Thursday, January 10, 2008

Poetry Now

The texts of the three lectures which constitute the parts of the ongoing StAnza (St Andrews Poetry Festival) debate on the situation of poetry and the poet in contemporary Britain can be read on the StAnza website which, I recently discovered, has a new URL. The fairly lengthy but intriguing and memorable contributions are by publishers Neil Astley and Michael Schmidt, and poet and critic George Szirtes.

An excerpt from Michael Schmidt's lecture gives something of the quality of the discussion and the often interesting international perspectives it opens up. Here he is, arguing the need for "a diverse and vigorous culture of reception", a concept which could indeed be the key to much that is puzzling and unfocused about the present day poetry scene in the UK:
W.H. Auden understood what the pressures on a writer can be when that culture of reception becomes unitary and coercive, and how it is necessary if one is to grow to make tracks. In 1939 he emigrated to the United States, leaving his admirers and their over-insistent politics behind. What marks the Auden who obtained his freedom is a refusal to conform, to come down from his brilliant linguistic and cultural perch, to trim. What is a highbrow? he asks in an early piece. ‘Someone who is not passive to his experience but who tries to organise, explain and alter it, someone in fact, who tries to influence his history: a man struggling for life in the water is for the time being a highbrow. The decisive factor is a conflict between the person and his environment…’ That conflict occurs in art; it also occurs in criticism.

‘Poetry is not concerned,’ Auden says, ‘with telling people what to do, but with extending our knowledge of good and evil, perhaps making the necessity for action more urgent and its nature more clear, but only leading us to the point where it is possible for us to make a rational and moral choice.’ Poetry is still instrumental; and that word rational is there, virtually synonymous with moral.
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