• Chris Wallace-Crabbe

‘I pity the poets who are guided solely by instinct; they seem to me incomplete.’ (Baudelaire)

 ‘Essence is expressed in grammar.’ (Wittgenstein 1958)

You get into very interesting terrain when you begin to think about thinking. Looking for signposts, you might discover that the Oxford companion to the mind has no entry on the verb ‘to think’, though it does have one on the verb ‘to boggle’. The companion to philosophyis more amenable, suggesting that, ‘In its diverse forms … thinking appears to enjoy an intimate connection with speech, but just what that connection might be is difficult to establish.’ And it goes on to admit that wordless thought is possible.

This is acceptable, but it doesn’t help us much, here. After all, we are asking questions about an art that is verbal, made out of assembled words, their sounds, parallels and echoes.

A consideration of thinking in poetry can take at least two forms:what sort of processes went through the poet’s mind as he/she put together these artworks; and, are these poems intellectually demanding,interestingly complicated? Like these lines from William Empson:

Assume whatever answers wits have found
In evening dress on rafts upon the main
Not therefore uneventful and soon drowned.

Such writing will divide readers of poetry, of course. The late Vincent Buckley despised the poetry of Empson, feeling that it lacked affect. However, he would have rejoiced in the modernist identification and corralling of the ‘metaphysical poets’ carried out by Herbert Grierson in 1921. This was furthered by TS Eliot whose central premise was that ‘a thought to Donnewas an experience; it modified his sensibility’. Eliot claimed that in these poets thought and feeling worked as one, but that after the Civil War this unity fell apart, so that later poets ‘thought and felt by fits’. So much for an historical watershed.

An aside, for the non-poetic. Even if we never read it, we all know that there is something special about poetry and its use of the language, not only in the manner of its thinking. A modern lyric is easily detectable on the page, because its right-hand margin isn’t justified: this may be a reason for the reader to skip over it and get on to some clear, sensible prose: reverting to something linear, rather than something driven by the auditory and the associative.

When I talk about poetry, of course, I mean the contemporary, lyrical medium, not that ancient, easier genre which told all the stories of the aural tribe. Modern poetry tends to be dense, relatively difficult, and sometimes—paradoxically—‘pure’. You could say it is to everyday speech as cognac is to a bunch of grapes. It has been worked over, refined, intensified. And it is often driven by yearning—whether or not to yearn is inherently to think. In this respect, I like the poet Bronwyn Lea’s assertion that ‘We would love to be able to write kinds of poetry beyond the poems we are condemned to write’.

The other mode of artistic escape is curled up within the Mallarmean quest for aesthetic purity. Yeats said the best thing about the ‘purer’ kinds of lyric poetry when he wrote, ‘A single line will take us hours, maybe / Yet if it does not seem an instant’s thought / Our stitching and unstitching has been nought’. And Archibald Macleish notoriouslyclaimed that ‘A poem should not mean / but be.’ This would make poetry’s problems purely ontological.

Very well, then, if we attend to the role of thinking in poetry, there are two different experiential fields we’ll be drawn to. One is the perceived density of thought in a poem or poems in front of us, notable (or notorious) in modernist and metaphysical poetry, as we’ve noted. The other is the authorial question: what role does deliberate thinking play in the writing of a poem?

All the cultural past, all of language’s accumulated vitamins, pulse behind a mere poem, plumping its veins with meanings. My own poems are overdetermined like dreams, but a dream with an active conscience. When read hard enough, they offer a little fistful of answers in our pathless wilderness. A poem stops our fluid attention for a wee while. It murmurs to readers, ‘Slow down, mate, what’s the hurry?’ And it says, ‘On the other hand ...’

As I’ve written elsewhere, ‘The words we cannot say, we try to say. / We cannot say what we would truly say’ (‘Truth and silence’ 2001). But we orchestrate words to get the genuine saying done. To speak oratorically about this form of art, poetry ‘makes nothing happen’, except to the spirit: at best, we are putting something where God should be. What is more, we are obliged to do it through the athleticism of grammar: grammar in melodious action. And where grammar is seated, we surely have thinking.

Peter Porter haswritten like this about the proceedings in one of my later poems, ‘And the world was calm’ (1990), suggesting its essentially mixed motives:

Here he stratas his discernings in language wonderfully abstract … but also pulsing with the proper minute particulars. The course of the poem is like a river into meditation, a river whose flow may owe as much to medication as to Marcus Aurelius. Three-quarters of the way through the poem (‘And the world was calm’, 1990) … we return to Eden in these lines:

In the beginning green verbs went bobbing in space
Which was pearly or golden in its painterly turn
And we don’t think about gales in the Garden of Eden
Nor about any distinction between plants and weeds
So that Adam is constantly doing something with roses.
Rubric, baldric, erotic, I brood on these terms,
He could have reflected.

And he speaks of the poem in terms of the bitter feelings that can lie behind its ‘ludic tumblings’. But my writing of it proceeded by some mixture of fuels, which plainly included thinking about syntax, about Eden and pre-Fall botany, about paintings, about strange cousinly words, and about the character of Adam. The three ‘-ic’ words sprang from … my forgotten somewhere.

How did I arrive at this poem, you might ask. Well, it probably was througha determination to unravel and release what Wittgenstein once called ‘The crush of thoughts that do not get out because they all push forward and are wedged in the door’ (1987). The potential music of form and genre would have released these‘thoughts’, or jammed intuitions. Syntax would have played its muscular part, even without having rehearsed it. Different matrices will have mingled.

The demi-conscious stress of all this is recorded in the final stanza of one of my poems (‘Like vibrations of a bell’, 1993), an elegy:

                                    All the way from ecstatic to tormented
                                                  my Shorter Oxford
                                    takes its dominant unfeeling way:
                                    it was not born for death. But our dying
                                                 cannot find the words
                                    for someone who shudders near the brink now.
                                                 Come, sweet language,
                                    see him gently under the low hard lintel.

How far is it language itself that has seen the poem to this ending, we might ask. Some ghostly presence, or psychic inhabitant, found the words, ‘dominant’, and ‘shudders’, and above all ‘lintel’.

Aha. Such interventions prompt my not infrequent interminglings of poetry with the dream process: as in the poem, ‘Do I sleep or am I slept?’ (2008):

            At morning there came the dream that includes all dreams,
            its detail unclear but mastery quite profound;
            with no visible characters
                                                                     it owned all the pigeonholes:
            the future was eaten away.


Perhaps it was the Word.
Needing no breath of syntax it reached out
imposing domination on the first
                                                       half of my ordinary Sunday.

               Clearly it had prejudged
parking spot, dates, tennis booking, proper names …
just when that bill was due.
                                                      Design! Design!

On top of my questions the answer lay
like an old cat.

Celestial; timber, silent joinery,
the universe had been fitted out with shelves
on my behalf.

If only that were the case in my daily life! Where thinking meets the frontier of dream, the narrative has a very different character. 

Works cited: 

Baudelaire, C 1964The painter of modern life and other essays (trans Jonathan Mayne), London, Phaidon, 124

Eliot, TS 1979 ‘The metaphysical poets’, in MA Abrams (ed), The Norton anthology of English literature, Volume 2, New York: WW Norton and Co, 2300

Empson, W 2000 ‘Your teeth are ivory towers’, in John Haffenden (ed) The complete poems of William Empson, Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 67

Gregory, RL (ed) 1998The Oxford companion to the mind, Oxford: Oxford University Press

Honderich, T (ed) 2005 The Oxford companion to philosophy (2nd ed), New York, Oxford: Oxford University Press

Macleish, A 1985 [1926] ‘Ars poetica’in Collected poems, 1917-1982, Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

Wallace-Crabbe, C 1990 For crying out loud, Oxford: Oxford University Press

Wallace-Crabbe, C 1993 Rungs of time, Oxford: Oxford University Press

Wallace-Crabbe, C 2001 By and large, Blackheath: Brandl & Schlesinger

Wallace-Crabbe, C 2008 Telling a hawk from a handsaw, Manchester: Carcanet Press

Wittgenstein, L 1953 Philosophical investigations (trans GEM Anscombe), New York: Macmillan,§371

Wittgenstein, L 1987 Remarks on Frazer’s Golden Bough (trans AC Miles; rev R Rhees), Harleston: Brynmill Press

Yeats, WB 1996 [1903] ‘Adam’s curse’, in RJ Finneran (ed), The collected poems of WB Yeats (2nd ed), New York: Simon and Schuster