In his most recent Oxford lecture (30th April 2013), Geoffrey Hill said:
Rather to my belated surprise Graves is becoming a key figure in this series of lectures.
He went on to say:
Two of Graves’s early prose books ‘On English Poetry’, 1922 and ’Poetic Unreason and Other Studies’ 1925, I would certainly recommend for autodidactic, self apprenticed deeply eccentric young poets.
I may not be young, but I’ll accept the other terms.
I know Graves’s later criticism well. He is my favourite writer on English poetry, bracing in his iconoclasm. Reading him one is constantly obliged to remember that that what is on offer is a personal opinion, a well informed, deeply considered opinion based on years of study and thought, underwritten by personal practice. But an opinion which at times could be wrong and which, driven by its own honesty, could arrive in places that can only be described as bizarre. You can never take him for granted, or simply parrot what he wrote. I don’t think anyone should ever do this with anyone: the reader’s duty is to weigh the verdict on offer by going back to the poems and poets under discussion.
The gift of Graves’s criticism is the obligation it places on the reader to think; the proffered courtesy is his assumption that the reader is intelligent and responsible enough to do this.
I knew of the books Hill mentions from various biographies, but had never read either, so tracked them down. When I have read “The Meaning of Dreams” which he doesn’t mention but sits between them, I’ll discuss all three.
They are awkward reading. They seem so… different to what passes as contemporary literary discourse. Firstly, Graves wrote clear elegant prose. Even when he is at his loopiest in things like ‘The White Goddess’, the writer of “The reader over your shoulder” never lost sight of his obligation, as a writer, to communicate. He has something to say and he wants to communicate it to the reader. What a quaint old fashioned idea! How bizarre that seems coming out of reading someone like Derrida or Lacan. He doesn’t need a secondary exegesis; but you are constantly aware of the complexity of the thought on offer.
Had he been central in the way Eliot was, the self-supporting, self-important circus of critics who make careers out of explaining what that other critic meant in her explanation of yet another critic might never started.
Secondly, he is writing about poetry from the perspective of someone who writes it, nagging at an attempt to explain the process of creation. Which makes his writing uncomfortable. It’s like reading Freud where I hope he’s not right because if he is I’d have to admit to thoughts and feelings the day light world says I shouldn’t be having.
If Literature had not ridden into the university curriculum on the back of the kind of nonsense written about poetry by Shelley and Emerson, Pound, Eliot, and more recently by Dana Gioia, so that three years of an intelligent person’s life could be spent learning from self appointed ‘experts’ how to read like said self appointed expert for an ill defined purpose; if Literature had been studied not as surrogate religion or cultural prophylactic, not as something to read with reverence but as something to produce, then Graves would be central to the curriculum in ways Eliot and his blather about impersonality and strips of platinum could never have been.
And the recent passion for literary theory in creative writing courses would never have happened. And twentieth century poetry would have been almost unimaginably different. Because once you have reception as your focus, the circus demands the kinds of poems that HAVE to be explained.
Hill also said, explaining his surprise at Graves’s growing importance.
Incessant self-education is one of the recurring pleasures of my kind of work.
I am edging towards the opinion that self-education, with all its false starts dead ends and frustrations, might be the only game in town worth playing.