Sunday, September 7, 2014

in which a continuous state of mental distress is prolonged, unrelieved by incident, hope, or resistance

Enough about Stevens' anthology, says Daniel Deniehy, yawning: wrap up with something, tie off with some remark about his selection, my god, I say looking startled, this is not a review -- what is it then? -- a unloved violation of clarity, I said: I think, well, bush ballads almost absent, and the 1800s section of Les Murray's New Oxford Book of Australian Verse (1986) is vastly different, convict ballads, bushranger epics (“Jack Gilbert was a bushranger of terrible renown | For sticking lots of people up and shooting others down”), translations of Aboriginal oral poetry, which of course Stevens didn't; but what if he had, and why should I expect him not to?

(Noticeable, when I read books of verse by the New Zealanders Bathgate and Wilcox, the melancholy and guilty poems about the romance of a defeated Maori, “Here once the mighty Atua had his dwelling | In mystery,” from Wilcox's Onawe in Verses from Maoriland, and no counterpart in any of the Australian books so far. Not so in Australian prose, where it appears quite early. Leakey in The Broad Arrow had a character make a speech about it. Ditto Louisa Atkinson in Gertrude the Emigrant.)

Murray will take poems from Anonymous (or: the Collective Mind) and Stevens will not, no, more of a poet-canon-builder, Stevens, asking who is there, who can I acknowledge, even when they are only “fairly good”?

No doubt sociological reasons for that, Deniehy says sagaciously, if you wanted to look for them.

Murray's choice from Mary Gilmore is a piece about a small dead girl, and so is Stevens', but Murray's is a less whimsical poem, though you can't blame Stevens for choosing his Little Ghost over Murray's The Little Shoes That Died, when you look it up and discover that the first publication of Little Shoes occurred in the Sydney Morning Herald on the 5th of November, 1938, and Stevens' book came out more than two decades before.

Banjo Paterson is in Stevens' Anthology because how could he not be; and yet as I write those words, I remember that Yeats left Wilfred Owen out of The Oxford Book of Modern Verse in 1936, saying that “passive suffering is not a theme for poetry” after Matthew Arnold's preface to his Poems in 1853.

For the Muses, as Hesiod says, were born that they might be ‘a forgetfulness of evils, and a truce from cares’: and it is not enough that the Poet should add to the knowledge of men, it is required of him also that he should add to their happiness. ‘All Art,’ says Schiller, ‘is dedicated to Joy, and there is no higher and no more serious problem, than how to make men happy.' [So spake Leigh Hunt, says Daniel Deniehy] The right Art is that alone, which creates the highest enjoyment.


What then are the situations, from the representation of which, though accurate, no poetical enjoyment can be derived? They are those in which the suffering finds no vent in action; in which a continuous state of mental distress is prolonged, unrelieved by incident, hope, or resistance; in which there is everything to be endured, nothing to be done. In such situations there is inevitably something morbid, in the description of them something monotonous. When they occur in actual life, they are painful, not tragic; the representation of them in poetry is painful also.

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