Poetry, Beauty and the Modern Era

One interesting question is ‘why poetry, specifically?’ I am currently writing an ‘epic’ called The English Cantos, and I have chosen to write my epic in terza rima. There are many forms of storytelling in the modern world, so why write poetry, when in real terms, it is such a niche interest? Surely a novel-series or a screenplay might have broader appeal? My son, in fact, has written an entire blog series on unusual epics of the modern era, from anime to television. However, I think there is still massive, in some ways untapped value in writing poetry, and I would encourage anyone reading this to do it!

Why? Let me outline this for you based on my personal experience.

It is not merely for the sake of tradition. In fact, when all is said and done, I am not a very traditional person. There is the added pull that terza rima is Dante’s chosen form, my own epic being modelled on his opus: The Divine Comedy. Therefore, the English Cantos might also be read as a continuation of The Divine Comedy, just as Virgil’s Aeneid seems a continuation of Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey, and Dante’s own work a continuation of The Aeneid. Each text engages with the one prior to it, and in some places re-write their ideas. Virgil, for example, portrays Odysseus (called Ulysses in the Latin) as a deceiver and traitor, rather unlike the conflicted, intelligent, but ultimately good hero of Homer’s duology. It should also be noted that terza rima is an under-utilised poetic form in English poetry, with very few attempts to write narrative using it. As I outline in the introduction to my collection Divine Comedies:

Perhaps the most famous example and use of terza rima being Shelley’s Triumph of Life, which interestingly is unfinished. In particular, I realised that the form provided me with the key to creating compelling narrative: blank verse is great for narrative, but Milton’s done it. Second greatest epic in the English language? Spenser’s Faerie Queene, but the Spenserian stanza for narrative purposes is clunky and slow, relatively speaking, and lends itself to gorgeous picture-making (so Keats’ Eve of St Agnes exploits the form superbly – it is a narrative but one of a richly, static kind). But perhaps terza rima could supply the necessary form to sustain the long poem.’

But there is actually a deeper reason for my choice of poetry in general. That is, beauty.

I would say ‘everywhere’ in our modern world, but perhaps it is fairer to say ‘almost everywhere’, we see the deconstruction of beauty. Whether it be the dismissal of spiritual values, the undermining of real art and culture in favour of what can turn profits or sensationalise, or even just in the architecture around us. Many people, arguably, live bleaker lives now than they did in the Middle Ages, which is saying something. Depression and suicide are at an all-time high, alongside addictions and compulsive behaviours. Meanwhile, people cling to any current trend, opinion, or voice shouting louder than the rest, in the hope that if they follow it will give their lives meaning.

We are in many ways a floundering species, and I believe it is primarily because of the false prophets of secularism. We are told we don’t need God, that we can create our own value-system, our own morality, our own purpose. The classics had a word for this: ‘hubris’. We all need external help and guidance from time to time, whether that be from the people we love, an expert, or the contrivances of fate! To appoint ourselves as the gods of our own universe is to say we need nobody but ourselves. Ironically, that is in the first instance to go backwards and re-live the Tower of Babel myth and all its resulting confusion (and isn’t confusion a good word for the state of the contemporary world?); and secondly, it is to expose our own inadequacies as we experience the fragmentation that results from everyone being their own ‘god’. Never before has there been so much transmission, and so little communication, as solipsistically we are all talking to ourselves, while no-one listens.

We are told, too, that technology is going to solve all of our problems, and yet after 100 years or so of technological revolution, it has only brought us closer to extinction, distanced us from the natural world, and deprived many people of meaning and fulfilment. I’m not a Luddite. I like technology and use it. But, it is the idolatrous worship of technology that I find worrying and the blind sense that we are endlessly ‘progressing’ to some utopia, somewhere. Again, the ancients (Greeks, Egyptians, Indians, to mention three venerable cultures) thought exactly the opposite: the world had fallen away from a Golden Age and was in or about to enter the Iron Age. Regression, therefore, not progression. Whether they are right in their predictions, I leave to you.

Accompanying secularism, and the utilitarianism that is so often associated with that, is a kind of ugliness. I mentioned the architecture of modern buildings: that is a start. But it is also in the books we read; we find poetry bereft of any form or beauty, but then praised as being ‘stark’, ‘clear’, ‘unflinching’, ‘bold’, ‘honest’ and such like – as if the mere act of regurgitating negativity is in itself laudable. Ugliness and horror have their place in literature and art, but they must be assimilated as part of a greater whole. To use a word Clive Barker loved: they must be reconciled. The same story is true in so many realms. In popular ‘music’ we find a single bar of electronic beats looped for a song’s duration, where once there would have been artfully crafted percussion.

I should add that I do not wish to sound like an old man grumbling. There are of course exceptions to these observations; in music, for example, young bands or musicians who are branching out. I listened to Mumford & Sons’ recent album Delta, and there is a track on it called ‘Darkness Visible’ which extensively quotes John Milton’s Paradise Lost (the title itself being part of it). It is blissfully inventive music.In the realm of independent publishing,I read a story by David Hartley (published in a short story collection Shallow Creek) written in iambic pentameter! It depicts a disturbed lighthouse keeper talking via radio to a person he believes to be William Shakespeare; gloriously creative, and beautifully written. Like I said, there are exceptions, but one has to notice the overwhelming trends, the tendencies, and what people in authority are, more and more, advocating and supporting. And when we say, advocating and supporting, we mean where the money and the ‘reputation’ goes.

But poetry is a counter to all of this, particularly poetry which has shape, form, metre, rhyme, and rhythm. Poetry is about beauty, creating it even from tremendous pain. Perhaps one of the best examples one could give of this is Wilfred Owen. Despite the horrors of war he faced, his lyricism is beautiful. Tolkien might also be cited as an example of this. He fought in the Somme, one of the worst battles in human history, and yet he emerged from it with profound spirituality, courage, optimism, and beauty in his work. We must remember Tolkien was as much a poet as a prose-author. Intriguingly the ‘modernists’ who have defined so much of modern writing: the T. S. Eliots, the Virginia Wolfes, the Ezra Pounds, did not have any frontline experience of the war! Instead, they had a lot of opinions. To put this at its strongest: Owen and Tolkien faced the profoundest horrors of this life and produced literature for the soul and deep beauty; Eliot, Woolf and Pound were all armchair critics who simply faced domestic ‘terrors’ and most of their work is – in varying degrees here – highly negative.

One of the arguments against traditional or ‘formal’ poetry is that it is too restrictive, but as is always the case, the greatest creativity and best inventions come from restriction. In America, the short story is highly valued specifically for this reason, and in some ways the ability to write a good 2000 – 3000 word short story is considered a higher art form than a novel! The sonnet is a case in point, too. In the British tradition, the sonnet was once considered the sine qua non of a good poet. Could you write a 14 liner that would move the soul? Poetry is one of the most profound ways to create beauty, precisely because of the restrictions it places on the writer. Like music, there are only so many chords, and only so many chords that work in combination, and only so many rhythms, but how can we then generate something new within these frameworks? One might even stretch the point to make a commentary on society here. We want unrestricted lives: to see as many people as we like, travel as far as we want, eat as much as we like, watch as much TV as we like, binge, binge, binge. None of this is truly healthy, or, indeed, beautiful. Invariably, the greatest beauty derives from restraint, and the deepest emotion comes from holding back.

We should abandon our modern impulse to operate ‘freely (which is not ‘free’ at all but actually chaos), and instead focus on making beauty with disciplined control. By harnessing true poetic techniques and the deep spirituality, we might yet create wonders.

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