In one of the great misreadings of one poet by another, John Keats complained to his publisher that, in the poetry of John Clare, “the Description too much prevailed over the Sentiment.” For his part, Clare felt that Keats’s “descriptions of scenery are often very fine but as it is the case with other inhabitants of great cities he often described nature as she appeared to his fancies & not as he would have described her had he witnessed the things he describes.” Clare and Keats were almost exact contemporaries, shared a publisher and were both social outsiders, but their poetics occupied about as much common ground as the neighbourhoods they grew up in.
We can see how these fundamental differences of perspective play out by taking a look at the opening lines of each poet’s nightingale poem. Here is the first stanza of Keats’s famous ode:
My heart aches, and a drowsy numbness pains
My sense, as though of hemlock I had drunk,
Or emptied some dull opiate to the drains
One minute past and Lethe-wards had sunk:
‘Tis not through envy of thy happy lot,
But being too happy in thine happiness—
That thou, light-wingèd Dryad of the trees,
In some melodious plot
Of beechen green, and shadows numberless,
Singest of summer in full-throated ease.
Now take a listen to:
Up this green woodland ride lets softly rove
And list the nightingale—she dwelleth here
Hush let the wood gate softly clap—for fear
The noise may drive her from her home of love
For here Ive heard her many a merry year
At morn and even nay all the live long day
As though she lived on song—this very spot
Just where that old mans beard all wildly trails
Rude arbours oer the road and stops the way
And where that child its blue bell flowers hath got
Laughing and creeping through the mossy rails
There have I hunted like a very boy
Creeping on hands and knees through matted thorns
To find her nest and see her feed her young
Keats’s elegantly indented stanzas, all eight of them, follow a strict ABABCDECDE scheme. Clare uses end-rhyme in the 93 unpunctuated pentameters of “The Nightingale’s Nest,” but follows no fixed pattern, letting sound-pairs fall where they may. That the verse’s construction mimics the “loose materials” out of which the nightingale weaves her nest may not be intentional, strictly speaking, but it is at least a felicitous demonstration of the sharpness of Clare’s instincts.
The formal variances in these two poems sync up with significant differences in stance, tone and attitude on the part of their authors. In Keats, the self is foregrounded, from the very first word, and sentiment doesn’t so much prevail over description, as rule it out. It’s nighttime, after all, and Keats “cannot see what flowers are at [his] feet.” Even were the sun shining, we sense he wouldn’t be looking too hard, preferring to soar “on the viewless wings of Poesy.” The nightingale’s song is a trigger for lyric reflection, rather than the subject of the poem; the speaker has no wish to acquaint himself with the flesh and blood feathered source of the music.
For Clare, the elusive and surprisingly homely “russet brown” bird is the raison d’être of the poem; we see her plumage; we see the hazel bower in which she hides; we see her nest with its “dead oaken leaves … velvet moss … And little scraps of grass” and we see the five eggs “Of deadend green or rather olive brown” the nest contains. Clare’s speaker will tell us a bit about how his “happy fancys shapen her employ,” but as soon as he does so, says “But if I touched a bush or scarcely stirred / All in a moment stopt—I watched in vain / The timid bird had left the hazel bush.” It’s as if he’s saying that to break concentration on the bird itself and focus inwardly, as Keats does, is more likely to kill a rapturous moment than enshrine it. Clare’s speaker is more 19th Century David Attenborough than aching Romantic soul, more genial host than overheard self-examiner. “Do I wake or sleep?” Keats asks at the end of his ode. With Clare, there can be no doubt.
The topic of description—a bland one, at first blush—hardly seems something over which poets and thinkers would get stirred up, but Keats’ and Clare’s tacit disagreement is but one manifestation of an ancient, and occasionally intemperate, debate. It was the deceptive nature of poetic description that led Plato to argue for the exclusion of poets from the Republic. Because it is a representation of a thing, which is itself a facsimile of an essential form, a poem stands “at third remove from the throne of truth.” Plato’s Socrates goes on to say that
…the poet can use words and phrases as a medium to paint a picture of any craftsman, though he knows nothing except how to represent him, and the metre and rhythm and music will persuade people who are as ignorant as he is, and who judge merely from his words, that he really has something to say about shoemaking or generalship or whatever it may be. So great is the natural magic of poetry. Strip it of its poetic colouring, reduce it to plain prose, and I think you know how little it amounts to.
Aristotle, pace Plato, saw mimetic description as downright useful. “The instinct for imitation,” said Aristotle, “is inherent in man from his earliest days; he differs from other animals in that he is the most imitative of creatures, and he learns his earliest lessons by imitation. Also inborn in all of us is the instinct to enjoy works of imitation.” Moreover, he argued, people “enjoy seeing likenesses because in doing so they acquire information.” While Aristotle might approve of someone like John Clare, at least in the poem under discussion, on the basis of his belief that “[t]he poet should speak as little as possible in his own person,” the philosopher might nevertheless have frowned on other dimensions of Clare’s methodology, since “while poetry is concerned with universal truths, history treats of particular facts.”
Almost two millenia after Aristotle, Desiderius Erasmus would likely have found much to admire in Clare’s use of what Erasmus, citing Homer as an exemplar, calls evidentia: “We use this,” says Erasmus, “whenever … we do not state a thing simply, but set it forth to be viewed as though portrayed in color on a tablet, so that it may seem that we have painted, not narrated, and that the reader has seen, not read.” In the snippet of Clare’s poem quoted earlier, we can practically see the wisps of old man’s beard swaying in the breeze and feel the spongy moss give way under the hand as we creep through the rails to pluck a bunch of bluebells.
But for all the cumulative richness of these details, they are not actually described minutely, as Clare moves briskly from one to the next. Gotthold Lessing sought to distinguish the provinces of poetry and painting in his 18th Century work of aesthetic theory, The Laokoon. Lessing would probably salute the ambulatory quality of “The Nightingale’s Nest,” since it isn’t objects but actions, by his reckoning, that “are the peculiar subject of poetry,” and Clare spends more lines describing the pursuit of the nightingale than he does in attempting to limn the particular visual features of his quarry.
Ruskin would, we imagine, have been a fan of Clare’s brand of all-terrain ornithology. Ruskin had little patience with poets who used nature as a backdrop for self-regard. Of the self-styled “worshipper of Nature,” Ruskin said:
Wordsworth … cannot altogether rid himself of the sense that he is a philosopher, and ought always to be saying something wise. He has also a vague notion that Nature would not be able to get on well without Wordsworth; and finds a considerable part of his pleasure in looking at himself, as well as at her.
And Ruskin’s take on Keats squares nicely with Clare’s own: “Keats drinks the beauty of Nature violently; but has not more real sympathy with her than he has with a bottle of claret.” Against such treatments, Ruskin maintained that “the greatest thing a human soul ever does in this world is to see something, and tell what it saw in a plain way. … To see clearly, is poetry, prophecy, and religion,—all in one” (italics Ruskin’s). He also prized “the appearance of Ease with which the thing is done” as a “very important … test of greatness.” It is precisely the “casual rightness” of Clare’s “pell-mell succession of vividly accurate impressions” that Seamus Heaney has pegged as the hallmark of Clare’s achievement.
Given Ruskin’s love of clarity, and given that the words I just quoted were published in 1858, six years before Clare’s death, one might be forgiven for supposing that Ruskin was indulging in a clever pun, with his “bottle of claret.” But he wasn’t. The name of John Clare does not once grace the pages of The true and the beautiful in nature, art, morals and religion. Instead, Ruskin lavishes his enthusiasm on the somewhat unlikely personage of Sir Walter Scott, relying on quotations that seem rather like stock footage in comparison with Clare’s restlessly dynamic pans, cuts and zooms.
During Wordsworth’s tenure as poet laureate, the all-but forgotten Clare languished in the obscurity of a lunatic asylum, where he famously wrote that he was “the vast shipwreck of [his] life’s esteems.” Sentiment had won the day over description. Which isn’t surprising. Description, after all, has nothing to say for itself. It doesn’t get angry, it doesn’t complain, it doesn’t argue, it doesn’t wheedle. It just sits there looking pretty, right? So thought Pope, a rhetorical poet if ever there was one, who thought descriptive poetry “a composition as absurd as a feast made up of sauces.”
Description has also come under the gun of various iterations of the avant-garde. In the “Symbolist Manifesto,” Jean Moréas proclaimed the Symbolist poets “enemies of teaching, declamation, false sensibility, and objective description,” explaining that they seek rather “to clothe the Idea in a sensuous form, which, nevertheless, would not be an end in itself, but which would help to express the Idea, whilst remaining subject to it.” Which sounds a lot like Plato.
Things seemed to be looking up with the advent of Imagism in 1914, but Pound, H.D. et al. were not advocating anything resembling Clare’s expansive play-by-play. Imagist poems tended to be more impressionistic than realistic in their visuals and many of them could have been called Symbolist works without causing much confusion. In any case, the Imagist movement barely got off the ground before it ran out of steam.
In his 1950 manifesto “Projective Verse” Charles Olson wrote that
The descriptive functions generally have to be watched, every second, in projective verse, because of their easiness, and thus their drain on the energy which composition by field allows into a poem. Any slackness takes off attention, that crucial thing, from the job in hand, from the push of the line under hand at the moment, under the reader’s eye, in his moment. Observation of any kind is, like argument in prose, properly previous to the act of the poem, and, if allowed in, must be so juxtaposed, apposed, set in, that it does not, for an instant, sap the going energy of the content towards its form. (Italics Olson’s)
Olson has been credited with the invention of the term “post-modern” and he was the third oldest poet, after Helen Adam and Madeline Gleason, included in Donald Allen’s landmark 1960 anthology New American Poetry. Olson, born in Worcester, Massachusetts in 1910, was the father-figure of the new poetry. A poet born a year later in the same town, Elizabeth Bishop, was not deemed new enough by Allen for inclusion in his anthology, perhaps because she was too fond of the observation and description condemned by Olson. Olson was a descendant of William Carlos Williams, for whom, despite his anti-Symbolist credo of “no ideas but in things,” description was not really his thing. As Zachariah Pickard has said, “the descriptive mode … is in fact anathema to the very avant-garde poets—Objectivist, Projectivist, language—we generally consider [Williams’] heirs.”
Olson was reacting, no doubt, to the same sort of conventional, yawn-inducing fluff that irked Horace, who complained of “shining purple / Patches” of irrelevant poetic description. Ruskin, too, was driven to distraction by the descriptive longueurs of the “base school of what was called pastoral poetry; that is to say, poetry written in praise of the country, by men who lived in coffee-houses and on the Mall.” Ruskin, however, was, as we’ve seen, wise enough to remove the baby before dumping the tub. There is no doubt that half-hearted off-the-hook description is one of the dullest things one can encounter in a poem, nor that such writing constitutes a great failure of imagination. But no greater a failure than one finds in most manifestos.
In the entry for “Descriptive Poetry” in The New Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics, we learn that descriptive poetry “is not a genre in itself.” This is true, to an extent, as any system of poetics that restricts its range to the descriptive would be extremely self-limiting. The poet who only describes is a bit like one who writes nothing but villanelles—it’s just too strait a path, even for those who love to observe and report. Clare, while noted for his descriptive abilities, is most famous for his positively Keatsian lyric “I Am” and Elizabeth Bishop’s most loved poem, arguably, is her villanelle, “One Art,” which features a few concrete details, but no description as such. But the oeuvres of both poets provide ample proof that there is a healthy clutch of poems in English in which description is no optional feature or hood ornament, but the motor of the thing. Now that I’ve told you all about descriptive poetry, I’d like to spend the balance of this discussion describing how it can power a poem.
Of Elizabeth Bishop’s poem “The Bight,” Lorrie Goldensohn observes that it “seems pure description of sea and shore.” We can see what she means in the opening lines of the poem:
At low tide like this how sheer the water is.
White, crumbling ribs of marl protrude and glare
and the boats are dry, the pilings dry as matches.
Absorbing, rather than being absorbed,
the water in the bight doesn’t wet anything,
the color of the gas flame turned as low as possible.
One can smell it turning to gas; if one were Baudelaire
one could probably hear it turning to marimba music.
The little ocher dredge at work off the end of the dock
already plays the dry perfectly off-beat claves.
The key word, however, is “seems.” It may seem too obvious to mention, but it needs to be borne in mind that description in poetry is conveyed by means of language and that language—unlike the media of other art forms—has no existence independent of human employment. As Don Paterson puts it, “the transmissionary medium [of poetry] is of a secondary nature.” Words, in other words, are far more slippery than the things for which they stand.
We need look no further than the title of Bishop’s poem to see how this affects poetic description. A bight can be a body of water, a loop of rope or a curve in a body. Assuming that we know this prior to our encounter with the poem, we can only guess, on first seeing the title, what the poem might be about. Perhaps we only know one or two of the meanings, so we make a quick guess or assumption. It soon becomes clear that it is, in fact, a bay Bishop is showing us, but the other meanings of the word linger below the surface, subtly affecting how we receive the poem in a way that is different than if Bishop had called her poem, for example, “The Harbor.” “Bight” is also homophonically identical to two other English words, so if our first encounter with the poem is aural, the level of complexity is stepped up another notch or few. And the whole scene is coloured by the poem’s bracketed subtitle “[On my birthday],” alerting us that there is probably more to this than just a pretty picture.
I could expend thousands of words pointing out the clever ways that Bishop exploits homophony and polysemy in this poem, but suffice it to say for now that description is only “mere description” in the hands of a mediocre writer—or in the hands of a poet whose skills lie elsewhere. When it is done by a Clare or a Bishop, there is always more to it than appears at first glance. Like them, we need to look hard to get a good idea what’s going on.
Speaking of looking hard, I’d like now to return to Aristotle for a moment. Aristotle asserts that “we enjoy looking at the most accurate representations of things which in themselves we find painful to see, such as the forms of the lowest animals and of corpses,” because, as quoted earlier, we learn information from it. I’d like to take a look now—and make you take a look, too—at a very unpleasantly instructive descriptive poem. Ted Hughes’ “Dehorning,” published in his 1979 collection Moortown Diary, is a poem in the tradition of Virgil’s Georgics, a largely didactic book dealing with matters agricultural. Here is some of “Dehorning”:
So there they all are in the yard−
The pick of the bullies, churning each other
Like thick fish in a bucket, churning their mud.
One by one, into the cage of the crush: the needle,
A roar not like a cow—more like a tiger,
Blast of air down a cavern, and long, long
Beginning in pain and ending in terror—then the next.
The needle between the horn and the eye, so deep
Your gut squirms for the eyeball twisting
In its pink-white fastenings of tissue. This side and that.
Then the first one anaesthetized, back in the crush.
The bulldog pincers in the septum, stretched full strength,
The horn levered right over, the chin pulled round
With the pincers, the mouth drooling, the eye
Like a live eye caught in a pan, like the eye of a fish
Imprisoned in air.
Twenty-four more lines of gut-wrenching description follow, until Hughes concludes:
The bitchy high-headed
Straight-back brindle, with her Spanish bull trot,
And her head-shaking snorting advance and her crazy spirit,
Will have to get maternal. What she’s lost
In weapons, she’ll have to make up for in tits.
But they’ve all lost one third of their beauty.
If you didn’t know prior to hearing this poem how to go about dehorning a cow, you could practically do the job yourself now. But that isn’t the most important sort of information conveyed by Hughes’ unflinching blow-by-blow. What we learn, rather—and the lesson is reinforced by making us witness each visceral step of the procedure—what we learn is that this sort of routine violence is an intrinsic component of the domestic agriculture that sustains us all—unless we’re lifelong vegans, I suppose, who probably don’t like to be reminded how crucial animal manure is for organic farming—and that we are, even if only as watchers or passive consumers, complicit in what Virgil called “labor … improbus” —the shameful work that conquers all.
Hughes said in a letter to Anne-Lorraine Bujon that he “never really felt much interest in objective descriptive writing for its own sake—or in writing about anything that I couldn’t regard as the ‘dramatisation’ of a purely internal psychodrama.” He qualifies this by saying that Moortown was as close to an exception as he got. Indeed, the shamanic Hughes we generally think of is steeped in mythology, magic and symbol, hardly a matter-of-fact scene painter. In his preface to the collection, Hughes betrays his own artistic distrust of the form his Moortown poems take—and his unwillingness to submit them to his usual compositional practice. He said that his
…improvised verses are nothing more than this: my own way of getting reasonably close to what is going on, and staying close, and of excluding everything else that might be pressing to interfere with the watching eye. In a sense, the method excludes the poetic process as well. This sort of thing has to be set down soon after the event. If I missed the moment—which meant letting a night’s sleep intervene before I took up a pen—I could always see quite clearly what had been lost. By the next day, the processes of ‘memory,’ the poetic process, had already started.
One might say that he lost his nerve in the last line of “Dehorning,” abandoning description for a summative, sweeping rhetorical gesture. But I would argue that the piled-on showing makes that telling conclusion earn its keep. In effect, the description converts the last line into one more objective observation. In the business of farming, beauty is another commodity to be totted up and weighed in a cost-benefit analysis. Robert Frost once quipped that when a poetic license is issued, the bearer should be entitled to only three uses of the word “beautiful.” He was getting at the same thing Pound was when he warned poets to “go in fear of abstractions.” These points are well taken, but has “beauty” ever been more concrete a noun than in this poem?
We see a similar effect in “The Bight,” when Bishop concludes that “All the untidy activity continues, / awful but cheerful.” Those two adjectives are the vaguest, most subjective, least sensual words in the poem, but coming as they do on the heels of 35 lines of vivid limning, they cut like a dull blade stropped to a shiny, keen edge. It’s something that also happens also in “Filling Station,” in which Bishop’s last line (“Somebody loves us all.”) would be hopelessly sentimental had it not followed forty lines minutely describing the “oil-soaked, oil-permeated” filth of the gas bar.
And how about Clare’s gorgeous sonnet, “Emmonsails Heath in Winter”:
I love to see the old heath’s withered brake
Mingle its crimpled leaves with furze and ling
While the old Heron from the lonely lake
Starts slow and flaps his melancholy wing
And oddling crow in idle motions swing
On the half rotten ash trees topmost twig
Beside whose trunk the gipsy makes his bed
Up flies the bouncing woodcock from the brig
Where a black quagmire quakes beneath the tread
The fieldfares chatter in the whistling thorn
And for the awe round fields and closen rove
And coy bumbarrels twenty in a drove
Flit down the hedgerows in the frozen plain
And hang on little twigs and start again
In this sharply drawn sketch, “melancholy” seems almost like a physical property of the heron’s wing. But what in particular I’d like to zoom in on in this poem is the rhetoric of its first two words, “I love.” This is something we see Clare do often: a very short subjective statement of feeling at the beginning, or in the midst, of a catalogue of rapid-fire sensory impressions. Even when he doesn’t say, “I love,” the implicit emotion soaks the poem. This is something that, including such apparently contrary examples as “Dehorning,” characterises all good descriptive writing, one of the great strengths of which is its capacity to convey emotion from poet to reader with a minimum of mediation and with none of the rhetoric that might give a reader grounds, as Ruskin does, to call bullshit.
The communication of emotion from artist to audience was Tolstoy’s chief criterion for bona fide art, which he said “is not, as the metaphysicians say, the manifestation of some mysterious Idea of beauty or God … but it is a means of union among men, joining them together in the same feelings, and indispensable for the life and progress towards well-being of individuals and of humanity.” Tolstoy goes on, in “What Is Art?”, to name individuality, clearness and sincerity as the necessary “conditions of contagion,” with sincerity being paramount. Sincerity, Tolstoy maintained, is “always complied with in peasant art, and this explains why such art always acts so powerfully.”
It’s more than a little tempting in response to this kind of sentimental dogma to quote Wilde’s bon mot about all bad art being sincere, but I think Tolstoy does open a window on the poems and poets I’ve been talking about. His thinking is most immediately applicable to Clare, since he was a peasant, even if his art was not “peasant art,” as such, but a sometimes uneasy hybrid of peasant art and literary poetry. His sincerity is evident as much in his frequent unelaborated statements of feeling as it is his loving attention to detail and in the unvarnished texture and lexical oddities of his verse, on display in more recent editions of his work that have restored the poems to their original state of unruly orthography and almost non-existent punctuation. A Beat poet avant la lettre, Clare evidently composed quickly and revised little. We see a similar phenomenon in Hughes’ unwillingness to revise his on-the-spot observations of life and death at Moortown Farm, lest he make them too “poetic”—i.e., less sincere.
Bishop is, in some regards, the odd one out here, since she is known to have been a meticulous reviser and a painstakingly slow composer of poems, sometimes producing a final draft decades after the events it describes. “The Bight” was a relatively quick composition for her, but even so, we cannot take at face value the tacit claim made by the poem’s sub-title, that it was written on her birthday. Some of the poem’s imagery appears in a letter to Robert Lowell written more than three weeks earlier, and she reported being “just about finished” the poem six days after her birthday.
Bishop’s theoretical investment in descriptive writing and the variety of things she used it to convey are more self-conscious and nuanced than anything we find in Clare or Hughes. But Bishop, as her biographer Brett Millier relates, shared Hughes’ fascination with “primitive” art and writing, and would no doubt have been drawn to the work of Clare, had she known it. “Spontaneity” was a poetic quality she valued highly, and she also prized, as she said in an interview with Alexandra Johnson, “clarity and simplicity”—all qualities that abound in Clare’s work. But as was the case with Ruskin, Clare didn’t appear to be on Bishop’s radar, which isn’t surprising, since Clare’s profile, during Bishop’s life, was even lower in the US than it was in Britain, a situation that didn’t start to ameliorate until the late 1970s.
A younger friend of Bishop’s, one who counted her a significant influence on his own work and who was, unlike Bishop, “new” enough to be included in Donald Allen’s iconoclastic anthology, was also drawn to Clare. It may seem odd at first that John Ashbery would have affinities with two poets whose work is characterised by simplicity, clarity and objective description. As Ashbery himself acknowledges in the opening remarks of his Norton lectures, he is “known as a writer of hermetic poetry” of oblique inward associations. The mystery evaporates, however, if one realizes that descriptive poetry is mimetic not so much of the external world as it is of internal thought processes, of perception and cognition, of the mind in contact with matter. Any attempt to represent the external world artistically is perforce an act of interpretation, selection, translation. The riot of things going on in any given moment is simply too cacophonous to capture, even if more than a fraction of it registered in the conscious mind, which it isn’t.
Descriptive poetry at its best is not only mimetic of the brain’s operations, but stimulates similar neural sparking in the mind of the reader. As Lessing said, “[t]he poet … must awaken in us conceptions so lively, that, from the rapidity with which they arise, the same impression should be made upon our senses, which the sight of the material objects, that these conceptions represent, would produce.” That speed, Lessing maintained, is “indispensable, if we are to form an idea of the whole, which is nothing more than the result of the parts and their combination.” Visually, that result is more apt to be, in Clare’s phrasing, a “rich confusion” and a “moving scene” than a crystalline image of frozen still life.
In some ways, brain science is just catching up with Lessing and Clare’s intuitive grasp of how the mind works. Neuroscientist Antonio Damasio explains, in his 2010 book Self Comes to Mind: Constructing the Conscious Brain, that
The process of mind is a continuous flow of … images, some of which correspond to actual, ongoing business outside the brain, while some are being reconstituted from memory in the process of recall. Minds are a subtle, flowing combination of actual images and recalled images, in ever-changing proportions.
In other words, minds … are about the cinemalike editing choices that our pervasive system of biological value has promoted. The mind procession is not about first come, first served. It is about value-stamped selections inserted in a logical frame over time.
That Bishop recognized the nature of consciousness is evident in precisely the sort of cinematic cuts between one description and the next in “The Bight” and the emphasis she places on “correspondences.” What Bishop is doing in her poem is not just saying what she sees, but selecting what she sees and how she frames it, using imagery and diction that link her apparently objective descriptions to her personal past, to other poems and works of prose in her oeuvre (most notably her fable “The Sea & Its Shore”), and to works by other writers, most obviously Baudelaire.
Bishop’s fascination with how the mind thinks is what drew her to the work of Baudelaire, as well as to Herbert, Hopkins, Marianne Moore and Wallace Stevens. Already when she was 22, she told a correspondent that she wanted to write poetry that, in the words of M.W. Croll on Baroque prose writers, “’portray[ed], not a thought, but a mind thinking,’” and she linked that goal with Hopkins, whose journal prose provided a model for Bishop’s practice of close description. Three years later, she would say of Stevens that his “display of ideas at work—making poetry, the poetry making them, etc. … is the way a poet should think, and it should be a lesson to his thicker-witted opponents and critics, who read or write all their ideas in bad prose and give nothing in the way of poetry except exhortation or bits of melancholy description.”
Ashbery, often seen as a direct descendant of Stevens, remarks in his lecture on Clare that “there are times when my work seems to me to be merely a recording of my thought processes without regard to what they are thinking about.” It is Clare’s “automatic, unreflecting joy in nature” that attracts Ashbery, who describes Clare’s abrupt starts and stops as being “like a beetle thrashing around in a weed patch.” In Ashbery’s emphasis on Clare’s “unreflecting” quality, we are reminded of Hughes’ fear of the “poetic process” interfering in his Moortown poems and also of a famous statement made by Bishop in a letter to Anne Stevenson: “What one seems to want in art, in experiencing it, is the same thing that is necessary for its creation, a self-forgetful, perfectly useless concentration.” This is precisely the sort of self-forgetting we saw in Clare’s “Emmonsails Heath” sonnet. It starts with a lyric “I” that does not appear again in the poem, but whose sensibility saturates the selection and framing of details in its swift scroll. As Ashbery says of Clare, “What he sees, he is.”
Aristotle was right, in a way I’m not sure he intended. Descriptive poems such as the ones we’ve been considering are instructive, but it isn’t merely information that they convey. They are also object lessons in technique. These are texts that teach us how to read, because they are themselves sophisticated examples of a primitive kind of reading. I’m thinking here of Robert Bringhurst’s belief that
Reading, like speech, is an ancient, preliterate craft. We read the tracks and scat of animals, the depth and lustre of their coats, the set of their ears and the gait of their limbs. … We read the speech of jays, ravens, hawks, frogs, wolves, and, in infinite detail, the voices, faces, gestures, coughs and postures of other human beings. This is a serious kind of reading, and it antedates all but the earliest, most involuntary form of writing, which is the leaving of prints and traces, the making of tracks.
That such forms of reading are ancient does not mean they are outmoded, however much they might be overlooked or underrated by polemicists and anthologists in search of the Next New Thing. These poems remain fresh well beyond their packaged-on dates because they are themselves fresheners of sentience, sensibility and sentiment. What they see and say may have been the matter of moments, but they are moments whose evanescence has been scored in lasting form.