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What, How Well, Why? : Michael Schmidt

StAnza Lecture, March 2006


Pitié pour nous qui travaillons aux frontières.


Nick Hornby in The Polysyllabic Spree comments, ‘We are never allowed to forget that some books are badly written; we should remember that sometimes they’re badly read, too.’ It’s this issue of reading – partial reading, facile reading, dismissive reading, pious reading, wrong reading, that I want to address. Please don’t imagine that I believe there is such a thing as a single reading of a poem, or even a right reading; but we all know that there can be wrong readings, seriously wrong readings, and that the space a poem makes in language is specific in certain ways about which we can agree, even if we don’t necessarily agree about what precisely that space contains, or how or why it contains it. We might also agree that reading is an acquired skill, and that when and how we acquire it, and from whom, is relevant to how we do it and to what we do with it.

I’d like also to introduce the words of the American critic Cornel West which my Glasgow colleague Professor Willy Maley drew to my attention. Cornel West is writing in an American context, but mutatis mutandis his words have a resonance for me in Britain: ‘I think for some of us the academy is a subculture of escape – and I’m not using escapism in a pejorative sense – but as an escape from the rampant anti-intellectualism in this country, the fear of critical sensibilities, democratic sensibilities, that is deeply ensconced within the parochialism and provincialism of the very people whom we often invoke.’

An early critic took Philip Larkin’s ‘Church Going’ to task: the ‘persona’ was inconsistent; he pretended to know less than he evidently knew, and the poem ended on an affirmation quite out of key and keeping with where it had set out from. How could a poem begin with, ‘Once I am sure there’s nothing going on, I step inside/Letting the door thud shut. Another church’ to the astounding stanza beginning, ‘A serious house on serious earth it is/In whose blent air’ etc. There was not much Larkin about in those days. Only later did it become clear that the essential thing about voices in Larkin’s longer and some of the shorter poems is that they change: beginning in resistance, a resolutely ironic stance, they develop in relation to experience and reach an understanding or a point from which understanding might be possible. They surprise a hunger in themselves to be more serious.

That early critic was clear headed, though he was proven wrong. One element in the by then stiffening legacy of modernism was the notion of the persona, the mask. The poet created a coherent and therefore a consistent mask. That was his task. The rictus grin of the comic mask, during performance, cannot change expression. You change expressions by changing masks, by changing roles, by changing voices. And it’s always a mistake to associate the voice of the poem with that of the poet. I learned this at school under the aegis of the New Criticism, using that wonderful anthology Understanding Poetry which highjacked three generations of American schoolchildren into a specific way of reading. We had the lines, ‘A poem should not mean/but be’ tattooed on our cortex. Had Philip Larkin been less a poet and harkened to his critic (G.S. Fraser, I think it was, writing in Critical Quarterly) he would have become, well, other than he did. Fraser compared him, disadvantageously, with Thom Gunn whose thematic overload he contrasted with the philosophical and emotional enervation of Larkin’s Church Goer.

Persona, voice: the critical predilection, the convention of one age gradually gives way to that of the next. A change was occurring in the culture of reception even as Larkin, and Fraser, were writing, one inside the poem, the other outside. Larkin was breaking new ground, and Fraser was trying to fit this new ground on to the old map. Fraser’s willingness to engage, his sense of something stirring, his courage in risking judgement is salutary, evidence of a living engagement between the reader and the new text. One of my favourite reviews of all time is Edward Thomas’s of Pound’s Personae in 1909. In it he noted that Pound wrote an English in which it seemed that Shakespeare had never existed, a language swept clear of the semantic encumbrances and associations of the long tradition, fresh and new minted. And he added, with due humility, even apologetically, that he had no critical language for dealing with this new poetry, that a critical language would need to be devised for describing and appraising it. Gordon Bottomley, that honourable, pompous Georgian and little-Englander, was to argue Thomas out of his enthusiasm, but Thomas as a reviewer had caught the whiff of Modernism and had not stopped his nose against it.

This is the sort of criticism that follows the creative act, that responds to and registers it, that communicates, to the poet, to the general reader, an informed and considered view. The best critics are those who are willing to follow their judgement rather than merely their taste, who are as it were led by judgement rather than by taste. Two anecdotes. Ernst Gombrich sent his students to the V&A to view the Raphael cartoons. All but one handed in their assignments. She said she didn’t want to write about them because she didn’t like them. ‘I asked you to write about the Raphael cartoons, not about yourself,’ he said, and sent her to complete the assignment. He required that self-effacement from his students that I as a teacher ask of mine, and that as an editor and publisher I crave from the general reader. It is the old Coleridgean formula: when you want to understand a work ask first what it’s setting out to do, then ask how well it achieves its aim, and finally, only finally, whether it was worth doing. That last question admits the ‘I’.

The other anecdote puts Picasso in the frame with an American GI at the end of the Second World War. The soldier says he dislikes Picasso’s kind of art with its distortions and stylisations and dislocations. ‘What sort of art do you like?’ asked Picasso. The GI pulled out a photograph of his girlfriend and presented it to the artist, who gazed at it and asked, ‘Is she really this small?’ It is about the conventions we are prepared to accept, about conventions so ingrained that we do not recognise them as such; it is about becoming conscious of them, of what is conventional, and understanding why, and what that convention includes and excludes.

Criticism sets out to clear a space for what is new and unexpected, what may be difficult or (as in the case of Thomas’s welcome to Robert Frost’s work) deceptively simple. Marianne Moore continued to admire in Elizabeth Bishop, even after things cooled between them, the originality she had admired and encouraged critically from the outset: ‘Some authors do not muse within themselves; they "think" ­-- like the vegetable-shredder which cuts into the life of a thing. Miss Bishop is not one of these frettingly intensive machines. Yet the rational considering quality in her work is its strength --­ assisted by unwordiness, uncontorted intentionalness, the flicker of impudence, the natural unforced ending. Hers is an art which’ (she quotes a poem of Bishop’s) ‘cuts its facets from within’. Often criticism has to praise what is not: all those ‘un-‘s’ have a Hardyesque, or a Housmanesque feel.

In all these instances, there was a culture of reception in which original achievement and change could be registered. There was a complex and diverse review culture, something which is only just being redeveloped now thanks to the web and to excellent on-line journals such as Jacket, coming to supplement the old stalwarts and replace the journals that have folded. A culture of reception, it seems to me, is public, not contained within the academy, though academics and theorists are welcome to contribute to it. Terry Eagleton in Stand was one of the best, most consistent, severe and generous, of the critics of new poetry I encountered when I first came to Britain. Another was the Guardian’s Martin Dodsworth. It is through the culture of reception that interested general readers find out about new books or rediscover old, writers see themselves reflected, recognisably, unrecognisably... We are talking ‘reader development’ in an early sense, appraisal and judgement intended not to sell the idea of reading, and therefore always recommending, but to make sure that new works and editions are valued, that the factitious, meretricious and merely conventional are identified as such. That culture has value only if it is informed and sets out to inform; if it takes positive and negative risks, and if it is willing to risk giving offence in the interests of truth, for example, to insist on the quality of, say, Geoffrey Hill’s sometimes resistant work, in the face of three decades’ neglect and misevaluation. Poetry’s mere cheerleaders do the art more harm than good. They are in a way the real censors because they discourage engagement, shrouding the poem in good will.

That culture of neglect and misevaluation was a curious one. I put it in the past tense because I want to believe it is passing. It was a culture in which weakness was made to look like strength; narrow-mindedness and worse, narrowing-mindedness, praised themselves as common sense and were made to seem decisive, to cut the crap, to speak ‘with respect’. They forgot, as we are beginning to remember, that the sense that makes poetry is anything but common. Ignorance is never enabling, nor is a little learning.

The culture of reception is of course never single, thank goodness. The critical diversity that greeted Modernism was healthy, from the extreme rejections to the extreme advocacies, from Arthur Waugh to Ezra Pound. Reaction against Modernism continued and continues, with increasing stridency here and abroad, suggesting that it was a dreadful mistake, a long detour (by way of America) and a distraction from a fundamentally British way. The compass was set in that direction decisively by some fine poets, among them A.E. Housman.

Housman expressed his public attitude to poetry most fully in a lecture, ‘The Name and Nature of Poetry’, delivered in Cambridge in 1933. Housman was male, and white, an academic and a great classical scholar. But he was also hostile, intensely so, to the new poetry and to those things in which it declared itself to be rooted, and so he spoke for much of Britain then, and now. That is why he, and Philip Larkin, white, male, a university employee, are so often called as witnesses in the case against Modernism and its kinds of critical engagement.

Such criticism paints clothes on the naked emperor, they argue; it understands and therefore forgives all that is new and experimental; most of all, such criticism, because it is, or pretends to be, subtle, discredits, devalues, misvalues, or worst, ignores work that is conventional, mainstream, that appeals to the market.

What we must trust, Housman insists, is our instincts, which are, of course, in his view at least, genuine, unconditioned, fresh; which are value-free in a singularly Rousseauvian sense. Just as we must not turn the dark probe of criticism on that bright, vulnerable object, the poem, so we must not turn it on the reader either, because that might darken the spontaneity and physicality of his response, it might suggest that taste be tempered or re-directed by judgement, for if it isn’t it tends to atrophy, and a comfortable, terrible conservatism can be born.

Housman condemned the ‘difficult’ poetry of the Metaphysicals, back in vogue at the time, and by implication discredited the new poetry of the twentieth century. Poetry was for him less an intellectual than a physical experience, and it seems that the intellectual faculties had little part to play in taking or registering the effect of a poem. He was a prime specimen of the literary Manichee, a marvellous and deliberate technician within specific elegiac and lyrical modes, with a limited thematic range and a plangency which touches anyone’s heart. His work is back-lighted, that is to say, all of its tropes, its generic and technical resources, have classical authority. Like Thomas Gray he was a master-pasticheur who also happened to be a master. His roots were in Greek literature, like Pound’s and H.D.’s, but he was a wholly different sort of plant.

The poetry that he approved took hold of him, engaged him, at a level he could not, or rather, would not, intellectually plumb. A poem’s effect had to do with music, rhyme and emotional direction, not with teasing out meaning.

Poetry indeed seems to me more physical than intellectual. A year or two ago, in common with others, I received from America a request that I would define poetry. [ America is the source of much irritation of this kind, to be sure.] I replied that I could no more define poetry than a terrier can define a rat, but that I thought we both recognised the object by the symptoms which it provoked in us. One of those symptoms was described in connexion with another object by Eliphaz the Temanite: “A spirit passed before my face: the hair of my flesh stood up.” Experience has taught me, when I am shaving of a morning, to keep watch over my thoughts, because, if a line of poetry strays into my memory, my skin bristles so that the razor ceases to act. This particular symptom is accompanied by a shiver down the spine; there is another which consists in a constriction of the throat and a precipitation of water to the eyes; and there is a third which I can only describe by borrowing a phrase from one of Keats’s last letters, where he says, speaking of Fanny Brawne, “everything that reminds me of her goes through me like a spear”. The seat of this sensation is the pit of the stomach.

Most of us would probably concur that what Philip Larkin calls the ‘lift-off’ point in a poem, if it has one, can provoke one of these three localised effects, though we might wish to add several others: a shaking of the sides with comic poetry, a sexual stirring, in other contexts. There are many others. The poet Laura Riding helped Michael Roberts compose the introduction to the definitive anthology of its time, the Faber Book of Modern Verse. They insisted there that ‘the poetic use of language can cause discord as easily as it can cure it. A bad poem, a psychologically disordered poem, if it is technically effective may arouse uneasiness or nausea or anger in the reader.’ Here are some more effects to add to Housman’s list, bad ones as well as good. A poem can have actual consequences for readers. A poem can make something happen.

Housman’s theories --­ or prejudices --­ answered a deep prejudice in his audience. They signify primarily as they relate to his own verse and the classical work he liked best, but his admirers gave them wider credence. Here was an unanswerable, because instinctive and unanalysable, case against those rebarbative experiments that threatened the coherence and continuity of English poetry. The young critic I. A. Richards, who was unfortunately also white and male, and an academic, left the lecture muttering, ‘Housman has put the clock back thirty years!’ White male academics always mutter, of course.

I am grateful to the organisers of the StAnza Festival for their kind invitation to me to lecture here. It was certainly unexpected. I was among those alluded to by last year’s lecturer (a white male from south of the border, and a Doctor of Letters to boot) as a species of enemy of poetry. I am white, male, Oxford-educated, from south of two borders, an academic, an editor and publisher, guilty on all counts, and I have believed (and laboured the point) that poetry thrives, genuinely thrives, only in a culture in which criticism is practised in public, where dialogue is exercised (that’s one aspect of the ‘democratic sensibility’ to which Cornel West referred), in particular the kinds of dialogue and criticism that open or keep clear the spaces into which the imagination can move and which resist the forces that try to occupy those spaces with something else, for example with commercial, or political, or ideological ends in view.

Having been included among the ‘poetry police’, a figure of repression, I come to you today as a gamekeeper turned gamekeeper, though I will tell you, with profound disappointment, since it removes much of the excitement from my law-enforcing tasks, that most of those who pretend to be poachers are no such thing, and that those who cry out against vested interests often themselves have -- vested interests.

At the time, thirty five years ago, that I was establishing the magazine PN Review, I was still close to the Mexican literary scene in which I grew up. It was a period of intellectual questioning and liberalisation in Latin America, the tight fist of a cultural Marxism or Stalinism that insisted on a narrow national focus, strict solidarity between writers, and on affirmative and realist art, was loosening its hold. Latin American Modernists were beginning to be read again, and Octavio Paz was beginning to be dug out from under the opprobrium with which Pablo Neruda and others had darkened him. Literary culture was deeply politicised, as how could it not be with so large and sinister a neighbour to the North, and it had resisted interrogating Stalinism for fear (understandable if not honourable) of appearing complicit with reactionary or American interests. It was specifically Paz’s early essay on the Gulag, published in Victoria Ocampo’s magazine Sur in Buenos Aires, that had so offended Neruda. Poet and essayist, Octavio Paz was a long-serving diplomat who knew writers from across the globe and was steeped in the literature of the present and past, east and west. He had given up his diplomatic post at the time of the Olympic Massacre in Mexico in 1968. He edited the magazine Plural and, when that was closed by a combination of state and commercial censorship, he opened a new magazine called Vuelta or Return. Paz insisted, from his classic anthropological study The Labyrinth of Solitude onwards, that Mexicans needed to know who they were, where their culture had come from, how they were perceived from abroad, how theirs fit in among the wider cultures of Latin America and the world. He wanted Mexican writers to be part of the larger discourse of the day. ‘Criticism,’ he insisted, ‘is the beginning of freedom of imagination.’ This was no pious credo in a country where such freedom had been limited for years, though the great tradition of public mural painting had become established and certain practitioners of the plastic arts had prospered (though others had starved or emigrated).

Paz meant that a reader, as much as a writer, needs to be aware of what the limiting ‘decorums’, if we may call them that, of the age are. The eighteenth century had stylistic decorums, rules about which registers of language, what fields of reference, were appropriate for different genre. We have decorums of a different kind; if we identify them we become aware of what we are accepting without reflection, what we are choosing, what we are complicit with, and what that complicity entails, and excludes. Some of the modern decorums are political, some aesthetic, some sexual, some ethnic. What spaces are considered legitimate for the writer to work in? Why have they been developed and defined, and where and how can the writer usefully transgress them? To take examples less remote than Mexico, when Eavan Boland began writing in Ireland, she declares, it was possible to have a political murder in a poem but not a baby. Whole areas of experience – gendered and not – and areas of memory were excluded, and her creative endeavour necessarily entailed an enabling critical endeavour.

Her experience is analogous to Eliot’s and Pound’s in making space in Britain and Ireland for renewal in writing, and to Adrienne Rich’s. In short, a writer might be expected to be aware of the decorums, imposed from without, or inertly there; or imposed from within, as in the case of Allen Ginsberg, self censoring his work before Howl out of a reticence about coming out to his father. What the authorities – parents, editors, critics, the police, the funding bodies who are subsidising the writers themselves or the means of production, what the censors, the church, and readers themselves -- might expect, are things best understood so that they can be allowed for or resisted. I am talking of the agora here, the market place in the wider sense that it had before it was so thoroughly deculturised in the 1970s and 1980s, when economics decisively displaced politics and politics displaced aesthetics. Or so it can seem. That period is closer than it should be, and I mean closer in more than just a chronological sense. Its values have affected, even corrupted, the language of teaching and the expectations of institutions and individuals. The last time I saw Malcolm Bradbury at a conference at UEA, he was reflecting ruefully on the way in which a programme created to give writers and would-be writers a space in which to experiment, learn about and further their craft had become decisively ‘outcome-orientated’, the chief outcome being to feed work into a publishing industry with very specific requirements and markets. The outcome orientation naturally affected recruitment decisions, as in any business.

What does this have to do with poetry? Everything, I would say, in the short and the long term, if we want a grown up readership for poetry, able and willing to tell a hawk from a handsaw, and if we want our poets to develop and grow without pollarding, trellising, pruning, grafting, we need a diverse and vigorous culture of reception.

W.H. Auden understood what the pressures on a writer can be when that culture of reception becomes unitary and coercive, and how it is necessary if one is to grow to make tracks. In 1939 he emigrated to the United States, leaving his admirers and their over-insistent politics behind. What marks the Auden who obtained his freedom is a refusal to conform, to come down from his brilliant linguistic and cultural perch, to trim. What is a highbrow? he asks in an early piece. ‘Someone who is not passive to his experience but who tries to organise, explain and alter it, someone in fact, who tries to influence his history: a man struggling for life in the water is for the time being a highbrow. The decisive factor is a conflict between the person and his environment…’ That conflict occurs in art; it also occurs in criticism.

‘Poetry is not concerned,’ Auden says, ‘with telling people what to do, but with extending our knowledge of good and evil, perhaps making the necessity for action more urgent and its nature more clear, but only leading us to the point where it is possible for us to make a rational and moral choice.’ Poetry is still instrumental; and that word rational is there, virtually synonymous with moral.

The criticism I quoted at the beginning of this lecture is specific and local, but is also evidence of adjustment, of growth, of education in its etymological sense of leading on, leading away, leading forward. Underpinning such criticism are attitudes of mind, value systems, strata in which inertia is the rule. And in penetrating and understanding, and undermining, those strata criticism plays a crucial part. If those strata remain undisturbed, a great conformity can be seen to settle on a culture, a conformity of a kind which some believe may already be with us today in ways we ought to register, to resist if we can, or to wave a white flag and surrender. I’d like to consider some of the decorums, the received ideas, under which we labour as readers and poets, as teachers and editors. I will advance obliquely because the subjects are treacherous and I am a vulnerable critical specimen being male, academic etc.

1. Pluralism and Multiculturalism

I have a great deal of time for political correctness. It usually begins in places where there are things that need correcting, and often the locus for these things is language with its inbuilt and inbred prejudices. But sometimes those concerned with issues of correctness mis-analyse and misdefine, creating new errors and distractions which subsequently need correction.

When Michael Hamburger described Pound and Eliot as ‘Americans at odds with the pluralism of their own native culture,’ he got it quite wrong. It was the drab assimilativeness of that culture that they were at odds with, an assimilativeness which over the last two decades we have endeavoured to reproduce in Britain. The multiculturalisms of Modernism or modernisms, from the anthropological adventures of Lawrence and Joyce to the deliberately non-assimilative strategies of Pound and Eliot, of Hugh MacDiarmid and David Jones, their fascination with the values and truths of other cultures and their refusal to appropriate or ‘translate’ that otherness, are a manifest of cultural pluralism generally despised because it insists on the unfamiliar and seems thus to be ‘elitist’: those chunks of Greek, Chinese, Sanskrit, Welsh and Lallans, the differentiated speech of Madame Sosostris, Thomas Jefferson, the Black GI, Old Possum, Brutus and the shipwright. I for one prefer the sense of Persia and Japan that I get from Bunting, or of Russia that I get in the powerful translations of MacDiarmid and Morgan into Scots, to the more accommodating and accommodated assimilations of Hughes, for example. Applying familiar templates to the unfamiliar is a Colonial and Imperial strategy; it was the Modernists who refused to play that game, celebrating the irreducible otherness of the other. To speak of Eliot’s ‘allusions’ to the Sanskrit, for example, is to give The Waste Land short shrift. The Sanskrit elements are not there in a decorative spirit; they are there because of the complementarity that other culture, which Eliot sought to understand because it might provide a stability against the tottering instabilities of post-War Europe, though Eliot found himself finally excluded from those consolations by his own karma, as it were.

2. Politics

In the marketplace poetry is required to have a conscience, to evince a conscience, and often conscience of a specific kind in relation to 9/11, to the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, to nuclear power and other issues.

Book blurbs are an index of the proprieties of conscience, applying familiar templates to a variety of disparate works. Jon Silkin’s Stand magazine anthology was entitled ‘Poetry and the Committed Individual’, a sound-bite manifesto. Tom Paulin’s Penguin Book of Political Verse consisted almost entirely of poetry from the Left. Valentine Cunningham’s Penguin Book of Spanish Civil War poetry consisted largely of English poets, most of them from the right, that is to say the left, side.

In objecting to Anglophone Modernists, we generally, and understandably, object to what we see as their politics, and it is the case that in Lewis and Pound, as in a different way in Eliot and Joyce and Yeats, in Lawrence and further afield, there was a tendency to project aesthetic categories on to the political screen, to envision an order in society congruent with the selection and stylisation of art. The romantic model, organic and individual, had been displaced by lucent geometries, and the values of humanism and individualism (apart from the individualism of the artist, whom they privileged) were not top of the Modernist list of priorities much of the time.

Compleynt, compleynt, I hearde upon a day
Artemis singing, Artemis, Artemis
Agaynst Pity lifted her wail:
Pity causeth the forests to fail,
Pity slayeth my nymphs,
Pity spareth so many an evil thing.
Pity befouleth April,
Pity is the root and the spring.
Now if no fayre creature followeth me
It is on account of Pity . . .

(opening of Canto XXX)

The great contemporary Irish poet Thomas Kinsella’s critical approach to such issues in Yeats is exceptional and enabling: yes, he concedes, there are problematic elements in ‘A Bronze Head’ and other pieces in Last Poems.  ’...Yeats’s “true” political position is readily ascertainable, but it is only one of the poem’s working parts.’ Having conceded that, he proceeds to consider what other working parts there are.

Certainly the aestheticisation of politics was a dreadful triumph of imagination, a triumph of Shelleyan proportions. In a later age, the defeat of imagination can look dreadful, too, when it loses its bearings and its energy, and analytical strategies that follow from politics annex the aesthetic realm. This equally disenables writers and readers; it closes down categories of reading, zones of formal experiment and endeavour.

Rob Rieman observes in his essay ‘Thomas Mann’s Sensible Time’, the first of his Three Essays on a Forgotten Idea, namely ‘the Nobility of Spirit’: ‘In a political world, art would undergo the same fate as morality. Art would be made inferior to an ideology. All art should be socially engaging, under punishment of becoming aestheticism’. Rieman adds, ‘[Mann] was convinced, to the contrary, that all great art does, in truth, have a moral value but that no moral intentions, no virtuosity [in the sense of ostentatious virtue], can be demanded of art.’ And he expands a passage that Mann quotes from Goethe: ‘Art [...] definitely has ethical value. But ethics is not the same as morality, nor as common decency or whichever politically derived moral. Art derives its ethical value solely from its aesthetic value...’

3. Voice

Laura Riding strongly criticised what must be the dominant decorum of the mainstream today, and certainly of the writing schools, the compulsion that each writer must find a voice, an inflection, a dialect, a way of speaking specific to the person, so that the writing has a voice-print that is sincere and recognisable. This cultivation of eccentricity, or this refusal to agree that there is a centre in which discourses meet, a communion, is a deep-rooted prejudice marked by a politics of individualism. Laura Riding suggested that the voice that matters is that of Wordsworth’s ‘a man (or woman) talking to men (and women)’ rather than ‘this particular man (or woman)’ talking to men (and women). The deliberate self-individuation of her contemporaries repelled her: their
writing put personality before language in a spirit of self-display. The poem became, even on the page, merely performance; the freedoms Larkin earned for the voice in time, for the changing and changeable voice, were first exaggerated and then systematised.

Poems generally come more out of an engagement with language, and with poetry, than with life; life provides occasions, but what matters in the end is less the grain of sand than the pearl itself. Frederic Raphael, trailing a very long coat, says ‘Sincerity is the thumb-print of the amateur.’ This is not to say that integrity is de trop: integrity and sincerity in art are quite distinct and even at times inimical categories.

4. The past in its relation to the present

Eliot’s essay Tradition and the Individual Talent remains a point of reference, but what it proposes is preached and taught against both inside and outside the academy. The Bergsonian, and the Proustian, notion of our inseparability from the past, the theory, or perception, of durée, might be reaffirmed. What we are includes, and depends upon, what we have been; what we have been can be changed not in pattern but in meaning by what we become. Life by the chronological clock versus life by values. Not to know what we are made of is not to know who we are, is possibly to fall victim to what we are made of. The poet who refuses to read other poetry for fear of being influenced has been influenced and will write without knowing how derivative the work is, for the ear is not innocent and memory is a faulty filter.

5. Subjection

Today the wannabe poet progresses like the academic, the civil servant, the manager, up a series of marked steps to become a member of the fraternity and sorority of Published Poets. The obedience such an ascent requires can be at odds with the very principles of the art. It is an art of speculation not in the old sense but entirely in the new, speculating on the prize, the publisher, the public -- poetry has become as keen to embrace the main chance as the basest prose.

MacDiarmid, MacLean, MacCaig, Morgan, Crichton Smith Lochhead and others represented to me a core but diverse Scottish tradition, certain of its place and therefore confident to entertain the other, building out and where it could over, towards Europe and the Americas and Asia, back and forward in time; recognising the elements in and of their tradition as enabling them to effect these endeavours of transcendence. In my own back yard, they seemed to say, realising how commodious that back yard is, how different from the tidied back yard of the neighbour to the south, with which they share elements of language. One of the reasons I wanted to come to Scotland to teach was that I had the impression of a culture quite distinct from the English culture in which, or against which I had worked, for thirty-odd years. I imagined that here hostility to Modernism and post-Modernism, categories enormously diverse and rich and embracing a number of Scotland’s greatest practitioners, would be less insistent than in England where it seemed to me to be a manifestation of a fear of culture. But that old defensive insularity has infected much of the larger nation, as if the process of eighteenth-century self-colonisation so brilliantly evoked by Robert Crawford in his 1992 study Devolving English Literature, had revived. Larkin’s tones, ironies, dismissive asides, displace not only MacDiarmid but MacLean, MacCaig and Graham and Morgan. The dying fall is applauded. Modernism and post-Modernism are dismissed in aphorisms. The literal and the banal are privileged. As for the sublime, talk to the hand. Such gestures of rejection magnify figures no larger than those in the photographs which the American GI shared with Picasso.

Surely we can, without necessarily being academic, but using imagination, distance ourselves from excesses committed almost a century ago, and also perhaps put a little distance between ourselves as writers, demand a little less solidarity, a little less local backslapping, more debate and engagement, at the same time giving the reader less of a condescending embrace? Down with the poetry cheerleaders, I say! Readers don’t need to be talked down to, some do not need to be sold on poetry. It’s possible to become impatient with the mundane sense of freedom that some writers are content to seek, the tackiness and short take of much of our reading culture, the condescension of our performance culture.

Poems, pace Housman, do not exhaust themselves in gooseflesh, a tear, or a tightening of the stomach. Housman’s poems themselves are not so readily spent. Robert Graves spoke out against what he called an ‘Age of Acquiescence’. Acquiescence is to be resisted, in particular acquiescence in the programme of market development pursued by those who believe poetry is a good, however good or bad the poems are.

We live in a nation of countless poets and a strictly limited number of poetry readers; we have a great critical tradition from which we are licensed to avert our gaze as from something stuffy, musty, disabling. Yet almost all the critics I have quoted from in this lecture are poets, and not one of them has been less than deeply engaged in the art and the issues, artistic, political and other, that surround it. All of them are, as critics and publishers and editors and teachers, members of the dreaded police you heard about last year, and their patrol is edifying, sustaining, challenging. To chide them for their colour, gender, education, is as much as to silence them for being who they are. One is put in mind of Ring Lardner’s quip: ‘Shut up, he explained.’ Lardner also had this advice for the young story-writer, which also applies to a starting poet: ‘ A good many young writers make the mistake of enclosing a stamped, self-addressed envelope, big enough for the manuscript to come back in. This is too much of a temptation to the editor. ’


A poet, novelist, literary historian and translator, Michael Schmidt is the founder of Carcanet Press and Professor of Poetry at Glasgow University.


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