Welcome To Talking Verse

This blog is dedicated to discussion on poetry.

Poetry, on the European side of the Atlantic, has hardly progressed since the early 20th Century. Whilst in the USA poetry continues to evolve and present itself afresh.

Part of the reason for this is that the issue of poetry has been debated widely in the USA whereas in Britain, for example, you will be hard pressed to find anything that challenges the status quo of poetry.

There have been a few attempts: the Liverpool Beat poets made an short-lived impact during the early 1960s, but they could only offer a poor imitation of a style from the USA.

A handful of poets in the 20th century did make an impact. Basil Bunting and Tom Leonard shook up the established schools. But compared to the US the impact is small. Whilst other art forms have managed to progress over the years, poetry has stood still. Only the narrative has altered to keep abreast of the times.

Many people look to poetry to ‘tell’ them something; as if poetry were some form of journalism or propaganda. The laureateship of Carol Anne Duffy has only reinforced that view. But it is not simply a case of blaming the poets. Duffy is only responding to a demand that arises out of a society that pushes art for other ends, rather than simply art for the sake of it.

Today there is a wide awareness of poetry, the internet is weighted down with poetry sites that offer varying degrees of quality. Poetry is as valid as any other art form but only as long as it operates as an art form. Poets should not be seen as harbingers and the audience should look for meaning rather than rely on the poet or critic to provide answers.


This blog welcomes essays and book reviews about poetry. Please do not submit any poetry. If you wish to use a blog to submit poetry then I would recommend The Poets' Graves Workshop.

All submissions will be read and editing suggestions may be put to the author before being posted. Rejection by the author of any suggestion does not preclude it from being posted on the site.

Talking Verse follows no particular school of thought and has no other remit apart from the widest debate on matters of poetry.

Please submit here

Wednesday, 4 May 2011

Style over Substance: errare humanum est, perseverare autem diabolicum

Essay by Phil Thornton  

When do you think the following piece of literary criticism was written?

You ask why it is that at certain periods a corrupt literary style has come into being; and how it is that a gifted mind develops a leaning towards some fault or other  (resulting in the prevalence at one period of a bombastic form of exposition, at another of an effeminate form, fashioned after the manner of songs); and why it is that at one time approval is won by extravagant conceits and at another by sentences of an abrupt, allusive character that convey more to the intelligence than to the ear; and why there have been era in which metaphors have been shamelessly exploited.

The answer lies in something you hear commonly enough, something which among the Greeks has passed into a proverb: people’s speech matches their lives. And just as the way in which each individual expresses himself resembles the way he acts, so in the case of a nation of declining morals and given over to luxury forms of expression at any given time mirror the general behaviour of that society. A luxuriant literary style, assuming that it is the favoured and accepted style and not appearing in the odd writer here and there, is a sign of an extravagant society.

The spirit and the intellect cannot be of different hues. If the spirit is sound, if it is properly adjusted and has dignity and self-control, the intellect will be sober and sensible too, and if the former is tainted the latter will be infected as well. You’ve observed surely, how a person’s limbs drag and his feet dawdle along if his spirit is a feeble one? And how the lack of moral fibre shows in his very gait if his spirit is addicted to soft living? And how if his spirit is a lively and dashing one his step is brisk? And how if it is a prey to madness or the similar state of anger, his body moves along in an uncontrolled sort of way, in a rush rather than a walk? Isn’t this all the more likely to be the case where a person’s intellect is concerned, his intellect being wholly bound up with his spirit – moulded by and responsive to it and looking to it for guidance?
 The early 19th century? The early 20th? The next passage might offer more of a clue.

The manner in which Maecenas lived is too well known for there to be any need to describe the way he walked, his self-indulgent nature, his passion for self-display, his reluctance that his faults should escape people’s notice. Well, then, wasn’t hi s style just as undisciplined as his dress sense was sloppy? Wasn’t his vocabulary just as extraordinary as his turnout, his retinue, his house, his wife? He would have been a genius if he had pursued a more direct path instead of going out of his way to avoid being intelligible, had he not been as loose in matters of style as he was in everything else. Which is why you’ll notice that his eloquence resembles a drunken man’s, tortuous and rambling and thoroughly eccentric.

Could there be a worse expression than ‘the bank with mane of stream and woods’? And look at ‘men tilling with wherries the channel, driving the gardens back with the shallows’ churning over’. What about a person ‘curvetting at a woman’s beck, with lips on billing bent, a sigh the opening of his addresses, neck lolling like a forest giant in his ecstasy’?  ‘The unregenerate company rummage homes for victuals, raiding them with provision jars and trading death for hope.’ ‘But hardly should I call as witness on his holy day my guardian spirit.’ ‘Else the wick of a slender waxlight and sputtering meal.’  ‘Mothers or wives accoutre the hearth.’  When you read this sort of thing, doesn’t it immediately cross your mind that this is the same man who invariably went around with casual clothes on in the capital (even when Maecenas was discharging the emperor’s duties during the absence of Augustus, the officer coming to him for the daily codeword would find him in informal attire), who appeared on the bench, on the platform and at any public gathering wearing a mantle draped over his head leaving both ears exposed, looking just like the rich man’s runaway slave as depicted on the comic stage? The same man whose public escort at a time when the nation was embroiled in a civil war and the capital was under arms and in a state of alarm, consisted of a pair of eunuchs, and who went  through a thousand ceremonies of marriage with his one wife?  

The author of this piece of literary and social criticism is the famous Roman politician and Stoic, Seneca in letter CXIV to his friend and follower, Lucilius.  Yet what he has to say about literature and the lives of the writers of his age mirrors that of later outraged conservatives, those who confuse art with morality.  Seneca accuses Maecenas of the same ‘failings’ as those who demonised Voltaire or Wilde, criticising the manner of their living as much as their writing, the one being responsible for the other. It is the same charge levelled at all artists in whatever medium who refuse to be bound by the aesthetic constrictions of abstract rules and customs. Seneca accuses Maecenas not only of  literary ‘perversion’ but moral weakness. 

These expressions of his , strung together in such an outrageous fashion, tossed out in such a careless manner, constructed with such a total disregard of universal usage, reveal a character equally revolutionary, equally perverted and peculiar. Maecenas’ greatest claim to glory is regarded as having been his clemency: he spared the sword, refrained from bloodshed and showed his power only in his defiance of convention. But he has spoilt this very claim of his by these monstrous stylistic frolics; for it becomes apparent that he was a not a mild man but a soft one. That perplexing word order, those transpositions of words and those startling ideas which have indeed the quality of greatness in them but which lose all their effect in the expression, will make it obvious to anyone that his head was turned by overmuch prosperity.
Maecenas, the man cannot be viewed by Seneca as separate from Maecenas, the writer and this ‘softness’ of which the great man despises is seen as the ‘effeminacy’ that has ‘infected’ the culture of Imperial Rome. Yet, Seneca can’t quite bring himself to totally disregard the talent of his subject. Begrudgingly admitting there is an element of genius and ‘the quality of greatness in them’ he nevertheless regards these ‘monstrous frolics’ as the vainglorious fripperies of an over-indulged mind.  Maecenas’  crime is not one of taste rather it is his very experimentalism that really grates on the later writer of the so-called Silver Age of Latin literature. Seneca himself is ofcourse a stylist and his style is opposed to the over-embroidered ‘purple’ prose of those he regards as decadent symbols of moral and cultural degeneracy. 

It is a fault which is sometimes that of the man and sometimes that of the age. Where prosperity has spread luxury over a wide area of society, people start by paying closer attention to their personal turnout. The next thing that engages people’s energies is furniture. Then pains are devoted to the houses themselves, so as to have them running out over broad expanses of territory, to have the walls glowing with marble hipped from overseas and the ceilings picked out in gold, to have the floors shining with a lustre matching the panels overhead. Splendour then moves to the table, where praise is courted through the medium of novelty and variations in the accustomed order of dishes, making what normally rounds off a meal the first course and giving people as they go what they used before to be given on arrival.  Once a person’s spirit has acquired the habit of disdaining what is customary and regards the usual as banal, it starts looking for novelty in its methods of expression as well. At one moment it will disinter and revive archaic or obsolete expressions and give a word a new form; at another – this is something that has become very common recently – the bold and frequent use of metaphor passes for good style. There are some cut their thoughts short and hope to win acclaim by making their meaning elusive, giving their audience a mere hint of it; there are others who stretch them out, reluctant to let them go; there are others still who not merely fall into a defect of style (which is something that is inevitable if one is striving for any lofty effect), but have a passion for the defect for its own sake.
Hence the age old complaint of materialism and luxury of living is blamed for all forms of cultural expression that seek to break free of convention. There is of course some truth in what Seneca has to say and the same charge could be levelled at Joyce, Eliot and other modernists of the early 20th century who also ‘made their meaning elusive’ and who were accused of ‘perplexing word order...those startling ideas.’ Do Maecenas’s descriptions of  rural  labourers and the lives of every day folk of the Latin countryside of 2000 years ago not chime with those of Dylan Thomas’s Welsh townsfolk or Joyce’s Dubliners?  Is there not an element of thought and deliberation within such apparently random ordering of words and ideas? At once Seneca disapproves of the rich man wearing the clothes of a runaway slave whilst also decrying the obsession with dress and furniture as trappings of a degenerate culture. That Seneca himself was a very rich man who survived some of the most murderous years in ancient Roman history and who played the ascetic Stoic when it suited his purposes, opens up the writer (and the man, inseparable as they are in his eyes ) to charges of hypocrisy.

So wherever you notice that a corrupt style is in general favour, you may be certain that in that society people’s characters as well have deviated from the true path. In the same way as extravagance of dress and entertaining are indications of a diseased community so an aberrant literary style, provided it is widespread, shows that the spirit (from which people’s words derive) has also come to grief. And in fact you need feel no surprise at the way corrupt work finds popularity not merely with the common bystander but with your relatively cultivated audience: the distinction between these two classes of critic is more one of dress than of discernment.
Here Seneca exposes his own snobbery and conceit.  He is the guardian of ‘the true path’ and lays the blame for cultural ‘disease’ not at the door of the humble plebs who don’t know any better, but at their social superiors who may wear fancier togas but have no taste. There is an almost fascistic element in Seneca’s language; ‘disease’ ‘infect,’ as if the very words themselves are viral, can be spread to weaken and pollute. The same argument that modern scholars and reactionaries use to bemoan the use of texting or tweeting.  The likes of Ruskin were the true heirs to Seneca as they regard all human art and expression as a manifestation of God, not of humanity.  Just as Ruskin could not comprehend a Whistler painting so Seneca could not fathom the ‘disorderly’ writing of Maecenas but maybe Maecenas understood more than Seneca about the power of words, the way words are used and how that alters their meaning, if any meaning is intended. Maybe it is the sound and the flow of a sentence more than its meaning that is important, that appeals to the muses, to abstract notions of aesthetics.

These ‘rules’ of grammar, these codes and laws, these cultural norms and invented traditions that govern the minds of men like Seneca still hold fast today. If a writer like James Kelman for example can still be sniffily classified as a  ‘ working class Glaswegian’ author then why can’t the likes of Martin Amis be described as an ‘middle class London’ novelist (upper middle class mind!).  Kelman’s ‘style’ is as bewildering to the self-elected literary guardians of the age as Maecenas’s was to Seneca.  Amis meanwhile operates within the bourgeois parameters of an accepted ‘style’ and ‘form.’ He’s as trad as any DixieLand clarinetist whereas Kelman’s free jazz scatting upsets the horses. 

To begin at the beginning: It is spring, moonless night in the small town, starless and bible-black, the cobblestreets silent and the hunched, courters-and-rabbits wood limping invisible down to the sloeblack, slow, black, crowblack, fishingboat-bobbing sea.

Dylan Thomas’s opening to ‘Under Milk Wood’ would perhaps have been understood by the ‘perverted’ Maecenas than the puritanical Seneca.  Language is as fluid today as it has always been, able to shift its course and meander this way and that, unconstrained by man made dams and reservoirs that seek to stagnate its essential energy. It’s a terrible metaphor but such is the fashion these days!