Review of Robin Skelton, The Poetic Pattern.

[Robin Skelton, The Poetic Pattern. Review of English Studies 9.33 (spring 1958): 110-12.]


Paul Valéry complained against ‘a kind of coquetry of silence on the part of artists as to the origins of their work – to the extent of too carefully hiding them even’.  In recent years poets have been less coquettish.  Mr. Skelton has collected from twelve living poets, ranging from T. S. Eliot to Tom Scott, James Kirkup, and Kathleen Raine, some descriptions of their experience in composing poems.  Valéry hoped that information of this sort would help us to see that ‘minds are not as profoundly different as their products make them appear’.  Mr. Skelton, however, has used it ‘to examine the nature of poetry in such a way as to reveal clearly the value of poetry to the world today, and the characteristics of poetry which are . . . characteristic of no other kind of writing’.

These ‘Notes towards a Definition of Poetry’ are rather less comprehensive than the statement of aim and method would suggest.  Mr. Skelton wishes to establish that poetry arises from states of trance; that these states give access to and pattern forth the deepest levels of ‘the Unconscious’; that the level from which a poem springs can be detected from the ‘pattern’ of the poem; that poetry is a unitary activity, ‘at once a patterning of the state of man, and an affirmation of the persistent dynamic purposiveness of life’.  The substance of the book is contained in chapters 1, 8, 9, and 10, all of which deal in one way and another with accounts of poetic composition.  The intervening chapters assert rather than establish that there is a strong link between poetry and magic, that poetry is a ‘life-pattern’ and is mythopœic, that poetry commands an all-embracing order of truth, and that – as Aristotle once slyly observed – you can tell a true poet by his use of images.  Here many unimpeachable single statements are to be found – the sort of things that a poet takes as axiomatic and which the common man often fails to grasp; for Mr. Skelton is a poet.  But the argument is not impressive, the authority intermittent.  The best things are the critical comments on some of the poems quoted, and the account of the poetic landscape as ‘Eden – the place where man perceives as a total personality’.

The field of Poetics is beset with briars; for it lies somewhere at the intersection of – at least – metaphysics, psychology, semantics, and anthropology.  Nobody but a poet is likely to recognize many of the landmarks; yet the poet who is to move freely there needs a good deal of philosophical acumen.  In reading Mr. Skelton’s book one has the irritating sensation that the matter under discussion is often out of focus and will at the last moment evade the writer’s grasp.  The title was perhaps an unhappy, even misleading, choice; for the book makes no attempt to discuss all varieties of poetic pattern.  Indeed, beyond the nation of poetry as ‘life-pattern’ and the poet as a discoverer of patterns, the book deals mostly with the origin and function of symbols – one original and a few functions.  A number of primary questions seem to have gone unasked: What does the genesis of a poem tell us of its meaning and stature?  How are complex meanings accurately controlled by the poet and grasped by the reader?  What is the connexion between items of perceptual experience and poetic symbols?  Can poetic imagery be satisfactorily discussed without an adequate theory of perception?  Consequently Mr. Skelton seldom seems sure whether – at any particular point – the issue is psychological, epistemological, semantic, or purely ‘poetic’.  Most of the discussion of symbol, for example, tacitly assumes that symbols are readily distinguishable verbal entities; but we are not told what is ‘seen’ in Vision, nor how Vision is transmuted into language.  There is no account of the dynamic functions of sound and rhythm in poetry.  In the closing chapters, where the most interesting material is to be found, Mr. Skelton seeks to establish that symbols are ‘achieved’ by the ‘visionary faculty with the aid of the partly unfocused consciousness’.  By ignoring some of his evidence – Eliot’s particularly – and concentrating upon examples of more or less automatic writing, he shows that symbols (archetypal images) do in fact sometimes present themselves in trace and dream.  But this throws into undue prominence some poems which – even in their authors’ view – are of minor importance, and edges him in the direction of identifying ‘the Poetry of Vision’ – the highest kind of poetry – with a kind of surrealist procedure.  Yet that, one feels, is not what Mr. Skelton wanted.  He wanted to find that ‘at the heart of artistic creation, and of the universe itself, lies a series of immensely potent symbols concerned with the state of mind’ which he calls Vision – a function of the total man.

With many of Mr. Skelton’s conclusions, within a limited ambience, one would not quarrel.  But it is a pity that he was not content to concentrate his findings within smaller compass.  For the conduct of the book constantly alienates the reader’s allegiance, until even the ardent underlying assertion that ‘poetry is a furthering of the life-process as well as a perception of the life-situation’ begins to lose its force, and attention is distracted from the interesting contemporary accounts of composition.  If the distractions can be ignored, the book does point through a group of contemporary materials to the peculiar power of ‘the Poetry of Vision’ and suggests tentatively how poets gain access to that power.