Thursday, May 21, 2009

We were seventy-six for seven

I suppose my two most eccentric poetic predilections are vastly preferring the early Wallace Stevens to the later production and, even more bizarrely, seeing early Betjeman as a giant of poetry of his era. Later the sentimentality and a certain clumsiness of metre creep through, but the early poems are angelic. This, though naturally on hugely more humble scale, is a kind of equivalent of Eliot's famous confession of being a classicist in literature and a royalist in politics. It belongs to the classical tradition, surely, to appreciate Betjeman's glittering surfaces and rhythmical skill. It has seemed to countless critics (these days I guess no-one is any longer much interested) that this is all there is: a silly pose and a very oldfashioned, passé view of the form and function of poetry. I don't know - it seems such a selfevidently facile view of both young Betjeman and art. He does point to deeper things, indirectly, through the skill, through the offbeat, offcentre handling of the subject matter. You don't have to spell out things, you don't have to shout from the rooftops that this is great, weighty and serious poetry - neither do you have to be deliberately obscure and leave an enticing trail of riddles for dusty academics to uncover (and here we come to early Wallace Stevens as well).

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