Jane Stafford: Not a theory of poetry
Poetry and theorising have always had an uneasy relationship. Perhaps it is because they are at some level antithetical, the packed allusiveness of the poem as opposed to the careful logic of the treatise. Perhaps it is because poetic theory has no natural author. Theory as written by theoreticians cannot equal the subtlety of the poet, is conscious of this, and too often becomes jargon-ridden or braggartly in compensation. While poets tend only to indulge in theory when they have doubts about their poem’s ability to live up to its inspiration. Like T S Eliot or Coleridge writing their own footnotes. Always a bad sign.
There are of course exceptions. Shelley, exceptional to my mind in almost everything, wrote The Defense of poetry – part philosophical argument, part passionate, sweeping hurrah. Shelley had the advantage of being a scientist and philosopher at a time when the ordinary well-educated man (I use this word advisedly) could expect to master all that these disciplines contained. And he was a poet who believed in both the divine inspiration of poetry as well as its burning, revolutionary social function – odd on both counts for an atheistic member of the ruling class.
Poems are of course memorable. Or rather, fragments of poems are. Most of us know at least a fragment of Shelley – ‘Oh west wind thou dum de dum de dum if winter come can spring be far behind?’ Theories of poetry are less easily fixed in the mind. Yet Shelley, in The Defense of Poetry has given us, as unerringly as a Saatchi and Saatchi copywriter, a catchphrase with which to fix like the polestar our position as both readers and writers of the stuff: ‘Poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world.’ Which is both absolutely true and absolutely barmy. It affirms both marginality and centrality. It is both as true and as false today – when the responsibilities of the acknowledged legislators has shrunk to the purely fiscal – as it was in Shelley’s age. Then he imagined the Prime Minister Castlereagh as the masque figure of Murder who makes his way through the streets accompanied by seven bloodhounds – ‘And one by one and two by two he tossed them human hearts to chew, Which from his broad cloak he drew.’ Language is power. Auden may have said ‘Poetry makes nothing happen’, but it ain’t necessarily so.