The Return to the Great Tradition
Critic Michael Davis welcomes a classic collection
The Walled Garden by Andrew Thornton-Norris, the Leckhampton Press, 2011
In the short manifesto introducing his new collection of poems, The Walled Garden, Andrew Thornton-Norris writes, “The cancer [of abstraction] has grown back as cynicism and contempt for the general reader and what connected it with them. Poetry has become an hermetic gnosticism, a secret knowledge, no longer a universal truth.” So I’m sure the poet will understand—as many modern readers of poetry might not—that I mean only praise by saying The Walled Garden isn’t complicated stuff.
Our world has been somewhat simplified. Our economy is characterised by menial labour at the bottom end, and the manipulation and accumulation of capital at the upper. During our daily commute, we distract ourselves with hypersexual, ultra-violent, or patently insipid lyrics set to simple, repetitive tunes. In our leisure time, we occupy ourselves with television, drinking, shopping, gambling, and sex.
Those who find this existence tedious and desire to engage what Mill called their “higher nature” often find themselves encountering so much Sudoku in the arts: atonal music, postmodern literature and abstract art manage to engage nothing but our most cerebral faculties. We puzzle over them like encrypted letters, assuming (by and large correctly) that the media of artworks aren’t of any value in and of themselves—that they must have a “message.” We assume (again, by and large correctly) that this “message” is either political or idiosyncratic on the part of the author, i.e. a form of self-expression.
I’ll be the first to say that abstract forms of art have a value, if not to civilization, then to individuals. I’ve always been fond of the likes of Ashbery and Kandinsky. But that they’re sufficient as creative media is surely false. We’ve not yet quenched our thirst for beauty, order, divinity, affection, or any of the ancient muses that art once gave voice to.
So it needn’t be an all-or-nothing affair. Unfortunately, however, the abstractionists have decided that they’ll treat it as such. In the July-August 2015 issue of Quadrant magazine, the eminent art critic Giles Auty lamented Braque’s accusation “betraying modernism” levied against Picasso. Braque is a truly brilliant painter; why did he feel the need to censor Picasso? Modern, as Auty points out, has become an artistic virtue rather than a designation in time. What’s more, it’s become the chief artistic virtue, without which the artwork is rendered functionally valueless; any other virtues it may possess are simply ignored.
This is true of poetry as well as painting, and it’s an absurdity that the public at large is well aware of. No popular film set at a university is complete without a slam poetry reading: a single spotlight falling on a grungy teenager reciting meaningless lines, accompanied by a bongo drum. Though perhaps this image is a bit dated. On actual university campuses, we’re now more likely to find hipsters in well-lit bars shouting about capitalist oppression, or misogyny, or their genitals.
We can hardly say that this sort of poetry exhausts the universal poetic need or that those who enjoy poetry ought to be satisfied with the anarchic, “iconoclastic” stuff that dominates publishing and readings. There’s no denying that poetry is also a spiritual (or intellectual) and aesthetic pleasure, and that by pooh-poohing the poetry that provides that sublime pleasure the poetry industry has alienated itself from a general readership. A number of first- and second-rate poetry journals refuse to even consider poems written in strict rhyme and meter (called formalist), yet they can’t deny the fact that formalist poets like Shakespeare, Tennyson, Frost, and Auden dominate the poetry market.
There’s a terrible irony in realizing that a reincarnated Shakespeare, writing in modern parlance but committed to the same forms and themes as his Elizabethan incarnation, would be laughed at by so many preeminent poetry journals and critics. Yet I suspect, if he could breech the industry’s censors and reach a wider audience, he would be the most widely read living poet in the English-speaking world. “Laymen” possess none of the blinding postmodernist and abstractionist prejudices that dictate contemporary artistic fashion.
The highest praise I can offer Mr. Thornton-Norris, then, is that his poetry is a pleasure. It isn’t the Sudoku stuff that’s currently in vogue. It doesn’t mock the public for clinging to old-fashioned joys like grace, hope, and gratitude. It doesn’t revel in its own obscurantism.
“But this doesn’t mean it’s any good,” some sceptic must be saying. “It could be just as vapid as the fashionable stuff: a subfusc pastiche of Milton, for example.” Granted- there’s plenty of that going around too; and while these poets certainly deserve credit for their courageous efforts to reclaim the old forms and the old spirit of poetry, there’s no such thing as an A for effort.
I do, however, think any reader of Mr. Thornton-Norris who can agree with all that was said above will find that his work isn’t only traditional, but also modern in the best sense of the word.
There’s no use pretending that Elizabethan parlance and syntax is still viable, except perhaps in satirical poetry. Indeed, if you imagine a modern poet trying to emulate the Elizabethans, the serious and the satirical would be indistinguishable. (‘And, lo! I rock her slowly, she: my blust’ry-hearted queen;/ We two doth sway, and yet are still, like as washing machines.’) Mr. Thornton-Norris is indeed a master of modern English; his use of the vernacular is sophisticated, yet easy and graceful. We believe, to borrow again from Mr. Auty, that tradition contains Mr. Thornton-Norris, but doesn’t restrict him.
This is something of a pet obsession of mine as a (admittedly amateurish) reader and writer of poetry. There’s a wealth of talented poets who do attempt to speak the vernacular—I think of Simon Armitage and Billy Collins—yet their voice never seems to break, as it were. They strike one as native “high” English-speakers struggling to speak “low” English, or vice-versa. Armitage always seems to be talking down to us, and Collins up.
Two lines from Mr. Thornton-Norris’s work that particularly struck me are from “The Discernment of Spirits,”
The devil himself or one of them sat down
Beside me on the underground last night
He isn’t a professed grammatical heretic like Cummings and Cumming’s far less adept followers, but when Mr. Thornton-Norris violates convention, it’s to the greatest effect. The possible plethora of devils comes upon us as something of an afterthought, a half-thought. Whichever it is, we immediately come away with a sense of its unknowability, and yet also its immediate evidence: the demonic, whether its agents are one or many, is clearly all about us.
There’s a virtuously modern aspect to Mr. Thornton-Norris’s conventional love poem, “The Woman and the Well,” which ends
It is me, you have made me who I am,
Your love has made me who I am, in all
My vulnerability, you cared for me
And I can do nothing but respond in kind.
These lines, though expressing a sentiment universal in poetry, could only have been written by a 21st century poet. Particularly the last line, “And I can do nothing but respond in kind”: we may be tempted to call this prosaic, though lovely; but it seems to me this is an eminent expression of the colloquial poetic. We’re so un-used to modern parlance appearing unobtrusively in poetry—or, rather, so used to being jarred by the appearance of such a line of common English. Yet this is precisely what Yeats meant in “Adam’s Curse”
A line will take us hours maybe;
Yet if it does not seem a moment’s thought,
Our stitching and unstitching has been naught.
True poetry, like Mr. Thornton-Norris’s, is neither a separate dialect from the vernacular, nor is it rendering the vernacular in the context of poetry so as to “challenge our assumptions about poetry” or any of that Post Modernist nonsense. If we’re to be serious, the definition of poetry lies in the act of writing. There are effectively no parameters but its practice. And the moment we abuse the practice of poetry by “challenging our assumptions of it,” we break the mould, and are left only with a conspicuous non-poem. Mr. Thornton-Norris is one of few modern poets who see the poetic practice as a partner in creation, rather than a harsh master or a curious plaything. He does right by the poetic form, working with it rather than for or against it, and the poetic form rewards him in kind.
The Walled Garden – for details of availability, go to www.thornton-norris.com
Michael Davis is the poetry editor of QR