…..In the introduction to The Music of Time: Poetry in the Twentieth Century, the T.S. Eliot prize-winning poet, novelist and memoirist John Burnside writes; “Can poetry save the world, as [poet Lawrence] Ferlinghetti suggests? This will sound quixotic, but I have to say, not only that it can, but that it does. Poetry saves the world every day. It is how we declare our love for things and for the other animals; it is how we remember, in spite of a constant diet of ‘hard’ science, that the ‘invisible’ informs the visible in ways beyond our direct telling; and it is how we nurture hope, cradling it in words and music as a hand cradles a flame against the wind.”
…..The book is described by his publisher Princeton University Press as a “unique history of twentieth-century poetry” that “steps outside of an academic analyses of literature, and discusses poems and ideas as they inform [Burnside’s] day-to-day existence,” and “reveals how poetry responded to dramatic events of the past century while shaping his and our impressions of them.”
…..The introduction to the book – excerpted here in its entirety with the gracious consent of Princeton – is Burnside’s fascinating observation concerning the idea of how poets respond to what the Russian poet Osip Mandelstam called “the noise of time,” weaving it into a kind of music.
…..Poets and writers – and anyone fascinated by 20th Century literature – will find this excerpt a superb, thought-provoking read.
“Magisterial. This is a fine, often profound book, the very valuable work of a poet and novelist who has thought long and hard about poetry and the many contexts surrounding its writing.”
-Michael Hulse, coeditor of The 20th Century in Poetry, on John Burnside’s The Music of Time: Poetry in the Twentieth Century
© Helmut Fricke
John Burnside is a poet, novelist, and memoirist whose many books include Still Life with Feeding Snake and On Henry Miller (Princeton). He has won many awards for his poetry, including the T.S. Eliot, Forward, Whitbread, and Geoffrey Faber Memorial prizes. He is professor of English at the University of St. Andrews and a regular contributor to the London Review of Books. He lives in Arncroach, Scotland.
Excerpted from THE MUSIC OF TIME: Poetry in the Twentieth Century by John Burnside. Copyright © 2020 by John Burnside. Published by Princeton University Press. Reprinted by permission.
[…] it has been shown, as well as the narrow limits assigned them would permit, that what is called poetry, in a restricted sense, has a common source with all other forms of order and of beauty, according to which the materials of human life are susceptible of being arranged, and which is poetry in an universal sense.
…………………………………………………………………………………….Percy Bysshe Shelley
AS A YOUNG MAN in the 1910s, the poet and travel writer Osip Mandelstam joined the Acmeist group, a loose affiliation of writers who met regularly at St Petersburg’s Stray Dog Café until the authorities closed it down in 1915. The group’s founders, Nikolay Gumilev and Sergei Gorodetsky, set as their programme a rejection of the decadence and excess of the Symbolist Movement, with its exclusivist mystique rooted in the music of Wagner, Nietzschean philosophy and the writings of Fyodor Tyutchev, whose finest work, ‘Silentium’, was a key influence:
How can a heart expression find?
How should another know your mind?
Will he discern what quickens you?
A thought once uttered is untrue.
Dimmed is the fountainhead when stirred:
drink at the source and speak no word.
Live in your inner self alone
within your soul a world has grown,
the magic of veiled thoughts that might
be blinded by the outer light,
drowned in the noise of day, unheard …
take in their song and speak no word.1
…..This mood of mystical withdrawal from the public realm, compounded with the sometimes wilful obscurity of second-wave Symbolists such as Vyacheslav Ivanov and Andrei Bely, provoked Gumilev and his friends (the group included such future luminaries as Mikhail Kuzmin, Anna Akhmatova and Georgiy Ivanov) to propose a new poetic art, based on clarity of expression and a new foregrounding of the image as subject, that invites comparison both with the poetic philosophy of Ezra Pound and T.
E. Hulme, and with the William Carlos Williams of ‘The Red Wheelbarrow’. Like many such groups, however, the Acmeists were something of an odd mix, aligning Gumilev’s high rhetoric and penchant for exoticism with the tight, near-Minimalist work collected in Mandelstam’s first volume, Stone (first published in 1913), and Akhmatova’s elegant and economical love lyrics. Mandelstam was never entirely comfortable with the group, and eventually he set out on his own path, but before he did so, he wrote a manifesto-like document, The Morning of Acmeism, in which he declared: ‘To exist is the artist’s greatest pride. He desires no other paradise than existence […] Love the existence of the thing more than the thing itself and your own existence more than yourself: that is Acmeism’s highest commandment.’ It is a remark that he is reported to have made at public meetings on several occasions, however, that most resonates for us now. Asked to define the essence of Acmeism, Mandelstam’s response summed up everything he believed about this new, post-Symbolist, philosophically engaged aesthetic: Acmeism, he said, was ‘homesickness for a world culture’. That may have pleased at least some of his audience, but it was anathema to the new Bolshevik regime – and most of Acmeism’s principal adherents soon fell to the Bolshevik Terror. (Gumilev, who made no attempt to conceal his contempt for the Bolsheviks, was executed in 1921; Ivanov went into exile, where he waged a long-running dispute with Nabokov; Anna Akhmatova survived, but the regime punished her indirectly by persecuting her son with Gumilev, Lev Nikolayevich, who would spend the best part of eighteen years, off and on, in Stalin’s labour camps.)
…..Mandelstam, meanwhile, quickly attracted the attention of the NKVD and, though it has been claimed that he was protected, briefly, by Stalin himself (who had started out as an aspiring poet), he suffered a series of exiles and imprisonments before finally vanishing in the 1930s into a Soviet labour camp, where he is presumed to have died. A few years before that, from yet another period of exile in Voronezh, he would write a poignant rider to that youthful expression of love for the mere fact of existence, a love that transcends even the attachment to self. ‘My desire’, he said, ‘is not to speak about myself but to track down the age, the noise and the germination of time. My memory is inimical to all that is personal.’2 It was a sentiment that he had expressed in various forms throughout his brutally truncated career, perhaps most elegantly in the 1923 poem ‘The Age’:
To free the age from its confinement,
To instigate a brand new world,
The discordant, tangled days
Must be linked, as with a flute.*
……………………………………………………………………………(*Translation from Marc Adler)
…..Sadly, the new world that Mandelstam had in mind was as different from Stalin’s as it was possible to be. Yet that image of the flute remains and, occurring as it does in lines by a poet who, in 1914, could capture the song of ‘orioles in the woods’ in a string of singing vowel sounds, it seems not overly fanciful to imagine that we can hear that flute still, weaving the tangled days together, transforming the noise of time into a kind of music.
As the grinding wheels of the Industrial Revolution transmogrified into the ever-shifting cityscapes of modernity, the noise of time would be made manifest in any number of ways, of which the First World War and the Bolshevik Revolution were among the most extreme. Anna Akhmatova captured it from the Russian perspective in a poem that marked the outbreak of war with Germany, ‘In Memoriam, July 19, 1914’:
The hushed road burst in colors then, a soaring
Lament rose, ringing silver like a bell.
And so I covered up my face, imploring
God to destroy me before battle fell.
And from my memory the shadows vanished
Of songs and passions – burdens I’d not need.3
Here, Akhmatova seems to be saying, the preoccupations of her youth (poetry, love, music) would no longer be required, as new burdens were imposed on a desperate people. Those earlier burdens had been light, part of the dailiness of life – and they had been of her own choosing. Now, the pressure was to come from outside, and it would not be optional.
…..Meanwhile, the chaos being wrought by war, revolution and the rise of fascism would give rise to similar sensations of helplessness and inevitability elsewhere. All of a sudden, history, once conceivable as an ordered narrative, was transformed, in Walter Benjamin’s vision, into tragic allegory:
The Angel of History must look just so. His face is turned towards the past. Where we see the appearance of a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe, which unceasingly piles rubble on top of rubble and hurls it before his feet. He would like to pause for a moment so fair as to awaken the dead and to piece together what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing from Paradise, it has caught itself up in his wings and is so strong that the Angel can no longer close them. The storm drives him irresistibly into the future, to which his back is turned, while the rubble-heap before him grows sky-high. That which we call progress is this storm.4
…..Elsewhere still, as the cacophony persisted and grew, conservative writers and artists tried to draw together the wisps of an acceptable canon, in hopes of securing some fragments they might shore against their ruin. That fear of cultural collapse was to continue well into the century; here, for example, the English artist-writer Wyndham Lewis recalls his own formulation of a highly Eurocentric canon in his autobiographical sketch Rude Assignment:
Darwin, Voltaire, Newton, Raphael, Dante, Epictetus, Aristotle, Sophocles, Plato, Pythagoras: all shedding their light upon the same wide, well-lit Greco-Roman highway, with the same kind of sane and steady ray – one need only mention these to recognize that it was at least excusable to be concerned about the threat of extinction to that tradition.
For a difficult period, it seemed clear that the response of art to the pandemonium of modernity would be entirely defensive, the proposal of a self-defeating museum culture, with values defined by a polite coterie of patrons and trustees who could not see beyond their own social class and culture (or, for that matter, gender and race).
…..This conservative retreat to higher ground was not universal, however. In fact, many poets relished the challenges of modernity and regarded the winds of historical change as advantageous to the creation of new ways of seeing, breaking the limits that had been imposed by the class and societal boundaries that men like Wyndham Lewis thought so essential to the continuance of a laudable culture. William Carlos Williams, a keen socialist who spoke out against the poverty and degradation he saw as a general practitioner in Rutherford, New Jersey, spoke of a new ‘American idiom’ that would allow poets in the United States to break away from received European forms (as a previous generation of innovative prose writers, such as Melville and Hawthorne, had done in fiction, creating a new kind of novel as they went), while an intrepid band of mostly self-educated working-class writers came to feel sufficiently liberated by social change to write and publish in areas and outlets they had rarely been able to access in the past. As they did so, they were eager to offer the social critiques that had been suppressed for so long; here, for example, Clifford Chatterley’s prejudice against working people is allowed to speak for itself, in D. H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover:
And don’t fall into errors: in your sense of the word, they are not men. They are animals you don’t understand, and never could. Don’t thrust your illusions on other people. The masses were always the same, and will always be the same. Nero’s slaves were extremely little different from our colliers or the Ford motor-car workmen. I mean Nero’s mine slaves and his field slaves. It is the masses: they are the unchangeable.
And here is Langston Hughes, in a poem simply entitled ‘Question’, subjecting race relations in America to a new kind of scrutiny:
When the old junk man Death
Comes to gather up our bodies
And toss them into the sack of oblivion,
I wonder if he will find
The corpse of a white multi-millionaire
Worth more pennies of eternity,
Than the black torso of
A Negro cotton-picker?5
At the same time, all across Europe and the Americas, those who could entertain notions of tradition that were more fluid than those espoused by the old guard started to assimilate the changes and to respond imaginatively (as opposed to merely reacting). Thus, while he could be accused of the benefit of hindsight, the poet Eugenio Montale was only summarising a lifelong commitment to intellectual integrity when he described (and carefully qualified) this response in his Nobel speech of 1975: ‘I have always knocked at the door of that wonderful and terrible enigma which is life’, he said, going on to add: ‘I have been judged to be a pessimist, but what abyss of ignorance and low egoism is not hidden in one who thinks that Man is the god of himself and that his future can only be triumphant?’
But how had time come to be so noisy in the first place? There had always been wars; there had always been poverty and prejudice. What had been lacking, however, was the intense regulation of day-to-day life that the measurement – and, eventually, the industrialisation – of time imposed.
…..The first human communities had calculated time, on one level, by looking up to the sun and the moon and, on another, by observing the changes in the natural world as they happened, sometimes in minute detail. Even later, when time was measured by human-made devices, the images that governed the hours and days were organic: the flow of water in a clepsydra, the movement of a shadow across the face of a sundial, sand trickling steadily through the neck of an hourglass. The first mechanical clocks did not appear in Europe until late in the thirteenth century, and for a long time they were too large to be located anywhere but in churches and other public spaces. The first pocket watches appeared in the sixteenth century; the first mechanical alarm clock was patented by the French inventor Antoine Redier in 1847. By that time, rumblings from the Efficiency Movement were being heard in the halls of industrial power, and by the 1880s the new system of scientific management began introducing such ‘improvements’ in labour practices as Frederick Winslow Taylor’s time-and-motion studies. So it was that humanity’s experience of measured time progressed from water flowing through a clay funnel to the steady ticking of town hall clocks and, finally, to the digitisation of everything – and as that process continued, our analogues for time and space became more and more remote from the physical world. Alongside the noise of time as manifested in war and the industrialisation of the land, we came to inhabit a world of infinite temporal subdivisions, a lifetime of shift-work and comfort breaks, of upload times and nanoseconds. Now, for too many, the daily round is a long monotone dictated by the mobile phone and the online schedule, a condition of voluntary servitude that allows us, by ‘checking in’ continuously, to verify the validity of our existence. It is interesting, then, to think that Montale, who so valued the fabric of daily life, should have summarised this condition so perfectly as far back as 1962, when he remarked, in a mood of darkest irony:
It is not true that man is too mechanised, the fact is that he is not mechanised enough. If, one day, he is absorbed and interpenetrated entirely by the universal mechanical order, ideas of freedom and its lack will lose all meaning, for this new man will no longer feel any need to question himself about his destiny, while words like philosophy and art will be forgotten, as the human being (if we can still call him by that name) will come to attain that functional contentment that is the only happiness of which he is capable.6
…..This conclusion was not reached impulsively, or without a long history of evidence, however; what we know most surely about modernity is that it exponentially hastened an industrialisation process that began with the appearance of the Albion flour mills in Lambeth that William Blake so prophetically decried in ‘Jerusalem’. Soon Marx and Engels were adding to the prophetic choir, declaring (in The Communist Manifesto of 1848): ‘All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned.’ The only valid response to all this noise, however, was not pessimism – an accusation that, in the end, Montale quietly refuted – but that highly singular kind of hope that only flourishes in the absence of optimism. And while this will sound contradictory, it is, nevertheless, significant– for optimism has never been a very sound position from which to work, strategically; it usually operates by blinding us to the real parameters of hope, which only come clear when, as Marianne Moore notes in ‘The Hero’, we have ‘to go slow’:
……………………tired but hopeful –
hope not being hope
until all ground for hope has
vanished; and lenient, looking
upon a fellow creature’s error with the
feelings of a mother – a
woman or a cat.7
The twin heroic attributes of which Moore speaks – hope in extremis and a form of leniency that is not indulgent so much as informed by a radical responsibility towards our fellow creatures – are the two attributes that strike me as most interesting in the poetry I have chosen, from a wide range of possibilities, to explore in this book.
…..These poets, to whom I have had sometimes repeated recourse, are rarely optimistic, but they are, nevertheless, creatures of hope, and this is what makes even the least political of them actively dissident, in the best sense of the word. For, unlike optimism, hope is always an act of courage, even when it is contradicted by every rule of logic. Add to this that optimism is a personal concern, while hope is general – and truly inclusive. Optimism speaks of the individual or her kin; hope speaks for the species as a whole.
…..That said, I have no wish to take issue with Dylan Thomas when he refuses to accept that ‘poets must have positions – other than upright’. I agree that what matters most in a poem is its music and how it refreshes the language, strengthening it against the abuses of the unscrupulous and the careless, and allowing it to retain its ability to enchant, to invoke and to particularise in ways that mere denotation, or the sometimes reductive language employed by salesmen, politicians and Gradgrindly industrialists, all too often curtails. The first task, the first impulse, of the poet is an effort at a very specific kind of speech – and, as T. S. Eliot says, in ‘Little Gidding’: ‘Since our concern was speech […] speech impelled us/ To purify the dialect of the tribe.’ Unlike the usual linguistic resources we draw on to describe and delimit and so navigate our environment, that particular form of speech is able to draw on intuition and invocation and all the other as yet unnamed faculties that scientific orthodoxy deems frivolous or unreliable. As Shelley argues, in A Defence of Poetry:
Poetry, as has been said, differs in this respect from logic, that it is not subject to the control of the active powers of the mind, and that its birth and recurrence have no necessary connection with the consciousness or will. It is presumptuous to determine that these are the necessary conditions of all mental causation, when mental effects are experienced unsusceptible of being referred to them.
Nevertheless, even poets whose most pressing engagement is with the language are still, by that very token, engaged. To purify the dialect, to enrich the language, to resist those who would let speech slide into mere gossip or drivelling, is also political. To imagine otherwise is to be self-deceived.
Hope is of the essence, then, for all poets. We might even say that to make a poem at all is an act of hope. Yet while it is one thing to diagnose the damage done to the land, or to the language, by the noise of time (and by its quieter, more monotonous undertones), it is another to find, if not solutions, then some means by which to re-interpret all this noise and so make of it a kind of music. For many, in fact, this will seem an unreasonable task, requiring not so much mental fight and informed hope as an out- and-out miracle. That may be true – but if this book is to be anything more than a history of twentieth century poetry that even the most casual observer will see as unashamedly partial (in both senses of the word), I feel it must at least try to offer some kind of response to the challenge posed by the American anarchist poet and publisher Lawrence Ferlinghetti when he said that ‘the state of the world calls out for poetry to save it’. This will seem absurd to many. How can poetry, a neglected, even derided art, save anything? According to some observers, it can’t even save itself from creeping Bowdlerisation and gimmickry. But then, as any musician knows, you can play a tune badly and the music remains unharmed. For every arts page feature that proclaims the death of poetry, a new poem emerges, miraculously, into a supposedly indifferent world. Whenever an oddly gleeful-sounding piece claims that ‘Poetry is going extinct, government data show’, pointing out that poetry is now less popular than jazz, ‘singing with others’ and even knitting, I pick out another journal from the news-stand and read the latest offering from Robert Wrigley, or Jorie Graham, or I chance upon a poet I have never read before, someone from Chad or Ecuador who is rediscovering a buried tradition and, in so doing, renewing mine – and I remind myself that, while it would be easy to get upset by all this flummery, we have to remember that it is a calculated distraction, just more noise to add to the general cacophony.
…..With all these distractions playing out in the public sphere, then, this book is intended to examine the different ways in which poets have responded to the noise of time, loud or insinuating, global or local, farcical or tragic. As we have seen, many erected elaborate but essentially rearguard defences against what they perceived as impending catastrophe, and that is understandable. Yet the writers who have most interested me have been those who made it their project to transform the cacophony into some kind of new and more inclusive music – and, in doing so, created new harmonies, new forms and new ways of seeing. And though poetry as a discipline needs no external, and certainly no societal justification (any more than astronomy, dance or singing with others does), I will argue that, as music-making is a way of making sense of noise, of giving noise order, so poetry is a way of ordering experience, of giving a meaningful order to lived time – and that that process of ordering could be summed up in a phrase from the Old Irish, a phrase that is first found in a tale of the Fianna-Finn, who, during a break from hunting, begin to debate what might constitute ‘the finest music in the world’. One man says it is ‘The cuckoo calling from the tree that is highest in the hedge’, while others jump in to suggest ‘the top of music is the ring of a spear on a shield’, ‘the belling of a stag across water’, ‘the song of a lark’ and ‘the laugh of a gleeful girl’. Finally, they turn to their chief, Fionn, and ask him what he would choose, to which he replies: ‘The music of what happens … that is the finest music in the world.’
…..The music of what happens. What better way of talking about
the life of home and circumstance and local region that, so far, is the only alternative to conflict that we have discovered (for, let a person learn to value what is at hand, and he or she is less likely to go out looking to steal from others)? Another way of expressing this idea might be Randall Jarrell’s notion of ‘the dailiness of life’ as a deep source of cool, life-giving water that we cannot necessarily summon at will but receive by grace, when the wheel of this world turns ‘of its own weight’. This dailiness of life comes under a variety of different rubrics by way of different cultures and different poets, but there is a consistency, in their emphasis on the everyday as a meaningful alternative to conflict, that runs across the board. What matters is the music of what happens (the given, the natural, the everyday, the free) as an expression of a quality not only of, but also in, life.
…..When I began work on this book, I wanted to write something like a defence of poetry, in the spirit, if not exactly the letter, of Shelley’s essay of that name, which appeared not quite two hundred years ago, an elegant and justly renowned treatise on the power poetry has to purge ‘from our inward sight the film of familiarity which obscures from us the wonder of our being’. Back in 1821, Shelley composed his Defence as ‘an antidote’ to The Four Ages of Poetry, in which his friend Thomas Love Peacock rather wittily opined that ‘in whatever degree poetry is cultivated, it must necessarily be to the neglect of some branch of useful study: and it is a lamentable spectacle to see minds, capable of better things, running to seed in the specious indolence of these empty aimless mockeries of intellectual exertion.’ As if this were not enough, he went on to assert that
mathematicians, astronomers, chemists, moralists, meta- physicians, historians, politicians, and political economists […] have built into the upper air of intelligence a pyramid, from the summit of which they see the modern Parnassus far beneath them, and […] smile at the little ambition and the cir- cumscribed perceptions with which the drivellers and moun- tebanks upon it are contending for the poetical palm and the critical chair.
Shelley’s response to all this was to claim, famously:
It is impossible to read the compositions of the most celebrated writers of the present day without being startled with the electric life which burns within their words. They measure the circumference and sound the depths of human nature with a comprehensive and all-penetrating spirit, and they are themselves perhaps the most sincerely astonished at its manifestations; for it is less their spirit than the spirit of the age. Poets are the hierophants of an unapprehended inspiration; the mirrors of the gigantic shadows which futurity casts upon the present; the words which express what they understand not; the trumpets which sing to battle, and feel not what they inspire; the influence which is moved not, but moves. Poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world.
…..Is Shelley right? Or are the crafters of verse and metaphors wasting time that could be better employed serving technology? Can poetry save the world, as Ferlinghetti suggests? This will sound quixotic, but I have to say, not only that it can, but that it does. Poetry saves the world every day. It is how we declare our love for things and for the other animals; it is how we remember, in spite of a constant diet of ‘hard’ science, that the ‘invisible’ informs the visible in ways beyond our direct telling; and it is how we nurture hope, cradling it in words and music as a hand cradles a flame against the wind. It is how we define ourselves as something more than a mechanical being for whom ‘the chief good and market of his time/ Be but to sleep and feed’ (and make money). This is what we are; this is what we do. We make culture. It doesn’t matter if it’s poetry or baseball or German Expressionism, but some kind of magic is what we are here to perpetrate. For the most part, we do the other things (the money stuff, the daily round of chores and obligations, the rendering unto Caesar) so that we can have some kind of poetry in our lives and, no matter how powerful or rich or privileged they are, we pity those who either do not have it or who possess it as an acquired thing, a badge of authority or status, a gaudy ornament or a mere entertainment. Poetry is how we give shape to our griefs, the better to see and measure and, in time, heal them, winding them, along with our quotidian pleasures and our reasons for joy, into the fabric of history, both personal and common, folding each individual experience of place and time into the shared music of what happens.
Footnotes from the Introduction
- ‘Silentium’ by Fyodor Tyutchev, in Three Russian Poets: Selections from Pushkin, Lermontov and Tyutchev, Vladimir Nabokov (ed. And trans), (New York: New Directions Books, 1944)
- Osip Mandelstam, Komissarzhevskaya, The Noise of Time (San Francisco: North Point Press, 1986), ed. and trans. Clarence Brown.
- Anna Akhmatova, trans. Stephen Edgar, Poetry Magazine (April 2008)
- Walter Benjamin, trans. Dennis Redmond, On the Concept of History, Global Rights ebook
- Langston Hughes. ‘Question’, The Collected Poems of Langston Hughes (London: Vintage Classics, 1995). Copyright 1994 by the Estate of Langston Hughes. Used by permission of Alfred A. Knopf, an imprint of Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House, LLC
- Collected in Eugenio Montale, Auto da fe: cronache in due tempi (Mioan: Il Saggiatore, 1966 (my translation).
- Marianne Moore, ‘The Hero,’ New Collected Poems of Marianne Moore, ed. Heather Cass White (London: Faber & Faber, 2017)
Excerpted from THE MUSIC OF TIME: Poetry in the Twentieth Century by John Burnside. Copyright © 2020 by John Burnside. Published by Princeton University Press. Reprinted by permission.