Where Poetry Flows

Posted on July 12, 2015 in Essays

My compass keeps avoiding all the facts
To find that South is its magnetic mover.
(Walcott, A Map of the Antilles)

Auden’s dictum ‘For poetry makes nothing happen’ is familiar and often contested. Less well remarked is how the passage continues – ‘it survives / In the valley of its making where executives / Would never want to tamper, flows on south …’

I was reminded of this association of poetry with non-utility and the non-executive, and of both with ‘south’, when I read Michael Collins’s fascinating piece on ‘John Ormond in Tuscany’ (PW 35, 4). Ormond published his first volume of poems in 1943, and soon after burned everything he had written. It was a visit to Tuscany in 1963 which, in his own words, ‘broke the blockage that had kept me virtually silent for too many years’ and led to his writing ‘Cathedral Builders’ in ‘twenty minutes flat’. Thereafter, Ormond visited the small town of Cortona every summer to drink the white wine and write poetry. At home, he was a television man, an executive of sorts. In Cortona he felt able, in his Puccini-derived Italian, to declare ‘Sono poeta’.

Auden’s ‘south’ remained somewhere where poetry flowed, but with increasingly raffish associations. Eighteen years after ‘In Memory of W.B. Yeats’, he wrote ‘Good-Bye to the Mezzogiorno’, in which he ran through the contrasts. The choice was between, on the one hand, ‘a gothic North, the pallid children / Of a potato, beer-or-whisky / Guilt culture …’, and on the other ‘a sunburnt otherwhere / of vineyards, baroque, la bella figura’ etc. It was ‘doubtful’ that amore was better and cheaper down south, and ‘false’ that sunlight was lethal to germs. He found it strange never to see an ‘only child engrossed / In a game it has made up’, or to find ‘Cats are called cat and dogs either / Lupo, Nero or Bobby’. But given that ageing was ‘a question / the South seems never to raise’, Italy was indubitably the home of a language of ‘beautiful sounds’, of ‘a landscape less populated’, of a style of dining which ‘puts us to shame’, and of endlessly resonant myths. The problem, in this witty, visibly much worked-on poem, was that ‘To “go southern”, we spoil in no time, we grow / Flabby, dingily lecherous, and / Forget to pay bills’.

Paying one’s debts is, of course, something of a theme in Auden:

Every farthing of the cost,
All the dreaded cards foretell,
Shall be paid, but from this night
Not a whisper, nor a thought,
Not a kiss nor look be lost.

Love, beauty, poetry are registered on some kind of balance sheet, with those ‘executives’ calling the ultimate shots. As he writes again in ‘Ischia’, ‘nothing is free, whatever you charge shall be paid.’ Those formal, anachronistic shalls boom from Auden’s birthplace in the Quaker heartland of York, reinforcing the sense that all ‘sunburnt otherwheres’, however poetical, are in the end a self-indulgence. The Mezzogiorno poem ends with a blessing on ‘those / Who call it home’, but with an inevitable departure.

There is a large theme here, and several smaller ones. It’s worth pointing out that for Homer, on his archetypal Greek island, poetry’s elusive home lay westwards. The Hesperides were the lands where the sun went down. For the Greeks, this meant Italy; for the Romans, Spain; and for the Portuguese national poet Camões, it meant islands somewhere in the Atlantic. Poetry’s never-never-land is in endless retreat, though this linkage of poetry with sunset, and of sunset with death, illuminates Auden’s association of south with the running up of accounts. For Coleridge, in ‘Kubla Khan’ and elsewhere, poetry came dressed in distinctly eastern garb, the appropriate costume for opium dreams and the subconscious. Seamus Heaney has had a go at a poetry of North, of ‘violence and epiphany’, of ‘thick-witted couplings and revenges’. It warned him, he says, to ‘Lie down / in the word-hoard, burrow / the coil and gleam / of your furrowed brain. / Compose in darkness’. Quiescence is advisable. For, even in this north of ‘fabulous raiders’ and ‘the longship’s swimming tongue’, poetry makes nothing happen. ‘Expect aurora borealis / in the long foray / but no cascade of light’.

What happens, though, when the spaces run out? Those anonymous Africans, dancing on the banks of the River Congo in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness have become articulate characters in their own novels, with their own views on the colonial encounter. E.M. Forster’s Indians have their spokesmen in Narayan and Naipaul. Why bother with Larkins’ ‘Boys dream of native girls bringing breadfruit – whatever they may be’ when the real breadfruit sprouts green and priapic in the poetry of Derek Walcott? (In any case, the Hull nihilist was a librarian. Why couldn’t he look it up?)

Those once ‘blank’ spaces, once filled ‘with anthropopagi, or men whose heads do grow beneath their shoulders’, are now peopled with successful poets and storytellers speaking back from their own turf. In fact, of course, they always were and always did: the difference is that now they express themselves in forms we find accessible and can’t afford to ignore. Is this the reason why so many of our own home-grown poets now come with territorial labels attached? Irish? Huddersfield? Gay Brighton? Black Lesbian Glasgow? These agenda may appear anti-establishment. In practice, that battle was long won by Whitman, Soyinka, Les Murray and so many others. The concealed agenda is to stake a claim for limited talents in a suddenly over-populated world. And, of course, these labels have limited currency. You won’t get far by announcing yourself a white, male, heterosexual from Hounslow.

I was recently at a cultural studies ‘workshop’ – one of those clubs where academics masquerade as the old working class. A woman in her early twenties presented, with intelligence and humour, a paper based on her doctoral thesis. She was ‘researching’ T.V. chat shows, Parkinson, Kilroy, Ruby Wax and various others, and her theme was their percentage ratings on the scales of elitism, sexism and racism. Her hero was Kilroy, who scored high on political correctness: his audiences were ‘ordinary’ and he let them answer back. One way for me to react would have been with a sense of difference. Her world was not my world. But I felt an immense sadness, not unconnected to her wit and charm, that current university practice was leading her to waste four years of her life. Academically, the objection to her work was that she never asked the question why chat shows exist – who finances them, and why (and what are women doing watching Kilroy over a cup of tea, their husbands off to work, their children at school?). On a more serious, personal level, she was avoiding any challenge to her view of the world. Her topic had no potential to change her life. Her conclusions were pre-ordained. I wished she’d been studying Horace. Or Zulu praise songs. Or winners of the Victoria Cross. Something capable of ambushing her with surprise.

For me, south is the location of such disturbance. South is where the poetry flows, not because it’s where nothing happens, nor even because of the wine and sunshine (my south does not stop at the Mediterranean), but because it’s where I encounter the unexpected. Writing poetry is little different for me than the kind of scholarly activity that has taken me far from home – trying to fathom the roots of Naipaul’s genius, or of village life on the Zambesi River, or cannibal murders in Sierra Leone, or the world of the oral praise poet. I enjoy living with a slight edge of uncertainty – a wife agreeably different from myself, in a country I only partly know. Nothing drastic – certainly nothing so extreme as the British Council man met recently who found his new Lisbon posting far too tame (he was missing the gunfire in Bogata).

Which is why, despite those voices speaking up from the former blank spaces of the globe, there continues to be a poetry of south, or of the Hesperides, or of Xanadu, or the Viking north. But with the difference, that it’s no longer permissible to fill such spaces with your own dark desires and impulses. You can’t just sit in your opium-scented room and make it all up. You have to have been there, and have taken rather more than an informed look. Not the familiar presented, Martian-style, in unfamiliar light. But the unfamiliar assimilated, painfully if necessary.

I know this begs a hundred questions, about tradition and talent, about language and form, about the fact that some of the poets I most appreciate (Emily Dickinson, Jack Mapanje) are as locally rooted as John Clare. Poetry springs like babies from the least expected of couplings, and one celebrates its arrival where it will. But an awareness of ‘south’ caters for one perception not much represented in the intensely local poetic battles I’ve described. In Bruno Latour’s We have Never Been Modern, he refers to the ‘perfect symmetry’, invisible only in the rich Western democracies, between the fall of the Berlin wall and the sudden realisation that we all inhabit one, vulnerable planet:

“The various manifestations of socialism destroyed both their peoples and their ecosystems, whereas the powers of the North and the West have been able to save their peoples and some of their countryside by destroying the rest of the world and reducing its peoples to abject poverty. Hence a double tragedy: the former socialist societies think they can solve both their problems by imitating the west; the West thinks it is the sole possessor of the clever trick that will allow it to keep on winning indefinitely …”

This linkage of the Brandt Report with the priorities of the Green Movement is roughly the theme of Jonathan Bate’s splendid study The Song of the Earth (Picador, 2000, from which the above quotation is filched). Bate celebrates the end of ‘millennial puritanism’, the ‘new didactism’ in which texts were ‘interrogated’ with regard to ‘their allegiances of gender, race and class’. He calls instead for a poetry which keeps faith with the places, things and people we live among, and in a discussion of Rilke he remarks, ‘His attunement to earth was not synonymous with love of father-land. He could embrace the being of trees because he had no roots of his own.’

This is the sort of criticism that makes poetry flow.

First published Poetry Wales, January, 2001.