Wednesday, 11 December 2019 14:24

The Election: Tampering

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in Poetry
The Election: Tampering
by CHema Skandal!


by Christopher Norris

Out of the quarrel with others we make rhetoric; out of the
quarrel with ourselves we make poetry. - W.B. Yeats

Poetry might be defined as the clear expression of mixed feelings. - W.H. Auden

For poetry makes nothing happen: it survives
In the valley of its making where executives
Would never want to tamper . . .- W.H. Auden, ‘In Memory of W.B. Yeats’

You said to me that day,
‘There’s nothing you can do’,
and spoke of Auden’s line:
‘Poetry makes nothing happen’. - Duane Niatum, ‘Consulting an Elder Poet on an Anti-War Poem’

Yeats got it right but not for times like these.
From quarrelling with others we shall make
Mere rhetoric, he said, while poetry's
What comes of quarrels struck up for the sake
Of psyche's anguished pleas and counter-pleas,
Its inner strife when self or soul's at stake
And conscience spurns the wish to self-appease,
Unlike the rhetorician whose big break
Comes of the perfect certainty that he's
Entirely in the right (make no mistake!)
And, granted that, self-authorised to seize
The moral high ground while the lowlands quake.

So runs the Yeatsian dictum which applies
To his work well enough since you can place
His poems on a scale that finds its highs
Where warring passions vie for psychic space,
As with his Crazy Jane when she defies
The Bishop, while its lows, in every case,
Come when some single passion clouds his eyes,
Demands he brand all others vile or base,
And gives us, lest we fail to recognize
What’s good for us, a piece of in-your-face
Or rabble-rousing rhetoric in the guise
Of sentiments all readers should embrace.

Yet times there are when poets choose to stage
A private psychomachia only through
Their over-willingness to disengage
From other urgencies, a will to do
Their own soul-searching thing instead of wage
Verse-warfare of the kind the '30s crew,
Auden & Co, perceived as what the age
Required of them – after the Spanish coup
Presaged bad times ahead – and turned the page,
Pro tem at least, on all that cloud-cuckoo,
Heartfelt or morbid stuff that failed to gauge
In time just what the world was coming to.

Like it or not, that time's come round once more,
A time – Yeats saw it clearly – when 'the best
Lack all conviction' while the dogs of war,
The frauds and demagogues have repossessed
Their old terrain, dog-whistled up their core
Supporters, and made this the acid test
For poets: either keep right on with your
Verse-music meant to soothe the savage breast,
Your lyric plaints and true confessions, or
Take Brecht to heart, kick Rilke out, and rest
Assured we’ll think it nothing to deplore,
That pile of juvenilia now suppressed.

Don't take it hard – just hang on till the tale
Reveals another twist as tyrants fall,
Peace reigns on Earth, the powers of good prevail,
And poets grow attentive to the call
Of lyric feelings, words that cannot fail
To move hearts wearied after the long haul
From purgatory. Still it’s a trick of scale,
This sanguine view of things, and misses all
The evidence of how ‘the serpent’s trail
Lies over everything’, how some new brawl
Of knaves or nations may yet snatch the grail
And lyric’s muse grow mute beneath the pall.

A lesson here: no genre’s quite as pure
As tidy-minded critics like to think,
Along with tyrants anxious to ensure
That verse and politics stay out of sync
And lyricists unwilling to endure
The harsher accents or the rancid stink
Of Juvenalian satire. Why abjure
The poet’s civic role, the ancient link
Of lyric’s power to move with satire’s cure
For just those fond illusions that hoodwink
The purist, or exert their strongest lure
On gentle souls poised at destruction’s brink.

For times there are when Yeats’s sound advice –
Take issue with yourself alone, don’t pick
Your fights with other people – might entice
Some tender-hearts to think of rhetoric
As lyric’s sworn antagonist, the price
For headline ‘relevance’ achieved the quick
And dirty way; a snake in paradise
That uses every language-huckster’s trick
To have sheer heft of utterance suffice
For truth. Then he who waves the biggest stick
Will pre-ensure his readers not think twice
About what ballot-slip his words might tick.

They’re wrong, those lyric purists, not to see
How rhetoric’s integrally a part
Of every poem, even those where we
Respect the genre-rules of lyric art,
Then blank our knowledge of them and agree
To read as if addressed straight from the heart
Without their aid. Yet what’s our guarantee
That it’s from there all genuine poems start,
And not from the unnoticed ministry
Of rhetoric whose workings can outsmart
The smartest rhetorician since the key,
Each time, may be a trope that flips the chart.


Read 586 times Last modified on Wednesday, 11 December 2019 20:09
Chris Norris

Christopher Norris is Distinguished Research Professor in Philosophy at the University of Cardiff. He is the author of more than thirty books on aspects of philosophy, politics, literature, the history of ideas, and music.