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.(Anyone who had the misfortune to read through the Carol Ann Duffy-endorsed collection of poems for the  Wedding in the Saturday Guardian the week before the event was given a dispiriting reminder of how firmly engrained those mawkish and complicit neo-Georgian orthodoxies remain.)
   Over and beyond his Introduction, Silkin's choice of poems in the anthology is excellent and inclusive, giving as much space to Modernist-inclined voices like Rosenberg, Herbert Read, David Jones and Richard Aldington as to the more familiar rhymed verse of the Georgian figures. He also seeks fresh perspectives on the war experience in contextualising the English writers with a generous smattering of European poems in high quality translation, begging the hypothetical question:how come most of our First World War poets were using conservative Georgian styles to confront the violence of conflict, while their German counterparts (like Trakl, Heym, Stramm and Klemm) were writing innovative, forward-looking Expressionist poetry that seemed to embody violence in its very language?
   I've just realised via Amazon that Silkin's collection has in fact been superseded by a more recent Penguin Book of First Word War Poetry edited by George Walter (2006). One suspects that the Silkin book was always too good to become a mainstream anthology or a big seller.


  1. Great post, Oliver: anything that draws me back to Silkin is a good thing. His book length study of war poetry, Out of Battle, is well-worth hunting down, as is his own (regretfully underrated) poetry.

    A tentative theory presents itself regarding mainland Europe's comparably radical response to the war in its poetry and literature. Modernism was, above all, a European event first and foremost, being transmitted to the Anglophone world by stages. Britain's Modernist poetry and art, then, is both belated and responsive: what Eliot was doing, for example, was really just updating French symbolism, with a little Elizabethan drama grafted on for good measure, and his most important work, of course, was produced post-war (ditto Pound). In Europe, however, DaDa and Futurism already had a lively back catalogue of manifestoes and happenings before the outbreak of war, and in the visual arts, an even longer heritage can be discerned in the Impressionists, who were shaking things up before the 20th century even began. Modernist and its precursors, therefore had more time to gain a foothold before the outbreak of war.

    Add to this the fact that the war, as an event, would have affected the mainland's citizenry (including its experimental poets, novelists and painters) to a far greater extent than the British public for purely geographical reasons, and you have some reasons as to why the French / German response to the conflict might have had a more Modernist cast. But this is purely speculative: I'm sure the Modernist influence on the formation of a translated canon in the inter-war years no doubt had an effect on which poets made their way successfully into English (as did / does the difficulty of translating traditional forms across languages: the German equivalents of the Georgians might have literally become lost in translation).

    Simon @ Gists and Piths

  2. Thanks very much Simon. I should've mentioned John Silkin's important poetry and how it partakes of the same meticulous integrity and deep care for language as his critical prose. Where the hell (this many years after his passing) is a Collected or Complete Silkin?
    Your 'tentative theory' about Modernism is persuasive but begs the further quandary: why was Modernism in England 'belated and responsive' rather than inceptual and proactive? You could write a thesis on this(I hope to do so one day), but it's fascinating to observe how Modernism in mainland Europe seemed to develop almost organically out of 19thC Romanticism and Symbolism whereas in England we were stuck with late Victoriana until well into the 20thC, with Pound and Eliot's Modernist incursions seen only as suspect foreign imports and proto-Moderns like Flint, Gurney, Rosenberg, even Edward Thomas (in some ways) sidelined as minor voices.
    Maybe I could submit a review or essay to Gists and Piths sometime? I think in the very first post I did about a year ago I singled you out as probably the best UK poetry blog.

  3. Oliver, that'd be great: a big lit-hist article would be ideal. It's probably terribly nerdy, but I'm a sucker for the whole Modernist (pre- and immediately post-) period, so anything that addresses the question would kick ass. In a literary sense.

    To answer your thoughts on Modernism's belated arrival on these shores, there probably *is* a native Modernism to be discerned in Britain, but it's subdued, and doesn't name itself as such (the avant garde has always been very good at advertising first and foremost: the products are almost of secondary import, footnotes to the manifestoes). I guess I'm thinking of the really wild stuff at the end of the 19th century: Blake, naturally, but also the late Turner (some of those paintings are on the cusp of abstraction, whether through design or the fact of incompletion isn't really relevant: they're very much ahead of their time, looking forward to the marriage of abstraction and geographic figuration we see in Ivon Hitchens or Paul Nash), and maybe (another painter) someone like Samuel Palmer. This seems to suggest that if there is such a thing as British rather than European Modernism, it grows organically from a visionary or religious tradition (Christopher Smart's Biblically inspired free verse in 'Jubilate Agno', which still sounds shockingly modern even 250 years after its composition, and 70 years after its discovery and publication, would possibly bear this out). Something to ponder.

    It's also relevant, I think, that figures seen as marginal in some way by their contemporary period (either they're comic, or they're writing for children, or producing something unserious and 'non-literary', anyway) are later picked up by the European avant garde - perhaps deliberately provocatively, but that's by the by - as exemplary aesthetic precursors (I'm thinking specifically of the Surrealists' assertion that Edward Lear was a greater poet than Tennyson, and the Oulipo's adoption of Lewis Carrol as an 'anticipatory plagiarist' of their own mathematical restrictions).

    Also - and this might not be wholly relevant, but it's on my mind nonetheless - science fiction is a very English invention: Wells, that upstanding Edwardian, is the grandfather of it all (and if we wanted to be really cheeky, we could enlist Mary Shelley, as the author not only of Frankenstein but The Last Man, as the genre's greatgrandmother), and what's more avant garde than imagining the future? The Island of Doctor Moreau is still heady, troubling stuff, its bleak vision of mankind no less 'modern' than that of Knut Hamsun or Dostoyevsky, but because it's SF, it's ghettoised, considered chiefly within the confines of literary history of the genre, rather than the mainstream of the novel as a form.

    The great work of British Modernism, then, according to this rather sketchy schema, would be a science fiction novel, possibly written by a Catholic, shot through with a heavy dose of linguistic derangement. A Clockwork Orange, maybe?

    Simon @ Gists and Piths

  4. I too am a nerdy sucker for the Modernist era so I'll give some ass-kicking lit-history a go... and thanks for your other reflections Simon