So I was delighted to stumble upon The Meaning of Culture by John Cowper Powys, in which he devotes an entire chapter to “Culture and Poetry.” It is exciting to encounter a text that takes poetry seriously to begin with. As it turns out, Powys began his career as a poet, but is mostly known for other things. Wikipedia has this description:
Powys's first published works were poetry: Odes and Other Poems (1896), Poems (1899), collections which have "echoes […] of Tennyson, Arnold, Swinburne, among contemporaries, and of John Milton and Wordsworth and Keats".... In the summer of 1905 Powys composed "The Death of God" an epic poem "modelled on the blank verse of Milton, Keats, and Tennyson" that was published as Lucifer in 1956. There were three further volumes of poetry[.]
Swaths of his argument can be avoided with no loss; and I would not take even the excerpts I quote as gospel. But they are food for thought:
Poetry, considered as an art, is the expression of a certain aspect of life, which for the moment I must content myself by defining simply as the poetical element. The deliberate heightening of one’s life by the aid of this mysterious and fluctuating quality in things seems to be an inevitable impulse in the mentality of any nature worthy of the title “cultured.” But what precisely is this quality? What is this floating element in life that the human race by an overtone of universal agreement has come to name the poetical? We can at least narrow down its field by indicating what it is not. It is not the ideal. It is not the beautiful. It is not the artistic. It is not the noble. It is not the moral. So much at least we can say. But, approaching the thing itself more closely, can we not, by means of concrete examples, arrive at some notion of what constitutes its essence?
To realize this difference between beauty and poetry one need only visualize for a moment the illuminated body of some swiftly moving aeroplane, an aeroplane engaged in advertising, let us suppose, some toilet-necessity or some new brand of cigarettes, upon a city sky. Such a spectacle might easily be conceived as a genuine revelation, in the spheres of form and colour, of beauty considered as a non-human absolute. But with that peculiar quality in things I am trying to indicate as belonging to the essence of poetry such a spectacle would have nothing to do. In fact it would exercise a destructive influence upon the natural poetry of the particular night or twilight when such an occurrence took place.
The chosen material both of modern mechanics and of modern aesthetics is bound to appear to the spirit of poetry as something alien and troubling; a discord, a menace. The reason for this is to be found in the fact that any manifestation of beauty may be completely unsympathetic to traditional emotion, feeling, sentiment; whereas it is of the very essence of poetry to remain saturated with all the historic human reactions, with every sort of old-world sentiment. Poetry is in fact a thing so totally different, in both its substance and its entelechy, from beauty that the two revelations appeal to different types of mind. We must remember that an object can be beautiful without being in the least poetical; just as it can be poetical without being in the least beautiful. Poetry is composed of a certain traditional body of feelings about life; a body which has gathered by slow adhesions into a presence of values, nuances, discriminations to which must conform what every nation and every age may add as an indigenous quota of its own.
Would it seem a too narrow doctrine if we were to take for granted that the art of poetry will be most sui generis, most entirely itself, when it expresses in words the purely poetic view of life? From the viewpoint of this doctrine, if we do accept it, most modern poetry falls short of the earlier kind. If any characteristic more than another stamps as modern the poetical experiments of our day it is the invasion of the peculiar terrain of the art of poetry by the more purely aesthetic values of the arts of painting and music. Poetry hovers over everything that has been a background to human life, over everything that has been a permanent accessory, a daily tool, long enough for a certain organic identification to have grown up between the diurnal usages of our race and this or that fragment of material substance. Thus it is not surprising that the most deeply satisfying poetry, and that which stirs the imagination most strongly, is the poetry of old times wherein this animism or vitalization of the inanimate is most marked. Homer is thus greater than Aeschylus, Aeschylus than Dante, Dante than Milton, Milton than Matthew Arnold, Matthew Arnold than W.B. Yeats!
But though this historic lapse and lamentable subsidence of high human feeling, this gradual sinking down of poetic values from the simplicities of Homer to the sophistries of our contemporaries, cannot be gainsaid, there are epochs in English poetry that possess a magic of their own unlike anything else in the world. Such for example are those honey-breathing purlieus of enchantment, those green vistas and richly receding margins of romance, that we enjoy in the poetry of Keats or in the poetry of Walter de la Mare.
Beyond general theory—again without endorsing his every particular—I found Powys interesting in his generalist discussion of poets that I have read:
The best way to appreciate Dante is to lay hold upon an edition where, as in Dent’s “Temple Classics,” a literal prose translation is placed opposite the text. Incidentally we must submit that it is well worth it—however unscholarly we are—to learn at least enough Greek and Latin and Italian to be able to read these old poets aloud, if it be only to ourselves. [Of course one remembers Eliot’s grotesque self-descriptions in “What Dante Means to Me.”]
And when it comes to reading the “Inferno,” wise indeed will the reader be who reads for imaginative and emotional pleasure and not as a student. One has to be a student in youth in order to get the clue to culture. But the perpetual student is seldom a cultivated person. Slide lightly, therefore, over the historical allusions. Dodge the theological problems. Fight shy of such abominable passages as reveal a vein of unmistakable sadism in the great poet. But with these exceptions there are things that one can well read in the “Inferno” over and over again, till rarer passages, memorized by love and repetition, come to be like chain-armour for our human spirit against the insolent intrusions of the vulgar present. Then it will prove true how possible it is, by a kind of empathy or nerve-transference, to share a great poet’s most intimate life-illusion. For your feelings will actually grow Dantesque in their concentration so that as you drag your legs in weariness along your river-side or stare at water-flies in the ditch by the tow-path, or tilt your head back to gaze at the flying swallows, you will actually come to share that curious realistic awareness of the stark physiognomy of life which it is this poet’s especial gift to express.
[Consider] the peculiar atmosphere of the poetry of Keats. One instinctively feels that its basic appeal is essentially poetical rather than aesthetic. That is why one can enjoy to the full fragments and morsels of Keats’s poetry such as occur, like wild-flowers dropped on a foot-path, in the midst of so much that is littered and pointless and puerile.
Not one of our fellow-creators in this vast congeries of personal lives that we call Nature is devoid of some sort of instinct, corresponding to the accumulated weight of habitual consciousness which it is the purpose of our culture to supply with selected memories out of the past out of our own existence and the existence of our race. Animals and even birds and fish have a continuity of accumulated habits which answers to the sort of culture I am trying to define in this book.
Also, having mentioned “The Death of God,” there are rumblings that a similarly themed epic is near to completion—whether a follow-up to that of Powys I know not, but I think not.