What Good are the Arts? Alan Riach pursues the question with reference to the knowledge of what imagery can do, the power of evocation, the immediacy of perception and, on the other hand, what we might call ‘bad juju’ and the dangers of ignorance

‘THE lover, the madman and the poet / Are of imagination all compact,” Shakespeare tells us. Love and poetry are an obvious connection but that link with madness is real, and not everyone can face up to it.

As great a poet as Wallace Stevens revises the Shakespearian trio in his poem A Primitive Like an Orb, referring to “The lover, the believer and the poet”. But wildness of image and language, maniacal energy, unreasonable and uncontrollable forces are part of what makes men and women not only lovers and poets, but can also drive them mad.

By such qualities, art becomes memorable: tones and airs, paintings, sculptures, moments in language and story. I mentioned RL Stevenson to a friend of mine once who confessed he’d read nothing since Treasure Island, when he was a boy, but he still remembered the image of Israel Hands, the villainous pirate, shot by the young Jim Hawkins, fallen from the ship’s mast into the shallow sea, and lying on the sand while Jim, looking down, sees the fishes swimming between the lifeless body and the clear water’s surface:

“Owing to the cant of the vessel, the masts hung far out over the water, and from my perch on the cross-trees I had nothing below me but the surface of the bay. Hands, who was not so far up, was, in consequence, nearer to the ship, and fell between me and the bulwarks. He rose once to the surface in a lather of foam and blood, and then sank again for good. As the water settled, I could see him lying huddled together on the clean, bright sand in the shadow of the vessel’s sides. A fish or two whipped past his body. Sometimes, by the quivering of the water, he appeared to move a little, as if he were trying to rise. But he was dead enough, for all that, being both shot and drowned, and was food for fish in the very place where he had designed my slaughter.”

The sharpest arrowheads are images, and they work. The virtues of scholarship are needful, but even in Christopher Ricks’s edition of TS Eliot’s juvenilia and early poetry, Inventions of the March Hare, the notes cannot explain Eliot’s vocabulary, words like “longpronged”, “pooper” or “muriatic acid”. The book runs to 320 pages, 200 of them annotation by Ricks himself, but Eliot’s linguistic gifts defy scholarship. After all, what scholarly commentary could elucidate a phrase like “a big black knotty penis”?

The Americans are masters of the image. In The Chinese Written Character as a Medium for Poetry (1920), Ernest Fenollosa proposed the link between visual and cerebral understanding through images, and gave Ezra Pound the green light. A literary movement called Imagism caught on. But even more catchy is the language of the great American humorists, witting and unwitting. Consider Raymond Chandler:

She had a face like a bucket of mud.

He was as noiseless as a finger in a glove.

He had as much sex appeal as a turtle.

She had a mouth like wilted lettuce.

According to reports at the time (whoever thought we might look back fondly?), American president George Bush was less knowing, but equally punchy:

The vast majority of our imports come from outside the country.

If we don’t succeed, we run the risk of failure.

The future will be better tomorrow.

It isn’t pollution that’s harming the environment. It’s the impurities in our air and water that are doing it.

It’s time for the human race to enter the solar system.

Or consider this paragraph, which I heard once on the radio, scribbled down at the time but have never identified: “After ex-cop Freddie Otash got his P.I. licence he was put in charge of verifying the stories printed in a 1940s and 1950s Hollywood sleaze rag which had a circulation of four million subscribers; but he was also the man you went to see if you wanted someone’s knees broken, or an abortion arranged, or someone dropped in concrete. In other words, Freddie Otash was an avalanche of bad juju.”

“Bad juju” has a vernacular authority of language we might find attractive but what is referred to here – the “destructive element” – is not to be taken lightly. Consider the power of ignorance. This is George Eliot, writing in the epigraph to Chapter 21 of her novel Daniel Deronda (1876): “It is a common sentence that Knowledge is power; but who hath duly considered or set forth the power of Ignorance? Knowledge slowly builds up what Ignorance in an hour pulls down. Knowledge, through patient and frugal centuries, enlarges discovery and makes record of it; Ignorance, wanting the day’s dinner, lights a fire with the record, and gives a flavour to its one roast with the burnt souls of many generations. Knowledge, instructing the sense, refining and multiplying needs, transforms itself into skill and makes life various with a new six days’ work; comes Ignorance drunk on the seventh, with a firkin of oil and creation is shrivelled up in blackness. Of a truth, Knowledge is power, but it is a power reined in by scruple, having a conscience of what must be and what may be; whereas Ignorance is a blind giant who, let him but wax unbound, would make it a sport to seize the pillars that hold up the long-wrought fabric of human good, and turn all the places of joy dark as a buried Babylon. And looking at life parcel-wise, in the growth of a single lot, who having a practised vision may not see that ignorance of the true bond between events, and the false conceit of means whereby sequences may be compelled – like that of falsity of eyesight which overlooks the gradations of distance, seeing that which is afar off as if it were within a step or a grasp – precipitates the mistaken soul on destruction?”

So what we’re doing is countering that ignorance, encouraging that knowledge, and fostering a pride that stays hostile to its own worst tendencies to excess. It stays cool. But it resides deeply. And for that you need to know about literature and the arts. The trick would be to add to knowledge through the vernacular, not to deny its power and attraction, but not to surrender to its destructive potential so completely that nothing is recoverable. We noted this with reference to Joseph Conrad’s character Stein in the novel Lord Jim, whose best advice was to surrender to the destructive element in order to allow its depths to buoy you up.

THE vernacular, the language of living engagement, is what JM Synge speaks of in the introduction to his great play The Playboy of the Western World (1907) in the words of “fishermen along the coast from Kerry to Mayo or … beggar-women and ballad-singers near Dublin … When I was writing The Shadow of the Glen …I got more aid than any learning could have given me from a chink in the floor of the old Wicklow house where I was staying, that let me hear what was being said by the servant girls in the kitchen. This matter, I think, is of importance, for in countries where the imagination of the people, and the language they use, is rich and living, it is possible for a writer to be rich and copious in his words, and at the same time to give the reality, which is the root of all poetry, in a comprehensive and natural form.”

Life is what gives us the material to write about and if our language is not rich and living, the writing is dead. Knowing that is power, but ignorance of it is also power, of a dark and destructive kind. This is as true in Scotland as much as it is in Ireland or indeed in any other country in the world. Take a look around you. Prove me wrong.


IN the West Indies, Derek Walcott’s language in his epic poem Omeros takes up the rhetorical tradition of English literature but connects even further back, to ancient Greece and Homer himself, whose long reach stretches to the Caribbean shores. Walcott shows us how language in poetry like this is both autobiographical and universal. Try it out loud to savour the sense of its music.

          I said, “Omeros,”

and O was the conch-shell’s invocation, mer was

both mother and sea in our Antillean patois,

os, a grey bone, and the white surf as it crashes

and spreads its sibilant collar on a lace shore.

Omeros was the crunch of dry leaves, and the washes

that echoed from a cave-mouth when the tide has ebbed.