Thursday, 27 October 2011

The Singer and the Song

The other day I was in Sèvres, at CIEP - the Centre internationale d’études pédagogique - giving a lecture entitled ‘The Singer and the Song’. This was the final session of a two-day training programme with colleagues from all over France and Belgium who teach English Language and Literature to students taking the OIB, the British option within the French Bac.

My starting point was to ask why students of all ages so often find poetry less appealing or accessible than fiction or drama, and I wanted to focus on what poets themselves have to say about what they think poetry is, what it does and why they write it. Too often, it seems to me, we take these questions for granted or we simply avoid asking them because the answers are too difficult. My title therefore celebrated the poet as well as the poetry: to help students see the point of poetry, we should listen to what poets have to say about themselves as poets and about poetry as a way of using the imagination with precision.

For a start, of course, poets sing. ‘Arma virumque cano sang Virgil as he launched himself into the Aeneid. W.H. Auden told his fellow poets it was their job to sing:

          Follow, poet, follow right
          To the bottom of the night,
          With your unconstraining voice
          Still persuade us to rejoice;

          With the farming of a verse
          Make a vineyard of the curse,
          Sing of human unsuccess
          In a rapture of distress ….

Robert Herrick famously listed all the subjects he wanted to sing about:

I sing of brooks, of blossoms, birds, and bowers,
Of April, May, of June, and July flowers.
I sing of May-poles, hock-carts, wassails, wakes,
Of bridegrooms, brides, and of their bridal-cakes.
I write of youth, of love, and have access
By these to sing of cleanly wantonness.
I sing of dews, of rains, and piece by piece
Of balm, of oil, of spice, and ambergris.
I sing of Time's trans-shifting; and I write
How roses first came red, and lilies white.
I write of groves, of twilights, and I sing
The court of Mab, and of the fairy king.
I write of Hell; I sing (and ever shall)
Of Heaven, and hope to have it after all. (‘The Argument of his Booke’)

For Herrick, as for Auden, to write and to sing are synonymous in poetry. His subjects embrace the whole of human experience from the every day to the ever after. It’s important for students to learn that no subject is off limits for a poet: Yeats wrote in ‘The Spur’:

You think it horrible that lust and rage
Should dance attendance on my old age.
They were not such a curse when I was young;
What else have I to spur me into song?

So what do poets say about why they write poetry and what poetry can do? Anthony Hecht first:

One of the things I think I learned from Elizabeth Bishop, from Thomas Hardy, from Robert Frost, concerned particularity and clarity of seeing. Seen with enough precision, things become wonderful, and one can see a world in a grain of sand.

Two things appeal to me about this statement. First, I like the way Hecht is eager to acknowledge what he has learned from other poets:  for poetry always involves a dialogue between writers past and present. I noted, for instance, in my talk how Seamus Heaney in a recent poem* echoes John Keats who in turn echoes Christopher Marlowe. This is the debt that poets of the present acknowledge to the poets of the past, and helping students to recognize or discover such links for themselves is one of the joys of teaching: it is what makes them and us part of the ‘community of literature’ – a community that involves readers as well as writers.

Second, those words ‘particularity’, ‘clarity’ and ‘precision’ lie at the heart of poetry and perhaps at the heart of all art that attempts to represent the world to us. John Ruskin had this to say (in Modern Painters, though he kept repeating the point throughout his life):

The greatest thing a human soul ever does in this word is to see something, and tell what it saw in a plain way. Hundreds of people can talk for one who can think, but thousands can think for one who can see. To see clearly is poetry, prophecy, and religion all in one.

This reminds me immediately of Matthew Arnold’s stress on aiming to ‘see life clearly and to see it whole’, an aim which in a later generation E. M. Forster was also to stress. Because Forster lived such a long life (he lived until he was ninety and died in 1970) it is easy to forget that he was the contemporary of the poets who lived and died in the Great War, that Rupert Brooke admired him and that he admired Edward Thomas, who wrote thus about poetry:

Concentration, intensity of mood, is the one necessary condition in the poet and in the poem. By this concentration something is detached from the confused immensity of life and receives individuality.

I tried to demonstrate this by picking up the reference to ‘the court of Mab’ in Herrick’s poem and recalling how Shakespeare first introduced Queen Mab in Romeo and Juliet:

She is the fairies' midwife, and she comes
In shape no bigger than an agate stone
On the forefinger of an alderman,
Drawn with a team of little atomies
Over men's noses as they lie asleep;
Her wagon spokes made of long spinners' legs,
The cover, of the wings of grasshoppers;
Her traces, of the smallest spider web;
Her collars, of the moonshine's wat'ry beams;
Her whip, of cricket's bone; the lash, of film;
Her wagoner, a small grey-coated gnat,
Not half so big as a round little worm
Pricked from the lazy finger of a maid …. (Act 1 Scene 4)

If ever there was a prime example of a poet ‘using imagination with precision’ (a phrase I heard used earlier this year by Professor Priya Gopal), this is surely it. And not just concentration: look how the fingers - the ‘finger of an alderman’ at the start of the passage and the ‘lazy’ finger of a maid at the end - both point us in directions that take us far beyond the simple idea that Queen Mab’s carriage is miniscule. These are not similes, and if they are examples of metaphorical language they remind us that poetry and metaphor are inextricable:

Poetry is not ‘writing about’, but exploring experience metaphorically. For poetry is a development of metaphor. Metaphor is not, as we were taught at school, a figure of speech. In language it is the means by which we extend our awareness of experience into new realms. Poetry is part of this process of giving apparent order to the flux of experience.

This comes from David Holbrook, author of that once-seminal book on teaching English, English for Maturity (1961). I ended my talk on ‘The Singer and the Song’ by suggesting we should encourage students to think of poetry as experimental; that the whole point of ‘exploring language metaphorically’ is to enable us to understand how words used with concentration, precision and clarity work for poets as writers and for us as readers; how they unlock the imagination and help to explain ‘the flux of experience’ - which I take to be the same as Edward Thomas’s ‘confused immensity of life’.  Seen in these terms, poetry comes quickly to have a purpose students grasp and value. And having done so, they approach the singer with a sharper ear and the song with a clearer eye.

*The poem is ‘Chanson d’Aventure’ (again, a song) in Heaney’s 2010 collection Human Chain. The poem by Keats that he directly echoes is ‘This Living Hand’ which in turn echoes a key line from the final soliloquy of Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus.

[photo: Sèvres seen from the terrace of C.I.E.P.  early morning, 14 October 2011


  1. Yes, it was a fascinating lecture which I was sorry to have to leave early to catch a train. What struck me particularly was not only Adrian’s memorising Mercutio’s ‘Queen Mab’ speech but also his delivery of it. I think that it is precisely this kind of engagement a teacher has with a text that captures and stimulates the students’ imagination. I returned from Ireland last night after visiting my daughter who is studying in Dundalk for a year. The land of song. Anglo-Irish, I am at present discovering, is such a rich variety of English that it is hardly surprising that Ireland has produced so many writers and poets of distinction. Even Michael D. Higgins, the new President of the Irish Republic, is a poet. My wife and I drove across Ireland to the birthplace of Arthur Murphy, the Anglo-Irish eighteenth-century dramatist I wrote my thesis on. He was born at Cloonyquin in County Roscommon on land belonging to a branch of the French family. A signpost points to just one house at Cloonyquin proclaiming it to be the birthplace of Percy French, a well-known Irish ballad singer and writer distantly related to Murphy. On our way back we couldn’t help noticing the Táin Trail celebrating Ireland’s famous tale of Queen Mab and the brown and white bulls competing for supremacy and which Margaret Anne Cusack says ‘is to Celtic history what the Argonautic Expedition, or the Seven against Thebes, is to Grecian’. Shelley’s Queen Mab in a poem of that title published in 1813, is a fairy who releases the sleeping Ianthe’s spirit or soul from her body, allowing the poet to present a future vision of utopia. A wonderful metaphor for unlocking the imagination. It’s a Mab world, my masters.

  2. And now greetings, Garry, from Dublin, where I have come to give a lecture to the Irish Byron Society on the Poetry of Seamus Heaney. Since I gave this lecture two years ago I have come to believe that David Holbrook's phrase 'pondering life by metaphor' sums up better than anything I have ever heard why the teaching of literature is such an important and valuable job. Add to that, Priya Gopal's phrase about the importance of 'learning to use the imagination with precision' (as I mentioned in this blog) and Heaney's resonating phrase about 'the poem as a ploughshare that turns time / Up and over' (from 'Poet's Chair' in The Spirit Level - 1996) and you have three comments on why teaching literature matters that I'd be happy to see written on the wall of every classroom and - even more importantly - on the walls of ever seminar room used by student teachers and their tutors.