classes with their “white” culture and conscious American manners, but still Negro enough to be different, there is sufficient matter to furnish a black artist with a lifetime of creative work. And when he chooses to touch on the relations between Negroes and whites in this country, with their innumerable overtones and undertones surely, and especially for literature and the drama, there is an inexhaustible supply of themes at hand. To these the Negro artist can give his racial individuality, his heritage of rhythm and warmth, and his incongruous humor that so often, as in the Blues, becomes ironic laughter mixed with tears. But let us look again at the mountain.
A prominent Negro clubwoman in Philadelphia paid eleven dollars to hear Raquel Meller sing Andalusian popular songs. But she told me a few weeks before she would not think of going to hear “that woman,” Clara Smith, a great black artist, sing Negro folksongs. And many an upper -class Negro church, even now, would not dream of employing a spiritual in its services. The drab melodies in white folks’ hymnbooks are much to be preferred. “We want to worship the Lord correctly and quietly. We don’t believe in ‘shouting.’ Let’s be dull like the Nordics,” they say, in effect.
The road for the serious black artist, then, who would produce a racial art is most certainly rocky and the mountain is high. Until recently he received almost no encouragement for his work from either white or colored people. The fine novels of Chesnutt’ go out of print with neither race noticing their passing. The quaint charm and humor of Dunbar’s’ dialect verse brought to him, in his day, largely the same kind of encouragement one would give a sideshow freak (A colored man writing poetry! How odd!) or a clown (How amusing!).
The present vogue in things Negro, although it may do as much harm as good for the budding artist, has at least done this: it has brought him forcibly to the attention of his own people among whom for so long, unless the other race had noticed him beforehand, he was a prophet with little honor.
The Negro artist works against an undertow of sharp criticism and misunderstanding from his own group and unintentional bribes from the whites. “Oh, be respectable, write about nice people, show how good we are,” say the Negroes. “Be stereotyped, don’t go too far, don’t shatter our illusions about you, don’t amuse us too seriously. We will pay you,” say the whites. Both would have told Jean Toomer not to write Cane. The colored people did not praise it. The white people did not buy it. Most of the colored people who did read Cane hate it. They are afraid of it. Although the critics gave it good reviews the public remained indifferent. Yet (excepting the work of Du Bois) Cane contains the finest prose written by a Negro in America. And like the singing of Robeson, it is truly racial.
But in spite of the Nordicized Negro intelligentsia and the desires of some white editors we have an honest American Negro literature already with us. Now I await the rise of the Negro theater. Our folk music, having achieved world-wide fame, offers itself to the genius of the great individual American composer who is to come. And within the next decade I expect to see the work of a growing school of colored artists who paint and model the beauty of dark faces and create with new technique the expressions of their own soul-world. And the Negro dancers who will dance like flame and the singers who will continue to carry our songs to all who listen-they will be with us in even greater numbers tomorrow.
Most of my own poems are racial in theme and treatment, derived from the life I know. In many of them I try to grasp and hold some of the meanings and rhythms of jazz. I am as sincere as I know how to be in these poems and yet after every reading I answer questions like these from my own people: Do you think Negroes should always write about Negroes? I wish you wouldn’t read some of your poems to white folks. How do you find anything interesting in a place like a cabaret? Why do you write about black people? You aren’t black. What makes you do so many jazz poems?
But jazz to me is one of the inherent expressions of Negro life in America; the eternal tom-tom beating in the Negro soul–the tom-tom of revolt against weariness in a white world, a world of subway trains, and work, work, work; the tom-tom of joy and laughter, and pain swallowed in a smile. Yet the Philadelphia clubwoman is ashamed to say that her race created it and she does not like me to write about it, The old subconscious “white is best” runs through her mind. Years of study under white teachers, a lifetime of white books, pictures, and papers, and white manners, morals, and Puritan standards made her dislike the spirituals. And now she turns up her nose at jazz and all its manifestations–likewise almost everything else distinctly racial. She doesn’t care for the Winold Reiss’ portraits of Negroes because they are “too Negro.” She does not want a true picture of herself from anybody. She wants the artist to flatter her, to make the white world believe that all negroes are as smug and as near white in soul as she wants to be. But, to my mind, it is the duty of the younger Negro artist, if he accepts any duties at all from outsiders, to change through the force of his art that old whispering “I want to be white,” hidden in the aspirations of his people, to “Why should I want to be white? I am a Negro–and beautiful”?
So I am ashamed for the black poet who says, “I want to be a poet, not a Negro poet,” as though his own racial world were not as interesting as any other world. I am ashamed, too, for the colored artist who runs from the painting of Negro faces to the painting of sunsets after the manner of the academicians because he fears the strange unwhiteness of his own features. An artist must be free to choose what he does, certainly, but he must also never be afraid to do what he must choose.
Let the blare of Negro jazz bands and the bellowing voice of Bessie Smith singing the Blues penetrate the closed ears of the colored near intellectuals until they listen and perhaps understand. Let Paul Robeson singing “Water Boy,” and Rudolph Fisher writing about the streets of Harlem, and Jean Toomer holding the heart of Georgia in his hands, and Aaron Douglas’s drawing strange black fantasies cause the smug Negro middle class to turn from their white, respectable, ordinary books and papers to catch a glimmer of their own beauty. We younger Negro artists who create now intend to express our individual dark-skinned selves without fear or shame. If white people are pleased we are glad. If they are not, it doesn’t matter. We know we are beautiful. And ugly too. The tom-tom cries and the tom-tom laughs. If colored people are pleased we are glad. If they are not, their displeasure doesn’t matter either. We build our temples for tomorrow, strong as we know how, and we stand on top of the mountain, free within ourselves.
Beginning an occasional series of essays into the art of poetry
Even among the most barbarous and simple Indians, where no writing is, yet have they their poets who make and sing songs, which they call “Areytos,” both of their ancestor’s deeds and praises of their gods.
Sir Philip Sidney
It has often been my pleasure, upon being asked the question, ‘what do you do?‘ to answer with confidence that I am a Poet, for I love the way a bonnie lady’s ear will perform a slight twitch on first hearing the word. Unfortunately, far from their vision of a romantic, sonnet-wielding, frantic & beautiful lord-between-the-bedsheets, there is an actual meaning behind the word. Most poets are indeed excellent lovers, granted, but what does it actually mean to be a poet? First thing’s first, a poet’s soul must contain a symphonium of music. Samuel Taylor Coleridge, in his Biographia Litereia, writes;
The man that hath not music in his soul can indeed never be a genuine poet. Imagery,–(even taken from nature, much more when transplanted from books, as travels, voyages, and works of natural history),–affecting incidents, just thoughts, interesting personal or domestic feelings, and with these the art of their combination or intertexture in the form of a poem,–may all by incessant effort be acquired as a trade, by a man of talent and much reading, who, as I once before observed, has mistaken an intense desire of poetic reputation for a natural poetic genius; the love of the arbitrary end for a possession of the peculiar means. But the sense of musical delight, with the power of producing it, is a gift of imagination; and this together with the power of reducing multitude into unity of effect, and modifying a series of thoughts by some one predominant thought or feeling, may be cultivated and improved, but can never be learned. It is in these that “poeta nascitur non fit.”
These musical gifts are used by the poet to startle his peers, who in wonderment would listen to his words. Before long this natural dynamic elevated the poet to the position of teacher, who would define the universe for said peers, inventing gods & teaching them morality en route. Of this progress, Edward Kelly, in his prologium to Edmund Spenser’s Shephearde’s Calendar, tells us (after Plato), ‘the first inuention of Poetry was of very vertuous intent. For…some learned man being more hable then the rest, for speciall gyftes of wytte and Musicke, would take vpon him to sing fine verses to the people, in prayse eyther of vertue or of victory or of immortality or such like. At whose wonderful gyft al men being astonied and as it were rauished, with delight, thinking (as it was indeede) that he was inspired from aboue, called him vatem.’ The Vatem, or Vates, is what the Romans considered a divine seer, whose task it was to raise up mens’ minds from the mortal moral morass, enlightening them with their heavenly-assisted visions & improving public virtue through divine inspiration. A couple of years later, another Elizabethan poet, Philip Sidney, added;
Among the Romans a poet was called “vates,” which is as much as a diviner, foreseer, or prophet, as by his conjoined words “vaticinium,” and “vaticinari,” is manifest; so heavenly a title did that excellent people bestow upon this heart-ravishing knowledge
These words are contained in the Apologie for Poetry, with which Philip Sidney became the first in a long line of English poet-critics. Written in 1580-81, but printed posthumously for the first time in 1595, within these 60-odd pages exists the best description of what it is to be a poet. He wrote the Apologie after a personal attack on him & his beloved art by Stephen Gosson, whose 1579 treatise, the School of Abuse, sets about;
Conteining a plesaunt inuective against Poets, Pipers, Plaiers, Iesters & such like Catterpillars of a Commonwealth! Setting up the Flagge of Defiaunce to their mischeieuous exercise & ouerthrowing their Bulwarkes by Prophane Writers, Naturel reason & common experience
Perhaps Gosson had a point, for in the Apologie Sidney himself complains that, ‘England, the mother of excellent minds, should be grown so hard a step-mother to poets.’ Sydney remonstrates against the squallid depths to which the art had degenerated among the English since the heady times of Chaucer, almost two centuries previously. His point is, however, that it is not the art that was at fault, but the artists. Using the ancient poets as his models, Sydney hopes to redefine the image of the Muses & their Ministers. For myseld, such a bold & beautiful statement holds an impressive resonance in these our modern times, for as we shall see the vision of a poet as portrayed by Sydney (& thus the ancients) is a far cry from the impedantic disrespect of poetry which litters today’s poetical bookshelves.
Of the Apologie, JC Collins writes, ‘a better introduction to the study of poetry could scarcely be conceived, for not only does it put poetry in its proper place as an instrument of education, but it deals with it generally as only a poet himself could deal with it, with illuminating insight, with most inspiring enthusiasm.’ To Sidney, the raison d’etre of his chosen art was to ‘plant goodness even in the secretest cabinet of our souls.’ So little poetry these days comes near to even touching the true divine spark within us all, which has seen a gradual loss of respect for the art across the human condition. As I said in my first lecture, I intend to reset the clock, so to speak, & to do this we must get back to root, to identify the original kernel of the poet’s soul. Let us begin at the (relative) beginning then, with a selection of passages from the Apologie, which I hope shall elucidate Sidney’s vision of an ideal poet in a more palatable fashion.
Poets are Fathers in Learning
In the noblest nations and languages that are known, hath been the first light-giver to ignorance, and first nurse, whose milk by little and little enabled them to feed afterwards of tougher knowledges
Let learned Greece, in any of her manifold sciences, be able to show me one book before Musæus, Homer, and Hesiod, all three nothing else but poets. Nay, let any history he brought that can say any writers were there before them, if they were not men of the same skill, as Orpheus, Linus, and some others are named, who having been the first of that country that made pens deliverers of their knowledge to posterity, may justly challenge to be called their fathers in learning.
In the Italian language,the first that made it to aspire to be a treasure-house of science, were the poets Dante, Boccace, and Petrarch; so in our English were Gower andChaucer; after whom, encouraged and delighted with their excellent foregoing, others have followed to beautify our mother tongue, as well in the same kind as other arts.
Poet as Creator
Let us see how the Greeks have named it, and how they deemed of it. The Greeks named him a Poet,which name hath, as the most excellent, gone through other languages; it cometh of this word poiein which is ‘to make;’ wherein, I know not whether by luck or wisdom, we Englishmen have met with the Greeks in calling him “a maker.”
Only the poet, disdaining to be tied to any such subjection, lifted up with the vigour of his own invention, doth grow, in effect, into another nature; in making things either better than nature bringeth forth, or quite anew; forms such as never were in nature, as the heroes, demi-gods, Cyclops, chimeras, furies, and such like; so as he goeth hand in hand with Nature, not enclosed within the narrow warrant of her gifts, but freely ranging within the zodiac of his own wit. Nature never set forth the earth in so rich tapestry as divers poets have done; neither with so pleasant rivers, fruitful trees, sweet-smelling flowers, nor whatsoever else may make the too-much-loved earth more lovely; her world is brazen, the poets only deliver a golden.
Poets Fashion Ideal Models
Poesy, therefore, is an art of imitation; for so Aristotle termeth it in the word Mimesis; that is to say, a representing, counterfeiting, or figuring forth: to speak metaphorically, a speaking picture, with this end, to teach and delight
It is not rhyming and versing that maketh a poet… but it is that feigning notable images of virtues, vices, or what else, with that delightful teaching, which must be the right describing note to know a poet by…
…to bestow a Cyrus upon the world to make many Cyruses; if they will learn aright, why, and how, that maker made him.
…brought forth so true a lover as Theagenes; so constant a friend as Pylades; so valiant a man as Orlando; so right a prince as Xenophon’s Cyrus; and so excellent a man every way as Virgil’s Æneas?
This purifying of wit, this enriching of memory, enabling of judgment, and enlarging of conceit, which commonly we call learning
Directed to the highest end of the mistress knowledge, by the Greeks called architektonike which stands, as I think, in the knowledge of a man’s self
The final end is, to lead and draw us to as high a perfection as our degenerate souls, made worse by, their clay lodgings, can be capable of.
Poets just don’t think like Sidney today –which I suppose, is the problem with modern poetry, for with so much information available at the click of a button, no-one feels like they should be able to teach people very much. Instead, they wander through their whimsies in rhyme or Free Verse & like ephemeral bees & butterflies in a garden, rather than the firm-rooted blooms of our forebears.
I firmly believe that Poetry should no longer deny its original object a stated half a millennia ago by Sidney. ‘A poem is never finished’ they say, & neither is the reason why poetry exists – to teach mankind. We must remember that it is this art’s particular ability to captivate the best words in their best order which amazes its audience, & it is from such a position of intellectual grandeur that mankind may yet be given a worthy education. We poets must begin to raise the bar once more : no-one in the West is absorbing long forgotten or as yet undiscover’d foreign forms; no-one is pushing back the boundaries of the art with conviction; no-one – god dammit – is inventing. All we have now is a sterile pond where bubbling gasses gloop to the surface – cut off by some man-made landslide from the waters of the Parnassian streams.
To rise out of the muck, a poet should return to teaching. Knowledge these days is epic, multiplying almost as quickly as the Big Bang. But poetry’s advantage is its concision, & with it an inherent ability in the arrangements of words so beautiful that people actually enjoy the experience of learning. Now I am not saying the following verses are beautiful – it was an earlier exercise of my youth – but the point is I have stored some very important information in some rather cute-ish lines.
If you have an egg to boil
Heat water up by kettle coil
Then let it bubble in a pan
& add the egg & boil to plan –
A runny egg takes minutes three
Served with soldiers & cup of tea
A hard boil’d egg nine minutes paced
Add mayonnaise & salt to taste
To make a curry hot & tasty
fry your veggies odors free
mix some meat in if you like
fleshy ham to fresh caught pike
Milk & tomatoes make the sauce
Good curry powder puffs the force
Add other seasonings to taste
Then stew awhile, no need for haste.
Not awarding-winning stuff, granted, but useful. Anyhow, that is all for today’s lecture, but I shall leave you with the close of the Apologie, which sees Sidney at his most cockiest & eloquent best;
Since the ever praiseworthy poesy is full of virtue, breeding delightfulness, and void of no gift that ought to be in the noble name of learning; since the blames laid against it are either false or feeble; since the cause why it is not esteemed in England is the fault of poet-apes, not poets; since, lastly, our tongue is most fit to honour poesy, and to be honoured by poesy; I conjure you all that have had the evil luck to read this ink-wasting toy of mine, even in the name of the Nine Muses, no more to scorn the sacred mysteries of poesy; no more to laugh at the name of poets, as though they were next inheritors to fools; no more to jest at the reverend title of “a rhymer;” but to believe, with Aristotle, that they were the ancient treasurers of the Grecian’s divinity; to believe, with Bembus, that they were the first bringers in of all civility; to believe, with Scaliger, that no philosopher’s precepts can sooner make you an honest man, than the reading of Virgil; to believe, with Clauserus, the translator of Cornutus, that it pleased the heavenly deity by Hesiod and Homer, under the veil of fables, to give us all knowledge, logic, rhetoric, philosophy natural and moral, and “quid non?” to believe, with me, that there are many mysteries contained in poetry, which of purpose were written darkly, lest by profane wits it should be abused; to believe, with Landin, that they are so beloved of the gods that whatsoever they write proceeds of a divine fury. Lastly, to believe themselves, when they tell you they will make you immortal by their verses.
But if (fie of such a but!) you be born so near the dull-making cataract of Nilus, that you cannot hear the planet-like music of poetry; if you have so earth-creeping a mind, that it cannot lift itself up to look to the sky of poetry, or rather, by a certain rustical disdain, will become such a Mome, as to be a Momus of poetry; then, though I will not wish unto you the ass’s ears of Midas, nor to be driven by a poet’s verses, as Bubonax was, to hang himself; nor to be rhymed to death, as is said to be done in Ireland; yet thus much curse I must send you in the behalf of all poets; that while you live, you live in love, and never get favour, for lacking skill of a sonnet; and when you die, your memory die from the earth for want of an epitaph.