The Slow Death of Poetry?

The  Slow Death of Poetry?

Oliver Saint John Gogarty tells a story about the twenty-three-year old James Joyce at the time of W.B. Yeats’s fortieth birthday party. Yeats was staying in the Cavendish Hotel on what was then Rutland Square (now Parnell Square). On a whim, the twenty-two year old Joyce called on the revered poet. Gogarty recalls: ‘he solemnly walked in and knocked on Yeats’s door. When Yeats opened the door of the sitting-room he said, ‘What age are you, sir?’ and Yeats said, ‘I’m forty.’– ‘You’re too old for me to help I bid you good bye’.

Apparently Yeats was greatly impressed at the impertinence of his young protégé, and it is axiomatic that each artistic generation rises up against its predecessor. Thus the Modernist Joyce slew the Romantic Yeats.

But in that pursuit of originality there is also recognition of past achievement. Occasionally, however, a tradition may reach a level of decadence such that it falls into abeyance. This would appears to be the fate of the high poetic tradition, in Ireland and elsewhere. It now enjoys a popular audience equivalent to the angling notes in the paper of record. The descent is apparent in the extended exercise in wordplay evident in the output of its leading Irish light, Paul Muldoon.

In Ancient Greece, when the values of Homer’s epics the Iliad and Odyssey held sway, there were at least seven systematic activities including poetry, warfare, farming and rhetoric which required a disciplined apprenticeship in pursuit of ‘excellence’. There was acknowledgement of past achievement that permanently defined any field, but aspirants knew that rupture was necessary to transcend previous heights. According to the philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre: ‘the greatest achievement in each area at each stage always exhibits a freedom to violate the present established maxims, so that achievement proceeds by rule-keeping and by rule-breaking.’

In order to scale the dizzying heights of his masterpieces Joyce first had to purge his own Yeatsian tendencies. As Jahan Ramazani in his Poetry and Its Others puts it: ‘Although Joyce wrote lyric poetry, the novelist is sometimes unrecognizable in the Elizabethan song forms, sentimental lyricism, and static retrospection of Chamber Music and Poems Penyeach.’ He cites a rather insipid passage where the iconoclastic brilliance characterising his novels is barely discernible:

The twilight turns from amethyst
To deep and deeper blue,
The lamp fills with a pale green glow
The trees of the avenue.

Like Joyce, the precocious Muldoon spent much of his early career in the shadow of another poet, Seamus Heaney, but unfortunately his “rule breaking” is a slide into irrelevance. This polemical critique of Muldoon, makes no claim to be exhaustive, but is a delayed reaction to the collection One Thousand Things Worth Knowing (2015); his musical collaboration with Shaun Davey ‘One Hundred Years a Nation’ for the Rising commemorations last year; and a characteristically long poem that appeared in the January 2017 edition of the New York Review of Books entitled ‘Superior Aloeswood’.

Muldoon held the position of Oxford Professor of Poetry from 1999 to 2004, and is now a professor at Princeton, as well as being current poetry editor for The New Yorker. He is a brilliant critic, whose radio essay for the BBC on the legacy of W.B. Yeats at 150, to my mind, was by far the most perceptive among those offered by a number of Irish intellectuals including John Banville and Fintan O’Toole. But his poetry must be assessed independently, and without fear or favour.

It is obvious that the works of Muldoon I consider are influenced by the mood and techniques of T.S. Eliot, especially in terms of dispensing with hallowed forms in rhyme and meter, extensive recourse to enjambments (the continuation of a sentence without a pause beyond the end of a line, couplet, or stanza), and obscure allusion to mythology. The influence of his friend Seamus Heaney is also apparent in the flinty, ‘Northern’ texture of language evocative of Viking raiders.

But rather than altering the approach of his predecessors by a return to simpler forms he builds further riddles into his work, so puzzling as to be tiresome. James Joyce famously joked that his Finnegans Wake held so many enigmas and puzzles that it would keep professors busy for centuries. But that book of dreamtime is a unique, and highly-original, literary experiment. For all its complexity, appreciable linguistic novelty is not apparent in Muldoon’s poems: they read like difficult crossword puzzles.

Another Modernist rupture came about through T. S. Eliot’s seminal ‘The Waste Land’ (1922). It is by most measures a difficult poem to make sense of, just like the quest for the Holy Grail on whose symbolism it draws. Yet nestling in the obscurity are moments of arresting emotion that succour the reader, such as the opening sequence:

April is the cruellest month, breeding
Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
Memory and desire, stirring
Dull roots with spring rain.

Anyone can inhabit these lines, stimulating curiosity for the difficult quest ahead. Here at least, abides by Aristotle’s maxim: ‘To write well, express yourself like the common people, but think like a wise man’, even if the remainder of the poem demands profound textual analysis.

Of course applying Aristotle’s maxim tout court excludes most poetry since the Middle Ages, and I suggest that all of the great poets accommodate, to some degree, the demotic with the esoteric. It is widely held that Eliot’s high Modernism fell over the edge into the terrain of ‘academic poetry’, but there are concessions to a popular audience.

There is little evidence of Muldoon living among “the common people” in the opening poem of his last volume: ‘Cuthbert and the Otters’. Dedicated to Seamus Heaney one expects an outpouring of a universal grief. This, however, like almost every other poem in the collection, is impenetrable to a point of alienation.

The title revives a touching tale about the seventh-century Northumbrian Saint Cuthbert whose recitation of the psalms attracted the attention of the local otters, but unlike Heaney’s ‘St Kevin and the Blackbird’, the tale itself is only alluded to. Rather, we are expected to find out about it for ourselves, and are then treated to obscure references that fail to arouse sympathy. Is he likening Heaney to St Cuthbert? Are we, his readers, the otters? It is hard to know, or care.

Already in the first stanza there are archaic words such as ‘darne’, ‘fain’, ‘limen’, ‘flitch’, that display the erudition of the author. There is no concession to the general reader, and it continues in resolutely inaccessible, but oddly static, language.

There are also a series of non-sequiturs that appear as riddles such as in the second stanza: ‘It’s true they’ve yet to develop the turnip clamp / and the sword with a weighted pommel / but the Danes are already dyeing everything beige.’ Is it really worth the bother of finding out what he means here?

We also find hints at humour: ‘The Benedictines still love a bit of banter / along with the Beatitudes. Blessed is the trundle bed, / it readies us for the tunnel / from Spital Tongues to the staithes.’ And personal recollection: ‘I once sustained concussion, / having been hit by a boom in Greenwich, / and saw three interlocking red triangles on my beer mat.’ This may be free association of a highly-learned man, fond of resurrecting abandoned words, if so it is hard to identify its poetic qualities.

There may be merit in pure imaginative flow such as Percy Shelley likened to the burning coal of inspiration, but he contained his poetry within sympathetic meter and rhyme that allows a reader to float along the lyrical stream of his consciousness.

The only obvious concession to his grief arrives in the line ‘I cannot thole the thought of Seamus Heaney dead’, but use of the archaic ‘thole’ reveals this as a private commemoration limited to Northern poets. This is comparable perhaps to Shelley’s elegy to Keats: ‘I weep for Adonais – he is dead’. Adonis, the Greek god of fertility is hardly a household name, but the dying Adonais attains an immortality in art, while the use of the verb ‘thole’ just reeks of scholarly nostalgia.

In the introduction to his translation of Beowulf Heaney points to his use of the word thole – ‘endure, suffer, hold out’ – not as an archaism but as a word linking his own Ulster dialect to Old English dialect. Muldoon thus situates himself as Heaney’s successor, but little appears to remain of the kingdom he lays claim to.

What of Muldoon’s contribution of a song-poem to the Rising Commemorations? Here we find the poet speaking more directly to “the common people”, and we find fairly predictable symbols of Irishness beginning with ‘from glen to glen’, the opening lines of Danny Boy, along with the stag and the yellow bittern. There is a predictable reference to Finn MacCool – of the macho warrior cult – as opposed to summoning characters from more subtle and colourful sagas such as ‘The Wooing of Étaín’, or ‘The Second Battle of Moytura’ to represent the origins of the nation. The second half displays the influence of hip-hop and delivers rather populist digs at the ‘establishment’:

when that rent’s in arrears
now Finn MacCool gave way to cool
our very monks lived by the rule
of gombeen financiers

It struck the right notes for a windswept Miriam O’Callaghan on the night, and the musical accompaniment is genuinely rousing, but it could easily have been written to parody a decadence that is explicitly ventilated in one of his latest poem of ‘Superior Aloeswood’, published in the January edition of the New York Review of Books.

This takes a longer form making it all the more painful to endure. The theme here is beneficial rot: when the Aloeswood or Agarwood is digested by bacteria it produces agar, a resin valued for its fragrance in incense and other aromas. We are also subjected to an inventory of cheeses and wines which experience a similar bacterial breakdown; nods to the Biblical Nicodemus who embalmed Jesus (with such spices) in John’s gospel; numerous references to characters from Moby Dick, and more curiously, varieties of oysters.

It seems that these references have something to do with: ‘the Tower of Wrong / being built by Trump’, and ‘Bashar al-Assad training his bombardiers / on his own citizenry (grace a Putin), or perhaps: ‘Why the electorate choose the likes of Ronald Bonzo and George W. Bozo / as Commander-in Chief has already defied exegesis’. This is bewildering because the political rot can hardly be construed as beneficial. Moreover, if the great poet cannot explain how these men came to power then where does that leave the rest of us?

The lines: ‘Though we’d hoped to meet at the Blue Plate Oysterette / you’d been confined to barracks / on account of the side effects, I surmised, of steroids.’, reveal a debased successor to Eliot’s withered, but still lyrical ‘Prufrock’: The muttering retreats / Of restless nights in one-night cheap hotels / And sawdust restaurants with oyster-shells.’ The patient is no longer etherised upon a table but in remission.

Muldoon bears no personal responsibility for his own self-expression, and for getting on in the world. His ‘success’ nonetheless suggests the poetic tradition, which in epic form provided heroic models against which the Ancient Greeks measured themselves, has devoured itself through conceptual innovation over the past century of seismic technological shifts.

Similarly, Will Self argues that the novel has been consumed by the Digital Leviathan. He poses the question whether, assuming the vast majority of texts will be read in digital form on devices linked to the web: ‘do you also believe that those readers will voluntarily choose to disable that connectivity? If your answer to this is no,’ he says, ‘then the death of the novel is sealed out of your own mouth.’

It will survive he says but only as a state-supported indulgence like Classical music. He further contends that ‘the hallmark of our contemporary culture is an active resistance to difficulty in all its aesthetic manifestations, accompanied by a sense of grievance that conflates it with political elitism’. This leaves even less scope for poetry to attract a popular audience, especially given an inherent predilection for mystery. Conversely, considering Muldoon’s stature, what remains of the tradition survives by recourse to even greater abstraction. This is the “rule breaking” of an already dated post-Modernism.

Since the nineteenth century – linked perhaps to the increased pace of life produced by the railway, the steamship and the telegraph – poetry has been in decline relative to prose. But until recently it has filtered through and resonated with a wider audience. Much of what remains has descended into self-parody.

Paradoxically, however, versifying endures through popular forms such as slam, and song especially. These bring a visceral immediacy, although the scope for depth is diminished, and the great exemplars of the past are increasingly forgotten. This is perhaps a necessary dislocation before a revival.

More hearteningly Ramazani observes: ‘I began writing this book as a consideration of poetry’s dispersal into its others. But as I studied ever more examples of just such melding, I found time and again that poems reassert themselves as poems even in the moments of seeming to fuse with their others.’ The timeless, and primal, patterns of poetic speech reasserts itself notwithstanding the excesses of the current masters.

Poetry needs to grow a new skin for the old ceremony. Until then it will inhabit the space between the angling notes and the Church of Ireland notices, and political decay may continue apace. We need new heroes to measure ourselves against.
(Published in Village Magazine, March, 2017)

Between Music and Prose

(Published in Village Magazine, April 2015)

In her recent Michael Littleton lecture for RTE ‘Has Poetry a Future?’ Eavan Boland identifies the ‘vertical’ audience it has enjoyed through history. Many hallowed poets, such as Keats, did not find a public in their own time but their words may echo across the ages unlike other forms of culture which may have a short-lived or ‘horizontal’ appeal. She argued that those who assert poetry’s present irrelevance are hopelessly myopic.

In a recent book of prose essays: Say But The Word: Poetry as Vision and Voice leading Irish poet Micheal O’Siadhail also explores the point of poetry. He writes: ‘The role of poetry is often seen as that of guardian of a language. However I would like to extend this somewhat to include the more dynamic concept of an ecology, which stresses both a mutual responsibility and a continuing process of renewal.’ Poets assert authenticity in the languages of the dynamic societies they inhabit.

O’Siadhail identifies a confluence of the language of heart and mind in poetry that serves as a refuge from daily corruptions where: ‘our core words – ‘motherhood’, for example – are daily exploited and polluted to tempt us to consume.’

Even if poetry is not overtly political it may still perform a vital role in creating a dissonance that subtly subverts power structures. O’Siadhail quotes Vaclav Havel from An Anatomy of Reticence approvingly: ‘even a word is capable of a certain radiation, of leaving a mark on the “hidden consciousness” of a community …. it is vital that we remind ourselves that whether there is a visible political content or not is irrelevant. At a much more fundamental level, any poet who unswervingly pursues an artistic truth, is potentially political.’ Under Communism in Czechoslovakia poets like Havel resisted a totalitarian regime by bending the language of authority. O’Siadhail wonders ‘whether Osip Mandelstam did know what he was talking about when he said that he measured a civilization by the number of its poetry readers’.

But O’Siadhail does identify a danger lest Modernist poets such as Ezra Pound and T.S. Eliot have indeed developed a self-absorbed and potentially redundant poetry. He explains: ‘The clear danger of this interiority is an opting out of society and a refusal to take any responsibility for shaping a wider meaning. Apart from the risk of solipsism and plain self-indulgence, there is the risk of turning poetry into a kind of private piety, which ends up marginalising poetry or branding it as some kind of academic pursuit not appropriate to the ordinary reader of books’.

A further question to ponder is whether contemporary poetry should be embraced at the expense of the old: most obviously in the secondary school syllabus. Should teenagers be asked to engage with and perhaps recite older poems if the subject matter seems remote to their experiences, and even if the views of a poet would seem outmoded in the science classroom next door?

Seen through the lens of its ‘vertical’ influence, educators should be hesitant to alter the canon in the interest of inclusiveness, or of according a rapid recognition to poets who have attained popularity in their lifetimes. Engaging with old masters might give students a better sense of the contingency of established ideas.

Unfortunately this gives rise to gender imbalance, but there is little point including unremarkable poetry for the sake of political correctness. Moreover a more nuanced view of gender might allow us to identify a feminine voice in any verse notwithstanding its author. Poetry is more than a personal undertaking but a common inheritance of a language. O’Siadhail quotes Edward Sapir who wrote in 1921: ‘Every language is itself a collective art of expression … An artist utilises the native esthetic resources of his speech. He may be thankful if the given palette of colours is rich, if the springboard is light. But he deserves no special credit for felicities that are the language’s own.’

Boland’s distinction between the vertical and horizontal might also apply over the course of an individual’s lifetime: when he first encounters a poem a student might find little beyond conjunctions of words with a musical ring to them but over the course of a lifetime they may begin to inhabit the ideas expressed. In that sense the old method of teaching poetry as an oral form where lines are learnt by heart to be recalled in future seems worthwhile.

Reflection on the work, a child’s search for meaning, might then be conducted in a more personalised, instinctive, way as opposed to developing an understanding for the sake of an examination demanding the often cynical obligation to deconstruct.

In this collection that spans many years of reflection, O’Siadhail, an intensely gifted poet, addresses the tension between form and content laying bare his artistic process with great clarity. He examines the workings and appeal of the sonnet, the haiku, of Dante’s terza rima and the free form of the Black Mountain Poets and Beats.

Ultimately O’Siadhail does not assert the superiority of any one among them, stating: ‘My own feeling is that both the howls of the Beats and the ‘open field’ of the Black Mountain Poets may have done us all a great service on both sides of the Atlantic. It may have been necessary for a while to move away from the perceived stuffiness of formality, to leave the stanza behind and to give free rein to a line based more on breath and utterance. He concludes that: ‘the use of form is now a matter of choice … It is like a move from an arranged marriage to a life of voluntary commitment.’

As a poet trained in linguistics he offers rare insights into the archaeology of languages and the challenge of translation. He quotes Dante who declared that ‘nothing harmonised by a musical bond can be transmuted from its own speech without losing all its sweetness and harmony’; although adding that: ‘For all the well-known dictums about the failure of all translations, from time to time the magic happens and the meaning and form combine in English to catch the wonder and spirit of a poem’.

As a linguist he draws from a rich array of sounds and meanings and is unhesitant about using them in his verse. He writes: ‘It is by no means necessary for a poet to be aware of the dynamic layers of language rules and developments, no more than a musician need be a mathematician or a sculptor a geologist. Yet is fascinates.’

He also explores the inspiration for his work: ‘I never know what it is that chooses the form. Sometimes it is the donné, the line that comes from nowhere as a surprise and offers a rhythm and pattern.’ The sonnet feels appropriate when he is ‘multiply overwhelmed’ in the words of his long-time intellectual interlocutor and one of the editors of this volume theologian David F. Ford.

O’Siadhail does not identify an explicitly religious dimension to his work, although his affection for the poetry of George Herbert is revealing and he quotes Patrick Kavanagh approvingly to the effect that: ‘poetry has to do with the reality of the spirit of faith and hope and sometimes even charity. It is a point of view. A poet is a theologian.’

Another subject that O’Siadhail explores is the relationship between poetry and music. Regarding the latter he remarks slightly dismissively: ‘I remember how surprised I was, when I took lessons in classical harmony, at how mathematical and arithmetic it seemed.’ He situates poetry ‘in the middle of a spectrum, which stretches between music and prose. The pulse and delight of rhythm, the varied pitch of a sentence and the sheer bodily sound of ‘voluptuous words’ have many of the physical qualities of music’.

But poetry also encompasses ‘the dimension of the concept and metaphor which music evades. The endless intrigues, the delights, the insistences and inadequacies of language, the vagaries of words.’

Unfortunately O’Siadhail does not discuss the merit or otherwise of balladeers who have for long used language in song to convey emotions and ideas. Certainly it is through the lyrics of songs that most people encounter poetry today. Admittedly the extensive horizontal audience of a crooner like Hozier seems likely to fade away but others such as Leonard Cohen and Bob Dylan may enjoy that cherished vertical audience. A question to pursue might be whether music enhances the linguistic content of poetry and vi-se-versa?

In this respect it is revealing that the same word in Old English was used for song and poem: leoð; another word they used was giedd, which means ‘riddle, poem, tale, song’.

Finally, O’Siadhail engages with poets he admires or have exerted an influence on him. In one particularly stimulating essay he compares the respective oeuvres of W.B. Yeats and Rilke.

He regards Yeats as ‘the absolute master of the sonorous line that drums into our memory. No poet, in any language that I know, can compare with him for this reverberating tone that he had right from very early on’. But he says that the poems of Rilke ‘are for me even more memorable that those of Yeats. The pitch of intensity is achieved not along the battlements of argument but rather by the firm, suggestive yet gentle tone of a friend who insists we never lost sight of ultimate meaning’.

O’Siadhail is appalled by the politics of Yeats who dabbled in fascism and eugenics. He says: ‘for all the outstanding gifts of the great master of sound, he remains at heart an escape artist, a lover of might-have-beens, of imagined grandeurs, of vast theories and myths.’ But this seems an overly harsh commentary on Yeats whose politics shifted considerably over the course of his lifetime. We need not excuse his flirtation with fascism but it should be viewed in the context of an inter-war era when competing ideologies held sway and without the hindsight of the genocides that followed. A poet with such a vast body of work as Yeats and who brought such jarring honesty to his work might be forgiven for some excesses.

He also explores the poetry George Herbert, Samuel Beckett, Denise Levertov, Kavanagh and Mary O’Donnell who he magnanimously declares to be the outstanding poet of her generation.

In O’Siadhail’s view poetry will continue to be a vital aspect of our culture and poets will always be confronted by the ‘terrible inadequacy of words – always falling short of desire. The ungraspable joy, the un-communicable sorrow. And even here there is another paradox. The drift and shortcomings of language. This causes us to fail again and again and also urges us to begin afresh, poem after poem, generation after generation.’ Or to quote Samuel Beckett: ‘fail again fail better’.

(http://www.villagemagazine.ie/index.php/2015/05/between-music-and-prose/)

 

Informing Beauty

(Published in The London Magazine, February-March 2016)

Once in a while you read a book that sets off an electric charge inside you. Usually it coheres with your unconscious ideas, a feeling quite distinct from reading a thriller whose pages you devour with unfocused gusto. This you ingest in measured spoonfuls, allowing its content to echo in your pallet. Fittingly perhaps, I spent much of that encounter with Kathleen Raine’s Defending Ancient Springs bedding down in an unelectrified apartment in Lisbon’s Bairro Alfama.

Prior to reading Raine I had been cultivating a friendship with W.B. Yeats, drawing solace from his struggles with spurned affection and aging. I was driven to sing the words of this supremely lyrical poet. But his taste for the occult sat a little uncomfortably with me considering its capacity for delusional evil.

Nonetheless my affection for Yeats had groomed me to receive the clarity of Raine’s aesthetic principles in the book. I did not agree with it all but it has a timeless quality that makes it a selfishly-guarded treasure for those who own a copy.

At the heart of a narrative that contains essays on her preferred Romantic poets and on themes such as beauty, myth and symbol is the conviction that ‘a revival of the learning of the works of Plato and the neo-Platonists, has been the inspiration not only of the Florentine renaissance and all that followed (in England as elsewhere) but of every subsequent renaissance.’ The suggestion that this is an essential source for great poetry may sound far-fetched but the neo-Platonist influence on the pantheon of Dante, Shakespeare, Milton, Blake and Yeats is well attested to.

Neo-Platonist believe in an essential order to the universe that our true selves recognise. Plotinus d. c. 270CE wrote that: ‘we ourselves possess beauty when we are true to our own being; our ugliness is going over to another order’. He adds that: ‘the soul itself acts immediately, affirming the Beautiful where it finds something accordant with the ideal from within itself … But let the soul fall in with the ugly and at once it shrinks within itself, denies the thing, turns away from it, not accordant, resenting it.’

According to Raine this explains a sense of homecoming when we encounter cities ‘where in architecture, sculpture and painting, the needs of the spirit are met.’ She attributes the growing alienation in the Britain of her day to environments, such as ‘the wastes of suburbia’ where that aesthetic sensibility is ignored.

Leaving aside the metaphysics of the soul, it strikes me that there is some common ground between neo-Platonic philosophy and those who assert objective truth in science. A shared conviction that mathematical configuration is a form of truth might ford what can seem an unbridgeable disconnect between science and the arts. From that I draw a measure of reassurance in a zeitgeist of disorder and acute over-specialisation.

According to Raine: ‘Music is considered by the Platonic philosophers to be the highest of the arts because the nearest to the harmonious innate order of number, reflected in all the arts and in nature itself.’ But Nobel Laureate Rabindarath Tagore disagreed concluding that ‘it is nonsense that music is a universal language’; he despaired at the capacity of even his own compatriots really to understand his songs; and felt the West could not be expected to without serious study of Indian music. He regarded pictorial art as a superior medium for cross-cultural exchange.

But though Indian music diverges from the Pythagorean intervals that underpin Western music it is still capable of evoking emotion in the uninitiated. Laurens van der Post writes movingly in his biography Yet Being Someone Other about his first encounter with Indian music: ‘It was sensitive and aquiver with an undertone of something akin to pain. Even the most resolved melodies sounded as if they might have come not from man-made strings but from the living nerves and tissues of the music itself.’ Musical forms of European origin may express a universally comprehensible language but other cultures also seem to have discovered propitious symmetries. Inter-cultural appreciation hinges perhaps on the openness of the individual to an encounter.

Raine devotes one chapter to the role of mythology but errs I believe when she claims: ‘The myths of all races are ageless, since their symbolic language is based upon the permanent and unchanging elements of the world we inhabit.’ National myths can be destructive forces and breed murderous politics. Laurens van der Post writes: ‘Of all the mythology that I had come to know by  then, German mythology seemed to me the darkest, the most undifferentiated, archaic, turgid and dangerous … German mythology was the only one I know where the forces of darkness defeated the gods themselves.’

“Ageless” myths were appropriated by Nazi ideologues and Yeat’s sympathy for Fascism or at least fellow-travelling was linked to his attachment to archaic notions about nobility and race. Raine fails to acknowledge the danger of the dead weight of history or point to the possibility of mythical renewal, such as Germany’s absorption into Europe perhaps.

But I heartily agree with Raine’s contention that psychologists are parvenus to formative symbolisms that poets have long recognised. Moreover poetic synthesis ‘brings together, creating always wholes and harmonies’, often yielding greater insight than philosophical analysis. Yet, paradoxically: ‘With the greatest poetry the mystery only increases with our knowledge.’

In poetry she writes: ‘Lyric form is itself the supreme embodiment of archetypal order, the nearest to music and number; it is beauty itself informing words in themselves ordinary’. Raine does not view these configuration of words as a plodding exercise of measured syllables and rhyming sequences but akin to a universal grammar. She asserts that the essence of poetry informed by a higher sensibility. Following Blake, she sees a poet as the equivalent of a prophet or medium ‘and it cannot, as Plato wrote in the Ion, be achieved by the poet writing from his mundane consciousness but only in that divine madness in which he is possessed by the ‘other’ mind.’

She condemns how: ‘[a]t the present time much that is called poetry is little more than the autobiography of the artist; it is the critical fashion to discount the imagination and to make ‘sincere’ feeling or ‘realistic’ description the test of merit.’ Poetry is thus cast in a sacred light, beyond the mundane exigencies of the quotidian, offering a guide, a light, to the concerns of the time – whether dark Satanic mills or diabolic Trident missiles – and demanding form that channels higher knowledge.

The prizing of sincerity above other considerations that Raine decries is expressed by the main character François, an academic critic, in Michel Houellebecq’s last novel Submission. He says: ‘an author is above all a human being, present in his books, and whether he writes very well or very badly hardly matters – as long as he gets the books written and is, indeed, present in them.’ In Houellebecq’s dystopian vision of a future France what counts, critically, is this biographic authenticity. Absent is concern for the imaginative possibilities of a divinely inspired order that animates great poetry.

But is this vision or inspiration accessible to all who engage with and embody the neo-Platonist philosophy? Not according to Raine: ‘It remains true that genius is not democratic, and the distinction between (for example) the self-expression of patients under analysis and the art of genius is by no means a matter of craftsmanship, but much of the quality and kind of imagination.’

But I believe societies should inculcate the creative application required for genius to flourish such as Yeats glimpsed in the Holy City of Byzantium. If we all can identify that which is beautiful, as we know it in ourselves, then we are capable with sufficient application of reproducing it in a particular domain whether as craftsman, poet or musician. Hard labour in a chosen domain will bring its own rewards and it is for posterity to judge where genius lies.

Theodore Zeldin recently wrote in The Secret Pleasures of Life that: ‘there is a very ancient tradition that everybody who wishes to live fully needs to be a practising artist.’ He observes that: ‘In China the very act of writing, using a brush, made one aware that every brushstroke could be a thing of beauty. Literacy and artistry were one.’ Not all of us are prophets but we might agree with Soren Kierkegaard’s assessment that ‘the possibility of the highest is in everyone, one must follow it.’

Raine also discusses the lofty style that distinguishes poetry from everyday speech. She notes how Carl Jung, who generally disliked high-flown speech, found that when what he called ‘mana, daemons, gods or the unconscious speaks in words its utterances are in a high style, hieratic, often archaic, grandiose, removed as it is possible to be from the speech of that common man the everyday self’. This she identifies this with the primal poetic impulse: ‘The singing of the ballad was by no means in common speech. It was extremely slow, dignified and highly mannered’. She concludes that: ‘It is a mark of imaginative inspiration and content to write in a high and mannered style, removed from common speech; as it of the absence of imaginative participation to write either in a conversational tone or to write in a deliberately vulgar idiom.’ She believes that: ‘What was written for the sake of easy comprehension is precisely that part of poetry which becomes incomprehensible within a few years.’ We need only consider how quickly popular songs become dated.

I believe this insight may be useful to any poet: to honour their inner voice and not play to a gallery that will quickly grow tired of a performance. This is the vertical audience that the poet Eavan Boland identified in a recent lecture in contrast to the horizontal audience of popular acclaim. Poets should contain their revelation within an order that is a part of that mystery: ‘Irish poets learn your trade / Sing whatever is well made’ as Yeats put it.

In a powerful passage Raine despairs at what was occurring in the scholarship of her era influenced in particular by T. S. Eliot:

‘What we did not know thirty years ago was how extreme would be the isolation of those who hold to tradition. It then seemed that there were at least some values which were agreed upon between the profane positivist world and the world of the ‘ancient spring’. Now we know that this is not so, perhaps was never so. At all events, we can no longer deceive ourselves. It seems that there now no longer exists any common terms or common values; beyond a certain point of divergence communication becomes impossible. Relative ignorance may still recognise and aspire towards knowledge, absolute ignorance is perfectly complacent. Tradition, which recognises a difference between knowledge and ignorance, cannot come to terms with a world in which there are no longer any standards by which truth and falsehood may be measured.’

The question is whether this process has accelerated, whether contemporary criticism is stricken by a post-modern doubt that conforms to the dystopian vision adumbrated by Houellebeq: in which authenticity is raised to a value above others, and the prophetic vision cherished by the great poets is accorded no importance. At least one contemporary scholar Edward Clarke shows commitment to the ideal of eternal beauty in his recent book The Vagabond Spirit of Poetry.

Poetry will continue to flow, for some it is a need and a vocation, but without spiritual insight will it flounder, becoming a form of therapy for the unwell or the wild-eyed expression of political discontent? For it to retain its timeless wisdom I concur with Raine that it requires renewed commitment to form: “beauty itself informing words in themselves ordinary”, and continued engagement with underlying metaphysical structures.

(http://www.pressreader.com/uk/the-london-magazine/20160201/281676843945517/textview)