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Paris: The Black Sun Press, 1931. Pp. 62; Preface, i-ix. 1

I doubt whether we can ever understand the poetry of a contemporary; especially if we are engaged in writing ourselves. This remark will not seem surprising, or anything more than commonplace, if we stop to try to understand the limited and peculiar sense in which we may be said to “understand” poetry at all. In the senses in which we “understand” a mathematical demonstration, a philosophical reasoning, a legal argument, a variety of scientific demonstrations, an historical account – and I do not say that this is all one kind of understanding either – poetry may have a greater or less understandable element, according to its particular types. The more there is to understand, in this sense, the more easily is the poetry “understood”; which is why the poetry of Pope, let us say, appears easier to understand than that of Rimbaud. 2 What the public wants, on the whole, is something safely between two extremes. Whatever contains a considerable rational element, as the poetry of Pope and Dryden, of Lucretius, of Sir John Davies – to take a few names at random – is rejected as “prosaic”; whatever consists of too concentrated and exact a sequence and arrangement of image and rhythm is rejected as “obscure.” 3 The majority of people can get no emotional excitement, but only fatigue, from intellectual effort; the majority is unable to apprehend any exact emotion economically recorded. These observations, if true, may help to explain why a certain public enjoys the works of Mrs. Wilcox, which give it the pleasure of which it is capable without the comparatively immense mental effort needed to enjoy the work of her masters, Tennyson, Browning and Swinburne. 4

Harry Crosby’s verse was consistently, I think, the result of an effort to record as exactly as possible to his own satisfaction a particular way of apprehending life. When I first read some of his poems I concluded merely that he was a young man in a hurry; but I must add now that of being in a hurry there are two distinct kinds. 5 To be in a hurry to get to a clearly conceived destination, a destination which is only clearly conceived because others have already arrived there and charted the country, usually results in a short journey, in the secondhand rhythms and imagery of the facile half-successes which are common in our and perhaps every time. But Crosby was in a hurry, I think, because he was aware of a direction, and ignorant of the destination, only conscious that time was short and the terminus a long way off. Incidentally he was, it seems to me, unlike most of his contemporaries, indifferent, in his exploring interest, to whether what he wrote on the way should be poetry or not; and I do not see how anyone can go very far in poetry who is not ready to risk complete failure, or, for the most part, who does not in fact commit a great deal of failure on the way. The poet of the greatest possibilities, I believe, is disgusted always with what he has already done: or rather, relatively disgusted, for we must turn even our greatest failures to great account. I cannot admit any easy distinction between promiseand achievement; for the admission of promise is a recognition of something already there; and every real achievement, in spite of the brevity of life, should be a promise of something further. Not, of course, that this continuing promise is anything but disconcerting to the majority even of the most sympathetic readers; we must all be ready to risk the imputation of having gone too far.

Poets arrive at originality by different routes. Some, by progressive imitation; though the word imitationis truly applicable only to the successes of the negligible; for those who have something in them, the process is rather towards a finding of themselves by a...

Published By:   Faber & Faber logo    Johns Hopkins University Press

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