Peter McDonald: Serious Poetry: Form and Authority from Yeats to Hill

In contemporary British literary culture, Peter McDonald contends, seriousness has become problematic: ‘First of all, there is more than a smack of the humourless about it, a suspicion of dour intensity and prim high-mindedness: serious poetry, in this light, is something read by desiccated intellectuals in cold houses without television, and sits on their shelves along with volumes of F.R. Leavis and Raymond Williams’. Eschewing such ‘elitist’ overtones, poetry today largely styles itself on principles of devolved authority, of ‘the democratic voice’.  Poetry is ‘promoted’ or ‘celebrated’ – or rather, McDonald argues, mediagenic poets are celebrated, the work of whom, in turn, is little more than the projection of an agreeable or no-nonsense ‘personality’ with which (slightly shady cultural arbitrators decree) we can identify.  Such notions of personality are increasingly analysed, in this study, on the grounds of tone. Tone is shown, with genuinely discomforting clarity, to concern the degree of collusion between writer and audience; tone creates the impression of a relationship, and, as McDonald relates this back to broader ‘cultural scenarios’, tone is currently in the business of binding literary worth and opinion closer together.  The consensus furthers the approval for unpretentious common sense against difficulty – against, McDonald argues, seriousness.

Personality and tone, then, are set against ‘form’, which is ‘a real poem’s final and binding authority’.  Of Serious Poetry’s serious poets, the bulk of formal analysis is devoted to Yeats, and in chapters detailing the development of ‘remorse’ as a key imaginative poetic concept in his work, and analysing the poet’s architectural stanzas, the case is made for the poem’s autonomy and reality.  Also under discussion are Eliot, Auden, MacNeice and Heaney, and, perhaps surprisingly given the brevity of this list, the critical treatment is not always approving: Auden may have been an early proponent of those tonal operations whereby it seemed silly not to agree with him about poetry’s innate triviality, and Mahon did not entirely acquit himself as MacNeice’s heir.  Throughout, McDonald’s observations of formal technique are never dry abstractions.  His readings are more than close and astute; they reach a depth of engagement which leaves you at risk of the bends, only to deepen again and illuminate the rest of his material.  In keeping with his assertion that difficulty is democratic he keeps us up with his intellectual manoeuvres, and since criticism, as well as poetry, is ‘the doing-in-language of certain things’ his prose is never less than elegant.  This is not surprising since McDonald’s book, as the introductory remarks about cultural consensus would suggest, is as much concerned with serious criticism as serious poetry.  In this respect – and this is unnerving – the same attention paid to rhythm and cadence is often used to uncover the work done by a reviewer’s apparently offhand remark.  Tom Paulin’s comment on the poetry of Eliot, ‘there is a malignity in it which is terrifying’, for instance, is preceded and dismissed by McDonald’s analytic synopsis of the comment: ‘and here enters the impressionistic evidence which carried its own self-validating emotional sincerity’.  Indeed one of the most compelling chapters of the book deals specifically with ‘Three Critics: T.S. Eliot, Seamus Heaney, Geoffrey Hill’.  Having established form as a poem’s abiding authority, here McDonald focuses on the sources of critical authority.  Eliot’s expressed preference for what poets have written about poetry – rather than what critics who are not poets have said about it – is tacitly disapproved as evidence of ‘the single-mindedness of a poet rather than the open mindedness of a critic’; Heaney, while praised as an excellent ambassador, is shown to rely heavily on his existing reputation to produce, in his ‘Redress of Poetry’ lectures, less analysis than celebration: ‘a poet’s hour in the warm sun of [his] admiring attention’.  So it is Hill, then, whose criticism proceeds only according to his hold on his subjects, who is deemed ‘both a real poet and a true critic, at a time when both categories are underpopulated.’

In fact, while Serious Poetry purports to structure itself around Yeats’s centrality to twentieth-century poetry, and critical hostility to this centrality, Geoffrey Hill is the pivotal figure of the study.  He is introduced by way of announcing the controversial aspect of McDonald’s project – the poet’s detractors are a shorthand for the current commitment to ‘testing personality’; in discrediting his work they automatically write themselves back into the cultural consensus – and the book closes with a formal analysis of his poetry.  Moreover, it is clear that key concepts such as the impurity or inertia of language (which partly informs McDonald’s reading of Heaney’s criticism), and that of the significance of tone itself, are heavily indebted to Hill.  Hill’s poetry also seems to be analysed most in the light of his own critical pronouncements. This results in a plausible account of The Triumph of Love and Speech! Speech! as a poetry of pitched vehemence – ‘poetry constantly interrupting itself, seeming to change tack, to tear holes in its own fabric’.  For all that, however, Hill’s work does not entirely fit the bill – and crucially, the critical language used in his defence approaches its own inertia for the first time in the book (‘This concern with concern for the self marks the point at which Hill’s impulse towards self-destruction, doing it and being damned, meets the reflexes and impacted energies of his rhetoric’). McDonald has suggested that negative commentators have detected an unwelcome presence in Hill’s work, and perhaps it’s because this presence can feel like another type of personality that the poet just does not seem to be ‘serious’ in the measured, balanced way, witnessed by ‘form’, that McDonald is advocating.  Doubtless this is an impressionistic notion, but there you go.

Instead Hill’s importance clearly lies in the model he provides of the poet-critic: ‘the true poet-critic will not be a popular, or even very much-liked figure; he will say unacceptable things, and be both awkward and damned for it’.  This is a reasonable description of the energies at work in Serious Poetry itself. It seems beside the point to note that Peter McDonald also writes poetry, since he has argued so persuasively against this as a basis for critical authority; however it must have informed his stance, making his refusal to lower the critical bar (and implicitly level the playing field) perversely commendable.  As a critic, McDonald’s accuracy in showing what words can do is matched by the sense of dissent he praises in Hill, the sense of being ‘among enemies’.  His own enemies, on whom he is merciless, include not only purveyors of unexamined, feel-good democratic literary sentiment, but ‘media-establishment critics’ (Paulin), unexploding post-structuralist mines, and the overwhelmingly turgid theoretical output of English departments.  If other literary critics are praised at all, it is often for the ‘useful directness’ with which they betray their idiocy.

The strength of McDonald’s argument in all this is obviously aided by the fact that he takes no prisoners and gives no quarter – there is no concession to the forces which gave rise to the rhetoric of a democratic literature in the first place, and certainly no consideration that the ‘authority’ of ‘serious poetry’ might have made some feel smaller than others.  Doubtless this sometimes makes the critic’s ‘dissent’ almost as circular and self-validating as the cultural consensus he attacks, because the less we like what he has to say the more right we prove him, and the more he fulfils the requirements of his own definition of ‘the true poet critic’.  This would matter more if his puritanism was just a pose, but it isn’t.  His defence of serious poetry seems most antipathetic to those with an investment in identity politics, to which current talk of ethical or civic literature seems to offer shelter.  Certainly, while it is not quite the same as ‘promotion’, there are comments in the recently published volumes of The Field Day Anthology of Irish Writing which must make the author of Serious Poetry seethe; in the introduction to the contemporary writing section Clair Wills notes that ‘The current vibrant poetry scene reflects an energy and confidence also apparent in a wide range of women’s social and cultural activities’; Nuala Ní Dhominaill describes her selection of poets as a ‘smorgasbord’ deliberately designed ‘to introduce the widest possible range of voices and talents’.  However, if McDonald is right in asserting that authority still flourishes, under a different name, among a small coterie of cultural arbitrators, then the absence of any influential feminist perspective from the broader commentary, contemporary anthologies and ‘inclusive’ scenes critiqued in his book seems more like a reflection on how the progressive or democratic nature of literary culture does not extend much beyond a gloss anyway.  Regardless of the rest of his ‘enemies’, then, McDonald’s book challenges those who genuinely cannot help taking democracy seriously to nevertheless take it seriously in language – or run the risk of being co-opted by the forces of banality and limitation.