I read a book recently by Harold Bloom called ‘The Art of Reading Poetry’ that was very provocative in what it chose to argue were the chief attainments, or qualities, of great poetry. I recommend the read, it does open one’s mind about what constitutes quality in style, voice and substance, amongst other things. I think, as a practicing poet, it’s useful to read these sorts of books. My own theory is that one of the first steps in becoming a good writer of poetry is becoming a good reader of poetry. Which is harder than our high school teachers would have had us believe.
I once had a conversation with Les Murray when he visited my university, where he asked me whether I read much poetry. I told him that I did and he said, good, not many poets do these days. So it’s in this vein that I would like to look at one of the main focuses of Harold Bloom’s book* which is the quality that he terms ‘inevitability’. Les Murray, at his best, attains this quality to some extent. If you hear him talk about it he phrases it in terms of the poem ‘choosing its own direction’ (to loosely paraphrase) and taking a different path to the one he had originally conceived.
In Harold Bloom’s analysis, it is phrased as:
“Inevitable”, in this context, takes on its primary meaning, phrasing that cannot be avoided, that must be, rather than the secondary meaning of “invariable” or “predictable.” Indeed, the difference between those meanings is a pragmatic test for distinguishing between the best poems and merely imitative verses.
Harold Bloom’s analysis is more complete in its understanding, though this may be an artefact of how and where they were expressing their concepts. Murray’s argument** goes along the lines that there is a ‘right’ way for a poem to express itself, and that this ‘right way’ is inherent to the poem as an entity. Bloom’s statements encompass this notion, but expand it to say that there is a way that the poem’s phrasing ‘must be’ and that any change in this phrasing would be a diminishment of the poem.
This is not a new concept, by any stretch. In the play, and subsequent film, ‘Amadeus’ the jealous Salieri describes Mozart’s music as having a perfection where to change just one note would be to diminish the entire piece. The same holds true for Bloom’s concept of Inevitability. The intent of the concept is to emphasise the idea that in great poetry the phrasing is unavoidable in the sense of le mot juste, the right word in the right place, rather than the unavoidability of bad poetry predictably rhyming ‘strife’ with ‘life’.
In his analysis Bloom cites Tennyson’s Ulysses, whose ‘inevitable’ phrasing is not just grand but also memorable. For instance:
There lies the port; the vessel puffs her sail;
There gloom the dark, broad seas. My mariners,
Souls that have toil’d, and wrought, and thought with me,–
That ever with a frolic welcome took
The thunder and the sunshine, and opposed
Free hearts, free foreheads,– you and I are old;
Old age hath yet his honour and his toil.
Death closes all; but something ere the end,
Some work of noble note, may yet be done,
Not unbecoming men that strove with Gods.
The lights begin to twinkle from the rocks;
The long day wanes; the slow moon climbs; the deep
Moans round with many voices. Come, my friends.
‘T is not too late to seek a newer world.
To quote a small portion. It is also an endearing quality to Bloom’s statements that he claims to find the Inevitability of Tennyson’s Ulysses comforting, not just memorable. A steady rightness in the long, dark evenings of old age.
I would suggest that the difference between predictability and Unavoidability / Inevitability is something too little understood by young or emerging poets. Bloom’s book is a good primer on a number of such concepts, and I hope soon to find another source that examines the idea even closer.
*Actually, it’s more along the lines of a longish essay, being about 56 pages and costing about 21 dollars Australian.
**And I realise you’ll just have to take my word for it at the moment, I don’t have the internet at home right now, so I’m not able to provide the exact sources for his statements on this idea.