4 February 2014

Housman Modernized

Ivor Brown, I Commit to the Flames (London: Hamish Hamilton, 1934), pp. 211-216:
It is understandable that the Very Modern should dislike what is ordinarily known as poetry, just as others dislike cricket or cod liver oil. What I cannot understand is why they are so cantankerous about it. People who dislike cricket or cod's liver peaceably avoid these things. They do not go into the street and play with a steel bar for bat and an old kettle as the ball, crying 'This is the Real, Active Cricket. All that stuff at Lord's is the corpse of cricket.' But this is exactly what the Very Modern Poets do. They write something which bears no relation to any sort of poetry and then noisily assert that this is the only real poetry and that all the other fellows are Down among the Dead Men. I would respect this judgment more if they declined to use the word poetry at all. Let them stop cutting up their prose into segments that give an outer semblance of attempted poetry. Let them say that poetry died when the motor car came in and that there shall be no more trifling with this deplorable and outworn art. Let them proclaim spasmodic prose as the only voice which can articulate the opinions of the rising generation. That, though foolish, would at least be consistently foolish. What is so tiresome is their insistence on using the title when they kill the thing. A Commissar who murders a king does at least forbear to wear a crown and call himself a Little Father. That form of idiocy is monopolised by the lads and lasses of the Active Group.

The emotional criterion of poetry was overstated by Professor Housman in his famous lecture. 'Meaning is of the intellect, poetry is not', is a phrase which obviously needs qualification. It certainly does not divorce poetry from meaning, but it too rigidly separates heart and brain. None the less the ordinary reader of poetry - and, since there are not a great many people who read poetry without scholastic compulsion, the ordinary reader is an extraordinary person - probably agrees with the Housman test of emotional response.

Either the poet rings the bell or he does not. 'I think that to transfuse emotion - not to transmit thought, but to set up in the reader's sense a vibration corresponding to what was felt by the writer -is the peculiar function of poetry.' We recognise poetry by physical occurrence. Housman quotes Eliphaz the Temanite; 'A spirit passed before my face; the hair of my flesh stood up.' The body is the arbiter; there are, as Mr. Tappertit would say, 'wibrations'. Sometimes it is perilous to be thus set a-shivering. 'Experience has taught me,' Housman continues, 'when I am shaving of a morning, to keep watch over my thoughts because, if a line of poetry strays into my memory, my skin bristles so that the razor ceases to act.' He also attributes to the power of poetry watery eyes, a constriction of the throat, and a stabbing sensation in the pit of the stomach.

Few of us, I suppose, are quite so powerfully vibrated as a Housman; we might even manage to shave with a book of poetry on the dressing table. At the same time he, with his own genius, has made it difficult not to vibrate physically as he drops his words upon our senses.
'Could man be drunk for ever
With liquor, love, or fights,
Lief should I rise at morning
And lief lie down of nights.

But men at whiles are sober
And think by fits and starts
And, if they think, they fasten
Their hands upon their hearts.'
One shudders for the state of the Housman epidermis should he remember his own poetry with razor in hand. The Modernist would simply scream out his parrot-cry about Dead Stuff. 'Lief' is an old word; you do not say in a public-house 'Lief would I have a pint of bitter'; therefore the word must not occur in any Active Poem. The Activist would, I suppose, argue that Housman is making an intellectual judgment on the desirability of escape. This ought to be stated with the 'hard matter-of-fact skeleton of poetic logic' or 'as dryly and unfeelingly as a schoolmistress would explain a mathematical problem'. It must be done, too, in the language used by a liquorish, lecherous, combative man. Perhaps the Activist version would run something like this. Mr. Pound, at any rate, has my full permission to use it in his next posy of contemporary flowers.
      booze
that's O.K.
      whose booze?
      oozy booze
kiddo I'm bottled
      grand
dames and janes and socks
on the jaw
      grand
brain stabs
belly vomits mind-stuff
      lousy
O gemme a woman gemme booze
      shucks.
That fulfils all the canons of poesy as practised by the Shock Troops; perhaps the typography is inadequate. A few capital letters in the middle of the words might assist the 'matter-of-fact skeleton of poetic logic'. There might be some high rational significance in writing 'boOze' or 'vOmits'. Possibly the question-mark after the second 'booze' is a trifle old-world.