‘You may translate books of science exactly. You may also translate history, in so far as it is not embellished with oratory, which is poetical. Poetry, indeed, cannot be translated; and, therefore, it is the poets that preserve the languages; for we would not be at the trouble to learn a language, if we could have all that is written in it just as well in a translation. But as the beauties of poetry cannot be preserved in any language except that in which it was originally written, we learn the language.’
Johnson to Boswell, Life of Johnson
What is poetry? To me, the question counts. It crops up as irresistibly as figs in the Golden Age as I find myself reading and re-reading current answers, expressed or implied, to it. Also, I like questions, nearly as much as invitations to ask them. I will try to address the question which I have plucked out of the debate and exchange provoked through the Battle of Ideas and on Culture Wars. If questions want answers asked for and unsettle answers given, that is patently good for a subject like ours, historically approached. It may be good, too, that the question is basic, and that it hardly appears here and now for the first time: as I look around, I have to look back.
Poetry, we could all agree, is too big to admit of definition. Still, I, for one, have loved to study definitions of poetry over the years, and through the ages, in the history of literary criticism and theory: Aristotle’s, Horace’s, Cicero’s, Quintilian’s, Longinus’s, Ronsard’s, Ascham’s, Sidney’s, Dryden’s, Eliot’s.
That is decidedly a short list. Are there as many definitions as definers? I doubt it. Take Eliot; I did, as had so many others within the century after his birth in 1888. Without Eliot, my love for English poetry would not have expressed itself by studying ancient and modern languages. Behind Eliot, of course, as critic and as poet stood many of the names just mentioned, behind each of whom stood some of the names just mentioned, behind each of whom in turn… Tradition, like truth, is recursive.
On first reading Eliot quoting Petronius,
Nam Sibyllam quidem Cumis ego ipse oculis meis vidi in ampulla pendere, et cum illi pueri dicerent: ; respondebat illa:
I was hit hard and then haunted for years by the ghostly question and its ghastly reply. To learn Eliot—with his rhythmic and incantory English, delicately and expressively set upon vast and recondite learning—I learned Greek (before Latin), French, Italian, and German yet, unlike Eliot, no Sanskrit (no time): in brief, the languages, but one, of The Waste Land, from which that famous epigraph comes.
Now I see, decades on, the Latin completes the effect: not ‘she answered,’ the translation commonly given of the imperfect tense of the verb ‘respondebat,’ but ‘she was answering,’ over and again, ‘I want to die.’ Had there ever been a shudder so grim felt in a reader of poetry before 1922, Eliot perhaps endured it in the prose Satryicon, written in the Age of Nero. But Eliot used Roman satire to Baudelairian effect in the Jazz Age, or the Age of Anxiety. How Eliot made the poem, even before the poem began, and moved countless readers, are two remarkable, interrelated questions.
In classical antiquity, criticism is productive and, if we take it trop au pied de la lettre, frustrating: though students of English poetry, especially of the Augustan Age, have been led to think otherwise, it could never lead to the reconstruction of its poetry, as I once suggested to George Kennedy, historian of classical rhetoric, who sensibly agreed. This turns out to be one of its charms, and virtues. Classical criticism—keeping only to the figures outside of grammar or commentary, like Servius, who, never translated from the Latin until the last century, influenced English poetics for hundreds of years—is general and self-assured without being vague or, worse, invasive: there are wide differences between intellectual integrity and cloying intellectualism.
The first respects the limits of what might be said, given the nature of the subject matter; the second does not. One leads to the classics as we know them; the other leads to the remainder piles. When witty, as in Horace’s Epistola ad Pisones (dubbed by Quintilian Ars poetica, the title of the next issue of Poetry), classical criticis, resists Eliot’s formulation of mid-century Anglo-American criticism as being ‘perhaps too clever.’ It is artful, as was all science in antiquity because the dichotomy art and science did not exist. It was all a matter of skill, of knowing.
Poetry is what poets write, but what do they write? One answer, I suggest, starts with Greece and Rome, for what ancient criticism of poetry leaves for the reader of poetry is poetry.
Charms and virtues are complex, building upon one another and still deeper features and qualities essential to human nature. So, if my analogy to criticism is correct, I cannot pretend to completeness, much less read lessons to poets. Perhaps my theme could change the mind of one critic, or even one poet-critic, who has so distinguished the tradition of letters in England since the sixteenth century. Perhaps not. We are suffering, after all, through culture wars, without any end in sight.
By no means take my word for any of this. Instead, witness what the Renaissance so variously and splendidly made with classical - especially Roman - criticism and theory: poetry we still love to read, paintings and sculpture we thrill to behold, and buildings sacred and secular we would love to worship in or live in. Let me try, however, with one (schematic) beginning, transliterated from the Greek of Aristotle:
The first means a thing made (poem), the second things made (poems). The third the maker (the poet). The fourth the criticism and theory of poetry (poetic). To the last two, especially the third, I could add the plural, which in English is normal for the very last: poetics.
No matter how far the nomenclature moves from its first object of study, it never allows us to forget it. In fact, it holds as fast to it as can be. It is jargon, staunch and just. The Greek words seem to me, out of the neatly turned and set plasticity of the language, to have shaped themselves to terseness without belying complexity. Yet, most of us over the age of forty met a poem before poems, a poet, or a poetics. Poets die, poems live*. To these, not to them, do we turn for profit and pleasure. (And so we must.) Thus, the proper order of importance - rightly assumed by Aristotle - is this:
Of course, even this nomenclature tells us more: making is the thing, even as a poem is a thing made. Aristotle had a word for this, too: poieisis.
Making is the art of poetry. I suspect that, for Aristotle, that making, while man-made, was not at all commonplace, although the word it derives from was: it seems to entail existence itself, the result of what we would call, no more and no less exactly than Aristotle, creating. Aristotle seems to have reasoned that making was so satisfying and compelling that no scruple like Yeats’s injunction (to ‘Irish poets’) to ‘Sing whatever is well-made’ (emphasis mine) seems to have occurred to him. Nor would Stevens’s ‘Poetry must resist the intelligence almost successfully’ perhaps have been fully intelligible to Aristotle. It did resist it just by being there. The carapace to surmount is hard to tell. Between the mind and the making, the making and the thing made falls hiatus. But the poet dramatists who occupied Aristotle’s attention in what we now have of the Poetics were, if open to his criticism, evidently enough to become the necessary cause for the first treatise of its kind in the West. They constituted with Homer and the lyric and other poets an essential and autonomous subject of the total reality Aristotle embraced as had no other philosopher before: rhetoric, politics, physics, biology…
To read an ode by Pindar—even more an ode by Horace, which, through imitation and emulation of Pindar, illustrates at once both tradition and originality—is to see that making is a certain, albeit free, art in words and in verse, and if Aristotle develops useful ideas about the place of words in poetry, he has no doubt about the necessity of them to poetry. The freedom, within a tradition of individual talents, is at all events inseparable from the poem itself, whatever the poem.
Again, Yeats: ‘learn your trade, / Sing whatever is well-made.’ The first rhyme word glances at the word tradition—derived from the Latin trado, tradere, ‘to hand across or down’—by alluding to it, then smartly joins with making. Tradition and making are one; that is the critical point Yeats is, well, making, and making well, in his poem on poetry.
Aristotle may have set all ancient criticism on the basis of tradition by his empirical approach of, inter alia, observation, description, classification, and definition, so that whatever else he may have wanted to say about the poems before his eyes, the outlook was decidedly partial to the ‘voice and verse’ beloved of Milton in ‘At a Solemn Music.’ At the same time, poetry was (as we now say) part of the culture, and it was not part of culture to intentionally make anything contrary to human nature. Although Aristotle excluded verse as essential to poetry, he never read (or quoted) any poetry not in verse. Assumed from time immemorial, the primacy of poetry, as an order of words and an order of experience, is a gift of Greece and Rome.
But tradition is what we, after Rome, rightly name such primacy, tradition alive with a genuine multi-culturalism rooted in mastery of foreign languages. When Virgil in his Eclogues imitated Theocritus, he exercised diligence (while possessed of genius): a Hellenist, taught Greek by the Greek freed slave and poetry critic Parthenius, the Roman poet could distinguish between what might be his and what not. If Virgil made himself a satellite in the orbit of Theocritus, he felt the attraction as existing among other bodies—Callimachus, Catullus, Lucretius, among other Greek and Roman poets—in a constellation. Hence tradition has been said to be that which poets learn from other poets: what to avoid, what to use, how to make, how not to make. The lessons are as many, seemingly, as the stars. So Paul Valéry captured the fortune of the Eclogues, which now loom much larger than their model the Bucolica in the classicist imagination: ‘cette oeuvre illustre, fixée dans une gloire millénaire.’
Ours is not the problem Dr Johnson expressed in the familiar retort to Boswell about Gray’s lyrics. Johnson could be sure of saying what poetry was not. Our problem is no problem at all. It is a muddle. To be unable to say what poetry is is the human condition. To be unable to say what it is not is appalling ignorance.
But we have undermined, where we have not destroyed, the conditions both for saying and for making. Over the last thirty or forty years, theory, unbound by fact or method, furnishes the minds of postgraduates and packs the shelves of used bookstores. It seems as numberless as romance novels, if much less rewarding. Could there be more theorists than poets? More readers of theory than of poetry? Have theorists entered into competition with poets, and won?
We live in times hostile to poetry in English. Our schools and universities in Britain and the United States require little or nothing in the way of modern or ancient languages, students of which wax or wane fitfully in numbers at historic lows, as standards droop or vanish. Yet, is there a single great English poet from Chaucer to Wordsworth, from Keats to Eliot, not steeped in or inclined to poetry in languages outside of English?
Having produced a generation or two of illiterates—unlettered since ignorant of languages and therefore ignorant of Johnson’s ‘beauties of poetry’—and having reduced literacy to mean reading skills in English, we divert ourselves admiring their performance. We have predictably confused the self-conscious infantilism and randomness of the poetry slam—‘whatever’—with the mystery of making and its spirit of adventure, at once a journey and a destination, toward ‘whatever is well-made.’ Should you ever find poetry that does not please, you might deserve it as a fool of the times.
‘In antiquity literary criticism could be written by compiling a string of names,’ according to the eminent Latinist Peter Knox. Why? Because, right or wrong, it pursued poetry as avidly as ideas about it, while its ideas were ideas about poetry. The names of the poets became ciphers for the poems: the canons (meaning ‘lists’) of criticism. The least valuable thing we have of the ancient poets is their biography because what ancient criticism of poetry leaves for the reading of poetry is poetry. Looking for, to, and after the best, the Greek and Roman critic first and last did no harm. In England, no matter the shortcomings of classics or classical tradition, the best that was thought and said is inconceivable without them and grew up with them.
On both sides of the Atlantic, that is our heritage.
What is poetry? Critic: forget the present, remember the past (even a day, a week, a year ago) whenever poetry is true to tradition, and read your forebears and the poets of antiquity for a start. On the one hand, the value and utility of Aristotle and Horace to the Renaissance—your Renaissance—jump off the page. On the other, you will begin to see why Chaucer loved Ovid, Shakespeare Seneca, and Milton Virgil. You will enjoy increased pleasures of understanding and appreciation. You will love Chaucer, Shakespeare, and Milton more - Ovid, Seneca, and Virgil, too. You will become enamored of words foreign and native, as all readers must be. As philologists, you will benefit from better sense, catholic taste, and sharper judgment. You will be a friend to poets by reading poems as poets made them, in a tradition neither insular nor ephemeral, but cross-cultural and culture-building, a tradition which once sought and now embodies the timely with the timeless.
Two thousand five hundred years ago, poetry, for Aristotle, was
a more philosophical and a higher thing than history: for poetry tends to express the universal, history the particular. By the universal I mean how a person of a certain type on occasion speak or act, according to the law of probability or necessity; and it is this universality at which poetry aims in the names she attaches to the personages.
(SH Butcher, translator)
The news from the fifth century BC is that there is no bad news. Poetry, worthy of the name, is universal. Translated or no today from the Greek, the Latin, the French, the Italian, poets reach beyond the language and century of their birth to men and to women who care to look beyond their own: for Ulysses is a wily picarro, Aeneas a great and sad chief, Gargantua a fine father, Petrarch a frustrated lover and ardent believer. Poets, like readers, will test the mettle of the languages and literature they know against the universal. Poets—like Keats struck by Chapman’s Homer—will make anew.
Critics have a duty to individual talent and tradition. How lucky I feel to have here found total admiration and affection for the poems of Alexander Hutchison—whose indispensable Scales Dog was launched in the UK on November 29 —and praise for Luke Kennard, the genius aged 26 years. Readers will see tradition in them, but them, too. In tradition, the end will have been no worse than to have immersed ourselves in, to echo a friend, ‘the most human of materials,’ loving and puzzling over, wherever and however it exists, that more philosophical making older than history, science, or law.
© Peter James, an American teacher and writer.
*At least, poems survive so long as there are books and libraries to hold them: Christopher Ricks, inexhaustible and brilliant as ever, discovered and published the forgotten poetry of the Irish Virgil scholar James Henry, which, having languished since the nineteenth century in the Cambridge University Library, now has a new chance to live. No living scholar-critic has rendered greater service to English poetry than the present Professor of Poetry at the University of Oxford..