David Boll takes up the challenge of The New Imagination

In The New Imagination in Magma 42, Laurie Smith argues for a poetry of strong feeling, as why should he not. But in the process he says the past 150 years of British poetry represent a “failure of the British poetic imagination”, resulting from the conformism of society and the emotional inhibitions imposed by its education. In this he follows, as he says, Alvarez in his 1962 Beyond the Gentility Principle. It is a view that calls for debate.

His method is essentially that of F R Leavis, the erstwhile monstre sacré of the Cambridge School of English: pick a few writers you admire and depict the rest as a poor lot by comparison. Our recent poetry is dismissed by comparison with American and Irish and our older by comparison with the early Romantics. As a way of spotlighting poets one admires and getting an argument going, this has something to be said for it – The New Imagination is successful in both. But the problem lies with those cast into outer darkness. No-one will quite agree as to who are to be the favoured few, and the implications are unnecessarily bleak.

What do we make of those left in darkness? Was Auden so “emotionally evasive”? In Lullaby, In Memory of W.B.Yeats, The Shield of Achilles and many others? He was a copious poet who wrote much on a lower level, but so did Blake or Wordsworth, or for that matter Wallace Stevens or John Ashbery. Robert Lowell seems closer to the mark, writing that Auden had, “the form and personality and fullness of great poetry”. Did Ted Hughes really “constrict his subject matter to non-human nature”? Are not his Hawk and his Pike so telling because of what we share with them? Even in so far as he did, why not? Poems so powerful justify whatever subject they have chosen.

Laurie Smith accepts these poets have something to be said for them. He plucks them as plums from the pudding so as to leave the rest of it tasteless. A list of inadequate ingredients culminates in Larkin. This follows Alvarez, who set up Larkin as a patsy for Hughes to bat down. But Larkin persistently refuses to fall flat. Alvarez’ argument is no more convincing than it was 45 years ago because it is circular: he wants a poetry with elements of the brutal, the savage, the violent; Larkin is not such a poet; therefore Larkin is inferior. It may well have been salutary at the time for Alvarez to favour the poetry he did, and one can understand Laurie Smith feeling the same today. But salutary preferences are one thing and overall critical judgement another.

Feeling is as essential to poetry as it is to the humans who voice it, but humans are not all feeling and would meet with disaster if they were. Sense and sensibility both have their claims. We are as moved as we are by Milton’s sonnet on his blindness not because it is the loudest possible shriek of distress but because he starts by voicing his distress then attends to why he needs to restrain it.

The tradition Laurie Smith deplores took shape in the 19th century, the century of Tennyson, Browning, Clough, Arnold, Swinburne, Meredith, Kipling, Hardy and others. Where does he find it wanting?

Its language is restrained? By what comparison, thinking of Meredith, of Swinburne?

The language is grammatical? But grammar is an achievement not a flaw. Syntax is a means of expression, and if no grammar then no syntax. It would no doubt be a loss if all poetry had to be grammatical, but a greater one if little of it was.

It was valued for thoughtful decoration – adjectives, metonymy, simile? But these are not decorations, they are inherent parts of poetic speech.

Plangent cadence often expressing a sense of loss? There is much loss in life and why not regret it?

Lack of attention to the music of verse? In the century of Tennyson, of Swinburne?

Failure of imagination and experiment? What of these in Tennyson’s narrative of The Holy Grail, in his Maud with its exploration of mental illness, in Meredith’s Modern Love with its frankness about sexuality and marriage, in the cool sophistication of Clough’s Amours de Voyage, in Browning’s originality in developing the dramatic monologue, and his audacities of rhythm? Not to mention his Sordello, accused of many things but not yet of conventionality or lack of imagination.

Valuing universal emotions not personal and believing it was bad manners to express strong emotion openly? Arnold’s Dover Beach, Meredith again, Hardy’s poems on his dead wife, and much else strongly voice remarkably personal emotions, and Laurie Smith acknowledges that In Memoriam is a masterpiece. He mentions Palgrave’s Golden Treasury (1861), which established the canon for non-contemporary poetry. It focuses just as he himself does on poets of strong feeling, especially the early Romantics, at the expense of other sorts of poetry. In general, 19th century poetry was the most emotional we have seen, if sometimes in lesser hands to the point of sentimentality.

It would seem that Laurie Smith’s enthusiasm about the future has led to a loss of perspective about the past. I wonder if another cause is in play – if so, then the point is of general interest. He claims the mediocrity of British poetry is due to British social conventions, public schools and so on. For him, poetic quality is closely linked to political radicalism. He responds to this link at the turn of the 18th and 19th centuries and hopes for the same in the future. How far is this valid?

There was such a link, but he exaggerates its strength. Wordsworth was the pivotal figure. He was indeed an enthusiast for the French Revolution, but his enthusiasm evaporated. His deeper allegiance was to the revival of interest in traditional peoples and their national cultures which dominated European sensibility from the mid 18th century till early in the 20th. This revival was conservative to the extent that it was protective of what might be lost, a reaction against the vast changes involved in industrialisation, urbanisation and what we now call globalisation. It bore on its current the Oxford Movement, Ruskin, Morris and much else, to culminate in Yeats who transposes these preoccupations to an Irish setting.

This may be why Laurie Smith seeks a poetry of feeling but does not recognise the 19th century as providing it. As he rightly says, a good deal of its feeling was conservative or to do with loss. A lot more derived from agonising over religion. These do not chime easily with what he seeks for the future.

In more general terms, are literary revolutions necessarily radical? What of that of the early 20th century? British poetry had worn out its style and change came from both directions – a new intensity of language from Hopkins, but also the relief provided by a cooler poetic, through revived interest in the Metaphysicals, Eliot’s importation of French poetry via Prufock, and Ezra Pound’s switch in style inspired by Ford Madox Ford’s dictum that poetry should be as well written as prose. Pound later passed this on to Yeats. As often, British poetry owed a lot to its receptiveness to a wide range of influences both from within itself and outside. But the changes were not linked to political radicalism – many of them were led by poets more politically conservative than their predecessors.

Last, revolutions are not perpetual. Any sensitive person will see things amiss in their own society and want to criticise aspects of its art, but it would be a historical error to think that only artists radically opposed to both are capable of greatness. Think of the history of painting. The great innovators such as Giotto, Leonardo and Michelangelo were not followed by either perpetual revolution or mediocrity, but by those who digested their originality, carried it forward through development not revolt, and cannot be said to be inferior – Raphael, later Titian, and so on. So the chief poetic innovators, Wordsworth and Coleridge, were followed by the generation of Keats and Shelley and then by the later poets of the century till the original impulse faded and a changed poetic took over.

Those who want to see radical change often seek to clear away the past to make way for a golden future. Laurie Smith finds that a decline in educational standards means we now have “an education without meaningful contact with good poetry,” yet this has a positive side in providing, “freedom from the constricting view of poetry that dominated British education.” Judging by its results, was it all that constricting, and are we likely to benefit from seizing the opportunity to cut ourselves off from our own poetic roots? Poetry continually renews itself from its own past, in unpredictable ways. Excessive disparagement of that past risks encouraging an all too prevalent complacency of ignorance, and a future that ends up impoverished rather than golden.