Buried amid the relucent, electric chaos of Tristan Tzara’s Dada Manifestoes is the following sober reflection: ‘[a] work of art is never beautiful, by decree, objectively, for everyone. Criticism is, therefore, useless; it only exists subjectively, for every individual, and without the slightest general characteristic’. This, for the most part, is irrefragable. After all, no one can demonstrate that the original Mona Lisa, say, is objectively better than Duchamp’s moustachioed reproduction. Nor can anybody authoritatively denude the latter of its artistic status. There does not and cannot exist an unimpeachable definition of art. Criticism, then, is boo-hurrah festooned in the flashiest of finery.
Yet countless learned men and women, heavy with erudition, have failed to rise to meet these truisms. On the other hand, those churned out by creative writing departments are not so fraught, and float like toy balloons beyond them. Indeed, what follows here shall appear to disregard them too.
But so strong is my contempt for a certain kind of poet that it must find expression. I am absolutely conscious that such expression shall be nothing more than a protracted howl of boo, but if the charge of self-contradiction should nevertheless hold weight, then I shall respond as did the good gray poet: very well then, I contradict myself.
With the caveat thus laid down, we can flesh out our poetaster and his position on his craft. At its very heart is the unshakeable conviction that poetry should embrace the language of conversation. Admittedly, a few eminent poets — like William Carlos Williams — have championed this view. And so our poetaster grins, believing that vindication has come. But the equating of poetry to conversation is quite patently absurd. The former thing is deliberate, and often achingly so; it thus has a vanity about it, as if it is acutely conscious of its own otherness; it may wrestle or appear to wrestle with complex abstractions, and seems always to be striving to reach the pinnacle of expression. Conversation is not born in the same way; it does not affect the mind in the same way; its grey and hispid weeds are not fit to clothe poetry’s body. Even when they do, undiminished is the overarching impression: that poetry is the biggest contrivance of all! But beauty and sensuosity and evocativeness are lost, and all because of our unfeeling poetaster’s desire to have his sheer ineptitude reflected everywhere.
From this central conviction springs not the abandonment of metre, but the refusal to meet with it at all. Many of the most imperious pillars of our canon would not have dreamed of so spurning it, but the bold poetaster of today has done what they could not and gets upon his knees at the altar of free verse instead. The iamb is an old decrepit heart, he says, before unleashing cardiac dysrhythmia. What results is flabby and amorphous. But, insists the poetaster, it has a musicality! So might any prose. In poetry, metre is time signature; stress is beat. A great deal of today’s poetry has neither. What, then, differentiates it from prose? The answer is as yet a mystery, though one suspects that perhaps the Arbitrary Line Break is involved. At any rate, the reasons for the rejection of metre are absolutely clear: our poetaster, bereft of discipline and skill, is unable to write well within its limits, and moreover unwilling to try. But even with his freedom, he cannot produce anything nearly as powerful as those who rightly fettered themselves.
By the time our writer comes to choose his subject matter, then, his poetic prognosis is grim. It ought to be made even worse when he realises that every furrow of ideation has been colonised already, and by greater minds than he. But our poetaster has little interest in grappling with universal themes; instead, absolutely unperturbed, he looks to fulfil what he feels is his divine vocation by retreating completely into the mundaneness of his own personal history. Eliot’s view — that poetry is an escape from personality — is hardly unassailable, but it does not even occur to our writer. At any rate, he soon shows that he has little personality from which to escape, as he pens the same piece a thousand times over. It is characterised, of course, by constant reference to everyday things and also by that hazy introspectiveness which deceives the reader into thinking that there is something underneath. But in every case, our poetaster’s work is dull, impenetrable and hollow.
Yet the creative process is by no means over. His poetry has all the architectonic splendour of a toppled Brutalist monolith, but our poetaster wants now to read it to an audience. For a minute or two, his ego will join it at the epicentre of the world, and his quirky delivery will be sure to occasion tremors of laughter — ever the goal — from his poetaster friends. But is it not time that the poetry slam was slammed? Larkin rather gently put it down:
Hearing a poem, as opposed to reading it on the page, means you miss so much—the shape, the punctuation, the italics, even knowing how far you are from the end. Reading it on the page means you can go your own pace, taking it in properly; hearing it means you’re dragged along at the speaker’s own rate, missing things, not taking it in, confusing “there” and “their” and things like that. And the speaker may interpose his own personality between you and the poem, for better or worse. For that matter, so may the audience… When you write a poem, you put everything into it that’s needed: the reader should “hear” it just as clearly as if you were in the room saying it to him. And of course this fashion for poetry readings has led to a kind of poetry that you can understand first go: easy rhythms, easy emotions, easy syntax. I don’t think it stands up on the page.
One might have expected a stronger denunciation from this old curmudgeon, but the point remains: performance is a separate art. When put together, poetry and performance will tussle for supremacy, and, given all of the above, the former thing will never win.
And that is such a shame, for in poetry, the power and infinitude of man’s imagination are quite exquisitely manifest. The Hippocrene, after all, is an ancient and uniquely glimmering tributary of the sea of human endeavour. The continuing pollution thereof is sad indeed.
One might wonder why. Is it because learning the classics is no longer compulsory? Is it the sacrosanct belief that everybody is equally gifted? Is it capitalism? Tzara and his like are certainly not responsible, for today’s poets write earnestly and with none of the Dadaists’ riotous, ruinous brilliance. But all this is tangential to the crucial question.
Are we to
Everything that looks
It was Keats who said that ‘if Poetry comes not as naturally as Leaves to a tree it had better not come at all’. Of this, our poetaster and his friends are the living, breathing refutations.