Monday, October 27, 2014

T.S. Eliot Louis MacNeice and the jellyfish school of poetry

Louis MacNeice in ‘The Poetry of W.B.Yeats’.
         Eliot…had maintained that the poet must adapt himself to his world; if his world is difficult and complex, his poetry must be difficult and complex…Poets like Auden and Spender abandoned this feminine conception of poetry and returned to the old arrogant principle-which was Yeats’s too-that it is the poet’s job to make sense of the world, to simplify it, to put shape on it. The fact that these younger poets proposed to stylize their world in accordance with communist doctrine or psycho-analytical [sic] theory (both things repugnant to Yeats) is comparatively irrelevant. Whatever their system was, they stood with Yeats for system against chaos, for a positive art against a passive impressionism. Where Eliot had seen misery, frustration and ruins, they saw heroic struggle-or, sometimes, heroic defeat-and they saw ruins rebuilding. (p.191)

The identification of passivity as feminine dates this unpleasantly, but I think the point is a good one. Eliot’s ‘passive impressionism’ is the jellyfish approach to poetry. 

This time of year, if the wind holds from the northeast, the high tide line is marked by stranded blue jellyfish…they drift along, and when the wind goes the wrong way they get stranded and die.

Perhaps this might have made some sense in the aftermath of the First world war, though it's interesting that Eliot didn't serve, and writers like David Jones and Robert Graves, who did, in their very different ways, went looking for pattern. But I don’t understand why it’s still such a popular attitude a hundred years later. There’s a dominant thread in modern poetry which tries to make impersonating a wind blown jellyfish some sort of exemplary activity and looks down its nose at anything which reaches for pattern and purpose:

Oh woe is me, didn’t some dead guru say words are arbitrary acoustic signs, there is no transcendental signifier, life doesn’t make sense, the subject is liable to be scattered, the individual is battered from all sides…it’s as though all the jellyfish drifting inevitably towards the beach were theorizing and conceptualizing their own indolence so that they could feel superior about being stranded.

MacNeice argues here and elsewhere for art in general and poetry specifically as an act of making which is inherently positive. This explains his initially strange statement that a poem in praise of suicide is an act of homage to life, and it lies behind the magnificent:

Self-assertion more often than not is vulgar, but a live and vulgar dog who keeps on barking is better than a dead lion, however dignified. (SP p. 48)

There is nothing dignified about a stranded Jellyfish.

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