Thursday, September 10, 2009

What is Poetry?

Way back sometime in 1968-70 when I attended UCD at night doing a BA degree which included English the late Nuala O'Faolain taught us a course called The Victorian Sage. It dealt with figures like John Ruskin, (He features in the TV programme Desperate Romantics) Walter Pater, (She particularly disliked his aesthetic philosophy), Cardinal Newman (possibly soon to be made a saint of the Catholic Church) etc.

One evening she starting by saying something like Do you want to sit here and listen to another boring lecture by me on one of these long dead Victorian farts or do you want to go to Room XXX where a wonderful visitor from England (?) is giving a lecture on What is Poetry? So herself and the lot of us rushed off to the other room.

I don't remember much of the lecture, who it was or what he said. I do remember he discussed a controversy of the time about as poet, possibly English or Scottish, who had taken a prose piece from a novel and recast it as poetry and included it in a poetry collection without acknowledgement or reference. There was an outcry and he had to apologise.

Another panellist who I think was the Classics professor at UCD stood up and said All these little lyrics being written nowadays - they're not poetry! This is real poetry and read aloud from Homer's Iliad in Greek. This caused a lively debate.

Anyway I recalled that recently when I started reading Ezra Pound's poetry. Pound is well-known for his involvement with Italian fascism during the second world war. He made pro-fascist broadcasts on Italian radio during the conflict and was arrested and imprisoned afterwards, put on trial for treason. A plea of insanity was accepted and he was held in an institution until 1958. Pound has had an enormous influence on twentieth century poetry.

He wrote what may be the shortest great poem in the English language: In a Station of the Metro, just these two lines:

The apparition of these faces in the crowd;
Petals on a wet, black bough.


Pound's great work is the Cantos which run to 800 pages. It is full of references to classical, european and eastern literature and mythology, quotations in Italian, Greek, Latin, Spanish and includes Chinese ideograms. It has references to then current political figures and events - Churchill and Roosevelt come in for severe criticism. Pound especially attacks the financial system based on what he calls Usura (What would he say if he were here now!). He includes no notes, no references, no translations. To read it either an exhilarating romp through world literature and history or a laborious drudge which soon comes to an exhausted halt.

No, I didn't read it all. Within the work there are separate sections and the Pisan Cantos, Cantos LXXIV–LXXXIV (You have to relearn your Roman numerals if you want to read Pound) is one the most highly regarded sections. These were written while Pound was imprisoned - part of the time in a wire cage - near Pisa and are regarded as the most interesting section. I read them in an edition which had notes, explanations and translations.

Isn't that what retirement is for? More on them some other time.

1 comment:

BarbaraS said...

Those two lines of Pound's are what got me started in poetry in First Year at Grammar school. I can still see the classroom, and the condensation dripping down the windows as Sr Olive reads them out and I'm really taken with the notion that poetry can be that quick shot to the brain.