The Vagabond Spirit
of Poetry by Edward Clarke.
Review by Frank Armstrong.
Few of us can recite a poem in its entirety. Perhaps this no longer matters as even an infant can now find whatever it was on YouTube. Yet many of the outstanding technological advances humanity has made only seem to increase stress levels, generate inequality and cause environmental degradation.
What is the antidote? Is it possible that close engagement with Romantic poetry can bring us from the brink of meltdown? Edward Clarke, the author of ‘The Vagabond Spirit of Poetry’, believes so.
In recent times many in the West have been drawn to the non-dogmatic spiritual traditions of the East from Buddhism to yoga as they search for tranquillity and deep meaning. But Clarke suggests that we “we have our own traditions and mysteries, our own ways of taking hold of breath” that can be found in our inherited poetry.
He argues that “by reciting poems and remembering them, we find that we have been provided with narrative exercises sufficient to apprehend that we are greater than we know”.
Clarke writes of how he continues to draw inspiration from a passage from Milan Kundera’s novel ‘Slowness’. Kundera enquires in one powerful passage:
‘Why has the pleasure of slowness disappeared? Ah where have they gone, the amblers of yesteryear? Where have they gone, those loafing heroes of folk song, those vagabonds who roam from one mill to another and bed down under the stars? Have they vanished along with footpaths, with grasslands and clearings, with nature? There is a Czech proverb that describes their easy indolence in a metaphor: ‘They are gazing at God’s windows’. A person gazing at God’s windows is not bored; he is happy. In our world, indolence has turned into having nothing to do, which is a completely different thing: a person with nothing to do is frustrated, bored, is constantly searching for the activity he lacks”.
Clarke makes bold claims on behalf of his poetic ideal: “Swearing by capitalism, democracy, reason and science, we are all the while cheerfully ignorant about supernatural powers that hide themselves in great poetry”. Essentially Clarke holds a neo-Platonic, pre-Enlightenment worldview, much like that of most of the poets he adulates including Shakespeare, Milton, Wordsworth and Yeats.
Unlike most critics Clarke is unabashed at the suggestion that great poetry engages with supernatural forces: “I contend that the greatest poetry can make us apprehend that God, the centre of religious celebration, whatever we call that nothingness or darkness, incomprehensible and vast in its own being, is a force within man”.
Clarke’s deep engagement has brought him to an explicit belief in the supernatural. He poses the question: “If a work makes us believe in fairies, even temporarily, do they thus come into existence within that work whenever it is read with the most believing mind, however strange that seems?”
The author is unrepentant in response to an accusation from one critic of “spiritual literalism” in his first book. He says: “I will persist in what many critical contemporaries see as a folly because the older poetry calls for it (such is my piety)”. Surely Clarke cannot be faulted for giving poetry a neo-Platonic reading considering the poets he parses would have approved of it rather than the sociological or deconstructive approach now favoured in academic institutions?
Clarke is wary of a melancholic trend in modern poetry. He argues that the worst kind of poetry is confessional. He identifies Sylvia Plath among a raft of poets who he says “are depressingly limited and dangerously egotistical poets”. Clarke insists that poetry should seek to answer eternal questions and eschew self-indulgence.
William Wordsworth’s poetry encapsulates this tension between a Romantic poetry searching for a ‘great beyond’ and the self-referential poetry he holds in contempt: “Wordsworth worries me because he becomes so consumed by the story of his life, ‘The Prelude’, so obsessed with what comes before, that he neglects to develop his capacity to look after, his ‘capacity of thee’, or that which comes to us from the future”.
Clarke identifies historical episodes when pre-modern ideas encounter industrial civilisation as propitious for poetic invention and the other-worldly forms that inhabit such verse. He claims: “Supernatural forms have a habit of entering a country’s literature when its oral culture is dying out and the population becomes more urban and sceptical. In England, genii have flocked to our literature from the sixteenth century onwards. When Yeats was recording the last vestiges of ancient tradition in Ireland during the nineteenth century, the fairies began to find a new home in his verse”.
Clarke endorses the revolutionary ideas of William Blake who favoured a sacramental poetry, and a universal form of religion: “The Religions of all Nations are derived from each Nation’s different reception of the Poetic Genius, which is everywhere call’d the Spirit of Prophecy… As all men are alike, tho’ infinitely various; so all Religions: and as all similars have one source the True Man is the source, he being the Poetic Genius”.
There is a clear divergence between Clarke’s approach and that of one of the leading Modernist poets and critics of the twentieth century, T. S. Eliot. As a devout Christian Eliot rejected what he regarded as the paganism of Romantic poetry. Clarke claims that: “Eliot’s major problem with this book would have been due to his critical position as a Christian”. But Eliot’s devotion led him ultimately to admit that: “The poetry does not matter”.
Clarke is convinced that: “Poetry does matter because it opens paths to self-knowledge by acknowledging indirectly and formally that which I had better call ‘The bright eternal Self that is everywhere’; ‘that is immortality, that is Spirit, that is all”.
This divergence between Christianity and older form of religiosity is identified by the anthropologist Barbara Ehrenreich in her book Dancing in the Streets: A History of Collective Joy (2006). She argues that “today’s ‘faiths’ are often pallid affairs – only by virtue of the very fact that they are ‘faiths’, dependent on, and requiring, belief as opposed to direct knowledge. The prehistoric ritual dancer, the maenad or practitioner of Vodou, did not believe in her god or gods: she knew them, because, at the height of group ecstasy, they filled her with their presence”.
The poetry that Clarke esteems evinces this older form of spiritual engagement that a rationalist Christianity, especially that which emerged after the Reformation and Counter-Reformation, superseded. Seen in this way, poetry may be one among other forms of expression including dance and music that allows the human spirit to thrive.
Clarke might be faulted for an elitism that creeps into his evaluation of the poetic imagination. Should we restrict ourselves to the worship at the shrine of a few canonical poets? Or are there many more ‘loafing heroes of folk song’ in our midst as Kundera suggests there once were? Also, the poets Clarke esteems so highly are all male. Is the poetic priesthood a male preserve or should the female imagination be given more emphasis?
Furthermore, it seems unsatisfactory to dismiss the scientific field peremptorily. Undoubtedly there are some scientists that bring ‘scientism’ to an unhelpful extreme such as the tendentious Richard Dawkins. But Clarke may share more of a platform than he realises with others especially Iain McGilchrist. McGilchrist actually taught literature before training as a psychiatrist. His book ‘The Master and his Emissary’ (2009) explores what he views as a pathological imbalance of the brain hemispheres apparent in the Western imagination since the Industrial Revolution, with far too great an emphasis on the problem-solving left, at the expense of the creative right.
Clarke’s book is a powerful polemic that is unapologetic in its spiritual conviction. His Romantic reading of Romantic poetry diverges from most academic discourse and merits fresh appraisal. He traces a line of poetic authority, from Shakespeare to Yeats, which to his great regret was in the end largely broken by industrial civilisation.
As the world confronts the many challenges of a rampant globalism and a dislocated and uninterested population perhaps, as Clarke envisions, a revived mystical poetry, along with other art, can indeed help us comprehend the great beyond, as well as help us cope with the here and now. •