Academic journal article The Hudson Review

Dream of Fair to Middling Poetry

Academic journal article The Hudson Review

Dream of Fair to Middling Poetry

Article excerpt

Dream of Fair to Middling Poetry

Is IT RIDICULOUS, IN THE YEAR 2015, TO GIVE SAMUEL BECKETT as poet a mixed, even a negative review? While it would be no more seemingly ill conceived, from our later vantage point, than the reviews his poetry received in the early years of his career-they were mostly uncomprehending or dismissive-nevertheless he did later win universal fame and the Nobel Prize, primarily as a novelist and playwright, admittedly. Beckett himself was unsure at various times of the value of his poetry. The year before George Reavey published his first collection of poems, Echo's Bones and Other Precipitates (Europa Press, 1935), Beckett wrote to his friend A. J. Leventhal and avowed ashamedly, "My poems are worthless." Of course a poet experiencing a arise de confiance is hardly unusual; and Beckett, almost thirty and with only the slimmest of slim pamphlets yet to his credit ( Whoroscope, 1930), can be forgiven for doubting himself beneath the cloak of privacy of a personal letter. In an earlier letter to Thomas MacGreevy, Beckett dismissed much of his poetry with a more nuanced view, saying that it was mostly what he called in French facultatif, by which he meant it was the product of his will rather than of emotional necessity. "I would have been no worse off for not having written it. Is that a very hairless way of thinking of poetry?" he asked in the letter.1 He then goes on to characterize poetry that is optional or unnecessary (i.e., facultatif) as Jesuitical and cites Mallarmé's work as an example.

Poetry is not the genre Beckett is best remembered or most often read for-the editors of a new edition of his Collected Poems call poetry "this most neglected part of Beckett's oeuvre"-and in the end it would not bulk large in his output. This new edition contains just 250 pages of poetry, and a good deal of that consists of translations from French and Spanish.2 Yet his final composition was a poem, and poetry's concisions and excisions clearly had a determining influence on his evolving minimalist theatrical aesthetic. As long ago as 1970, the critic Lawrence E. Harvey saw in Beckett's poetry "the manifesto of the prose and drama to come,"3 by which he meant everything after Watt (1953). In conversations with Harvey in 1962, Beckett had allowed himself to praise poems of his own such as "Moly"; even earlier, before those first poems had accrued the rosy hue bestowed by time, he could say of "Serena I," one of the poems in his first collection, that it was "très émouvant."4 A woman called Nuala Costello, whom Beckett met in Paris through James Joyce's children Lucia and Giorgio, was sent a rather strange and somewhat repellent poem in a letter in February of 1934. This poem, entitled "Seats of Honour," was only published for the first time in the initial volume of the Beckett Letters in 2009 and has not formed part of his poetic corpus until this new version of his Collected Poems. After confessing that the poem has not been well received generally, he says at first, "I don't care much for it myself." "But," he goes on, "that it is a poem and not verse, that it is a prayer and not a collect, I have not the slightest doubt, not the slightest."5 Seán Lawlor and John Pilling denominate this as Beckett's earliest statement allying poetry and prayer. Prayer seems an almost freakish alliance for Beckett to invoke, given the intensely bleak and godless world that was to become his regular territory. Is prayer or even God what Beckett the poet stammers at in "what is the word," his last poem, where whatever it is that is glimpsed (barely, it seems) remains unspoken? The poem's longest line-"folly for to need to seem to glimpse afaint far away over there what -"-never quite lets us know for certain.

Beckett's poetry evolved significantly. His deep involvement in the Joyce circle when he was still in his early twenties and just starting to write poetry, and when Joyce himself was working on Finnegans Wake, left an imprint on the early poems that is unmistakable and not especially happy. …

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