Music, above all

A Response to the Essay by Jon Corelis

What do I think of contemporary British poetry? In my lifetime there have been great poets, Eliot, MacDiarmid, Yeats, Sorley MacLean, Lowell and Auden. What is a great poet? A great poet exerts instant authority over readers; generally speaking he is also technically expert and often innovative.
I was reading Eliot when at university many years ago; I did a parody of him in the Aberdeen University newspaper Gaudie. I wrote an article on the use of the word ‘the’ in Auden’s poetry as in “the endearment and the look” and the famous “the heel on the finishing blade of grass”. What was it I liked in Eliot’s poetry? To a great extent it was the music, though many people do not think of him as a musical poet. But though he is difficult – and certainly was then before the critical articles had grown into a mountain – I sensed the music. It is there in ‘The Hollow Men’ which was one of my favourite poems and of course in ‘Ash Wednesday’ and in ‘Marina’. It is not the music of Tennyson (who, Auden thought, was the stupidest of English poets to which Eliot riposted that if Auden had been a greater scholar he could have thought of many more stupid). It is a new music, as there is sometimes a new music in Pound.
That is what we need, a new music. Not a new imagery but a new music. Aristotle said that you could recognise a genuine poet by his metaphors, but I feel more and more that the really innovative poet is recognised by the music he brings into his work.
This brings me to Sorely MacLean who preferred Yeats to Eliot. And indeed there is a wonderful music in Yeats’ early poetry. MacLean himself went back to the fine anonymous 15th and 16th century songs which he said were better than the ballads. They too have fine imagery but naturally they have music. And it is this music that one finds in MacLean’s work. But it is a new music correspondent to new themes. This music is the music of the great love poems; MacLean’s poetry does not have the melancholy of some Gaelic poetry because the models he took were realistic. Much of his poetry has the glitter of the poetry of Duncan Ban Macintyre and others. His best poetry is his love poetry and many references come to mind, such as Deirdre and Naoise and Maud Gonne and William Ross’s fatal love. MacLean referred to the “dry, mean way” of Eliot and Auden. Maybe he was thinking more in a political than in a poetic context.
For Auden too has this music as for instance in ‘Lay Your Sleeping Head, My Love’, probably addressed to a sailor. Technically Auden can do anything. It was said of him that it was almost as if he was on a drug, so easy did the making of his poetry appear to him, whether it was love poetry, political poetry, philosophic or religious poetry. He seemed to have the unteachable knack of immortalising the everyday in an eternal form. His poetry has a music of its own, whether he is bringing the ballad up to date or writing his wonderful love poems. His favourite word seems to have been the word ‘lucky’. You are lucky if you have escaped a perverted ancestry or a terrible accident or “the long aunts” who cast a shadow over the garden. One remembers so much of Auden’s poetry, even his light verse. “Warm are the still and lucky miles”, he wrote. And “Lucky this point in time and space”. He is wise and incisive in his reading of his time. He is approachable, more so than Eliot. He is humorous and saw in an enormous palindrome that ‘T Eliot’ reads ‘toilet’ backwards. But he too like Eliot has his varied music, as had Yeats in the heavy slumberous poetry of his early work, and the different kind of music of his later work we hear in ‘That is no country for old men’ and in many other poems. We find it too in the early lyrics of MacDiarmid, as in “Mars is braw in crammasy” and in poems he translated in A Drunk Man Looks at the Thistle. MacDiarmid was aware of the importance of music and sought for it in the Celtic world. It seems to me impossible to be a great poet without this individual music.
Probably this is what I miss most in modern poetry. We have many poets and even ‘major’ poets as distinct from great poets. Many of the poems are private, often domestic. Few are public because we seem to have lost interest in dealing with major political issues. And yet Lowell, MacDiarmid, MacLean, Auden and Yeats all dealt with political issues. Eliot too created a parable of his own society in ‘The Waste Land’. Irish poets deal with political issues: even Heaney, who is really more akin to Keats than to Shelley, feels that he has to deal with political issues though sometimes in an analogic form as in ‘North’. I think modern poetry has to a great extent abandoned these heights.
The novel seems to have become more important than poetry. In the 40s and 50s in Scotland, the poets were more important than the novelists and were to be found in Edinburgh in particular pubs. Then the novelists became more important than the poets and were to be found in Glasgow at their word processors. Poetry now is not often reviewed, though the novel is. From Marquez to Kelman the novel is often more innovative than the poem and also more public. Many novelists deal with serious political issues as Massie and Marquez do. Poetry has become to a real extent a matter of nice little lyrics sometimes difficult because private. We have had some fine poets since the ones I have mentioned, Hughes particularly in his early and more recent phase, Larkin who has the music of Virgil and Tennyson, MacCaig, Morgan, Thom Gunn, R S Thomas and others.
It would be invidious to mention newer poets from among so many but Don Paterson has made an impact on me because he is technically ambitious and a curious mixture of the streetwise and the scholar. There are others whose poetry I like but I feel that poetry itself is in danger of extinction unless it becomes more ambitious, less private, probably less domestic and arrives at its own music. It is possible that Eliot was too hermetic. Auden is more accessible though he remains a great poet. Lowell made himself more accessible, more political. MacDiarmid was certainly political.
I come back again to the concept of the great poet. Neruda, Williams, all these writers are set firmly in their own time. But in every case they have also created their own music. One hears it even in translations of Neruda, one hears it in ‘Paterson’. We have turned too much to the image as the sign of the innovative, though in actual fact true originality lies in the music which more than the image is the sign of a new consciousness. Time and time again we hear this new music in the great poets. Tom Scott used to cite his own definition: “poetry is verse that sings”. Let us hope that it will return, and that we will have once again a poet as wonderful as Auden or MacDiarmid at his best or MacLean or Yeats. As I have said it is not a superficial music, it is a music which is deeply intertwined with subject matter and language. It is what MacLean means when he talks of the “exhalations” from the great songs. It is what he recognised in Milton, the opening lines of whose ‘Paradise Lost’ he translated into Gaelic at a time when Eliot was seeing him as a barrier to the thought as real as a rose which he found in Donne.

Published 21 April 1999
Original in English
First published by Eurozine

© Contrubuted by Chapman / Eurozine

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