Edwardian and Georgian Canadian Poets
1900-1930


 

 

Selected Essays and Reviews

by Bliss Carman

Edited by Terry Whalen


 

The Business of Poetry at the Present Time*


 

To many, many people, no doubt, it will seem that poetry has no real business. As a publisher said to me not long ago: "Poetry is all very well as an amusement: but, after all, the real business of literature is prose."

And that, of course, is the all but universal idea. We are accustomed to think of poetry as something to be regarded with a certain amused toleration, or, at best, with an esoteric appreciation. Poetry, we practically say, is a matter for women and young people, but not at all a thing to engage the time of men in a work-a-day world. It may be very precious, but it is hardly valuable.

And yet, even with the most practical of us, this skeptical view is not always quite sincere. We have the Anglo-Saxon distaste for exhibiting feeling, and our deepest sentiment must be concealed at all hazards. Poetry, then, with its patent and avowed purpose of declaring sentiment and setting up ideals, comes in for a certain discredit at once. And many of us have a love for the poetic which we cannot permit ourselves to avow. We care far more for the beautiful and the spiritual than is quite consistent with the severity of business-pure business-and clasp our real selves with a seeming indifference. But under this cover of Philistinism there is a heart of sympathy-almost always. And almost any man, when you know him well enough, will reveal an unguessed capacity of esthetic enjoyment. For one touch of true art, no less than one touch of nature, makes the whole world kin.

Then, too, one must confess, in looking over the range of contemporary poetry at any given time that the indifference of the average man is not surprising. One often wonders, indeed, at the vogue poetry has, rather than at the indifference it meets. I suppose no one is more aware of his inefficience than the poet himself. If he has any sensitiveness at all he must be terribly alive to the discrepancy between his own grasp of modern life, modern thought and the real thing called life which lies about him. The utmost work of a lifetime cannot compass the hundredth part of what he wishes to do, and he must stand aghast before his own futile effort, while the vast pageant of the world goes by ungrasped. At best he can arrest only the merest scrap of it all.

And what would you have? What is the business of poetry at the present day? What must it say, if (as we are told) it must voice the sentiment of its age? And is it to be entirely in accord with its own time, or is it to stand somewhat at variance with its time, like the prophetic voice in the wilderness? I suppose the answer is doubtful. For poetry of both sorts has always been produced. There is always the art which is born of the very spirit of the hour, and there is always the art, and there is always the art which is born of opposition to that spirit. And it is hardly a question of which is better, since both are inevitable. It is just the difference between Tennyson and Browning, for instance-the one reflecting almost all the changing phases of thought of the years through which he lived; the other leading as long a life in the same eventful period and yet never once giving voice to the sentiments of his countrymen, nor recording any hint of the events which were going on all about him. And yet, on this basis alone, it would hardly be fair to say that one poet was greater than the other. All one can say is that they were diametrically different.

In one thing, however, they were alike (just as all artists are alike), they both brought the real world, whether it was the world of their own times or of other times, to the test of an ideal normal standard. Their art consisted in applying ideals to life, in proposing ideal standards to which life might be made to conform.

It is the business of art, and particularly of poetry, to formulate rules of conduct, canons of taste and tests of truth. This may seem a rather extensive claim for art. It may seem that we are claiming for poetry what belongs to religion. But those authentic utterances on which all religions have been founded are truly the very heart of poetry. And although Tolstoi would have us believe that religion is the mother of the arts, it is just as true to declare that poetry is the mother of religion. For religion is but the practise of those high aspirations which we can embody in poetry and the fine arts. Art serves to record and perpetuate the living religion of a race. The dead religion, or the dying religion, of any time is to be found its accepted creeds and formulated doctrines and inflexible institute. The living religion of any time is be found in the arts and customs and habits and daily usage of the people of that time.

Poetry that is born directly of these is called representative poetry; but poetry that is born of a spirit of revolt against them is equally their product. And while the first is a manifestation of the average man's sentiments, the second is a manifestation of those unaverage sentiments which are to dominate the future. Tennyson's popularity sprang from his nearness to his time, and from his power of putting the sentiments of his fellow countrymen into poetry. Browning's popularity was delayed for years and decades because his ideals and sentiments and point of view were so far in advance of his time. Tennyson treated what people cared about; Browning treated what they were to care about half a century later.

As I conceive the business of poetry in our day, it is not only to embody our national sentiments, but to foreshadow the sentiments of to-morrow. Naturally these two functions of poetry will seldom be performed by the same man. One phase of it will be the natural work of one man, the other phase will be taken up by a different personality. And while we have a vigorous and competent poet like Mr. Kipling expressing finely the tenor of our own thought and sentiment, we might conceivably (if the gods had been better to us) have had a second Emerson or a second Browning, building spiritual temples for our future use.

It is the business of poetry not to disregard the needs of its time, but to think of those needs first of all. Indeed, poetry which has nothing to say to the spiritual question of its age has no excuse for existing at all. Poetry which is a mere ephemeral and ornamental indulgence in the artifice of rhyme is more like a pest than a prophecy. The artist who is alive to all the pressing and perplexing questions which beset the modern man, and yet deliberately turns his back on them, is worse than craven. The be the "idle singer of an empty day" is an ignoble aspiration. And William Morris was, for all his sad outcry, one of the noblest of poets. He was not really the "idle singer of an empty day" at all. He was a very busy prophet and workman. The keen sensitiveness which made him appreciate the vast ennui and ugliness of much of modern life made him rebel vigorously against it. His life was a splendid protest against the spirit commercialism which infects us too often to the exclusion of all else. And while I should not insist that "The Earthly Paradise" is inherently greater than "The Seven Seas," neither should I care to admit that "The Song of the Banjo" is better than some of those strange lyrics in "The Defense of Guenevere." Artemus Ward's wise dictum is as true in art as it is in life: one should "never argue agin success."


"The Business of Poetry at the Present Time," from galley proofs for Commercial Advertiser, [n.d.] [back]