And poppy or charms can make us sleep as well


i.m. Alison Stoddart (1980–2012)

It’s a sign of the full force and audacity of the Modernists (I’m using this term, slackly perhaps, both for the writers themselves and for their institutionalisation via Kenner and the rest) that, even now, and after all of what’s been, theirs are the lines I reach for in self-justification.

Poetry has, over the last three decades at least, seen a calamitous decline in its public standing and importance but is still, in certain moments of personal or public significance, the kind of ‘memorable speech’ people reach for to register seriousness and reflection. And it’s here that problems begin. Modernism taught many of us – and by taught I mean the usual introspection and nodding along in a bedroom to no-one in particular, and not last century’s cultural followings-on – that Thematic Significance was precisely what we were avoiding.

‘It is the presentation of such a “complex” instantaneously which gives the sense of sudden liberation; that sense of freedom from time limits and space limits; that sense of sudden growth, which we experience in the greatest works of art.’ Pound’s claim sounds right to me, and still useful, almost a century on. This is the practice of writing that scorns rhyme as an aid to memory and ‘messages’ as the small change of the prosaic. Poems exist, much as sculptures or symphonies do, and not at all like advertising jingles or street signs. Instead of being the ‘vehicle’ for some claim or other, the language of a poem works hard at being itself and performing as a piece of language. One doesn’t, unless a member of the League of Rights, read the Pisan Cantos to brush up on the causes of the global financial crisis.

A familiar story, so far, but one that’s given me great pleasure through the years: without having learnt that this was a defence one could muster I doubt I’d have been able to persist in enjoying, but not ‘understanding’, Moore (‘I, too, dislike it’!), Zukofsky, Ashbery, Smithyman. Marxism has, since the mid-century at least, perhaps surprisingly – and certainly in sharp contrast to all those terrible things They say about us – taken form over content as its organising concern in literary criticism. The ‘ideologies of form’ come not from whatever poets happen to be saying but how they’re not able to say it. There’s a political possibility in this too, and Jacob Edmond has written persuasively on how the ‘iterative poetics’ of poets like Charles Bernstein and Vanessa Place arranges material so a heightened sense of its echoes and order extends political understanding.

Something is lost, however, along with the self-confidence and patience these apologetics bring with them, and nervousness about messages, Great Themes and their vulgarity proves as limiting as any Victorian didacticism. The most obvious contrast here is with those moments of poetic occasion that fill memorial columns, as people turn to rhyming to celebrate wedding anniversaries, announce family members’ birthdays, or otherwise mark special occasions. These pieces of verse share at most a ‘family resemblance’ with what we want to call poetry, but family traits are notorious for being hard to escape. Some sort of connection between patterned or rhymed words and occasion persists, and persists despite popular song’s clear cultural elevation over poetry in most other settings. (One great loss, incidentally, of the ‘last days of print journalism’ Jonathan Green dissects in Overland is the demise of these columns: Facebook is all very well for one’s friends’ life markers, but what will announce one’s enemies’ births, deaths, and marriages?)

Besides, what’s wrong with the didactic? It’s an odd – and oddly emaciated and desperate – literary politics that pitches its strategic case around uselessness as a virtue. After all, the sermon, as Terry Eagleton has pointed out, is one of the most enduring and successful literary forms in the European tradition.

There’s nothing wrong with learning, especially if we remember Brecht’s dictum that pedagogy needs turned into a great sensual delight. One of my favourite poems does service as a perfectly decent recipe:

How could the warm, shady womb contain
These vociferous twins, one wanting
To sing about flying, the other wanting to sing
About singing, how can the green pepper not
Split and spill its bellyfull of plump arborio,
How can the house not loose its young
Dogs into the street where, full of wine
And Sunday’s big pot of dolmade, they seem
To hesitate a little, to look back at the lights
Of the house and someone waving as the door shuts?

There’s a whole leftist case around redeveloping and rethinking the tradition of rhetoric I’m drawing on here: Lentriccia’s After the New Criticism, Catherine Belsey’s Critical Practice and Eagleton’s Function of Criticism are all due a new audience. As far as the ear and sound and poetics go, though, the alternate line seems to have run through Auden, who managed to combine chatty, improvisatory, after-school talk with formal density and ‘sudden illumination’ in the high-camp, brilliant – and still undervalued – achievements of his last decades: ‘to “borrow” stamps / Is a mark of ill-breeding.’

Auden’s thinking in those last years isn’t exactly congenial to the stance of this journal, and I’ve no wish to explain it away. But there’s something in his method of sounding that suggests a way out of the impasse between the potential sterility of a poetry working on its riddles and charms as self-delighting ends in themselves, and the kitsch and finger-wagging of the memorial and the ‘political verse’. Thom Gunn, in the Auden line, presses the two together until his achievement makes them inseparable. This is my favourite poem from The Man With Night Sweats (1992):

About ten days or so
After we saw you dead
You came back in a dream.
I’m alright now you said.

And it was you, although
You were fleshed out again:
You hugged us all round then,
And gave your welcoming beam.

How like you to be kind,
Seeking to reassure.
And, yes, how like my mind
To make itself secure.

There’s the hint of an alienation effect in ‘fleshed out,’ or at the very least a reminder of the specificity of the tragedy of AIDS that won’t allow itself to be smoothed out into general material, but the sense of a mind trying to make itself secure seems aimed widely and generously enough.


I lost a very dear friend quite unexpectedly last week, and have spent the past few days stumbling around in the way people do in such situations. Back in my hometown for the funeral, I was sent away at one stage to find favourite and once-shared poems for later on. Some hours later, bent over a notebook in the library, it struck me what a kind gesture this request had been. Routines comfort, and preparing a bibliography produces, for an academic, feelings like what listening to a smoothly running and repaired engine must do for a motor mechanic.

All these half-forgotten and well-remembered poems gathered together, though, made me glad again of the stance that early exposure to the Modernists worked into habit: it is sound and image and their ‘sudden growth’ that make for me ‘a gauge to measure the unknown.’

We loved you, Alison, and will miss you. This was an attempt at a tribute, and a final comment, between us, anyway, in what will have to be an unfinished conversation.

A door
slams, a heavy wave, a door, the sea-floor shudders.
Down you go alone, so late, into the surge-black fissure.


I’ve quoted here from Ian Wedde’s ‘To Mount Victoria’, from The Commonplace Odes (Auckland University Press, 2001). Gunn’s poem is in his Collected Poems (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1994). The ‘gauge against to measure the unknown’ comes from Denis Glover’s Sings Harry, while the last lines are from Allen Curnow’s ‘You Will Know When You Get There’ (published in You Will Know When You Get There and many collections since then).

Dougal McNeill

Dougal McNeill teaches postcolonial literature and science fiction at Victoria University in Wellington, New Zealand. He also blogs at Nae Hauf-Way Hoose and is an editor of Socialist Review. He’s currently writing a book on politics, modernist literature and the 1926 General Strike in Britain. He tweets as @Lismahago.

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  1. Interestingly, theirs are the lines I reach for in self-justification as a fiction writer, though I wonder if there’s not also an element of yearning for a time when the literary – and the avant garde – held greater weight and meaning, emerging, as it did, into a more unified culture.

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