Sunday, January 11, 2009

The Ravishing Nonsense of Poetry

A few weeks ago, I spoke of T.S. Eliot in fairly high regard, commenting on his essentially Anglican poems and his idea of writing to a "sense of the cosmos," as contemporary philosopher Jacob Needleman might say. This attitude is closely aligned with another poet contemporary to Eliot: the English poet A.E. Housman, who has an uncanny ability to write essays that are at once charming and stern.

Yet here is where similarities end. Whereas Eliot looked both forward and backward, Housman settled into a fine nostalgia for the 18th century poets like, say, Pope. On top of that, Eliot was decidedly intellectual, but Housman was the opposite. Speaking of the 1700's Housman says, "the human faculty which dominated the eighteenth century and informed its literature was the intelligence...Man had ceased to live from the depths of his nature."

A "thought" to John Donne, Eliot says in his essay The Metaphysical Poets, was an experience, and the Metaphysicals "feel their thought as immediately as the odour of a rose". Housman, on the other hand, says in his essay The Name and Nature of Poetry that such "wit" in writing is "no more poetical than anagrams".

So I found myself in Powells Books in Portland, Oregon reading the entirety of one of the recent National Poetry Series winners, thinking the whole time that it simply dripped with that Metaphysical wit but at the same time appeared, on the surface, to be "nonsense". This, of course, is the ghost of Housman, largely forgotten in any semblance of contemporary literature. Point is, is he right?

Troubled by my understanding of books like this, I found the Great American Pinup, a far more extraordinary site for real in-depth reviews of books such as these. I've heard it said that Ron Silliman seperates contemporary poetry into two sides: the post-avant and the School of Quietude (SoQ!). He looks backward and apparently tries to fit 20th century poets into the schema as well.
If you go farther back, we can probably see where Eliot may fall, not to mention Housman. Or is it this easy? As we see in both of these writers, divisions are often shifty.

No comments: