Keeping It Steady

Poetry Ireland News March/April 2011

Poems about poetry can be awfully discouraging, but a good one I often come back to, for my own obscure reasons, is this short poem by Robert Graves:

To make them move, you should start from
And not forecast the rhythm: rely on chance
Or so-called chance for its bright emergence
Once lightning interpenetrates the dance.

Grant them their own traditional steps and
But see they dance it out again and again
Until only lightning is left to puzzle over –
The choreography plain, and the theme plain.

There’s a great steadying sanity in that poem, as there is in the 1962 lectures on poetry that Graves gave in Oxford. When he writes about poems, his own or another’s, Graves is patently sincere in his intention, which is to give his opinion as a diligent craftsman on the work under scrutiny. His critical writings are a kind of curiosity; the style is low-key, anecdotal, a kind of reportage; he neither seeks to establish, not appears to see any merit in, anything resembling a “first principles” critical method.

For the Russian Formalists, according to Terence Hawkes, poetry … was made out of words, not ‘poetic’ subjects. For Graves also, the word, allied with and informed by a lively sense of its history of usage and its etymology, is the basis of poetry: a poet lives with his own language, continually instructing himself in the origin, histories, pronunciation and peculiar usages of words, together with their latent powers, and the exact shades of distinction between what Roget’s Thesaurus calls ‘synonyms’ – but are there any such things? … A poet may make his own precedents, in disregard of any law of correctness laid down by grammarians – so long as they accord with the natural genius of English.

Similarly, Saussure’s individuation of the two realms of langue and parole would not be, to Graves, an alien concept. He is aware that the entirety of a language is anterior to any given utterance, and that speech, parole, the usage of words, stands in dialectical relationship to the invisible langue.

Graves says:

In a true poem, produced by the deep trance that integrates all the memories of the mind, the dormant powers of each word awake and combine with those of every other, building up a tremendous head of power. How far the reader is conscious of the inter-related sounds and meanings depends on how much of a poet he, or she, is: for I allow the title of poet to all who think poetically, whether writers or not.

For Graves, poetry arrives from ‘otherwhere’. He maintains that the poet’s attention is somehow forcibly attracted, even seized, and further that the force which presses the poem on him is an organizing force, requiring certain predispositions of the poet’s mind in order to be received, containing its own lineaments in protean form: all poems, it seems, grow from a small verbal nucleus gradually assuming an individual rhythm and verse form. The writing is not ‘automatic’, as in a mediumistic trance when the pen travels without pause over the paper, but is broken by frequent critical amendments and excisions. And though the result of subsequently reading a poem through may be surprise at the unifying of elements drawn from so many different levels of consciousness, this surprise will be qualified by dissatisfaction with some lines. Objective recognition of the poem as an entity should then induce a lighter trance, during which the poet realizes more fully the implications of his lines, and sharpens them. The final version (granted the truthfulness of its original draft, and the integrity of any secondary elaboration) will hypnotize readers who are faced by similar problems into sharing the poet’s emotional experience.

For Graves, the poetic trance is integrative, not reductive; the poetic trance involves a heightening, not a diminution of powers — in this trance the mind is more, not less, conscious of itself, of the phenomenal world and of its own operations. Apparently disparate thoughts, feelings, events are seen as structurally interdependent and mutually informing – the whole issuing in an artefact, the poem, which has the power of compelling attention, of reinvoking experience. 
One of the things I like in Graves is that his descriptions of poem-making have an undemonstrative, matter-of-fact quality:

The Vienna school of psychology presumes a conscious and unconscious mind as two separate and usually warring entities; but a poet cannot accept this. In the poetic trance he has access not only to the primitive emotions and thoughts which lie stored in his childhood memory, but to all his subsequent experiences – emotional and intellectual; including a wide knowledge of English won by constant critical study. Words are filed away by their hundred thousand, not in alphabetic order but in related groups; and as soon as the trance seizes him, he can single out most of the ones he needs. Moreover, when the first heavily-blotted draft has been copied out fairly before he goes to bed, and laid aside for reconsideration, he will read it the next morning as if it were written by another hand. Yet soon he is back in the trance, finds that his mind has been active while he was asleep on the problem of internal relations, and that he can substitute the exact right word for the stand-in with which he had to be content the night before.

Sounds about right to me.

Theo Dorgan’s most recent publications include the poetry collection Greek (Dedalus, 2009) and the memoir Time on the Ocean: Sailing from Cape Horn to Cape Town (New Island, 2010).

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