1. i’ve been listening to a friend’s lectures on poetry & prose (covering Donne, Coleridge, and Berryman). He begins by drawing a distinction between poetry & prose, the latter deriving its authority from what comes before & after the prose, from external sources; and the former being a spontaneous emerging in the mind. He qualifies it later but if you alter poetry & prose to poetical and prosaic it has something in it. The exemplar of the prosaic here would be neo-Classical, Dryden, Pope, etc. – anything new is deeply suspect; you require the consent of your audience, and also their complete understanding of everything you say, before you say it. No surprises, however mild. Nothing indecorous. Nothing even faintly wild. All must be powdered and perruqued and respectable, structured to the point of dessication. Of poetry, one could cite Shelley, Emily Dickinson, Marlowe, or Hart Crane: their poetry seems to simply occur (and quite often such poets die young or only briefly flower). Personally, i prefer the poetical to the prosaic although i find Shelley a little unbearable, i think because he exists almost totally in his own imagination.

The lecturer continues to say that whereas prose can easily bear an account of itself, as it were holding up a little tag telling you where to file it, poetry cannot (“the poem is the cry of its occasion/Part of the res itself and not about it” – Wallace Stevens, ‘An Ordinary Evening in New Haven’).

This is also one reason i dislike all the Beat poetry i’ve read – it seems to be describing itself as wild & revolutionary, which for me means it’s not poetry, and probably not really all that wild/revolutionary either. Prose is easier, hence i switch off with Dr Johnson’s poetry but love his prose. His age was, like all ages, an uneasy mix of the wild & ordered: so characters like Richard Savage abound, and Johnson himself was far from decorous; and in his prose, Johnson strives always to create, delineate, maintain order. The “rage for order” was the stronger as he feared the dissolution of death, and the anarchic violence in human beings and himself.

In the Coleridge lecture, my friend suggests that the poet was unable to control his poetic impulses – that they simply emerged, violently and dreadfully, as nightmarish visions of fear & retribution (likewise his addiction). And so, to survive he turned his gift off and wrote prose; but lacked, it seems, the sustained concentration to take anything through to its end. Poetry does, i think, deploy and require different energies than prose, and while poetry may be largely harmless, these energies are not.

2. i’ve been learning about gods. You could use other words to describe them: relatively independent, non-physical forms of consciousness; not, i think, given to our kind of intellection, subtlety, self-doubt – they are more like conscious forces of nature, as if a hill became aware. It would not reflect on its own existence. It would simply be aware of itself and that which affects it. They still exist – some are old indeed – as Vergil wrote, sed cruda deo viridisque senectus – the old age of gods is green & raw. They are not, as far as i’m aware, like Neil Gaiman’s clever, fearful American Gods. They may feel that people no longer worship, and perhaps this affects them, but they persist. i’m unsure how they see us, how our lives join to theirs. They seem quite independent of place though i think they favour certain terrains. With the god they called Wodan, he came through to my mind through the runes, very early, without much effort. Perhaps because gods are non-physical, they respond to consciousness – so they don’t even really see most people, because most people’s consciousness is secular and dull. They notice certain individuals; these are brightly lit up.

3. Peter Hitchens writes about the dissolute Church of England:

Beneath the ancient arches of our parish churches we shall soon be enduring the music of the Sugababes and watching trained owls deliver matching rings to overdressed couples sitting on fake thrones, as photographers lean in as close as they can, to film the crucial moment. With the support of the strangely overrated John Sentamu, Archbishop of York,  parsons are to be instructed to swallow their doubts and permit any kind of rubbishy vulgarity. The excuse is that, in some way, this treatment will persuade the men and women involved to forsake the cocktail bar and the tanning parlour, and become regular churchgoers. Everyone but a bishop can see quite clearly that it will do no such thing. The victims of these nasty, extravagant ceremonies will never enter a church again.
Just as Groucho Marx wouldn’t belong to a club that would have him as a member, people will have no respect for a church that is obviously so desperate to welcome them that it will take money in return for ditching its principles. The whole point of churches is to disturb our day-to-day lives with the haunting rhythms and poetry of eternity. If we go into them and find that they are just like the nearest shopping mall, only with nicer architecture, then we will turn away disappointed.

Further in my friend’s lectures, he notes that we live in a world devoted to fact and the prosaic. In this world, poetry must be given a secular, economic, prosaic reason for existing. As he puts it (memoritor): “you surround poetry with health and safety regulations. You say it must be useful. You put it on the underground. You say, this is poetry week and so we will write a poem about this or that topic.” Or you say a church must become secular, must prostitute itself to all that is mendacious and glittery and prosaic.

The “poetical” energies – the wild, unpredictable – have been steadily suppressed and made disreputable & pitiable in our culture. i think it’s to do with cities, with science, with a world supposedly determined & predicted & manipulated by human beings. In this world, we are – as in an American shopping mall – absolutely within the manmade, surrounded by it, to the point that we cannot even see the sky. Non-human life continues of course, but we can destroy it, so it’s really trivial, a tourist attraction at best.

4. This is a false account of reality. The world is wild at heart and weird on top. If you hold this is not so, if you cannot make conscious room for the wild & the non-human, you live in a carefully arranged garden where everything has its place, every tree and flower and bird and insect has its name and fits into a reassuring taxonomy. But it is false.

Bureaucracy, secular materialism, the rise of the State, the denigration of culture and especially of Western religion, these are consequences of the prosaic triumph. The prosaic mind seeks to suffocate all genuinely human activity, whether of mind or body – because the genuinely human is constantly informed by the non-human, by the wild, by gods. The fully human adjoins onto the non-human. One could see terrorism, militant Islam, the violence now endemic in England, as symptoms of the denied wild. An emasculated world cannot defend itself from savagery.

5. In the emasculated world, one must always bear a little tag announcing one’s provenance, category. This is a world for apple polishers, city men. They regard non-polishers with contempt, ranging from amused to vitriolic. It is today very hard to financially survive without being an apple polisher, and almost impossible to get on. Some of my successful students are non-polishers but they have usually climbed high by virtue of technical (engineering) knowledge; and by the time the world realises they are non-polishers they have too much power to be dislodged. i have chosen to live as far from Munich as possible, on the edge of the country; my evening walk takes me through fields and Roman ruins. To be far from the city is best (North Face: “I’m not going back to Berlin. There are too many people like you there”).

6. A culture cannot live without spirit, without wildness. One could say religion and art are a way of directing and reconciling the wild to the tame, to justify the ways of god to men (and vice versa). Without these mediators, a culture comes apart. The worldly powers try to compensate with bureaucracy and lumpenly prosaic commandments:

‘Collective Cultural Belonging’ is what the Culture Minister (don’t ask) has been banging on about, a phrase a wise person would think twice about using in the aftermath of Stalin and Pol Pot. But Margaret Hodge sips from a poisoned chalice. Terrorism, immigration, integration, assimilation, identity, nationhood – all awaiting the salving balm of culture. If we can get everybody together – ‘associating their citizenship with key cultural icons’ is how she puts it, which sounds like having your photograph taken with Elton John and pasting it on to the back page of your new British passport – all will be well.

(Howard Jacobson, Whatever It Is, I Don’t Like It)

We all speak & write prose. Poetry is something else. Probably most people only encounter it now in song lyrics, most of which are of the “oh baby baby baby” variety. Poetry is not ordinary; it is useful for memorisation but this wasn’t its sole purpose for existing (scientists in particular like to identify one side effect and then solemnly declare this as the reason something came into being). It is not really useful for conveying raw information. It has no real use, in worldly terms. This is scandalous and disgusting to the prosaic. For example:

A Communist-looking slob asks: “Can the panel please recite a poem that they learnt by rote at school and explain how this has been useful in their subsequent careers.”

About 2.30 in a Communist-looking teacher in hipster glasses says that it’s a waste of time to learn poetry.

And then at 2.45 Peter Hitchens commences his assault: first he spells accommodate correctly and then recites the following poem by Housman:

Into my heart an air that kills

From yon far country blows:

What are those blue remembered hills,

What spires, what farms are those?

 

That is the land of lost content,

I see it shining plain,

The happy highways where I went

And cannot come again.

He continues: “And I’m very pleased that my head is full of things like that and also lots of hymns which I remember, and I feel very sorry for anybody who hasn’t had the chance to learn them, and I think it is a great condemnation of our school system that so few people, and particularly only those whose parents are rich, can actually afford to have their children taught things like that and have their minds furnished with beauty for the remainder of their lives. And to pour scorn on it and to say that it is unimportant is to declare yourself a spiritual desert.”

It is typical of the prosaic that they should suppose everything you’re taught should be “useful” for your “career”. As if the only purpose of education is to equip boys & girls to earn money, and every element of school must be directly connected to the getting of more money, of contributing to the Gross Domestic Product.

Poetry is not useful; it is merely essential. Without these energies a society becomes a mechanical race to generate more GDP. Perhaps, for the ugly Communists, that is the ultimate end of human existence, a race of frenzied ants producing and consuming.

But it is wildness which determines meaning. It cannot be incorporated into the prosaic, cannot be ascribed a function. Its “function” is to have no function. It stands outside of the worldly (“The whole point of churches is to disturb our day-to-day lives with the haunting rhythms and poetry of eternity”). Hence, i can read mediocre prose, just about, but cannot stomach run-of-the-mill poetry. Merely nice or interesting or well-executed poetry is, for me, almost unbearable. Poetry is, by definition, unworldly. It is language as you would never use it for day-to-day communication. It seems to communicate nothing except itself. Most of the finer works of humanity are useless.

But it is precisely in the unworldly, the uncanny, the wild and useless and indeed disturbing and destructive, that we have our true life.

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