Language

What would Robert Graves Do?

On a writing forum, a poster proposed to call his novel Maelstrom Burning. I had the lack of sense to ask how a maelstrom could burn, and greatly offended him. If I couldn’t be constructive, he told me, I shouldn’t say anything at all. But I was being constructive, or so I thought. Ever since I was a teen, I have believed that, no matter how poetic a phrase might sound, it must also make literal sense.

I caught this conviction by being exposed to the critical lectures of Robert Graves while still a teen. Graves also debunked Ezra Pound’s pretensions as a translator so thoroughly that, decades later, I still can’t read Pound without laughing – but that’s another story, and a less important one.

To understand Graves’ comments about poetry and literal sense, have a look at Tennyson’s often reprinted fragment “The Eagle.” You’ll have to excuse me if I don’t name the lecture; the collection it appeared in did not make it on to the Internet, and even if a library was open during the pandemic, it’s too dark and cold as I write to brave the outdoors.

Still, I remember the gist well-enough to re-create the important bits,
or at least their spirit.

“The Eagle” begins with the impressive-sounding line, “He clasps the crag with crooked hands.” Graves’ response? To ask if the eagle is doing a handstand. After all, the limbs an eagle stands on is its legs. The verse ends with the eagle standing, so either Tennyson knows this basic bit of biology, or has the eagle doing a back flip, so that it is now standing on its wings.

And the eagle is close to the sun? Sure, give or take 150 million kilometers.

Graves has more to say, mostly about the fact that, while Tennyson preserved the fragment, it says almost nothing. Three times, we are told that the eagle perches, with a different word choice each time. Then the eagle dives, but for what? We are not never told what the bird’s dinner might be. Despite all the times the fragment has been reprinted, it is illogical and trivial.

That’s a cruel, unsympathetic verdict, but Graves was a prominent poet and critic, so he had more of a right than most to offer it. Possibly, too, he was being satirical; Graves did enjoy going against academic orthodoxy. Yet he has a point. It is all too easy for writers and readers alike to forgive triviality because they are seduced by the poetry of a line. A writer should know better.

I am sometimes known to commit poetry myself, or poetic metaphors in my prose . Moreover, just after finishing, I am often besotted by my own cleverness. But in more sober afterthought, I am apt to ask myself what Graves might think of my alleged brilliance – and, at least two thirds of the time, I end by deleting what I wrote and laughing at how I was lost to common sense because of the sound. Then I re-write in plain English, as I should have had the sense do from the first.

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