Modern Tendencies in Poetry
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212 ] Modern Tendencies in Poetry1 Shama’a, 1 (Apr 1920) 9-18 A popular theme of Extension lecturers and the like is the Relation of Poetry to Life. Poetry has been interrogated a good many times by these conscientious educators, who have exerted considerable ventriloqual ingenuity in the replies they have pretended to extract from it. But if Life, in the form of forty sweating millions in these islands, were forced to discourse upon its Relation to Poetry, what shuffling answer could it make? You produce half a dozen, at most, of respectable poets in a generation; you produce twenty or thirty people who are capable of discovering that these poets are good; a hundred people who can see that they are good when somebody else points it out; a thousand who will admire out of respect for others’ opinion; and the rest who will, eventually, believe what they are told. This was the case with dead poets; and yet the contemporary poet is advised that he ought to make a wider appeal, that he ought not to require of his public, erudition – that is, trained sensibility or subtlety of feeling – that is, concentrated attention. Or else he is cherished by a few because of his narrow appeal. The good poet, if he has a regular income, can survive; he will always manage to accomplish something; the tendency of good poets is to write good poetry, and this is a modern as well as an ancient tendency. But the “tendency of poetry” depends on the audience as well. So, if you wish to ask what we are likely to get, in the way of poetry, I must ask what you will do with it when you get it; ignore it, or make it a coterie pet, or allow it something like the activity which the plays of Shakespeare and the songs of Dr. Thomas Campion enjoyed in their time. Having thus disposed of half of the responsibility, my business is, I believe, to endeavour to determine what is meant by “modern” poetry, and to trace, among the variety of currents and eddies, what is the line of true poetry, as distinguished from mere novelties. How are we to decide what is really new? In what sense must a poet be “of his time” to be really a good poet? In answering these questions it is useful, not to compare poetry to science , but to start out with the view that poetry is a science. The relation of art and science has recently been examined on several occasions in the Athenaeum, but I do not think that I am attacking it from quite the same [ 213 Modern Tendencies in Poetry point of view as either of the writers.2 What I shall say you may take provisionally as only analogies. But to say that poetry is a science is in the first place to say that poetry is a serious study, a life-time’s work. It is impossible to say how far public opinion has been affected by the fact that the tendency of Victorian poetry was determined by the influence of two poets – Shelley and Keats – who died young and rather romantically; at any rate poetry is apt to be associated with youth and youthful inspiration, rather than with steady toil, it is also associated with the charm of youthful personality .3 But if we take poetry seriously as a work and not as the mere ebullition of a personality, we shall find that the poet’s training and equipment is parallel to the training and equipment of the scientist; we find that his purpose is parallel; and that his attitude toward his work is parallel. First, his equipment: his knowledge of what has been done in the past. This is germane to the question of modern tendency; for it is only in relation to the past that anything is new. It is as necessary – and this reveals the great defect of much contemporary verse – for the poet to study previous poetry as for the scientist to know the history of his science, and what has been accomplished up to date. Take the adolescent poet when he begins to write. He does not begin with a scientific spirit or much knowledge of his subject. His impulse is ejaculatory and imitative. He desires to extrude from himself some pressing and restless feelings in which he has become interested, and the shape they assume is decided by one or two admirations...