Sunday 10 October 2010

There is (strictly speaking) no major poetry or poets - only poetry (or not)


It is important to recognise that poetry is not the kind of thing that can be major - although of course there can be more or less of it, and it can be more or less powerful.


England used to be a land of 'poets' - probably this went on for many hundreds of years and back into Anglo Saxon times. It was simply taken for granted.

But no more. Of course there are not really any 'poets' at all (except perhaps in the actual-act of writing poetry) - rather there are people who have-written poetry - written it in greater or lesser quantities.

Those who have written poetry in larger quantities are given higher status - and reasonably so. But they are not, should not be thought-of-as, 'major' poets.

Others have written smaller amounts, and some have done so by accident (so it seems - or at least they cannot repeat the feat). But they are not by this 'minor' poets.

At any rate there is probably nobody alive now in England who has written a lot of poetry - or if there are such people they are either unknown to the general reader, or lost among the professional (published-by-the-prestigious-presses, paid, certified, elected, prize-winning, teaching-in-the prestigious-institutions) writers of verse/ chopped-up prose.


What has destroyed poetry (at least at the level of public discourse) are wrong ideas about poetry, not least the professionalization of poetry, its routinization, the notion of major or great poets, and the distinction between major and minor poetry.

Plus of course the fact that there never is very much poetry around, and it is relatively unusual to be able to 'appreciate' poetry - it is a minority taste. All real poets are 'minor' for this reason.


Shapkespeare is a 'great writer' but (like all real poets) a minor poet.

To demonstrate what I mean by poetry, here is a short poem by Shakespeare:

Fear no more the heat o` the sun,
Nor the furious winter`s rages;
Thou thy worldly task hast done,
Home art gone, and ta`en thy wages.
Golden lads and girls all must,
As chimney-sweepers, come to dust.

Fear no more the frown o` the great;
Thou art past the tyrants stroke;
Care no more to clothe and eat;
To thee the reed is as the oak.
The sceptre, learning, physic, must
All follow this, and come to dust.

Fear no more the lightning flash,
Nor th` all-dreaded thunder stone;
Fear not slander, censure rash;
Thou hast finished joy and moan.
All lovers young, all lovers must
Consign to thee, and come to dust.

No exorciser harm thee!
Nor no witchcraft charm thee!
Ghost unlaid forbear thee!
Nothing ill come near thee!
Quiet consummation have;
And renowned be thy grave!


All the poetry is in the first stanza, and indeed in the last four lines of the first stanza.

But four consecutive lines of poetry make this a justly-renowned poem.



Anyone who wants to explore real English poetry is fortunate enough to have a definitive anthology that distils the spirit: it is called Palgrave's Golden Treasury:

Books I-IV were selected by Palgrave and are inspired and reliable.

Anything after that, or selected by anyone else than Palgrave but included in an editon of 'Palgrave', is fundamentally un-sound in its principles, and may be deeply misleading.


dearieme said...

There was a spell in Edinburgh in the 70s when Poetry Readings became popular. We went to several and enjoyed them enormously. Even the chaps who read a bit of work in Gaelic and then in English translation could carry it off. But then in those days people drank grown-up beer rather than juvenile lager, if you see what I mean.

Bruce Charlton said...

@deareime - there were at least a few people around Edinburgh in the 1970s, especially the early 1970s while Hugh MacDiarmid was still alive, who had written some poetry during their lives.

I'm pretty sure that Sorley Maclean had done so, although since it was in Gaelic I'm not absolutely sure. But without doubt he seemed to be an authentic 'bard' when I saw him in Durham in either 1987 or 8.

On the other hand (and speaking from experience - tho' not of poetry readings), the ambiance of a Rose Street bar of that era, with a few pints on board, was one in which it was easy to over-estimate the worth of what was being conveyed...

dearieme said...

MacCaig too.

Bruce Charlton said...

I would classify MacCaig as verse rather than poetry - very good verse.