David Wheatley on the joy of loving minor poets
IF POEMS IN magazines travel on public transport and poems in slim volumes have got their own car, poems in anthologies go by limousine. Counting Shakespeare’s sonnets and Keats’s odes among their natural peers, here are texts of a higher order, far too good to rub spondees with lesser creations. Who has not dreamed of sharing anthology space with the likes of John Clare, Samuel Johnson, Herman Melville and Charlotte Brontë? Few people, you might think, but not when the anthology in question is The Cambridge Book of Lesser Poets, a delightful confection issued in 1927 as a foil to the headline-hogging acts of Palgrave and Quiller-Couch’s best-selling anthologies. After all, who would be a lesser poet? Take this question to any library, however, and you will encounter shelf after shelf of dead writers for whom recognition as even a minor poet would represent a stunning victory over the condescension of posterity.
I love minor poets. Anne Finch, Countess of Winchilsea, Amy Levy, Charlotte Mew, Robert Fergusson, James Clarence Mangan, and Robert Garioch, are all poets I read with admiration and reverence. None is exactly major, by which I mean that it seems to have been their destiny to be remembered for a number of anthology pieces, with the rest of their work existing, if it exists at all, for the specialist reader alone. In some cases, the proportion of read to unread work can be daunting. I have on my shelves all four volumes of the Irish Academic Press edition of Mangan’s poems, which weigh in at about 1500 pages of work. Yet most people – most Irish Studies academics too, I suspect – would struggle to name more than half a dozen Mangan poems.
An Irish reader may know Mangan through exposure to "A Vision of Connaught in the Thirteenth Century" on the old Inter Cert (=British GSCE) syllabus, but without this kind of sponsorship the minor poet (on no pub poster or postcard) may find it hard to attract new readers. Before I moved to Scotland, I was unaware of the work of Robert Fergusson (1750-1774), a tragically short-lived precursor of Robert Burns. Fergusson wrote poems in correct Augustan English before achieving an explosive breakthrough into literary Scots in poems such as "Auld Reekie," a description of his native Edinburgh. It is one of the great poems of the eighteenth century, but no force on earth, as far as I can see, will ever propel Fergusson into the consciousness of the reading public at large.
I wouldn’t want to give the impression that I am conflating major status and fame. Many justly forgotten poets have been famous in their day, from Robert Southey and Felicia Hemans to Cecil Day-Lewis and three-time Pulitzer Prize-winner Archibald McLeish. Canonical status is not a trading floor, with stocks in Christina Rossetti rising in one corner while the market for Elizabeth Barrett Browning plummets in the other. As T. S. Eliot felinely observed, there is no competition among poets. We should value poets for what they are, not what we would like them to be: an exquisite minor lyric is worth any amount of misconceived epic follies. Eliot was a fine one to talk though, reserving a section in his Collected Poems for his "Minor Poems," an exemplary act of false modesty, implying as it does that the rest of the book contained only major ones. In his essay "What is minor poetry?," Eliot teases out the ways in which major or minor status goes beyond the vagaries of reputation. One mark of a major poet, he decides, is when no part of the author’s work doesn’t benefit from a knowledge of everything else that author wrote: you can’t fully appreciate Satan’s great speeches in Milton’s Paradise Lost without also lingering over the juvenile stirrings of "Upon the Circumcision." With minor poets, what Eliot wants is a sense that there’s always something else awaiting discovery beyond an anthology’s greatest hits. This is certainly true of the minor poets I listed above, whereas with other poets, who go through peaks and troughs (James Dickey, W.D. Snodgrass, Denise Levertov), it is notably less so. Lovers of minor poets reserve a special affection for these overlooked poems: Mangan’s "Iceland Moss Tea" for instance, with its saga-like evocation of a "thousand smoke-enveloped cones."
It was an article of faith for Dennis O’Driscoll that the majority of poets live to see whatever reputation they achieve decline. One writer who bucks this trend, and a perfect minor poet, was O’Driscoll’s choice for his contribution to Niall MacMonagle’s Lifelines project, Chidiock Tichborne. Though the author of two other lesser poems, Tichborne is remembered exclusively for his "Elegy," written in the Tower of London on the eve of his execution in 1586. His resignation in the face of death is unflappable:
I sought my death and found it in my womb,
I looked for life and saw it was a shade,
I trod the earth and knew it was my tomb,
And now I die, and now I was but made;
My glass is full, and now my glass is run,
And now I live, and now my life is done.
It’s hard to imagine a poem more urgently pressed up against its own posterity, or more dependent on us realizing that this is it: the rest is silence. The very unfairness of it also plays its part in Tichborne’s appeal, and that of minor poetry as a genre. Please, it says to posterity: I am not Dante or Milton, but won’t you remember me, too?
Just as the world would be a better place if everyone adopted rescue cats instead of buying pedigrees, we would be better readers of poetry if we sourced our poems not just from the spot-lit pages of this or that Oxford Book but the shadowy zone where minor poetry lives: the metaphysical poet no one has heard of, the Latin poet who survives in two or three fragmentary lyrics, the doomed Welsh modernist who swapped poetry for God. For Tichborne, this zone was the prison cell where he stared extinction in the face. Read a minor poem today and save someone’s memory from oblivion.
DAVID WHEATLEY's most recent book of poems is A Nest on the Waves (2010).
Photo of Anne Finch courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.