Replying in 1934 to a Japanese poet who had asked for advice about writing 'modern' poetry, William Empson recommended 'verse with a variety of sorts of feeling in it . . . it might be a good thing to try to show the clash of different philosophies, and social comedy, and quote lines of poetry by people quite different from you that you have thought especially good.' These were the things which Empson consistently admired in poetry, and which he wrote about with such eloquence and intemperance in what had begun to seem even to him a long war against the doctrinaire in literature. Against what he took to be the prevailing modern orthodoxy of Symbolist poetry - 'the main rule is that a poet must never say what he wants to say directly . . . he must invent a way of hinting at it by metaphors, which are then called images' - he promoted what he called 'argufying' in poetry, 'the kind of arguing we do in ordinary life, usually to get our own way'. He didn't want us to think of poetry as a privileged use of words exempt from ordinary considerations. He wanted readers to ask questions like: what is the poet trying to persuade us - and himself - of? What is he intending to say, and how, if at all, has he succeeded? What are 'the ideas his mind was working upon'? What is the story being told? Literature, unlike propaganda, was writing in which people were in at least two minds about what mattered to them, but still meant what they said.
LRB 3 August 2006 | PDF Download