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ON POETS AND POETRY

From:
Edmund Crispin, The moving toyshop


[Cadogan, poet, middle-aged, on holiday in Oxford, stumbles on the dead body of an old lady in a toyshop. During the ensuing investigations Cadogan is thrown together with Sally, a young shopgirl.]

Sally grinned in the half-darkness. 'I still can't imagine you writing poetry. For one thing, you're too easy to get on with.'

Cadogan sat up. 'You know, that cheers me. I was afraid I was degenerating into a mere word-spinner, one Wormius high.'

'Of course, your saying things like that rather ruins it.'

'Sorry. It was a quotation from Pope.'

'I don't care who it was a quotation from. It's really rather rude to quote when you know I shan't understand. Like talking about someone in a language they don't know.'

'Oh dear.' Cadogan was penitent. 'Honestly, it's just habit. And anyway, it'd be far ruder if I were to talk down to you, as if you were a child.'

Sally was still considering the improbability of Cadogan's pretensions to poetry. She felt put out by his saturnine but unremarkable appearance. 'You ought to look different, too.'

'Why?' saidd Cadogan. He lit a cigarette and gave her one too. 'There's no reason why poets should look like anything in particular. Wordsworth resembled a horse with powerful convictions; Chesterton was wholly Falstaffian; Whitman was as strong and hairy as a goldrush prospector. The fact is, there's no such thing as a poetic type. Chaucer was a Government official, Sidney a soldier, Villon a thief, Marvell an M.P., Burns a ploughboy, Housman a don. You can be any sort of man and still be a poet. You can be as conceited as Wordsworth or as modest as Hardy; as rich as Byron or as poor as Francis Thompson; as religious as Cowper or as pagan as Carew. It doesn't matter what you believe; Shelley believed every lunatic idea under the sun. Keats was certain of nothing but the holiness of the heart's affections. And I'm willing to bet, my dear Sally, that you could pass Shakespeare on the way to work every morning for twenty years without noticing him once ... Good Lord, this is developing into a lecture.'

'Still, poets must be alike in some way.'

'Certainly they are. They all write poetry.'

'Well, then, that would make them all alike, at least partly.'

'Would it?' Cadogan exhaled a cloud of smoke and watched it drift, spectral and gauzy, across the pale oblong of the door. 'If all the poets are collected together in some ante-room of paradise, there'll be a good deal of social discomfort by this time. Marlowe will not be speaking to Dowson, and Emily Bronte will flee at the approach of Chaucer ... ' He grinned, but went on more seriously: 'I think the only thing poets have in common is a kind of imaginative generosity of heart towards their fellows - and even then one can't be too sure, with people like Baudelaire and Pope and unpleasant little neurotics like Swinburne. No, there isn't such a thing as a poet type. And for a very good reason.'

'Why?'

Cadogan groaned mildly. 'It's very nice of you to be so polite, but I do know when I'm being a bore.'

Sally pinched him. 'Ass,' she said. 'I'm interested. Tell me why a poet doesn't have to be a man who needs a haircut.'

'Because,' said Cadogan, uneasily attempting to gauge the the length of his own hair with his left hand, 'poetry isn't the outcome of personality. I mean by that that it exists independently of your mind, your habits, your feelings, and everything that goes to make up your personality. The poetic emotion's impersonal: the Greeks were quite right when they called it inspiration. Therefore, what you're like personally doesn't matter a twopenny damn: all that matters is whether you've a good receiving-set for the poetic waves. Poetry's a visitation, coming and going at its own sweet will.'

'Well, then, what's it like?'

'As a matter of fact, I can't explain it properly because I don't understand it properly, and I hope I never shall. But it certainly isn't a question of oh-look-at-the-pretty-roses or oh-how-miserable-I-feel-today. If it were, there'd be forty million poets in England at present. It's a curious passive sensation. Some people say it's as if you've noticed something for the first time, but I think it's more as if the thing in question had noticed you for the first time. You feel as if the rose or whatever it is were shining at you. Invariably after the first moment the phrase occurs to you to describe it; and when that's happened, you snap out of it: all your personality comes rushing back, and you write the Canterbury Tales or Paradise Lost or King Lear according to the kind of person you happen to be. That's up to you.'

'And does it happen often?'

In the darkness, Cadogan shrugged. 'Every day. Every year. There's no telling if each time, whenever it is, mayn't be the last... In the meantime, of course, one gets dull and middle-aged.'

The rain drummed steadily on the roof of the summerhouse.

'I think you ought to be married,' said Sally after a pause. 'You aren't, are you?'

(Crispin, Edmund (1946), The moving toyshop, London: Penguin, 1958, pp. 171-174)

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Last updated 09.11.99
Burkhard Leuschner