/ 18 November 2010

Like one who believes

In his new book, Stephen Watson is wielding the critic's scalpel rather than the poet's quill.

Like TS Eliot and WH Auden, Stephen Watson is a poet and critic whose criticism is more than a supplement to his poetry.


Like TS Eliot and WH Auden, Stephen Watson is a poet and critic whose criticism is more than a supplement to his poetry, certainly not just a left-handed job of work: it illuminates the poetry, particularly in terms of its ethical content, and the context and history from which it arises.

But the criticism also stands on its own as deeply thought, beautifully composed and often strongly affecting.

The ‘Old Possum” Eliot is paid keen attention by Watson in two essays here, one on his letters up to 1922 (the year The Waste Land was published) and the other about his relation to Dante, and Eliot pops up several other times in this collection, but the first essay in this book (and the whole of Part I) is on Leonard Cohen. It describes attending a Cohen concert and ponders the power of his supernal songs. In this Watson echoes the appreciation of a poet rather different from himself, Paul Muldoon, in his poem Sleeve Notes.

Part of what Watson likes about Cohen is the biblical resonance in his language — he can use ‘thee” and ‘thou” with conviction. Which is to say that Cohen draws on an ancient tradition he makes new, and newly resonant, in his work. Eliot, too, is working with that tradition (the European Christian heritage, basically), but it is most poignant and perhaps most useful in its absence: it haunts Eliot’s critical and poetic work like a school of ghosts. His poetry is filled with its shards, and he is writing from a place that feels keenly the decline of that ­tradition, its loss.

Watson writes of his own drift away from religion to the ‘religion of art”, his own Eliotic sense of having to cope with a ‘nothingness”. This is both the absence of the allegedly solid religious and social context of earlier times, as Eliot feels it, and the indifferent sky that is all there is for Albert Camus, growing up a ‘poor white” in colonial Algeria, in the absence of a rich cultural context in which to live and grow as a person and a writer. Clearly, in a similar way, and like Dan Jacobson decades earlier, Watson felt some of this colonial or quasi-colonial emptiness in the South Africa of his youth (and perhaps today).

Camus is the subject of a long central essay in Music in the Ice, and Watson considers carefully the wellsprings of Camus’s art as well as his politics, which so estranged him from the French left of fellow existentialists Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir, who waged an ideological and personal campaign against Camus after the publication of The Rebel in 1951.

Watson notes simply that Camus’s politics, primarily those of human rights and compassion, have, like those of the Polish writer Czeslaw Milosz (about whom Watson also writes), outlived the Stalinism before which Sartre and Beauvoir kowtowed — not to mention the entire Soviet project itself. One suspects that Watson’s own politics are much like Camus’s, though he never says as much.

He does make some pertinent points in the Camus piece about how, at certain historic moments, the intelligentsia can fall in love with violence or at least the idea of violence. Included in this volume is his then-controversial essay The Rhetoric of Violence in South African Poetry, where he takes to task those poets who versified the call to arms of the liberation struggle, or who wished their poems were really AK-47s.

The essay is dated 1992, though I seem to recall its core themes being rehearsed somewhat earlier. Either way, it can be easy to forget that the negotiations towards a free and peaceful South Africa were accompanied, in the early 1990s no less than in the late 1980s of the Emergency years, by all sorts of killings and other horrors. Watson argues forcefully that it is what Camus called a ‘casuistry of blood” to prefer one kind of murder as morally superior because of its ideological motivations.

Watson is of the liberal-humanist tradition Marxists used to excoriate, and he pays tribute to liberal South Africans such as Alan Paton and Guy Butler. Other essays include autobiographical pieces about the Cedarberg and a generative love affair, or move from Ernest Hemingway to Allen Ginsberg. In Watson’s sensitivity to Hemingway’s language one senses cadences from which he gleaned some of his own style, but Ginsberg is treated as a ‘cultural figure” more than as a poet to be taken seriously. (Compare, interestingly, the generous take on Ginsberg by Thom Gunn, a poet as unlike Ginsberg as Watson is, in Gunn’s Shelf Life.)

One could wish that Watson’s sympathies ranged more broadly, but here he is wielding the critic’s scalpel rather than the poet’s quill. And, statedly, Watson wants to write about ‘the books [and lives and places] one cares about”, the things that move him, which he does extremely well. He notes the American poet Charles Simic’s hope that in the best criticism the reader’s desire for pleasure and involvement in the artwork can meet the critic’s need to stand back ‘in order to see the shape it makes”, and in these essays Watson creates such a meeting place.