Friday, 21 October 2016
On the Shoulders of Giants
There was a debate in the eighteenth century about the extent to which Shakespeare was an "original genius" and the degree to which he relied on - or at least read - his predecessors. "Shakespeare wanted [lacked] art", said his grumpy contemporary Ben Jonson. "Warbling his native wood-notes wild", trilled John Milton in the next generation, implicitly contrasting his own deep classical learning with Shakespeare's native spontaneity. The reality, of course, was that Shakespeare snatched up more than just trifles from contemporaries and predecessors such as Christopher Marlowe and Thomas Kyd in the theatre, and that, as a result of his grammar school education, he had a pretty good acquaintance with the classics. Throughout his career he alluded to, quoted and imitated Ovid, his favourite Roman poet.
I don't think anyone can be a poet without reading poetry first. How can you write a sonnet without knowing what a sonnet is? How can you make decisions about stanza length without developing some sense of the options available? How distinguish your own better performances from your obvious failures without some yardsticks among the poetry you love (and the versifying you hate)?
One of the threads running through The Shepherd's Hut is a personal dialogue with the poets I admire. This takes three principal forms. Allusion: being in proximity to a very noisy crow whilst writing a biography of Ted Hughes unavoidably led to a poem in which the crow is christened Ted. It has a grim ending that is absolutely true. Quotation: a poem based on a memory of a moonlit walk around the lake at Grasmere inevitably made the Romantic in me reach for - i.e. quote or should that be steal? - some images from the journals of Dorothy Wordsworth. Translation: not literal rendering into English of the kind that the great poet-translator John Dryden called "metaphrase", but what he called "paraphrase": poems inspired by those in other languages, following their essential shape, their line of argument and image, but with frequent liberties and innovations. A making present of the past, in order to honour the power of the poetry of the past to continue speaking in the present. In an early draft of the collection, these were all gathered in a section called "Variations". In the final version, they are more scattered, because I came to realize that there is a continuity, not a sharp divide, between the "translated" works, the allusive ones, and the poems that have no explicit ancestors but that, like all poems, must have a literary ancestry somewhere below the surface. A sequence of poems explicitly about poets of the past is called "Homages" - but in a way the whole collection is a homage to a lifetime's reading of poetry.
In my next blog, I'll say something about the poets I have chosen to "translate".