A school friend grasped counterpoint intuitively and had a penchant for writing fugues. He wrote many, won a national award and was invited to a London concert hall to perform, whereas I had a rudimentary grasp of harmony and realised that my GCSE composition folder was thin. Over an evening in front of the telly, I coloured in a picture, a ‘graphic score’, and my accompanying notes explained that this related to Kandinsky‘s colour theory: white and bright colours were high notes, dark and dull ones were low. Then I experimented with serialism. My only concern was to make my piano piece look visually impressive, so my spread chords straddled the clefs in anatomically impossible intervals and changes of time signature abounded. I decided that all my work would be entitled Untitled #241, or some such ludicrous number. We later discovered that our composition folders were worth the same high mark. Indeed, mine was worth a letter of commendation from the exam board. A letter of commendation for an A4 page of slack-jawed colouring in front of Terry Wogan‘s BBC One chat show. I felt sick at the injustice of it.
In On Poetry, some will see Glyn Maxwell as poetry’s arch NeoCon, hitting out against an avant-garde which he does not understand like the near riot caused by the premiere of Stravinsky‘s Le Sacre du Printemps in 1922. Others will agree that the worst contemporary poetry amounts to little more than the emperor’s new clothes. A dialogue with tradition is, for Maxwell, the only way forward:
‘If the poet thinks that unmooring from the margin or destabilising the space is a reward of freedom – and not precisely the opposite, a submission to mortality and the perilous closeness of chaos – the poem not only won’t fly, it won’t walk, it won’t breathe. If you ditch the idea of any fixity – to say the least your heart beating or the top of the breath – without anything to show in its place, you have made a sandcastle. It may be flying with twenty still flags of your intellect, but it’s a sandcastle’ (57).
He then goes on to say that:
‘I was judging a huge poetry competition once with thousands of entries, and a friend asked me how I could possibly get through them all. I said it only took me seconds to judge whether a poet was present. The friend was somewhat scandalised at what seemed a dereliction of duty, so I said – actually I didn’t say. I just thought of saying later, in my car – I said he wouldn’t ask that question of a concert violinist. A concert violinist could tell in seconds of a student knew his instrument from his elbow. When I think of the teaching of poetry, I invoke this Inner Violinist. If I were a violin master at some fine arts academy, what would I think of a student who arrived at my class at 21 having decided there is nothing he or she can learn from long ago? No skills to develop. No moves to learn. No marvels to consider. Nothing to still you with its force. Okay let’s hear you play. Or if a ballet dancer thought the same? Or a sculptor? Nothing to learn from work that outran time? Nothing of lasting value can come from one who thinks so. I don’t think anything has, or will’ (59-60).
I’m left thinking that Maxwell’s absolutely right. Looking around a space like Tate Modern, it’s easy to feel when you are in the presence of another human creature when the work moves you in some way. However, there’s a hell of a lot of stuff in a space like that which leaves me cold. The same’s true in the poetry corner of my local branch of Blackwell’s. Book after book is incomprehensible and a book without a memorable line, or even a memorable phrase, hardly needs to be written. In terms of finding readers, poetry’s in enough trouble as it is and, if we’re not careful, inconsequential, pretentious collections of drivel will ensure that society forgets why we ever read it in the first place. We live in a time poor society and the success of the Poetry on the Underground campaign shows that people are happy to read and enjoy the real thing. As Maxwell says:
‘Formlessness says time is broken. Postmodernism thinks it’s come to a stop, and Obscurity can’t even muster the nerve to look it in the eye. Three monkeys. Move on.
[…] To paraphrase what my teacher said when I interviewed him a few years back: if things go on progressing as they are in contemporary American poetry – which is what we were discussing – it will soon have, effectively, no readership at all’ (70-71).
The book also offers insights into Maxwell’s teaching process and Maxwell’s practitioner’s approach is quite unlike the experience delivered in most secondary schools. For my money, I would like to see On Poetry as required reading on every English teacher training course, as we allow students to dissect a corpse on a page instead of having an encounter with a living, breathing human from beyond the grave. Maxwell says, ‘I don’t teach prosody. Iambs, dactyls, spondees, trochees. I was given a famous old course called ‘Prosody’ to teach at a famous old university in New York, but two weeks in I discovered I couldn’t teach it, and four weeks in decided I shouldn’t. So if you come to this book to find out what the funny Greek words mean, here’s an observation and some suggestions.
They’re funny Greek words because they’re Greek words, which ought to tell you that they were devised by people who spoke and wrote in a language other than English.
See if you can guess which one. If you think every syllable in poetry is only stressed or unstressed, you must dwell in some binary realm where it takes 10 to tango, 1110 days hath September, and there must be 110010 ways to leave your lover’ (84).
This is an important book and anyone with an interest in reading, writing or teaching poetry should read it. Maxwell’s conclusions will be unwelcome to some but the worst excesses of charlatanism are unforgivable. Poetry is no different to painting or music: the divine spark must be handed from generation to generation and not abandoned in a gutter as we walk, empty-handed into the future.
- On Poetry by Glyn Maxwell – review (guardian.co.uk)