I’ve just finished reading Peter Levi’s Goodbye to the Art of Poetry. This was Levi’s valedictory lecture as Oxford Professor Poetry, given in 1989, and is itself written as a 37-page poem. Though as Levi says in his opening lines:
Robert Graves said there can be no long poem
and that Virgil and Milton who wrote them
were tying short poems together with string.
The poem/lecture consists of Levi’s reflections on poetry, with extracts from poems by Milton, Larkin, Tennyson and others embedded within its text. And like any good lecturer, he begins with defining his terms:
What poetry and what greatness may be
bothers all professors of poetry:
there is something ridiculous I confess
in sharp-eyed connoisseurship of greatness:
better to seek for what is genuine:
a world spacious enough to wander in,
the truth that rings like stone ringing on stone
or a line like the sea heard in a shell,
never again so clearly or so well
as it was in the beginning, in childhood,
when poetry was the untrodden wood.
Levi was not optimistic about the current and future state of English poetry, though equally not entirely without hope of a revival:
Poetry is a dead horse, it’s a mess,
a competition in the weekly press.
Yet Shakespeare’s seeds are sleeping in that ground,
fatal and poisonous, and to be found
by who chooses, who searches and who needs.
The book is now out of print, but anyone who enjoys poetry would be well-advised to grab hold of a copy if they find one secondhand. I hope to look at a couple of specific points from the poem in upcoming posts, but in the meantime here is Levi’s conclusion:
There is a silence beyond poetry,
and poetry reaches to that silence
or poetry punctuates a silence,
or it is punctuated with silence.
Poetry is the silence between lines,
it is a gesture of quite silent signs.
It is wingbeats, the white swan’s dissolution,
unknown to schools of earthly elocution:
the imprisoned spirit echoing on bone,
the flight of the alone from the alone.
When that withers, poetry is undone:
the world hovers round it with kind advice,
but poetry’s as lost as paradise.