on 21 March 2016
I came to this book after an Amazon e-mail that recommended it as a result of ordering Hölderlin's 'Sämtliche Gedichte' and David Constantine's biography of Hölderlin to go with it. I came to writing and reading English poetry in 2012 at the age of 70, and am reading rather chaotically with a sense of urgency. In 2013 I started a poetry group: one after another the members at the first meeting announced that they wrote in free verse - but equally, the poems they brought to read were traditional. They found modern poetry said nothing to them, but wrote that style of poetry themselves!
This is for me the problem with this book. It attempts to put poetry in its rightful place in the modern world, and argues persuasively for its importance to humanity, but allows politics to get in the way, particularly in the chapter 'The Office of Poetry', where he fails to see that there are many, many of us who love poetry, who are being wilfully ignored by the current poetry establishment. In support of his arguments, he does what my fellow group members did - reaches for his examples, again and again back to the early twentieth century and beyond: John Clare, Edward Thomas, George Herbert, Shakespeare. If there are current English poets whom he admires, he does not mention them (apart from Derek Mahon, three weeks younger than myself!). Larkin was blunter: He said poetry was off on 'a loop line away from the general reader' and being written by the 'mad lads'. He had more than a point: after three years buying, reading, attending poetry readings, hoping to read and listen to current poetry that speaks to me, with a few exceptions (Imtiaz Dharker being a notable example) I have to agree with Larkin that the mad lads and lasses are writing poetry that is utterly unmemorable. Larkin was able in the Paris Review interview to name a raft of current poets that inspired his youth. Whom, he asked, would you name now? Three decades on, the loop line has shown no sign of turning back towards the general reader, but gets further and further away.
This is something this book seems to be concerned about in the early chapters, but never actually gets to grips with. Politics gets in the way. Great poetry has been written under every political system and in every kind of philistine society. Poets who have paying jobs (other than in University Creative Writing Departments) are at liberty to write whatsoever they please in the UK today. They need to worry far more about the academic gatekeepers of the poetry publishing world, than market forces and public lack of interest in output that is for most irrelevant.
I had great hopes of the chapter on translation. These days every monoglot Thomasina, Dick and Harriet turns her/his attention to poetry 'translation' from languages of which they have no knowledge whatever. The results are mostly dire. Here, they are almost encouraged to produce 'autonomous' works that do little more than nod in the direction of the original, and this by a writer of outstanding calibre in the field. Constantine laboured to teach himself classical Greek - today's 'translators' rely on 'literals'.
An old man's grump aside, I found 'Poetry' an absorbing read (I dropped everything else to read it), hence the four stars. When German poets, in the desert that was left to them after the Thirty Years War, looked for inspiration, they eventually found it in the simplicity of the folk ballad, in particular, those of England and Scotland, and built on that. Poetry in the UK could do worse than look to its roots and proceed from there. It isn't about politics for the general reader. It's about the pleasure of being reached out to, touched, challenged, satisfied.