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POETRY REVIEW A VIEW OF CONTEMPORARY ENGLISH POETRY / John Wain WHEN THE MODERN WORLD first became definitively "modern"— that is, in the 1920s—people who saw themselves as apparatchiki of this modernity (LA. Richards, say) used to speculate on whether poetry had a future, usually with the implication that the question was an open one. Now, sixty years later, there are swarms of poets everywhere one looks, hundreds of volumes published, poetry magazines and poetry workshops and poetry prizes and poetry-God-knows-what from horizon to horizon. But what actually has survived? The thing, or the word? Have we, in effect, altered the definition of poetry so as to reassure ourselves that our world still has poets and that what they are writing is poetry? Of course people who dislike any kind of poetry always bring against it the charge that it is "not poetry." An old gentleman whose taste had been formed in the 1640s, and who lived long enough to see the age of Dryden, would certainly have said that the kind of work he was confronted with from 1680 to 1700 was "not poetry." For one thing, he would have wanted to read sonnets. In the Europe of his youth, the sonnet had been so much the accepted form for the short poem—it had been such a natural form of expression for the great Italian poets, the French Renaissance poets, and then Spenser and Shakespeare and Milton—that when the flow of sonnets suddenly stopped, it must have seemed to our old gentleman that something had gone out of poetry. Something had, of course, gone out of poetry, something always goes out of it, and the question is whether anything much comes back in. The sonnet was, par excellence, a craftsman's form; both Dryden and Pope were major craftsmen, but neither of them ever wrote a sonnet. That particular form of chiming expression, that miniature echo-chamber which can produce such haunting effects, simply did not appeal to them. They did not find its effect haunting any more than people apparently do today. Yet poetry went on; the work of Dryden and Pope is undeniably fine poetry; and even the sonnet returned after an absence of a century and a half and had a new, triumphant reign. The question, then, is: In view of the continual outflowing, the continual dying-back, what is coming to growth in its place? If we speak of the demise of poetry, are we just arguing about a word? The situation is particularly clear-cut in France. If we take Les Fleurs du Mal as a high-water mark in French nineteenth-century poetry (and surely it was that, at the very least), then we have to make the accompanying admission that none of the work produced in France today would have The Missouri Review · 51 been recognized as poetry by Baudelaire's generation. In that sense, French poetry has died out. What, then, of English poetry at present? We can, of course, say at once that if we adopt the perspective of a hundred years ago, then poetry has died out here, almost as surely as in France. There is virtually nothing being written by anyone under about sixty that Tennyson or Patmore or Swinburne would acknowledge as poetry at all. We have, nevertheless, contrived to substitute for that older mode of poetry a mass of material to which we still apply the name. What elements of poetry, of the essential poetic spirit, does this new material contain? I think we can best approach the answer if we begin by considering a huge cleavage. Of the "poets" publishing in the U.K. today, roughly half are in fact prose-writers. The prose they write may be rich in image and metaphor, it may be highly charged with imaginative energy, but who ever said that prose could not be these things if it tried? These writers approach poetry with the assumption, very common in the modern world, that its distinguishing mark is imaginative intensity. Any writing that is very highly charged with imagination—so runs the unspoken argument—is ipso facto "poetic" and therefore "poetry." It is, by a...


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