On the doorstep of Valhalla

Dalrymple recounts in the New Criterion, “I decided on an experiment recently while visiting a second-hand bookshop. Would I be able to tell whether the poetry of poets of whom I had never previously heard was any good?”

After my sixteenth birthday, more or less, I was left to my own devices as to what to read and how. On the whole, I accepted the world’s judgment of what was good and bad, and when I disagreed with that judgment I assumed that the fault was mine. I had been left without systematic or objective criteria by which to judge; I assumed that such criteria were necessary, that they existed, and that they were rigorously applied by proper critics.

Eventually, I stumbled upon an exercise that, unexpectedly, served me well in my appreciation of literature: that of reading the documentation of murder trials in which I was about to appear as expert witness.

There follows an analysis of the two books he selects, by unknown poets: First Poems (1941) by Richard Elwes, and Far from the Land and Other Poems (1944) by James Monahan, both of which he finds meaningful:

It is as if enchantment and disenchantment were lenses through which the two of them looked at the world, each lens no doubt with its power of distortion, but each also capable of revealing truths that the other cannot.

A question remains that I am technically ill-equipped to answer. Is it true that undisturbed on the dusty shelves of obscure bookshops lie poems of some merit?

3 thoughts on “On the doorstep of Valhalla

  1. Jackson

    Hmmm.. I’ve been largely Ambivalent about poetry, not least because I indulged in what might be described as writing Rock/Pop lyrics (that furtunately never were) when I was an adolescent.

    I tend to think back on them as self regarding and sentimental… (though I’m sure there were redeeming elements) that is, without recalling them in detail.

    The idea of poetry tends to seem, well, immature, and being a bit slow I get impatient with trying to work out what’s being said.

    I found Viktor Frankl’s, at times poetic, reflections on his experiences in Man’s Search For Meaning rather insightful, and moving.

    Also the prologue to Passchendaele http://www.amazon.co.uk/Passchendaele-Peter-Barton/dp/184529422X#reader_184529422X (good luck reading it online version)
    I thought was a rather powerful reflection on existence.

    And then, by contrast, some diary notes of a WWI veteran who died, I think in 2006 aged 108, were published in a Newspaper. I thought it would be easy to find out who it was online but haven’t had success. He was at Passchendaele, apparently he joked that he survived because he was short… he never had children. It was only when he’d died that his dairy was found. I was particularly moved by his very simple humble reflections, observations.

  2. Jackson

    Well, not unusually I muddled that a bit… being short and not having children, as far as I know, were two separate issues, in case that wasn’t obvious. But anyway, I’m no doubt digging a bit of a hole.

    For what it’s worth, the poetry that Dalrymple quotes seemed rather good to me.


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