I just had a chat with a very, very talented poet about Dorothy Wordsworth’s much-admired journals, now dramatized – that may not be quite the right word - in Frances Wilson’s new book, The Ballad of Dorothy Wordsworth. I meet a lot of folks who are interested in those journals and the woman behind them. It makes sense, fascinating as both are. Yet curiously, this poet allowed as how, well… she really couldn't get very far into her famous brother William's poems. And that's fairly understandable: he wrote a lot of them, and many are... not so good. Still, one can't know which poems are worth reading or not until one actually reads them, so the incapacity to bear down on the work of a particular poet strikes me as a shame. I mean, we live in an age of reading. I see people on the train every day hauling around heavy tomes, though they usually turn out to be Harry Potter books. People of all kinds are reading newspapers, The New Yorker, RSS feeds on their innumerable iPhones, and who knows what else. But a lot of poems, well, that's another story. I don't remember exactly when or why I read all the Wordsworth I could find, but I do know that I slogged through all of his poems again a few years ago because he meant so very much to Basil Bunting. I certainly got my word's worth, let me tell you - it was a valuable experience.
Why bother reading hundreds of pages of poems few people bother about? Well, for one thing, Wordsworth was what Bunting called a "precursor." Whatever you think of the modernists, they have forever eclipsed the poets who came before them, and who made them. But Bunting could feel a living connection to Wordsworth, whose influence is written all over Bunting's long career. "All my life," he once said, "the most important English poet for me was Wordsworth, whom Pound despised." Why? Because he found in Wordsworth's poems the "simplicity which is commonly recommended as the nearest road to the sublime." More importantly, perhaps, Bunting noticed that Wordsworth was a poet who spoke, though he did not write in, dialect. Wordsworth is taught as if he spoke and wrote in standard English, but is "a man from Jarrow... speaking what has a double origin in Northumbrian and in northern Irish."
And so: "Wordsworth did not write dialect; but he composed aloud, very loud according to the anecdotes, in the language he spoke, and that was not the Koiné we are all taught to use now. Read him aloud, with R's and broad vowels. Remember that the word 'water' as unknown to him. He rhymes it with 'chatter' and 'shatter' because he pronounced it 'watter;' and though he spells Yarrow with OW, as the map does, he rhymes it with the word he (and we) pronounce 'marra', and rhyme with 'Jarra,' down the river there." In other words, the reading of Northern poets in a "southron" voice has led to misapprehensions such as regarding Wordsworth "as a Romantic poet rather than an eighteenth-century poet ... the music of the poetry has been lost simply because his southern readers can't hear it."
We can't hear it, and we won't read it; swell!
Even the nineteenth-century poets, Buntings says, neglected Wordsworth - and Whitman. Keats imitated Spenser "and the rest followed him so far as their skill sufficed to take them." Browning flooded the page, though he did develop the persona and the dramatic monologue; hardly anyone since Pound seems to have bothered much with him. The bulk of Victorian poetry, Bunting says, "dealt with trivial themes in a new version of poetic diction," e.g. Tennyson's version of the Arthurian cycle - which "is very close to what the XVIII c would have called namby-pamby." Essentially "nursery stuff," says BB, "and you cannot say much more for Morris and Rossetti." Swinburne? He's barely even in print now, let alone read.
The modernists came along to rebel against the Victorian mode, though Hardy got there first. BB says: "Hardy did not believe that God was in his heaven and all right with the world; on the contrary, he did not find it a pretty world at all. Like Wordsworth, he tried for realism; but unlike Wordsworth he did not think realism would be best achieved by using common speech." Nor did Hopkins, who'd started out some twenty years after Hardy. It's hard to believe, I guess, but as Bunting points out, Kipling was an early non-Victorian voice. Like Pound, Kipling tried everything: sestina, ballads, and nonce forms. Not too many of us will seem to have been influenced by Kipling's modern experiments, however. In some ways, contemporary English-language poetry starts with Yeats, Kipling's contemporary. As Bunting says, even in his earliest musty work, Yeats had something that was new: "He had considered Wordsworth's preface to the 2nd edition of Lyrical Ballads, and concluded that it was incomplete. Wordsworth had insisted on the plain words of ordinary men, but he had said nothing about the plain syntax of ordinary speech. Yeats thought the syntax more important than the vocabulary."
Bunting's own poems are inconceivable without Wordsworth, unhearable without him: "I am a Northumberland man and [...] my vowels are nearer to those Wordsworth uttered than a Londoner's might be, and my intonation perhaps less foreign to his. Nobody had thought of standard English in Wordsworth's time. He spoke as a Northerner, in spite of the years spent in Cambridge, London and Somerset. In such a Northern way that Keats and Hazlitt found it hard to follow his conversation, and though he did not compose in dialect, he composed in his own voice aloud. His music is lost if his poems are read in Southern English, and no doubt that is why so many critics imagine he had none."
Bunting is telling us something we don't learn in school: "I suppose that the conception of Standard English is only a little older than Wordsworth, and it had not gained, I wouldn't say universal, but even common acceptance within Wordsworth's lifetime. By 1850, I daresay, middle-class people expected to find that other middle-class people spoke like London or Oxford or Cambridge, but not until just about the time that Wordsworth died. And it's a great addition to some of those Romantics if you know where they came from. Some of Keats, read in what is now called Standard English, is absolutely unbearable. But he was a Cockney, and if you will read it in Old Cockney, such as he spoke, it would be now the Cockney of southeast London, I think, verging on Kentish, if you read his poems in that, quite a lot of that oversweetness vanishes. Keats becomes much more tolerable. And the same way with Wordsworth. The ordinary southern Englishman or the Englishman brought up in middle classes, who would speak Standard English, is simply unaware that there is any music in Wordsworth, whereas he is one of those musical poets, if you will give his vowels full Northern strength. And you remember that 'r' is a letter which was pronounced in his talk. Somewhere about 1820, Keats was asked to dinner where Wordsworth was to be one of the guests. And he went along hoping to get a lot of wisdom from the great poet, but for most of the time he couldn't understand what on earth Wordsworth was saying. The Cockney couldn't hear the Cumbrian. At the end of the evening Keats was just beginning to get something from it. And similarly, at an earlier date, Hazlitt went to Somerset to interview Wordsworth and Coleridge in the days when the lived there, but he was defeated because he couldn't understand Wordsworth. Standard English is a very modern conception, it is a narrowing one, the standard changes and gets narrower and narrower, and what you now hear from a large percentage of BBC announcers, a large percentage of the people they interview, is a hateful narrow-vowelled affair which sometimes becomes as excessive, this narrowing, as South African, Rhodesian did. Northumbrian has kept most of its vowels. And though its 'r' has become less conspicuous in my lifetime, it's still there as a gutteral, not a rolled 'r,' Wordsworth's 'r' was a rolled 'r' as it still is in Cumberland. [Northumbrian speech] changes, and the next generation, brought up on television, will have changed it more, still." Bunting said that in 1970 - just a few years after finishing Briggflatts.
Peter Makin points out that Bunting's father was a skilled mountain climber, and took Bunting on some strenuous walks around the coast above Newcastle. The elder Bunting was on friendly terms with the Swinburne family. As Makin puts it in his wonderful book, Bunting: The Shaping of His Verse:
"Bunting particularly recalled those walks with his father for something that did not happen there: [a] laying on of hands. Had he happened to meet Swinburne, the aged poet would undoubtedly have patted the infant on the head, and given him half a crown, as he did to all infants. And that would have had its significance, said Bunting: for Swinburne, when a boy, had been taken to Grasmere and had been patted on the head by the aged Wordsworth. The poetic power would have been passed on."
The collected O'Hara: too big, you say. Same for the two-volume collected Creeley, and for the collected Lowell, which is not even a complete Lowell. Blake and Dickinson wrote a lot of poems, but few dare cavil them, even at our fantastical remove. Yet the nearest road to the sublime might just be an enormous book of old poems, written in an old-fashioned way. I just finished the Snyder-Ginsberg letters; they knew all about Wordsworth, but I imagine not many fans of Snyder and Ginsberg do. Ashbery’s work (speaking of a lot of poems!) channels such nineteenth-century poets as Clare and Beddoes, and no doubt Wordsworth’s floating around in it, as well. The descendents of these guys... not so much.
Harold Bloom, of all people, has said that Wordsworth invented modern poetry. Don’t think so? Collaboration, influence, pastiche, plagiarism – check out what WW got from Dorothy Wordsworth, from Coleridge; it’s darn near post-avant, I tell ya! Ah, but we can’t read big books and certainly won’t read old big ones. Read EP's Cantos? Sure. Siliman’s the Alphabet (1062 pages)? Some of you are working on it. In fact, I am, too. Wordsworth’s collected? Heck no, you say! The general unwillingness of poets these days to read a whole lot of big-old-famous books of poems mystifies and bugs me - but then few of us are mountain-climbers. Yet as Bunting said of Pound's Cantos, they are like the Alps: "you will have to go a long way round / if you want to avoid them..."