William Oxley: Poetry as Documentary of the Imagination

Some would trace the beginnings of modern English poetry to the publication of Eliot's Prufrock in 1917; others would find its origins in the dislocation of the Georgian sensibility clearly evidenced in the poets of the First World War -- especially the duo of Sassoon and Owen. But whichever view one takes -- and it doesn't really matter for my purpose here -- the change which did occur ushered in a new, more realistic note into English poetry. A way of looking at things which, on the Continent, had appeared in the novels of Zola many years before it reached English poetry.

Nor was this all. The new, more realistic way of poeticizing, inaugurated an attempted total revision of the techniques of poetry. In fact this, too, can be arguably traced to the French novel. For the birth of the naturalist school called forth Flaubert, that most conscientious craftsman ever in the field of the novel; and one as determined to rigorously overhaul the form of the novel, as had Zola and his followers the content of the work. The result: Madame Bovary, the perfect modern novel. And it is no surprise that Eliot -- imbibing via his French studies this development -- was able, years after Flaubert and Zola, to write: `To have the virtues of good prose is the first and minimum requirement of good poetry'. But more of that anon.

Equally significant, as I say, was the impact of the Great War upon the Georgian poetry ethic. If one compares, for example, Sassoon's poem `Absolution' and its note of romantic stoicism:

`The anguish of the earth absolves our eyes
Till beauty shines in all that we can see.
War is our scourge; yet was has made us wise,
And, fighting for our freedom, we are free.'

a note that grows ever stronger and more subliminal as the poem proceeds:

`Horror of wounds and anger at the foe,
And loss of things desired; all these must pass.
We are the happy legion, for we know
Time's but a golden wind that shakes the grass.'

with a later war piece of his like `Prelude' which runs thus:

`Dim, gradual thinning of the shapeless gloom
Shudders to drizzling daybreak that reveals
Disconsolate men who stamp their sodden boots
And turn dulled, sunken faces to the sky
Haggard and hopeless. They, who have beaten down
The stale despair of night, must now renew
Their desolation in the truce of dawn,
Muredering the livid hours that grope for peace.'

it is obvious that the tone has changed considerably. True, the stoicism still persists in `They, who have beaten down/ The stale despair of night, must now renew...' etc.; but the romanticism is gone, and subliminal rhetoric. Then, in these descriptive lines from `Counter-Attack';

`The place was rotten with dead; green clumsy legs
High-booted, sprawled and grovelled along the saps
And trunks, face downward in the sucking mud,
Wallowed like trodden sand-bags loosely filled;
And naked sodden buttocks, mats of hair,
Bulged, clotted heads slept in the plastering slime.
And then the rain began -- the jolly old rain!'

the transformation is complete. Not only has the description lost all the spiritual pneuma of romance; not only has it acquired some of the chief `virtues of good prose' -- namely, literalness, unambiguity and flatness of tone; it even rounds off with a new tone, irony, in the sarcastic flourish of `the jolly old rain!' So that we now have the Georgian afflatus become Georgian de-flatus, and a species of modern poetry. The sole difference between it and the more famed `modernism' of Eliot and Pound lying in the fact that its rhythmical measurement remains conventionally regular. For the Georgians their `Penelpoe' was still Tennyson not Flaubert -- they fished by more `obstinate isles'.

Poetry as documentary of the real world has continued to be the predominant strain of critically-accepted verse since the `revolution' in the early part of this century. And the only thing that has tended to alter has been criticism's attitude to form. On diction and tone -- if one ignores the egregious aberration of Dylan Thomas - there has been virtual critical unanimity. The voice must be realist not lyrical. But on the matter of form there has been so much uncertainty that, almost decade by decade, the pendulum of metrical fashion has tended to swing wildly between the advocates of free verse and those wishing to employ distinctly traditional forms. Perhaps only Auden -- the most skilful of all formalists -- managed consistently to write poems in strict forms, yet which poems were unquestionably modern? But, like I say, the documentary realist manner has become the norm. And from Larkin's `Whitsun Weddings' in the 1950's, to Tony Harrison's celebrated `Nuptial Torches' in the 1970's, the tone and diction are still those of Sassoon's `Counter-Attack' or Eliot's `Love Song of J.Alfred Prufrock'. A tone that is either ironic, mocking or studiedly neutral (deadpan); a diction that is plain and exact, tending towards the dull; and a persona that is literalist, cautious, knowing, vulgar or cerebral -- but decidedly non-emotive.

Poetry, the most subjective of all the arts, has tended to be excessively affected by outside forces in our century. Poetry, hitherto, has always been considered as expressive not of reality, nor the world, nor things, but what the poet feels about that reality, that world, those things. Today, though, the outside world has come more and more to dominate the poet and, hence, the poem. This has had, with certain poets like Robert Graves or Kathleen Raine -- though in radically different ways in their cases -- the somewhat paradoxical effect of making poetry a more personal affair, that is, a more private affair -- and subjective in the narrower solipsistic sense. But that is an avenue I don't wish to explore here. What I do wish to observe is that the world is so much with poets now -- with a few exceptions -- that the social realist theme and `documentary of the real' mode is somewhat all pervasive. Something which, incidentally, has had a great deal to do with blurring the distinction between literature and journalism: but that is something, again, I cannot follow up here.

Rather would I address the attention to another poem of Siegfried Sassoon's called `Break of Day'. This is not an outstanding poem, but rather a rogue Georgian piece that perfectly exemplifies within its compass not only Georgian and Non-Georgian writing, but something more fundamental perhaps than either. For it is a poem that was clearly written at the exact watershed between Tennysonian romanticism and Eliotesque realism. A poem at the century's real turning, so to speak. It contains within itself poetry that is clearly of the type I have termed `documentary of the real', as well as another kind of poetry altogether: yet a poetry which, however criticizable -- and criticize it as moderns we shall -- represents a different kind of `documentary' altogether; but one that, arguably, is just as valid as the other -- perhaps more so.

It will be sufficient to examine just two stanzas of Sassoon's poem. The first is quite typical of the new development in poetry, springing from direct experience of conditions in the trenches during the First World War:

`There seemed a smell of autumn in the air
At the bleak end of night; he shivered there
In a dank musty dug-out where he lay,
Legs wrapped in sand-bags, -- lumps of chalk and clay
Spattering his face. Dry-mouthed, he thought, "Today
We start the damned attack; and, Lord knows why,
Zero's at nine; how bloody if I'm done in
Under the freedom of the morning sky!"
And then he coughed and dozed cursing the din.'

Pedants and grammarians might conceivably object to the `seemed' of the first line. A Larkin might have made the piece more mocking or ironic in tone. While a Tony Harrison would certainly have replaced the old cliché of `dank, musty' with the new cliché `smell of piss' in the dug-out, and made the soliloquoy of the soldier more down-to-earth still and definitely not `officer-ish'. But, by and large, there's nothing much in that passage for modern criticism to baulk at: it being sufficiently documentary of the real to suit the prevailing taste.

With a later passage in the poem however -- one in which the soldier dreams of a different world back home -- modern criticism would find a number of faults. The passage I have in mind is this:

`Now a red sleepy sun above the rim
Of twilight stares along the weald,
And the kind, simple country shines revealed
In solitudes of peace, no longer dim.
The old horse lifts his face and thanks the light,
Then stretches down his head to crop the green.
All things that he has loved are in his sight;
The places where his happiness has been
Are in his eyes, his heart, and they are good.'

Critics of today would be falling over themselves to demolish this piece of `pure Georgianism'. For a start it is too optimistic, celebratory, even romantic. `Vapid!', `adjective-ridden!', `false!', the cries would go up. All of which objections are sustainable from a certain perspective. For example, `the red sleepy sun' is a bit ingenuous, more suited to a nursery rhyme maybe, even verging on the sentimental: though logically it can be justified as a description of the dawn sun fresh from the `sleep' of night. However, our crabbed critics steeped in Crabbe would definitely disavow `the kind, simple country'. There is nothing `kind or simple' about the countryside, they'd aver; insisting that really the countryside is `cruel and complex'. Which, of course, cannot be denied. But the country may also be kind and simple to the poet and, more to the point, if looked at from a different standpoint than that of the critics, it may be both simple and kind as well as cruel and complex. So that the poet has, in fact, given voice to, has `documented', a different and further aspect of the truth of the country. What is more, it is only by the sort of diction that Sassoon here employs -- leaving aside any question of degrees of outmodedness of particular words or phrases -- that such an intangible but nevertheless real reality as the subsequent `solitudes of peace' can be revealed. In fact, the attachment of personal qualities, humanizing features, such as `sleepy' to `sun', and the making of it `stare', plus the use of adjectives like `kind' and `simple' to describe the country, are precisely necessary words required to invoke the intangible `solitudes of peace'. Something which can easily tested by the replacement of `sleepy', `stare', `kind', and `simple' with other words like, for example, `weary', `glare', `indifferent', `complex' which would completely destroy the sense of `solitudes of peace'. Therefore, such adjectives constitute accurate word-signs that help document a genuine and experienced state. But it is obviously a state that a more `realistic' vocabulary is precluded from revealing.

Moving on through the stanzas, the modern ctitic may argue that `the old horse' could indeed `lift its face', but not to `thank the sun'. (There is an interesting parallel here, if I may briefly digress, in the way that Pope -- very much the social realist -- in his great translation of the Iliad refused to allow Homer's horses to `welcome the dawn' in the famous camp fire scene outside Troy, and insisted on translating the original so that it was the sleeping soldiers who were awaiting the dawn!) Yet is this any more a sustainable objection than the earlier one which denies the possibility of a `sleepy' sun? Surely such objections must stem from a criticism that is too partial and literalist to see that poetry involves not only a documenting of the real but a documenting of the imagined as well? Put another way, only a criticism which fails to appreciate that poetry must reveal not just things as they appear to be, but also things as the poet feels them to be, could advance such objections. I feel the true way of looking at reality is best expressed by Sassoon in the remaining lines:

`All things that he has loved are in his sight;
The places where his happiness has been
Are in his eyes, his heart, and they are good.'

It may be, of course, that the expression in the second passage of verse is a little over-sweet for modern taste. But that cannot be helped, for the sense and sentiment of them is irrreproachable, is true. While the two passages taken together attest to the fact that however documentary poetry may be, it is principally a documentary of the imagination.

To explain, even remotely satisfactorily, how it is that poetry, from being such a `documentary of the imagination', has become so predominately a documenting chiefly of the real -- in which for real is meant something close to the `real' of social realism or French naturalism -- would, again, widen the scope of this essay unacceptably. But it clearly owes much to the general philosophical outlook of our century, this `age of analysis' as it has been called. Also, in the narrower sphere of literary criticism itself, it owes much to critics like T.S.Eliot. The Eliot who insisted that `to have the virtues of good prose is the first and minimum requirement of good poetry'. And the Eliot who, astonishingly, could push his literalizing thesis for poetry so far as to say of a poem by that archangel, that apostle of the documentary of the imagination, William Blake: `It is in a language that has undergone the discipline of prose'. Perhaps, he meant to insult Blake -- or meant it ironically?

Yet am I being merely perverse in refusing to understand Eliot's drift? Am I failing to grasp his point? Suppose one reversed his thesis and said of a passage of prose `it has undergone the discipline of poetry'. That might make a bit more sense, for poetry does offer a superior discipline of words; and from that discipline prose might, on occasion, benefit. But it is difficult to see poetry -- that aims for compression and multiplicity of meaning within a single track of language -- as benefitting from prose whose fundamental quality is single-strand rational meaning. Surely, if anything, Eliot's plea leads straight to the circumscription of poetry, to the reductio of which I have been complaining in this essay?

Obviously, this whole subject requires greater investigation. An essay can never do more than seek to highlight a trend, or point out a feature or two in what is, after all, an extensive and often very shadowy landscape. Equally obviously, such trends and effects are never uniform and totally indicative of the state of affairs at any time. In our century there have been a number of fine poets -- Auden was pre-eminently one, Yeats another -- who never succumbed to any debilitating critical trends (nor did Eliot in most of his own poetry!), and produced poem after poem that were manifest documentings of the imagination. Poets who, in their critical pronouncements too never, for a moment, failed to distinguish between these truths and falsehoods to which I have been referring. Even so, elsewhere and by others all too frequently, and perhaps never more so than among our fashionable bards of today, have such important distinctions been lost sight of. And not just in criticism which is, when all is said and done, only theory; but in the practice of poetry as well.

For example, it does seem to me that if one considers poets like Craig Raine, James Fenton, John Fuller, etc. -- and all those poets who have been, however loosely, associated with the label `Martianism', the very fact that they themselves, and their critics, have had to reduce the concept of the `poetic' to an emphasis solely on the poetic conceit in order to present their work as poetry at all, that is one proof of the `prosification' of poetry. Another such `proof' is the exaltation of that outstanding poetic ghoul, Peter Reading, whose work seems to consist merely of the blending of the obsessively disgusting and the banal to no other end than the creation of an anti-poetic frisson; and the fact that such a deliberately self-conscious verbal strategy is even considered poetry, can only be a further indication of the existence of an uncomplex (literalist) prose mentality reigning (and ruining!) in poetice practice and criticism today. Third instances, in my view, would be the work of such as Elizabeth Bartlett and U.A.Fanthorpe. In the first instance, poetry is reduced to a mixture of self-expression and social realism, in which the imagination is confined to charting the ego and its social situation in a highly literalist and prosaic way. Good poetry, of course, can have a personal dimension; but it has to be something more than confession or self-expression: for if it is not, then prose is its adequate vehicle. In the case of U.A.Fanthorpe, her work is a blend of reportage and wit which makes, of course, for a certain subtlety of expression but does not achieve more than can be done with prose, which is why her work -- like that of all cerebralists and journalists -- though very accessible, suffers from being prosey. Of course, it is easy to see that the Bartletts and Fanthorpes of our time have only become possible through the influence of Larkin: but a Larkin stripped of those poetic resonances and vocal distinctions that were what made him so memorable; they are Larkin vulgarised. In a different poetic line one saw -- a few years back -- an analagous trend in Modernism when one compared the work of Pound with that of his imitators: he, too, was vulgarised by Poundians who left behind the imaginative Pound in performing their imitations.

The presence of the imagination at work among contemporary poets who could be said to have a fashionable following -- imagination as distinct from wit or fancy -- is perhaps seen best of all in Jeremy Reed. True, in much of his poetry, it frequently operates only at a purely descriptive level -- though it is description of amazing accuracy always -- nevertheless, imagination is an ever-present glow; and there is always the hint of that metaphysical penetration of phenomena which is one of the functions of imagination (another, as I have suggested, is inner revelation of spirit). One finds it, too, in Geoffrey Hill, in some of Ted Hughes, in the best of Heaney (though he, too, has a `flat' prose tendency at times) and, of course, in a powerfully elemental way it is present in the work of Peter Redgrove. But the point is that such poets -- and a number of others -- are writing a poetry that documents both world and imagination with the result that their language transcends the grammar, mood and diction (as well as raison d'être) of rational prose: which is what real poetry does and is.

NB: This essay, having been written in the previous decade before the present, takes no account of subsequent developments in contemporary British poetry. However though fresh `names' might now be brought in, were it to be revised, nothing has happened since the middle Eighties to alter its basic arguments.