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  • John H. B. Martin

The Politics of Intimacy

"So intimate this Chopin that I think his soul

Should be resurrected only among friends

Some two or three, who will not touch the bloom

That is rubbed and questioned in the concert room."

T.S. Eliot — Portrait of a Lady

It's a very rum thing, but the better my poems get the less interested in publishing them I find myself to be. And this is as surprising to me as it might be to anybody else. Why on earth is this? The only reason I can give is that as they get better they acquire a patina of sanctity I don't want to see defiled. Indeed, with some of my better poems as I work on them it can get to a stage where I hardly dare breathe in their presence. This side of idolatry they have become sacred objects. In my life I have watched on in horror as one after the other I slowly saw everything I held precious being defiled. This was one last bastion of preciousness I could hang onto, but not preciosity I hope.

I increasingly find that my poetic endeavors constitute an end in themselves. Into my poetry I can put literally everything else in my life. And no matter how painful it is my poetry will redeem it. I mean completely redeem it. Therefore, I find that it is enough to write good poetry. All the rest is neither here nor there.

Great poems are like a free offering to the world. Like the latest fruits on a garden tree. Not a bargaining chip for fame or notoriety. In fact, I only really started to get anywhere as a poet when I gave up trying to please other people and set out to please myself instead. (Didn't Keats go on a similar journey?) When it became an essential element in my own internal psychological economy rather than a way of negotiating some sort of relationship with the external social (or political) world it at long last became something I could offer that world. Cf. Yeats's dictum: “Out of one's quarrel with the world one makes rhetoric, out of one's quarrel with oneself poetry.” Rhetoric is essentially political and extimate. Poetry essentially intimate and anti-political. Rhetoric is concerned with the establishment and assertion of values. Poetry with their more subtle exposition and exploration.

Of all arts it is the most intimate. And intimacy *is* important. Perhaps supremely important. And plays a vital and central role in any fulfilled human life. The intimacy of the womb to start off with. And then at the mother's breast. Then between child and parents. The intimacy between siblings. The intimacy between close friends. The intimacies associated with sexual love. The intimacy of one's relationship with oneself. And then there are those spiritual intimacies that a Saint shares with some transcendent focus of affection. And perhaps this last is the most intimate relationship of all. But intimacy doesn't end here. We have it with our pets. And we have it with familiar objects. And with nature. And with books. And their authors. And it is surely this above all that poetry celebrates. Our intimacy with words. And the intimate relationship between words and the things they denote and connote. And with each other. What a fascinating web of intimate interconnection it endlessly weaves!

When I was a child I wanted to make the world like my family. The first thing the world did was to break up my family.

So much for that worldly ambition! So much for worldly ambition altogether. And I couldn't even escape into my words. Like Neruda, say, “shrinking into his language.”

The world I conclude is inimical to intimacy. It doesn't like it. It cannot be used. It is at best tolerated. At worst eliminated. The world prefers identity to individuality. Groups it can manipulate. Individuals it can make neither head nor tail of. They commonly end up in looney bins and prisons. But it is individuals we are intimate with. With groups our relationship is more distant. And it is groups who confer on us identity. Groups also confer on us what little we have of power. And power is opposed to truth. And hence to love. It is individuals we love. Since power is opposed to truth it is essentially a lie. So identity is a lie. A necessary lie perhaps. But a lie all the same. Individuality is the truth. It is what Duns Scotus is talking about when he rabbits on about haeccietas. (Thisness or suchness). And that so riveted Hopkins' attention. Inscape and instress are the intimate attributes of a beloved object. As they affect the lover. And express that object's unique individuality. The source of which always lies in the supreme primordial individuality of God. Of which it is a mere reflection. This is one possible theory of beauty. And surely constitutes the core of Hopkins' aesthetics, whereby inscape is related to form and instress to content.

It is because poetry is the most intimate of all the arts and intimacy is the central theme of poetry that I shy away from such affairs as the public declamation of poetry. This seems to me to be all wrong. Poets are not politicians. They are the opposite. Their business is not to rouse the rabble but to tranquilize the individual. Poetry shouldn't be shouted to a crowd. It should be whispered to a close friend.

Apparently Dickens thought of each installment of his novels as a letter written to his public. In this way he was able to establish some sort of intimate rapport with his audience. He turned a distant enemy into a close comrade. This is something I have always aspired to do. Perhaps because close friends are easier to handle.

My edition of Eliot's Collected Poems begins with the line, “Let us go then you and I...” and ends with the line, “... But these are private words said to you in public.” In between he takes us on a journey which mirrors that of Dante in his Divine Comedy. The increasing Hell of the early poems culminating in “The Hollow Men.” The Purgatory of the middle period surely reached its apogee with “Marina'.” And then comes the Paradiso of “The Four Quartets,” to which “The Waste Land” forms a sort of proem. (Each “Quartet” has the same structure as “The Waste Land.”) I personally cannot see why people lay such emphasis on “The Waste Land” and can only put it down to modern perversity. It is a great poem of fragmentation. And I personally have no difficulty with it because I have so often felt that way myself. But though it presents the problem very graphically it constitutes in itself no clear solution. My parents were avant-garde artists. And so I have never had any difficulty with Cubism and the multiple viewpoints it sets out to capture. (Presumably as a way of finally registering Kant's oh so elusive “Ding an Sich”). These days we are bombarded with multiple viewpoints in a way that earlier generations never were. We are asked to see everything from everybody's viewpoint but our own. Our own is completely disallowed. (That would be far too intimate).

Eliot's work then is an elaborate attempt to establish intimate contact with the reader. It is about intimacy in a world of largely upper-class largely British formality. Hence, the extreme formality of the presentation. This sets up an interesting tension or counterpoint. And this is always important in any art. That agreeable contradiction of the oxymoron wherein the deepest truths superficially lie. Continually Eliot is buttonholing you and attempting to achieve an intimacy with you that is greater than mere flesh will ever allow. Like a slightly manic stranger at a cocktail party. (In a way that is reminiscent perhaps of the Ancient Mariner in Coleridge's famous poem.) He is attempting to break though the ice. Which is probably locked deep inside himself, but which he can only ever detect in other people.

Eliot longs for intimacy. But with what? Very early on he rejects physical and sexual Intimacy. Then slowly he rejects every other form of intimacy. Tries them out, and then disdainfully rejects them. Eliot's path is very much the via negativa. He is very disdainful of anything other than what is perfect. And longs for perfect union with all that is perfect. (One is reminded of Sylvia Plath's line: “Perfection is terrible. It cannot have children.”) If I were an academic writer I would now lard this letter with apt quotations to support my thesis. But I am not. I am a poet. And a poet is a very different sort of animal. (Somebody else can write that essay.) If you are familiar with Eliot you will be able to provide the requisite instances yourself. If you are not then a fairly rapid perusal of his work will confirm what I am saying. The epigraph with which I begin this scribble should indicate the sort of thing I mean. For Eliot is surely referring to more than Chopin here. Especially when you consider how important he thought the relation between his own work and music. Note too by the way how close to regular iambic pentameter the quoted lines are. Only the first line is irregular because it is an alexandrine, the second contains one elision, the fourth the lack of an elision. And this from one who is commonly supposed to be the great pioneer of free verse. Yeats the committed formalist was more irregular than this.

Very often in a poem the most important word is left out. Eliot's work is full of the presence of the Godhead. Once upon a time I thought the one word that never appeared in his work was the word “God.” But in fact it does appear at least once in “The Four Quartets.” But not much more than that. To a believer what is more intimate than God? To such a person God is closer to ourselves than we are. (Cf. the Koran: “He is closer than the vein in your neck”). And yet his name must never be pronounced. Doesn't the Qabalah talk of “the secret unpronounceable name of God?” Eliot remains true to this severe and almost Calvinistic creed.

He will not be fobbed off with anything other than perfect union with all that is perfect. And what is more perfect than perfect intimacy? That sense of being at home in some ultimate adventure. Where mere masturbation is not enough. He is a fastidious seeker after something more than truth. And he wants his reader to be united with him in this intimate but fastidious quest. The path of “Not this. Not that.” “Nehi. Nehi” is the difficult and dangerous one he chooses to follow. He takes us on a journey into the very depths of intimacy. And yet at the same time is frighteningly distant. Inhumanly distant, one might almost say. It is not a marriage of true minds he seeks. Or of true hearts. Or of true souls. Or of true bank-accounts. Nor of true bodies. Nor of true genitals. But something infinitely beyond that...

On the other hand you may say that Shakespeare deliberately went in for the recital of poetry to large crowds. But his case is special. I doubt that he intended his sonnets to be read to large crowds in public. Or “The Phoenix & The Turtle.” Or his “Venus & Adonis” or “The Rape Of Lucrece.” Plays are necessarily performed to large crowds in public. They cannot really be done any other way. (Though of course there is always the “intimate theatre.” — Which apparently most actors prefer. — And I imagine his royal command performances were relatively private.) But happily this contradiction between the refinedly intimate and the grossly public is something that Shakespeare makes full use of. And writes about. And eternally plays with.

Shakespeare's plays are almost always about the conflict between the public life and the private life. The conflict between poetry and politics. (For, of course there is no “politics of intimacy.” There cannot be.) (It's just that oxymorons commonly provide eye-catching titles.) Between the intimate and — for want of a better word - the extimate there must always be a great gulf fixed, or at least some sort of conflict. Take his three binomial plays: “Antony & Cleopatra,” “Troilus & Cressida” and “Romeo & Juliet.” In all three of them the intimate union between two lovers is rudely interrupted by the politics of large crowds and important people. With tragic consequences for the more or less innocent individuals involved. Nor is this sort of conflict restricted to just these three plays. They just best exemplify it, even in their titles. (Which provide an interesting echo to “Venus & Adonis”). (And where the lady does take precedence over the gentle man). (Who is so gentle as to be positively shy).

Perhaps this tragic contradiction is brought into sharpest focus in the soliloquy. Here one actor addresses the whole audience. He might almost be a Hitler addressing a Nuremburg rally. Except that of course he isn't. For who exactly is he talking to: the audience or himself? It is like an extended aside. Surely he is doing both at once. He is communing with his soul. But the audience is put in the place of that soul. We are Hamlet's soul. Here perhaps is the ultimate oxymoron. That agreeable contradiction wherein the truth lies? Or where at last the lie reveals the truth?

I said that Shakespeare didn't intend his sonnets for public recitation. But there is of course one exception. That sonnet shared between Romeo and Juliet when they first meet; in the middle of a milling crowd. The greatest intimacy in the midst of the greatest extimacy. — The shared sonnet...

Wherein we find...

The given situation. The introduced element. The resulting conflict. The resolution of the conflict resulting in a sudden access of wisdom and insight.

First verse. Second verse. Third verse. Fourth verse. With the volta and the conflict arising together.

For here in microcosm we discover the structure of all literary works. Including the structure of this very play. And indeed of all those arts which take place in time. For it is also the same as First Movement Form. And follows Hegel's Dialectic of “thesis, antithesis and synthesis.” With the antagonism between thesis and antithesis being given a separate prominence. And hence a special emphasis. For what would literature be without conflict? (Indeed what would life)?

Here Juliet represents the given situation. Romeo the introduced element. Them falling in love, in a political environment where this would be an impossible embarrassment, the conflict. The resolution, their death; as well as the institution of peace between the warring clans of the Montagues and Capulets. Shakespeare likes to play with these things. Here the conflict is love. The resolution, death.

How embarrassing intimacy is to the political world! No wonder they do their best to turn it into its direct opposite: pornography. The ultimate disparagement. (We all disparage one another. That's how we find our various levels in political life. That's how we discover our “equals”). They do it with their words when they don't do it in other worse ways. Hence scatology. The heavily polluted and smutty mind of a Iago or a Bloom. Covering the world in mud. (As Virginia Woolf put it). For pornography is merely a travestising satire upon intimacy. A caricature. The intimacy that is presented is totally false. It lacks all poetry.

This is the politics of intimacy. Everything gentle and civilized is coarsened and brutalized. Everyone is naked. And yet everything is covered up. All is revealed. And yet nothing is revealed.

The beauty of poetry is that unlike this it can effect a complete transmutation. Because where this is a complete lie poetry is the closest we can ever get to truth. And the truth redeems. Even from this “expense of spirit in a waste of shame.” Just to read that one line redeems it all. And puts it in its place. Can you imagine what it must have been to write it? Confession is good for the soul. And if it is full and true inevitably results in eventual absolution. We talk of the intimacy of the confessional. There has even been a school of “Confessional Poets.” (As if poetry were ever anything other than confessional).

Poetry effects a complete transmutation of everything. I agree with Rimbaud that it is an alchemy of the soul transmuting the mundane into the magical. Or rather it discovers the magical in the mundane. (In fact, it transmutes the flesh into the soul in the first place. The carnal into the spiritual in the first place. Or rather discovers the soul in the flesh, the spiritual in the carnal). It turns dross into gold. Or rather discovers gold in the dross. So that every least moment of life turns into a self-justifying unending miracle. The minutest thing becomes the most miraculous. And all Blake's “Auguries Of Innocence” are finally realised. What was painful becomes pleasurable. What was private becomes public. What was chaotic becomes orderly. What was imprisoned becomes set free. The private pain turns into a public pleasure. The purely subjective becomes the completely objective. A lie becomes the truth. What was false becomes veridical. The vague and shadowy acquires clarity and precision. The dark becomes the source of dazzling light. Night becomes day. The moon outshines the sun. The many become the one. The one becomes the many. The rack of torture becomes the healing bath of a lover's or a mother's caresses. The strange becomes the familiar. The familiar becomes strange. The old becomes the new. The new becomes the familiar. The untrustworthy becomes the most trusted. Enemies become friends. Tears become laughter. The ugly becomes the beautiful. The evil becomes the good. The cruel becomes the kind. The inhuman becomes the human. The sour the sweet. The sickness becomes the source of all healing. The life-threatening wound becomes the source of immortal life. The lion finally lies down with the lamb.

Such is the transforming power of the poetic imagination.

When I say that the private becomes public I mean of course that it becomes relatively public. In the same way that a whispered confession becomes public. One gets something off one's chest. At the very least it becomes public to oneself. Potentially it becomes something that all the world knows off by heart. But in the most intimate way. As a mobile phone is an intimate possession. Though everyone has one. We may not attach a password to it. But it doesn't become public property. And yet everyone has one. And the same poem can mean slightly different things to different people. Just as one's own poem means different things to oneself at different times. Although it always remains obstinately the same.

Nor does one ever *impose* order on one's inevitably chaotic materials. The whole point is to *discover* the underlying order in the informing emotion. And to bring it out into the open. This is the key that unlocks the emotion and thereby resolves it. Or solves it. One discovers the underlying mandala of the emotion. Artificially imposed order in any place is always fatal. As fatal in science and politics as it is in the arts. What heals is naturally emergent order. This is the difference between say the architecture of a Frank Lloyd Wright or a Gaudi or a Corbusier and that of a Gropius or a Mies Van Der Rohe and their even more barbaric followers. Who manufacture buildings that look as if they had been dropped higgledy-piggledy from outer space with no conceivable relationship to a landscape in which they merely obstruct and browbeat and dominate and dehumanize. Like an over-sized bully in a playground of terrified children. Whereas Wright's buildings look as if they had grown out of a landscape they complete - and adorn - just as much as the naturally occurring flora and fauna. They add value to an already ebullient ecosystem; they do not disrupt it. So also must a good poem spring out of the naturally occurring landscape of the poet's life. And somehow complete it.

Form must always follow content. Because art is about the transmutation of content into form. And the more complete this process the better the art. The purpose of art is to refine our perceptions and deepen and broaden our sympathies. And this is done through the relationship between content and form. It is this that heals. Even the most painful experience becomes pleasurable under this therapeutic regimen.

“The wounded surgeon plies the steel

That questions the distempered part.

Beneath the bleeding hands we feel

The sharp compassion of the healer's art

Resolving the enigmas of the fever chart.”

Rilke talked of the objective quality of a poem. The thing-like quality. And he was right. This is important in all the arts. But to simply make an object, as, say, Frank Stella does, is not enough. This is merely to manufacture a trademark or a commercial logo. No! The work of art must be spun out of one's entrails as a spider's web is spun out of the entrails of a spider. It is the tension between the intense subjectivity of the poem and its object-like quality that renders it so miraculous. A poem starts off as a revelation of one's most private and embarrassing pains and confusions. And ends up simply as a pattern of intimately interrelated sounds and meanings. As purely mathematical as a composition by Bach. It is no longer an embarrassment. It is an adornment. Writer's block is cured by writing about what blocks you. The most intimate and embarrassing and shameful things far from getting in the way open up the interior universe to one's further exploration.

This incidentally is why free verse can never work. It lacks that object-like quality. It is like trying to make love with both hands tied behind your back. It fails to heal because it fails to to reduce the inchoate to the completely ordered. It fails to find the underlying pattern. Prose never heals. It merely opens old wounds. Poetry because it makes full use of all the resources of the language is the only formula that can effect a complete healing. But those resources include rhyme and rhythm. It's almost as if poets had grown ashamed of poetry. And wanted to pass themselves off as novelists. They want to pretend they are no longer writing verse but writing prose novels instead. Very short novels perhaps. But this will never do. What is permissible is that contrast between regular and irregular lines which the best free verse poets go in for. Laforgue and Whitman. Eliot and Pound. (Or the best syllabic poets go in for. Like Marianne Moore and Dylan Thomas). It is that very passage from loose to taut that makes it so effective. Carlos Williams complained that Eliot was too close to the iambic pentameter. I rejoice in that. All these free verse johnnies hanker after rhyme and rhythm. They talk pretentiously of ''the heartbeat and the breath.'' But this relationship is best satisfied by regular verse. And where free verse falls short of the satisfactions of regular verse it does become pretentious. How pretentious they all are! The best free verse approximates to the regularity of regular verse. It is vers liberé rather than vers libre. Liberated verse rather than free verse. And for that I suspect even the most regular among us feels grateful. Because it means the constraints on our own performance are less. We are not forced to be regular. We freely choose to be so. We can loosen the corset whenever we want to. Or even throw it away. In fact it is no longer a corset. We are naturally slim. (We have been on a diet). Our discipline is purely voluntary. So although I am much happier writing regular verse I do not object to other people writing free verse. Though I usually find it less satisfactory. Free verse is best at conveying a feeling of lostness, bewilderment and confusion. But some of us have long got past that. We are no longer adolescents. And with the onset of maturity begin to delight in a challenge to our ingenuity. The only challenge provided by free verse is the total lack of any challenge.

One cannot escape the feeling that these free verse merchants are trying to escape comparison of their works with the great masterpieces of the past. And perhaps this is hardly surprising. But you see self-conscious modernism is mistaken on a number of counts. Firstly because one cannot escape being modern. We are all willy-nilly contemporary. Secondly because the pioneering modernists actually hated modern times and if anything hankered for the past. And thirdly because self-conscious *anything* is wrong. And tends quickly to become rather pretentious. 'We hate poetry that has a palpable design upon the reader,' said Keats. And meant it. And those who are not prepared to learn from the great masters of the past are doomed to repeat not their masteries but their mistakes. The mysteries will remain as mysterious as they always were. Nor is pastiche sufficient. It is only too easy to repeat the characteristic faults, almost impossible to repeat the exceptional perfections.

The reason I labor this here is because formal verse is actually better for intimacy. (Here I advise a rereading of Wordsworth's sonnet on the Sonnet: "Nuns fret not at their convent's narrow room..." The sonnet being surely the most intimate form that lyric poetry can ever take). It's precisely because of these deficiencies that free verse has to be performed from a stage. It can never stand on its own two feet. It has to be illustrated and explained and justified. But the best poems can, and do, and must. The best poetry performs itself. That is why punctuation is so important. It stands in the place of gesture. And the counterpoint between the regularity of the meter and the rhymes and the irregularity of the punctuation is what conveys the emotion. The emotion doesn't have to be put in later. It is there from the beginning. The prime emotion being the longing for formal realization. For order. Besides it is the formal structure that allows the intimacy and the intimations to take place in the first place. Like lovemaking within four walls, it provides a safe space.

Childhood is all intimacy. We replace the intimacies of childhood by the extimacies of adulthood. And the closest to intimacy we get is sex. Which in fact is a very bad bargain. Familiarity we replace by unfamiliarity. Or those familiarities which more tender natures regard as vaguely insulting. The closest we get are those intimations that Wordsworth talked of in his "Immortality Ode." Intimacy brings intimations. But intimations bring intimacies. Intimacy provides the space in which intimations occur. And it is surely because childhood is all intimacy that the Romantics set such a high value on childhood. Among Wordsworth's most treasured possessions was his copy of Blake's 'Songs Of Innocence And Experience' which he had on permanent loan from his patron George Beaumont. And it is Blake's more intimate poems that we most treasure. His prophetic books are far less successful. As it is the more intimate scenes we remember in Homer and in Milton.

Andrew Marvell's two greatest poems constitute a pair and should be considered as such. Together they represent the two forms of intimacy available to Adam in the Garden of Eden before the Fall. The intimacy of mystical communion with Nature and the intimacy of sexual union with his wife, Eve. "To His Coy Mistress" is the one that most intrigues popular taste. But for me it raises questions that only 'The Garden' can answer. (A similar relationship exists between Eliot's "Waste Land' and his 'Four Quartets". Is this because Eliot is right and indeed "humankind cannot bear very much reality?" They are not prepared to pay the price of happiness. And so prefer to remain cast out among the downcast.) And 'The Garden' is incomparably the better poem. One of the greatest poems in the English language. What a pity he went on to become an M.P.! From the sublime to the ridiculous. From the prelapsarian politics of intimacy he rises to heights of the politics of solitude. (Which apparently is not the same as the politics of exile). And then falls into the muddy politics of democratic representation. Where demos is closely allied with demon. The demotic with the demonic.

Poems are often linked in this way. Keats' four Great Odes for instance. It was only when Keats gave up trying to become a great poet that he became one. In his “Ode On Indolence” he rejects all forms of idolatry. Particularly those related to the idolatry of poetic fame. Rid of these shackles he went on to do what finally gave him poetic fame. Severely criticized by his contemporaries for using words as a drug rather than as a means of engaging with the real world he at last freely confesses to this in the opening lines of the first two of the four Great Odes. How often in first freely admitting to one's faults one finally overcomes them. As I say the Odes are linked. Whereas the “Ode On Melancholy” is about depression, the “Ode To A Nightingale” is about elation. Whereas the “Ode On A Grecian Urn” is about timelessness, the “Ode To Autumn” is about transience. Whereas the “Ode On Melancholy” and the “Ode To Autumn” are linked by their downbeat quality, the “Ode To A Nightingale” and “Ode On A Grecian Urn” are linked by their upbeat quality. In the first two he deals with the emotions per se in the latter two with what gives rise to these emotions. They form a sort of “Quartet.” Linked formally by their close adherence to the shape of the sonnet. Of the four the “Ode On A Grecian Urn” is central. It is about what endures: Goodness, Truth and Beauty. Especially Goodness. It is about Plato's ideal world of Forms. It is about sacrifice. It proceeds from the most carnal to the least carnal. From the forced sacrifice of rapine. To the mutual sacrifice of honorable love. To the (voluntary?) sacrifice of religion. From the sacrifice *to* the animal to the sacrifice *of* the animal. And beyond that by implication to the transcendental realms of pure contemplation of the aesthetically perfect.

We have already discussed identity and individuality. But there is also personality and character. If "identity" is how the world sees us and ''individuality'' is who we actually are then "personality" is how we present ourselves to the world. (If we can be bothered). It is the mask unmasked. Shakespeare wore many masks. But in his sonnets he removes them all. In his soliloquies the various masks unmask themselves to a greater or lesser extent. My quarrel with Robert Frost as a poet is that he only has one mask. And this he very rarely removes. Yeats has many masks. Which he very often removes. There are two reasons for wearing a mask. One is to explore various aspects of yourself. And so effectively reveal yourself more completely. (One is exploring various potentialities. As a young person might try out various careers.) The other is to conceal yourself. Almost certainly Shakespeare and Yeats are doing the former. It is difficult to know which Browning is doing. He of course was the inventor of the Dramatic Monologue, the separated soliloquy, the particularized persona. Under Browning's guiding influence didn't Pound write a book called “Personae”? The mask that Eliot presents us with in “The Love Song Of J. Alfred Prufrock” is translucent, at least, if not entirely transparent. And increasingly as he progresses his masks becomes more and more transparent. His masks are self-revelatory. Each is designed to explore another aspect of his identity and find in it his true character: his individuality. Hence presumably the "cubism" of “The Waste Land.” Until by the time he reaches the “Four Quartets” the mask seems to disappear altogether. Rilke is all intimacy. When he explores other beings he becomes one with them, he never wears them as a mask. For of course even the most revealing mask prevents intimacy. It clumsily gets in the way of the most superficial embrace. In my own work I attempt to dispense with the mask altogether. As does say Blake. This can be dangerous. The mask at least provides a barrier against embarrassment. And goes more than halfway towards making the poem objective. However there is no need to wear a mask when you are among friends. Or on your own. The only time that Browning removes his mask is in “Home Thoughts From Abroad.” And this is his only poem which really engages us. The rest impress. But tend to leave us unmoved. How difficult most people find it to remove that mask once it has been so laboriously constructed and then put on! The poet's job is surely to make it easier for us all to do so. (But then you see there are those “poets” who pretend to the "heart-revealing intimacy" but are actually only wearing yet another mask).

Character has to do with those moral aspects of our outward and inward self which are not under examination here.

There are some people who are the life and soul of any party. But get them on their own and they have nothing to offer. There are others who are useless at parties. But get them on their own and they have whole universes of insight and wisdom and magic and mystery to offer. In this respect poems are like people. Some poems stand out in anthologies. But when they are collected together all you can see is how trivial and facile they are. There are other poets whose work in anthologies seems dull. But buy their selected or collected poems and that book becomes a treasured possession. There was a poet in the sixties called Denise Levertov who was like that. Work such as hers is superficially attractive. It shows off and plays to the gallery. It wins competitions and garners prizes. But on closer acquaintance has nothing to offer. It is all polished surface. In place of beauty it offers cosmesis. (In place of truth it will attempt to shock, perhaps. In place of goodness offer hypocrisy, perhaps... Though these days it would be that reverse hypocrisy which has grown so fashionable. Where people pretend to be more wicked than they really are. Or rather pretend to baser motives.) This is why I dislike competitions and prizes. And avoid them like the plague. They promote the wrong sort of poetry. And so serve only to corrupt poetry.

Ask yourself who are the people who offer these prizes and institute these competitions. And what benefit do *they* get from it? Cui bono? Well, first of all they have to be rich. And what do the rich hope to gain from giving their money away? Apart from tax benefits? Public acclaim. It is a form of self-advertisement. A way of clearing their consciences and feeling they are doing something good for the community. That is what they think they're doing. (It is what is sometimes called virtue-signalling). But what are they actually doing? They are imposing their own dubious value-system on the minds and hearts of more innocent others. They are asserting the hegemony of money and power over all those more "sentimental" values traditionally favored by poetry, and poets, and poetry-readers. They are asserting what they think of as a superior reality. They can't help it. Money talks. And where money talks poetry is silent. Where once a discerning few among the aristocracy offered patronage now we have the nouveau riche, who are far too busy making money to know anything about the arts, using them as yet another way of indulging in ostentatious display. And in seeking ostentatious display via the arts they reduce the arts to yet another mere money-making pursuit. They blunt the edge of idealism and ultimately destroy it. They replace the idealism of the pursuit of Beauty, Truth and Goodness for their own sake, as ideals, by the pursuit of fame and money and power as idols. The moon is forgotten and only the finger is valued. And art suffers. And since art keeps the soul of the people alive the soul of the people withers and dies. Ezra Pound knew this. Particularly via his discipleship of Confucius. But also via Aristotle. So did his disciple Eliot. So did Yeats. So did Rilke.

"How vainly men themselves amaze To win the oak, the palm, the bays..." said Marvell. What poet can say that now? We have all sold our souls to the Devil before we have begun. We have been bought off. We have been bribed. Blake never won a prize. Blake never entered a competition. Our poetry is ersatz. A superficial display of erudition and clever-cleverness which never says anything except, "Look what a good boy am I!" A showing off. A playing to the gallery. But it has nothing to say. In order to have a valid motive for writing poetry in the first place we need to have something to say and something to find out. (Note that here I talk of "motive" only. As if motivation were enough when inspiration is what really counts). This stuff certainly has nothing of value to say and probably nothing to find out. The only thing it seems to say is, "Look at me everybody, I'm a poet!" The only thing it attempts to find out are prizes and plaudits. That is all it is actually for. We have replaced wisdom by clever-cleverness. Insight by erudition. When I write my poems, when it comes to crafting them, the first thing I do is to remove signs of any attempt to show off. The last thing I want to do is to win a prize. I will never enter any competitions. Poetry should be a bastion of integrity. Not a focus of corruption. It should have nothing to do with Presidential Inaugurations. Or State Functions of any kind. It should remain a guilty pleasure shared by the few, between friends and lovers and close families. Not be another part of the advertising industry.

In one fell swoop we have castrated poetry and turned it into another sideshow in the plutocratic funfair.

Intimacy is about the triumph of love over power. In other words it is about the triumph of poetry over politics.

When Moses went to the top of Mount Sinai to commune with God and receive the tablets of the law that was poetry. When he returned to find the Israelites worshiping the golden calf that was politics. When he confronted the burning bush that was poetry. When he confronted Pharaoh (of the hardened heart) that was politics. When Joseph was given his coat of many colors by his father that was poetry. When he was sold into slavery by his brothers that was politics. When Joseph climbed up the Egyptian hierarchy that was politics. When the rapprochement occurred between Joseph and his brothers that was poetry. The ark was poetry. The flood was politics. "When two or three are gathered together in my name" is poetry. Vast anonymous cathedral congregations and mass conversions is politics.

Poetry is intimacy, truth and love and individuality. Politics is extimacy, lies and power and identity.

John H.B. Martin is a poet who lives in London, England. He is a graduate of London University and Australia National University and has been writing for many decades. He has written four novels and is working on a fifth. His magnum opus is a six-volume epic poem. Most of his work is yet to be published.


Aug 17, 2022

A remarkable essay John! Nearly every line is memorable and worth quoting, but the one I've written down is: 'It was only when Keats gave up trying to become a great poet that he became one'. Not many academics would dare to say that to a class of aspiring poets, bent on finding the best methods of achieving fame and monetary reward through the 'greatness' of their work. Nor would they say that fame and monetary reward don't necessarily equate to being a great poet, or even a good one. But then who, among poets anywhere, wants to hear such stark truths - beyond maybe a few who have some 'intimate' attachment to the work alone, and do it anyway,…

Aug 18, 2022
Replying to

You can quote Yeats to me all day (being a fellow Irishman) and I'd be very happy.

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