A poem should not mean But be (Archibald Macleish) Does this requirement shed more light then darkness?

A poem should not mean But be (Archibald Macleish) Does this requirement shed more light then darkness?

Paul Catherall

The expressive emphasis of modern poetry often reflects the progressive, radical and reconcillatory intellectual perspectives of twentieth century writers, theorists and philosiophers.
As in other literary forms, the poem has been the vehicle of intellectual discourse for debate on subjects ranging from the attitudes of modren huanity to war, to the decline of cultural, institutional and ethical tradition.
Many writers, from those writing during the early part of this century, to the present, seem to have a definite sense of purpose in creating their work, and as mentioned previously, seem to have some message or viewpoint they wish to present in their poetry. For some poets, such as T.S. Eliot (1888-1965) this message or opinion is couched in complex, sometimes seemingly ambiguous language and metaphor, but beneath the sophistry and often difficult imagery can be discerned a powerful indiciment of contemporary society. The fragmented, irregular verse of ‘The Waste Land ‘ (1922) echoes the poet’s sense of civil decline in an uncertain and rapidly changing world. Eliot becomes Sophocle’s Tiresias, fortelling the advent of the impending second world war:
I Tiresias, old man…
Perceived the scene and foretold the rest…” (44.)

Prominent ‘realist’ poets, whose intention was to increase society’s awareness of social, political and national problems, included the ‘Imagists,’ (begun in 1914) who attempted to break away from the lyrical traditon, both through their focus on conntemporary issues, and in their use of innovative ‘vers libre’, rather than imitate classical poetic metre or subjects.
Poets of the first world War also contributed heavily to the realist tradiiton of poetry as a critique of contempory issues; the poems of Wilfred Owen (1893-1918) and Edward Thomas ( 1878-1917), both demonstrate disollusion and horror with the process and results of war. Later poets who identified war with a moribund and decaying civilisation included Robert Graves (1895-1985) and W. H. Auden (1907-73.) For Auden, the function of the poet is to render the condition of modern industrial man, often presented as a conditioned automaton within the machine of civilisation:
In unlighted streets you hide away the appalling;
factories where lives are made for a temporary use…” The City(50)

The condition and changing landscape of post-war Britain is one of the primary concerns of Philip Larkin (born 1922.) Larkin’s poetry often reads like a dirge for the idyllic, less industrial Britain of the ‘thirties, a nostalgic recreation of traditional community life, ethics and work, in opposition to the commericalism of the present, which he condemns:
There would always be fields and farms, where the village louts could climb..” church going (72.)

More recently, poets whose intention seems to be the presentation of a personal subjective or explicit meaning, include Karen Gershon (born 1923), Derek Mahon (born 1941) and James Fenton (born 1949.) All these poets are influenced by the ‘realist’ influence of Auden and the poets of the first war, particllarly Karen Gershon. The influence of the Northern Irish poets is highly apparent in Derek Mahon’s work, particularly that of Louis Macneice (1907-67), whose ‘Prayer before birth’ is strikingly similar to Mahon’s ‘An unborn Child.’
Karen Gershon’s poems almost exclusively deal with the subject of the Jewish holocaust; on an historical and moral level, they remind us of an immense crime that has come to symbolise the suffering imposed on modern humanity throught the madness of war, and on a personal level, serve as an outlet, in a confessional sense for Gershon’s own guilt in having survived the genocide that claimed her entire family:

I was not there they were alone
my mind refuses to conceive
the life the death they must have known
I must atone because I live (I was not there – 225)

Obviously, Gershon is a poet who has a diistinct messasge to relay to the reader, and although comparitively unsophisticated in her use of metaphor or form, as compared say to Eliot, her poetry is particularly powerful because of it’s very direct, coherent and in some ways uncomplicated style. Another feature of the poetry is Gershon’s confessional tone, by which she communicates her sense of loss, sadness and empathy for the murdered Jews, use of simple, unsophisticated language and structural form adds both to the clarity and sincerity of the poet’s voice:

One who is named
on her family’s tomb
died in a camp
when she was twenty years old
I envied her as a child… (In the jewish cemetary) 226

Similarly, Derek Mahon tackles the inhumanity of war in his works, and comments on wider issues concerning the ethical and moral nature of society and civilisation itself. In ‘An unborn child,’ Mahon comments on the the corruptible nature of the world for the innocent about to be born:
The pandemonium of encumbrances
Intricacies if the box and the rat race –
I imagine only… (350)

In ‘rage for order’ Mahon describes the futility of the poet as a social and political innovator in the tradition of the Romantics, for him, the poet’s passionate desire to improve the world is simply a conceited self-indulgence, a romantic mythos that can lead to no real result:
Somewhere out beyond the scorched gable end and the burnt out
there is a poet indulging
his wretched rage for order –
or not as the case my be; for his
is a dying art,
an eddy of semantic scruples
in an unscrutable sea. (351)

The poet presents an inverse message here, pleading not for proaction, but lamenting the utter dissolusion he feels for the ‘realist’ and progressive tradition in poetry. Mahon’s poems are successful in their analysis of the relationship between literature and contempory issues, because they confront the reader with her/his passivity to literature, rather than adopting the argument as the discoursive form of the poem. Mahon’s demand that the reader observe the implausable proaction of the poet empasises the gap between the passivity of the reader and the creative activity or proaction of the artist:
now watch me as I make history. watch as I tear down
to build up with a desprate love,
knowing it cannot be (351)

Another recent poet who works consistently in the ‘realist’ tradition, where explicit meaning or opinion is a major feature of the poem, is James Fenton. One of the most striking aspects of Fenton’s work is his discussion of war, particularly the contemporary threat of nuclear war, a concern which illustrates his admiration for Auden. In ‘Dead Soldiers,’ Fenton uses a combination of witty conceit and emulation of the burlesque to parody the politiics of war. The weight of human loss is presented through the juxtaposition of war with trivia:
When His Excellency Prince Norodom Chantaraingsey
Invited me to lunch on the battlefield
I was glad of my white suit for the first time that day… (378)

Despite the popularity of mainstream ‘realist’ poets, such as Auden, Eliot and Larkin, where a distinct, argumentatiive, and sometimes dogmatic voice is present, other writers have succeeded in producing a new and innovative expressive emphasis distinct from the realist ‘condition of Britain’ intention of either ‘The Movement’ poets, led by Larkin or those of ‘The Group’ led by John Betjeman (1906-84.)
Brian Patten (born 1946,) claims to be a lyrical poet, interested, much like Ted Hughes (1930-1998) in the form and accumulative metaphor, rather than the purpose of the poem. In ‘Little Johhny’s Confession,’ an apparently trivial and humerous poem leaves the reader with the image of infantile violence. The success of the poem lies in it’s entire metaphor as a condemnation of human violence. The validity and sincerity of this simple intention is seen in the unsophisticated diction and spontaneous form of the poem, which poseses no explicit message, but only the implicit suggestion of one through the use of metaphor:
This morning
being rather ypoung and flooish
I borrowed a machinegun my
father had left hidden since the war, went out,
and eliminated a number of small enimies
since then i have not returned home. (335)

Similarly, in ‘Its always the same image,’ Patten uses the poem to focus on a single image in connceiving his partner with a spiritual, almost religious awe:

It is always the same image;
of you wandering naked out from autum rivers,
your body steaming, covered with rain… 336-7

The close spiritual and physical proximity between the poet and his partner is suggested by the dream-like resume of the poet, his partner and he are joined through the subconscius world of dreams:
and just visible through the mist
a thousand rivers following you naked
leaving no traces in the corners of dawn. 337

For Patten, the meaning of the poem is not so much a message, but an expression of emotion, either revulsion for the human capacity for violence – as seen in ‘Little Johnny’s confession,’ or spiritual and personal fulfilment in ‘It’s always teh same image.’ Like Donald Black (born 1945) Patten uses allegory and surreal imagery to suggest meaning, rather than explicitly define it.
Another poet to adopt an innovatiive approach to meaning and poetic form, is Michael Hamburger (boorn 1924.) In ‘Travelling,’ we are struck by the apparent reversal from the modernist realist emphasis, to one deeply rooted in traditional lyrical verse. Hamburger’s voice is that of the Romantic, the spiiritualy aware artist whose aim is to reconcile humanity with the natural environment; it is interesting that one of haburger’s concerns is also global pollution. For Hamburger, there is no explicit message, or meaning in the poem, simply the expression by the poet of the emotional fulfillment he feels in association with the natural landscape:
mountains, lakes. I have been her befoire
And on other mountians, wooded
or rocky, smelling of thyme.

Forests where
After rain,
salamanders lay, looped the dark mess with gold. 203

The reader’s impresion is of a sucession of images, mountains, lakes etc. suggesting movement, and a spiritual mobility similar to the roving eagles decribed in the poem:
And I moved on, to learn
one of the million histories,
One weather, one dialect… 203

Quite distinct from either of the two innovative aproaches discussed is the work of Adrian Henri (born 1932), a poet-artist is particularly committed to innovation in his writing, and to the artistic ideals of the ‘Pop’ movement which sought to investigate and deconstruct the effect of the mass media and advertisment on society. Henri’s poems are often strikingly expressionist and surreal, since they illustrate, through their bizzare imagery and form, the machinery of social conditioning and normalizing through the influence of the media.
Like the previous two poets, Henri’s work does not seem to contain direct empirical or subjective argument, but simply presents a series of familiar images before the reader, confronting the spectator with an objective view of our society.
In The Entry Of Christ into Liverpool (1970), Henri uses text like a graphic image, his poem-advertisments attract our attention because of the boldness and singularity of their composition; paradoxicaly, Henri is exposing the psychological power of the media through the portrayal of artistic deception in his own poem.
Henri exposes the ways in which we are manipulated by faceless organisations and by ethical and religious propaganda. The motifs and insignias of institutions and organisations in the poem all catch the attention of the viewer, they all suggest the artificiality of the modern world:
placards banners posters
Keep Britain white
End the war in Vietnam
God bless our pope
Billboard hoardings drawings on the pavements
words painted on the road… (89.)

The interest of Adrian henri in the form of poetry as a reflection of social consciousness, as distinct from a critique approach to social attitudes is, i think important in considering the poet’s expressive style; rather than adopt a subjective or argumentive tone, Henri presents motifs of our society, and asks the reader to judge or comment on them him/herself.
Similarly, the works of Roy Fisher (born 1930) clearly demonstarte an interest in the function and relationship between poetry and contemporary isues, and between the art of the poet and his/her external environment. Most striking about Fisher’s work, is perhaps the use of powerful psychological imagery , reminiscent of the works of A. Alvarez, John Berryman and Sylvia Plath. Another feature of Fisher’s poems is their originality and tendency to metamorphose as they are read, confounding the reader’s ability to predict the course or tone of the poem. In particular, Fisher’s poetry seems to relate the form of the poem to aspects of life, as an expression of tension, emotion or regret. In ‘Interior I,’ the poet describes a chance encounter with a woman, the complexity, tension and artificiality of the relationship is directly reflected by the disjointed, surreal progress of the poem:

Experimanting, experimenting,
With long damp fingers twisting all the time and in the dusk
White like unlit electric bulbs she said
This green goes with this purpl,’ the hands going,
The question pleased: ‘Agree?’

The activity of experimentation is in constant reference, as if both the poem and the event described were a creative construct or experiment in viewing events the poet has merely set in motion:

Growing annoyed, i think, she clouds over, reminds me she’s
a guest, first time heer, a comparative stranger however
close, ‘Dosent welcome me.’ she’s not young of course;
trying it thoug, going on about hte milk bottle, table lewg,
the little things. Oh, a laugh somewhere. More words,
She knows I don’t live here.

The complex relationship between man, woman and human nature all contribute to the mythos of the poem, the relationship is hindered by the dark external world, dominated by the powerful fertility symbol of the moon. The burlesque treatment of the intervening moon seems to trivilise the disturbing reality of nature’s dominance over our internal drives and animal instinct:

And she shuts her eyes big and muurmurs:
‘And when the moon with horror –
And when the moon with horror –
And when the moon with horror -‘
so i say, ‘Comes blundering blind up the path tonight.’
She: ‘We hear it bump and scrape.’
I: ‘We hear it giggle.’ looks at me
‘And when the moon with horror,’ she says.


Far from attempting to convey a specific mesage or meaning, the poem stands as self-contained entity, a showcase of human nature. The poem operates within the reality of the page, existing without reference to time or spatial dimensions, thus depending almost entirely on the reader’s interpretation of the poem’s subject and expressive focus.

Finally, another successful reworking, or shift in expressive emphasis is seen in the work of David Jones (1895-1974.) Like Hamburger, Jones has not so much created a new art form, as returned to a traditional one. Deeply influenced by the epic poetry of the Gododdin, Jones drew from the pre-conquest literature of Wales to produce a reworking in part of the ‘Culhwch ac Olwen’ narrative. For Jones, the poem served, independent of particular meaning, as an expression of the self:
‘i beleive that there is, in the priciple that inforems the poetic art, a something that cannot be disengaged from the mythus, deposits, matiere, ethos, whole res of which the poet is himself a product’

In ‘The Hunt’, the reworking of an episode from Culhwch ac Olwen, Jones uses free verse and modern English to convey the passions and tensions of the ‘arglwyddi’ (4) who accompany Arthur on the hunt of the boar Trwyth across South Wales. Jones uses accurate archaic terms to describe individuals and events, even goint to the point of refering to the traditional Welsh numerical system:

‘…and the hundreds and twenties
of horsed palatini (1) Knights
(to each comitatus
one penteulu) (2) Captain
that closely hedge
with a wattle of weapons
the first among eqauls
from the wattled palasau (3) Palaces
the torqued arglwyddi (4) Lords
of calamitoius jelousy…

The conflict between the boar and Arthur is a purely dramtic incident, the fcat that he is ‘speckled’, refers to his bloodied clothes:

the speckled lord of Prydain (5) Britain
in his twice embroidered coat…
and between the rents of needlework
the whiteness of his body shone
so did his dark wounds glisten..

Little modern interpretation or covert reference to cotemporary issues can be discerned in the poem, instead, Jones defies convention to produce a mainly aesthetic poem, which uses language in a creative and (by the standards of common English usage) original way. The inclusion of Welsh termenology in the poem adds a fresh and innovative flavour to the work, and because of their incidental use does not hinder the reader’s understanding of the narrative. This poem does not have a focused, particular meaning, but instead seeks to emulate the expressive concerns of its sources, i.e: in producing an aesthetic work of art, meant simply to be enjoyed rather than dischiphered:

becasuse this was the Day
of the pasionate men of Britain
when they hunted the Hog
life for life..

In conclusion, it seems that there is no general consensus in the preference of expressive form for recent and contemporary poets. In many ways, however, a theoretical progression can be identified in the break from the expressive emphasis of realist poets such as Auden, and Eliot and their decendents, the Movement and Group poets, towars innovative and experimental approaches to poetic meaning with many post-war, and partcularly recent poets. The concern with realism is still present, as seen in the works of Karen Gershon and many of the Northern irish poets, but these poets aften belong to the older empirical and marxist traditions of Eliot, Pound and Auden, rather than to the expressionist and aesthetic approaches of Ted Hughes and A. Alvarez. The poets I have chosen to study illustrate distinctly different approaches to the relationship between poetry, art and reality. In the cases of karen Gershon, derek Mahon and James fenton, the approach to expressive form is usually traditionally explicit, where a specific message or related messages are conveyed within either a literal or figurative language. In the cases of Michael Hamburger, brian patten, Adrian henri and david Jones, the expressive empasis does not lie with the direct explicit meaning but with an implict, highly suggetsive or simply abstract representation.
In terms of judging the relative quality, benefits or superiority of the various styles discussed, it seems that all acheive some kind of success in their widely differeing aims.
For the poets dealing with conflict and the disasterous consequences of war, use of a direct, comprehensive style seems to communicate the reality of violence most effectivley; while for the more experimentally inclined poets, their own highly particular emphases are attained through implicit expressionist language and imagery.