What comes next?

‘Oh God, think of all the Covid books’. If you were on ‘writing’, ‘poetry’ or ‘publishing’ Twitter during any one of the last lockdowns, you probably saw that sentiment a lot. At least, I did. At the time, I remember thinking I was not so bothered about the prospect.

Of course, there are already plenty of Covid-inspired books out there already, memoirs, essays and journals especially, but also poetry. Lots of people wrote a little bit of something every day and presumably learnt something in the process which they now want to share with other people.

I am not that excited to read many of these. But you don’t have to read anything. The world-weariness of a phrase like “I can’t wait for all the Covid books” disguises a kind of social media induced attention overload. Twitter is a constant catalogue of new books you will never have the time to read. But social media makes you think you have less time than you do (or imagine that you have more time than you do, which amounts to the same thing).

In any case the effect of pandemic on literature won’t be straightforward. Look at the Second World War. To put it very crudely, in the aftermath there was a huge appetite for fantasy and science fiction, but also a new kind of ‘kitchen sink’ realism. Perhaps they would have happened in some form anyway, but the war must have had something to do with both: the sense of disorientation, but also the bomb it put under class relations.

And though it is tempting to read the 50s, 60s and beyond through the lens of what came next, many poets in this period must have been ‘war poets’ in their own way. To live, to be young, during total war, would be to have your whole outlook on life shifted and shattered.

Someone like Gavin Ewart, for instance, today best known for his ‘light verse’ , burst on the scene as a teenager in the 1930s, went to war, came back and got a job in advertising, and didn’t publish again until 1964 (after which, he published a lot).

Rather than worry about all the inevitable books about the pandemic, it might be worth thinking about the books which won’t be written, because nothing else is on people’s mind, or because what they had been going to write doesn’t make sense to them any more, or even because their whole life has changed and writing doesn’t seem a priority right now.

To put things very crudely, again, we are good at remembering wars, but perhaps less good at remembering their aftermaths. We see the casualties, but we don’t always see the long-term impact on the people left behind. I don’t think Britain likes to see itself as a war-torn nation: war is something that happens only to soldiers, and only in other places.

I don’t think people like to see literature as circumstantial, either. It is more gratifying to everyone involved to talk of stories or poems as things which change lives, rather than something made by them. Think of all the Covid books implies a kind of (completely understandable) despair that the pandemic ever happened. It did. But we can still choose how to respond.


While I’m Here

  • One collection of poems I’ve read and enjoyed which (in part) responded to the pandemic was Sean Wai Keung’s sikfan glaschu: more about that here.
  • Thank you to Dave Bonta who included an excerpt from the last blog on his Poetry Blog Digest. I really recommend digging around Dave’s website/s.
  • Speaking of war, I am about halfway through this pretty remarkable (and chastening) footage of an RAF attack on Berlin. My grandpa was an engineer in a Lancaster like these.

Two Types of Pessimism

Thomas Hardy’s comprehensively if not especially catchily titled collection Late Lyrics and Earlier with Many Other Verses includes an introduction by the author framed as an ‘Apology’ against the charges of ‘pessimism’ which dogged him his whole career.

In the piece, Hardy protests that ‘what is today [this was just over a century ago, in 1922] alleged to be “pessimism” is in truth only questionings in the exploration of reality, and is the first step towards the soul’s betterment, and the body’s also.’ If way to better there be, he quotes from his own poem ‘In Tenebris’, it exacts a full look at the worst.

Hardy is a profoundly pessimistic writer, sometimes to the point of perversity. Awful things happen in the books: there is one scene in Jude the Obscure that made me cry on the train while I was reading it. There is a lingering air of melodrama in ‘Late Lyrics’, too, where the characters (most of the poems are ballad-like stories) are forever betraying each other, or encountering misfortune of some kind. He is never shy to point out that bad things happen to good people. 

In Hardy’s day, the charge of pessimism went hand in hand with censure, particularly over the way he challenged Victorian sexual morality and religion. Hardy’s universe does not appear to have a Christian God, or any more abstract sense of benevolence.

What is interesting about the ‘Apology’ is that Hardy does not say simply that ‘what is alleged to be “pessimism”’ is simply how the world is, or appears to him – as his most famous acolyte Philip Larkin did whenever accused of a similar attitude.1 (It may be he felt he did not need to: he was describing Victorian rural life as he witnessed it, with all its attendant cruelties.)

Instead, Hardy takes his critics on their own turf, and defends his perspective as useful. ‘Pain to all… tongued or dumb [i.e. to humans or animals],’ he writes, ‘shall be kept down to a minimum by lovingkindness operating through scientific knowledge, and activated by the modicum of freewill conjecturally possessed by organic life when the mighty necessitating forces – unconscious or other… happen to be in equilibrium, which may or may not be often.’

If this is hope, it is incredibly qualified and not a little obscure. But despite the forbidding grandeur of phrases like ‘mighty necessitating forces’ there is a recognisable, positive philosophy here in which compassion is linked to finding and applying rational solutions to moral and social problems.

In a reissue of his first collection, The North Ship, Philip Larkin says that, shortly after those poems were published he threw off the influence of W. B. Yeats’s symbolism in favour of Hardy’s more plain style, paving the way for the ‘mature’ Larkin voice of The Less Deceived and The Whitsun Weddings.

Critics have largely gone along with this dichotomy, though some suggest Yeats’s influence might have been stronger, and continued longer, than Larkin let on. But you don’t, I think, seriously admire a writer, to the extent of identifying yourself with them as much as Larkin did with Hardy, without also engaging with their broader vision. Which makes the differences in their ‘pessimism’ particularly telling.  

Two key themes that Larkin and Hardy have in common is their attentiveness to suffering, and their tendency to attack the sexual morality of their day. Hardy’s ‘Apology’ makes him out to be in some ways a good Victorian liberal, holding out for ways of alleviating human misery, and for a time when people can love according to their true selves, even if this rarely happens for the characters in his work.

For Larkin, on the other hand, suffering and sexual privation – for him, the two were usually associated with one another – were not problems to be resolved, but states which offered insight into the true nature of life, and which became the starting point of his own poems. Larkin takes Hardy’s so-called pessimism (which Hardy claims is only a qualified hope for others) and turns it into something both more personal, and more intractable – almost a kind of mysticism.


1 See for example the remarkable interview with John Haffenden, subsequently published in Viewpoints: poets in conversation with John Haffenden (Faber, 1981) and Further Requirements (Faber, 2001). Haffenden presses Larkin on this point several times.

NB the cover picture is a detail of an 1983 etching of Thomas Hardy by William Strang (National Gallery of Scotland)

Are we being educated here?

In one of the lectures given while he was Oxford Professor of Poetry, on ‘clarity and obscurity’, the now Poet Laureate Simon Armitage recalled attending a poetry reading with a non-poet friend (all the lectures are available to listen to here).

After the reading, the friend asks Armitage about the mini-introductions the readers had given to their poems: why, his friend wants to know, don’t they put them in the books? In reply, Armitage reels off various defences – a book is a privileged space, that any one explanation might preclude other readings.

“I still think they should put them in the books,” his friend says. “Or in the poem.”

While he doesn’t go as far as advocating for written intros, Armitage goes on to describe how poems can be more or less generous with the information they offer, and suggests that the modern tendency to hold something back – those references which have a personal, or particular, but unexplained resonance – is an attempt by poets to recreate the kind of enigma which form previously provided.

Free verse is sometimes defended as a more inclusive way of writing, so it is curious that it often goes hand in hand with obfuscation, deliberate or otherwise. What, Armitage asks, if obscurity is just another ‘club membership by which the ignorant and uninformed are kept outside the door’?

Several of the examples of the poems Armitage discusses are ekphrastic poetry: responses to works of art. He shows how some contemporary examples require the reader to be familiar with niche works of art (allowing for the fact nicheness is relative). Other poems do not even reference the work they are responding to: only someone ‘in the know’ would know the poem is a response at all.

What, Armitage asks, is the thought process behind deciding not to give the reader this kind of information? And what does that say about our responsibilities as readers?

By contrast, W. H. Auden’s ‘Musee des Beaux Arts’, one of my favourite poems full stop, describes the whole picture: it takes what Armitage calls a ‘belt and braces’ approach, even at the risk of providing ‘unnecessary subtitles’ to a familiar image.

That image, The Fall of Icarus by Breughel, was not familiar to me when I first read the poem, though I knew the myth. But that is the point. The poem still works: it might even work if you didn’t know the myth, or at least make you want to seek out both the story and the picture. The enigma is in the delivery of the idea of the awful ordinariness of suffering (in the rhymes, as Armitage puts it).

I think the questions Armitage is raising are important ones, although, like him, I am not clear about the answers. There are no universal references, but poetry cannot be a private language.

I also wonder if, at least more recently, the internet has encouraged writers to feel like they can demand more of their readers. Armitage describes having to Google a sculpture in order to properly appreciate one poem. If Auden’s readers had wanted to see Breughel’s The Fall of Icarus for themselves they would have had to go to Brussels (I Googled that), or find a reproduction.


NB In the spirit of explanation, the title of this blog is taken from a line in Armitage’s lecture

Tweeting Ourselves to Death

I was once part of a large, discussion-based event for secondary school students, where the organisers (myself included) tasked the participants with discussing whether social media was bad or good for the world. The arguments they came up with were, as you might expect, varied and nuanced, and, when they drafted them, pretty much fifty-fifty.

But when it came to putting the motion to a vote, the room was overwhelmingly in favour of “good for the world”. Judging by their presentations, and the general mood, the participants had clocked that the question implied a kind of judgement on their own lives, of which social media was simply a fact, offered by older generations that thought it was still somehow optional.

Literature is full of pessimistic prophecies about the future of society and culture, or the destruction of the planet. These judgements are frequently issued with good reason and they often come true. But the more they hit home, the more condescending they feel. Philip Larkin’s ‘Going, Going’, for instance, with its vision of ‘England, gone’, buried underneath motorways and service stations: most of my life has been spent driving around motorways, stopping at service stations. I am the ‘crowd at the M1 café.’

Concrete is one thing. When culture is involved, the judgement feels even more personal. I recently read Amusing Ourselves to Death, Neil Postman’s 1984 polemic about the effect of television on public life, for the first time. His argument, the general gist of which feels undeniable, is that television’s ubiquity, in the US especially, has changed how we see the world, and not just on TV: everything is entertainment and context is irrelevant.

Postman is remarkably open about judging the present by the standards of the past. In brief, his thesis is that nineteenth century America was an exceptionally print-based culture, which in turn meant rational argument had a genuine purchase on public life in a way it no longer does. By his reckoning, audience members at political debates in the US at that time would happily sit through up to seven hours of back and forth, often over dry, technical issues. You do not get Boris Johnson or Donald Trump without television, and they are just the surface.  

I say remarkably open, because, if Postman is right, by now the thinking apparatus of almost everyone on earth is seriously fried and no one wants to hear that.1 When a technology is as constitutive of culture as television was (according to Postman) in the late twentieth-century, or as social media is today, anything positive or exciting will either be indirectly associated with that technology, or happen through it. Because that is where people are.

So, I can understand why the students would interpret the question “is social media good or bad for the world?” as a referendum, not on social media, but on ‘the past’ vs ‘the present’. And if you are going to be the ones living in the present, self-respect means there is only one answer. No one wants to think of their lives as someone else’s dystopia.


1 The reason Postman’s argument is convincing, to me, is that it is more subtle than that joke implies. It does not rely on any quasi-scientific, and probably unfalsifiable, argument about the damage TV does to our brains: it is a question of what modes of representation – what standards of truth – we are most used to. Similarly, a lot of the debate about what social media does to our attention spans is irrelevant, however close to the bone: the question is what it does to our expectations.

The Long Haul

For reasons not unknown, but entirely arbitrary, I read two epic poems for the first time recently: Milton’s Paradise Lost and Simon Armitage’s translation of Sir Gawain and the Green Night. It wasn’t my first stab at Paradise Lost: we had ‘done’ the first two books for A Level (most of the term was spent trying to get the class to comprehend the plot by turning it into a story board). But we weren’t expected to read the rest, and I rarely go beyond expectations.

I rarely read an ‘epic’, let alone a really lengthy poem, either. Much longer than a page is usually a reason to skip a poem in a book that is new to me. I am pretty confident I am not alone in this. Most readers have no idea what to expect from poetry, but even the few of us who might have a sense of what we are looking for, are usually looking for something like a lyric: a modest shape on the page which, as Robert Frost put it, begins in delight, and ends in wisdom. Ends quickly, he might have added (Frost’s own longer poems are not his best loved, perhaps unfairly).

Epics are another thing entirely. Stories written to be recounted, although more than stories: fables, myths, almost arguments. It might seem obvious, but what struck me about these poems was not just the sound, but the relentlessness of that sound. Line after line after of blank verse or alliteration. And all that space, meaning the imagery and the ideas, the repetitions, and the contrasts, build up and interlace across the huge chunks of verse, yet wound more tightly than a novel.

I enjoyed both Gawain and Paradise Lost a lot, though it took me two holidays to finally finish the latter. The form is so unfamiliar. Even putting aside the language, you are not likely to have come across a thing like it unless you studied English or a classical language at university. And by then, for most people, it is probably already too late. It is not a poem. It is not a novel. It is something else.

The form is unfamiliar. It had also, to my mind, which is invariably instrumentalist, been superseded by other types of writing. If you want narratives, there are novels. If you want language, lyrics. Argument, philosophy. And that relentlessness of sound, that was partly a way of helping the recounter remember the thing. What purpose does the epic serve in a text-based culture?

I find it hard to think of a future where long poems (let alone epics) don’t remain rare occurrences or largely academic interests. But what purpose does a novel serve? Or a poem? By holding longer poems to a standard I don’t hold any other kind of writing, I was just giving myself an excuse not to read them.


1 The thing is there are plenty of long poems, if not epics, I know I like a lot: Autumn Journal by Louis MacNeice, Alice Oswald’s Dart, or Wendy Cope’s The River Girl, which is one of the best things she’s done. But when I think ‘what do I want to read next’, it is never ‘a really long poem’.