Tag Archives: analysis

Are we being educated here?

In one of the lectures he gave while 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 individual introductions, Armitage goes on to describe how poems can be more or less generous with the information they offer, and suggests that the contemporary tendency to hold something back – those references which have a personal, or particular, but unexplained resonance – may even be attempts to recreate the kind of ‘enigma’ which was previously summoned up by the conflict between form and meaning, when poetry itself is increasingly formless.

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 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 the ‘in the know’ would know the poem is a response at all. What, Armitage wants to know, 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 and the header image is an excerpt from The Fall of Icarus (c.1555).

‘Their Lonely Betters’ (W. H. Auden)

There is a game which critics like to play where they trace the career of a poet and try to track the ways in which what they wrote changed over time, what those turning points say about the poet, their poems, and the times they were living in.

Like all good games, this one is endless. There are as many answers as there are people; there is always a different position to take about what the change was, or how it happened, or what ‘version’ of a poet is best. Or, like Philip Larkin did, you can pretend you are above the game by saying you don’t believe that poets ‘develop’ at all.

W. H. (Wystan Hugh) Auden had a long career. In the 1930s he was the most famous young poet of his generation in England. When he died in 1973, he was living in Austria, having left England for America just before the Second World War.

Auden is a perfect subject for the game, in two ways. He captured something in the atmosphere in the thirties in a way no other poet did, the connection between private anxiety and public foreboding, the emotions of ‘dread, guilt, disaster or disease’ which have made so many people compare then to now. But his career also has an obvious ‘turning point’ to get the game started: when the war that his poems had done so much to presage broke out, his poems changed.

John Sutherland says that Auden has two identities. On the one hand, ‘he is… the greatest English lyric poet of the 20th century,’ and, on the other, he is ‘a top-ranked American lyric poet of a rather different, more reflective character’. Larkin, writing as a young-ish man in 1955, was less charitable: Auden’s later poems too often seemed to be written ‘by someone no longer capable of strong feeling, or of conveying strong feeling in poetry, or of thinking it matters whether it is conveyed or not’.

Larkin played the ‘development’ game like a master, even as he professed his own disbelief in it. He even had an answer (‘no more than a hint’) as to why this had happened: ‘[Auden’s] decline as a poet dates from the time he cut himself off from… the insecurity that England represented’. He praises the old Auden’s ability to find, amongst that insecurity, ‘images, rhythms and phrases that completely won the reader’s confidence, no matter how little was otherwise conceded’ (those readers included Larkin, whose schoolboy poems were largely attempts to copy him).

Auden scared himself with his own precocious powers of persuasion. Later, he scrupulously revised poems to edit out, or supress entirely, moments where he thought that he had been too breezy about politics, or too certain about the truth.[1] Auden’s ability to express ‘The Age of Anxiety’ was always about more than his ability to convince, or the way in which he reflected specific responses to a specific time and place. Otherwise, he wouldn’t have lasted.

What counted was Auden’s feeling for the feeling of unease. On the one hand, he could create suspense in all the ways Larkin admired about the early poems: by being elliptical, alluding to warfare, or espionage, or actual disease, and writing in a way which makes you feel like he is leading you on a secret mission, though you have no idea what the object is, only that it probably isn’t good (‘Control of the passes, was he, saw, the key’). Auden also played against expectations by using familiar forms in unfamiliar ways, particularly the creepy bastardisations of nursery rhymes and ballads that lull the reader into thinking something innocent is going on, before pulling the rug from under you.

Auden’s consistency was in effect, not form, or even tone: he is trying to make you feel uncomfortable. ‘Their Lonely Betters’, written in Auden’s post-war period, is a good example of how his later style developed, while retaining that ability to unsettle (follow the link to read the full poem). Auden starts with a simple image of himself doing what the lucky have been doing a lot of recently: sitting in his garden, listening to the birds.

As I listened from a beach-chair in the shade
To all the noises that my garden made,
It seemed to me only proper that words
Should be withheld from vegetables and birds.

The tone is firmly tongue in cheek, but we are prepared for a kind of argument. Perhaps it is God withholding words from the vegetables and the birds: Auden had ‘reconverted’ to Anglicanism at this point. In any case, the argument appears perfectly legible whether you believe in a creator or not. It is the difference between humans and nature. He continues:

A robin with no Christian name ran through
The Robin-Anthem which was all it knew,

And rustling flowers for some third party waited
To say which pairs, if any, should get mated.

In ‘only proper’ and ‘Robin-Anthem’ already you can see the extension of that ‘garrulous, ingenious, playful-sentimental’ and ultimately going-nowhere tone of voice which convinced Larkin these later poems were devoid of feeling. The tone extends into the third stanza, which lays out the argument even clearer: ‘Not one of them was capable of lying’. This is all done in such perfect, almost too perfect rhymes, and a simple, lightly skipping rhythm: the first line or two of each stanza have an extra syllable, running down to the end, but the rest are regular. 

Something changes, however in the final stanza, and when it does, it changes the whole poem. First, there is the brilliance of the first line. It wakes you up.

Let them leave language to their lonely betters
Who count some days and long for certain letters;
We, too, make noises when we laugh or weep:
Words are for those with promises to keep.

With its rolling ‘l’s, the line leaps off the tongue. That skipping, extra syllable suddenly sounds a lot more serious, an incantation rather than a going-through-the-motions. The line seems to sum up the argument so far: able to speak, people are ‘better’ than nature, but they are lonely, divorced from its certainty and happy ignorance.

The next line then seems to back this up, by letting us see the loneliness which language entails: ‘who count some days and long for certain letters’. The natural thing to expect is ‘count the days’. If someone is expecting something, we don’t usually talk about counting individual days. Or Does Auden mean that for some people, only some days ‘count’?

It’s not clear. The uncertainty stops you in your tracks. We have been stopped twice, in fact, first by the clarity of the first the line, then by the uncertainty of the second. The l in ‘long for certain letters’ picks up the speed and the skippishness of the line before, but only partly, so we also have a further sense of falling, and that sense is compounded by the early break in the third line: ‘we, too’.

It is a break in sense, too. Auden is pointing out our similarities with animals and vegetables. Some emotions are instinctive. The uncertainty which was first introduced by the word ‘some’ has been there all along.

There is a kind of mirroring between the helplessness of the person waiting for ‘certain letters’ and the flowers in the second stanza who are waiting for the bees to decide who they can ‘mate’ with.[2] It is not so much the sadness of being separated from nature that Auden is drawing out (which is, after all, not so sad — how could we be anything other?).

Dependent, as we are, on language, we are vulnerable to one another, and Auden is writing about that vulnerability, the loneliness and uncertainty which is a part of being human, of being loved and unloved, and doing so in ways which, Auden feels, we cannot control. Despite the certain-sounding rhymes of ‘weep’ and ‘keep’ (they end in consonants) the final lines land as a question, almost an accusation.

Until I wrote this thought I agreed with Larkin about Auden’s ‘development’. But there is ‘strong feeling’ here: the feeling of uncertainty. Perhaps Auden isn’t sitting so comfortably in his beach-chair after all. 


[1] This included the astonishing poem ‘Spain’, with its reference to ‘necessary murder’ in defence of the Spanish Republic (George Orwell objected), as well as another now totemic poem, ‘September 1, 1939’, where Auden changed the final line ‘we must love one another or die’ to ‘we must love one another and die’.

Larkin inherited this uncertainty. Just a year after he criticised Auden’s later work, he would write his own confident-sounding last line about love in ‘An Arundel Tomb’: ‘what will survive of us is love’. He, too, thought it too confident. It is the same line.

[2] I have stolen this point about the birds and the bees from John Sutherland’s article.

This blog is part of a series I started in March 2020 where I pick a poem I like and talk about what I like about it. I wrote a short introduction about my motivations here.

‘View of the Capitol from the Library of Congress’ (Elizabeth Bishop)

Elizabeth Bishop is (maybe) most famous for her poems of place: she spent much of her life living in South America and wrote collections called Questions of Travel and Geography III (there was no ‘I’ or ‘II’). ‘View of the Capitol from the Library of Congress’ was written while working at the Library of Congress in Washington, in an office which looked across to the vast white wedding-cake ‘Capitol’ building which houses the US House of Congress — the capitalised ‘Dome’ of the poem.

View of the Capitol’ sounds like an austere painting, but the poem gently mocks the seriousness of its surroundings. It does what it says on the tin: it is what she sees – and her experience of seeing it. 

Moving from left to left, the light
is heavy on the Dome, and coarse.
One small lunette turns it aside
and blankly stares off to the side
like a big white old wall-eyed horse.

We start with this description of sunlight moving across the dome. It’s a light airy poem. Bishop apparently called it ‘trivial’. I like it as much as any of her serious ones. There may be trivial or non-trivial American allusions I don’t pick up here too. There are some similarities with Louis MacNeice’s ‘Snow’: the use of ordinary, unpoetic language, the touch of the surreal in the imagery. The lunette, for instance, which I think is a kind of window, is compared to a horse.

Running through the entire poem, until the final stanza, there is a regular, unbroken metre of four beats to a line. But Bishop deliberately undermines that metre from the beginning. ‘A big white old wall-eyed horse’ feels a beat too long. I don’t think it is: but the vowels are long. Also, there are four adjectives where you expect three. The gap ‘old’ creates between the two ‘wh’ sounds slow you down too. It is slightly ugly, in a good way. Later in the poem, a brass band appears.  

On the east steps the Air Force Band
in uniforms of Air Force blue
is playing hard and loud, but – queer –
the music doesn’t quite come through.

The Air Force band is dressed in Air Force blue. The repetition is a kind of faux naivety: you’re not supposed to repeat words. Here, it contributes to the ease with which the poem moves forward. It helps that the word ‘Air Force’ is light and breezy, too. Air doesn’t sound like anything, but the word ‘air’ hardly exists either. There are no hard consonants in ‘force’.

But the music ‘doesn’t quite come through’: it comes in snatches, caught in the ‘giant trees’ like ‘gold dust’. The next stanza paints a pathetic picture: the leaves wave ‘limp stripes’ of sound into the air. The metaphor itself is a bit limp. It stretches too far. What’s in strips, the sound? Or is it still something to do with the trees? I think the idea is that the sound takes on the shape of the gaps in the trees.

Yet, in the final stanza, this set up – the indeterminacy – resolves itself:

Great shades, edge over,
give the music room.
The gathered brasses want to go
boom — boom.

Bishop asks the trees to ‘edge over’. The ‘gathered brasses’ of the band (gathered like a herd of animals) want to ‘boom — boom’. If you’re not supposed to repeat words, you’re definitely not supposed to just print out the sounds. These rules may just be a product of my id — I don’t believe in them, but I’m sure someone does. Even the brasses seem a bit pathetic: they ‘want’ to make an impressive sound but the stilted rhythm undermines them. The ‘boom’, in short, is deliberately childish. Bishop brings the military band down to size: the climax is an anti-climax. 

If the brasses are brought down to size, the ‘great shades’ are promoted. Bishop asks them, politely, if they could ‘edge over’. But the act of asking, like the notion that the brasses could ‘want’ to boom, isn’t just playful: this is how it looks and sounds. We are sitting at the window with Bishop. We can imagine, from here, willing the trees to just edge over a bit, see the sound of the brasses trapped in the leaves, feel the distance – the way the different senses overlap.

The American poet and novelist Ben Lerner has a theory that all poems are failures because they attempt to represent the ‘perfect’ poem which we all have in our head and this isn’t possible (I paraphrase). I don’t agree. The experience here is the playfulness of seeing and you can’t fail at that. If you could, you wouldn’t be playing.    

This blog is part of a series I started in March 2020 where I pick a poem I like and talk about what I like about it. I wrote a short introduction about my motivations here.

‘Into My Own’ (Robert Frost)

Poems are not social in any normal sense of the word. You have to spend a lot of time alone to write or read them. The reader might share them or even read them to someone else (it does happen) and you can say that this is a kind of socialness. Here we get a little closer to the truth.

But it’s still not the whole truth: the pleasure the writer and the reader receive from the excuse to be alone which a poem provides them is not identical to the thought of the pleasure they may bring other people. At least that’s not my experience. If it was, people would write fewer poems.

A lot of great poetry comes with a drop of misanthropy. Misanthropy comes in different guizes. It might appear as a preference for some abstract principle — like an idea, or history, or God over living, breathing people. With Robert Frost, it often comes as the desire to be alone.

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