Tuesday, 17 May 2011
The Poetry's Not in the Pity
A fascinating post on First World War poets by Simon Turner on Gists and Piths recently sent me back to John Silkin's Penguin Book of First World Poetry (1979). The lengthy, carefully-weighed introduction is one of the most far-reaching and cogent considerations I know both of the particular issues arising from our reception of poets like Owen, Sassoon and Rosenberg and of the broader reverberations of war poetry through history.
Silkin's critical prose works with a deeply-pondered, self-qualifying slowness which marks it out as distinctly old-fashioned in many respects, but in a very good way. Its emphasis on words like 'feeling' and 'compassion' may seem to harp back to FR Leavis and DH Lawrence before him, yet reading Silkin you wonder how far what passes for contemporary criticism suffers from a lack of this painstaking moral depth and seriousness, this "delicacy with vigour". His explanation of how important the stressing of one syllable in a line from Keats' To Autumn is to a proper reading of the whole poem is a brilliant example of Empsonian "close reading" and an index of how lax and impressionistic the attention we accord poems has all too often become.
Like Simon Turner in his piece, Silkin is assiduous in delineating the complex interrelationship between Georgian poetry, the First World War poets and the later, harmful persistence of Georgian models.Turner wisely posits that the continuous inclusion of poets like Owen on exam syllabuses has inculcated many young minds into viewing Georgianism as the default setting of English poetry. Silkin identifies a construction of Englishness emanating from narrowings of the canon of "English lyricism": the worst perpetrator of neo-Georgian revisionism, Philip Larkin, by selecting the simplistically elegiac (and potentially patriotic) 'Anthem for Doomed Youth' for his bloodless 1973 version of the Oxford Book of English Poetry over more nuanced later Owen poems like 'Strange Meeting' , feeds into the particular tradition of sentimentality Silkin so accurately diagnoses:
"The (southern) English tendency is to elevate compassion into a religiose sentiment, and thus remove it from the earth, making innocuous any inquiry as to the state of the victim and the cause of his suffering that a more earth-bound and singular tenderness might have made. It is at once politically expedient and morally less taxing as a mode." (p.62)
To me this encapsulates the whole sorry spectacle of Wootton Bassett's endlessly-reiterated, telegenic funeral marches, "politically expedient" indeed in transferring our attention from the context and justification of the conflict in Afganhistan itself to public, ceremonial outpourings of "saccharine pity". It's not so far from here, in fact, to the even more depressing pantomime of the recent Royal Wedding, a cynically-orchestrated display of nationalistic pride in English tradition steeped in cloying sentimentality to form a sop for us poor disgruntled commoners, a feel-good Bank Holiday spree to distract us as our whole social fabric is ripped from under our feet.(