Poetry, by David Constantine, OUP, 2013.
I read this book cheering from the sidelines. Constantine writes eloquently, he advances a coherent argument, as a translator and poet his examples are taken from a different range than usual (Brecht and Holderein play a significant part ) and the book rises to a triumphant eloquent end:
That is why the defense of poetry entails the larger campaign for a humane habitat in which it may flourish to its heart’s content, abundantly saying the human and not Just as an answering back against the inhumane, but also-why not?-in celebration of a society we are glad and proud of. Is that too much to ask? Too much or not enough. We want more than mere survival , we want our due, our redress, lives fit to be looked at, and poetry will help, poetry at the heart of social life. We don’t want poetry to be read by a dwindling few but by an increasing many. We want it commonplace, companionable, always there to be turned to, in our ordinary lives, customary and working wonders, 9p139)
Applause applause, the crowd goes wild, rises to its feet, and the sound of isolated clapping in an almost empty theatre echoes disconcertingly.
There are generic problems which all books like this one face. The first is simple and devastating. Who is reading it? I suspect, even resent the use of the first person plural, it’s an insidious positioning technique, but who is this “we”?
“A large part of my endeavor will consist in trying to persuade any who need persuading that poetry springs from and belongs in the heart of society and that it does good there.”(p3)
I suspect that the only people who read books like this are people like me who want to believe them, and students whose professors or teachers want to believe them. The people who don’t believe that poetry is important, are hardly going to shell out for a book like this, let alone read it. Or be impressed by the arguments.
The second obvious generic problem is that the Defense of Poetry, from Sidney to now, implies that poetry can only be justified if it has an external political or linguistic effect that is measurable in the world beyond the poem. If only we all read Poetry, the argument has gone on drearily for over four hundred years, the world would be a better place and language would be so much better.
Such claims, from Sir Philip Sidney's to the present day, are either wishful thinking, unsubstantiated either by external evidence or understandings of how language or culture actually work, or built from very specific cases where context was so important, argued into a generality. Constantine tends towards the latter: a specific type of poem will have a specific type of effect on a specific type of reader which will produce a political reaction. It’s the last improbable step that will justify ‘Poetry’.
And finally, Poetry. Never the sum of all poems, but an abstraction, which becomes the active subject in the sentence, (in the quote above it has intentions and a heart). As someone said, you have to pretend the butterfly is an elephant, except everyone outside the seminar room can see it’s a butterfly.
So it’s been interesting to read this defense while reading four new single author collections of poems. One is “Award Winning”. Two are “poetry society recommendations”. All are published by well-regarded publishers. All four are written by writers who teach in University Creative Writing
Do they live up to Constantine’s claims, or Eliot’s, or Pound’s, or Dan Gioia, or Sidney’s or Shelley’s? No, they are poems, Not POETRY.
And like a great deal of modern poetry, whether it’s Avant-Garde, or Mainstream: Look at me say the poets, look at me, I’ve written a poem. Tick the boxes that prove this is a poem: it swims as a block of text in a white space, I handle rhyme with care, I look at the world aslant, I pretend to have had poetic thoughts about mundane things. I use enough Syntactic variation to ensure you notice, and of course the occasional unusual verb.
One out of four goes in for heavy duty typographical play: this signals that these poems are “innovative” or “experimental”.
Four books of poems, bought, read and then reread with attention over a two week period, and not one poem sticks in my head. Not one offered me anything more in return for my money and attention than the spectacle of a writer proving they can write something that is recognizable as a poem. On page after page.
If I go to a concert I assume the singer can hold a note, sing in tune, get through a song. I take it for granted that the singer knows what a song is and can sing one. I expect more than this simple demonstration.
The gulf between the claims for Poetry and poems which are published is so vast that it’s unbridgeable.
And perhaps the reason why so few people read poetry, or care about it, is that it offers the reader so little in return for money and attention. The majority of modern published poetry is not “Difficult”. It’s just not worth reading.