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.

Making Nothing Happen

It was probably inevitable that the two most famous quotes about poetry’s purpose, Shelley’s ‘poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world’ and W. H. Auden’s ‘poetry makes nothing happen’ would be so contradictory: poetry is a house with many rooms and so, rightly, is criticism.

David O’Hanlon-Alexandra’s ‘New Defences of Poetry’ project, now available on its own website here, marked the bicentennial of Percy Bysshe Shelley’s essay ‘A Defence of Poetry’ by inviting defences of poetry today and received an appropriately diverse and challenging range of responses. (I was very glad to have a piece included.)1

One of the pieces I particularly appreciated was Polly Atkin’s essay ‘Poetry as its own defence’, which puts Auden’s quote in its proper context. Often invoked ‘to gesture to the redundancy of poetry’, Auden’s words, which are lifted from the poem ‘In Memory of W. B. Yeats’, are their own defence:

You were silly like us; your gift survived it all:
The parish of rich women, physical decay,
Yourself. Mad Ireland hurt you into poetry.
Now Ireland has her madness and her weather still,
For poetry makes nothing happen: it survives
In the valley of its making where executives
Would never want to tamper, flows on south
From ranches of isolation and the busy griefs,
Raw towns that we believe and die in; it survives,
A way of happening, a mouth.

For Auden, through Yeats (and now through Auden), poetry is a mouth: as Atkins memorably puts it, ‘a conduit for speech, meaning, knowledge, understanding.’ The phrase ‘poetry makes nothing happen’ ought really be read not only in the context of the line (poetry makes nothing happen, but ‘it survives’, which is something), and not only in the context of the whole stanza, which, like Auden’s Yeats, is a bit silly, if knowingly so (Mad Ireland?), but in the context of the poem. Auden puts his faith is not in some abstract thing called ‘poetry’, but in life, however difficult that proves:

Follow, poet, follow right
To the bottom of the night,
With your unconstraining voice
Still persuade us to rejoice;

With the farming of a verse
Make a vineyard of the curse,
Sing of human unsuccess
In a rapture of distress;

In the deserts of the heart
Let the healing fountain start,
In the prison of his days
Teach the free man how to praise.

I am with Atkin, too, in being sceptical of Shelley’s figure of the poet as ‘interpreter of the sacred and the arcane’, this idea that poets have exclusive insight into moral or spiritual truths beyond the reach of ordinary mortals. Not only does the evidence just not bear this out, it is a conservative idea – or at a least slightly cultish one – implying a hiearchy with poets (and perhaps their fans) at the top.

It is an idea which, at least on these islands, seems to be rearticulated in new ways in every generation: W. B. Yeats, T. S. Eliot and Ted Hughes all went in for it and you can still smell it lurking at the bottom of a lot of ‘poetic reasoning’. Auden represents a dissident tradition: respectful of poetry’s ‘gift’, he knew that poets themselves are as human as the next person.

My own piece was the result of a long running, if entirely one-sided, argument with Ben Lerner’s book, ‘The Hatred of Poetry’. My broader aim was to defend poetry from those who ask too much of it, or who place it on a pedestal, of whom Lerner happens to be a particularly prominent representative.

On reflection, I think one reason I am troubled by Lerner’s argument is that it reminds me so much of that Shelley-esque notion of poetry possessing some unique moral understanding, an understanding that resides somewhere in its poetic essence – quite where is rarely made clear – rather than anything the individual poet actually writes, does or says. (To his credit, Lerner is clear that for him this moral value resides in poetry’s familiarity with failure, but I do not buy this either.)

Sometimes poets take pride in arguing that arguing about what poems are and what they do is impossible. If I was being cynical, which I usually am, I would say we fear taking poetry apart and looking under the bonnet because we worry it will undermine its value: in effect, we think we need to choose between faith and reason. It’s a false choice.


1 David’s introduction says everything I would want to say and more about why criticism, poetics, whatever you want to call it, is important. It is also generous survey of the ‘defences’ themselves, which are a treasure trove. There is a great deal to think with in there and I was humbled, frankly, to be in the same store as so many poets/critics I always look forward to reading. In the spirit of David’s call for the project to be a spark for further discussion, over the next few weeks (more likely, months) I am going to try to respond to some the pieces which spoke most to me.


NB the picture is W. H. Auden. His notoriously wrinkly face has been crinkled again by the book cover.