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Poetry in Motion (and Digestion)

May 29, 2014 | by

Gilbert_Chesterton

G. K. Chesterton in 1909. Photo: Ernest Herbert Mills

A happy birthday to G. K. Chesterton, born today in 1874. Chesterton’s 1908 novel, The Man Who Was Thursday, opens with a gem of a standoff between two rival poets. It’s a pungent, vitriolic affair, the best poet-on-poet action this side of The Savage Detectives, and in celebration of its author I reprint it here at length.

To set the scene: say you’re a hotshot poet at a garden party in Saffron Park, a suburb of London where your versification is known to be the best around. But wait—some other, new poet shows up, all cock-of-the-walk. Who’s this asshole? The two of you get to exchanging words, only to find that your worldviews are not just incompatible but riven, sundered, wholly opposed.

On the side of the anarchic and chaotic, there’s Mr. Lucian Gregory—“His dark red hair parted in the middle … and curved into the slow curls of a virgin in a pre-Raphaelite picture.” And defending all things orderly and punctilious, there’s Mr. Gabriel Syme, “a very mild-looking mortal, with a fair, pointed beard and faint, yellow hair.” The passage below finds them expounding, ardently and hilariously, on their respective poetics. For my money, Gregory has the more compelling argument, but Syme is the more masterful rhetorician.

Gregory resumed in high oratorical good humour. “An artist is identical with an anarchist,” he cried. “You might transpose the words anywhere. An anarchist is an artist. The man who throws a bomb is an artist, because he prefers a great moment to everything … The poet delights in disorder only … Why do all the clerks and navvies in the railway trains look so sad and tired, so very sad and tired? I will tell you. It is because they know that the train is going right. It is because they know that whatever place they have taken a ticket for that place they will reach. It is because after they have passed Sloane Square they know that the next station must be Victoria, and nothing but Victoria. Oh, their wild rapture! oh, their eyes like stars and their souls again in Eden, if the next station were unaccountably Baker Street!”

“It is you who are unpoetical,” replied the poet Syme. “If what you say of clerks is true, they can only be as prosaic as your poetry. The rare, strange thing is to hit the mark; the gross, obvious thing is to miss it … Chaos is dull; because in chaos the train might indeed go anywhere, to Baker Street or to Baghdad. But man is a magician, and his whole magic is in this, that he does say Victoria, and lo! it is Victoria. No, take your books of mere poetry and prose; let me read a time table, with tears of pride … every time a train comes in I feel that it has broken past batteries of besiegers, and that man has won a battle against chaos. You say contemptuously that when one has left Sloane Square one must come to Victoria. I say that one might do a thousand things instead, and that whenever I really come there I have the sense of hairbreadth escape. And when I hear the guard shout out the word ‘Victoria,’ it is not an unmeaning word. It is to me the cry of a herald announcing conquest. It is to me indeed ‘Victoria’; it is the victory of Adam.”

Gregory wagged his heavy, red head with a slow and sad smile.

“And even then,” he said, “we poets always ask the question, ‘And what is Victoria now that you have got there?’ You think Victoria is like the New Jerusalem. We know that the New Jerusalem will only be like Victoria. Yes, the poet will be discontented even in the streets of heaven. The poet is always in revolt.”

“There again,” said Syme irritably, “what is there poetical about being in revolt? You might as well say that it is poetical to be seasick. Being sick is a revolt. Both being sick and being rebellious may be the wholesome thing on certain desperate occasions; but I’m hanged if I can see why they are poetical. Revolt in the abstract is—revolting. It’s mere vomiting … It is things going right,” he cried, “that is poetical! Our digestions, for instance, going sacredly and silently right, that is the foundation of all poetry. Yes, the most poetical thing, more poetical than the flowers, more poetical than the stars—the most poetical thing in the world is not being sick.”

The Man Who Was Thursday is in the public domain.

 

7 COMMENTS

7 Comments

  1. Michelle in NYC | May 29, 2014 at 8:10 pm

    More THANKS

  2. Mark David Dietz | May 30, 2014 at 2:07 am

    Perhaps the truly damining thing here is that neither Simes nor Gregory offer a very habitable notion of poetry. Poetry is no more anarchy than it is finding one’s way to what is right.

    Rebuild the example that both use in a more poetic fashion and I think you will see what I mean.

    A school boy fantasizes that the train will go to Baghdad rather than Baker street. A man who is only a pedestrian when he climbs aboard the poet’s subway will think — oh, let it take me to Baker St. please, so that I might continue my walk un peace.

    A poet, the true empiricist, will board the subway and arrive at Baker Street only to find it is not the same place he knew before. It has been shared by others since — andinb the course of things it has both changed and not changed.

    The awareness that change is not an absolute and that stasis is also a fantasy of sorts lies most near the poetic experience. The knowledge that one can only see the great and grand complexity of life by travelling through poetry and returning to life is what makes for the poetic sensibility. It is a sensibility we all have, but seldom acknowledge, because we are too busy looking for and celebrating the miraculous and, as Simes tells us, too easy change of anarchy, or we are dead to all but the difficult and all too prosaic ratification of the right way of things which we have mixed with a too explicit fear of anarchy.

    Chesterton made his error by imagining that poetry was a sort of either/or. Those who think anarchy is a more pleasing aesthetic than the more difficult grasping at the relevance and beauty of the impudently real are making the same error. And both groups fall, each in their own way, short of the awkwardly poetic — which never presents itself in so fastidious a fashion as to be resolvable in a simple either/or.

  3. Mark David Dietz | May 30, 2014 at 2:43 am

    My apologies, I should have said Victoria Station rather than Baker Street. And I should have more carefully reviewed my post to eliminate the apalling typos. I ask that you extend a small measure of charity to me and read past these awkward mistakes.

  4. Mack Hall, HSG | May 30, 2014 at 6:53 pm

    Dear Mark David,

    Huh?

    Sincerely,

    Mack

  5. Well, I Woke Up To Go Get Me A Cold Pop | May 30, 2014 at 11:19 pm

    Dear Oh Lord Jesus,

    IT’S A FAWHR.

    Sincerely,
    Ain’t Nobody Got Time For That

  6. Mark David Dietz | May 31, 2014 at 1:20 am

    Mack,

    As simple as I can make it: poetry is never pure anarchy or pure order. Chesterton asks us to decide between the two, but this is a false choice.

    When we get on a train we may be surprised if it shows up in Baker Street when we thought it was going to Victoria Station. This is C’s example of anarchy.

    C says we should instead be delighted when its timetable tells us it will go to Victoria Station and does indeed do so. The world is right and in order — and C tells us we should be awed and delighted by that.

    Today, no different than in C’s time, we are looking for things in poetry and art to drag us out of the everyday — so we find the anarchy appealing.

    But C wants us to be awed by the order of life; he creates a counter image, the red haired poet, who wants us to delight in anarchy, and whom he, perhaps wrongly, expects us to reject.

    But, I would say, that neither offers us options that really lead to good poetry. Poetry is not an expression of pure order or pure anarchy — but an exploration of the space in between the two extremes. (This is partly because there is no way to express pure anarchy or pure order. When C’s stand-in Syme revolts at heaven, Chesterton is telling us he knows this, that poetry is too human an act to exist comfortably within the purity of heaven.)

    One way to understand this is to imagine yourself on that train going to Victoria Station. You arrive at Victoria Station and say, ah, everything is right in the world. But as you walk through the station you notice it has changed from your last visit, new posters advertise new plays in the west end, a busker you’d never seen before is tuning his guitar, the people around you are not the same one’s you saw in your last visit. The poet explores both the sameness of life (order) and the differences (anarchy). To focus entirely on one or the other would make for very boring and bad poetry — for this and for other reasons, which Chesterton hints at, the choice between order and anarchy is a false choice (and honestly Chesterton knew, to some extent, that it was a false choice).

    Does that help?

    Mark

  7. Mark David Dietz | June 3, 2014 at 6:31 am

    Well I discover that I have made another error — it is not Syme but Gregory who revolts at heaven — ah, I think I shall revolt as well…

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