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Wednesday, 12 December 2012

On 'modern' poetry

Wednesday, December 12th., Cadogan Square, London.

I have been reflecting, in the pages of the Evening Standard, on 'modern' poetry.
Thinking afresh about the situation of modern poetry on the map of modern literature, I doubt a little if modern poetry is on the map at all! Thousands of people will argue for and against the value of a modern novel, but only tens of people will argue, even mildly, for and against the merits of modern poetry. To be 'up-to-date' on modern novels is deemed to be important; nobody, however, is going to worry himself about not being up-to-date concerning modern poetry.
The reason, in my opinion, is that modern poetry has been revolutionary. The new poets have grown absolutely sick of the old material, and their impatient verve chafed under the old forms. So the new poets scrapped the old material, and stretched the old forms till they snapped like elastic bands. That, roughly, was the revolution. The British public is not partial to revolutions. It believes that your revolutionary is most effectively dealt with by leaving him alone!
T.S. Eliot is arguably the most influential of the 'modern' poets, though I have never been able to understand why. I have read I don't know how many times his celebrated poem, The Waste Land, at the mention of which every younger poet bows the head in awe, and I simply cannot see its beauty. I don't say it has no beauty: I say merely that I can't see its beauty. I once asked Eliot whether his explanatory notes to The Waste Land were not a pulling of the public leg? I seriously thought they were. He seriously assured me that they were not. I bowed the head!

Thomas Stearns Eliot was born in Missouri on September 26, 1888. He lived in St. Louis during the first eighteen years of his life and attended Harvard University. In 1910, he left the United States for the Sorbonne, having earned both undergraduate and masters degrees and having contributed several poems to the Harvard Advocate. After a year in Paris, he returned to Harvard to pursue a doctorate in philosophy, but returned to Europe and settled in England in 1914. It was in London that Eliot came under the influence of his contemporary Ezra Pound, who recognized his poetic genius at once, and assisted in the publication of his work in a number of magazines, most notably "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" in Poetry in 1915. His first book of poems, Prufrock and Other Observations, was published in 1917, and immediately established him as a leading poet of the avant-garde. With the publication of The Waste Land in 1922, now considered by many to be the single most influential poetic work of the twentieth century, Eliot's reputation began to grow to nearly mythic proportions; by 1930, and for the next thirty years, he was the most dominant figure in poetry and literary criticism in the English-speaking world. As a poet, he transmuted his affinity for the English metaphysical poets  and the 19th century French symbolist poets into radical innovations in poetic technique and subject matter. His poems in many respects articulated the disillusionment of a post-World-War-I generation. As a critic also, he had an enormous impact on contemporary literary taste, propounding views that, after his conversion to orthodox Christianity in the late thirties, were increasingly based in social and religious conservatism. He became a British citizen in 1927. T. S. Eliot received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1948, and died in London in 1965.

Well, I could make many more comments. And I am very interested in the subject, for at one period I underwent a spell of verse writing myself (it nearly killed me). But I will refrain. I will only say that I have been much impressed by Monro's anthology of Twentieth Century Poetry. I read it with increasing respect and pleasure. It no doubt comprises some poor, and more doubtful, poems - but on the whole its contents are surprisingly beautiful. There are more good poets around than I had supposed. Twentieth Century Poetry is the best anthology of the moderns that I have seen. It ought to sell. If it sells it will be talked about. If it is talked about the cause of poetry will be advanced.

Harold Edward Monro (1879 – 1932) was a British poet, the proprietor of the Poetry Bookshop in London which helped many famous poets bring their work before the public. Monro was born in Brussels, but his parents were Scottish. He was educated at Radley and at Caius College, Cambridge. His first collection of poetry was published in 1906. He founded a poetry magazine, The Poetry Review, which was to be very influential. In 1912, he founded the Poetry Bookshop in Bloomsbury, London, publishing new collections at his own expense and rarely making a profit, as well as providing a welcoming environment for readers and poets alike. Several poets, including Wilfred Owen, actually lodged in the rooms above the bookshop. Although homosexual, he married before World War I, but he and his wife separated and were divorced in 1916. In 1917, he was called up for military service, a very unhappy experience for him. His health soon gave way, and he returned to run the Poetry Bookshop in 1919. In 1920, he married his long-standing assistant, Alida Klementaski. Their relationship seems to have been an intellectual rather than a physical one. Monro continued to suffer from alcoholism, which contributed to his early death.

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