John Drinkwater

John Drinkwater on ‘Poetry and the Man in the Street’

From the WhitefriarsJournal, vol. VI, no. 1, January 1921, pp. 29-32.

November 5th, 1920. The Prior, Friar W. H. Helm, introduced the Guest as one not only distinguished, but, in his art, distinctive, not merely an echo of a school; a poet, and the author of a great play concerning one – Abraham Lincoln –  who was one of the greatest and most distinctive statesmen who had ever walked this earth.

Mr John Drinkwater said the Man in the Street might ask the Poet: ‘What is there in poetry that justifies you in giving your whole energy and life to it or in expecting society to support you in this job?’ Such questions raised the whole problem of the

relation of Art to the Man in the Street. The answer was that Art responded to the profound hunger of the human mind for an understanding of its own emotions and experiences. Art gave expression, colour, definition, form to the common and crude and abstract ideas of emotion, shape to the void.

The Poet wrote in the first place to satisfy his own needs, without, while at work, thought of his audience. Every artist had to potboil sometimes, but when he was thinking only of his audience, he was disloyal to himself. The content or matter of his work was not all-important. Great art rendered its service to humanity by quickening its mentality, it made mankind in general respond to a particular man’s vision of a certain thing. Why did the artist choose a certain piece of material for his work? Because through it he could express his own experience or emotion. For example, he (the speaker) had chosen Abraham Lincoln as a theme because he wished to deal with the phenomena of public leadership.

The Prior suggested it would be a good thing if writers expressed only what they felt.

Friar Émile Cammaerts was moved by his appreciation of Mr Drinkwater’s poetry to enlarge on the music and suggestiveness of which words artistically used were capable. Poetry was the singing of a song along the road.

Friar George Whale said the poet made the greatest appeal to the world when the world could understand what he said. Music was not enough in itself. Some poetry was a sort of ethical epilepsy. Poetry must have a message.

Friar A, G. Gardiner, dwelling on the relation of poetry to life, and its power to fashion the mind, said the work of the poet liberated what was fine in us, opened for us the magic casements of which Keats, had sung. If the Man in the Street did not appreciate poetry, the fault lay with the method of his education.

Friar Sir Ernest Wild, KC, MP, agreed that the lack of poetry at the present time was partly due to faulty education in the past. He wished, with special reference to a certain modern poet, that poets would stick to their job. The poet went singing along the way that he might gladden the hearts of his fellow travellers.

Friar C. W. Kimmins said that our Guest had shown himself a psychologist as well as a poet and playwright. He instanced the poetry that came from the trenches during the war, poetry due to great emotional stress, as supporting Mr. Drinkwater’s argument. Proper early training of the emotions would result in power of expression and love of poetry.

Friar Keighley Snowden, citing Mrs. Margaret Wilkinson’s NewVoices, an anthology of modern American verse, spoke of the promising school of young poets in America who, if they some times lacked rhyme and scansion, were unpedantic, used no archaic words, were sincere, and got into close touch with the Man in the Street.

Friar G. B. Burgin reminded us that we were the Man in the Street. In our young days we read and perhaps wrote poetry. As we grew older, we became immersed in more material things. Later, in slippered ease, we felt the loss of early ideals, but then Poetry looked reproachfully at us and faded away. Landor’s lines to Rose Aylmer were really a lament addressed to the Goddess of Poetry, whom we had forsaken.

Friar Hugo Vallentin said the poet, to appeal to the Man in the Street, must become a Man in the Street himself. The great sagas of Scandinavia were handed down by the Man in the Street, from father to son, not in writing, but by word of mouth.

Mr. Drinkwater replying, repeated that in a work of art it was not content but shaping that mattered most. As to the use of words, when all was said and done, they had always to remember one thing: that words formed the sole material in which the poet worked, and it was very largely by means of his skill in using words suggestively that he succeeded in expression. A whole vista of philosophic content might be opened up by the subtle use of a simple word. He gave as examples Shakespeare’s use of ‘chimney sweepers’ in Guiderius’ Song (Cymbeline, iv,’2) and Milton’s ‘well and fair’ in the closing lines of SamsonAgonistes. The Man in the Street, had a sense of words, of style, but usually this expressed itself in a humorous way – sometimes with amazing effect.—W. F. A. [W. Francis Aitken]