For most of 2015 I’ve been reading what I think of as ‘footnote poets’. You’ll find their names in the footnotes of biographies of the famous, in passing references, often slighting, in letters, or they appear in a list that makes up the group from which the ‘great poet’ emerged or a list of similar poems from which the ‘great poem’ stands out.
Footnote poets are often the ones who almost made it, who can still be read with some pleasure if you can track down their work. Part of the reason it’s taken so long to put together the notes which follow has been the difficulty of finding their poems.
We all know literary history is not ‘fair’. Sometimes the talented don’t make it and those who do make it seem suspect. Sometimes, talent is nebulous. And often, if you compare contemporary poems, it’s hard to see why, in terms of literary merit, one poet became well known and one didn’t.
On the other hand, reading some footnote poets and asking why they didn’t make it is a way of nagging at the question of what is a good poem.
What follows is a discussion of four such poets: Joseph Campbell (1879-1944), Richard Aldington (1892-1862), Thomas Carew (1695-1640) and Lawman (Dates unknown but writing after 1155), the latter being a special case.
The end result of a year’s reading?
I was hoping to sidestep literary theory and critical orthodoxy and gain a better understanding of what is a good poem and why some poets become well known and others don’t. But what I discovered was that the variables are so numerous that there is little logic to the process. Except, in most cases, while the footnote poets can be interesting, and provide academics and publishers with the possibility of rediscovering X or challenging the Canon by championing Y, most of the time they deserve their place in the footnotes.
I started with the conviction that writing poetry is the art of controlling and exploiting diction, syntax and line endings. If you’re a formalist you could add rhythm to the list or you could assume that rhythm like sound is the product of the interaction of the first three. So to write a poem you have to control and exploit diction, syntax and line endings, and learn to control and exploit what Jean Jacques Lecercle calls The Remainder’.
What that doesn’t explain, is why some poets who could obviously do this, are forgotten. The Modernists fetishized ‘technique’ but no matter how good the poet, if the poem has nothing more than a purely formal interest, the poet is doing the equivalent of playing scales on a musical instrument.
The twentieth century’s obsession with “experimental poetry” has produced very little of value. Most of the 'experiments' are repetitions of things that were tried out over a century ago. Even when the work is genuinely novel, the value of the experiment lies in what can be learnt from it, and can then be applied to the next poem, not the mess made in the laboratory, which shouldn’t be inflicted on anyone else. The popularity of ruptured syntax and poems that present as some kind of Sudoku or Rubik’s Cube for the cognoscenti to unravel leads to the last depressing thought.
If the Field of an art consists of producers and consumers, and the consumers include both the professionals, the critics, editors, professional academics reviewers scholars and historians and the non professional reader, then Poetry is unique in that the audience has shrunk to consist almost of professional users. With poetry, because of its uniquely imbalanced audience, so much depends on what professional users can do with what the poet has produced. The needs of the critic to do something the non-academic reader cannot do, means that there is a symbiotic relationship between the explicator and the need for something to explain. Some poets remain visible because their work provides endless opportunities for academic studies: Pound has to be a case in point. A poet like Campbell, who needs no explicator, has very little chance.
And on that depressing note. Next post, Joseph Campbell