Robert Graves: Nagging at Poetic Value.
In the 1920s Robert Graves developed an unsystematic, idiosyncratic but highly productive investigation of what writing a poem involved, from the perspective of the writer, not the reader or critic. It is the most thorough attempt I know. It is still undeniably thought provoking for a writer of poems, and relevant to anyone who reads poetry for pleasure. However, the fact that it is useless for the academic critic consigned it to the outer reaches of the history of literary criticism in the twentieth century.
In Poetic Unreason (1925, p100)) Graves quotes from W.H.R. Rivers’ Conflict and Dream:
Just as I believe that a really satisfactory analysis of a dream is only possible to the dreamer himself or to one who knows the conflicts and experiences of the dreamer in a most unusual way, so I believe that that only when poets or other artists have set to work to analyse the products of their artistry can we expect to understand the real mechanisms of creative production.
Graves followed the logic of this in three books: On English Poetry: Being An Irregular Approach To The Psychology Of This Art From Evidence Mainly Subjective (1922), The Meaning of Dreams (1923) and Poetic Unreason (1925). This work has all but disappeared; even in his study of Inspiration the only work Tim Clark cites by Graves is the better known but much more wayward The White Goddess.
At the start of a talk called What is Bad Poetry? delivered in 1922 and included in Poetic Unreason, Graves made a crucial distinction:
I will ask you to think of Poetry in two very different capacities without for a moment confusing them-Poetry as it fulfills certain needs in the poet, and Poetry as it fulfills certain needs in the reader. (p.1)
For Graves, the true poem was a means by which the poet informed himself ‘on many planes simultaneously’ in his mind of ‘certain hitherto inharmonious interests’ (P2). For the reader, the poem is ‘a means of similarly informing himself of the relation of analogous interests hitherto inharmonious on these same various planes.’
‘For the poet, the writing of poetry accomplishes a certain end , irrespective of whether the poem ever finds another reader”. In the earlier work, On English Poetry [etc] Graves was adamant that the first draft of the poem was an act of non-communication, it was the poet’s various selves talking to each other, the unconscious addressing the conscious, rather than something that was deliberately aimed at an audience. This is how the “true poem” fulfills needs in the poet.
For the reader, the poem ‘works’ when it addresses something in the reader, offering a solution to the problems the reader faces, or even just a clear statement of the problem. For Graves a well-chosen anthology would be a personal medicine chest against ‘all ordinary mental disorders’(p2).
So far so good.
Graves points out that the poetry can take many different forms: it might state the nature of the problem, diagnose the ailment, suggest a solution, it may be temporary relief, narcotic, poetry of escape….(p2)
It follows from this ground that
A) The appreciation of poety presupposes a common interest or group of interests between the poet and his reader. Graves wrote: ”My experience as a reader of poetry is that I value in a poem the solution of the conflict when I am to some extent aware of the nature of the conflict. But that where there is hitherto only vague unrest in my mind, I value in a poem the clearly defined statement of that conflict. “
B) Graves was adamant: we do not and cannot value in a poem a statement of conflict or a temporary relief, or a final solution which is too far in the future or too far in the past to be real to us, or one removed altogether from our experience.
At which point I want to disagree. I want to first rebel against the idea that poetry exists to have a psychological function, but attempts to do so simply end up back at where Graves started. I then want to rebel against this idea that the good poem is addressing something as a reader that concerns me on one level or another. But I can’t.
I can read poems that don’t interest me: I’m a professional reader of poems, but I don’t remember them or want to reread them. And there in lies the reasons I think why Graves has disappeared. For the reader of poetry, the good poem is the one he or she likes. Graves said legitimate criticism of poetry would consist of the critic saying: this poem does nothing for me for these reasons: or this poem works for me for these reason. It would be totally subjective.
Graves must have realized, for any critical discussion, his distinction would not allow him to be a critic. And Graves was nothing if not critical.
For a literary critic, Graves' distinction leads nowhere. As he said, there is no good poetry, or bad poetry, only poetry that fails or succeeds for the individual reader or writer. But if this points up the ultimately subjective and contingent nature of “Poetic Value” it’s only a problem for the critic or the academic, who has to create, or more often assume, an elaborate, shared understanding of “Good Poetry” in order to operate.
It points towards the simple fact that almost everything in literary criticism and literary theory is about reading, not composition. And a century of efforts, from I.A.Richards onwards, followed to establish objectivity in Criticism followed, and almost overwhelmed, by the equally absurd idea that the term “literary theory” could dignify a mess of opinions, individual waffle and bad history by associating it with theories like aerodynamics or ballistics.
The problem then for the writer, is that if you are interested in writing as an art, you better have an idea of what is Good, so how to get beyond Graves so that you CAN line poems up, and you can consider them as verbal artifacts, and you can say some are better than others. It requires a criteria which has to be at least internalized, if not verbalised.