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Glyn Maxwell’s ‘On Poetry’ (Part 1 of 2)

written by the Judge

I was uncertain whether to write about Glyn Maxwell’s On Poetry in the form of a review or in a feature article. Ultimately I went for the latter, and this for a number of reasons. One is that our reviews section is dedicated to poetry, not to essay writing, even when it is an essay on poetry. Another is that I wanted to discuss matters that extend a little beyond Maxwell’s work, and a more general article gives me the space to go a few yards (or a few miles) out on a limb.

The final reason is that I still haven’t made up my mind what I think about Glyn Maxwell. When I first read Hide Now, one of his most recent collections, I thought I was faced with a genius. I still think of that book as the best contemporary poetry in English that I know of. But then I went on to read another of his works, The Sugar Mile, and I was left rather cold. Of course, these are only opinions – the Guardian’s critic Adam Newey sees things exactly the other way round. He also says about On Poetry that it is “the best book on poetry I have ever read“.

I’d love to meet this Newey guy, because his opinions are so limpidly antithetical to my own. I imagine a dinner together would see us discussing how he likes jazz and I like classical music, he likes sushi and I like pizza, he loves cricket and I enjoy meaningful pursuits. Chances are he’d even tell me that he prefers the new Star Wars trilogy to the old one – but I digress.

For those who haven’t read it, On Poetry collects a number of thematically related essays in which Maxwell attempts to outline a theory of poetry. The titles of the various essays are, in order, White, Black, Form, Pulse, Chime, Space, Time. These are all, in his treatment, essentially aesthetic categories. The ‘White’ is the whiteness of the page where nothing is inscribed, while the ‘Black’ is that of the ink upon it. In his own words:

The nine sheets are nine battlefields. The black will win some, the white will win some, it will be silly as war and bloody as chess. If you get any poems out of it, any lines at all, pin them to your breast. If you get any white sheets, bury them with honours. Remember where you won, remember where you lost.

The paragraph pretty much encapsulates the style of the book as a whole. Maxwell relies heavily on metaphor to get his points across. He frequently brings up extracts from famous poems and proffers readings in a metaphorical form; since Maxwell is a fine poet, the metaphors work well and are colourful and enjoyable – indeed the whole book is very readable and pleasant.

So what’s the problem? Well, I wonder how many of my readers I’d alienate if I were to put it like this: none of what he says is true. I suppose a more diplomatic way of putting it would be ‘these arguments make no sense’ – I can settle on that, if you prefer. Maxwell says that ‘your meeting with a poem is like your meeting with a person. The more like that it is, the better the poem is’. That is – I really can’t find any other way of saying this – not true. It’s not a matter of my opinion or his opinion or your opinion, it’s just not true. Meeting a poem (which I assume means reading a poem for the first time) is nothing like meeting a person – except, of course, in metaphorical terms, and very abstract ones at that. It works as a poetic image, but it fails as a critical proposition.

It may be objected that I am being deliberately obtuse. Right, perhaps I should be more accommodating. But then again maybe what prompts me to be so obtuse is that I’ve seen this particular trick before, and I am getting a little tired of it. TS Eliot’s essay What is a Classic?, which Maxwell cites here with palpable admiration, is an example of the same train of thought at work. You make up your own aesthetical category (Maxwell goes for ‘black and white’, Eliot goes for ‘classic’), then you are allowed to draw the connections that you like and build a castle in the air that looks exactly how you want it to look. Since these aesthetical categories are neither verifiable nor quantifiable, and since they are not given any precise historical grounding but only one that is convenient and selective, you can pretty much say anything you like about them, and you will always be right. You can even contradict yourself, if you’re clever enough to present it as a ‘symbolic paradox’ or a ‘dramatic tension’ or what have you. I used to make use of this kind of sophistry myself back when I was into writing football journalism, precisely because it is so irresistibly seductive, and because you can look like an expert while saying almost nothing at all. A touch of good prose, or a clever use of metaphor, and you can describe the difference between Italian and English football in terms of the differences in these two countries’ drinking culture:

Like beer, English football is attractive because it exhausts and justifies itself in its own isolated turn of the wheel. It consumes itself as we consume it. Like wine, Italian football is at heart referential, never fully understood or explained, always subsisting under a shadow thrown by a shadow. 

These articles were enormously successful – one of the sites I wrote for still features a permanent link to them in the front page. But they were never meant to be true. And neither is Glyn Maxwell’s On Poetry.

Maxwell’s type of criticism has enjoyed a great deal of popularity in the twentieth century. Personally, I think the finest example remains Italo Calvino’s American Lessons, which is essentially the same book as On Poetry, but a bit more elegant and subtle in its presentation (instead of ‘black and white’ Calvino has ‘heaviness and lightness’, and you can imagine how the rest of the book goes). I use the word ‘criticism’ to describe this type of writing, but with a little reluctance. Given that the readings, connections and historical interpretations they draw are fictional and arbitrary, they have less in common with the work of someone like Walter Benjamin, Mikhail Bakhtin or Northrop Frye than they do with the genre of occult literature represented by the likes of Aleister Crowley, Madame Blavatsky or Dion Fortune. Try reading some of the texts by the latter authors, and notice the parallel in style – if anything, the attempts by the magicians are much more schematic (if more poorly written).

The problem with this line of thinking is not that it isn’t pretty, it’s just that it’s circular. I am going to borrow a phrase from Cormac McCarthy: “A man’s at odds to know his mind cause his mind is aught he has to know it with.” You cannot analyse your analytical abilities for the same reason that you cannot bite your teeth. Likewise, you cannot hope to use ‘poetic’ means to analyse poetry, because all you do is produce more poetry. And indeed Maxwell’s work, like those I quoted above, is frequently and peculiarly beautiful. No-one could deny his ability with words. What’s lacking is the willingness (perhaps even the courage) to look outside of his own ranch, at animals different than his own stock. (Rats. I used a metaphor).


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