Tuesday, February 20, 2007

On a minor / Major note

Major vs Minor

I recently got involved in a discussion on the subject of being, or wanting to be, a major writer. This itself was an offshoot of another subject, namely Reginald Shepherd's blog about his reasons for writing poetry: Why I Write. I withdrew when our comments seemed to be developing an accretion of misunderstandings. This was at least partly my fault, perhaps wholly so. I was too flippant. Who was I to presume to play the jester in another writer's court? And an articulate writer at that, someone with carefully considered things to say. Nevertheless, some of what I said still holds true for me. As Reginald noted, he and I have different viewpoints. His is perfectly valid, but I believe mine is too.

Like Shepherd, I too would like to think that what I write matters in some way, that it reaches people and (hopefully) moves them; that it might make a reader pause and catch his/her breath as some dormant experience is revitalised, seen anew. That's an exciting thought, that I could embody some essential part of human experience, detach and somehow reshape an eddy from the rushing confluence of life and language; make it real again, give it a coherent worldlet to breathe in. To me, that seems enough to aim for. When I come upon a poet who does this for me, such as Eamon Grennan, Eileán Ní Chúilleanáin or Yusef Komunyakaa, I never wonder whether I may be reading a major writer. Instead, I might (as Larkin put it) think: "That's marvelous, how is it done, could I do it?"

Anyway, I am a little mystified as to what, exactly, denotes a great or major poet or poem. A major poem is, I guess, one that pushes the envelope in some way; not only sitting like a "stone in the midst of all", but also continually broadcasting, sending ripples through the generations. Must a major poem be linguistically innovative, like 'The Wasteland'? I suppose Eliot's modernist enterprise must be major, though I do not understand that much of it, and I get impatient with poems requiring 'Notes'. I love the music of it though, the way it shifts its focus fluidly, like a living thing. I love 'The Four Quartets (more quietly enigmatic but wholly compelling and incantatory) for similar reasons, despite its religious overtones, its occasional high churchy sense of a persona-in-a-pulpit. I trust where these poems take me – their lines that whistle through my mind like a sinewy subway breeze – because they have the capacity to haunt.

I don't wonder very much about whether the poetry I am writing or reading is great. I prefer reading or writing the shorter forms, what one might call ‘suitcase poems’. If I am taken by a particular poem, I like to think that I might be able to carry it (a large part of it anyway) around in my head, like a good song, though of course this isn't by any means an obligatory requirement.

Andrew Motion recently declared that there were only four or five great poets of the 20th Century, one of them being Auden. Perhaps he’s right, but this sounds to me like the kind of sweeping, reductive statement that one often hears from writers trying too obviously to push some agenda. According to Eliot, "the really valuable part" of Andrew Marvell's oeuvre "consists of a very few poems". So should Marvell, or any poet who leaves only a handful of important poems, be considered a great / major poet? If Marvell had only left us one poem, 'To His Coy Mistress' say, would he deserve the title ‘Great’, and if not why not? What's so great about Greatness anyway? Something inside me (a little warning light) begins to blink when I hear a person or country being described as Great: Great Writer, Great Leader, Great Britain. Thatcher was probably a Great Woman, in the same way that World War 1 was The Great War.

Is Greatness the same as Majorness? Pound's 'Cantos' probably qualifies as major, but is it a great work? His imagist gems are the ones that stay in my head (not that my head is some kind of ideal repository). Geoffrey Hill might be a major contender; his work is certainly ambitious enough. 'Mercian Hymns' is marvelous. But it is his short lyrics, 'Ovid In The Third Reich' and 'September Song' for example, that impress me as perfect (or as near perfect as one can get). I believe Frost's 'Birches' and 'Bishop's 'The Art of Losing' and 'At The Fishhouses', are great poems, but are they Great or Major, and should anybody care?

As to whether I will ever be considered great or even good by posterity (whatever that may be), I never give much thought to it. I have my doubts that any of my work will survive, or even get reissued once after I'm gone, or that I even deserve to be remembered, though merit may not have all that much to do with it. I write out of compulsion; an image or half-phrase tugs at me and I follow it. Sometimes I get up to scribble a few lines in the early hours, but more often I find myself redrafting poems that suggest that they may, in time, be made craftworthy. For me, self-doubt is just part of the equipment, like ballast for the hot air balloonist.

Others need to have some ambitious goal in their sights, something not quite over the horizon, and I respect that; whatever floats their boats. But my empathy is reserved for writers like Thomas McGuane, who consider it healthy to embrace one's own insignificance. Here he is in a recent Guardian interview:

"I find it more consoling to think of myself as little than to think of myself as big. I think I've gotten that from animals, particularly dogs. Dogs live such a modest life and they don't live long, and the more you're around them, you kind of accept that. A lot of urban people who are intensely involved in human society seem furious that they're not bigger in the scheme of things." These are the sorts of people who ask, "What is nature for?" McGuane sighs. "Nature's not for anything."


kerry dexter said...

interesting discourse. as writer and as a musician, I think about connection, and communication, when I am working, and about learning when I am involved in others' works. not about greatness, though I agree with you that that may be a way some need to view or name their goals. I'd not especially care to be thought of as small either! though I think I take McGuane's point, and yours, with that. I'd say it another way: both music and writing are an extension of my hand, and my heart. that's not small, but it is natural.

Mark Granier said...

Hi Kerry,
good to hear from a musician. And I take your point too, though I don't think embracing one's insignifigance (as McGuane puts it) means that one has to continually think of oneself as "small" or be small-minded. Size, like all things, is relative. I think McGuane is talking about signifigance/insignifigance on the cosmic scale, that dwarfs such concerns as majorness or minorness among one's peers. I don't think he's recommending that writers/musicians should view everything through such a wide-angle lens ALL the time, just that it's healthy to have that vision in mind, especially when one becomes anxious about one's niche (or lack of one) in Posterity.

It's good to have a sense of one's place in the world. In his autobiographical poem 'Alphabets' Heaney mentions:
"the necromancer
Who would hang from the domed ceiling of his house
A figure of the world with colours in it
So that the figure of the universe
And ʻnot just single thingsʼ would meet his sight When he walked abroad."

"Not just single things": the world, that creaky ark we're all in together. Anyway, I think you have the right idea: writing and music as a natural extension of the hand and the heart. That's more than enough to be getting on with.

Ms Baroque said...

Mark, what a great post. Thhere's a lot to unpick in there, the external - as in Andrew Motion saying what is "great" and the internal - that is, how we envisage ourselves and how we write.

TS Eliot used this different word, "valuable", which - though equally value-laden, of course - has a different use then "great."

And there is no more damning description in the English language, I feel, than the phrase "minor poet."

Mark Granier said...

Thanks Katy,

Yes, 'minor' is a rather damning term; it folds the poem neatly back into the life, which the poet was attempting to stand apart from. MacNeice has a poem dedicated to 'the minor poets', thanking them (us?) for all the hard work on behalf of the cause etc. etc. Such a self-congratulatory, patronising stance (unusual for MacNeice) makes it, to my mind, a VERY minor poem, more like a speech from an Oscar-winner.

I agree with your take on Eliot's word; 'valuable' seems more useful than 'great'. However, when you consider that the flipside of valuable is valueless, 'minor' seems more like a euphemism than a put-down.

Steven Waling said...

I've never understood why people seem not to understand The Wasteland. It seems perfectly clear to me that it's a collage, and you don't read a collage the way you read a logical, ordered narrative, or, I don't know, a picture of a bowl of flowers. You don't try and work out what each bit means; which is probably why the Notes are irrelevant, or at least diversionery. (Don't read the notes...)

The Wasteland is about a mental and social breakdown, and is written in a deliberately fragmentary and broken-down way in order to convey that. At times it's extraordinarilly beautiful in its ugliness.

It's the best thing Eliot ever did. After that, he just became preachy.

Mark Granier said...

Hi Steven. Thanks for your comment. You have made a fair enough point, but when I said I didn't understand The Wasteland, I didn't mean that it doesn't make sense to me tonally, imagistically etc. (or as a mimetic collage). I simply meant that I am sure there are many references that escape me, and that I couldn't be bothered to look up (not reading the notes is probably good advice). Anyway, I have already said that I love The Wasteland's music and the way it "shifts its focus fluidly", as any good collage poem should.

As to Eliot becoming 'preachy' after The Wasteland, 'The Hollow Men' seems more disillusioned than preachy and his 'Ariel' poems are too quiet and subtle for pulpit gestures. The imagistic 'Landscape' poems don't seem to be sermonising. Would you call 'Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats' preachy? Maybe I missed something.

I have mentioned Eliot's occasional high-churchy mannerisms in The Four Quartets (and I am not sure that that description is appropriate), but only by way of praising its incantatory music.

I suppose you could dismiss parts of the later work (e.g. The Four Quartets) as preachy, but only if you have a fondness for those windy generalisations people like Silliman and A.N. Wilson are so addicted to. Remember, it is in the Quartets that you find lines such as "The only wisdom we can hope to acquire / Is the wisdom of humility: humility is endless."

Nicholas said...

Absurd, perhaps, to comment now, but I just read this, thanks to POF. Minor point, but re: MacNeice, hasn't the usual reading been that the poem is self-implicating, i.e. MacNeice is (if only half-seriously) classing himself with the muddlers? He was, after all, not Important in the way others were, and he must have known that. Do you disagree, and why?

Mark Granier said...

Thanks for your comment Nicholas (and not at all absurd). In fact, you've made a good point. I really should have been more attentive when rereading that poem. You are quite right; it was probably ironic (and self-implicating). I appreciate you bringing this to my attention.