Wednesday, September 08, 2010

Robert Graves's Poems Selected by Himself

To add to the this. (A click on books summons the rest.)
Id like to like Graves’s poems; his surefooted defiance of Modernist convention is the kind of sacred cow-tipping that often shows better over time. Graves was badly off in his gamble, though. Certain that verse libre was a fad, and the Pound/Stein school would go the way of cocktails and the Charleston, he willfully closed himself off from the main creative seam of 20th-century poetics, building his own house on flat metrical sand. Despite its intellectual intensities, Graves’s poems straitjacket themselves in a formal wrapper that it’s hard for most modern readers to see their way around, sounding more like brainy oddities with a Victorian comic-verse twist than a daring riposte to Modernist poetics. Maybe he only wanted the few to find him, or maybe his sensibility was best pitched backwards, towards the Romans and Greeks and the Welsh Fusiliers that paid the bills on Majorca. Still, if Graves was “wrong” about modern poetry, he was wrong in a cranky, mad-uncle sort of way completely his own, as much a part of the century as, well, cocktails or the Charleston.


Nicholas Manning said...

I agree Rodney, Graves' rhymey formalism is pretty impenetrable for most of us now, but that said, I've always wondered what made me like these types of rigid Victorian structures in Tennyson or Gabriel Rosetti, but find them boring in their 20th century proponents. Is it just the anachronism effect? Can I not read Graves' poem "Babylon", the one which begins "the child alone a poet is", just because of that weird verb inversion? If this inversion can bother me in Graves, but not in Tennyson, it makes one wonder about how much we consciously or unconsciously, rightly or wrongly identify poets with eras, and read their poems through this temporal lens.

rodney k said...

Hi Nicholas,

"I've always wondered what made me like these types of rigid Victorian structures in Tennyson or Gabriel Rosetti, but find them boring in their 20th century proponents."

I see what you mean. In Graves's case, seems he brought down the temporal lens on himself to some extent, drawing Modernism deliberately into his crosshairs in his critical writings, then squeezing 'Tennyson' to fire. This is different to my mind than, say, the Georgian poets from about the same time, who simply carried on like Modernism hadn't happened.

But now Wikipedia's telling me that Graves was in the Georgian anthologies, and it seems silly anyway to give them a pass for simply ignoring trends they didn't like. (And maybe even that's wrong--were there other cranky Georgians?) At least Graves knew clearly what he was rejecting, and why. Like, what, an interwar Tony Hoagland?

Nicholas Manning said...

Absolutely, and it's interesting then the way critical writing here (in the sense of the self-manifesto: "this is who I'm against, this is who I'm for") massively influences our reception of the poems.

This might be then an important distinction to make: on the one hand formalists or "conservatives" who militantly argue for this aethetic, and those who pretend nothing has happened and that this aesthetic constitues a norm.

Might this not be two rather distinct (and interesting) groups?
With Graves and Thom Gunn and Robert Lowell maybe at one end of the spectrum (the critically aware and aesthetically argumentative end) and then the Ted Koosers and Billy Collins at the unthinking other?

Maybe this would be an important distinction for Ron Silliman to make regarding the controversies of Quietism too, as Ron often seems to imply (anyone correct me if they don't agree) that "Quietists" invariably presume that they constitute a middle-road mythical normality, whereas many, and this seems to be Graves case, explicitly and often eloquently argue for the superiority of their poetic tradition. Even if one doesn't agree, this explicit, cards on the table argument is obviously the one we need be having.

For this reason I'm not sure the inclusion of Graves in the Georgian anthologies is that important. I think I agree with your initial idea Rodney, that Graves and the Georgians are distinguised by a certain approach to criticism, literary historiography and their own self-definition: in brief, whether one pretends nothing has happened, or whether one recognizes but critically engages with such new, dynamic changes.