for my part I do not believe in poets dying; Keats, Shelley, Byron are alive here in this room in you and you and you — I can take comfort from the thought that my hoping will not disturb their snoring.
Virginia Woolf, Letter to A Young Poet.
This letter arrived for me this morning written in Virginia Woolf’s characteristic purple ink.
Thank you so much for your letter and see the fine art of letter writing isn’t dead. Back in my day, I observed:
“The penny post, the old gentleman used to say, has killed the art of letter-writing. Nobody, he continued, examining an envelope through his eye-glasses, has the time even to cross their t’s. We rush, he went on, spreading his toast with marmalade, to the telephone. We commit our half-formed thoughts in ungrammatical phrases to the post card… But when the post came in this morning and I opened your letter stuffed with little blue sheets written all over in a cramped but not illegible hand — I regret to say, however, that several t’s were uncrossed and the grammar of one sentence seems to me dubious — I replied after all these years to that elderly necrophilist — Nonsense. The art of letter-writing has only just come into existence. It is the child of the penny post. And there is some truth in that remark, I think. Naturally when a letter cost half a crown to send, it had to prove itself a document of some importance; it was read aloud; it was tied up with green silk; after a certain number of years it was published for the infinite delectation of posterity. But your letter, on the contrary, will have to be burnt. It only cost three-halfpence to send. Therefore you could afford to be intimate, irreticent, indiscreet in the extreme.”
Your human words were much appreciated. These days, I write my words on Autumn leaves, which are promptly read and eaten by the worms. While it might be a much humbler existence, I have finally found peace and stillness in my once turbulent mind. What a relief!
Your series of Letters to Dead Poets accumulating our collective wisdom, enthralls me. What a flood of words, thoughts, feelings are flowing through your pen and this laptop machine you keep tapping away on.
Indeed, you are “ a poet in whom live all the poets of the past, from whom all poets in time to come will spring. You have a touch of Chaucer in you, and something of Shakespeare; Dryden, Pope, Tennyson — to mention only the respectable among your ancestors — stir in your blood and sometimes move your pen a little to the right or to the left. In short you are an immensely ancient, complex, and continuous character, for which reason please treat yourself with respect.”
Naturally, I was quite wary about sticking my head above ground again. Even my beloved Leonard, couldn’t save me from this wretched disease and I have found such peace. I couldn’t go back. You’d have to say that filling my pockets with stones and drowning, despite my great love for Leonard and my sister, reflects great determination.
Yet, I’m such a curious soul. When offered the chance to travel into the future, I grabbed it with both hands. I was so relieved to wake up to peace, instead of a living in a battlefield with planes fighting overhead and bombs blowing up homes with their precious families still inside. I still remember seeing the shell of an exploded house. All were dead inside yet a bottle of milk survived unscathed out the front. There was no meaning in any of it. No sense at all.
No doubt, the news that World War II is finally over, will be tempered as further news comes to hand..
However, my first order of business is the theatre. I wanted to catch up with Judith Shakespeare (see A Room With A View) and see whether she finally calls the world her stage. Indeed, I was most delighted to have tea with Angelina Jolie this morning. Indeed, Miss Jolie embodies all the dreams and hopes Judith Shakespeare ever had. That said, she has also made tough decisions and remained that lighthouse standing tall. I wouldn’t want to follow in all of her footsteps but she has my utmost respect.
Letters to Young Poets
Now that I’ve settled that matter, I wanted to get back to my Letter to Young Poets, which you mentioned. What might have been a little obscured, was that these young poets were not only learning the craft of poetry, but were also from a younger generation who experienced the world through quite a different lens.
Indeed, this letter was ostensibly written to John Lehmann, who was the manager of our Hogarth Press. We had published his first collection of poetry: A Guarde Revisited in September 1931. However, the letter was also addressed to three other young poets WH Auden, Cecil Day-Lewis and Stephen Spender.
You might not be aware that I received quite a hostile response from Peter Quennell, representing the younger generation. He urged me to empathise with the discontented outlook of the younger generation who “can recall barely five or six summers before “the end of the Ware to end all Wars” He added that the modern poet is “the creature of his social and political setting.”
Yet, I was still concerned that collective experience should be the main subject of modern verse.
Prose Writers’ View of the Poet
Although you’re quite the social butterfly and mix with writers from all genres, I thought you’d appreciate some insights into the novelist’s perspective of the poet. It’s always good to see yourself from an alternative perspective:
“For how, we despised prose writers ask when we get together, could one say what one meant and observe the rules of poetry? Conceive dragging in “blade” because one had mentioned “maid”; and pairing “sorrow” with “borrow”? Rhyme is not only childish, but dishonest, we prose writers say. Then we go on to say, And look at their rules! How easy to be a poet! How strait the path is for them, and how strict! This you must do; this you must not. I would rather be a child and walk in a crocodile down a suburban path than write poetry, I have heard prose writers say. It must be like taking the veil and entering a religious order — observing the rites and rigours of metre. That explains why they repeat the same thing over and over again. Whereas we prose writers (I am only telling you the sort of nonsense prose writers talk when they are alone) are masters of language, not its slaves; nobody can teach us; nobody can coerce us; we say what we mean; we have the whole of life for our province. We are the creators, we are the explorers. . . . So we run on — nonsensically enough, I must admit.
What is a poet?
“On the floor of your mind, then — is it not this that makes you a poet? — rhythm keeps up its perpetual beat. Sometimes it seems to die down to nothing; it lets you eat, sleep, talk like other people. Then again it swells and rises and attempts to sweep all the contents of your mind into one dominant dance. To-night is such an occasion. Although you are alone, and have taken one boot off and are about to undo the other, you cannot go on with the process of undressing, but must instantly write at the bidding of the dance. You snatch pen and paper; you hardly trouble to hold the one or to straighten the other. And while you write, while the first stanzas of the dance are being fastened down, I will withdraw a little and look out of the window. A woman passes, then a man; a car glides to a stop and then — but there is no need to say what I see out of the window, nor indeed is there time, for I am suddenly recalled from my observations by a cry of rage or despair. Your page is crumpled in a ball; your pen sticks upright by the nib in the carpet. If there were a cat to swing or a wife to murder now would be the time. So at least I infer from the ferocity of your expression. You are rasped, jarred, thoroughly out of temper. And if I am to guess the reason, it is, I should say, that the rhythm which was opening and shutting with a force that sent shocks of excitement from your head to your heels has encountered some hard and hostile object upon which it has smashed itself to pieces. Something has worked in which cannot be made into poetry; some foreign body, angular, sharp-edged, gritty, has refused to join in the dance. “
So, I would say that if your children love to dance, that they could well indeed have a poet’s heart.
Advice to Young Poet’s
“And for heaven’s sake, publish nothing before you are thirty.
That, I am sure, is of very great importance. Most of the faults in the poems I have been reading can be explained, I think, by the fact that they have been exposed to the fierce light of publicity while they were still too young to stand the strain. It has shrivelled them into a skeleton austerity, both emotional and verbal, which should not be characteristic of youth. The poet writes very well; he writes for the eye of a severe and intelligent public; but how much better he would have written if for ten years he had written for no eye but his own! After all, the years from twenty to thirty are years (let me refer to your letter again) of emotional excitement. The rain dripping, a wing flashing, someone passing — the commonest sounds and sights have power to fling one, as I seem to remember, from the heights of rapture to the depths of despair. And if the actual life is thus extreme, the visionary life should be free to follow. Write then, now that you are young, nonsense by the ream. Be silly, be sentimental, imitate Shelley, imitate Samuel Smiles; give the rein to every impulse; commit every fault of style, grammar, taste, and syntax; pour out; tumble over; loose anger, love, satire, in whatever words you can catch, coerce or create, in whatever metre, prose, poetry, or gibberish that comes to hand. Thus you will learn to write. But if you publish, your freedom will be checked; you will be thinking what people will say; you will write for others when you ought only to be writing for yourself. And what point can there be in curbing the wild torrent of spontaneous nonsense which is now, for a few years only, your divine gift in order to publish prim little books of experimental verses? To make money? That, we both know, is out of the question. To get criticism? But you friends will pepper your manuscripts with far more serious and searching criticism than any you will get from the reviewers. As for fame, look I implore you at famous people; see how the waters of dullness spread around them as they enter; observe their pomposity, their prophetic airs; reflect that the greatest poets were anonymous; think how Shakespeare cared nothing for fame; how Donne tossed his poems into the waste-paper basket; write an essay giving a single instance of any modern English writer who has survived the disciples and the admirers, the autograph hunters and the interviewers, the dinners and the luncheons, the celebrations and the commemorations with which English society so effectively stops the mouths of its singers and silences their songs.”
Well, you Rowena don’t need to consider all of that. Not that I’d consider you an “old” poet but let’s just say you’re free to publish!
By the way, before I head off, I’ve already seized upon a new subject for one of my legendary essays…the mobile phone. While I’ve heard that texting is “speaking with your fingers” and doesn’t represent the final destruction of the English language, I am not convinced.
Adding fuel to the fire, is the selfie. You wouldn’t believe the thousands who visit my grave leaped in front of my visage with their mobiles mounted on some metal contraption photographing themselves. They no longer come here to see me but to see themselves, their own reflections…a touch of narcissus I suspect.
Anyway, I understand your train is due to depart. Quite a marvel of modern engineering and no smoke and coal dust billowing over the platform.
Keep dancing my friend!
 Virginia Woolf “A Letter To A Young Poet” in The Death of the Moth, and other essays.
 Alice Wood: Virginia Woolf’s Late Cultural Criticism: The Genesis Years.