Sean O’Brien

A recent publicity stunt by the Forward Prize organizers saw the chair of the judges, the retired Newsnight presenter Jeremy Paxman, attack the remoteness and difficulty of contemporary poetry. Poets, he proposed, should be compelled to explain themselves. There are regimes where this is the case, Iran being one such, where poetry is taken seriously and the censor may himself be a poet versed in the stratagems of those whose work he scrutinizes. People have died for poetry there. Imagine that. This, of course, is not what Paxman had in mind. It was a joke, honest, a way of drawing fire in order to bring attention to the art of poetry – the end the Forward Prize has pursued since its inception.

Of late these efforts have had an air of approaching panic – getting actors in to read the poems at the prize ceremony, looking for a controversy to draw the interest of media glutted on their own empty plenitude. Poetry is, indisputably, neglected by most of the public. Not surprisingly, like Paxman, members of that public often turn out to have opinions about it unburdened by any particular knowledge of the subject. Among the things they don’t know about is whatever it is that poets think about poetry’s freedoms and responsibilities, or about that neglected element in the public discussion of poetry: language.

Public expectations of poetry are largely shaped by vague conceptions derived from the poetry of earlier periods, notably the Romantics, Tennyson and one or two poets of the First World War. People may not know much, but they know what a poem ought to be like. Beyond that, with crowded lives and other preoccupations, most people are as incurious about poetry as about science or economics. Adrian Mitchell once wrote: ‘Most people ignore most poetry because most poetry ignores most people’ – including, by and large, as it turns out, even “people-friendly” poetry like Mitchell’s.

From the other perspective, that of the poet, the public’s disengagement can sometimes suggest an eerie disengagement from the real scope of language itself, producing a narrowly instrumental sense of it, one which lacks the developed means to respond imaginatively or aesthetically or to discriminate between the difficult-but-serious and the merely obscure. When people don’t notice language, assuming it to be identical with the world, or when they assume that all language is denotative, or don’t realize that language exists, and seem to think that the words they use are something other than language, then the simplification and control of language undertaken by the state in 1984 can actually appear to have been achieved, doubleplusgoodduckspeak by different means. This is not an especially encouraging state of affairs for poets. “People” clearly have a lot to answer for. Let them act responsibly and read poetry, for a change. Good luck with that.

If the term “responsibility” retains some meaning for poetry and poets, where does that responsibility lie? In his book Poetry and Responsibility (Liverpool University Press, 2014) Neil Corcoran revisits some significant responses to that question. He examines Heaney’s thinking about the relationship of the poem to the world. He turns quickly to Yeats and the epigraph to his 1914 collection, Responsibilities: ‘In dreams begin responsibilities’. Whilst the statement is attributed to an ‘old play’, no one has found an actual source. This intriguing fact suggests that by inventing a quotation Yeats was suggesting something about the imagination – perhaps that it must be allowed to consist of the imaginary, and that its authority, and its obligations, flow from its own creative power, which, like dreams, is inherently dramatic – that is to say, being made up at least as much of events as of conclusions. Poetic truth, seen in this light, is a moving target, an exercise of the freedom to see what might be the case.

 At the close of his introductory essay, Corcoran cites Auden’s elegy for Yeats: ‘For poetry makes nothing happen: it survives | In the valley of its saying’ and is ‘A way of happening, a mouth’. He goes on to conclude that poetry is not a proxy for some other kind of discourse: it is itself, or it is nothing. Here we glimpse the “public’s” difficulty. Corcoran’s own closing formulation of the end of Auden’s elegy is eloquent, if orotund: ‘True poetry survives as counter or oppositional, as language not to be made available to interest or betrayed into accommodation or appropriation. It survives as, singularity, as utterly its own, but always touched too by obligation: by isolation, grief, community, faith and death. Poetry is the human mouth figured as the mouth of a river: flowing, purifying, making a place for itself, pressing on’. Perhaps it sounds too good for this world? Too guileless to be credible in the context of mainstream media where knowing mockery is the default position for those who have nowhere else to be? Too pious, even? Peter Porter once wrote that ‘A public worthy of its artists would consist of whores and monsters’, and in certain lights you could read the whole of Porter’s work as an effort to avoid the settled piety that disarms the very poetry that produces it and in turn lets the audience off the hook.

In the title poem of his 1978 collection The Cost of Seriousness, Porter wrote, sounding very European: ‘Once more I come to the white page of art | to discover what I know | and what I presume I feel | about those forgettable objects words. |We begin with penalties: | the cost of seriousness will be death’.  This is a version of the Fall, whereby language, the fruit of consciousness, is itself the Fall, part of whose ‘penalty’ is our capacity to imagine otherwise. In the words of William Empson, ‘This last pain for the damned the Fathers found: | “They knew the bliss with which they were not crowned.” | Such, but on earth, let me foretell, | Is all, of heaven or of hell’. Not especially “people-friendly”, you might say, this contemplation of Last Things by two unbelievers, but very much to the point.

Porter’s bare and exact lines recall perhaps the most laconic poet of all, Zbigniew Herbert, another of Corcoran’s exemplars. He considers in detail ‘Elegy of Fortinbras’, Herbert’s great poem about the relationship between the humanistic imagination and realpolitik. A briefer and perhaps less well-known poem which he doesn’t discuss is Herbert’s ‘To the Hungarians’, written in response to the Russian invasion of Hungary in 1956. This is a poem I often go back to. I don’t speak or read Polish, so I’m dependent on translations. I’m also aware that discussing translations might seem problematic in itself, but Herbert is a poet who comes across into English with great force and with a recognizable voice – an epigrammatist of sorts, a laconic tragedian for whom irony is like oxygen itself. I’ve written about this poem before, but I hope that’s forgivable.

‘To the Hungarians’, with its sombre and ironical conclusion, both affirms the courage of those involved in the 1956 Hungarian Uprising and understands that for the exponents of realpolitik their sacrifice is an empty category, without meaning. Here are two versions of the poem’s end in English, the first by Alissa Valles from the 2007 Collected Poems:

we stand on a border
that is called reason
and we gaze into a fire
and marvel at death

The second is an earlier translation by John and Bogdana Carpenter:

we stand at the border
called reason
and we look into the fire
and admire death

Although I’m uneasy with the proximity of the ‘fire’ / ‘admire’ rhyme, and would prefer ‘flames’ or – in fact – ‘furnace’ – I prefer the second translation: for one thing, the two stressed syllables at the end of the Carpenter version lend weight and decisiveness, whereas Valles loses the interest of ‘marvel’ with a further unstress in ‘at’. More than this, ‘admire’ carries the kind of saturnine irony that confers on the understanding a power of sorts, even whilst this is a claim that in other ways the poem seems to renounce. All this amounts to something more than what Louis Simpson referred to as ‘the poor man’s nerve-tic, irony’, something more like an irreducible self-possession whose very impotence creates a strange form of negative capability. Such complication of tone is very attractive to many poets writing in English. It is more than lamentation in the face of the grim facts. It also speaks to the guarded, cynical element in the western audience, rather than to the slightly glib and Pollyanna-ish one implied by the first version (who might imagine that violent political repression is really an interruption of normal democratic service rather than the condition from which presumed “normality” has to be won). In the first version we receive an exterior idea of a historical event and a template for generalized empathy; in the second we witness, and are enabled imaginatively to share, an experience. To state the obvious: meaning is not behind, but in, the poem.

Which version is more accurate? I couldn’t tell you, but I know which seems to me to work according to the criteria which animate my own interest in a poetry that deals with history and politics. I know which interests me more, and which seems to me to exercise the greater and more considered imaginative freedom. It’s obviously a long way from here to the school-of-nice-feelings-I-feel-your-pain poetry which is perhaps more appealing to the administrative mind as it gropes for an inoffensive orthodoxy in which to invest.

Many poets and serious readers would like to think that discriminations of the kind sketched above are manifestly part of the “good” of poetry and of poetry’s exercise of responsibility. To what extent such discriminations are now accessible to a wider public is hard to say. Peter Porter once remarked that with libraries, galleries, concerts and what was then the Third Programme at his disposal as a young man in London in the 1950s, education was wherever he cared to seek it. In ‘The Sanitized Sonnets’ from his 1970 collection The Last of England he gave this experience memorable expression:

Much have I travelled in the realms of gold
For which I thank the Paddington and Westminster
Public libraries: and I have never said sir
To anyone since I was seventeen years old.

The association here between cultural experience and personal autonomy – including the capacity, in Arnold’s phrase, ‘to relish the sublime’ – is allowed to hang in the air of the poem. The poet, we see, was in part his own creation. In recent years there has been much talk of “accessibility”, which has become a cant term containing a fundamental and perhaps unexamined ambiguity. What is meant by it? Helpfully pointing out what’s there, or altering what’s there in order to make it more ‘accessible’? There will be many honourable exceptions to the picture painted below, but…It appears that school syllabuses have been streamlined to the point where many students read very little in comparison with their predecessors. The fact that some works are difficult or demanding is seen not as an interesting challenge but as a justification for avoiding them. Poetry is a significant loser in this process: Shakespeare may come in excerpts or on DVD or in spavined “contemporary” language, while other poetry may be largely confined to a handful of contemporary pieces. Actual engagement with the text at the level of close reading may only begin at undergraduate level, and the teaching of this has in many instances become the responsibility of Creative Writing, since the preoccupations of Literature departments are often derived from Cultural Studies and Historicism rather than practical criticism.

Teachers of postgraduate writing courses may also be troubled by how little some of their students have read, and by the “personal” exceptionalism some of them apply to writing poems, as though unscrutinized subjectivity were a virtue in itself. I am led back to an essay by Hans Magnus Enzensberger, ‘The Industrialization of the Mind’, where he flatly states: ‘No illusion is more stubbornly upheld than the sovereignty of the mind. It is a good example of the impact of philosophy on people who ignore it, for the idea that men can “make up their minds” individually and by themselves is essentially derived from the tenets of bourgeois philosophy…and all it amounts to is a sort of metaphysical do-it-yourself’.  We find ourselves back among those who, having no regard for language, lack the means to examine the assumptions by which they are possessed. (Poets can of course be guilty of a comparable solecism from the other direction: when in Julius Caesar Cinna the poet, mistaken for his politician namesake, tells the vengeful mob ‘I am Cinna the poet’, he is missing the larger historical point.) As I mentioned, it will be rightly objected that there are many honourable (and some distinguished) exceptions to the sombre state of affairs I describe, and, that being the case, things are not entirely gloomy. That’s fair enough. But the dream of a substantial educated public engaged with the national art has had to admit to itself that it is a dream. Poetry matters only to a few. Does this in itself matter?

I know more than a few poets who are more or less reconciled to this state of affairs, and evince a complete indifference towards the larger public. Others assert the autonomy of poetry but leave a door open as an invitation, in case the climate changes. The second approach seems both wholly unwarranted and absolutely necessary, occupying a position analogous to the contradictions poetry itself tends to invoke, which produce a continuous imaginative potential, always ready to extend and transform itself. The matter of poetry might seem to be finished, but it isn’t over.

If that is true, and if poets have some responsibility to keep lines of communication open, how might they act to accomplish this? At the most banal level they might pay more attention to the ways in which their work is administered and described, by intervening to mitigate the effects of the increasingly dirigiste culture industry. When the culture industry deals with poetry, it’s likely that poetry is the last thing on its mind. So poetry needs to insist, ever so politely of course, that what should concern us is language, form, musicality, ambiguity and dramatic life – that is to say, not personalities, not fashions, and above all not “relevance” and not “accessibility”. Some might object that this doesn’t sound like much fun. Perhaps they will consider the example of the stern long-ago barmaid at the Speedwell Tavern on Perth Road Dundee, who would urge the customers to drink more beer more quickly by saying, ‘You’re not here to enjoy yourselves’. It depends what you mean by fun. She was an ironist, of course.


This article was previously published in Magma 60 in 2014, edited by Tony Williams and Rob A. Mackenzie.

Sean O’Brien
‘s tenth collection of poems, It Says Here, was published by Picador in 2020. Other recent work includes translating the Complete Poems of Abai Kunanbaev, the Kazakh national poet (CUP, 2020) and editing This is the Life: Selected Poems by Alistair Elliot (forthcoming from Shoestring Press). O’Brien’s work has received awards including the E.M.Forster, the Forward and T.S. Eliot prizes.  He retires as Professor of Creative Writing at Newcastle in autumn 2021 to work on his next collection, provisionally called Book Eleven.