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Edward Larrissy Interview

Edward Larrissy is Professor of English Literature at the University of Leeds. His publications include Reading Twentieth Century Poetry: The Language of Gender and Objects, Romanticism and Postmodernism (ed.) and the Oxford World Classics edition of W. B. Yeats: The Major Works.

His work centres on two areas: Romantic poetry and twentieth-century poetry (British, Irish and American). Irish writing of both periods is a special interest. He is also interested in the relationship between the two periods—the influence of Romantic writing in the twentieth century and twentieth-century constructions of Romanticism. The edited CUP volume, Romanticism and Postmodernism, addresses the most recent form of this relationship, and contains the only substantial body of work on this subject. It arises out of a British Academy supported conference.

The Romantic poet he most focuses on is Blake, and he is on the advisory board of the new Blake Centre, which is to be established in London. Blake’s work is central to Larrissy’s current research, which is on the idea of blindness in the Enlightenment and the Romantic period. This research has also allowed him to pursue further interest in Irish writing, and the provisional results have been published in the form of  an article for Romanticism on 'The Celtic Bard'. But the work will also, characteristically, consider the influence of tropes about blindness in twentieth-century criticism and theory, asserting that they are used in ways that are indebted to Romantic uses.

Bernard Beatty is Senior Fellow in the School of English at Liverpool University. From 1988-2005 he was Editor of the Byron Journal. He is the author of two books on Byron, and three collections of essays on him. Byron and the Limits of Fiction ( with Vincent Newey); Liberty and Poetic Licence: New Essays on Byron ( with Charles Robinson); The Plays of Lord Byron, ( with Robert Gleckner). His other published  essays are on the Bible, Dryden, Rochester, Dickens, and most of the Romantics. He plays the plays the organ and live in Chester, UK.

 

BB: The popular conception of a Romantic poet, and it is not wholly misplaced, is of someone in a landscape talking about the landscape and himself. The popular conception of, say, Heaney is not far removed from this. Do you think that we are still too concerned with describing self to write good poetry?

EL:  Yes I do. For while you rightly refer to that conception as “popular”, the fact is that it demonstrates the way the main influence has run. The idea lurking behind much poetic practice is that of a distinctively poetic mode of experince, which rises for a moment above the discursiveness or the abstract—whether political, philosophical, or theological—and offers a moment of intense perception, perhaps buttressed by a personal anecdote of some kind. The moment of intensity—often with a slightly melancholic tinge—is allowed to "speak to itself", of course, in the approved manner. In reality, this kind of poetry is becoming so much a received manner that I’m beginning to wonder how long the fashion can go on. It seems so obviously to limit poetry to a special register and a special focus. While all poetry is artificial, of course, I find this particular convention narrow and unambitious, and am puzzled by the way its advocates think that it is honest and unadorned. I do not believe that it is widely perceived as such.

BB: Byron criticised the Lake poets and William Bowles for getting rid of poetic diction whilst creating at the same time a poetic subject matter. The subject matter was, very largely, the sublimity of the natural world. Byron maintained the older view that the poet should be able to write about anything. T. S. Eliot made the same point but doesn’t the mode of most modern verse suggest that we still agree with the Lake poets about this?

EL: Obviously I do believe that much contemporary poetry, especially contemporary British poetry, is not able to ‘write about anything’, and I think it should be able to do so. Poets in Britain have been extraordinarily faithful to Nature, but perhaps more damaging than this is the manner of their fidelity, which I see in terms of the previous answer. Now that there are more poets, from Tony Harrison to Simon Armitage, who write about urban experience, the modes of feeling they invoke, and the linguistic resources upon which they draw, remain too narrow and unadventurous.

BB: The Romantics produced no new forms of their own and hence, consciously or unconsciously, put a set of inverted commas round the forms that they re-used. We could say that they “ironised” them. Is that the condition of modern poetry, too, or has it found new and appropriate forms?

EL: Rather than produce new forms, the Romantics developed, altered or mixed old ones. The alterations and mixings could be quite adventurous and expressive: a good example, I think, would be Shelley’s ‘Ode to the West Wind’, which, apart from declaring itself an ode, employs stanzas based on the sonnet form, but with a rhyme scheme of terza rima which is best known from Dante’s Divine Comedy. Thus the poem declares itself to possess the sublimity of a great ode, the personal passion of the sonnet, and the many-levelled allegory of Dante. We are to suppose that this mingling of forms is the most appropriate for the occasion. The most characteristic expression, then, of the Romantic recovery of innocent or incorrupt form is indeed that of recovery: a recovery that is the uncovering of the original, spontaneous use of the form, and certainly not the rejection of form. The irony to which you rightly refer must be understood in this light: for despite themselves, Romantic poets who could do as Shelly did with his “Ode” ended up being quite self-conscious about forms, and this self-consciousness comprised the realisation that the original, unmediated vision to which many of them gestured could never be attained in the world.

While absolute newness is an impossibility, I think it’s probably a trifle perverse not to describe some of Pound’s Cantos as new. I’m a lot less sure about some of the people who might be claimed to look just as radical: Carlos Williams, say. It’s a matter of degree, of course: I suggest in my book [Reading Twentieth Century Poetry] that what is innovatory about Williams is the importance of the poem as it looks on the page, and the way this complicates the poem as a heard or spoken entity. As I say there, you can’t read out an indentation. But though this aspect is worth calling new, I think the newness of everything else in Williams is overrated to the most implausible degree.

As for contemporary British poets, the “establishment” variety, with some exceptions, have extended the possibilities of conventional form. Larkin is a good example. He is far more innovatory within the constraints of convention than many people notice. But on the other hand, he has helped to perpetuate the notion of poetry as properly existing within a certain narrow band of lyric forms. Again, with certain exceptions, the serious irony about form of many of the Romantics is missing from contemporary poetry.

BB: Can I pick up two things in what you have said that really interested me? You seem concerned both with a certain kind of fixed idiom, or characteristic mannerisms in contemporary poetry and also with a narrowness of subject matter. The nub of your complaint is the assumption that there is a ‘distinctively poetic mode of experience’. Here, as far as you are concerned, it does not matter whether it is the poet who is supposed to be having the experience or whether ‘the moment of intensity—often with a certain melancholy tinge—is allowed to speak for itself. Would you agree with Robert Langbaum’s description of the route from Romanticism to Modernism but take an opposite view on its desirability?

EL:  The implication of your question is that I am talking about a poetic genre, a particular kind of lyrical dramatic monologue. I’d agree with that implication, and thus, broadly speaking, would see the point of comparing my argument with that advanced by Langbaum in The Poetry of Experience. He see the route from Romanticism to Modernism as involving a distillation of the dramatic monologue form, and he talks interestingly about how this form is increasingly (though not always) given a marked lyrical cast. I would see Langbaum’s’ thesis, however, as insufficiently concerned with the poets increasing concentration on description, or the faithful evocation of objects, at the expense of more ambitiously discursive or meditative modes. He doesn’t, either, have much to say there about the attenuation of the speaker in modern poetry, though he does deal with this in The Mysteries of Identity, in relation to a very few writers.

As for the desirability of the route, there seems no point in wishing that history had been otherwise. I’d be more concerned now to see poets attempting to broaden the range of genres, discursive modes and subject matters they felt they could deploy.

BB: Isn’t most lyrical poetry from Sappho to R. S. Thomas suffused with a melancholy directly related to the materiality of things? So it isn’t simply a modern phenomena. Or is it that we are too hooked on a lyrical model and in effect, ought to rediscover lost genres? Is that what you mean when you criticise Larkin for insisting that poetry only operates ‘within a certain band of lyric forms’?

EL: By no means is melancholy a modern phenomenon. The rest of your question does indeed convey my anxieties.

BB: Could I come back to the problem of diction too? You point out that even when poems suggest that the ‘moment of intensity’ speaks in its own voice, yet it always does so ‘in the approved modern manner’. I think that’s very well put. But didn’t we get to this unacknowledged received lingo via Wordworth’s insistence on avoiding poetic diction and setting the language of poetry as close to prose as possible. Wouldn’t the corollary be that some sort of acknowledged diction is the best bet for talking naturally about anything since, alone, it guarantees that we don’t have to worry about whether the ordinary thing we are talking about is made poetic by some other guarantee (“intensity” or “revelatory power” etc.). This is a paradox, I know, but exactly the opposite of the one you deplore. Of course, a poetic diction now (since we have no tradition of one) might have to begin by a kind of pastiche vocabulary or extreme self-consciousness. I think of Eliot’s Waste Land in this way but, it could be seen as authorising some of the practises you most dislike. You instance Pound’s Cantos. Is this close to what you mean when you praise the ‘Ode to the West Wind’ for its ‘recovery’ pf the ‘original, spontaneous use of form?

EL: I think your question is very well put. So perhaps I’d better just respond by saying why I think that. I infer that we both agree that there is no language of poetry that is not artificial. So what I’m saying is that we have grounds to be dissatisfied with the currently approved artifice. One of the first tasks for criticism, as I see it, is to re-assert the notion that poetry is necessarily unoriginal. A succeeding task would be to suggest that it may constantly renew itself by imitating and encompassing discourses which are not accepted as “poetic”. This is something that is done by J. H. Prynne, for instance, as ably demonstrated by N. H. Reeve and Richard Kerridge in a book in a series edited by you. Prynne uses the vocabularies of science, technology, economics and philosophy alongside the mundane, the slangy and the lyrical. But of course, this means not only that his diction is piquant, but that he is also exemplifying some breadth of thinking.

Perhaps it is now clearer that my remarks about Shelly are tinged with irony (though not with mockery). The most original thing about the ‘Ode to the West Wind’ is the adventurousness with which it splices together ode, sonnet and echoes of Dante (via the terza rima form).

 

 

 

 

copyright © Edward Larrissy & Bernard Beatty