Two things in the Kaffeeklatsch ‘manifesto’ which particularly appeal to me: 1) the suggestion that poetry, to be good, must bear some significant relationship to the world. It must describe things (“with the caveat that”, as Ashbery awesomely points out in response to Williams’ phrase “No ideas but in things” — “that ideas are also things”); and 2) more obscurely, that the essential value of a poem can’t be ruined by flaws in the writing. Even if – as many would offer in argument with this – poetry is more about the way in which language can be used to put across a point than the point itself, a certain unpolished looseness or scrappiness of language can always be read as mimetic of a scrappiness of mind, a looseness of world. The poem’s metrical or conceptual flaws can read as a formal embodiment of the scappy, tarnished nature of what’s being discussed, depicted, or dissected in the poem.
As an interesting witness to this point, I’d like to call Edwin Morgan to the stand.
In his most excellent introduction to Sovpoems, his collection of translations from communist poets — Tsvetayeva, Neruda, Brecht, Pasternak, and so on — Morgan makes a fairly convincing argument for the imperative, for poetry and art, to deal with “human relations, confidence” — so that value in poetry lies in “the relation of a poet to the world he is living in.” And not, as Morgan sees it, in mere experiment, theory, abstraction and self-consciousness. And although Morgan might occasionally misfire in his choices of poets who fail to hold a satisfactory relationship to the world (Larkin, Eliot…), he does have an exceptionally satisfying idea of where this relationship can be found, and what literature needs to do to constitute it:
without the one big thing [...] – interest, care, and positive confidence in and for man and society – there is too little to build on, and the arts become a sort of fascinating marginal fantasy, where talent and effort (and money) are devoted to convincing a sceptical world that the materials used are more interesting than the mind that shapes them or the end it shapes them to.
Well then: experiment if you like, but love the world. If you hear the record of Kerouac reading his ‘October in the Railroad Earth’, you know that the answer is Yes, whatever faults the writing has; if you read Tomlinson’s book Seeing is Believing you know that the answer must be No, whatever virtues the writing has.
Yes. It isn’t often, these days, it’s possible to enjoy Kerouac so much, let alone embed a video of him in your blog. Thanks Edwin.
(it’s also satisfying how firmly Morgan’s Sovpoems preface agrees with the parts of our manifesto about the intrinsic politicalness of good poetry, and also the value of translation. Perhaps we should adopt him as some sort of patron saint?)