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This item is taken from Poetry Nation 2 Number 2, 1974.

In Poetry Nation 1, Donald Davie wrote in reply to 'The Politics of Form' that poetry 'will accommodate . . . things like cranky motorcars and typewriters and us, with our hawkings and splutterings and piteous little addictions'. If the 'generic forms' we choose 'can comprehend us with our cigarettes and our typewriters, then perhaps we can look with more indulgence, less distaste, upon our habits, our technologies, our own wretched selves'.

At the risk of misunderstanding Mr. Davie a second time, I should like to raise a few questions about his argument. He shares the editors' belief that poetry should bring us to terms with current images and realities. But what sort of terms?

For Davie, the poem should 'accommodate' the images, consciously fit them in. And if the poem works, we will look with 'more indulgence, less distaste' on the accommodated material. Does one mention a motorcar so that the reader will feel more at home in a traffic jam? Does the poem capitulate to the implicit morality of the modern subject matter? If so, does it not limit itself to a local compassion, and therefore forfeit scope, the possibility of those discoveries tending towards the extension and enrichment of vision?

The poetry of the past seems to disagree with Davie's argument. His own favoured pastoral genre was never - except latterly - much excited by real cows, for instance; and nor was the epic concerned with the design of the wine-press or the mechanics of the Trojan sewerage system. Only satire-with a purpose Davie understands better than most of us - has accommodated 'our hawkings and splutterings and piteous little addictions' with much spirit in the past - but hardly with Davie's ends in mind. Davie wants the poem to accommodate the real motorcar, the cigarette and the yellowed fingers, the television set. Real toads in real gardens. He wants to hold a rose-tinted mirror up to nature.

Poetry has always assimilated the material of its period without the conscious end of acclimatising us to modernity. The poets we reread don't set out to make us comfortable in the world we occupy. The danger in Davie's stand, if I read him rightly, is that he wants our tradition to accept us on our own terms, rather than on its terms. Davie suggests that standards are in flux as much as subject matter, that the sole durable elements in tradition are the recurrent poetic genres.

If the burden of Davie's article is that the task of poetry is to make us accept technologies, cigarettes, ourselves, its function is far better performed by the media, advertising, the sentimental novel, the politician, than by the poet. Reckonable poets have never - regardless of their political complexion - set out to encourage us to accept, whether through compassion or indulgence, our habits, our technologies, our own wretched selves. This would be to surrender standards of perception to expediency, to make poetry another of Job's comforters. Poetic insight and moral or perceptual indulgence have never been close friends. I wonder if poetry is quite as much fun, quite as enjoyable to write and to read as Davie suggests? And if it is, I wonder what its values are? Is the pleasure of self-acceptance a valid end?

And haven't all the arts - and poetry in particular - already come to their own terms with the modern realities Davie feels we still need to accommodate? Back in 1930, Hart Crane wrote an article which agrees with Davie generally, but which in its emphasis raises certain issues Davie has ignored in his Poetry Nation I article. The terms on which we accommodate 'the modern' are not for Crane terms of passive acceptance of data and images. The poem's task isn't to reconcile us to things as they are, or to provoke a compassion that leads to acceptance. Crane shares Mayakovsky's vision of potential. If the poet celebrates, he will celebrate potential, the future possibility, through the past. Crane wrote, 'The function of poetry in a Machine Age is identical to its function in any other age; and its capacities for presenting the most complete synthesis of human values remain essentially immune from any of the so-called inroads of science.' Crane's use of the expression human values helps to point up, I think, the hollow area in Davie's Poetry Nation argument. The poetry Davie describes has ceased to be expansive or in any real sense didactic. It has become palliative. It has neglected the temporal context - history, and the perspectives history provides us - in favour of the present and its ephemera.*

Crane would have the poet assimilate the experience, not merely accommodate the data, of modernity. The modern subject matter becomes just another part of the natural subject matter of poetry. New forms are made, old forms renewed. And the genres evolve and change.

If a poem sets out to make us look with more indulgence, less distaste, on the pantechnicon, alcoholism, the Prices and Incomes policy, our suburban ennui, the military machinery we have made and used, then it has forfeited moral candour, it has performed an essentially sentimental function. Crane says of machinery, 'Its only menace lies in its capacity for facile entertainment, so easily accessible as to arrest the development of any but the most negligible aesthetic response.' It is a menace that any serious modern work of art must recognise and counter.

Michael Schmidt

* Donald Davie points out that he has dealt with these issues in Thomas Hardy and British Poetry and elsewhere.

This item is taken from Poetry Nation 2 Number 2, 1974.

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