Art Kavanagh

Criticism, fiction and other writing

Bad poetic taste is better than no taste at all

For almost as long as I’ve had any idea what poetry is, I’ve been aware that my poetic taste (if “taste” is the right word) is regrettably narrow. When I was studying for my English degree (as a mature student in my 30s) I was occasionally told by fellow students that I like “difficult” or “complex” poetry. There’s some truth in that. I don’t like all difficult poetry, merely because of its difficulty. I’d be perfectly happy if I had never read The Waste Land and, though I reread a lot, I look with equanimity on the possibility that I may never read it again. To start with, I like poetry that is genuinely “metaphysical”, like Donne’s attempts to work out what James Smith called “the problem of the Many and the One”. Even more than Donne, I like Marvell — I wrote my thesis on him after all — who often seems simultaneously fascinated and appalled by paradox, as here:

Nature that hateth emptiness,
Allows of penetration less:
    And therefore must make room
    Where greater spirits come.

From the seventeenth century, there’s a great leap through history till we get to Empson (“Landing, you break some palace and seem odd”), who also affected the metaphysics. But what of the centuries in between? I should say at once that there are two towering figures who leave me unmoved: Wordsworth and Tennyson. These two stand out, but they’re not the only major figures whose greatness I fail to appreciate. Coleridge is another. But Wordsworth’s poetry is the perfect place to start.

The first poem I can remember learning in primary school — in fact, it’s the only poem I can remember from childhood apart from Allingham’s “The Fairies”, which I think I may have been taught by my grandmother — is “I wandered lonely as a cloud” (“Daffodils”). I never took this poem seriously and I’m now sure that part of the reason for this was the mention of “that inward eye” on which, when the poet was “in vacant or in pensive mood”, the image of the daffodils he had seen earlier would “flash”. I was very young at the time — 9 or 10, I think — and it didn’t begin to cross my mind that there might be people in the world who had an “inward eye” capable of showing them images of imagined or remembered scenes.

Later, I’d grudgingly accept that there must be some especially gifted people, visual artists in particular, who really were capable of seeing their thoughts, their memories and their imaginings, but it would be a whole five decades before I at last became convinced that it’s actually perfectly normal for humans to be able to visualize. As a child, I’d often been told that I had a good or great imagination, and I believed it. If I could imagine stories, exotic places and adventures without being able to picture them in my mind, then surely nobody really needed an “inward eye”? In the meantime, I’d irrevocably categorized Wordsworth as at best a fanciful wishful thinker, and whenever I encountered his poetry after that I approached it with suspicion.

I’ve written before about the effects of aphantasia (an inability to form visual images mentally) and SDAM (an inability to remember vividly “episodes” — as opposed to ideas, abstractions, formulae, recitals of fact and bare narratives) on how one reads poetry (and fiction). It’s difficult to be be sure how extensive the effects are. Aphantasia didn’t impede Empson’s ability to become a brilliant critic (or poet!) but I’ve speculated that it allowed him to follow certain paths that a visualizer would have been less likely to take.

Obviously, a poem will not be able to evoke a visual image in the mind of an aphantasic reader — in the mind of this particular reader, to be specific. But perhaps that doesn’t matter very much: I can think of surprisingly few poems that seem to be attempting to call up mental images. For example, take these lines from Yeats’s “Sailing to Byzantium”:

O sages standing in God’s holy fire
As in the gold mosaic of a wall,
Come from the holy fire, perne in a gyre,
And be the singing-masters of my soul.
Consume my heart away …

We’re not supposed to see that, are we? (At any rate, I’m relieved that I can’t.)

Aphantasia also seems to affect my reading when it’s necessary to discuss a poem’s structure or shape. Unless the structure is fairly simple or abstract — capable of being abstracted from the work itself — I’m incapable of perceiving it. Typically, I can apprehend the structure, if at all, only by mentally separating it from the poem. (This applies equally to drama and fiction as to poetry, of course.) For a long time, when critics spoke of “structure”, I thought that this was an incongruously concrete term to use for a nebulous idea.

But aphantasia isn’t the only cause of my idiosyncratic approach the reading and appreciation of poetry. Another factor may be the way I’m used to thinking about “nature”.

For much of my adult life I’ve objected to the idea that there’s a fundamental opposition between human activity on the one hand and “nature” on the other. Human beings, after all, are “naturally occurring”: we have evolved from (and like) other species, we reproduce organically, we eat similar food to other species and live in some of the same ways. Many of the things we do are not, I’ve tended to insist, different in kind from the behaviour of other living beings. For these reasons I’ve generally tried to avoid referring to “nature” as some kind of force separate from human beings, and excluding us.

If many of the ways we humans act upon the world seem to be in conflict with the natural, that’s not (I believed) the result of some innate, fundamental human estrangement from our environment (“original sin”) but rather the consequence of an alienation brought about by capitalist relations of production.

(Of course, it’s become difficult to maintain in the face of the climate crisis the view that there’s no inherent opposition between “humans” and “nature”. I’m still convinced that the crisis might have been avoided but I’ve become far less inclined to deny that, for all practical purposes, humans have placed ourselves outside nature and in opposition to it.)

But, in line with my former views, I’ve generally been inclined to steer clear of anything described as “nature poetry” or that I thought might be so described. A consequence of this, I think, is that I tend not to like the Romantics — with one glaring and hugely significant exception: Keats!

I sometimes think that my liking for Keats stems from the fact that his poetry is sensuous enough to overpower or break through the extremely unsensuous (visually, of course, but also in tactile, olfactory and gustatory terms) quality of my imagination. I may write about his poetry at some point, though it’s unlikely that I’ll be able to find anything new to say about it. If I do, I’ll treat this post as an introduction, and link from it to the new post, and back from that to this.

Posted by Art on 23-Jun-2024.