on poetic irony

I think this essay in The Fortnightly Review is worthwhile.


Some highlights:

The escape from irony, on occasion, indeed on many occasions, is undeniably something to be desired by the poet. It is a thing not at all easy to manage, since it requires great tact, and surely puts more stress than usual upon technique. The impression of unironic feeling in any passage of verse which nevertheless avoids crassness or pomposity, is one of the poet’s most impressive tricks. But so is the intelligent use of irony. There is such an enormous space between the irony that helps to produce a great work of art, and the shallow, patchy irony that is always commoner, because easier, and perhaps now more than ever.

Personal earnestness in poetry always runs the risk of vulgarity. To avoid being vulgar, it must be perfectly handled in terms of all the things that differentiate the poetic from the prosaic.

Moreover, since aesthetic experience is specially concerned with form, the translation it undergoes is likely to be similarly determined by formal impulse and criterion. The more concerned one is with the outwardness of form, the reality which constitutes the basis of one’s subjective response, the less likely one is to be ‘earnest’ in a vulgar or indulgent way, for this often results from an over-emphasis upon personal subjectivity—particularly when it is examined with too much sentimentality and not enough discipline.

Many contemporary poets make the mistake of thinking that the poetry-reading public must be interested in hearing about their private lives, or their mothers’ childhoods in rural wherever, purely for the sake of knowing. If these subjects were (as sometimes they are) presented in real poetry, moulded by the exigencies of form and giving formal satisfactions and surprises of a more than merely fatuous kind, then there would be interest: in the poetry as poetry, and then, by virtue of that, in the theme or narrative also.

I do not think that ‘truth’ in any normal sense is a major part of poetry: truth in the normal sense is prosaic. It is partly an illusion, of course, even in the most direct and quotidian prose expression. But the nature of the illusion is of interest primarily to philosophers and psychoanalysts. The feeling of ‘truth’ in a poem, on the other hand, is an illusion with artistic interest, an illusion to admire—and all the more so if the sense of the illusion strikes us, at the moment, as being not at all illusory. It is what Adrian Stokes called ‘aesthetic truth’.

There is nothing wrong with the idea of ‘confessional poetry’, so long as it is more than a mere reporting of personal feelings, which tends to add up in the end to a kind of romantic mystique of the poet. Personal experience has to be treated and made into something else (i.e. ‘poetry’). There are some poets who simply do not understand that they would need to become canonical before most of their readers might actually want to know about their private feelings—I mean, once again, just for the sake of knowing.

But there is such a thing as ironic experience, in life and in art. The poem can, therefore, communicate an experience of irony, within which the poet assumes what Rossetti called an ‘inner standing-point’. Or the poet can simply stand inside the autonomous ironic experience of the poem itself. The irony may make the poet’s personal preferences and beliefs inapprehensible, but is this such a loss?


The Doubter

The Doubter — Yves Tangy, 1937. (My subtitle: Ironic-Formal Vision)




Posted by Tim Buck

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