Blog dedicated primarily to randomly selected news items; comments reflecting personal perceptions

Thursday, February 12, 2009

A Paean of Gratitude to Robert Graves

Always intrigued by Robert Graves, I recently read his Three Oxford Lectures on Poetry. I believe I came away having learned something about the craft of expressing my subliminal thoughts concretely. I use the word 'craft' because, as Graves points out, the word 'technique' implies intellectual achievement, or a deliberate attempt by the poet to create a poem, admirable for its form, but questionable as to its conception, its ability to move the reader.

It is no mere conceit that poets have long attributed their craft to something akin to a mystic trance brought about by their Muse. The Muses themselves, according to my edition of the Concise Oxford Dictionary, were nine goddesses, daughters of Zeus and Mnemosyne (who was herself not a goddess, but a Titaness. Zeus was reputed to have stayed nine nights with her, and when her time came, Mnemosyne gave birth to nine daughters, who were the Muses.) The nine Muses were thought to be the inspirers of the lively arts: epic poetry, history, lyric poetry, music, tragedy, sacred song, dancing, comedy and astronomy.

Now, although the ancients genuinely believed in gods and goddesses, and that they were the primal force behind our every thought and action, modern may believes somewhat differently. Still, as any scientist, agnostic or not, will readily admit, there is much about the human cerebral functioning that is a mystery. We're thought to have a left0hand and a right0hand brain; that one portion is responsible for practicality, the other for abstractions; that whichever portion dominates in any particular individual, will determine largely whether he or she is a doer or a thinker.

The thinkers often display a facility for language, for absorbing emotional and physical experience into their own personal intellectual reference libraries, that the doers do not. However, these functions are not mutually exclusive.

When we now say that our Muse nudged us, or inspired us to create, what we most likely mean is that our subconscious dredged up from our prodigious memory-banks an appeal to unload; which we then converted into something concrete, like a poem. So it takes more than a facility with language, a good memory, and the gentle conceit that we would like to share our cleverness with an admiring public. In fact, the public isn't all that admiring. Generally, it is only other poets who read the brainchildren of poets. The most essential ingredient, it would seem, for the making of good poetics, is a belief in one's own ability to translate perceptions in a non-intellectual, almost mystical manner. Mystical again, because it is not a planned achievement, but an inspired or spontaneous one.

Robert Graves was himself no slouch as a poet; his many volumes having been translated into a plethora of languages other than English. He also wore the many hats of a linguist, translator, classical scholar, novelist par excellence, and champion of women as the originally 'superior sex'. He had long moved in cerebrally exalted circles (our own Lester B. Pearson knew and admired Graves), having personally known Walter de la Mare, and that greatest of England's modern poets, Thomas Hardy.

Robert Graves explained in his lectures just why, using as poetic examples, poets as diverse as Browning, Kipling, Byron and Burns; sloppy verbiage, or poetic vulgarity as he termed it, is so injurious to the form, understanding and appreciation of a poem, no matter its author.

He went to great pains to point out how essential it was that poets avail themselves of unimpeachable authority when choosing the proper word to convey their meaning, and how careless it was to indulge in over-adjectivication for effect.

Although himself a scholar of international reputation and an impeccable poet, he pointed out that he made every effort to refer regularly to a dictionary source for the derivation of questionable words, their popular usage, change of meaning through their period of use, and the different contexts in which they could be used. He did admit that sometimes, even the Oxford English dictionary could be found wanting, relating how Thomas Hardy told him in 1924 that it ha been his practise too, to confirm doubtful words, and that when looking up one such word in the Oxford, he found it, but the only reference had been: Thomas Hardy: Far From the Madding Crowd, 1874.

This craftsmanship that is the unconscious function of the poet, Graves asserted, is inherent in the being and can be self-cultivated. There is no easy way for the true poet. A long association with words is almost a prerequisite before the poet can successfully collaborate with his inner self to produce a poetic trance. Also necessary to the full flowering of this ability to produce individualistic poetry, is to have read widely other poets' offerings, good or bed, and learning to differentiate between them. Yet one's outpourings should be, he said, inimitably personal in style, never done in imitation of what may be termed a popular style, or styled after a successful poet.

Who hasn't written a poem or a prose piece, then put it away, satisfied perhaps that the general content conveyed what the author intended, but still left with a nagging doubt about some of the words employed" How often do we come back t a poem, perhaps a day later, sometimes months later, to find a more appropriate word floating up from the depths of some unconscious word bank? Robert Graves called this a poetic trance. I believe him, having personally felt entranced by the subtle interweaving of words.

Patience, loving patience, he cautioned. I don't believe I have a patient molecule in my body. But, of course, he was unerringly correct. All the best advice in the world can be handed us by someone who has been through it all himself, though it's only after we have made our own blunders, that we learn. And then, when we come to recognize what we should have done, we read with interest lectures such as Robert Graves's, feel a start of recognition and agree - yes, he's absolutely right.

originally written/published in 1979

Labels: ,


Post a Comment

<< Home

()() Follow @rheytah Tweet