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 It had also, to my mind, which is invariably instrumentalist, been superseded by other types of writing.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’.

Throwing it all away

The other day the philosopher (you can be one of those) Julian Baggini wrote an article which annoyed a lot of people on the internet. The title – ‘Why is it so hard to get rid of our books?’ – probably didn’t help, nor did the screenshot circulating on Twitter, where Baggini wondered whether “the main reason to keep a house full of books is to show ourselves and others that we are intelligent and well-read.”

In fact, most of the article was dedicated to a survey of all the other perfectly good reasons someone (or, at least, Baggini, his friends and his acquaintances) might have for keeping a book: as a reference, or to share with someone else, to re-read later, or as a treasured memento of a time or a person – or a time you were a different person. He admits that the aesthetic attraction of a bookshelf depends on seeing them en masse ‘irrespective of what lies between the covers’. (They’re good insulation, too.)

Which all seems pretty uncontroversial. What rubbed people up the wrong way was the fact Baggini had dared suggest it was possible to use books as status-symbols (as if this pretty mundane observation was itself an assault on knowledge), combined with the faint hint whiff of ‘personal optimization’: at one point Baggini describes how the process of throwing away a book means coming to terms with ‘failure’ (as if not having enough time to read everything you want to read says something about you, not life).

Put those two together, ignore the nuance, and what was a harmless if anodyne series of reflections by a man moving house starts to look like yet another attempt to police people’s behaviour, right at the level of the most sacred thing there is: books. How dare he!

The fact is, philistine as I am, Baggini’s driving argument was one I recognised and agreed with: holding onto books can be a way of holding onto ‘unrealistic illusions’ about ourselves. “We use books to underline our identities when more often than not they undermine them,” he writes.

I don’t read this as an assault on the concept of literature so much as an attempt to square up to the conditions under which literature is made and read, and which make reading and writing meaningful in the first place: our limited time on earth, our limited attention spans, and our willingness (or not) to change our minds.

Like many people, I buy more books than I will ever read and I keep more books than I will ever revisit or re-gift. That won’t change. But I am well aware that one of the reasons I do this is to fool myself: to pretend, against all the evidence, that I will have time to reread this, or write something about that, or read everything I want to. The books are an escape. Every now and then I try and be brutal about it and chuck a load out. Probably, that is a kind of escape too. But at least it makes space.

And one more thing

Disclaimer: ever since writing this blog I keep noticing and/or remembering examples of poems 1) doing all the things I say are a problem and 2) doing them very well, like this by Howard Nemerov.

Some poets like the sound of certain words too much. Seamus Heaney crammed many of his poems so much richness they sometimes become sickly. ‘Usquebaugh’, Wendy Cope’s Heaney parody from Making Cocoa for Kingsley Amis, implies the poet writes like he is talking drunk.

In a recent piece for The Friday Poem, Steven Lovatt takes a pop at the Heaney-esque word ‘heft‘. His concern was less the sound than the significance it is freighted with. But as the poet and publisher Helena Nelson recently (and very entertainingly) demonstrated on her blog, if rich, complex words are more likely to stand out, there are plenty of ‘unassuming’ ones which creep into poems unnoticed and threaten to cause a different kind of damage.

One word I personally use too much is the modest conjunctive ‘and’. Often it will crop up at the beginning of a stanza or a line — yet this is exactly where a linking word is most superfluous. A poem ought to be able to hold itself together as it moves down the page: the stanza or line that comes next is the one that comes next by virtue of the fact it comes next. It is already a sequence.

If most poetry has something to do with speech (its shape on the page being one way of notating that voice) then ‘and’ is a prosaic word, more often written than spoken. It allows for long, intricate sentences, whereas a speaker might leave a phrase hanging for effect, pause for breath or simply stutter. At the beginning of a line, ‘and’ is a block to variation, an invitation straight back into an ordinary iambic metre where another word might have been stressed differently. Or else it is the word of someone making a point that has gone on a bit too long…

There are plenty of exceptions which prove the rule. Not only can we not do without ‘and’, obviously you can do a lot with it. In Robert Frost’s ‘Acquainted with the Night’ the first example comes after five lines of repetition and by the time you reach the second, the gloomy atmosphere means the word feels like a deliberate choice by someone at the end of their tether.

I ought to provide an example of a poem which falls prey to some of the risks mentioned. I have gone for one I like by poet I admire, since both the poet and the poem can more than bear being made an example of by me: Don Paterson’s ‘Rain’. I am in two minds about the final line, but to me that ‘and’ introducing the fourth stanza feels like a straightforward dud. See what you think.

Modern vs Contemporary Poetry

All categories are slightly artificial and perhaps none more so than periods in literary history. When I wrote about first encountering ‘contemporary’ poetry, I wanted to emphasize how far our ’now’ can, or should stretch. Decades, not years

Perhaps it should stretch further. Playing with categories is like shuffling cards: potentially endless and, after a certain point, pointless. But the way we use words like ‘modern’ and ‘contemporary’ says something about our attitudes to the past and the present and this is always interesting to me because it means they are also value judgements, statements of feeling as much as descriptions.  

For example, you could argue that having a very narrow conception of the contemporary is simply an extreme version of a much older debate about the value of modern as opposed to ‘classical’ poetry: whether literature should reflect the world the writer is living in or be based on ‘timeless’ principles, usually associated with particular forms and conventions.

If what distinguishes the modern from the classical is its ‘present-ness’, then we should expect poetry to change as often and as drastically as the world does, i.e., a lot. So, although Milton, Wordsworth and, say, Elizabeth Bishop, are all ‘modern’ in comparison to Homer, they represent distinct eras. What now tends to get called modern poetry is just the era before whatever era we are in right now.

Then again, none of these writers (or their contemporaries) are as distant as we might think. People once dismissed the idea of writing poetry in English at all, or of writing plays which weren’t modelled on Greek tragedy. Then they dismissed poets like Wordsworth and Coleridge as, well — romantics. W. H. Auden feels pretty contemporary right now – but so does John Clare.

One the things which makes poetry poetry is the way it sits somewhere outside of ‘day to day’ time. It speaks to — and is a way of listening to — the past as well as the present. There is no point in quibbling about where the contemporary begins, because all poetry is contemporary.

And yet: there is a lot of past to choose from. And because poetry is so time-specific, it is easy to take out of context. How people chop up history almost always says more about the chopper than the thing being chopped. There is something inevitable about this. Everyone has to work out for themselves what they want to listen to, who they want to speak to. You have to chop your own wood.

The problem comes when history is wielded in order to exclude or diminish other kinds of writing with different concerns, or to demarcate a particular community: ‘everyone should read and admire X, not Y, or they are not truly one of Z’. (The traditional sign that something radical has become prescriptive is that you have to study it in school or at university.) The rebels always end up inside the castle.

Louis MacNeice said it best when he advocated for ‘impure poetry… for poetry conditioned by the poet’s life and the world around him.’1 Beyond that, perhaps it doesn’t matter what you call it.


1 The quote comes from MacNeice’s book-length essay Modern Poetry, which was published in 1938.

‘We were a good deal impeded’

All I really want to do in this post is share this extract from Virginia Woolf’s diary (Saturday 16th January, 1915) because it is a beautiful piece of writing:

L [Leonard] to the London Library. I took Max [the dog] along the river, but we were a good deal impeded, by a bone he stole, by my suspenders coming down, by a dog fight in which his ear was torn and bled horribly. I thought how happy I was, without any of the excitments which, once, seemed to me to constitute happiness.

This is the point where I have to confess I have not read much Virginia Woolf: A Voyage Out, which was incredibly sad, To the Lighthouse, which was incredibly sad, some of the essays like ‘A Room of One’s Own’ and a couple of false starts on Mrs Dalloway and The Waves. Obviously I would like to read more.

The truth is, for now at least, I do not really enjoy the more experimental modernist novels, though I recognise the skill that goes into them. I prefer more continuity.

Some critics don’t like Woolf because she was snob. There is a clip somewhere on YouTube of Tom Paulin and Terry Eagleton being exasperated in a documentary about how she ever became representative of an era, when her outlook was so (I paraphrase) restricted. Maybe it was out of context, but it seemed to me like two men deliberately missing the point.

One of the those critics goes on to talk about how James Joyce is so much better anyway, but I did not finish Ulysses either. These three sentences I like very much.