Our capacity to be overwhelmed by the beautiful
Survives, unlike beauty,
Amid the harshest distractions.
The beautiful game
A wee while ago my wife and I were watching TV as is our wont of an evening and someone made reference to “the beautiful game” – “What makes it ‘beautiful’?” she wanted to know and, you know, that is a very good question. The game in question is football (soccer to all you non-Brits) and the phrase was reputedly coined in 1958 by legendary TV sports commentator Stuart Hall. He is not your typical presenter: his reports are unique, scattered with allusions to the works of Shakespeare and all manner of linguistic tricks, so it’s not beyond the realms of possibility that his claim is true, but it doesn’t now matter who first uttered those words; in the UK at least, football is “the beautiful game.” But that doesn’t answer my wife’s question.
I don’t think football is a beautiful game. I’ve nothing against footie per se but to be fair I was always a rugby man. I don’t think that ‘beautiful’ is the right word to describe any sport, but if it is surely there are more ‘beautiful’ sports than football: women’s gymnastics, for example. The problem with the word ‘beauty’ is that we use it mainly to describe physical attractiveness and so when someone talks about a beautiful frog it doesn’t sound right; frogs are ugly creatures; that’s why the princess in the fairy tale is tasked with kissing one.
Let’s define ‘beauty’:
the quality present in a thing or person that gives intense pleasure or deep satisfaction to the mind, whether arising from sensory manifestations (as shape, colour, sound, etc.), a meaningful design or pattern, or something else (as a personality in which high spiritual qualities are manifest) – Dictionary.com
There’s no doubt that many people get a lot of pleasure from watching a football match. I don’t. I can appreciate the technical excellence on occasion. I remember seeing the Columbian goalie René Higuita’s “scorpion kick” – a clearance where the goalkeeper jumps forward, arches his legs over his head and in doing so, kicks the ball away with his heels – and it is impressive but I’m not sure I’d call it ‘beautiful.’ I bet there were those though on the day who shouted out, “Beautiful save!” and meant it.
Doing a quick search on the phrase “that’s one beautiful” in Google just now I came upon a whole list of things that people have deemed beautiful: TVs, skies, girls, birds, cars, snakes, bellies, dogs, vaginas, brides, kids, roadsters, buttons, nurseries, watches, lights, lakes, writers, chairs, posts, cabbages, fish, poems… When I typed in “that's one beautiful poem” I got 8 entries which had me worried for a minute but “beautiful poem” did way better: 1,760,000 entries which is nothing compared to the 88 million entries for “beautiful girl” but I would worry if there were more people interested in poems than there were in beautiful girls. That doesn’t mean poetry’s not popular because type that in and you’ll get a whopping great 292 million entries which, in turn, pales into insignificance if you type in ‘porn’ – 1.36 billion entries. But I digress.
I have seen dawn and sunset on moors and windy hills
Coming in solemn beauty like slow old tunes of Spain:
I have seen the lady April bringing in the daffodils,
Bringing the springing grass and the soft warm April rain.
I have heard the song of the blossoms and the old chant of the sea,
And seen strange lands from under the arched white sails of ships;
But the loveliest things of beauty God ever has showed to me
Are her voice, and her hair, and eyes, and the dear red curve of her lips.
When I did my interview with Marion McCready a while ago the issue of beautiful poetry cropped up and I decided to have a think about it and write this post. Once upon a time you could say, as did Edgar Allan Poe, that, “poetry is the rhythmical creation of beauty in words,” but I think since form has fallen by the wayside to the greatest extent, I’m not sure we can take such a simplistic position these days.
No poetry after Auschwitz
No poetry after Auschwitz. The phrase is attributed to the philosopher Theodor W. Adorno. Unlike the quote Stuart Hall claims is his, Adorno did say this but, as if often the case with quotes, it’s derived from a longer sentence:
The critique of culture is confronted with the last stage in the dialectic of culture and barbarism: to write a poem after Auschwitz is barbaric, and that corrodes also the knowledge which expresses why it has become impossible to write poetry today.
Now when I first heard the phrase my interpretation of it was that, as poetry was supposed to encapsulate beauty once having witnessed what happened in Auschwitz and similar camps one would be unable to get the images out of one’s head to be able to perceive beauty in anything else, as if after 1945 everything in the world was somehow stained by the Holocaust. It would logically be impossible to write anything resembling poetry as defined prior to World War II:
It comes at the end of a complex essay that argues that it is "barbaric" to write lyric poetry because the culture that produced some of the greatest lyric poets in Europe also produced the concentration camps. The language can't help being fatally saturated with the conditions that made the death camps possible.
Adorno also said, in response to Paul Celan's poem ‘Todesfuge’ (‘Death Fugue’) "No lyric poetry after Auschwitz!" Which can be interpreted to mean that in the face of such human enormity, it is no longer possible to make a lyric beauty that is not, at the same time, denied.
There has rightly been much objection to “the Hollywoodization of the Holocaust” – a phrase that crops up more and more in articles these days but I’m not sure who first used it:
In the United States there is great concern regarding the “Americanization of the Holocaust,” resulting in violation of its sacredness and the increasing of its trivialization. Films based on the Holocaust may fictionalize events to produce drama, telescope time, avoid filling the movie with too many minor characters, and simply to be more entertaining. Feature films are obviously commercial endeavours, with economic interests. As a result, the stories have to be changed to attract moviegoers. Given certain formulaic plot additions that guarantee box office success, the event unfortunately becomes distorted through the process.
They have taken what was ugly and if not exactly beautified it they have at least sanitised it where they have not downright romanticised and trivialised it. Although the four-part, nine-and-a-half-hour long miniseries, Holocaust, broadcast in 1978, probably imparted to its audience more over those four nights than they had learned over all of the preceding thirty years, it is, nevertheless, a programme that comes in for some of the most severe criticism for pulling its punches and misrepresenting the facts. On the day the NBC series aired, Elie Wiesel remarked in a New York Times article entitled ‘Trivializing the Holocaust: Semi-Fact and Semi-Fiction’ in which he wrote:
Untrue, offensive, cheap…an insult to those who perished and to those who survived…It transforms an ontological event into a soap opera…
Okay, none of this is poetry but my thinking is the claim that poetry should be beautiful is a claim that can also be levelled against all art, be it music, painting, dance or television programmes.
Before the war, for example, Graham Sutherland was a landscape artist. In 1934 he first visited Pembrokeshire and was profoundly inspired by its landscape, and the place remained a source for much of the following decade. From 1940, however, Sutherland was employed as an official artist in World War II, as part of the war artist scheme and one his return from the war his approach to his art changed completely. Thorns dominated. Nature became more blatantly symbolic. It wasn’t enough to paint pretty pictures. He had to say something.
Kandinsky’s art changed after World War I, becoming harsher, losing its lovely sense of lyricism— and the energy that accompanied it. The later works— arrangements of sharply-outlined shapes with bold, often jarring colours— take some getting used to, and there were too many of them for the show’s own good. I heard dozens of people saying that the artist “lost me” at this point.
Klimt’s style changed after the death of his brother and father, Whitman’s poetry changed after the Civil War as did Mayakovsky’s after the Russian Revolution. There are even those would argue that even J K Rowling's literary style changed after 9/11.
Who’s for the game?
Of course there had never been an event like the Holocaust before but that doesn’t mean there hadn’t been significant events prior to that. Take the First World War as a good example. The tone of poetry in general changed markedly as the war progressed. The notions of patriotism and honour fade to be replaced by commentaries on the physical reality of modern warfare. All you need to do is compare a poem intended to talk to the men’s sense of national pride, like Jessie Pope’s ‘Who’s for the Game?’
Who’s for the Game?
Who’s for the game, the biggest that’s played,
The red crashing game of a fight?
Who’ll grip and tackle the job unafraid?
And who thinks he’d rather sit tight?
Who’ll toe the line for the signal to ‘Go!’?
Who’ll give his country a hand?
Who wants a turn to himself in the show?
And who wants a seat in the stand?
Who knows it won’t be a picnic – not much –
Yet eagerly shoulders a gun?
Who would much rather come back with a crutch
Than lie low and be out of the fun?
Come along, lads – but you’ll come on all right –
For there’s only one course to pursue,
Your country is up to her neck in a fight,
And she’s looking and calling for you.
with the later poems of Wilfred Owen, something like ‘Dulce et Decorum est’ to see the difference. 'Dulce et Decorum est' was a direct response to her writing and was originally dedicated "To Jessie Pope etc.". (I’m a bit annoyed that I’ve only just discovered her and that she wasn’t pointed out to me at school.) Owen’s poem reads, in part:
Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,
Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs
And towards our distant rest began to trudge.
Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots
But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame; all blind;
Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots
Of disappointed shells that dropped behind.
A later draft amended the dedication to simply "To a certain Poetess" and was later removed completely to turn the poem into a general attack on anyone sympathetic to the war. War is not a game – Pope has another poem, ‘Play the Game’ where she literally does compare war with a game of football, and another in which she compares it to cricket – nor is it a sweet and fitting thing to die for one’s country. I found this quote from the same time period noteworthy:
The public, as a whole, does not demand or appreciate the pure expression of beauty. Its cultured members expect to find in poetry, if anything, repose from material and nervous anxiety; an apt or chiselled phrase strokes the appetites and tickles the imagination. The more general public merely enjoys its platitudes and truisms jerked on to the understanding in line and rhyme; truth put into metre sounds overwhelmingly true.
The question before the group is, however: Is 'Dulce et Decorum est' a beautiful poem? It is a technically proficient poem but it’s not meant to be beautiful. It’s not describing beautiful things. So is there another kind of ‘beauty’ going on here? Basil Bunting said that "poetry is seeking to make not meaning but beauty," whereas Auden was of the opinion that, "[a]rt arises out of our desire for both beauty and truth and our knowledge that they are not identical." The Italian philosopher Fulvio Carmagnola wrote that, “[i]n the traditional idea of form we naturally find beauty as the pacifying meeting between the visible and the true."
Philip Larkin said:
Every poem starts out as either true or beautiful. Then you try to make the true ones seem beautiful and the beautiful ones true.
It’s a quote I’ve stared at for quite some time. In his book on Larkin, Terrence Whalen interprets that statement as follows:
He proposes to value the beautiful in life without denying the 'true' and depressing aspects of existence.
I get that but I find myself more in agreement with Herbert Read:
We always take it for granted that all that is beautiful is art, and that all art is beautiful ... This identification of art with beauty is the root of all the difficulties of judgement."
And, also, Eliot:
["Beauty is truth, truth beauty"] strikes me as a serious blemish on a beautiful poem, and the reason must be either that I fail to understand it, or that it is a statement which is untrue. And I suppose that Keats meant something by it, however remote his truth and his beauty may have been from these words in ordinary use. ... The statement of Keats seems to me meaningless: or perhaps the fact that it is grammatically meaningless conceals another meaning from me. (italics mine)
The problem of beauty
Lisa Samuels opens her article ‘Introduction to Poetry and the Problem of Beauty’ with a simple statement:
Beauty is a problem for poetry because we no longer imagine beauty as a serious way of knowing.
When I read that I couldn’t help think of the well-worn expression: Beauty is only skin deep. We live in a society that, probably more than at any other times, wants things to look good whether that be the meals on our plates, the alarm clock sitting on our bedside table or the clothes we have on our backs. That said I also think that, probably more than at any other times, we are acutely conscious of the superficiality of appearances: Never trust a pretty face. Beauty is no longer synonymous with honesty. Or maybe not so much honesty as meaning. Mozart’s 40th Symphony isn’t dishonest, it’s not pretending to be something it’s not but I can’t honestly say that it means anything to me. I get pleasure from listening to it, from being reminded of the time I first heard it, but I’m not sure it does anything more for me. Or, perhaps, I’m being a little shallow when it comes to my definition of ‘meaning’.
Samuels continues, in an attempt to debunk that notion that beauty is meaningless:
Beauty wedges into the artistic space a structure for continuously imagining what we do not know. This claim reverses Shelley's formulation of poetry as the place where we "imagine that which we know," which presumes that creativity translates knowledge into imagination. Our general lack of response to beauty nowadays – at least in critical literature – results, among other things, from an intuitive sense that beauty defies such translation. We can neither measure the knowledge that Shelley's imagination turns to beauty, nor can we translate that beauty back into its components of knowledge and imagination. That's because beauty is a non-conceptual way of knowing. We have developed, implicitly, a sense of the non-conceptual in artistic beauty; but we have not much developed sympathetic theories that will allow us to discuss beauty in these terms. We still largely imagine beauty in Shelley's terms, and so we think that those parts of beauty which resist the translation back to knowledge are uselessly private and uncommunicative.
Samuels admits that “not … all poems are beautiful.” Even though the words themselves might be considered beautiful and as every poem is constructed from words it is formed out of things that are beautiful in themselves – I willing concede that point – but the intent is another thing entirely. Think of chemicals. The way chemicals combine could be viewed as beautiful but is a bottle of poison beautiful? Even if it’s in a beautiful bottle?
These days we look beyond beauty. Whereas in the past people were content to stop at beauty, we know there is always more. That ‘more’ does not need to be disappointing, it could be a deeper beauty (the beautiful woman could also be beautiful on the inside), but so often these days it is. Clearly we need to redefine ‘beauty’:
Proportion is to beauty what reasoning (ratio) is to truth; if this entails that beauty has little logical weight, it also entails that it has a claim on us as real, and so teaches us about reality by distinct but equally strong means. John Keats was correct to declare, “Beauty is truth, truth beauty,” but not for the reasons he suspected.
Beauty isn't particularly good for anything, except perhaps helping one get laid, and I like the idea of its uselessness. In a society so over-ruled by instrumental reason, to be good for nothing is perhaps simply to be good: in its inutility, beauty manifests what Kant called the kingdom of ends, a world in which people and things exist for their own sakes and not simply as the means to other ends (profit, power).
That said he also admits that “without a notion of beauty,” which he defines as, “an embodiment of the possible beyond the abjections of the mundane, I would not have become a poet, would not, perhaps, have left behind the housing projects and tenements of the Bronx in which I grew up.”
“Where does beauty begin?” asked John Cage, “And where does it end? Where beauty ends, that is where the artist begins.” Beauty is not a simple thing these days. Hasn’t been for years. Larkin captures it well in this poem:
In frames as large as rooms that face all ways
And block the ends of streets with giant loaves,
Screen graves with custard, cover slums with praise
Of motor-oil and cuts of salmon, shine
Perpetually these sharply-pictured groves
Of how life should be. High above the gutter
A silver knife sinks into golden butter,
A glass of milk stands in a meadow, and
Well-balanced families, in fine
Midsummer weather, owe their smiles, their cars,
Even their youth, to that small cube each hand
Stretches towards. These, and the deep armchairs
Aligned to cups at bedtime, radiant bars
(Gas or electric), quarter-profile cats
By slippers on warm mats,
Reflect none of the rained-on streets and squares
They dominate outdoors. Rather, they rise
Serenely to proclaim pure crust, pure foam,
Pure coldness to our live imperfect eyes
That stare beyond this world, where nothing's made
As new or washed quite clean, seeking the home
All such inhabit. There, dark raftered pubs
Are filled with white-clothed ones from tennis-clubs,
And the boy puking his heart out in the Gents
Just missed them, as the pensioner paid
A halfpenny more for Granny Graveclothes' Tea
To taste old age, and dying smokers sense
Walking towards them through some dappled park
As if on water that unfocused she
No match lit up, nor drag ever brought near,
Who now stands newly clear,
Smiling, and recognising, and going dark.
Beauty is something that exists in billboards. Beauty is something we expect to be sold. It’s a commodity and we all know what happens when we get home and all the shiny wrapping comes off. Larkin here contrasts the artificial (airbrushed, at least these days) beauty of advertisers with the real word. I wonder if this poem started out as “true or beautiful.” Of course this poem has – what shall we call it? – a certain beauty. It talks about ugly things but not in an ugly way. The question is: Is ‘ugly poem’ an oxymoron?
In part two: ‘Ugly poetry’, ‘Close to the grave’, ‘Protesting ugliness’, ‘Hidden beauties’ and ‘Real chocolate’
 Shahab Elliot Hakakzadeh, 'Hollywoodization of the Holocaust: The Method of Representing the Holocaust in American Films', Quaestio, Volume II, June 2004, p.8
 Quoted in – Shahab Elliot Hakakzadeh, 'Hollywoodization of the Holocaust: The Method of Representing the Holocaust in American Films', Quaestio, Volume II, June 2004, p.12
 Andrew Mangravite, ‘Kandinsky’ at the Guggenheim in N.Y. (1st review)', Broad Street Review, 27 October 2009
 Basil Bunting, Stand Volume 8.2, p.28
 W.H. Auden, The Dyer's Hand and Other Essays, p.336
 Fulvio Carmagnola, Parentesi perdute, p.44
 Herbert Read, The Meaning of Art
 T.S. Eliot, Dante
 James Matthew Wilson, ‘The End of Beauty — And We’re Not Talking Teleologically Here!’, Front Porch Republic, March 2010
 John Cage, Silence