Literary reviews by Tim Love.
Warning: Rather than reviews, these are often notes in preparation for reviews that were never finished, or pleas for help with understanding pieces. See Litref Reviews - a rationale for details.

Tuesday, 19 September 2000

"The Complete Poems of William Empson" by John Haffenden (ed) (Penguin, 2000)

The book is in part a biography too, with incidental insights into the Empson/Richards/Leavis triangle. Leavis once thought Empson "dangerously clever" then later thought he was little else but that. Lowell thought him "the most intelligent poet writing in our language and perhaps the best". The volume and variety of his output as well as his (currently unfashionable) "difficulty" and attention to form have restricted his popularity.

This 400+ page book has about 100 pages of poetry. Translations and a masque rub shoulders with sonnets, prose-poems and villanelles. I thought at first that some of references that Haffenden mentioned were far-fetched, but Empson had a good (though not always word-perfect) memory for poetry, so perhaps every echo of Shakespeare and the Bible was intentional.

  • The Gertrude Stein influence was a surprise.
  • Interesting to see how his poems were received. I can see how Lowell could be engrossed. I wonder if Betjeman really found them "reluctantly fascinating"
  • The Poem=Crossword analogy is apt in my case. I first try to cope with the piece without help. Later I sneak a look at the notes/answers when I get stuck, but only enough to get me over the immediate hurdle.
  • His attitude to notes (indeed, to prose/poetry issues in general) seems laudable. He suggests that prose notes can be used as a bridge between the reader and increasingly specialised poetry - "Poets, on the face of it, have either got to be easier or to write their own notes; readers have either got to take more trouble over reading or cease to regard notes as pretentious and a sign of bad poetry". His notes certainly help when his allusions are to tales no longer current (e.g. Napoleon's role in "Four Legs, Two Legs, Three Legs") or when his allusions are the result of misremembering (he writes that "Fearful and Muchafraid of course are characters in Bunyan". He meant "Fearing"). Even with the notes I still find some of the poetry overly confusing, especially when syntax is compromised for the sake of sound or metre (he's keen on "the singing line"). For example, line 12 of Camping Out reads
        Our bullet boat light's speed by thousands flies
    which according to the notes conveys the idea of the boat exceeding light's speed. An earlier draft, which had outflies instead of flies and shot instead of bullet was clearer.
  • Empson said "'Missing Dates' is more widely accepted than anything else I've written, and I think probably is the best poem". He also said "I am afraid I like 'Bacchus' best of my own poems". I liked 'Song of the amateur psychologist', 'Dissatisfaction with Metaphysics', 'To an Old Lady', 'Bacchus' and some lines from other poems.
  • I think that Donne-ish poets are bound to appear interested (knowledgeable, even) in science, because cutting-edge science is such a rich source of new metaphors. Some science is almost Found Poetry - e.g. I recall reading once in New Scientist that the chemical processes involved in learning evolved from those that heal wounds. Few if any poets get their science metaphors directly from labs/journals so the science popularisers (Eddington, Hawking, etc) play an important role, inventing the metaphors or making them more accessible.

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