Laurie Smith asks: where are today’s beautiful poems?

For this issue of Magma we asked people to send us poems on the theme ‘it was beautiful’ because we wondered if it was still possible to write poems about experiences, people, objects or places that the writer finds beautiful. We also wondered whether this would produce some beautiful poems. No-one can set out to write a beautiful poem, of course, but perhaps a poem on almost any topic may turn out to be beautiful.

The response was enormous and it was clear that most poets had difficulty approaching the beautiful except by way of its opposite – the ugly; not a few seemed to have little idea what the beautiful in poetry, or beautiful poetry, might look like. I think this lack is ominous for the future of poetry, that unless poets can sometimes write poems that are widely regarded as beautiful, poetry will regrettably have no future worth having. This is most obviously true of lyric poetry but, without the possibility of beautiful lyric poems as the reason that most people initially enjoy and become interested in poetry, other genres – narrative, descriptive, satirical, dramatic – will also have no future.

The basis of this argument is straightforward. In his introduction to Staying Alive (2002), the best- selling poetry anthology for nearly 30 years, Neil Astley writes about “poems which have moved us profoundly and unforgettably… poems that speak to us with the same power now as when we first came across them… That short poem we stared at, read and re-read on the underground or subway train. Or the one photocopied by a friend, now a personal talisman pinned to the kitchen noticeboard or kept in a wallet”. Astley writes in a self-help context, but his argument that memorability and popularity go together – that many of the finest poems are those known and loved by large numbers of people – is the same as Heaney’s and Hughes’s in The Rattle Bag (1982), the previous best-selling anthology: “Most of the poems lay about for the taking in places already well known to people, younger or older, who read verse”. And it is the same for Palgrave in The Golden Treasury (1861), the most successful anthology of the 19th century: “Many familiar verses will hence be met with; many also should be familiar; – the Editor will regard as his fittest readers those who love Poetry so well that he can offer them nothing not already known and valued”.

Astley states, and Heaney and Hughes and Palgrave imply, that people who are aware of poetry have a personal anthology of poems, partly or sometimes wholly remembered, to which they return as they feel the need. The point is made dramatically by Eliot with the list of quotations at the end of The Waste Land: “These fragments I have shored against my ruins”. Personal anthologies seem not to be much discussed, presumably because they are so personal, expressing thoughts and feelings in ways that individuals believe to be particularly true for themselves. But they certainly exist and conversations over the years suggests that they consist both of well-known poems – “They flee from me that sometime did me seek”, “When to the sessions of sweet silent thought”, “O rose, thou art sick”, “Earth hath not anything to show more fair,” “Downhill I came, hungry, but not starved”, “Stop all the clocks, cut off the telephone” – and of less well-known ones which may be more intensely personal. And they may be added to at any time.

People also know sayings and aphorisms which they believe to be true and particularly well expressed: “Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely”, “A cynic is a person who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing”, “Religion is the opium of the people”, etc. But the poems and parts of poems in our personal anthology are different from these statements in two ways: first, they strike us as true emotionally rather than intellectually and, second, they are exceptionally well expressed, using all the poet’s resources of language, its sound, movement and meaning. Again, this is well-established. Many of the attempts to describe the effect of poetry make the same point in similar terms: Pope’s “What oft was thought, but ne’er so well express’d”, Coleridge’s “Poetry; the best words in the best order”, Keats’ “a regular stepping of the Imagination towards a Truth”, Frost’s “a momentary stay against confusion”, Stevens’ “[the poet] gives to life the supreme fictions without which we are unable to conceive of it”.

I have said we feel that the poems and parts of poems in our personal anthology are exceptionally well expressed. Actually I mean that we find them beautiful, but using the word in public discourse has become uncomfortable. Publicly describing something as beautiful is now felt to be insincere, exaggerated, immature, perhaps camp. I think it is vital for the future of poetry that we understand why this has happened and what can be done about it. If we cannot speak about beauty in poetry, we will lose the ability to recognize it on the well-established principle that consciousness of a matter depends on the ability to articulate it. And if we become unable to recognize beauty in poetry, we will become unable to write beautiful poems and poetry will be permanently impoverished.

A corollary of this is that, without the ability to recognize and talk about beauty, it is possible that no future poet will come to be regarded as great. This is because no poet has been regarded as very good unless they have sometimes written lyric poetry widely regarded as beautiful, and great poets have achieved this quite often. (Lyric poems need not be freestanding, of course. Shakespeare’s plays and Wordsworth’s Prelude contain many beautiful lyrical passages.) In Britain and Ireland there is a sense of waiting to see who will follow Heaney. The amount of poetic activity has increased hugely in both countries in the last 20 years – courses, readings, books, pamphlets, competitions, prizes – but it is unclear whether this will result in more very good, rather than very competent, poetry.

I want to argue that if some poets are to rise from competence to write very good, perhaps great, poetry, they will need to be able to write beautifully. I will suggest why it has become difficult to talk about this, then sketch how we might do so again, showing how this works with poems by Frank O’Hara, Elizabeth Bishop and Michael Donaghy.

Susan Sontag has traced the process by which talking about beauty became taboo in a late essay, An Argument About Beauty in At the Same Time. By the 18th century the ordinary meaning of beauty – what Sontag calls “a gladness to the senses” – had been arranged on an ascending scale of value and incorruptibility as “uplifting beauty”, “intellectual beauty”, “moral beauty”, “spiritual beauty”, etc. Lessing’s concept of beauty-as-harmony was paralleled by Kant’s proposed faculty of “judgment” which actually meant “taste” – the taste of the classes that commissioned the art. As the 19th century progressed, the concept of beauty became ever emptier, the art-for-art’s-sake movement (Sontag is primarily concerned with visual art) continuing to paint attractive but vacuous young women, heroic-looking men, historical or mythical scenes, nature reproduced with photographic fidelity. In poetry, from Tennyson as his long life progressed and from his less talented followers, reams of verse, consolatory or uplifting, much of it melodious and well-phrased, but emotionally dull if not dead.

By the early 20th century, beautiful art was seen as false and lifeless (Gertrude Stein said that to call a work of art beautiful meant that it was dead) and also elitist and exclusionary. Modernism demanded that all the arts included the discontinuities of modern life, including ugliness, and “beautiful” quickly became a term of contempt. For a hundred years, the safest response to a new work of art has been to call it “interesting”. Sontag is dismissive about this: “Imagine saying ‘That sunset is interesting’”.

This legacy is still with us. We feel uncomfortable describing a poem as beautiful, sensing that this is somehow insincere or pretentious. Serious writers about poetry avoid the issue. In his first and finest essay, The Noble Rider and the Sound of Words, Wallace Stevens uses nobility as a proxy for beauty and in his Poetry Review article of Autumn 2007, Don Paterson focuses on the need for musicality in poetry: “The phenomenon of music in poetry… is very simply characterized. Except in some very particular cases, it means that the poem displays deliberate organisation and some form of symmetry or parallelism in its arrangement of sound”. Musicality is probably a necessary condition for beautiful poetry, but it is not sufficient. I think a beautiful poem must fulfil three conditions and offer these for discussion.

The most convincing description of a how a lyric poem achieves its effects has been developed by Helen Vendler. She summarises this in the introduction to Seamus Heaney (1998): “Once the poet has found the symbolic plane on which to sketch his topic – as, say, Keats was able to contemplate the rivalry to poetry offered by the visual arts and music by sketching the former through the Grecian urn and the latter through the nightingale – he must find a way (since poetry is a temporal art) to prolong that symbolic plane through time. This need to prolong creates the structure of the poem, which may be sequential, contrastive, dialogic, climactic, etc; this temporal structure must, in a poem of the first order, be formally expressive of the symbolic theme. (That is, a poem contrasting two states could be written in contrasting stanzas – as is the case in Wordsworth’s A Slumber Did My Spirit Seal – or in the octave-sestet contrast of a sonnet, or in any other for, such as a dialogue, that supported its contrastive theme.”

Vendler has written elsewhere of Shakespeare’s skill in endlessly varying the literary structure and therefore emotional effect of the four elements of the sonnet – the three quatrains and the couplet. Another example of contrastive structure, not given by Vendler, is Auden’s Funeral Blues (“Stop all the clocks”) where the paraphernalia of modern life in the first two stanzas gives way to the elemental simplicity of the last two.

Following Vendler, we can say that the first condition of a beautiful poem is that feeling is expressed in a structure that makes the experience described in the poem appear universal – that it is meaningful to readers far removed from the poet in time and space. It is this that makes readers return, generation after generation, for example to Sappho’s Fragment 31 with its tormented passionate imagery and the 10th century Exeter Book’s Wulf and Eadwacer with its despairing repetitions and savage wolf/whelp wordplay.

The second condition is that the poem will include the non-beautiful and, through its structure, integrate it as a necessary part of the poem. The non-beautiful may be ugliness or the mundane in any of its forms or it may involve humour. It is necessary to ground the poem in the world in which readers live and avoid the emptiness of 19th century ‘beautiful’ poetry.

The third condition is heightened language. The poet will use the resources of language – its sound, movement and meaning – in ways not normally found in prose. This will often involve the patterning and musicality of which Paterson writes.

My first example is Frank O’Hara’s A Step Away from Them which Karen Solie also writes about on page 26. It describes a lunchtime walk in Manhattan and is full of mundane detail: people walking, cabs, what the poet eats and drinks. The poet is gay and this may add a frisson to his noting “laborers [who] feed their dirty / glistening torsos sandwiches / and Coca-Cola, with yellow helmets / on”. Possible desire is followed by awareness of possible death: “They protect them from falling / bricks, I guess”. Later, “There are several Puerto /Ricans on the avenue today, which / makes it beautiful and warm”. One guesses they are male Puerto Ricans for this is immediately followed by:

Bunny died, then John Latouche,
then Jackson Pollock. But is the earth
as full as life was full, of them?

The reader stumbles over the last line and is meant to. In an otherwise fully grammatical poem, the grammar here becomes unclear bringing the reader, like the poet in his lunchtime walk, to a momentary halt. The hesitation in the grammar expresses a brief emotional incoherence: is the earth as full of life now that these men, who were full of life, are gone? They died young, full of vigour, not of old age. One sees the poem is an elegy and its title can now be understood: even on a lunchtime walk through the city, the poet is only a step away from dead men he knew and perhaps loved. The poem’s structure is sequential, an apparently mundane narrative, but its language is occasionally heightened, including at a crucial moment of emotional perception. By these means the poem offers the experience of having lost friends dying young through time and space to people who know nothing of Manhattan, whether or not they are gay.

Elizabeth Bishop’s At the Fishhouses describes an almost deserted industrial scene at dusk; the fishhouses are where cod and herring are landed and processed, and an old man, a friend of the poet’s grandfather, is mending his net. Bishop describes the scene factually, including the smell of fish so strong “it makes one’s nose run and one’s eyes water”. And she notes that almost everything is silver – the sea, the benches, lobsterpots and masts. “The big fish tubs are completely lined / with layers of beautiful herring scales / and the wheelbarrows are similarly plastered / with creamy iridescent coats of mail, / with small iridescent flies crawling on them.” Nothing is omitted or minimized – “plastered” is not an attractive word and flies feed on putrefaction – but the origin of their beauty is noted: “layers of beautiful herring scales”, which are also “sequins” on the old man’s vest and thumb. Bishop notes that “He has scraped the scales, the principal beauty, / from unnumbered fish”.

The final silver objects are the tree trunks laid horizontally on the long ramp leading into the water. Thought of the water as water, not as the sea or fishing grounds, startles Bishop into the only line in the poem that is repeated: “Cold dark deep and absolutely clear”. As the fishhouses are a symbol of human industry with a superficial beauty derived from fishscales, the sea symbolises something else. Bishop isn’t ready to tell us yet and lightens the mood by describing how she sang Baptist hymns to a seal. Behind her “a million Christmas trees stand / waiting for Christmas” – another example of how humankind uses nature. She finally returns to the water and describes how
fatal it would be to enter it; and yet “It is like what we imagine knowledge to be: / dark, salt, clear, moving, utterly free…”

The structure of the poem is contrastive and also, by use of parallels, becomes symbolic. Three examples of human activity are given – humankind’s use of fish and fir trees, singing to a seal. They are of different orders of importance, but all are as nothing compared with the water of the sea symbolized as knowledge and indeed history – “since / our knowledge is historical, flowing, and flown”. Yet human life is all we can know: the sea of knowledge would kill us. Through language that is mostly realistic but gradually heightens in the last 17 lines, Bishop renews our awareness that experience is an endless flux and her use of the fishing industry, Christmas trees and singing hymns gently establishes both the attraction and the pointlessness of human endeavour. From a simple realistic beginning, Bishop builds a complex meditation, reaching back to Stein’s “in that destructive element immerse” in Conrad’s Lord Jim and perhaps to Emily Dickinson’s “If I read a book and it makes my whole body so cold no fire can ever warm me, I know that is poetry”.

Michael Donaghy’s Caliban’s Books is also contrastive in structure, but works ironically at several levels. The attempt to conjure his father is both humorous and emotionally deadly serious – in what sense does a son want to conjure up his dead father? The father had been picked to play Caliban in the school play “because ‘I was the handsomest boy at school’” and so would have to be made up ugly. It was Prospero, of course, who had the magic books and decided to drown them; Caliban was illiterate. The father had some self-improvement paperbacks – “seachanged bouquets, each brown page / scribbled on, underlined, memorized, / forgotten like used pornography”.

The contrast appears in the third and final stanza when the spell is changed and the poet imagines himself in Naples:

The moment comes. It slips from the hold
and knucklewalks across the dark piazza
sobbing maestro! maestro! But the duke’s long dead
and all his magic books are drowned.

One might complain about the uncertainty of “It” which refers not to the moment but to Donaghy’s vision of himself as Caliban, knucklewalking like an ape and sobbing for his father who, in his son’s imagination, was surely Prospero. The poem uses a Shakespeare play as a universalizing device and the ironies set up a complex emotional situation which is resolved by the heightened language of the last four lines and the plangent cadence of the last two. It speaks to every son, perhaps every child, who admires a dead father excessively but inescapably.

For me these three poems are indisputably beautiful. Hopefully others will have their own choices. If we can begin to admit that we find certain poems beautiful, we can discuss and argue about how they achieve this effect. And there will be a greater chance that more such poems will be written.