Serious Poetry: Form and Authority from Yeats to Hill
Format: PDF / Kindle (mobi) / ePub
Do we want to read poetry, or just like having a few poets to talk about? The history of poetry in twentieth-century Britain and Ireland is one which ends with the assimilation of successful poets into a media culture; it is also, however, another history, one of form and authority, in which certain poets found modes and pitches of resistance to the seeming inevitabilities of their times. In this history, it is the authority of poetry (and not the media-processed poet) which is at stake in the integrity of poetic form.
Serious Poetry: Form and Authority from Yeats to Hill offers a controversial reading of twentieth-century British and Irish poetry centred on six figures, all of whom are critics as well as poets: W. B. Yeats, T. S. Eliot, W. H. Auden, Louis MacNeice, Seamus Heaney, and Geoffrey Hill. Yeats's centrality to twentieth-century poetry - and the problem many poets and critics had, or still have, with that centrality - is a major focus of the book. Serious Poetry argues that it is in the strengths, possibilities, perplexities, and certainties of the poetic form that poetry's authority in a distrustful cultural climate remains most seriously alive.
evidence against the Yeats 'who had denied a high degree of reality to the Great War, and who refused to write a poem about it on request'.12 In the weeks shortly before the Armistice, Yeats's American patron John Quinn wrote to the poet on the subject of the War, and on his part in its literature—too small a part, in Quinn's view:13 I never said to you before what I have said frequently to your father, and that was how much I regretted that you had not taken some part on the side of what I have
through the anxiety not to be left out of this consensus. Opinion's most winning ways suggest that those with a special interest and the pretence of authority in a subject have been outstripped by you and me, or have got wrong what we agree we have got right. Samuel Johnson on Gray's 'Elegy' is the most sprightly instance of this attractive sentiment:2 In the character of his Elegy I rejoice to concur with the common reader; for by the common sense of readers uncorrupted with literary prejudices,
with him, are to be found. In poetry from Northern Ireland, in particular, such kinds of reception are often to do with form, and can be traced through study of the kinds of formal resource exploited by poets in the course of the 'influence' Yeats has provided. This chapter raises one formal concern in particular, that of the stanza, and traces Yeats's importance in this respect through some work by Seamus Heaney, Derek Mahon, Michael Longley, and (more briefly) Paul Muldoon. First, however, it
Longley's typographical layout, with its symmetries of variously indented lines in rhymed stanzas, serves to emphasize the tight order of the writing itself, and an element of self-consciousness inheres in such feats of balance. In one 25 26 Heaney, The Place of Writing, 49. Auden, 'In Memory of W. B. Yeats', The English Auden, 243. 15 8 Yeats, Form, and Northern Irish Poetry stanza of 'The Hebrides', for example, Longley seems to measure the distance between his aesthetic practice and the
attention might need to be spent on certain things, and that the more these are spent the more these things repay them, is likely to be seen as an idea of difficulty, which a rhetoric of democratic openness finds hard to stomach; and this, in turn, is often perceived as being now in league with a host of unacceptable positions—'elitism', 'arrogance', and the like—with which few contemporary commentators would wish to have themselves associated. In an interview following the publication of The