I am ploughing through the 27 volumes in the first series of Penguin Modern Poets, published in the 1960s and 1970s. So far I’ve read three volumes. Of the 223 poems I’ve marked 24 as “good” and a further 28 as “quite good or deserving further study after which they may deserve to be labelled either good or quite good”. The other 171 I don’t like.
Many of the 223 poems use metaphor or juxtaposition to associate two fields, which in a large proportion are an environmental field E and a human experiential field H. Some examples of E are natural, such as the landscape, sea, sky, seasons, or living species; others are built, such as a room. Examples of H include a human being’s past experience as they feel it in retrospect, and the course of a person’s entire life viewed in third person. The structure is E ~ H, where E is used to communicate truths about H.
A lot of these I don’t like. Why?
The answer is that what they say about H is boring.
For example they may be
● insufficiently specific (a walk on the beach reminds you of the lover who left you – so what?)
● insufficiently socially critical (do you not realise that a supermarket, a bus trip, and a human being’s life journey are all embedded in social reproduction relations?)
● general but insufficiently mystical (this place makes you feel how small a lifetime appears compared with geological time, or it reminds you that we will all die one day – yawn!)
To summarise, let’s reverse perspective:
● I like it when what is said about H is specific (how else can it be vivid?), and in that case it should also usually be socially critical (because we are social animals and just look at the mess we’re in – it affects us); and
● if it’s not specific, then I still want it to be interesting and powerful, which means it should either say something general that is socially critical and not just vaguely so; or else, if it’s neither specific nor socially critical then it needs to communicate something that is of universal mystical significance (and since it must be interesting and powerful, saying the Earth is like an atom doesn’t count).