From the NS archive: Graves Supérieur

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Robert Graves

21 September 1940: Stephen Spender reviews Robert Graves, whose poems he declares “always remarkable, often beautiful”, though “warped and weather-beaten”.

In 1940, Stephen Spender, one of the great poets of the age, reviewed “No More Ghosts, Selected Poems” by Robert Graves. He found Graves to be a frustrating poet, capable of directness and power but also of too much restraint and self-awareness. “Fundamentally Graves is more genuinely and truthfully an individual than are many of his contemporaries, less of the literary man,” thought Spender, “though excessive prose-writing has probably not helped the flow of his metres.” Indeed, he found in the poems thoughts perhaps better expressed in prose. At his best, however, Graves’s “powerful will and intellect” made him “the equal of Eliot, or Auden, or later Yeats”.

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It is excellent that this selection should have been made of Robert Graves’s always remarkable, often beautiful, often arid, cantankerous, difficult and forbidding, poems. His sturdy craftsmanship, the concentration of his thought, make Graves’s poems extremely individual, and it is perhaps their uncompromising qualities that make them all too neglected. In an early poem, “Rocky Acres”, Graves gives us a picture that remarkably resembles the effect of his own poems:

“This is a wild land, country of my choice,
With harsh craggy mountain, moor ample and bare.
Seldom in these acres is heard any voice
But voice of cold water that runs here and there
Through rocks and lank heather growing without care.”

The reader of his Collected Poems may well quail before this craggy landscape, but having acclimatised himself by this Sesame Book, he will certainly acquire a taste for Graves’s poetry, which is distinct and pure and peculiar like a wine, more acrid than what WB Yeats called “Graves Supérieur”. Graves himself insists on quality and texture, regarding poets as objects, in fact as fish or apples:

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“Any honest housewife would sort them out,
Having a nose for fish, an eye for apples.”

Because they have such distinctive and tangible qualities, these poems should positively be read – the reviewer’s first task is to say, “Read this book,” or “Don’t read it.”

As a poet, Graves is so much himself that it is not much use comparing him with other contemporary poets. Nevertheless, some of his contemporaries owe much to him: Norman Cameron, obviously, and WH Auden, who has cribbed a bit from:

“Whose griefs are melancholy
Whose flowers are oafish,
Whose waters, silly,
Whose birds, raffish,
Whose fish, fish.”

Fundamentally Graves is more genuinely and truthfully an individual than are many of his contemporaries, less of the literary man, though excessive prose-writing has probably not helped the flow of his metres. However, he is somewhat warped and weather-beaten and a vein of spitefulness runs through much of his work, especially when he touches on that holy subject that poets are well advised, surely, to avoid – “the poet.”

The reader of Graves’s poems can hardly fail to be struck by the contrast between the almost childish simplicity of the early poems and the cerebration of the later ones. In his first poems, Graves is …read more

Source:: New Statesman

      

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