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Why poetry matters

The story of 20th-century poetry teaches us that language is not a luxury: we need the right words in order to survive.

This wonderful book might be read as a long meditation on WH Auden’s notorious throwaway comment in his elegy for WB Yeats: “Poetry makes nothing happen.” John Burnside’s first chapter engages directly with this maxim, patiently showing us what it does and does not mean in its context. Auden is not shrugging his shoulders and accepting a place for poetry at the neglected margins of social life. Rather he is making a stark distinction between the ways in which human beings try to “make things happen” – the feverish efforts at political and technological control – and the tough imperative to find ways of echoing “the music of what is” in word and gesture.

The language that “makes things happen” in this context is the language of the Twitter feed, the advertising pitch, the chanted slogan at the rally or party conference (more and more indistinguishable from the advertising and entertainment world), the oafish put-down in parliamentary “debate”, the incomprehensible burble of policy documents and “values statements”.

As Auden says, poetry is “a way of happening”. It takes the passage of time, the reality of loss, the absorption in a sharpened kind of seeing or hearing, and makes all these into speech that can survive (as Auden also insists) and help others survive. Its task of “turning noise into music” is thus irreducibly political, a sustained resistance to commodified, generalised language and the appalling reductions of human possibility that this brings with it. Far from being a decorative adjunct to social or public life, it represents the possibilities to which all intelligent and humane social life should point. “Poetry saves the world every day.”

Burnside’s mission is to show how this works. In a series of reflections he weaves together some impressive close readings of poems in a good half-dozen languages. He evokes both personal and political contexts where we need the right words in order to survive. These are the moments where mortality comes very close; or when the forms of social and economic life which have provided human and humane shelter for individuals come under strain and start to disintegrate. They are the moments when we try to name the strange tensions of acknowledged failure and transforming hope that surround marriage in our culture; and moments when the poet is under pressure to say something with obvious public, political force and knows with even greater interior pressure that yielding to this would be fatal to the poetry.

Burnside takes the 20th century as his field, and not just the 20th century of the Anglosphere. There are fine discussions of the Russian poets Anna Akhmatova and Marina Tsvetaeva, a profoundly moving chapter on Albrecht Haushofer, writing in the Moabit Prison in Berlin before his execution in 1945, and introductions to poets from Latin America and Africa that most readers will not have heard of (I was especially grateful for being made aware of Tjawangwa Dema, a young female poet from Botswana). The expected engagements with Rilke, Pound, Eliot, Montale, Bishop, Moore, Stevens, Heaney, and other anthology stalwarts are invariably fresh and free from cliché. Burnside is bracingly clear that admiring Ezra Pound or Wallace Stevens for what they contribute to the essential task of poetry is not in the least to absolve them of their poisonous racism or any other follies.

His attitude is memorably summed up at the very end of the book, in a reading of the African-American Terrance Hayes’s “Snow for Wallace Stevens”, a poem that contains the striking phrase, “I have a capacity for love without/forgiveness.” Burnside audaciously but convincingly claims that this is the true sense of Jesus’s command to love your enemies. An enemy is, after all, someone with whom you have not yet made peace, and the love required is “an ability to hold or contain the anger and disappointment that arises from recognition of an author’s failures alongside the love one feels for the example of his work”. Set this alongside the hectic urge to condemn that typifies much of our public culture, and you have some idea of the sheer grown-upness of Burnside as reader and commentator. 

Burnside is a consistent champion of difficulty in poetry, the quality that liberates the reader (and writer) from a “prefabricated world” in which nothing is ever new and disorienting. On this basis he has some pretty sharp things to say about how poetry is often taught in schools – as illustrative of subject matter rather than as something that has to be wrestled with first and foremost as speech. Pupils, he says, are likely to go away thinking more about this subject matter than about what has been happening in the words they hear or read. Pushing students into prematurely writing their own poems on the subject further shrinks the challenge of staying with the difficulty and valuing it in its own terms. Yet he also has astringent things to say about “lazy” difficulty. Verbose, self-indulgent poetry, drawing attention to its own ingenuity, labours for surface effect rather than transparency to what the poem directs us to – which is not themes or ideas but the “music” of the givenness of a moment, or a juxtaposition of words, or a collision of sensations.

Throughout the book, Burnside determinedly defends poetry that may not be clearly of the first rank but does its job of liberating us to stand aside from control and purpose. The real enemies are poetry that has been instrumentalised in one way or another, subordinated to a cause, and poetry that is manifestly made not born – self-consciously foregrounding its own inventiveness rather than taking us into a place where something new is pushing through.

He is salutary on the sterile debates over “high art” and “popular art”, performance art and poetry on the page (Is Bob Dylan a better poet than Tennyson? Is Kate Tempest a better poet than Ruth Padel?). Burnside sensibly insists that excellence belongs to the mode and idiom you’re trying to succeed in; and that therefore we should be free to applaud where we see quality, but slow to think that one kind of quality has to prevail. So that an appreciation of, say, performance poetry does not have to be weaponised to make facile criticisms of what may be more “difficult” or have less instant impact.

Poetry on the page sets out to do something different, something that can be revisited, and to say that it is elitist is to miss the point comprehensively and to trivialise the whole idea of response to poetry. As Burnside puts it trenchantly: “I didn’t have to go to this or that school to respond immediately to Handel or Benjamin Britten, and nobody had to tell me that most of the commercial ‘pop’ peddled on radio and TV was manufactured… anodyne.”

This segues into a hugely insightful discussion of the distinction between poetry and song, and the complexities of setting poems to music. It may be possible to set a poem, but the music can’t be said to add anything essential. The text of a poem is mediated in a quite different way from what works with a hymn lyric or popular song. Any poet who has tried to write text specifically for a musical setting will know the problem of “leaving room” for the music to integrate with the text and create a new unity.

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Perhaps the most arresting sections of The Music of Time are the chapters on the story of poetry in the United States. There is a poignant account of Robert Frost’s short-lived absorption into the slipstream of John F Kennedy’s diplomacy, when he was encouraged to travel to Moscow and meet Khrushchev – with somewhat mixed results. Imagine now, though, a US president thinking such an engagement worthwhile, let alone delivering a public eulogy for a poet, as Kennedy did for Frost.

This is followed by a searing chapter on the tragedy of American urban life and its “squandering of social capital” as a result of racist and exploitative policies, the flight of white populations to the suburbs and the flight of capital in search of cheap labour and low regulation. Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s “Pity the Nation”, a polemic directed at the second administration of George W Bush, is analysed in relation to an earlier piece by the same poet that celebrates the breakthrough of non-white players into the national baseball scene.

Ferlinghetti is then brought into conversation with the Mexican José Emilio Pacheco’s “High Treason”, a poem beginning “I do not love my country”. In it Pacheco contrasts a supposed “political homeland” with the actual social and physical location that remains worth loving when a nation’s political identity has collapsed into brutality and lies. As Burnside writes in his earlier chapter on Haushofer, poets are well placed to ask when a population seduced by a demagogue will be able to “awaken and see what has been done to them”.

Read these pages and think of the uses of “treason” that have been flung around lately on both sides of the Atlantic; read them again and recognise why the poet’s voice is politically vital. And read them mindful of the way certain political elites work to destroy precisely that physical habitat that commands lasting love. As Pacheco says, the real “treason” is to support the war of government against the earth itself and the communities that know how to treasure it. Read these pages and think of the Amazon or Greenland.

One of the things that the poet can do is to draw our attention again and again to the fact that human intelligence is bound up in a “collective intelligence”, a many-faceted interweaving of life and agency. Cut off from that collective intelligence, we are less than human, and we are “homesick for the other animals”. Burnside notes sombrely that our actual encounter with the animal world, especially wild animals, is shrinking at an unprecedented rate (remember the recent press stories about junior dictionaries that no longer include the names of wild flowers or common birdlife). It is as if, alongside the ever-more-rapid melting of the ice cap, another kind of nurturing or protective environment is being melted by the heat of acquisition – the presence to us of other organic life. That presence reminds us that we are not God.

Burnside mischievously suggests that our passion to “understand” poetry may derive from “a middle-school confusion of literature and theology”, rooted in the abiding problem of making sense of an opaque scriptural text. But if there is a proper overlap between the two it is surely here, in the way poetry affirms the material, finite world but is always conscious of an unimaginable backdrop, never trying to occupy or contain that elusive perspective.

Every reader of this book will have a flicker of wondering why this or that writer or group of writers is absent (in an ideal world, I’d have liked to hear more from Poland, from Czesław Milosz and Wisława Szymborska) but this would be an ungracious response to a book that never sets out to be some sort of encyclopaedic guide to “modern poetry”. It achieves far more in its personal, even idiosyncratic tone; it manages to be not only an “apology for poetry” in our era, but a serious analysis of the various sorts of “noise” around us that need turning into music, and a candid, compassionate examination of the human experiences that press us in the direction of music.

Burnside has written a generous, combative, honest book, which will compel re-reading and deserves to survive, as poetry itself survives, alongside the laziness and imaginative carnage of public speech in the 21st century. 

Rowan Williams is a lead book reviewer for the New Statesman

The Music of Time: Poetry in the Twentieth Century
John Burnside
Profile, 496pp, £25

Rowan Williams is an Anglican prelate, theologian and poet, who was Archbishop of Canterbury from 2002 to 2012. He writes on books for the New Statesman

This article appears in the 23 October 2019 issue of the New Statesman, The broken state