One of my favourite quotes I like to think back to when I realise I’m wasting my time writing poems no one will ever read was said by Sigmund Freud: “Everywhere I go I find a poet has been there before me”. What he means by this (I suppose) is that any discovery he makes he will find examples of it in literature from previous times. His preoccupation with Hamlet and Shakespeare is well documented. The fact most poetry is continually reassessed is evidence of the truth of his statement. A curious thing is why this might be the case.
An oft repeated phrase from me regarding poetry, when asked, is that Poetry itself is a method of failure. By this I mean poetry continually tries to give voice and form through language to the ineffable. Ultimately a successful poem will always fail to achieve this but come very close. Poetry is always at the avant garde of language, most of the great neologists were poets and phrases we quote and aphorisms we spout are often written by poets of yesteryear (Shakespeare mostly). Poetry is also a method of compression. William Goldman in his book “Which Lie Did I Tell” speaks insightfully, especially for a non-Poet, about poetry being a method of compression; Meaning that a poem’s narrative and meaning should not be able to be expressed to the same extent in less words, i.e. you cannot condense a poem. Yet despite all this and the fact that on initial reading a poem can be indecipherable, we will still revel in it and take something away from it. Well, those who like poetry do anyway… TS Eliot after reading Dante’s Inferno in its original Italian claimed “it communicated before it was understood”. This is tricky to believe but I do feel that poetry is more often than not part of an innate human gene that poets tap into and that we can all feel even if we don’t immediately understand it.
The reason I have come to this rather wild and unfounded conclusion is because I have recently got into a poet called Louis MacNeice. I say “got into”, I mean he has fast become my favourite poet of the 20th century. He is the only poet I have bought the collected works of and it was largely for this post. Reading basically all of the man’s output I noticed something rather interesting that I agree is nothing more than wild speculation and ghost connections but that may be of interest the bored nonetheless.
I posit that Louis MacNeice in his poetic output predicted the internet before his death in 1963.
I’ll let you gather up your socks that have just BLOWN OFF after that statement and then elucidate:
Whether or not you believe in a collective unconscious within the human race its pretty obvious that humanity does certain things at the same time that become a trend and there are definite societal “moods”. Traditionally at a time of great societal stress too. Say A World War for instance. MacNeice’s Autumn Journal is a poetic tour-de-force that is a magical and biting appraisal of Britain about to move in to the throes of World War II. He captures the zeitgeist brilliantly and you can practically smell the tension in the air as Europe begins to crumple. In his poems, particularly his last collection The Burning Perch written in the early 60’s, he shows an aptitude for understanding the cultural sways throughout the country (and in many ways, the world). He was also a television producer for the BBC and understanding your audience is undoubtedly a key component to that job. So having a finger on the pulse and being able to express this at a close and personal level to his reader and adding texture by being intensely specific in his imagery, MacNeice is clearly pressing forward using poetry.
He can clearly see the need society has for a closer communication, seeing the arrival of telephones in most houses as he did and living through a war that was essentially all about communication. The inception and development of computers was also no doubt apparent in his mind, what with Bletchley Park being a hub of technological development and our needs for better decryption and encryption equipment. Predictions of the future were also a constant throughout the 20th century, since Jules Verne and HG Wells began their adventures into science fiction there have been predictions of video phones and powerful computer brains until they became a reality. But it is MacNeice’s specificity that astounds with regards to the internet. Peculiar turns of phrase in some poems could now be viewed as everyday day speech despite using (at the time) very alien imagery. What do I mean? Examples:
I cannot reproduce whole poems unfortunately but I heartily recommend picking up any of MacNeice’s work and most of his collections are available online. I am referencing the collected poems for this article.
One of the theories of societal changes brought about by the internet is one of ‘Plurality’, which means the fact or state of being plural i.e. among a large number. Looking at mainly Facebook and Twitter we can see this idea in its basic form: Many existing as a hive. All knowledge, history and information about one another shared. Opinions, hopes and fears all broadcast moment to moment through 140 characters or less. In this realm of 1s and 0s we traffic in personalities and indentities at the blink of an eye the whole of human life as a plural, a group, rather than as individual. The societies and civilisations of various social networking sites have developed in very quick time and with them have brought their ‘Discontents’ as, again, Freud put it. MacNeice was already on this theory with his poem ‘Plurality’ way back in 1941. MacNeice is already resisting our urge to combine into a homogeneous collective that we seem to have arrived at in Facebook et al: “The smug philosophers lie who say the world is one” he begins, going on “postulating a dumb static identity/ of essence and existence which could not fuse without/ banishing to a distance belief with doubt/ action along with error, growth along with gaps”. He condemns the constant need for a “history” or perhaps as we would have it now a “Feed”: “a man is what it is because/ it is something that began and not what it was,/ yet is itself throughout, fluttering and unfurled,/ … the row of noughts where time is done”. The whole poem reads like an angry poet being published in the Guardian today railing against the tidal wave of modern social media. Its quite long sadly or I would type it up here but I recommend you read it in its entirety.
Another interesting piece of prediction is in his collection Springboard from 1941 in his poems The Trolls and Troll’s Courtship: “they don’t know what they are doing,/ all they can do is stutter and lurch, riding their hobby, grinding/ their hobnails into our bodies, into our brains,” or “a wrong – in the end – assumption.” Troll’s Courtship is even funnier: “I have knocked down houses and stamped my feet on people’s heart,” or “my curses and my boasts are merely a waste of breath,/ my lusts and loneliness grunt and heave/ and blunder round among ruins that I leave” and my personal favourite “Utter negation in positive form,/ … Of dissolution and the constant pyre/ of all desirable things – that is what I desire”. I think, all in all, that is what most people define as an online ‘Troll’, isn’t it?
Or how about his poem Budgie from his last collection The Burning Perch published in 1963 which contains the alarmingly prescient line: “I Twitter Am – and peeps like a television/ actor admiring himself in the monitor.” Not to mention the hilarious mention of “A barrage of Angry Birds” in Autumn Journal XIV. But most profound perhaps his line in Autumn Journal XXIII “Humanity being more than a mechanism”.
This is a small selection, I could go on a lot longer. Reading MacNeice is like reading a poet who has written most of this today or is still writing. The very definition of being ahead of your time is that your work remains current in the future. Every form of art has this. The great painters, thinkers, artists, filmmakers, photographers, architects, writers, musicians all are referred to as ‘Poets’ if they are felt to have hit a nail on the head or are clearly portraying something not yet understood. MacNeice seems to accomplish this on a page by page basis while still referring directly to current events at the time of his writing them. All of the above quotes are taken out of context and bent to fit my means. Plurality is about Theorists and Newspapers, the Troll poems are about a bombing raid he lived through, Budgie is about preening celebrity (that one’s pretty dead on actually) and Autumn Journal is an up to the minute commentary of life in Britain during the settlement in Munich and the slow defeat in Spain but nonetheless the similarities ARE there. In an admittedly abstract form, I confess. What this could show is how language is updated to suit our times and our needs in the way TS Elliot speaks of history aligning with current art and culture as opposed to us aligning with history, but I prefer to subscribe to the idea that perhaps humans plot a course for ourselves. A course that the more attentive can perceive.
MacNeice wrote a poem called Babel referring to the Tower of Babel and the scattering of the populace by speaking in tongues. Its another classic and contains the refrain: “Can’t we ever, my love, speak the same language?” The fact seems to be: We all still do. The world has never been so connected. You are reading this very post in our own newly formed Tower of Babel but unlike an outdated and supposedly saintly scripture would have it I don’t see this as a bad thing. And apparently neither did MacNeice. We are a society of people, a mob of individuals that struggles to find common aims or enough space, we are justly saddened when this power is abused or misused but when suddenly a good cause goes “viral” within the close confines of this tower we are amazed at the results. A friend was seeking a Kidney through Vine and due to the mass communication it created she was able to gain the possibility of helping her husband where once little hope had been.
The internet is merely an extension of Humanity’s recognition of ourselves in others and our desire to communicate these individual expressions to others through a variety of mediums as we have always done, most notably and, in my opinion most successfully, in poetry.
“Have we no aims in common?”
P.S. If you liked this post please checkout my own sonnet sequence available for free over at theanatomy.co.uk