John Hartley Williams


Or How The Good News Was Left Behind On The Way To The Lecture Theatre
(On The TS Eliot lecture 2004, by Don Paterson, as reprinted in the Guardian November 6th 2004.)
(A version of this article first appeared in WOLF)

The recently inaugurated TS Eliot Lecture (an event clothed in the name of its distinguished founder to indicate the cultural seriousness of us intentions) has been spread across a double page of The Guardian newspaper As befits the transmission of higher thoughts to a wider public, it has also been abridged. Two very large photographs of the lecturer occupy the space that might have been used to present a full text: the poet as Narcissus, in full colour, gazing out. To the right, N's mirrored image, darker as befits a reflection in a pool of newsprint. What lurks in this pool?

Methinks I see a thing armed with a rake
That seems to strike me.

Poetry is a dark art...' begins Narcissus, an announcement neither explained nor qualified. This summons the immediate riposte that, whatever else it does, poetry definitely repudiates the devil - nor is it, as N gratuitously claims, 'magic'. True poetry abjures abracdabra. It isn't 'insidiously original', either. It may or may not be original (whatever that means) but it is never insidious. And its nature cannot be encapsulated by fake aphorisms such as: 'A poem is just a little machine for remembering itself. Echoing in N's mind, no doubt, is that remark of W.C.Williams: 'a poem is a little machine made of words/ But no poem is a machine for remembering itself How can a poem remember itself?

Several astonishingly bare-faced assertions follow this, among which 'Poets no longer feel confidently expert in their own subject'. But poets have always known that, as Eliot himself put it:'... each venture / is... a raid on the inarticulate / with shabby equipment'. As for: 'confidently expert in their own subject', this is the language of an odious schoolmaster. 'Our business is not with rhyme, but with rhyming,’ continues N vapidly, 'not with metaphor but with metaphorising’ This mysterious valorisation of metaphorising participles (no doubt because they tend towards the verb, although participles aren't very verbal really) is trumped with the sublimely meaningless proclamation: 'Only plumbers can plumb, only poets can write poetry.’

Plumbers, one concludes, had better stick to lead piping.

N's pseudo-sententious style of address now grows omnisciently daft: Poets 'enjoy the highest incidence of mental illness among all the professions'. They do? Oh. Humbled, one senses the wishful grandeur of the poetic enterprise. One had no idea writing poetry was such a perilous profession. ‘Risk' declares N, (to a hushed hall, presumably) 'real risk is writing with real feeling’.

Does one thrill to this gloriously bathetic statement? One does not. Our poet is not climbing an emotional precipice without ropes, is he? He's sitting in his room trying to write a poem. It's just possible the roof of his garret is leaky, it's raining hard, and it's only a matter of time before the roof falls in on his head. That would constitute risk, I suppose, provided the poet were aware of it But wouldn't any sensible poet move to the cafe next door and write there? As for feeling - what 'real' feeling is, as opposed to 'spurious' feeling, I have no idea. Feeling is feeling. You think you're in love, you're in love - write a poem about it, make it fresh. You don't need a diploma. The same would apply if our poet was thinking (feeling?), at no risk to himself, mind, he should make what N derisively describes as a 'sweary outburst about the war'. But our poet should want to do that, shouldn't he? Not according to N. Politically motivated poetry is ‘less anger than a celebration of one's own strength of feeling'. So what happened to 'risk'? After the Peterloo massacre, Shelley sent The Mask of Anarchy to Leigh Hunt, and Hunt judged it prudent, at the time, not to publish the poem. Thought it too risky, perhaps? Narcissus, however, with a dainty move on his pursed lips, is whispering to his reflection (and to anyone else also impudently gazing upon it) that poetry is a 'beautiful tightrope walk between sense and mystery.' Well, now. Poetry can all a spade a spade, name names, hold to account. What 'beautiful tightrope walk' suggests is a poser in tights. Alas, N's analysis of the situation of poetry, does rather resemble someone tottering across a vacuum.

'Our problem,' he confides, 'is that the roles of poet and reader have become blurred'. We are now, as they say, deep into analysis. But a query arises from the bottom of that muddied pool: What problem? A poet reads a poem. A poet writes one. The reader reads it. The reader writes one. The cycle continues. What could be more normal than that? If there is blur, it is in the amour-propre ridden brain of Narcissus himself. The suspicion arises he is claiming sole and exclusive rights to the appellation 'poet' for himself and dismissing readers to their readerly corners, where they may respectfully turn his pages. Having elevated himself by this poetical bootstrap method, he begins to attack anthologies 'full of lousy poems'. The 'lousiness' of the poems therein is not adduced, no evidence is presented, opinionatedness reaches its apogee. But has not Narcissus himself languidly edited a few anthologies? Were the poems in those books lousy or un-lousy? We must conclude - if edited by N - not lousy. Obviously. (But can we be sure'?) If only N were to attack anthologies in general...but he doesn't. Actually, anthologies traduce the works of individual poets because they present poems as single, out-of-context items, and because the poems therefore pop up like numerals in a cash register, without a history of development, or indeed anything which suggests they didn't happen out of the blue. Narcissus, however, does not pause to reflect for an instant on the anthological betrayals of the book trade to which he has himself subscribed. He does not pause to reflect. Period. He lambastes the populists who 'infantilise' the very adult art of poesy and then attacks the experimentalists for experimenting with it. Yes, language, infinitely malleable and hopelessly intractable, and reduced to gibberish everywhere (particularly in this lecture) does render the poet glumly prone to experiment. And the intractability of all this is further compounded by such horse-dung sentences as: '... the Postmoderns ... have made the fatal error of thinking that theory and practice form a continuum. They don't: this foolish levelling of the playing field in favour of the merely clever has led to an art-practice with no effective internal critique.'

There is no theory where poetry is concerned - there are only the homely recipes stolen from the cookery of previous generations of poets. And how might 'theory and practice form a continuum’? 'Levelling the playing field in favour of the merely clever' is a meaningless proposition.

Finally, what might an 'effective internal critique' of an 'art practice' be? Perhaps...! say perhaps with caution...perhaps Narcissus is talking about the poet's ability to criticise what he has himself written. No such luck. This lecture, if that is what it is, is beginning to become vaporously unhinged. We are now given a quick psychological resume of the process by which a polymorphous perverse infant begins to distinguish its identity from the world around. N discloses here, through his tralala locutions, that he has serious designs on the philosophical virginity of us readers: 'When we allow silence to reclaim (the)...things of the world, when we allow the words to fall away from them - they reassume their own genius and repossess something of their mystery and infinite possibility. Then we awaken a little to the realm of the symmetries again, and of no-time, of eternity’.

Try enunciating this in a French accent, and giggle.

'We see the nerve in the bare tree; we hear the applause in the rain.'

Yes, we see the nerve alright. But the applause... ?

Narcisse, intrepide, continue: 'Poetry is the paradox of language turned against its own declared purpose, that of nailing down the human dream.' 'Nailing down the human dream? You ask yourself, you can't help it, if this is supposed to be a poet speaking? Aren't poets supposed to be, well, you know, sensitive to language? The thought irresistibly enters your mind that this isn't a poet at all, but an impostor, an impostor for whom the helplessness of language renders it a suitable vehicle for his own egregious transports of self-regard: 'Our defining heresy as poets is that we know that sound and sense are the same thing:'

Heresy? No. Just plain wrong? What we know is that sound echoes sense because we think it does, and that this is a matter of arbitrary convention. That's what we know. We may behave as if we think 'beautiful' is a beautiful word (sonically, that is) and we may behave, many do, as if 'hate' is a perfectly hateful word - but we all know, really, that this is just pretend.

Narcissus concludes - this is the occasion you take out your pistols and load them - with an exhortation for us all to sing together: 'Now more than ever, we need to keep singing, and singing together.' My advice, friends, is: fire your pieces into the air. Murder is too good for the likes of this. Actually, it's hard to believe that an address so intellectually inadequate and so sincerely pretentious should occupy what is clearly intended to be a significant slot in the literary calendar. Bearing in mind Eliot's own words (from The Rock'): And they write innumerable books; being too vain and distracted for silence: seeking every one after his own elevation, and dodging his emptiness - shouldn't a TS Eliot lecture be an occasion to put aside ego, prejudice and half-baked philosophy in order to celebrate the work of other poets? That would lend its commemorative occasion a sense of purpose. A serious appraisal of some of our less well-trumpeted bards might give the audience something to think about on the tube train home. There are so many who have not received their due. One thinks of Ken Smith, whom Paul Merchant characterised as 'our Diogenes, truth-teller to a meretricious age, knife-grinder sharpening the tools of our precariously balanced public and private languages.' Should we not be hearing more about him? Do we not need to be hearing about someone like that?

In a recent essay, Andrew O 'Hagan quoted some sentences by the American writer William Cullen Bryant which are worth repeating: 'Poetry lifts us to a sphere where self-interest cannot exist and where the prejudices that perplex our everyday life can hardly enter. It restores to us our unperverted feelings and leaves us at liberty to compare the issues of life with our unsophisticated notions of good and evil.' Those words ring with disinterested truth, don't they? Where are our contemporary William Cullen Bryants - those who might deliver, perhaps, the next TS Eliot lecture and restore a sense of proportion to the climate in which contemporary poetry might be received?