Friday, 16 October 2020

'A kind of giddiness indistinguishable from the impulse to laugh'

 The first essay in Kay Ryan's recently published Synthesizing Gravity: Selected Prose begins with the arresting sentence, 'I have always felt that much of the best poetry was funny.' She's not talking about comic verse; indeed the first example she gives is Hopkins's far from funny 'The Windhover': 'Who can read [it] and not feel welling up inside a kind of giddiness indistinguishable from the impulse to laugh?'
   Well, I'm glad it's not just me. I often feel exactly this impulse in the face of poetry, paintings, or indeed anything in art or nature that is conspicuously beautiful. Ryan likens the reaction to 'one of those involuntary ha!s that jump out when you've witnessed a wonderful magic trick', and I am much given to those ha!s when reading really good poetry, looking at great paintings (as at the National Gallery the other day) or witnessing some fine instance of nature's 'useless beauty' (my butterfly watching is punctuated by many a ha!). 'Maybe that ha!,' Ryan suggests, 'is the body's natural response to perfection: a perfect trick (one has been utterly deceived) or a perfect poem (one has been utterly deceived).'
   She goes on to examine a short, perfect poem by Robert Frost, 'Nothing Gold Can Stay' – 

Nature’s first green is gold,
Her hardest hue to hold.
Her early leaf’s a flower;
But only so an hour.
Then leaf subsides to leaf.
So Eden sank to grief,
So dawn goes down to day.
Nothing gold can stay.

– and to quote a passage from T.S. Eliot's The Sacred Wood on poetry as 'a superior amusement'. 'I love two things about Eliot's definition,' she says. 'First, the bedrock, indefensible truth of it: that poetry is a superior amusement. Second, Eliot's mess of an attempt to explain what he means. I am heartened in my own efforts when I see his bluster. I am reminded by him that though we cannot be exactly precise or complete, there is no reason not to make gigantic statements, for there is great enjoyment in gigantic statements.'
  And I am clearly going to find great enjoyment in this wonderfully straight-talking collection. 

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