Friday, September 9, 2016

The Foot note poets: Richard Aldington 3/4

Joseph Campbell’s output, if the tiny collected is anything to go on, was small.  Not all the poems work as well as ‘Night and I passing’.  When Austin Clark collected his poems he included nothing from the first collection.  And Campbell had other things to do.

However, Footnote poets aren’t always unjustly relegated to the footnotes.  Quite often, reading them is a good way of approaching literary value from a different direction. Richard Aldington (1892-1962) is more than just a footnote. If you accept the standard narrative, then Imagism (with or without the final e) was the precursor of literary modernism and one version of the narrative is that Pound coined the term to describe H.D’s work and then used it to promote H.D and Aldington.

Aldington’s biographical information is easily found on line and he turns up in most histories of Modernism or biographies of other famous poets. But if Campbell is a salutary warning about the dangers of the lyric (see previous posts), Aldington demonstrates much of what can go wrong with ‘free verse’.

He might have been an influential figure in literary circles in his time, but reading his Collected Poems it becomes obvious something was missing. At a time when a mountain of awful poetry was being published, he was good enough to be still readable. His erotic poems can be more direct than you might expect for the period, the war poems are an honest, literate response to horror, but as poetry, as something other than a literate response to erotic feeling or terror, they don’t convince.

A Ruined House

Those who lived here are gone
Or dead or desolate with grief;
Of all their life here nothing remains
Except their trampled, dirtied clothes
Amongst the dusty bricks
Their marriage bed, rusty and bent
Thrown aside as useless;
And a broken toy left by a child…

 It’s not a bad poem, nor is it a great one. So it will do to consider what’s wrong with Aldington’s poems.

Perhaps we’ve seen too many pictures of ruined houses since the 1920s. It’s hard to imagine what this must have done to a reader who had not seen the damage caused by the First World War before the Second World War conditioned every one to scenes of urban destruction. But Aldington is working too hard. He’s not trusting the reader, or confident enough to let the image do its work.  

The second and third lines are clumsy:

Or dead or desolate with grief,
Of all their life here nothing remains

They push the reader towards the poet’s preferred reading: ‘this is sad. This is the terrible effect of the war on civilian populations’.  But the second line invites too much disagreement. They are gone or dead? It’s obvious ‘they’ are gone, but it’s obvious the poet doesn’t know them personally, nor does the poet know what’s happened to them and ‘dead or desolate with grief’ are obviously not the only possibilities. ‘Desolate with grief’ is unnecessarily literary. ‘Nothing remains’ is qualified by ‘except’…and while ‘nothing remains’ may be an attempt to evoke Ozymandias the except seems to list a lot more than nothing.
The  'things that remain' are selected for their impact, but why ‘marriage bed’? Is a marriage bed different to the bed a couple slept in every night since they were married? There were obviously children so it’s not like they had their wedding night here in the house, on this bed, and then it was destroyed.  

The final image of the discarded child’s toy might have been original, but it’s buried in the poet’s attempts to bully his reader into accepting his interpretation of the ruin. Imagine someone like Bunting or Pound taking their pencil to it and producing this:

A Ruined House

Trampled, dirtied clothes
amongst the dusty bricks
A bed, rusty and bent
And a broken toy..

Aldington is not a bad poet, but the great line never arrives.  The memorable image is always one draft away. The thought is fussing about the edges trying to work out which clothes to put on. Compare Aldington’s war poems to Gurney or any of the other big name war poets and as poems they pale in comparison. Compare the later Aldington in long works like , ‘A Fool I’ the Forest’, ‘A  Dream in the Luxembourg’ , ‘Life Quest’ and ‘The Crystal World’  to Eliot and there’s no contest.

We could pretend the world is full of egalitarian sentiments and pretend it’s not a contest, but poets vie for attention, and Aldington wrote his share of criticism. Art is a world where equal to, better than, less than are critical commonplaces and a fair question. 

Whatever is going on in ‘A fool I’ the Forest’ goes on for too long.  The fact that the poem is prefaced with a note explaining its own symbolism is another version of the first two lines of A Ruined House. Aldington uses untranslated snippets, in the style of Pound or Eliot, but like the former’s use of Chinese symbols they don’t do anything for a reader who can’t read them.

‘A Dream in the Luxembourg’ is a love story. Or a fantasy about a love affair. It’s easy to read, and enjoyable in its own way. So it can stand as an example of what’s wrong.

Firstly it’s difficult to see why he didn’t write it as a prose short story.

Now I am so much moved as I write this
That my hand shakes with excitement
And there is so much to say
I scarcely know where and how to begin
So hard is it to be truly reasonable
When you are a little crazy with romantic love.

Pound, who sometimes regretted his role in the popularization of ‘free verse’, wrote that the writer should not resort to poetry to avoid the difficulties of writing good prose. Is this good prose?

Now I am so much moved as I write this that my hand shakes with excitement and there is so much to say I scarcely know where and how to begin, so hard is it to be truly reasonable when you are a little crazy with romantic love.

Truly seems redundant, and ‘a little crazy with romantic love’ might be an ironic understatement given what follows, but ‘a little crazy’ is a sloppy description of the writer’s state of mind. (He’s about to tell the story of how he dropped everything he was doing in England and drove to France to meet the woman he loves after receiving an enigmatic telegram.)

There’s a steady rhythm to the extract, but it moves easily and it moves against the meaning of the lines. Sincerity is a complicated concept in writing: whether or not the writer is sincere is irrelevant, it’s whether he or she sounds sincere that matters. This doesn’t sound sincere. The poet is not talking directly to someone across the café table.  These are words arranged on the page for a purpose and the danger in trying to mimic a speaking voice is evident here: And there is so much to say/I scarcely know where and how to begin sounds like something someone might say, but on the page it raises the question couldn’t you do better? You did begin. You did find a starting point. And the conversational tone is immediately disrupted in the next verse section when Aldington drags in Catullus, Euripides and Pierre Vidal.
Next up, Tomas Carew and one of the strangest erotic poems in English.


1 comment:

David X. Novak said...

The war photograph with a broken toy has become such a cliche in contemporary journalism—I only know because I've seen it written about—that it's hard to take seriously anymore. I feel something similar about Magritte's paintings: they were fresh when I saw them with youthful eyes, but in the intervening time they've been done to death with homage and replication, often in advertising, that now my typical response is, "ho hum."

It's not the poet's fault, of course, what came after him. I only imagine, as per your comment about the figures that are "gone" and obviously unknown to the author, that somehow he was not incisive enough to make it stick.