Poem in an Orange Wig
‘Personally I feel as though I was drowning in a sea of boiling water.’ This is the sentence uttered by Schoenberg when he was invited to describe his life as a composer. He went on: ‘One is swimming, one is struggling toward something, but one does not know what. One is tired, and wants to stop. But how can you stop in the middle of a sea?’ Schoenberg, now, has reached his destination: he is dead. But he was wrong. That superb rhetoric, ‘How can you stop in the middle of a sea?’ is a question that several contemporary poets could answer without hesitation. I know one who has stopped off at a charming Victorian residence in the north of England and another who dragged himself out onto the clashing rocks of the British Council.
My point is this: It is not such men who are to blame. They would indeed be deficient in the elementary impulse of self-preservation if they had not accepted the salvation offered to them by Providence. No, it is destiny who elects those she intends to favour with her sanctuaries or her boiling seas. I do not for one moment believe that if Schoenberg had come upon a straw in his boiling sea he would have deliberately declined to grasp it. For, if he had been capable of refusing any such assistance or amelioration, then demonstrably his boiling sea was not very hot water. The truth is that destiny, and by that I mean the character of the man, comes up and presents to the individual the things he wants in the disguise of the things he deserves. It is the psychosomatics of biography. If Schoenberg had really wanted a luxury liner to appear on the horizon of his spiritual loneliness, it would have done so. It did, in fact, when he was invited to write the musical score for a film called The Good Earth. But, of course, he did not believe in the liner; he thought that it must be a mirage. He asked for an enormous sum of money, such as only a luxury liner could afford to pay. ‘If I’m going to commit suicide,’ he said, ‘I might as well live in luxury afterwards.’ The liner disappeared. For this particular man it was an hallucination.
The subject I essay to discuss is a matter of some importance to the poet in our present society. It is not a question of the honesty of the artist, or the integrity of the artist, or the dedication of the artist. All these follow upon the initiatory mystery. This is the character being made by the man into an instrument that attracts to itself only those things that, in spite of all the laws of self-destruction, ultimately must preserve it. I should not call this integrity, because it is in no sense moral. I would call it Providential, because it takes its origin outside the man himself. This is why we say that poets are born and not made.
The reason the poet has become the enemy of society (seen in terms of the over-all scheme of things) is because only the enemy within the gates can report anything like the truth. It is to his advantage to do so, or he will very soon become converted to his own misrepresentations; and this is a definition of society. For the poet, society is an institution dedicated to the pursuit of its own lies. It is the moral duty of the poet to speak about these lies; it is what makes him a poet, and it is also what makes him an enemy of society. And by the lies of society I do not mean such expediential variations on the truth as the figures of casualties in the Battle of Britain or who first really discovered America. I mean the lies that society promulgates about its own motives and intentions, its real as distinct from its apparent purposes, its elevation of hypocrisy into a heretical religion of classical cynicism. In a society such as ours is now, only the police and the politician can find a congenial place—the police because they do not have to justify themselves at all, the politician because it is universally assumed that he lies. In this paradoxical sense only the policemen and the politician are honest. Everyone else subscribes to the preservation of an order in which he is desperately uncomfortable and necessarily dishonest. And I am not speaking ideologically or politically; I am speaking in terms of human dignity. Against the underground and concealed, as well as the open and demonstrable, dissimulations of such a society only the poet can really speak without reservations. Because he has at least become an almost total outcast from these institutions. The truth of this remark was not conclusively attested by an article I came across some time ago entitled ‘Are Poets Necessary?’ But this article was an indication. By a society in such a state of demoralized confusion the poet must be rendered unnecessary because he might otherwise prove to be fatal.
The fact that all this might seem to be exaggerated poppycock could give us an idea of how our postulates may already have been undermined and vitiated. For all I seek to assert is the spiritual irresponsibility of a world that pays millions of dollars for a bomb and forty shillings for a poem. Nor is this assertion as fatuous or as naïve as it sounds, for we have become quite inured to the disparity between the price of bombs and the price of everything else. So inured, indeed, that it is salutary that we should remind ourselves, every now and then, that this is by no means a natural state of affairs, ordained by the heavenly engines. It is not. There is, in fact, only one thing in common between poems and atomic bombs: this is the law of unpredictability.
I feel, more and more, that I really know nothing about society except that I don’t like it, and nothing much about poetry except that I do like it. And the affection I have for the art of poetry seems to increase in proportion to my disaffection from society. This is, of course, a simple admission of escapism. But I suggest that it is human and natural and even sensible to try to escape from a condition one finds unpleasant and unprofitable. Only the British War Office would blame a man who wanted to escape from the presence of TNT. It is a perfectly natural impulse. And only those people who are thoroughly and painfully caught up in it really experience a desire to escape from the vicious treadmill of contemporary society. I do not believe that the highest function of the poet is to perform a sort of social service for the soul. The action and influence of poetry upon the spirit of a nation—if poetry has any influence upon this spirit at all—is infinitely less direct. The Muse, like all clever women, works her will upon things in a much more roundabout way.
This issue, the social responsibility of poetry, is one with which poets have always been very puzzled and concerned. And they have never been more concerned about it than during the last twenty years. It is less so at the immediate present. In the Thirties a handful of serious poets did their best to persuade society not to commit suicide. But now the poets have nothing much to do except to preside at the funeral ceremonies, to drink, to remember, to honour, to elegize. This is not an unprecedented state of affairs. Other poets in other places have been called upon by history to compose the obituaries of a civilization.
It is never very necessary to tell contemporary society what, if anything, is good and right about it, for the reason that its highest value for us is the simple fact that it is contemporary. As regards any other merits it might have, these things are subject to distortion in the eye of the observer. I believe that Ezra Pound is the best poet alive, but this is a conviction I could not really defend, in spite of the assistance offered by Mr. Peter Russell. I see Pound’s poetry through pink spectacles. But whether the spectacles are on my nose or the nose of the poems I do not know. What I know about his poems is that they are alive and kicking and compete with a cinema and psycho-analysis and love affairs and all the paraphernalia of twentieth century life. But this can be said about the poems of all serious modern poets.
To me the most remarkable thing about contemporary poetry is that it is not in fact very remarkable. I mean simply that in the colourful strutting of the various arts and sciences up and down the avenue, it is, nowadays, much easier to remark other arts, or any one of several sensationalistic sciences. The wallflower is the poetry. She, however, is really, all the better for looking less like a streetwalker than, say, contemporary painting. The reason is that poetry, when a trifle too much attention is paid to her, tends to exaggerate her inborn flirtatiousness. She becomes a bitch. Bitches are females who indulge in their femininity with a too melodramatic self-congratulation. They are women or poems who neither desire nor are desired as much as it seems. I think it fortunate that the art of poetry is not, at this particular time, particularly fashionable. It is in less danger now than it was ten years ago of walking around wearing a ridiculous hat just because it knows that people are looking at it. There was that time when the Muse found it expedient to disguise herself as a workman, a proletarian boy, a psychoanalyst, and a Hyde Park anarchist, all within the space of a year. This versatility—the poem as soap-box, the poem as axe-grinder, the poem as confessional, etc., —although all this is in the long run salutary for the constitution of the art because it makes for a toughening up of the thing, has, at the same time, one immensely dangerous consequence. It persuades the poet that his poems might reasonably do all sorts of things that poems constitutionally cannot do. I do not believe that poems can by a direct operation discourage the immoralist or improve the growth of barley or cure the stammer. At best they can speak the truth as they see it about men and events. But from this operation all kinds of mysterious consequences follow.
I have spent a lot of time looking for an image that might convey to others what I saw, rightly or wrongly, the poetry of things to be in its nature. I was very young when I saw the oyster as the symbol of the poet, covering his personal and impersonal sensibilities and wounds with the nacreous excreta of the poems. This was a modest and—within limits—a fairly felicitous image. (I have since discovered that this symbol like so many of the most dramatic symbols in latter-day literary criticism, is the original property of Robert Graves). But it happened to leave out much more than it accounted for. We all know the consolations that the writer finds in his doodling and the drunk in being sick. Then, later, committed to the conviction that you cannot find an equation for poetry other than the various individual poems that go to make up all poetry, I saw the symbol of poetry as the recurrent seven of mathematics. It was a sort of formalized aperture in the human intellect through which reality entered or escaped. And through this aperture the vision of the poet gazed down from the altitude of the imagination. It gazed down and made comments. The comments are the poetry. I can illustrate, perhaps a little obscurely, what I mean if I put a line of Dante’s against a remark of Voltaire’s. Doctor Pangloss knew that everything is for the best in this best of all possible worlds. Dante said:
In his will is our Peace
The difference is simple. Voltaire is angry and resentful at the disgusting conditions of human existence. He has got some reality stuck in his gullet. Dante is contemplating human existence from a rarer atmosphere—he has digested reality and observed with an act of imaginative vision. When Blake wrote:
If the Sun and Moon should doubt
They’d immediately go out
it was an imaginative affirmation which Voltaire, that professional question mark, would, I suppose, have found mere gibberish.
I want to revert for a moment to a former subject of these remarks: the likelihood that poets are about to be starved out of existence. This eventuality may appear, to a nation in the throes of impending bankruptcy, as an inconvenience of very minor proportions. In a world where everything else is expendable, why on earth not poets? But this is not an exact statement of the facts. The truth is that a new conception of the expandable has arisen in our society. We know only too well that the necessities of life are not what they once were; but certain things are still necessary, if only a dotted line and some characters to inscribe upon it. But the exact interpretation as to what the necessities of life in truth may be, this is the first social responsibility of the poet. Those ideals from which we draw our notion of what is and what is not necessary to our existence are ideals interpreted to us not by politicians or policemen but by poets. They are established by saints and interpreted by poets. These ideals can never be very clearly discerned by the world at large, because it is going about its more immediate business all the while. This is why the world at large finds it hard to believe either in the existence of such ideals in the first place, or that such ideals have anything to do with writing poems. That there is a relationship of blood between the death of Captain Scott and the heroic ideal of John Milton is not so far-fetched a speculation as all that. Our conceptions of moral grandeur are not derived from an accidental picking and choosing among precedents; they are put upon us by the electors of moral categories, and these are poets. The saint is inceptor.
The English heroic ideal got itself perfectly enunciated in Paradise Lost. It is an ideal of Justice. The hero is a man prepared to take the consequences. This ideal is no less perfectly dramatized in the death of Captain Scott. I am not saying that Scott died because Milton wrote an epic. I am saying that Scott died a death for whose moral grandeur Milton could be held in part responsible. The spiritual indigence of the world as it is now cannot entirely be divorced from the frivolity of those poets of the First World War who gave us harrowing snapshots of trench warfare instead of a new conception of moral grandeur. We inherited from the Georgian poets a handful of dirt containing a single primrose and the badge of the Artists’ Rifles. Only one of them dared to speak about war without hysteria and with an impersonal pity, and his work alone survives. It is Wilfred Owen, and to him alone, that the young poet of our time can turn in the expectation of finding affinities. The only sentence that has come down to us from these remote and clay-footed oracles is the sentence: ‘The poetry is in the Pity,’ This pronouncement constitutes the sum total of their serious speculation on the nature of poetry. Apart from this statement of Owen’s we have nothing much except the haberdasher whimsy of Housman’s disclosure that poetry is what makes the beard bristle. From the death of Tennyson to the publication of ‘The Love Song of J.Alfred Prufrock’ is the era of the vegetable allotment; and in consequence we have inherited the ethical conceptions of under-gardeners and floriculturists.
I conclude with a fable about a poem in an orange wig. This poem, with its wig slightly askew, was strolling up and down Piccadilly, but obviously not for good. A gentleman with a notebook approached the poem and said in a cold voice: ‘It is time all good poems were home in bed.’ But the poem took no notice. It strolled on humming and winking and making a spectacle of itself. At this the gentleman with the notebook shouted out loudly after it: ‘You must be a very bad poem because you are not at all like my wife.’ Still the poem in the notebook, who was an American critic, called out, ‘All poems in orange wigs are immoral.’ At this the poem halted and turned around. ‘Dear Doctor,’ she said, ‘I must tell you one thing. You know I’m dumb. But, fortunately, I am also deaf.’ And went on down the street, but not for good.
[Subsequently published in Saturday Review, October 1960]
Poet as Pariah
There is a perfectly serious prospect of a decline in the experimental writing of young poets for the simple reason that they can no longer write as they wish to write and eat at the same time. Nor is this because of any fault of manual dexterity on their part. It is already impossible for them to drink and write as they wish: the beer is no longer singing beer. Now this brings about a state of affairs in which the classical tenets of English poetry are threatened. The poet needs three things in order to go on being a poet: Milton described these as simplicity, sensuousness and passion. I put it as a dictionary, alcohol and love. It is still possible to buy a tolerable dictionary for a few shillings; and, once you have bought it, you are hardly tempted to pawn it. But the price of alcohol and love, in a world full of Americans and hate, has risen in precise proportion with the cost of living. And the cost of living is no longer reducible to a matter of what I will term, for the sake of the phrase, mere economics. The expense of spirit in a waste of shame has also to be calculated. Not all poets are Robert Graves, who can write a profitable novel with one hand and an exquisite lyric with the other.
I have heard that some poets now get jobs, on the British Council, the British Broadcasting Corporation, and the British Railways. But I cannot forget the way in which Rainer Maria Rilke felt about this matter; he said that for him a job was like death without the dignity of death. Nor has enough been made of the simple argument that writing serious English poetry is a full-time occupation. A certain amount of reading has to be done, a certain amount of writing has to be done, a certain amount of living has to be done. Even a certain amount of loving has to be done, if you can come upon anything worth it. Being a poet is about as full time a job as being a Virgin with a Lamp. The poet will no more be forgiven if he is found, when the angel calls, collating material for the British Council instead of cultivating his hysteria and his garden, than any other purveyor of an empty lamp. This is not to say, categorically, that a man cannot write poetry and hold a job at the same time: for this enviable ambidexterity has in fact been performed by one or two poets. I believe that Mr. T.S Eliot once worked in a bank, and Gerard Manley Hopkins for the Society of Jesus. But between these two men and their everyday work a curious affinity must have existed. The proprieties of Eliot’s critical writings: apparently well behaved and respectable, each conceals a ruthlessness and a hardheadedness that I cannot think the author of ‘After Strange Gods’ would have found uncongenial. I write as a Roman Catholic when I say that, for me, Gerard Manley Hopkins’ poetry and ideology owe as much to the Church as they do to the Muse. So that I cannot believe he was much more miscast in the Society of Jesus than a man with toothache is in a dentist’s chair.
And so it is that some poets come to find a category in the system of society where they need feel little dissatisfaction. For, in spite of everything adduced to disprove it, poets are also human beings. I believe it would have been perfectly possible to take Baudelaire’s pulse; but it would be much more hazardous to think of a job in which he could have been moderately contented. I can see him as a spiritual spiv, a sort of Raffles of Heaven, but never as an executive of a French Council or a secretary to an institute for contemporary art. For the prototypical poet is probably a spy and his name Christopher Marlowe. But the difference between the poet as professional spy and anyone else as a professional spy is simply this: Marlowe, like a good poet, spied for both sides. The life, ignominy, and death of Francis Thompson; the life, ignominy, and death of Christopher Smart; the life, ignominy and death of Edgar Allan Poe—and of so many others—come much nearer to the common destiny of the poet than the elevation of Tennyson to the peerage or the promotion of X, Y, or Z to the Poetry Panel of the Arts Council of Great Britain.
This is not a matter, though, for the law of averages of the arithmetic of the insurance broker: it is a question of the relationship between the poet and society. I believe this is a state of irreconcilable enmity. And in this irreconcilable enmity the poet has more often been worsted, to all appearances, than society has been. The poet is an enemy of society: I take this to be axiomatic. Why, therefore, should the poet expect anything from society but discouragement? It is the old Platonic chestnut, and the answer to it is infinitely simpler than the apparent paradox implies. Just as society encourages the scientist to set about the business of destroying everything, in the disguise of intellectual curiosity, so society should, properly speaking, be prepared to encourage the poet in his business of showing society why it is not fit to survive, or alternatively, why it is. But society does not really want to hear the truth about itself; and demonstrably prefers the flattery of the film director to the few home truths of the poet. It is absolutely hopeless to talk about whether poetry is wanted by society. Poetry is one of a number of things that happen to people whether they like it or not: it resembles boils in adolescence or flirtation between the sexes. It is here, like the far side of the moon, to stay, even though, in disappointment and indignation, it has turned its face away.
The enmity between the poet and society will never subside, in spite of some poets being conciliated or converted by gifts such as title, appointments, rich wives, popularity, or medals from the King. It will never subside, because the day that the poet capitulates to society he ceases to be a poet. This fact Plato knew perfectly well, and so did Arthur Rimbaud, and so did William Wordsworth. But no matter how desperate the effort made by any single poet to conform, he will remain, in so far as he remains a poet, remain a pariah, a scapegoat, an unacknowledged criminal at large. It is not an accident that so many poets have come to violent or horrifying ends: the reason is that, overcome, perhaps unconsciously, by their sense of guilt at being the opponents of the established order, such poets resort to all kinds of narcotics, whether liquor, sex, drugs, or anything else, eventually destroy the poet because he wants them to. I believe that Ezra Pound is the greatest poet alive now, and where is he? He is locked up in a lunatic asylum for having held much the same kind of political convictions as a thousand other Americans. And he was not locked up for being a great and famous poet who had gone wrong—he may be a great poet but I very much doubt if one American in a hundred has ever heard of him—he was locked up for being a poet who said what he thought. If the entire German nation can be subjected to a process called denazification, I can see no reason why Ezra Pound should not be given a warm bath, deprived of his green and black shirts, and liberated. He is not treated in this fashion, because he is a poet. America could do no more bring herself to release Pound from his asylum than a queen bee allows the drone that had fertilized her to survive.*
Society ascribes heavy responsibilities to its poets—that is what Shelley was referring to in the bit about the ‘unacknowledged legislators of mankind’ —and for this reason fears them. They may, at any moment, spill the gaff. So society can deal with them in only two ways. They can be bribed, or they can be nobbled. Wordsworth was bribed, Pound has been nobbled. Yeats could no more have been either bribed or nobbled than the big stone of Blarney Castle. The only gift he had was the gift of the gab. No, someone should inform established society that it can impose no punishment upon its poets more thorough and more condign than to leave them to the anguish of being themselves. For where the human being stews in his own juice the poet boils in his own poison.
*Pound’s later release from St Elizabeth Hospital does not, I think, confute these speculations. I suggest that he was released in the end because he was believed to have been rendered harmless.
George Barker (26 February 1913 – 27 October 1991) was an English poet and author, born in Loughton, near Epping Forest in Essex, England, and a contemporary of the poets Dylan Thomas, W.S Graham and David Gascoyne. Go to the full author bio at The Fiend’s ‘Two Prose Pieces’ for more information.