The relationship of a writer to the spirit of the age, said Virginia Woolf (in Orlando), is always an uneasy one. Not so for Blake Morrison, who once told me in a poetry workshop that I needed to work out my strategy towards the reader.

 

I’ve been looking at As If, Morrison’s documentary prose account of the murder of James Bulger by Robert Thompson and Jon Venables, ten year old Merseyside boys, and their trial. (This, from the author of ‘The Ballad of the Yorkshire Ripper.’) It was impossible not to feel how much better VS Naipaul does this sort of thing. Morrison, the son of two GPs, seemed out of his depth with the two murderers’ families: both mothers were single and had attempted suicide; Jon’s older and younger siblings had unspecified but severe special educational needs; Robert’s seven brothers spent their days, as their father had spent his, convulsed in violence. However Morrison simply does not have a very interesting mind. He elaborates. As a metropolitan literary journalist, he is paid by some American magazine to go to the north west for a month and cover the trial. He dines at restaurants and tells us about the folk at the other tables. He produces a vast, irrelevant opening chapter about the Children’s Crusades. But his method of reporting is to process every potential comment until only what is wholly obvious remains. This has the effect of making not only the author seem obvious, but the murder, the trial, the entire book and everyone in it.

 

Rather different is the 1964 book, Flowers For Hitler, which the Canadian poet, Leonard Cohen, said at the time moved him from being a boy of golden promise to “the dung-heap of the front line writer”. I just had my rare paperback first edition of this, along with Cocteau’s Opium (1957), rebound and have therefore, as befits old friends thus honoured, been renewing my acquaintance. The influence of Auden struck me for the first time (for instance in ‘On Hearing A Name Long Unspoken’). Now Auden is a remarkably cerebral poet, wrapped – that is – in the Cerebral Corset. Young Cohen experiments boldly and this is always engaging, always elicits admiration, but where the form is most experimental (‘Indictment Of The Blue Hole’) the content is most fugitive. Cohen seems to operate best closest to his ‘core’ poem: the quirky existential lyric, often about love (‘I Had It For A Moment’). Or the other affections – friendship, reverence (two of the best poems are for Canadian poets Irving Layton and EJ Pratt). Another impressive success is a sonnet, ‘For Anyone Dressed in Marble.’

 

So Cohen, scratching around on the dung-heap, is a self-conscious formalist, aware of territory, who writes out of emotional excitement. But what of his relationship to the age?

 

To the influence of Auden one must add that of Allen Ginsberg. Now Ginsberg, who inspires affection, may be said to have worked out his strategy towards the audience, as had Ray Charles, the model for Cohen’s singing. At his most confessional – an isolated middle-aged New York Jewish homosexual tinkling his Tibetan finger-cymbals – Ginsberg unerringly summons the tribe. The result is essentially journalism, but this is experienced at the level of language. The muse of language is kept pretty much bound and powerless – in Auden, in Ginsberg, in Cohen – in favour of bony metaphysics. This is not to deny these poets’ many virtues: Auden is often luckiest in his poems of love, Cohen’s subtext (‘the words you stretched / to call me out of dust’) can be rich, and Ginsberg, though he systematically debases language in the journalistic manner, forges a magnificent rhetorical instrument. Nor is it to set up a rule-based system: good poems have an instinctive, ambiguous linguistic body; bad poems shriek from the crow’s-nest of wit. This may not always be a relevant continuum and both extremes have validity. But (more generally) art must have a relationship with what is called the Unconscious and must resist the spirit of the age if it is to root deep into life and survive temporary, small concerns.

 

Last night David N. showed me his first, pamphlet edition of Auden’s ‘Spain’, a poem the author much revised and later suppressed. Proceeds of the pamphlet were to go to support the war effort in Spain. We agreed that we much preferred the original version (“…the way the poem works”, said David). Less interesting are the politics of the 1930s.

 

Virginia Woolf made her remark about the relationship of a writer to the spirit of the age in Orlando. She was visited regularly in the 1920s by Hugh Walpole, a prodigiously successful popular novelist who later received a knighthood.[1] This gave Woolf the opportunity to maintain the balancing act, which she did with protracted skill, of her own relationship to the spirit of the age. Towards Walpole she remained cordial but not encouraging. Walpole, on his side, frankly admired and envied Woolf her achievement as a literary artist. Woolf made no money and enjoyed little success beyond her succès d’estime, while Walpole was rewarded, fêted and eventually knighted. Nevertheless the longer perspective was clearly present in their encounters. Today, Walpole is no longer read or indeed remembered, while Woolf, in addition to being a staple of the academies, school syllabi and devotional societies, is both read and loved.


[1] He died in 1941, the same year as she did.

 

 

 

 

 

13th February 2000; revised 31st May 2008.

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