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This article is taken from Poetry Nation 1 Number 1, 1973.The Politics of Form
IT IS BECOMING a commonplace among writers who work in traditional forms, or who accept and study received poetic disciplines, to concede when challenged that an analogy exists between artistic and social forms, that to employ traditional or discernible form is in itself an act of capitulation to social forms. And no doubt it is for many formal writers.
This view was eloquently aired in the Summer 1972 issue of Partisan Review, in a predictably rhetorical symposium which identified the 'new conservatism' among creative writers, readers, and critics - their growing wariness of the self-styled avant garde, of projectivist dogmas, of overtly political poetry, of the value of 'originality' as it is popularly construed, even of vers libre - with a swing to the right politically. It followed from this that a-formal writers and writers in quest of new and open forms, struggling to generate a private or an original idiom (linguistic or mythological) were, by rejecting traditional forms and methods, radicals in political character. This belief, first tentatively and now passionately argued, makes it simpler to reject received forms and standards, received disciplines, on grounds of conscience rather than on aesthetic grounds. It gives the pursuit of a private idiom something of a revolutionary saltiness, and the quest for a 'new literalism' has become a programme for crusaders, banishing from their path the responsibilities history and tradition have seemed in the past to impose. When the march was begun, exhilaration bred its own new rhetoric, its own philosophies, its own rigorous new orthodoxies.
The uncontested charge - ill-founded though it is - of conservatism against formal writers has been accepted even by a poet and critic as sensitive as Donald Davie, who seems to admit (Thomas Hardy and British Poetry) that, whether or not the cultural 'radicals' are politically radical, the cultural conservatives are, by their adherence to form, their respect for tradition and their close attention to language, political conservatives - or at best liberals who, by granting to their art its integrity and refusing to impinge rhetorically upon their readers, are somehow complices to the Established Order. It is the old argument about the 'free spirit', the liberal's necessary impotence before social challenges, but argued here in a novel way about poetry. Davie accepts the role others have cast him in, though he does not necessarily accept the role in which they see themselves before the footlights, hogging a scene or two. He grants them stature, energy, ambition, bravado, though he does not quite identify their political features. Perhaps if he had named them, before accepting the name they gave to him, he could more clearly have seen the nature of his political commitment as a poet, a commitment implicit as much in his manner as in his matter. For his poetry is anything but conservative or reactionary in its aims. His respect for form does not imply narrowness of reference or capitulation to established modes of thought or action. But because his poems do not usually cajole the reader, because they are not emotive in any facile way or modishly rhetorical on a superficial level (though his technique is rhetorical in the tradition of poetic rhetoric), and because they grow out of a discernible tradition, he seems to accept the description of his work as conservative, albeit with a small 'c'.
Poets as distinct as Charles Tomlinson, Philip Larkin, C. H. Sisson, R. S. Thomas, and Geoffrey Hill may possibly see themselves in the same light, conceiving of their activity as treading water, or shoring up a crumbling literary edifice - above all, of accepting and pursuing standards of perception and expression (whatever their subject matter) in the face of increasing linguistic anarchy, and at the same time refusing to restrict or prescribe the scope of their poems. Is their activity politically conservative? Indeed, is it even culturally conservative in the way their detractors suggest?
Surely the precise opposite is true: the new - no longer so new - and varied cultural radicalism of poets as various as Robert Bly, Robert Creeley, Edward Dorn, Robert Duncan, and W. S. Merwin, or our own home-grown rhetoricians, Adrian Mitchell, Alan Bold, Adrian Henri, Tom Pickard and Christopher Logue, among others, is proving the latest and most extreme expression of the bourgeois self-regard Lukács diagnosed, revealing a belief - an arrogant belief - in the axiom, 'I am a poet, therefore what I write is poetry'. The attempt by these writers - both the well- and the ill-informed among them - to establish a personal idiom or mythology at whatever cost, to erect for themselves an impregnable identity as poets, to 'be poets' rather than 'to write poems', to cajole or bemuse the reader - this is hardly radical in political terms. By arranging the lighting and taking all the parts in their own play, by demanding that attention be focused on them, not through them onto general and essential clarities, they are not our 'new Romantics' or our Isaiahs because they are without consistent vision and without language and forms adequate to convey vision. They are the sentimentalists of individualism, more so than the confessional poets, pernicious because they fail - in their complex rejections of form (social and literary) - to generate a context for their activity, to relate to whole issues or whole truths, to create alternative forms answerable in effectiveness to the forms they have rejected. The impoverishment of sensibility is reflected in a linguistic laxity, a formal oblivion. Their vision is of their own central importance, spiderlike in the pattern of their own reality.
Certainly among a number of our writers, 'radical' and otherwise, a crude new notion of decorum has developed. One speaks harshly of harsh realities, brutally of brutalities, one tells it how it is and finds in one's responses to the subject matter the idiom of the poem. That is, one leaves as little distance as possible between the poem's idiom and the poet's initial response to subject matter. One capitulates, not to the subject matter (as the Imagist would try to do) but to one's first response to it. This is conceived of as poetic truth: to sacrifice perspective to the immediate tone of response, regardless of the context - temporal, spatial, ethical - of that response. The extreme subjectivity and the ultimate irresponsibility of such capitulation to 'self' excludes the reader from the experience of anything but the poet experiencing, the poet responding. And yet, what makes Larkin's or Dunn's social poetry so poignant - even terrifying - is, as John Bayley noted, that it gives such pleasure to read, that its forms provide a perspective, that its language is hallowed and resonant. What makes the rhetorical poems of Bly, or Merwin, Henri, Pickard or MacSweeney, so unsuccessful, so unachieved, so unhaunting and dull, is the failure of perspective on experience, the linguistic and formal laxity which reflects boredom with the craft of poetry or - more likely - a failure of nerve before the extreme disciplines of good writing. It is easier to intellectualise before the act of writing and edge oneself out of responsibilities of this magnitude, than to take them up with courage and to risk intelligible failure: easier to choose the successes of politically conceived rhetoric than the rigours of poetic rhetoric. A lack of respect for the reader, a total absorption in personal response or lucrative 'personal identity' - to be a poet - regardless of the form of the identity and the implications of the message: these qualities typify much of the recent work of those poets who have chosen what is, after all, the easy way.
A failure of perspective. Perspective is only achieved through form, a prime objectifying tool, or through an accurate sense of time and the effect of time upon the immediate experience, the initial response. A writer communicates the truth of an experience only by objectifying the experience (with which he is at once intimately involved) to see around and through it. To grant to the experience its integrity he opposes to it an integrity, a form of words which does not invade or break down the image, idea or experience by imitating response directly, but which, aware and intimate, is at once distanced. Richards speaks of poetic truth as a bringing into tension and a retaining in tension of opposites or contrasts. To retain in tension implies a respect for the integrity of the experience and for the integrity of the linguistic structure. One can also infer that it implies respect for the reader. A poem which falsifies context by failing to establish its truth in these terms can hardly be a socially radical poem. A half-truth, an unachieved truth in poetry, leads to that ultimate imprecision or blurring of the issue, the final sentimentality of effect, the simplification, rather than the clarity of resolution. The very different political verse of Bly and Mitchell is a rhetoric often devoid of poetic tension because it fails to embody an experience (other than the experience of indignation): each poet is making political points local to political issues, at the same time turning a blind eye to larger social issues. Not a sense of pity or of suffering are conveyed, but of indignation. They attempt to cheat us into passion. Their means, their aggressive persuasiveness (like Leavis's 'any intelligent reader will agree that ...') is coercive in a directly political way, a way reminiscent of the Papal Bull. In condemning 'the Right' they use the weapons of 'the Right'. They confront the military Establishment with the same attitudes the Establishment endorses, with the same language that Lieutenant Calley used about his My Lai victims. To deny the humanity of your enemy - as Bly does more than once in his poems on Vietnam - is an extreme and tendentious political act, confronting the brutal with the brutal, reproducing in the poem the very attitude of mind one is deploring. How easily, should their politics change, their weapons might be used, blunt as they are, against 'the Left'. 'The Left' would hardly miss them. Sentimentalists do more harm than good. Bly and Mitchell, in their recent work, are the clearest examples we have of the self-styled radicals, in fact the totalitarians of the imagination, imposing on us, cajoling us, regardless of the full facts or the implications. But other writers are implicated in this tendency towards vaticism and rhetorical solipsism which differs only in degree from the more fruitful and yet equally incomplete 'school' of Confessionalism.
The radical artist today, as always, is radical not in his opinions as a man or even in his opinions as an artist, but in the quality of his insights as an artist, the quality of truth in his art. Respecting the integrity of contexts as diverse as the linguistic, the social, the historical, the personal, and the mythical or legendary, he must work with extreme care. Certainly the linguists are correct when they suggest that poetry is not a matter of one word suggesting various meanings but rather of various meanings choosing one word or word complex. A poet is not after local effects of ambiguity. If the poem is to be true to varied and often conflicting contexts, it must be a synthetic process of a high order, bringing into one structure material from different areas of experience, different contexts. This involves - as it always has - an acute awareness of language in its fullest implications, rhythm, a strong sense of adequate though not necessarily traditional form, a flexibility which is not whimsical but intelligently alive to a varied experience. The poet is in a sense applying the community of experience to the community in a new way that clarifies relationships between areas or elements of experience.
Thus the radical artist is not the self-styled radical rhetorician (whether political, confessional, or gnomic), but the artist-whatever card he carries-who accepts semantic wealth, received forms and methods, and uses them as his art and his subject matter demand to give us, not a selective vision of half-truths or opinions based on half-told evidence, but an integrating process, a synthetic process, whose end is truth and accuracy. This can be the poetry of hypothesis that Burns Singer or W. S. Graham give us, the poetry of social recognitions we get from Larkin or Douglas Dunn, the poetry of complex perception we find in Tomlinson, Hill's poetry of context itself, or Davie's or Sisson's different but lively self-consciousness in complex relationships to places and to 'selves'. These poets respect semantic and syntactical forms and use them deftly to their full potential; they try to establish a natural relationship between the individual vision and the actual world it sees and is carried by. To make language and traditional form speak beyond themselves, beyond conditioned or received verbal structures into linguistic potential: this attempt is to a degree subversive to received thought patterns, patterns of perception and response, and perhaps ultimately to patterns of action. Its radicalism is affective, not rhetorical; durable, not merely local to specific issues or specific relationships. To speak in form compels the poet to a necessary radicalism, if he is to speak truly. Clarity of vision implies in poetry seeing through and around; and poetry is above all a language of integrities.
The 'new conservatism' which the Partisan Review has diagnosed, the reassertion of standards of form, of a sense of potential in the integrity of received language, is anything but socially conservative in quality. It is in part a reaction against the extremes which the totalitarians of the imagination have reached. More important, it is an assertion of the continuity of a challenged tradition, a persistent belief in the vitality and potential of that tradition. If our best formal writers accept that their activity is conservative in social terms, they do themselves a disservice. For the freedom of the self-styled cultural radical belongs only to the practitioner, projecting his partial vision, his world, his breath, his morality, on a cajoled reading public; while the so-called cultural conservative, by the very nature of his activity, detecting structures of significance in our own world that at the same time answer his individual needs, reveals always new areas of potential, while consistently keeping alive in himself and in his readers an awareness of origins and integrities.
This article is taken from Poetry Nation 1 Number 1, 1973.