The Writer's Voice

by Al Alvarez
126 pages,
ISBN: 039305795X

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Guiding Back to Poetry
by Todd Swift

Al Alvarez (he no longer uses A.) is one of the twelve most important "poet-critics" that English-language poetry produced in the 20th century. If one stops to consider who the others might be¨Pound, Eliot, Empson, Auden, Jarrell, Stevens, Hamilton, Heaney, and Hill come quickly to mind¨this might seem like opulent praise; in a way, it is. Alvarez makes it onto such a list not because of his poetry, which is far better than most people think but not as good as posterity may demand. Instead, he gets there because he was the single most vital, engaged and intelligent British poetry critic during an extraordinarily significant period¨the 50s and 60s¨when anything seemed possible, and American and British poetry were as passionately linked as they had been during Modernism's heyday. Today, the poetry of North America and Britain are like indifferent lovers, hugging different pillows, each to their own side.
I recently met Alvarez at a poetry reading I organized for him in London, and afterwards we spent a few hours discussing literature in a pub. What struck us both as extraordinary is that no one else had invited him to read poetry for ten years; this in itself signals the decline in literary thoughtfulness that his new collection of essays aims to address. Alvarez, who is no longer young, is now a celebrity in Britain mainly for his highly popular books on poker, mountain climbing, and for his joyous later life as described in his new autobiography, Where Did It All Go Right? (a phrase derived from the infamous line spoken by his good friend Zero Mostel).
This late public perception of Alvarez is in extreme contrast to his gloomy, brainy early years as mentor to Sylvia Plath, and author of the major study of suicide, The Savage God. Alvarez's key books of poetry criticism would include The Shaping Spirit, and Beyond All This Fiddle: Essays 1957-1967; but his single most valuable contribution to the development of late twentieth-century poetry, what we now see as the final stages of High Modernism, is the anthology The New Poetry, published by Penguin in 1962, which introduced to a wide reading audience in Great Britain (the colonies, and beyond) the poems of Plath, Ted Hughes, John Berryman and Robert Lowell.
It was in the now-classic Introduction to this anthology, "Beyond the Gentility Principle" that he made the case for a new kind of poetry¨far less civilised and ordered than, say, Larkin's¨which might speak to the anxieties of the age (the Cold War fear of nuclear annihilation for one thing) in language that expressed "a powerful complex of emotions and sensations." All this might seem like a long time ago, but it is striking to think that barely fifty years has passed since the age of New Criticism and the dominance of The Partisan Review in poetic cultural life. Now, Larkin, Plath, Berryman, Lowell, Hughes¨ all major poets¨are dead, but Alvarez is still alive to revisit that time, and cast a cold eye on what has been done in this one.
What is often forgotten is how influential, and right, Alvarez was about most things. Even when he is said to have gotten it wrong (Larkin) he didn't misstep as badly as we tend to remember. He queried The Movement more than Larkin, who, after all, was always better (along with Gunn) than that pack he got lumped with. What he did do was champion struggling younger writers¨he called them Extremists¨who spoke openly about their inner lives of psychological violence in rigorous, formally-inclined verse. In other words, he was one of the first to announce the importance of Plath and Lowell and their type of writing in an England petrified of (and by) change and the just-ended war's different sort of violence.
That this immensely important shift in taste has since become so successful as to be taken largely for granted should not be grounds for divorcing Alvarez from that moment's thought-fox. He was one of those who helped print those poet's pages, by encouraging them, and making their way in the world of reviews and publication slightly less impossible. When one sees how traditional today's English poetry still can be¨and how driven by gentility (a fatade of social gatherings, festivals, awards and book clubs for those good people who want to appear to read poetry, not for those who want to be altered by truly good poems)¨Alvarez's achievement is impressive.
Alvarez did not want, or welcome, the sort of loose, lazy and anti-intellectual posturings typified by The Beats, whose own brand of Confessionalism is equally associated with that fateful Eisenhower-to-Kennedy moment in American poetry. However, whereas he once advocated a kind of poetry that seemingly spit in the eye of Eliot's call for an impersonal, objective sort of verse (the difference between The Waste Land and Life Studies is not so much the textual fragmentation and classical allusions, but the way in which one half-mad writer had to hide everything, while the other chose to conceal almost nothing), he now argues for a classical poetry, and for turning away from the excesses of our diminished age of celebrity and marketing, which seized on the personal tragedy of Plath and made of it a public myth. Alvarez wants to get his genii back in the bottle.
The Writer's Voice is not a major work, but it is important for the reasons given above¨ that here is a man who did great things with great people at a great time¨and it is wonderfully rich with literary anecdote and insight. It is a feisty, brilliant polemic, and a necessary corrective. It is also, and most movingly, a noble nostalgia trip¨as if Empson had returned to urge us all to include seven types of ambiguity in each poem in witty yet sub-textually-earnest prose. There will be much to praise, but first let me quarrel with the book's twin Achilles heels (I fear one would have been already too many).
First, the book is that worst of all worlds, a hodgepodge of lecture notes, introductions and reviews, dressed up to appear as a cohesive argument. Only the first two of the three chapters¨"Finding A Voice", "Listening" and "The Cult of Personality and the Myth of the Artist"¨are essential; in all too many of the same observations, even quotes, make repetitive appearances. The book, ironically, needed a good editor. As it is, it was merely written by a great one.
The second problem with the book is that the author chooses to dampen his powder with sprinklings of grouchiness that simply amount to fewer intellectual fireworks to dazzle us with. Like a tetchy Harold Bloom he rails against "political correctness" and "theory"¨ concerned with gender, race, and so on¨as the main causes of the current "dumbing down". He even claims that "a Ginsberg poem" can yield no artistic pleasure whatsoever, which is surely a tad ungenerous.
This aspect of the book is unworthy of the man. His own heavy use of Freud, and even Writing Degree Zero (!) in this text reveal the futility of entirely doing away with the baggage of theory in criticism. Moreover, poetry's greatest enemies are no longer (if they ever were) the post-colonial feminists who seek to redefine the canon in favour of obscure slaves¨for surely such critics and academics read.
More curious is the absence of any reflection in The Writer's Voice on the latest scourge of "mainstream" lyrical poetry (the kind that Alvarez believes in)¨the so-called language poets, who arrogate to themselves the main quality that make all good poets good (namely, a full engagement with language) while rejecting the other that is essential: a full engagement with feeling (call it music).
However, Alvarez's most poignant observations, about the practice of reading poetry, writing it, and writing about it (the book pays lip-service to prose but thankfully his love of poetry shines through) do relate to a sense that we live in a terribly post-Modern time. I use the capital M for more than emphasis. The new world we are moving into seems beyond literacy itself, transfixed by unearned image, sensation and fashion without purpose. The Writer's Voice is a eulogy for a lost, late Modernity¨the one Alvarez's friends built, after Eliot¨which managed to be obviously human and authentic, but also retained a strong commitment to "the idea of perfection" of a poem and the struggle to use words and rhythm to form lasting, perfect objects of great written value.
Alvarez feels the main reason for the decline of poetry and poetry criticism in our own debased age, is that we too often fail to listen to the complex tumbler mechanism that must click into place¨all the right words in all the right places¨for the poem to truly be its own best self (Yeats's "fascination with what's difficult"). He urges us to revalue "the writer's patient quest for a distinctive voice" and the "reader's exacting obligation" to listen to it.
In the book's most conservative and utterly galvanizing passages, he confronts the death of the age of the Partisan Review and The New Critic. In drawing a picture of a time and place when young men and women of the severest intellectual and artistic discipline would sit down to study, debate about, and learn to write poems, with the utmost respect for tradition and yet an equally vivacious taste for the newer voice they would bring to the equation (one part being individual talent), Alvarez paints a portrait of a golden age. It is an age just out of reach, as one depicted on an ancient, well-wrought urn. Alvarez, is, in the end, a disciple of the best of Eliot and the best of Lowell¨the two extremes of brilliant poetry that yet never strays into the shrill or uncivilized. He quotes Eliot's maxim: "the only method is to be very intelligent," but he also welcomes the sort of intensity that drove Plath (though he would have preferred her to live).
Alvarez is right to remind us that poetry should be a difficult and challenging vocation; that it should not be about "razzmatazz" and "marketing"; and that the performance of poetry can never be the answer to the question, 'but is it well-written?' As someone who contributed, a decade ago, to the false Barnum of poetry-as-entertainment, I find this small book of Alvarez's a tonic too late, but no less essential.
Canadian poets and poetry critics should read it, especially if they seek to understand why so few Canadian poets (I can name a dozen or less) since the mid-50s have created anything approaching the body of work of the great American and British writers of Alvarez's period. Part of the problem is that too few Canadians (and other contemporaries) write a poetry that represents "thinking as physical and dramatic as dancing"¨or more bluntly: too few try to write, as John Donne did, a poetry equally at home with body and mind, sensuous in its very making, formed from thought and sinuous through participation in the world.
As Alvarez says: "Writing is less a compulsion than a doomed love affair"¨a love affair, though, worth having. Our lives actually do depend on how we make ourselves heard, and the voices we use to be human.

Todd Swift's most recent collection of poems is Rue du Regard (DC Books, 2004). He lives in London.

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