an independent ambassador for conscience

Sep 16, 2021 poetry appreciation

Here’s Ellen Hinsey on poetry: ‘Poetry is the conscience of a society… No individual poem can stop a war—that’s what diplomacy is supposed to do. But poetry is an independent ambassador for conscience: it answers to no one, it crosses borders without a passport, and it speaks the truth. That’s why… it is one of the most powerful of the arts”. Given what’s been going on in the world these last couple of weeks it feels like one of those too-apt-to-be-a-coincidence coincidences that I should meet Hinsey’s words in the same week as someone should bring to the 42 group Larkin’s ‘Homage to a Government’.

One of the many wonderful things about reading poetry together is that you get the chance to hear others’ readings, which are often startlingly and helpfully different from your own. Among other things, both in the room and online (subsequently) there could be found exploration of whether this poem “is about” the end of Empire, or Vietnam, or some other war or occupation.

As one trained in reader-response theory as well as practical criticism, I tend always to read a poem in isolation, at first anyway, the better to hear what it “says” to me. I find it takes the pressure off; I don’t want reading to be a guess-the-poet’s mind sort of test. The downside of this is that I had no helpful biographical or contextual information with which to respond to the group’s queries. All I could offer them is the way I’ve always heard this poem, which is about a sort of failure in moral responsibility, an abandonment of those people or things who might need help. There is the helpless anger and despair of this, and also the agonised awareness that what we do, or don’t do, changes us as well as the situation—hence the twist of the knife pain of the ‘children.. not know[ing] that it’s a different country’.

I’ve no idea if this is a helplessly naive reading (if so, you now know that I’m helplessly naive!) but it’s how I hear it. ‘Homage to a Government’—the ‘a’, surely, argues for this to be a generally-applicable poem, rather than one written in solely in response to a specific event?—has always seemed to me to belong alongside ‘Going, going‘, and to share its sense of something huge and wrong happening: something irrevocable; something ‘not meant’; something which diminishes us forever. The triumph of evil, Burke style. ‘Now it’s been decided nobody minds/… Next year we shall all be easier in our minds”: there’s something horribly recognisable in that use of passive verbs to shuffle off responsibility. And painfully recognisable in the poem’s articulation of how we get weary of contemplating wrongs about which we feel powerless, and therefore let them slip out of consciousness, falling into a sort of exhausted acquiescence. As Larkin puts it elsewhere, ‘the mind blanks at the glare’.

It seems final layer of irony that—as I discovered when researching this page—’Going, going’ was actually a Government-commissioned poem (find out more here). I’m guessing they got more than they bargained for.

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