No object is so beautiful that, under certain conditions, it will not look ugly – Oscar Wilde
“To write a good poem about an ugly thing, as Seidel does often, is not to write an ugly poem.” That’s Molly Young writing in an article about the poet Frederick Seidel. I’d never heard of Seidel, so I did some research. What I found was what Larkin might have been had he been born a few years later; Seidel was born fourteen years after Larkin. Take the opening stanza to ‘Evening Man’:
The man in bed with me this morning is myself, is me
The sort of same-sex marriage New York State allows.
Both men believe in infidelity.
Both wish they could annul their marriage vows.
Seriously, Larkin could have written that if he’d changed ‘New York’ to ‘Hull’; for all his faults, failings and foibles he doesn’t seem to have been homophobic. He could also have written:
I for years was unable to decide,
Tits or ass? And don’t forget legs.
Which one do you think is the best?
My choice would vary. Who would you choose?
It was all too good to be true. Then came you!
(from ‘A Song for Cole Porter’)
but I suspect he might have done a bit better job of it. Or maybe not. For all Larkin’s poetry frequently dealt with the less than beautiful aspects of life, he was always at least technically proficient, but so is Seidel and in a rather old-fashioned way, too. (Have a look, for example, at ‘Climbing Everest’ – which you can hear him read here – or ‘Poem by the Bridge at Ten-shin’.) Both Seidel and Larkin are confessional poets – with a small c – although neither is under any illusions about what they see when they look in the mirror.
Seidel has been called “the poet the twentieth century deserved” – not sure if that’s an insult or a compliment – and there is no doubt that his poetry polarises opinion. “From one major anthology of poetry, the Oxford, he was excluded for 47 years, and he still won’t be found in another, the Norton.” He “has been called by the critic Adam Kirsch perhaps ‘the best American poet writing today.’ Meanwhile, from other corners of that world, Seidel has earned different and more complicated epithets: ‘sinister,’ ‘disturbing,’ ‘savage,’ ‘the most frightening American poet ever’ and even ‘the Darth Vader of contemporary poetry.’” The thing is, I wouldn’t call his poetry ugly. I wouldn’t call it beautiful either.
Close to the grave
The closer you get to the coffin
the more you abandon fiorture,
the beautiful hollow words.
(from Never and Nothing)
So writes the Greek poet, Elias Petropoulos. His poetry – or “non-poetry” or “anti-poetry” – stemmed from the fact that he, and everyone he loved, was aging and therefore dying. “I’ll have to write a Manifesto of Ugly Poetry,” he writes in In Berlin and then later:
Throw away the Poetry of Ideas and Symbols and of Colours
Prefer Everyday Images
and insignificant Snapshots, one after the other;
that is, Poor Poetry.
(from In Berlin)
Petropoulos is not the first poet for whom, with age, idealism veers to melancholy; and melancholy to disgust. Yet he is one of the very rare poets who, affected by extreme feelings, is willing to relinquish all ties to formal literary elegance. And although he has always taken great risks with his readers, never were the risks as great as in his late poems. For he shows that the very form of a poetry inspired by melancholy and disgust must necessarily be melancholic, even disgusting.
In 2003 he died of cancer in Paris at the age of 75. According to his will, his body was cremated and his ashes were thrown in a sewer by his life-long partner. Nothing if not reminiscent of the intended ending Beckett’s Murphy intended for his mortal remains.
But is creating ugly art the correct response to an ugly world?
This is a bad philosophy because it ignores social duty. If our age has in it ugly features – and who will deny it? – the duty of the artist should be, not to add to the ugliness, but – for him specially among all men – to strive to redeem it by works of beauty.
I think that Herbert Samuel is being idealistic there. Part of art’s duty is to bring to our attention what is going on in the world in a way that news reports simply cannot. What has more power, the Wikipedia entry for the bombing of Guernica or prints of Picasso’s painting commemorating the massacre? And the same goes for the Wikipedia entry for World War I. I read ‘Dulce et Decorum est’ when I was twelve, if memory serves me right, but we didn’t study the First World War in History until I was fifteen and those who opted for Geography as an O-Level subject wouldn’t have covered it at all – I don’t recall it being possible to take both subjects that year. But if you wanted to get across to someone how horrible war was in twenty-eight memorable lines I can’t think of a much better way. It’s not a pretty way but it is an effective one. Here’s a poem I wrote probably not that long after being introduced to Owen’s poetry:
And in his sanguinary grave
the soldier lies
slumped like a pile of old rags,
shapeless, his eyes
staring blankly – as if he died
before he knew
what’d happened. He’d been in
many wars. Who
had seen more of death than he
had but even
he wasn’t ready when it came. Most
of his men
had died and he had seen them
die. Just that
night his corporal had been
shot like a rat.
They lived like rats, it was only
fair that they
should die like rats, but if you’d seen
him in the grey
mud, his body torn to pieces,
perhaps you would’ve
had compassion for him but if it’d
been you he could’ve
quite easily have shot you a
few times just in
case you weren’t quite dead
and he’d grin
while he did it. You don’t know
the meaning of sin…
Okay it’s terribly derivative but you get my point. I’ve not set out to use clever metaphors opting for two crude similes – ‘like a pile of old rags’ and ‘like a rat’ – instead. That was poem #364. Poem #362 is called ‘The Virgin Soldiers’ – I’d not seen the film or read the book, I just thought it was a cool title. It’s not as good a poem as ‘The Rats’ but it’s worth mentioning because at the end of it I add a quote from ‘Dulce et Decorum est’.
When Keats wrote "Beauty is truth, truth beauty" he was being terrible naïve. When I wrote those anti-war poems I was adding my voice to thousands of others who have spoken out before and since. Langston Hughes said “that if some of his poems contained ugliness, it was to protest that ugliness rather than to dwell on it.” A good example of that is:
A Dream Deferred
What happens to a dream deferred?
Does it dry up
like a raisin in the sun?
Or fester like a sore –
And then run?
Does it stink like rotten meat?
Or crust and sugar over –
like a syrupy sweet?
Maybe it just sags
like a heavy load.
Or does it explode?
Ugliness is necessary. Without it you cannot truly appreciate beauty. You cannot appreciate truth without lies. If that had been the case would Adam and Eve not said to the snake, “Nu-huh, we’re on a gooood thing here.”
The poetry after Auschwitz is a poetry in extremis – a poetry at the extremities of language ... the extremities of thought & feeling. It was Creeley who spoke, elsewhere, of a poem "addressed to emptiness" (the anomie & anonymity of the modern and postmodern conditions), but I would speak as well of a poem addressed to ugliness – a counter not only to anomie's numbness (its loss of law or meaning) but to that other temptation – the temptation of the beautiful that we also feel.
The poet Jerome Rothenberg concluded that address with a poem, the opening lines of which read:
Nokh Aushvits (After Auschwitz)
the poem is ugly & they make it uglier
wherein the power resides
than duncan did – or didn’t – understand
when listening that evening to the other poet read
he said “that was pure ugliness” & oh it was
it was & it made my heart skip a beat
because the poem won’t allow it no
not a moment’s grace nor beauty to obstruct
whatever the age demanded
“Whatever the age demanded.” That’s the key line here:
“After Auschwitz,” wrote Adorno, “writing poetry is barbaric;” but that poetry he singled out a lyrik. Another kind of poetry came to be our central way of speaking: our most human act. It was a poetry that Adorno also recognised, when writing of it some years later: “Perennial suffering has as much right to expression as a tortured man has to scream; hence it may have been wrong to say that after Auschwitz you could no longer write poems.”
Here, though, is where I find myself conflicted. Like most of us my knowledge of Owen’s poetry is limited. We only studied four at school, ‘Dulce et Decorum est’, ‘Futility’, ‘Anthem for Doomed Youth’ and ‘Strange Meeting’. My sister – unusually for her – had a collection of his poems (a little hardback) but I never read any more and it’s always the same ones that get reprinted in anthologies. So you can imagine my surprise when I came across his poem ‘Apologia Pro Poemate Meo’ which opens with:
I, too, saw God through mud, –
The mud that cracked on cheeks when wretches smiled.
War brought more glory to their eyes than blood,
And gave their laughs more glee than shakes a child.
and also includes the verse:
I have perceived much beauty
In the hoarse oaths that kept our courage straight;
Heard music in the silentness of duty;
Found peace where shell-storms spouted reddest spate.
God? Beauty? Maybe this is an early poem? Apparently not – it dates from 1917. The reason for the change in tone? Apparently at that time Robert Graves had recommended Owen cheer up and write more optimistically. There is certainly no other poem like it in his canon. He could, of course, be being sarcastic or ironic at least because at the same time (18th February) he wrote a letter home saying this:
And the next day:
We are wretched beyond my previous imagination.
Peter Howarth has some thoughts on the subject:
Jon Stallworthy’s edition of the poems notes that Owen’s ‘Apologia’ is indebted to Shelley’s Defence of Poetry, which claims that ‘poetry is a mirror which makes beautiful that which is distorted … it marries exultation and horror.’ Evidently it is a marriage made in ‘the sorrowful dark of Hell’, but the reference is a helpful reminder that Owen is defending his own poetry rather than his own actions or feelings. His tactic to defend his poems’ ugliness, however, was not to reject beauty outright but to redefine it. ‘I have perceived much beauty / In the hoarse oaths that kept our courage straight’, and the question of who is swearing indicates how the question of beauty itself is caught up with Owen’s problems with his own agency in the war.
Tim Kendall’s reading of it is that the reversals of the poem appear excessive and that Owen is sending up Jessie “Pope’s inflated rhetoric of soldier-tourists, boys eager to be matched with death in the ultimate test:”
They’ll take the Kaiser’s middle wicket
And smash it by clean British Cricket.
Where does the beauty in poetry lie? I think it has to be in its ambiguities. Owen’s ‘Apologia’ is framed in that Romantic tradition, leaning heavily on metaphors as opposed to plain speaking. Because of that its message is veiled. The ugliest poetry tends to be the poetry that does not mince its words. Robert Penn Warren has some thoughts on the subject:
Poetry wants to be pure, but poems do not. At least, most of them do not want to be pure. The poems want to give us poetry, which is pure, and the elements of a poem, in so far as it is a good poem, will work together toward that end, but many of the elements, taken in themselves, may actually seem to contradict that end, or be neutral toward the achieving of that end. Are we then to conclude that neutral or recalcitrant elements are simply an index to human frailty, and that in a perfect world there would be no dross in poems, which would, then, be perfectly pure? No, it does not seem to be merely the fault of our world, for the poems include, deliberately, more of the so-called dross than would appear necessary. They are not even as pure as they might be in this imperfect world. They mar themselves with cacophonies, clichés, sterile technical terms, headwork and argument, self-contradictions, clevernesses, irony, realism – all things which call us back to the world of prose and imperfection.
Then the question arises: what elements cannot be used in such a structure? I should answer that nothing available in human experience is to be legislated out of poetry
Does that mean that ugly poetry is, effectively, chopped-up prose? It’s what Warren seems to be suggesting here. He’s not the only one. John Crowe Ransom differentiated between a “prose core” and “the differentia, residue or tissue, which keeps the object poetical or entire.” The conflict seems to be between “logical structure and poetic texture.” Clearly this is nothing to do with content but rather structure. Warren uses the term ‘pure’ but I think we can regard this an a synonym for ‘beauty’ (or at least ‘poetic beauty’ if you feel the need to differentiate) and, as such, a poem such as ‘Dulce et Decorum est’ could hang onto its poetic purity whilst describing horrendous things. Or maybe not.
Look at it any way you like, a poem is an artificial construct, a made thing. In his book The Idiom of Poetry, Frederick Pottle has a crack at defining a doctrine of pure poetry implying that…
…the effect would be more powerful if we could somehow manage to feel the images fully and accurately without the effect diluted by any words put into it to give us a ‘meaning’ – that is, if we could expel all talk about the imaginative realisation and have the pure realisation itself.
He admits that a poem can contain “certain ‘innocent’ impure elements, which he called ‘prose,’ if the element, be it background or narrative, in Pottle’s words, “serves a structural purpose. Prose in a poem seems offensive to me when … the prosaisms are sharp, obvious, individual and ranked co-ordinately with the images.”
I don’t know much about Warren but I do know he didn’t shy away from ugly subjects, for example:
In the last, far field, half-buried
In barberry bushes red-fruited, the thoroughbred
Lies dead, left foreleg shattered below knee,
A .30-30 in heart. In distance,
I now see gorged crows rise ragged in wind. The day
After death I had gone for farewell, and the eyes
Were already gone—that
The beneficent work of crows. Eyes gone,
The two-year-old could, of course, more readily see
Down the track of pure and eternal darkness.
A week later I couldn’t get close. The sweet stink
Had begun. That damned wagon mudhole
Hidden by leaves as we galloped—I found it.
Spat on it. As a child would. Next day
The buzzards. How beautiful in air!—carving
The slow, concentric, downward pattern of vortex, wing-glint
On wing-glint. From the house,
Now with glasses, I see
The squabble and pushing, the waggle of wattle-red heads.
(from ‘Dead Horse in Field’)
This is from a later poem from the collection, Rumour Verified: Poems, 1979-1980, a long time after his essay ‘Pure and Impure Poetry’ was published (1958) and an even longer time after he was associated with the Fugitives (practitioners and defenders of formal techniques in poetry) in the mid nineteen-twenties. So maybe, with age, his ideals have become less important to him. I don’t know; I don’t know the man.
The problem with all of this is that we’re talking about something abstract: what exactly is poetry anyway? Let’s talk about chocolate instead. In Belgium and France chocolate isn't chocolate unless it is made exclusively with cocoa butter. This isn’t the case in the UK where manufacturers add a small amount (up to 5%) of noncocoa vegetable fat to their chocolate. For almost 30 years attempts to rename British chocolate (to Vegalate) or ban it outright were repeatedly and successfully fought. Ironic when you note that in 1847, the Fry's chocolate factory, located in Bristol, England, folded the first ever chocolate bar suitable for widespread consumption.
The thing is I’ve grown up with Cadbury, Mars, Rowntree's and other British confectioners. It was years and years before I ever tasted Belgian chocolate and I was not impressed. Now I could compare that to being brought up on a diet of books by angry young men and then being handed Proust. Just because Alan Sillitoe isn’t Proust doesn’t make him a bad writer; in fact I’d bet that Sillitoe sold a lot more in the 1950s than Proust (who only died six years before Sillitoe was born, incidentally) did. Times change, tastes change. Music now accommodates discords, art embraces non-figurative painting, and poetry has learned how to be ugly.
Perhaps the poetry we read nowadays isn’t pure poetry. Maybe it’s time for a name change. Maybe what we write are proems but we’ve always called them poems and we’ll continue to and I don’t think it makes that much difference as long as they make a difference.
 Calvin Bedient, Boston Review
 Ibid, p.140
 Tim Kendall, The Oxford Handbook of British and Irish War Poetry, p.127
 Ibid, p.133
 John Crowe Ransom, Criticism, Inc., quoted in Sacvan Bercovitch ed., The Cambridge History of American Literature: Poetry and criticism, 1900-1950, p.574
 Sacvan Bercovitch ed., The Cambridge History of American Literature: Poetry and criticism, 1900-1950, p.574