Tuesday, October 9, 2007

the ear of an unliterary era

An unsigned essay entitled "Breathing Words into the Ear of an Unliterary Era,"* published in TLS on September 9, 1960, eventually gets to an analysis of casual or "spontaneous"-seeming poems by Philip Larkin and Robert Creeley (what a pairing). The example from Creeley is "I Know a Man" ("As I sd to my / friend, because I am / always talking--John, I / sd..."), and from Larkin, "Days" ("What are days for? / Days are where we live"). But first there's this bit of complaining:
An elegant handling of the spoken and written word used to be a primary social weapon in England. Today an observer who covers enough ground can watch the English language being steadily democratized, as perhaps the American language is already; airs are graces, little flourishes, little niceties are being ironed out for the sake of direct communication. A way of speaking or writing is ceasing to be, except in an old-fashioned and growingly rather absurd way, an assumption of or a claim for status." And so in poetry of the day "we expect less and less attention to be paid to the artificial, the formal, the purely 'literary' qualities of poetry; we expect a growing attention to be paid to a quality of raw directness, of speakabiliity. Left to himself a provincial undergraduate might read D. H. Lawrence's Pansies for pleasure; he would not read "Lycidas."
* p. xv.