Oct 3, 2008

The British Debate the Question of What a Poem Is

The matter bubbled up some months ago, a debate that began in Britain about what poetry is, which led to a number of articles and responses in British magazines. This debate started when the Queen's English Society, through a representative by the name of Michael George Gibson, decided to publically announce the judgment of the QES that certain prize winners in a recent British poetry competition are not poetry because the winners -- and all the finalists, for that matter -– were written in free verse. On behalf of the QES, Gibson claimed that “true poems” are written in some discernible measure and most often in rhyme. True poetry, said Gibson, gives the reader or listener a “special pleasure.”

Gibson, however, made a colossal blunder in defense of the position of the QES, for he foolishly chose to illustrate the claim with a supposed non-poem by English Poet Laureate Andrew Motion, “The Golden Rule” (recently commissioned for Elizabeth II’s 80th birthday). Despite Gibson’s confident pronouncements for the QES that “The Golden Rule” is written in prose, it is a formalist poem in every way. It’s written in a clear and very regular blank verse, which shows that even the well-meaning folks of the QES are as ignorant as that reviewer in the New York Times who said that Robert Pinsky’s recent, much-discussed piece “Poem of Disconnected Parts” is written in blank verse, which obviously it is NOT (see my earlier post on that matter). Anyway, take a gander at Motion’s fine work in an obviously and highly formal meter:

The Golden Rule

The waves unfurl and change the shape of coasts,
The shrinking woods fall backwards through their leaves,
The night-horizons twist in chains of light:
The golden rule, your constancy, survives.

The language bursts its bounds and breaks new ground,
The fledgling words lay down a treasure-trove,
The speed of heart-to-heart accelerates:
The golden rule, your constancy, survives.

The sun unwinds its heat through threadbare sky
The lakes and rivers map their stony graves,
The stars still shine although their names grow faint:
The golden rule, your constancy, survives.

The black-and-white of certainty dissolves,
The single mind insists on several lives,
The ways to measure truth elaborate:
The golden rule, your constancy, survives.

Motion’s iambic pentameter seems stodgy, almost wooden, to those who have lost or have never had the taste for meter. There is hardly any variation whatsoever. The only major departure I see is in the phrase “their names grow faint,” which ends its line in a near spondee. And yet Motion handles the rigid meter** very well. The final stanza, in particular, reaches a powerful moment of insight, the idea of certainty dissolving expressed in a methodical and conventional meter. Gibson, for the QES, said of the poem, “It is in pairs of lines and I will assume they are measured out in a formal way, but beyond that there is no other formal principle. It falls short of being a poem.”

Dead wrong, Mr. Gibson.

I feel almost incredulous that such a mistake could be made -- and then followed up with wide publication. By using a search engine, you can easily find lots of commentary on the QES challenge on the definition of poetry.

Naturally, the British Poetry Society, which put on the competition responded to Gibson’s criticisms. One trustee said: “There is poetry in everything we say or do, and if something is presented to me as a poem by its creator, or by an observer, I accept that something as a poem.” That is a position that is simply unacceptable to me, that anything anyone says is a poem is one. Such a view leads, and has led, to a lot of nonsense in the world of poetry and to a significant diminishment of poetry’s importance and beauty. Ruth Padel, a prize-winning poet (unknown to me) and former chair of the Poetry Society, added, “As for ‘what poetry is’: in The Use of Poetry T.S. Eliot said, ‘We learn what poetry is -- if we ever learn -- by reading it.’” I would also disagree with that, for it also leads to the incoherent position of accepting as poetry anything that anyone says is poetry.

Another British poet, by the name of Michael Schmidt, claimed that the campaign of the QES is similar to a movement in the U.S. labeled "New Formalism." Followers of that movement, Schmidt claimed, “set up a magazine” (just one?) that included any poem as long as it “rhymed and scanned.” The comment about rhyme is incorrect. I don’t know what single magazine Schmidt was speaking of, but there have been several U.S. journals devoted to formal verse in recent years, and none of them made rhyme a requirement and many of the meters employed have been highly experimental. Schmidt was quoted further as saying, “But the bankruptcy of that [the use of meter and rhyme, that is] has been recognized.” The “bankruptcy” of formalist poetics?!

Dead wrong, Mr. Schmidt.

Even in British publishing “new formalism” has had a vibrant life, thanks in part to the work of Janet Lewis’s longtime friend, the late Donald Davie (who was, by the way, editor of Yvor Winters’s Collected Poems).

Interesting to many might be to discover that Yvor Winters, who has so often been chided and derided for his conversion to formalist poetics early in his career, had little to say against free verse in and of itself. In fact, his letters discuss free verse very seldom, as it might be astonishing to realize, and he never railed against free verse in his letters or published essays. In fact, he wrote fondly and insightfully of free verse even after his conversion away from the Imagist poetics that he subscribed to at the beginning of his career. Winters’s views are made more complex because he believed that the best free-verse poetry was not truly “free,” but followed patterns of continual variation. We get some insight into this knotty concept in a letter to John Crowe Ransom in May of 1928 (when Winters was 28 and in the midst of leaving free-verse Imagism behind), in which he wrote informally of his belief that free verse can be scanned:

The question of meter is again too complicated for this letter, but if you are interested, I will send you some specimens of scansion some time in the next year or so. Specimens of “free” verse, that is. My own, {William Carlos] Williams’s, Miss [Marianne] Moore, perhaps [Ezra] Pound’s. I believe that, allowing for irregularities (as in much blank verse) most of the good free verse -– and there is quite a bit of it -– is based on a line of primary and secondary stresses, the first being normally of a fixed number and the second and unstressed syllables varying. Sometimes the line is deformed for various reason, but can usually be straightened out if one has a counting-complex. At any rate I will fight for what pleases me, not for what can be measured by a footrule, and I believe that the above-named poets write verse whether it can be measured or not. I can, incidentally, scan most of my own verse of the last five years on this principle, having done it.

Winters’s formal writings on the scanning of free verse are of great interest (if mostly unconvincing to me). You can find them in his first book Primitivism and Decadence, which can be found as the first part of In Defense of Reason, his most famous work.

** Footnote: I should explain that I do not use the word “rigid” here as a pejorative , as it has been so used in many comments about formalists and Yvor Winters’s own verse, in particular (even among those who admire his work). Rigidity can be beautiful, as beautiful as or even more beautiful than looseness. Andrew Motion’s lines have great character and a certain strong beauty. Of course, I am aware of the current general bias in literary culture against regular meters in our time. But the continuing popularity of old formal verse (Shakespeare, Donne, Wordsworth, et. al.) promises that some day a new and perhaps even large cadre of poets will devote themselves to the use of meter.

The beauty of rigidity, I think, needs a defense for our time.

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