Defining ‘On Poetry’ is a tricky business. The book is essentially a long essay, but also a handbook, and a manifesto, and a series of vignettes. Sometimes it seems like a defence. If we consider Maxwell’s statement that ‘A prose poem is prose done by a poet’ to be true, then it is also a prose poem.
Maxwell begins by saying that ‘On Poetry’ is ‘a book for anyone.’ Later, he illuminates his purpose further: ‘I’m trying to reach you before your mind’s made up, before you’ve decided – before you’ve done a damn thing – how the damn thing is done. Before you’re a something-ist or swear by something-ism.’
It seems fair to say that this book might not be targeted towards people who have no interest in writing poetry, or reading it, or reading writing about it. But, as Maxwell soon points out, there is a particular quality to aesthetic appreciation (of nature, foremost, then of art which imitates it) from time immemorial, which links poetry to our status as evolutionary mammals. ‘What evolutionary psychologists – and I – believe is that aesthetic preferences, those things we find beautiful, originate not in what renders life delightful or even endurable, but in what makes life possible.’
This grand claim is soon revoked when Maxwell admits that poetry does not in fact make life ‘possible’, and that life can be lived without poetry; that poetry is, at present, the province of a dwindling few. Yet there is something about the process of poetic composition which speaks to the wider motivations for human ambition and existence.
He tells us that poetry is made through the confluence of white page and the black words. The former is silence, nothing, ‘everything but [the writer]’, time; the latter is speech, something, the potentially timeless space of the writer. I say potentially because, in this schema, the writer has to ground his or her poetic self within the space of poetry—within form. ‘You master form, you master time’ is Maxwell’s mantra. Which means that a poet should be aware not only of the white spaces of silence and nothingness, but of the tradition which informs the shape and sound and meaning of the black something.
T.S. Eliot called this the ‘historical sense’. In ‘Tradition and the Individual Talent’, which Maxwell refers to in ‘On Poetry’, he said the following about it:
‘…the historical sense involves a perception, not only of the pastness of the past, but of its presence; the historical sense compels a man to write not merely with his own generation in his bones, but with a feeling that the whole of the literature of Europe from Homer and within it the whole of the literature of his own country has a simultaneous existence and composes a simultaneous order. This historical sense, which is a sense of the timeless as well as of the temporal and of the timeless and of the temporal together, is what makes a writer traditional. And it is at the same time what makes a writer most acutely conscious of his place in time, of his contemporaneity.’
Maxwell’s position seems strongly influenced by Eliot here: but, whereas ‘Tradition and the Individual Talent’ later employs metaphors of chemistry to make its point, Maxwell is more predisposed towards biological tropology. His position, distilled, is that great poems survive much in the same way that particular evolutionary traits are strengthened over time. Poetry, though never more amorphous than over the last sixty or so years, has itself gone through a process of evolution, and, just as knowledge of human evolution helps us uncover our present biological selves, so the evolution of poetic form—stanzas, rhyme, alliteration, meter, etc—is indispensable to understanding and writing good poetry in the present day. Poets have to anchor themselves in it, because time’s wingéd chariot is a biological certainty: ‘Any form in poetry, be it meter, rhyme, line-break, is a metaphor for creaturely life… the most durable are those closely fused to what we are most deeply: organisms that breathe and move and have, who one day horribly learn they can’t breathe or move or have forever.’
Maxwell thinks that encountering a poem is the same as encountering a person. In order to remember that person, there must be a few requisites to the encounter itself. There is the moment where the encounter happens, and the events of that moment; the meaning of the moment once it has been reflected on; how the person sounded; how they looked. Correspondingly, these are termed ‘lunar, solar, musical, visual.’ These seem, to me, to be useful boxes to tick when writing a poem. For the sake of time—and because Maxwell quotes Ezra Pound to justify his quadrupedal system—let’s apply them to ‘In The Station of the Metro’:
The apparition of these faces in the crowd;
Petals on a wet, black bough.
If we wished to analyse the success of this poem, we could do far worse than talking about its lunar, solar, musical and visual qualities. Within the context of a book of poetry (rather than surrounded by blocks of descriptive prose), the visual element would be particularly striking in its use of ‘white space’. ‘In the Station’ contains two sparse lines surrounded by a whiteness which visually portrays an individual thought occurring in the midst of complete silence; by virtue of the black lines’ presence, they draw something out of the white, just as the observer in the poem somehow drags a floral image from an everyday moment of ‘apparition’. Aurally as well, the two lines contain a kind of echoed music that informs its hermeneutic; the half-rhyme of ‘crowd’ and ‘bough’, assonance between ‘petals’ and ‘wet’, alliteration of ‘black bough’, the disrupted metre of the first line compared to the iambic feel of the second. The lunar moment is the first line; the solar, both the second line and the suggestive, subjunctive nature of this poetic exercise which elicits us to reflect upon its brevity and to consider each and every word in our reflection.
It is because of these four elements that we remember the encounter with Pound’s poem, and think, as others have, that it is a good poem that will surely outlive others, and that Pound is a good writer who will be read for a long time to come. Certainly if young poets apply these categories to their own work they will find them to be useful guiding structures. For Maxwell, new poets cannot know themselves without examining the poetic heritage which produces them. To be a good writer, you have to be a reader.
This pedagogy also speaks to criticism. In fact, critics may even find Maxwell’s ‘solar, lunar, visual, musical’ split useful ways of beginning to think around tricky poets like Pound. It’s actually a rare thing to find a piece of writing which can aid both the artistic and academic exercise. One suspects, however, that Maxwell would prefer us to read poetry with the end of writing it, rather than writing about it. Like most artists, he gives the impression of mistrusting literary criticism
As a critical prospect (and, moreover, an artistic one), Maxwell’s biological poetics, much like recent attempts to analyse the development of literature through the prism of Darwinian theory, are flawed. Assessing the worth of poems and poets on their survival and subsequent permanence is deeply problematic because of the often arbitrary ways through which literature and writers come to be known; taking the canon as gospel facilitates a forgetting of the material processes which both create writers and bring their work to our attention. Poems do not always survive because of their merit. Something tells me that Carol Ann Duffy’s poetry will survive for a long time, but I can’t be alone in saying that much of her stuff is awful.
Additionally, great poets can fall through the cracks of history. For instance, Maxwell repeatedly returns to The Rime of the Ancient Mariner to make his case: one of Coleridge’s more important literary forebears was a poet called Anna Laetitia Barbauld, who was relatively unread until she became one of the many writers ‘recovered’ by feminist literary critics in the 1980s, who realised that she was not just important as an influence on the Romantics but as a poet in her own right. Barbauld’s case is one microcosm of the larger problem with a canon that has failed to represent the vast quantities of gifted female poets that have been marginalised for reasons that have nothing to do with the quality of their work.
Maxwell says ‘I use canonical examples because they have shown the strength to outlast time, a power I contemplate with awe.’ but no one could deny that lines from Barbauld’s ‘Summer Evening’s Meditation’ are strong and powerful enough to last two hundred and thirty nine years. But, even despite their strength and power, they lay dormant and unread for years. So we ought to question the basis of Maxwell’s awe. The only reply that ‘On Poetry’ makes to this charge is: ‘No long-gone poets you can find in books or on websites are long-gone at all: if their pieces survived them they’re poets. Work out why they are. Find out what time knows and you don’t.’ Of course this manifestly isn’t true—in fact, the only reason we can find Barbauld’s name and poetry on the internet is because someone plucked her out of her time and placed her in ours. The process is inorganic. Survival of the fittest is no model for literature. Not everything is reducible to time.
If Maxwell’s tendency to utilise time as a levelling agent which assigns value and importance is unsatisfying from a critical perspective, there is something equally questionable about it from an artistic/instructional standpoint. Maxwell’s gloss on much contemporary poetry is negative precisely because it disregards the forms which have been established by time. Although he admits that some older verse forms can be little more than poetic exercises, he says that the task falls to the new generation to create their own forms, and revitalise classic forms. He also claims that even a mawkish ‘nostalgia’-based formalism in poetry is better than the complete disregard for form that is embodied by contemporary poets. These poets disregard form because they have the wrong attitude towards time: ‘Formlessness says time is broken, Postmodernism thinks it’s come to a stop, and Obscurity can’t even muster the nerve to look it in the eye. Three monkeys. Move on.’
Maxwell never identifies any particular postmodern poets who offend the temporal sensibility. If he could have given us an example of why these poets get it so wrong, this would have solidified his argument. I suspect that, in this case, he has neither an example nor an argument. He states that postmodern poetry is ‘verse that’s only kidding.’ Postmodern verse often kids: it is never ‘only kidding’. Instead it tends to express serious points through humorous means: in so doing, it recognises its own timelessness, and acknowledges its debt to a lineage of writing stretching back from Sterne to Swift, Cervantes, Robert Burton and Democritus, all of whom did the same thing. This idea of postmodernism as a conglomerate of vague but pig-headed pseudo-intellectuals who have created a mire from which we must extricate ourselves and begin to make the world anew is not only nonsensical, it is atemporal. How can poets ignore what has immediately preceded us—the notions that, for those poets who understand time, have birthed us? It seems directly contradictory to tell the young poet to be aware of his or her traditions, but solicit us to forget about the one which is close enough to his or her time to be near-memorable (particularly in the case of ‘her’, given that much groundbreaking feminist poetry is also inescapably postmodern).
Most importantly, postmodernism does not think time has stopped. The following is from John Ashbery’s ‘Self Portrait in a Convex Mirror’:
The gray glaze of the past attacks all know-how:
Secrets of wash and finish that took a lifetime
To learn and are reduced to the status of
Black-and-white illustrations in a book where colorplates
Are rare. That is, all time
Reduces to no special time. No one
Alludes to the change; to do so might
Involve calling attention to oneself
Which would augment the dread of not getting out
Before having seen the whole collection
(Except for the sculptures in the basement:
They are where they belong).
I will not analyse the portrayal of time here because it speaks so strongly for itself. I will point out, though, that those final two lines seem to directly parody Maxwell’s idea of great poetry lasting forever, and poets living vicariously through their pages. They contain a humour far more suggestive (and funny) than the idea of formlessness, postmodernism and obscurity being ‘three monkeys’ from which we must ‘move on’. They tell us that all poets must confront the possibility of their sculptures ending up in the basement. The lucky ones will sit untouched on the shelves of copyright libraries; the even luckier will also stay in people’s minds for a time; most will end up languishing in some dusty corner of cyberspace. None of these outcomes are the philosopher’s stone which Maxwell would have young writers aspire to find through a versified expedition. There are, in any case, better reasons to write poetry.
Maxwell gestures towards them elsewhere in his book, when he tries to negotiate the tricky space between theatre and poetry. Although he is frustratingly blind to the idea that what he says can be equally true of song, he talks about the centrality of metre to his mission as a playwright. He describes metre in a script, rather beautifully, as ‘the ghost of a metronome’ against which ‘the character can be infinitely played.’ In so doing, he harkens rather nicely back to his idea of poetry being central to the rhythms of speech which we perform diurnally. This lends poetry an association with the everyday: it also suggests that poetry has a future in the space of performance, an idea commensurate with the growing popularity of slams and readings which take the ground nominally occupied by two individuals—writer and reader—and explode it into a community.
If Maxwell were to take this idea further, he would realise that the immediacy and relevance of performance are partly borne from their ephemerality: and he would stop worrying those of us who write poetry, or want to write it about extending our lives beyond their natural course and taking up position amongst Chaucer, Shakespeare and Milton in the constellation of literary greatness. Instead, he would allow us to read without temporal concern, and then versify whatever the hell is in our heads.