Sunday 2nd March
William Blake is notable not only for the very questionable quality of his poetry, but also for his paintings and engravings; efforts which are, to say the least, regrettable: what unspeakable anatomical study, for example, could have provided the musculature for Blake’s Newton?
In the meantime, his poetry is massively overrated: rhymes are amateur, scansion is sloppy and the content is unintelligible, bordering on insane.
Now I’ve been a bit hard on him… But only because I think it’s important to knock back the bewildering reverence people have for him as a poet, an artist and a philosopher. It’s not all bad, of course: the first quatrain of ‘Auguries of Innocence’ is deservedly famous:
To see a world in a grain of sand,
And a heaven in a wild flower,
Hold infinity in the palm of your hand,
And eternity in an hour.
Some of the more insightful proverbs yield marvelous aphorisms, particularly if you are writing an essay about the French Revolution:
A dog starv’d at his master’s gate
Predicts the ruin of the state.
At other times, Blake seems altogether to have lost the ability to rhyme faithfully:
He who respects the infant’s faith
Triumphs over hell and death.
…not to mention his control of the metre:
The child’s toys and the old man’s reasons
Are the fruits of the two seasons.
… and the capacity for rational thought:
He who shall hurt the little wren
Shall never be belov’d by men.
I’m fully aware that this is all rather unreasonable. Blake’s poetry has much to recommend it. I would advise newcomers to ‘Songs of Innocence and Experience’, for example, to ignore the entire first section (sentimental rubbish) and make straight for the more dejected corners of ‘Experience’ – ‘London’, ‘A Poison Tree’, ‘The Garden of Love’. These passages are highly accomplished and not at all complex; each line has an evil, creeping intonation, as self-assured as the Old Testament and bristling with anti-industrial, anti-ecclesiastical fury.
But like all poetic projects that follow on from artistic theory (in this case, the idea that miserable humankind might drift into a state of prelapsarian bliss via the medium of infantile poetry), ‘Songs of Innocence and Experience’ fails as a set piece. No-one who possesses the wherewithal to make a decent advance on a collection of poems could possibly be induced to read more than a few lines of the sort of insipid, emotionally-reductive trash that constitutes the ‘Songs of Innocence’ (‘Drop thy pipe, thy happy pipe; Sing thy songs of happy cheer’). But, taken individually, a number of the ‘songs’ in Experience can be counted among the best, most masterful Romantic poetry…not a particularly competitive accolade – but that’s an argument for another day!
Saturday 26th January
This blog will be concerned, for the most part, with very bad poetry. But I have decided to inaugurate the series with a piece of good poetry, by the unrelenting Australian Les Murray:
Like inferior art, knows
Whose fault it all is.
Exploration of the Haiku is the most common misadventure in modern poetics – an offensively red herring, with botched pretensions of Eastern mysticism. Poets writing in English who make use of the Haiku seem to forget that the measure or pulse of English verse is accentual, whereas the Haiku is constructed around the idea of a fixed number of syllables. So a Haiku in English might almost be considered a contradiction in terms.
This blundering category error aside, the nice dimensions of Murray’s Haiku are very persuasive: art is not about taking sides, or as Ezra Pound put it, ‘Don’t be viewy.’ With this in mind, this week’s sample of extremely bad poetry comes in the form of Maya Angelou’s ‘State Package for Hillary Clinton’.
This exhausting panegyric turns out to be a rehash of her famously defiant civil rights poem, ‘Still I Rise’, collated with girthsome lumps of sycophantic partisan dross, and further shot through with ossified metaphor and boring rhetoric. Angelou is better than this, as she proved with ‘On the Pulse of the Morning’, written for Bill Clinton’s inauguration. Hillary should be less than flattered by the comparison between the two poems.
As a general rule, polemical poetry is stultifying, diseased from its inception. The design of poetry is fundamentally opposed to the use of rhetoric – just as a Constable landscape is to be looked at, not beaten over the head with. If Angelou cannot decide between poetry and politics, she should not attempt either. Harold Pinter’s poems are deeply awful but he, at least, has the common decency not to take sides. Like Dirty Harry, he hates everyone in equal measure:
There’s no escape.
The big pricks are out.
They’ll fuck everything in sight.
Watch your back.
It’s bad news for a writer when he finds his own work eclipsed by pastiche. Private Eye have always had it in for Pinter – I hazily recall their version of his response to the invasion of Iraq in 2003: ‘Piss, bombs, bollocks, and wank, / here comes that twat Bush in a tank’, or thereabouts. More recently their Poetry Corner was inspired to print ‘Lines Written To Commemorate The Award Of The Nobel Prize For Literature 2005 To Myself by Harold Pinter O.M.:
So. They have given me
The Nobel Prize
That’ll show that
Fucking bastard Bush
And his warmongering