Saturday, November 04, 2006

A bursting unity of opposites

The Financial Times is a good source of quality book reviews. Yesterday it printed Mark Ford's of The Notebooks of Robert Frost.
[O]ne regularly comes across embryonic formulations that are both thought-provoking and pertinent to Frost’s poetics: “Metaphor may not be far but it is our farthest forth”; “The object of life is to feel curves”; “All a man’s art is a bursting unity of opposites”; “No surprise to author none to reader”.
All very interesting. So it's a shame that Ford (author of the wonderful Raymond Roussel and the Republic of Dreams) should frame the review around the canard of "difficulty".
T.S. Eliot suggested that the complexities of contemporary civilisation meant that modern poetry in turn “must be difficult”. And, certainly, most American poets of the era - those we read today, anyway - subscribed to this view. The work of Ezra Pound, Marianne Moore, Wallace Stevens, Hart Crane, William Carlos Williams, Gertrude Stein, and of Eliot himself, is formidably difficult. Even after decades, it often still baffles its explicators.
"The great exception" he adds "was Robert Frost", no doubt to sighs of relief from stockbrokers seeking some light verse on their commute. But Eliot also said that "genuine poetry can communicate before it is understood", which might explain why those named poets are "those we read today".

That line of Eliot's comes from his long essay on Dante in which he admits to have been "passionately fond of certain French poetry long before I could have translated two verses of it correctly" and that obtaining "an immense amount of knowledge" about Dante before reading him "is positively undesirable". So Ford's contention that "Eliot and Stevens shivered with distaste at the idea of writing poetry that was intelligible to the masses" is a snotty misrepresentation of the meaning of difficulty. Their poetry might puzzle its explicators but it still gives me, a mere reader, immense reading pleasure. Maybe, I think now after reading the review, it's because their poetry contains (and uncontains) that "bursting unity of opposites". One has to read the words - leap aboard the roller coaster of language - to experience those complexities in all their reality. There are few poets who do this. So why are we being constantly warned off?

1 comment:

  1. Anonymous7:30 am

    I agree with the logic of this, and would direct you to a current poet of quiet and yet quite dynamic equivocations, that serve contemporary consciousness--beyond these lesser lights of competing forms of modernism, I think. Edward Williams, at



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