Peter Russell, Something About Poetry: Selected Lectures and Essays, edited by Glyn Pursglove (University of Salzburg L7.95). Available from Drake International Services, Market House, Market Place, Deddington, Oxford, OX15 OSF.
This book vindicates Hugh MacDiarmid's claim made almost thirty years ago that Peter Russell's work 'relies upon a catholic appreciation of the mainstream of the world's poetry', a thorough knowledge of 'the past achievements, present position and potentialities of poetry'. There are exciting pieces here on Pound, Eliot and Wallace Stevens, an illuminating essay on Dante, the finest long discussion I have seen on Gavin Douglas's Eneados, sensitive and acute observations on the poetry of Kathleen Raine, Roy Cambell and Vernon Watkins, and original insights into the origins and essential nature of poetry itself, rooted he convinces us in the long tradition of the Muses. A few quotations will give the gist of the book.
The sort of rootless post-modernism which considers nothing
earlier than Marx, Nietzsche and Freud, cannot command any
attention simply because it wilfully ignores the greater part of
our spiritual heritage...
Once a literate community loses the sense of mystery and
vision beyond the normal conditions of our earthly life and
also neglects the essential craft of poetry, the poetic art is
bound to decline into an unimportant sector of the entertainment
Vidal, Rushdie, Capote, present not a trace of religious
instinct. Pound is essentially a religious writer, but a man
without adherence to a particular religion or set of beliefs. You
might say that while he is neither a Christian, Mahommedan
or Jew, nor a Hindu, Taoist or Buddhist, he is also.. all these
things at once...
No modern poet has written so forcefully as Pound, of the
objective sensorial phenomena, mountains and plains, ocean,
rivers, lakes, trees, flowers, men and women, cats, birds,
butterflies, lizards and ants. Vidal, Rushdie, Capote, seem
unaware of nature around them, just as they are without any
awareness of the divine, or mythology, or even folk-tale and its
traditions. An impoverished world indeed!
Russell's views are often controversial then, but they are founded on deep reading and profound respect for his admired authors. It is this quality of reverence that is often missing in criticism today, as well as the sharp bite of resistance. However, he argues at one point, it is a sign of the corruption of poetic vision that the critical writing on the work of John Ashbery, for example, offers more interesting reading at times than the poetry itself? He writes convincingly of Pound's work, that 'the theme of elemental light, sporadic but frequent and impressive in the early poems, becomes dazzlingly powerful, even overwhelming, in the later Paradisal Cantos'. Few critics have written so well on this aspect of Pound's achievement, on his ability (one that every major poet should have) 'to observe ever more closely', the skill of focusing on the natural world to give a reader a new perspective.
The poem, if it has succeeded, is not a formulation of a
coherent philosophy, correct doctrines, ideology or dogma, but
rather a moment of heightened awareness, apprehended in a
single nexus of the plurality of inner principles and outer forces
to which respectively we are at once privileged and fortunate
heirs and miserable and impotent victims...
The writing of poetry is perhaps an attempt to communicate
with the whole world... Only when it becomes self-analytical
and introverted, ego-centred and narcissistic, does it
become morbid and feeble.
This is a summation of what Russell means by artistic vision: the deeply rooted interdependence of natural observation, emotional commitment, intellectual and spiritual passion, resulting in heightened apprehension of the world. Like William Blake, Russell believes that 'Man may suppose that the States he has passed through exist no more. Everything is eternal'. It is just this sort of 'eternity' he glimpses in all the great poets' intellects — 'Men's inner selves stand visibly before the eyes of Dante's intellect... guided by a personification of classic learning, mysticism, theology, and the beneficent power' he quotes Pound as writing of the Commedia in Spirit of Romance. That very religious impulse would appear to be fading, Russell argues, the poetry of our lives turning to utilitarianism, functionalism and technocracy (although he leaves our ergonarchy, the preferred policy of the managerial class today, the much more individious practice of working people to death or, at the very least, to the point of near nervous collapse or beyond). For this reason he warns us to turn back to the well-spring and fountain-head of tradition, to a wider reality beyond the contemporary, back to the very source of the divine mystery and inspiration itself — poiesis, a craft concerned with making real and substantial the mysteries of life and death.
'Appearances are a glimpse of the obscure unmanifest' he quotes the Greek philosopher, Anaxagoras, as saying, and also approvingly (from the Hermetic tract, Krater) that 'the work that mind does... throws open the way and knowledge of things divine, and enables us to apprehend God'.
It is annoying in such a diverse book not to have an index: it would help the reader to make connections of their own across the wide span of the millennia. The ways in which Douglas adapted Virgil, for example, could be tied up with Pound's strategies in the Cantos. Such scholary apparatus does not seem to suit poets' minds and leaves us, I suppose, to make journeys of our own. It is the sense of Russell's commitment to and enthusiasm for poetry which shines out from these pages and which makes the book essential reading for all interested in the fate of poetry. It is a complex and involved book which will wake you up!