I read Michael Hamburger’s The Truth of Poetry over my summer holidays and it was a quite absorbing read. I’d recommend it to anyone interested in modern poetry, although it might be tough going for those new to poetry. For anyone else, I’d say it’s a must-read.
The book starts with Baudelaire and examines the development of modern poetry. There is a rough chronology, but Hamburger often interrupts the sequence – William Carlos Williams, Brecht, and Auden all feature in the chapter centring on Mallarmé, for example. And it’s more than just a history. Hamburger attempts to reveal the roots of issues and tensions that have enveloped poetry in the last century and shows how these have developed from generation to generation.
For instance, the idea that poetry embodies some kind of “truth” has not been denied by poets, even those “who have gone further than Baudelaire in the search for a syntax liberated from prose usage, for an imagery not subservient to argument, or for a diction determined more by acoustic values than by semantic exigencies. It is an error to assert that poetry since Baudelaire’s time has developed in only one of those directions.” And these three directions sum up many of the major tensions in modern poetry, tensions that still exist today.
What’s so good about this book? Firstly, there is the largely jargon-free fluidity of Hamburger’s prose, which made this an engaging read from start to finish.
Secondly, there’s the scope and internationalism of Hamburger’s research. It took him ten years to prepare and write the book – unsurprising when you consider he covers Baudelaire, Laforgue, Rimbaud, Yeats, Rilke, Pound, Eliot, Vallejo, Stevens, Williams, Lorca, Celan, Montale, Pessoa, Neruda, and a whole host of others. His knowledge is staggering.
Thirdly, there is Hamburger’s openness. On the perennial debates over “accessible” or “obscure” poetry, Hamburger considers Robert Frost’s statement that “the initial delight [on reading a poem] is the surprise of remembering something I didn’t know I knew.” But other poets recognised that even “the things which people don’t know about themselves, or about anything else, can be recognised when they appear in a poem.”
While some poets wrote rigidly from camps and movements, which lent themselves either to accessibility or obscurity, “the best poets of the inter-war period achieved a balance between personal and public utterance, between exploration and reference, between the poem’s freedom merely to ‘be’ and the inescapable tendency of words to convey or imply meaning.”
He later goes on to talk about the anti-poets, who rejected trope, metaphor and other aspects of “poetic” technique, as a reaction to what they saw as modernist excess, and created the plain, prosaic style we know so well today. Hamburger sees further than the camps, and recognises that the best poets don’t entrench themselves in positions that reject the best ideas of their “opponents.” Even if they do so in positions they take publicly, they use the resulting tensions not to exclude opposing ideas, but to use them and make them new. He writes – “Every modern poet worth reading contains an anti-poet, just as every modern anti-poet worth reading contains a Romantic-Symbolist poet. The wider and the more strongly charged the field of tension between them, the greater a poet’s potentialities of achievement and progression.”
And that leads me to the fourth thing – the recognition of the various tensions as they exist in one’s own work. When you know what you’re doing and can identify its roots and progression in the history of poetry, it may be easier to decide which directions you want to go down with your own writing.
Sadly, Michael Hamburger died on 7 June 2007, aged 83.