Overintellectualisation

It seems that, in poetry terms, being PC means being Politically Correct, & that means liking excessively intellectualised poetry & felling superior about it
David Sneddon

So, this is gonna be my last lecture of the series. Along the way I hope to have introduced two new poetic forms into the English medium; the Tamil Kural & my new adaption of the Chaunt Royale. I have also unearthed some of the greatest Romantic poetry in a dusty corner of Walter Scott’s long forgotten oeuvre. I have also suggested that modern poets have somehow lost diverted from the true, Parnassian path, replacing meaningful didacticism with a cliquey, post-graduate pomposity that has alienated the common man, & has been reflected in those ever-dwindling book-sales. The glorius, wondrous artform that compelled poets to create stuff as splendid as the Divine Comedy is stuck in a rut of what I would call overintellectualisation. A clear example can be found in an elegy to a young love, Mary Farl Powers, by Irish poet, Paul Muldoon (b.1951, Armargh) called Incantata.

I thought of you tonight, a leanbh, lying there in your long barrow
colder and dumber than a fish by Francisco de Herrera,
as I X-Actoed from a spud the Inca
glyph for a mouth: thought of that first time I saw your pink
spotted torso, distant-near as a nautilus,
when you undid your portfolio, yes indeedy,
and held the print of what looked like a cankered potato
at arm’s length—your arms being longer, it seemed, than Lugh’s.

Even Lugh of the Long (sometimes the Silver) Arm
would have wanted some distance between himself and the army-worms
that so clouded the sky over St Cloud you’d have to seal
the doors and windows and steel
yourself against their nightmarish déjeuner sur l’herbe:
try as you might to run a foil
across their tracks, it was to no avail;
the army-worms shinnied down the stove-pipe on an army-worm rope.

It goes on… & on… & on… just like that for ages & ages. A confusing morass of mimesis that I bet Mr Muldoon doesn’t himself quite understand. Richard Eder, a reviewer for the New York Times, calls Muldoon, ‘a shape-shifting Proteus to readers who try to pin him down. And those who interrogate Muldoon’s poems find themselves changing shapes each time he does.’ Maybe I’m just too dumb to get it, but experiencing poetry should not be about changing shape to fit the poetry, but really about the people it speaks to. The key is communication, & the driving force behind poetry should be the living entity that is the language of a poem. If nobody understands the language, then what is the point? How can we conjoin in a public, poetical mourning if we are prevented from making an emotional connection to the deceas’d spirit because the sound & imagery are too distorted to engage with. The next poem is also by an Irish writer of the same era, Paul Duncan (b.1944, Dublin). I’m going to give in full;

I am hiding from my father
On the roof of Joyce’s Tower
In Sandycove.
He is downstairs in the gloom
Of the Joyce Musuem
Exchanging euphemisms with the curator,
The poet Michael Hartnett,
Meteorological euphemisms
Wet & cold for June.

I am standing at the battlements.
I am eighteen years old.
The battle is whether or not
He will buy a copy of Ulysses.
It is a battle about money
But it is a battle alos about morality
Or ‘morals’ as it is called.
It began this morning at the breakfast tabnle
When I asked him for twenty-one shillings
To buy a copy of Ulysses.
He refused on the grounds that on top
Of it being an outrageous sum of money
Which a poorly paid judge could ill afford
It was a notoriously immoral book.
Even the most liberal-minded Jesuits
Had condemned Ulysses
As being blasphemous as well as pornographic.

My mother jumped around form the kitchen sink:
‘Give him the money for the wretched book
And let the pair of you stop this nonsense
For pity’s sake.
Will we ever see peace & sense in this house?’
My father stomred out of the kitchen,
The Irish Independent under his arm:
‘I’ll not be party to subsidising that blackgaurd
Bringing works of blasphemy into this house.
In the year of Our Lord nineteen hundred & sicty-three
I will not be an accessory to blasphemy.’

I caught the 46A bus out to Joyce’s Tower
Newly opened as a museum.
The curator offered to share with me
A carafe of vodka left over
From a literary soiree of the night before.
It was the day after Bloomsday.
Monday, 17 June 1963.
We sat in a compatible silence,
Contemplatively, affably,
Until upheaval of gravel
Eradicated reverie.
I rushed to the door & glimpsed
My father at the foot of the iron steps.
I climbed up to the roof, hoping to hide
From him up there in the marine fog,
Foghorns bleating in the bay.

I hear footsteps behind me, I know it is he.
He declares: ‘I suppose we will have to but that book.
What did you say the name of it is?’
I tell him that the name of it is Ulysses.
I follow him down the staircase & he submits:
Mr Hartness, I understand
You stock copies of a book entitled Ulysses.
I would like to purchase one copy of same.’
‘Certainly, Your Lordship, certainly,’
Replies the ever-courteous, Chinese-eyed curator.
When from his wingbacked chair behind his desk
He takes from a drawer
A copy of the jade-jacketed Ulysses,
The Bodley Head edition,
My father asks him if he would have brown paper
With which to wrap the green, satanic novel,
Make a parcel out of it.
The curator peers into a wastepaper basket
‘Made by the Blind’,
As if peering down into a bottomless lift shaft,
Casts a funicular, questing second glance at my father
Before fishing out crumpled bags of brown paper
Which the night before had ferried bottles of vodka.
He lays them out on the desk top
And smoothes them, taking pains
To be obsequiously
Extra punctilious, extra fastidious.
Formally, he hands it over to my father,
As if delivering to some abstract & intractable potentate
A peace gift of a pair of old shoes.
My father pronounces: ‘Thank you, Mr Hartnett.’
The curator, at his most extravangantly unctuous, replies:
‘Very glad to be able to oblige you, Your Lordship.’

My father departed Joyce’s Tower with the book.
The next day when I asked my mother if she’d seen it
She said it was in their bedroom beside my father;’ sbed.
Her bed was beside the window & his bed
Was between her bed & the wall.
There it was, on his bedside table
Ulysses,
With a bookmarker in it – a fruitgum wrapper –
At the close of the opening episode.
When a few weeks later
I got to reading Ulysses myself
I found it as strange to my father
And as discordant.
It was not until four years later
When a musical friend
Gave me my lessons
That Ulysses began to sing for me
And I began to sing for my father:
Daddy, Daddy
My little man, I adore you.

There’s no accounting for taste, but for me that is one hell of a beautiful poem. There is even a wee-spot of overintellectualisation going on, as in the big-worded;

As if peering down into a bottomless lift shaft,
Casts a funicular, questing second glance at my father
Before fishing out crumpled bags of brown paper
Which the night before had ferried bottles of vodka.
He lays them out on the desk top
And smoothes them, taking pains
To be obsequiously
Extra punctilious, extra fastidious.

But, in the context of the poem’s entirety, this spot of effluent wordiness hardly jars inappropriately, for the rest of the poem possesses a beautiful & eerie sublimity, a quality so perfectly understood by a first century AD writer called Longinus. His great work, ‘On the Sublime,’ is an important classical text on the poetic art, as these extracts easily show;

Sublimity is an echo of a noble mind… a kind of eminence or excellence of discourse. It is the source of distinction of the very greatests poets & prose writers & the means by which they have given eternal life to their own fame. For grandeur produces ecstasy rather than persuasion in the hearer; & the combination of wonder & astonishment alweqays proves superior rto the merely persuasive & pleasant. This is becasue persuasion is on the whole something we can control, whereas amazement & wonder exert invincible power & force & get the better of heevery hearer…

All such lapse in dignity arise in literature through a single cause: that desire for novelty of thought which is all the rage today… nothing is so damaging to a sublime effect as effeminate & agitated rhythm, phyrrics, trochees & dichorei: they turn into a regular jig. All the rhythmical elements immediately appear artificial & cheap. Being constantly repeated in monotonious fashion without the slightest motional effect.

Phrases too closely knit are also devoid of grandeur, as are those which are chopped into short elements consisting of short syllables, bolted together, as it were, & rough at the joins

Excessively cramped expression also does damage to sublimity. It cripples grandeur to compress it into too short a space. I do not mean proper compression, but cutting up into tiny pieces. Cramping mutilates sense; brevity gives directness. Conversly with fully rextended expressions; anything developed at unseasonable length falls dead

In these scathing comments of Longinus, who riles against the poetry of the unsublime, we can see modern poetry’s prediliction for overintellectualisation. The infectious spread of verbose smugness through our poetical zeitgeist is a common trend. Such a pattern of popular development is best described by Shelley, in whose preface to the Revolt of Islam stated that writers;

Cannot escape from subjection to a common influence which arises out of an infinite combination of circumstances belonging to the times in which they live; although each is in a degree the author of the very influence by which his being is thus pervaded.

A poet should be striving for sublimity – to say what they have to say with a simplicity & a beauty not found in high-minded, cleverly rampant wordplay where no-one has a clue whats going on. In their epoch-shattering ‘Lyrical ballads,’ Wordsworth & Coleridge felt rather much the same when they rebelled against the polished parlour-house couplets of 18th century England, & simplified their own verse-making into the mouths of rustic sorts. As for 2015, I shall leave you with an example of one of my own poems. At first it appears rather simple, but into its spirit have grown & entwined together the most vital vines of modern, capitalist society; sex, greed & carpe diem!


 

She lusted for my custard
As it dribbled down my chin,

She lusted for my custard
But she knew this was a sin.

She lusted for my custard,
She licked it with her tongue;

As she licked the custard clean
She knew that lick was wrong.

‘My word, what are you doing?
& what’s more, good lady, why?

You seemed so happy chewing
On your whip-cream, apple pie.’

‘I must apologize, kind sir,’
She’d got so hot & flustered,

‘That moment was a manic blur,
I just had to have your custard.’


May 23rd

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