In the twentieth century, writers continued to make claims for poetry and poets, and despite their often hard-headed approach to the writing of poems and their critical evaluations of individual poems and poets, they maintained the circulation of the claims already discussed, stating as fact what was little more than wishful thinking. Not only did they continue to attract a modernised version of Peacock’s criticism, they seemed unable to see that the simple opposition between “the world” and “poetry’ was painfully inadequate. Their history was often little better than Shelley’s, and their understanding of how languages work surprisingly naïve.
Claims for the social function of poetry ignored the complex nature of any historical movement although Eliot had it both ways, saying that the problem was very complex and then making statements that ignored that complexity. Many of their claims relied on a belief in the existence of an absolute unchanging, a-historical definition of “good poetry” which allow the critic, at a distance, to declare what is good or bad.
So Ezra Pound and T.S. Eliot were the leading figures in a rebellion against the stifling mediocrity of the field (in Bordieu’s sense) of poetry that they entered at the beginning of the 20th century. In their different ways, they would define the dominant poetic of the twentieth century.
What both wrote about the craft of writing poetry remains as challenging, provocative and useful today as it was when they wrote it. Yet both were inclined to make claims for an idealised art which carry echoes of Sidney and Shelley at their most romantic. Pound’s ABC of Reading is a willfully cantankerous book which I would recommend to anyone interested in reading and writing poetry, but it contains statements Shelley would have found very acceptable.
By insisting that poetry is an art which requires “sharp study and long toil”, which should be subjected to clear and intelligent scrutiny, both Pound and Eliot established the basis for a poetry that could be a serious art and not just the effusions of the nursery or the well meaning amateur. By insisting on the poem as the thing in itself, not the pack horse for a bad philosophy or a slogan for a political meeting, they cleared a way past the popular insistence on judging a poet by “what he says” or “as a thinker”, past a poetry of reassurance, to a poetics where the arrangement of vowels and consonants were the poet’s primary task
But if the poet’s job is the arrangement of vowels and consonants, if the first and only duty is to the art, how to avoid the damaging association of the derided slogan: “art for art’s sake”. The Gordian knot solution would have been to say the writing of poems is sufficient end in itself: does the musician have to justify his music? There are times when both Pound and Eliot come close to this: Pound wrote in ‘The Serious Artist’
Now art never asks anybody to do anything, or to think anything or to be anything. It exists as the trees exist, you can admire, you can sit in the shade, you can pick bananas, you can cut firewood, you can do what you jolly well please.
The logic of this is to accept that the poet, as poet, has no social function other than the writing of poems and if that gives readers pleasure and critics something to write about that is an added bonus: a position held and espoused by Robert Graves and, towards the end of his life, by Basil Bunting.
Eliot acknowledges, amongst poetry’s ‘obvious functions’ the first is the ability to produce the kind of pleasure only poetry can produce. But neither Eliot nor Pound was willing to accept the Gordian knot solution. Both wanted to show that poetry was vital to the health and functioning of society.
Well having seen it in Sidney and Shelley the move should now be familiar. Elevate ‘Poetry’, and you elevate the Poet. Hammering away on your type writer, unable to make a living from your poems, known only to four or five people, you can make believe you are Superman, able to shape the course of history without moving from the typewriter.
And most of the time, in democratic countries, Power doesn’t care about Poetry, so the poet, like any street corner nutcase who thinks she’s the reincarnation of the Virgin Mary, can make any claim she likes as long as she doesn't break the law.
When those with real power do notice the poet, the reality of the poet’s insignificance becomes painfully obvious. But I’ve written about that before:
Pound could make blunt statements about an idealised poet and poetry which echo the claims and methodology of all those writers on poetry stretching back to Sidney:
Good writers are those who keep the language efficient. That is to say they keep it accurate , keep it clear. It doesn’t matter whether the good writer wants to be useful, or whether the bad writer wants to do harm….(Pound 1934 p 32)
Eliot would make an almost identical claim:
We may say that the duty of the poet, as poet, is only indirectly to his people: his direct duty is to his language, first to preserve, and second to extend and improve.(SFP 9)
Exactly how writing poetry extends and improves language is never explained. It is a familiar claim, a commonplace of the blurbs which adorn modern poetry books, and is a good example of how the limited field that is poetry can re circulate what appears, to someone outside it, to be nonsense.
Stephen Pinker uses a quote from W.H.Auden to characterize what he calls “The Jeremiahs”:
‘As a poet there is only one political duty and that is to defend one’s language from corruption. And that is particularly serious now. It is being corrupted. When it is corrupted , people lose faith in what they hear, and that leads to violence.’
The linguist Dwight Bollinger, gently urging this man to get a grip, had to point out that “the same number of muggers would leap out of the dark if everyone conformed overnight to every prescriptive rule ever written” (Pinker 1994 385).
Yet both Eliot and Pound could ignore history to make broader claims for Poetry.
If a nation’s literature declines, the nation atrophies and decays (Pound 1934, page 32)
But most people do not realize that this is not enough; that unless they go on producing great authors, and especially great poets, their language will deteriorate, their culture will deteriorate and perhaps become absorbed in a stronger one. (SFP 10)
I've made fun of this before because it's such a daft statement:
Pound-Eliot and the untold true story of 1066
Pound-Eliot and the untold true story of 1066
Shelley, had made a similar claim though left it to the reader to decide what was cause and what was effect. Historically such a claim will not stand scrutiny but Dana Gioia quoted Pound’s claim above about the relationship of language to culture as though it were fact and proof that poetry “matters”. He tried to qualify it: Poetry is not the entire solution to keeping the nation’s language clean and honest…without explaining what “clean and honest” could mean in this context, but then fell back into the typical organic metaphors for language and some very dubious logic: but one Is hard pressed to imagine a country’s citizens improving the health of its language while abandoning poetry (Gioia 1992)
And so it goes. Eliot and Pound Continued next time