Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Poetry and the English Imagination

Months, maybe even a year ago, I wrote an article on poetry and the English imagination for The Liberal magazine. I forgot all about this until today when I saw this article being mentioned on various blogs, notably Frank Wilson's. At last The Liberal has appeared and here's the article. It's like finding a lost child or, perhaps, an article written by somebody else with which I heartily agree.


  1. I suspect that the Latin poets with the Greek plays and the near impossibility of finding the touch to translate the essence of meaning into English. I'm thinking painting, where a smidge to much is way to much and to little is not enough.
    The Classical education whetted this ability, this touch.

  2. Bryan, I think this article is wrong, completely. The English, or Americans, do not 'do poetry' better than anyone else. Would Wordsworth and Coleridge necessarily win a round against Goethe? Tennyson versus Heine? What 20th Century poem packs more power than Celan's Death Fugue? On the other hand, which late 20th Century German composers compare to Tippett or Britten or Birtwistle? Or Stravinsky and Bartok? Yes OK Schoenberg and Berg, but they are equals. Returning to poetry, I think you've been caught up with a problem of translation. Translations do not send shivers up many spines (with the astonishing exception of Michael Hamburger's astonishing version of that Celan masterpiece.) We English don't DO languages!

  3. Pity almost no one can 'get' poetry these days. i find literate & intelligent people who don't understand poetry seem to have something dead in them.

  4. Daniel at The Wooden Spoon blog has these words for those who don't "get" poetry:

    'If you do not "get" poetry, you are not well read. No arguments. It should be a standard part of every Literature, Humanities, or English undergraduate education that they master the ability to analyze poetry. The study of poetry is a study of systems, meanings, intricacies, and relations of a thing to its parts. If you fail at this you have no right to claim competency enough to hold a degree, never mind attempt to teach.

    'Read more poetry. Read it every day, somewhere, online or in print. Spend 10 minutes thinking about the poem you just read. Re-read it, find the intricacies, seek out the details. Memorize two lines, look up the odd words, scan the line's meter – can you describe a pattern? What is it doing? Look for the turn, the change, the shift in tone. Think about complications some more. Find them in your daily life. Is your footstep a trochee or an iamb? Does the waitress' voice imply a line break? Can you see a pattern? Decipher, interpret, grow better. You will get it.'

  5. Bryan, I liked this article - I thought it was charming. I never read it as saying that everything English is better than everything not English - in fact, you've changed tack slightly in the middle, talking not about English poetry being the best but abnout how poetry made us, with which I do heartily concur.

    Anyway, I've written a little blog post and linked to it.