The poetry of fact

In an interview that marked the end of his tenure as Professor of Poetry at Oxford, Sir Geoffrey Hill was asked what he wanted from contemporary poetry. He began – and ended – with a negative. 'I don't want it to be a sort of simpering drizzle. I really do want there to be some sense of order battling anarchy within the very structure of a poem. I think one of the most dreadful sounds in all of modern culture is what I will call the poetry recital chortle, and most contemporary poems seem to me to be written in order to arouse the desire of the listener to chuckle appreciatively.'

Michael Schmidt uses this quotation in his editorial introducing the new PN Review. My feelings about it are mixed. I understand the rather dour intellectual Hill’s dislike of poetry as entertainment/poets as stand-up comics, which I suspect lies behind it. My notion of poetry is, like Hill’s, one of (I will give it capitals) High Art, which of course does not exclude wit. But the gap between ‘funny’ and ‘witty’, between Johnny Depp and Johnny Donne, is a mile wide. ‘Performance poetry’ only matters when the Poetry (capitals again) survives the Performance and lives on the Page. So I can agree with Hill to that extent; but Hill’s own poetry is Hard Work. It has a Miltonic, Old Testament feel about it. You have to be in good intellectual shape to approach it – it requires that of you.

Milton’s God-obsession is comprehensible given the times and circumstances it springs from, and the state of knowledge at that time; but the same dour obsession in the 21st Century seems to me less explicable – in some moods, almost inexcusable. Charles Tomlinson (a poet I’m sure I did less than justice to in my last blog) says in an interview, ‘I happen to think, with Santayana, that “Religious doctrines would do well to withdraw their pretension to be dealing with fact.” It’s no longer possible [he goes on] to reinstate seventeenth century, basically medieval criteria of belief – criteria from times when it was virtually possible to believe anything.’

Temperamentally, then, I would prefer, not a less serious, but perhaps a lighter, touch than Hill’s; and intellectually, one that occupied the terrifying real universe science is revealing to us. It will be interesting to see what the new Professor, Simon Armitage, makes of the role. He has said he will try for ‘something a little more contemporary.’ And ‘I feel I’d like to bring things up to date.’

I have a distant interest in all this because a couple of Kiwis in Oxford last year, wanting to move the Professorship offshore for a change, had the idea of nominating me for the post. In the end they threw in their lot with the move to nominate the Nigerian Nobel Laureate, Wole Soyinka; and the chance of that nomination succeeding was probably effectively scuppered when famous British Melvin Bragg said publicly that Soyinka (my age) was ‘too old and too grand’. It’s a strange notion that one can be ‘too grand’ for Oxford’s chair of poetry, a seat occupied not too long ago by W.H. Auden, Robert Graves, Seamus Heaney and Paul Muldoon. I didn’t think I would be elected (too old, and not grand enough!) but I would have enjoyed the election process – and the job too, if it had come to me.

It will be interesting to see what Armitage (a pleasant person and talented poet) will make of it.

I will add a recent poem of my own here relevant to the discussion above about the God-obsession and its relevance or otherwise in the 21st century.

The poetry of fact

On board Apollo 13

on their slingshot return

from the mission which failed to land them on

the moon,

oxygen diminishing

CO2 increasing

temperature dropping and

batteries failing

they had to get a precise

angle of re-entry.


Too steep and they would burn,

too fine, they would bounce off

earth’s envelope of air

and away into space for ever.


Prayer would not help

though by now the whole world –

the President

the Pope

the people in Times Square –

were praying.


To do the job

they needed Physics

and after the Physics,

Maths –

just numbers you could say

or an illustration

of how hard the hard facts can be,

how exacting

and necessary

and how beautiful

when you get them right.

I was briefly in Wellington about my appointment as Laureate and ran into British academic and Mansfield specialist, Dr Gerri Kimber, on a winter visit from the U.K. and hard at work in the Turnbull Library on her biography of Mansfield’s early years. That evening I heard a very lively talk she gave at the Wellington City Gallery about the discovery she has made in the Newberry Library, Chicago, of a collection of 32 Mansfield poems, only 7 of them previously known – a discovery at once exciting and inconvenient. Dr Kimber is deviser and Series Editor of the Edinburgh University Press four volume Collected Works of Katherine Mansfield, and the find is exciting because she considers these poems to be up with the very best Mansfield ever wrote. It is inconvenient, on the other hand, because Volume three has already appeared and is supposed to contain Mansfield’s complete poems and critical writing. So what is to be done with this collection of poems but stuff them in at the end of Volume four, Mansfield’s notebooks, currently being edited and annotated by Dr Kimber and Professor Claire Davison of the Sorbonne?

Katherine Mansfield at her work table, Villa Isola, Menton, France. Ref: 1/2-011985-F.

What makes the find special is that it appears Mansfield put the poems together in 1910 as a single collection and offered it (unsuccessfully) to a London publisher – after which it mysteriously vanished into a private collection. It has therefore a certain unity and coherence, and the freshness of Mansfield at that early stage in her career. Here is an example, showing, among much else, the influence of Russian literature that was so strong throughout her career:

In the swiftly moving sleigh
We sat curled up under the bear skin rugs
And talked of the dangers of life
The afternoon froze into twilight, profounder than night
The trees in the forest through which we passed
Were patterned like monstrous weeds on a lake of ice . .
You told me all your adventures
And though they were very terrible and violent
I could not help laughing, sometimes you ceased speaking
Turned to me with funny gravity
‘I just escaped being killed.’
Then our laughter rang over the snow
I told you of three wrecks I had been in
Of a fire – and the time I was all-but-drowned in a river . .
Ever faster galloped the horses
The moon rose, touching the fantastic land with her silver fingers
How eloquently we described our adventures!
But it was useless.
They flew into space on the wings of our laughter . .
Curled up under the bear skin rugs.
We drove – it seemed – through the foam that breaks over the world edge.
On the one great adventure
That held us in silence and gravity.

In the view of Dr Kimber and Professor Davison ’s these poems show Mansfield moving ‘away from the influence of Wilde and fin-de-siècle symbolism towards the more complex neo-romanticism and early modernism of continental Europe.’

I have always been slightly sceptical about Mansfield as a poet. The last time I offered an opinion on the subject was February 1990 when I reviewed in the Times Literary Supplement a selection of her poems edited by Vincent O’Sullivan. Here are two paragraphs of that review:

There have been half a dozen poems worthy of serious attention, and of those, two in particular have been rightly favoured by anthologists. One is the formal sonnet about the death of her brother in the First World War – a poem as tight, unflinching, strong and clear in its feeling as the best of Wilfred Owen. The other, ‘To Stanislaw Wyspianski’ is a romantic rhapsodic Whitmanesque piece in which Mansfield speaks out as a woman and a New Zealander, and in which one can see a talent not yet disciplined, but not yet curbed either.

For the rest there is a great deal of charm, some examples of the Mansfield wit, and increasingly the sense of a physical decline which robs her poetry of its native vitality. At her best in prose or verse Mansfield has the ability to speak right out of the middle of the note. But her poems look increasingly bruised and defeated. The spring goes out of their step. In the end she is simply sorry for herself. She has every reason to be but it doesn’t make the best use of her talent.

So here is a reason to celebrate Dr Kimber’s discovery – a small collection of poems written by Mansfield before her skies began to fall on her, or at least at a time when she was strong enough to cope with the falling. But how do they stand up? The poem quoted above is a good example: it has youthful vitality, the warmth of human association, immediacy, a sense of fun. It’s like a lamb leaping in spring: it is not only natural to respond with pleasure – it’s inevitable, unavoidable. But lurking somewhere as I read and enjoy is the spoilsport (whispered) question: is it a poem?

It is the same question that lurks when one reads the poems of Janet Frame. There is the immediacy that comes with talent – both have enormous resources of that. But where is the form that distinguishes a poem from prose? This is a very complex question, because form does not have to mean rhyme, or measureable metres, or a count of syllables, or even a pattern that has ever been used before or since. Nonetheless one believes one has an instinct for it and knows it is there – or that it is not. And I note that I had written all this before checking what Allen Curnow says about ‘To Stanislaw Wyspianski’ and finding that, though admiring, and writing about it at some length, he describes it as ‘a half-poem’, and as ‘passionate stumbling prose (for it is barely verse)’.

Would it be fair to say that the recently discovered poem quoted above is charming and skilful but formless? And if I do tend towards that opinion, is mine only a male response – and anyway, does it matter? Maybe we should just take what we are offered and be grateful?

Let the conversation continue!

– C. K. Stead

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