Download PDF Here
14th Anniversary Edition, Live Encounters Poetry & Writing Volume Six Nov-Dec 2023.
Intelligent thinking and Poetry, guest editorial by Thomas McCarthy.
I was in Dublin last Tuesday and in Doheny & Nesbits, a pub which is not very far either from Government Buildings or The Arts Council HQ, a very new reader of my own poetry handed me a copy of William Empson’s COLLECTED POEMS (Chatto and Windus, 1955, reprinted 1956). Empson was one of the most brilliant literary critics ever born, author of the hugely influential SEVEN TYPES OF AMBIGUITY and THE STRUCTURE OF COMPLEX WORDS. Sent down from Magdalene, Cambridge, after a packet of condoms was found in his rooms, he never wavered from his dedication to scholarship, with a mind that remained as vigorous as his young body must have been when he was an undergraduate. He was sure of the importance of poetry; his analysis of the sonnets of Shakespeare and the poems of John Donne is original and clairvoyant in its brilliance. His genius must have been a comfort to every isolated intellectual in mid-century England, as well as all the intellectuals in the far-flung British colonies of that era. His life was a reminder that when it comes to an analysis of poetry in the English mother tongue, England does produce the real thing, the authentic critic; over and over and in every generation. As with FR Leavis or Donald Davie, the thinking is profound and insightful and very carefully assembled.
But both Davie and Empson were poets, reasonably successful and respected poets;
respected even among poets.” Empson is the idol of undergraduates and dons at universities,” wrote John Betjeman in The Daily Telegraph, the sort of statement that makes the reader quite sure that it is Betjeman who’s the excluded one. When this COLLECTED POEMS that I was gifted in Doheny & Nesbits was published John Daven-port shared his enthusiasm on the BBC: “the publication of his COLLECTED POEMS is a literary event of first-rate importance.” Really? Did Davenport really mean that, or was he just drinking heavily before he came into the BBC recording studio? The fact is this: as thinker and linguist Empson was superb, but even his best poems leave a lot to be desired. Empson’s style as poet was the intellectual style, the style of poet as thinker, the poem as cognitive process.
You will find this style in any copy of Partisan Review or Virginia Quarterly Review or Hudson Review published between 1938 and 1968. You will even find it in Horizon or Irish Writing. Sometimes this style is pitifully copied, both tone and approach to material, in the earliest poems of John Montague or Anthony Cronin as the two poets strained after ‘the modern tone.’
Here is William Empson in ‘Plenum and Vacuum’ (p7):
‘Delicate goose-step of penned scorpions
Patrols its weals under glass-cautered bubble;
Postpones, fire-cinct, their suicide defiance,
Pierced carapace stung in mid vault of bell.
From infant screams the eyes’ blood-gorged veins
Called ringed orbiculars to guard their balls…..’
And here he is in ‘Doctrinal Point’ (p39):
‘The god approached dissolves into the air.
Magnolias, for instance, when in bud,
Are right in doing anything they can think of;
Free by predestination in the blood,
Saved by their own sap, shed for themselves,
Their texture can impose their architecture;
Their sapient matter is always already informed.’
The first poem above, with its ‘cautered,’ ‘orbiculars,’ and ‘cinct’ is hardly a verse intended for the general reader. It is not only a precise poetry, but the poetry of an inner knowing circle of academics. The word ‘cautered’ for example is not simply ‘cauterized’ but more ‘cauter,’ the root word that includes in its dictionary meaning both the idea of the searing of conscience and the burning away of false doctrine. The highly educated, Ph.D-level reader would understand this, but not the common reader in a Public Library. The word ‘orbiculars’ is more precisely anatomical, meaning not just rounded or spherical, but having an active sphincter-like function of closing apertures. The word ‘cinct’ is Medieval English, a word meaning both girdled and girded as well as encircled. As in the case of the magnolias in ‘Doctrinal Point’ the ‘sapient matter’ of the poem is ‘already informed.’
The poem here presumes the well-informed reader. And this is the limitation of such work, it is why the work, in general, can’t endure; and hasn’t endured. I was not surprised to find that this COLLECTED POEMS of Empson although of only 89 pages of poetry, contained 26 pages of ‘notes.’ The much later COMPLETE POEMS OF WILLIAM EMPSON, edited lovingly (no doubt) by John Heffenden, a book of a little over 500 pages that has 300 pages of ‘notes.’ This is simply ridiculous, and so self-serving that it is an embarrassment. Poetry needs to speak for itself, directly. It is not a cryptic crossword, and should never be. It is even worse to publish cryptic crosswords with hundreds of pages of disentangling notes appended. A poem is neither an instruction nor a seminar.
Now, it is generally accepted that poets are intelligent; the very process of making a poem, a complex verbal construct, seems to be a guarantor or certification of cogent thought. Interestingly, intelligence per se is not so remarked upon in either published books or periodical reviews. The critic needs to avoid that question, it seems. And the critic, or reviewer, generally does. Nowadays – and by ‘nowadays’ I mean the last thirty-five years – something other than traditional intelligence has entered into the discourse of poetry. Poetry is now mainly about either Biographical or Ethnic IQ. The ‘I’ of the contemporary poem is no longer the 1950s thinking ‘I’ but an ‘I’ that is either biographical or socially centred within a perceived formerly excluded class of persons. In a very real sense, all of the most successful poetry is now a kind of Nationalist poetry, a Nationalism of the person and a Nationalism of the sum of the person’s social and cultural experiences, including experiences of exclusion and victimisation. This is the essential grammar of the successful contemporary poem. Blame Sylvia Plath and her brilliantly influential poetry for this, or should we blame the journalism of A. Alvarez, another critic-poet?
Well, you’d have to start, surely, with Emily Dickinson, her ego undisturbed and Puritan-comforted in that settled Puritan world. Dickinson was one of the first to be carried away by the atmosphere her thinking-self had created:
‘My Life had stood – a Loaded Gun –
In Corners – till a Day
The Owner passed – identified –
And carried Me away.’ (1863)
That Dickinson might be carried away by the process of poetry – ‘It is as a Vesuvian face/ Had let its pleasure through –‘ is one of the earliest instructions in the modern process of making the authentic poem. Intelligence alone can’t do it, and no effort of intelligent thinking. But something else, something that was lost in so much of mid-twentieth century poetry and all those very earnest poems published by tenured academics in the North Atlantic world. So, it is not just in the last thirty-five years or so that the poem has become biographically-centred; victim-centred, if you like. No, it’s just that poetry of the Empson era had lost touch with the very essence of the poem, its bleeding centre. Possibly the fear of sentimentality created this tone, even the need to be sustained by irony. Anne Sexton, writing in her poem ‘Cinderella’ in 1971, outlines the situation of the aspiring poem best of all:
‘Her father brought presents home from town,
jewels and gowns for the other women
but the twig of a tree for Cinderella.
She planted that twig on her mother’s grave
And it grew to a tree where a white dove sat.
Whenever she wished for anything the dove
Would drop it like an egg upon the ground.
The bird is important, my dears, so heed him.’
It is not merely by intelligent thinking that Dickinson or Sexton came to their poems. Or why their poetry is full of such insights and instructions. Intelligent thought at the highest level may make you a brilliant critic, but it will never make you a poet; as true a poet as Sexton or Dickinson or Plath. They had something. What was it that they had all day that William Empson only glimpsed rarely, if ever? A gift, the mouth, the music, the centred-ness, the certainty of self, the servility of language – rather than its authority – in the face of the true poet. I’m still reading Empson’s poems, looking for the poetry and left wondering. But be warned, and this is my warning to you, so heed me, my dears: complex education and high intelligence never made a poem. It has to be something else entirely, a spirit within, a youthful, fearless spirit around which something biographical will cohere. As William Empson has written (p46) in the poem ‘Your Teeth are Ivory Towers:’
There are some critics say our verse is bad
Because Piaget’s babies had the same affection,
Proved by interview. These young were mad,
They spoke not to Piaget but to themselves.’
© Thomas MCarthy
Thomas McCarthy was born at Cappoquin, Co. Waterford in 1954 and educated locally and at University College Cork. He was an Honorary Fellow of the International Writing programme, University of Iowa in 1978/79. He has published The First Convention (1978), The Sorrow Garden (1981), The Lost Province (1996), Merchant Prince (2005) and The Last Geraldine Officer (2009) as well as a number of other collections. He has also published two novels and a memoir. He has won the Patrick Kavanagh Award, the Alice Hunt Bartlett Prize and the O’Shaughnessy Prize for Poetry as well as the Ireland Funds Annual Literary Award. He worked for many years at Cork City Libraries, retiring in 2014 to write fulltime. He was International Professor of English at Macalester College, Minnesota, in 1994/95. He is a former Editor of Poetry Ireland Review and The Cork Review. He has also conducted poetry workshops at Listowel Writers’ Week, Molly Keane House, Arvon Foundation and Portlaoise Prison (Provisional IRA Wing). He is a member of Aosdana. His collections Pandemonium and Prophecy, were published by Carcanet in 2016 and 2019. Last year Gallery Press, Ireland, published his sold-out journals, Poetry, Memory and the Party. Gallery will publish Questioning Ireland: Essays and Reviews in early summer 2024; and Carcanet will publish a new collection, Plenitude, in 2025.