||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
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.