Monday, 26 December 2011


Never too soon, I suppose, to start thinking about New Year’s resolutions. Not that I ever make any since they seem doomed to be abandoned.

How about this, I'm nevertheless wondering: I've never read the complete works of any major poet, so perhaps I should.

Ted Hughes not only read the complete poems of Yeats-- as a schoolboy -- but, he reckons (Letters), he knew them by heart.

One reason the resolution would be hard to carry through is that I can’t speed-read poetry. It has to be taken at reading-aloud speed.

Enacting the resolution would mean, for once, finishing what I've started, something I can do if for instance writing an article but not if exploring some area of knowledge for myself over a long period. But I'm not sure enacting it would even be wise; I tend to think that when I leave a thing half done to take up something else the impulse is often a sound one, and the sense that the other thing is exactly what I need right now is based on some real self-knowledge; my swerves off-piste and sudden redirections of attention are often fruitful.

But at a cost. I often regret that the rewarding book that I stopped reading part-way through in favour of some new pursuit, and that I know would have benefited me, has since been buried lower and lower in the pile, further and further from being picked up again. Some day I will go back, I resolve. And sometimes I do, perhaps years later.

Reading Donald Davie, Purity of Diction in English Verse (finally -- published in 1952!), makes me now, off-piste, want to read late 18th century verse -- an unusual impulse in our day.

So first when Phoebus met the Cyprian queen,
And favour’d Rhodes beheld their passion crown’d,
Unusual flowers enrich’d the painted green,
And swift spontaneous roses blush’d around.

Websites and blurbs describe Davie as an ultra-conservative critic but his comments on extracts like this are brilliant and make me see them afresh. If this is ultra-conservatisim, let’s have more of it. (I won’t copy it out: it’s at Penguin, 1992, p.31; I think perhaps online as well.) If one wants examples of good ‘close reading’, go to Empson, Leavis and Davie.

That bit is from a poem by Shenstone, who I've never heard of. Nor have I heard of several of the other poets Davie quotes. I imagine Shenstone wrote whole volumes of verse, or one fat volume at least, and that Davie read the lot and that most was boring. With what attentiveness he must have been reading, though, for a passage like this to stand out as, in his words, subtle, remarkable and beautiful! My other problem with reading poetry is that after a few pages I can’t maintain that sort of freshness of response.

Perhaps a small dose every day would be sustainable and I’d get through, say Yeats or Milton, in a few months. It’s not going to happen, though.

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