But is it Poetry?

My 2¢

I couldn’t resist..

The Observer, as mentioned in the previous post, published an article entitled Poetry guardians reject modern verse. The Observer writes:

Members of the [Queen’s English Society – QOS], set up to defend the ‘beauty and precision’ of the English language, have turned their attention to contemporary poetry and poets, arguing that too often strings of words are being labelled as poems despite the fact they have no rhyme or metre.

What defending the “beauty and precision” of the English Language has to do with defining poetry is unclear. After all, there are any number of free verse “poems” Observer Linkcontaining English that are both beautiful and precise. If the Queen’s English only wants a beautiful and precise definition of poetry, then I assume that the Encyclopedia Britannica’s editors probably live in the same neighborhood.

It seems, however, that they had already decided what that definition should be:

‘A lot of people high up in poetry circles look down on rhyme and metre and think it is old-fashioned,’ said Bernard Lamb, president of the QES and an academic at Imperial College London. ‘But what is the definition of poetry? I would say, if it doesn’t have rhyme or metre, then it is not poetry, it is just prose. You can have prose that is full of imagery, but it is still prose.’

The campaign is being spearheaded by Michael George Gibson, who said it was ‘disgraceful’ that the Poetry Society had failed to respond properly to his demands for a definition. ‘For centuries word-things, called poems, have been made according to primary and defining craft principles of, first, measure and, second, alliteration and rhyme,’ said Gibson. ‘Word-things not made according to those principles are not poems.’ True poems, he said, gave the reader or listener a ‘special pleasure’.

While I may be mildly sympathetic to their angst (if not their goals) stating that “true poems” give readers “special pleasure” is hardly a beautiful or precise definition. Everyday my WordPress Spam filter weeds out hundreds of comments promising “special pleasures”. Were they all poems? – beautifully nubile, inviting and precisely suggestive? I’ll have to turn that filter off…

The Poetry Society's Definition of Poetry?

The Poetry Society’s Definition of Poetry?

On the other hand, the Poetry Society’s response was equally ridiculous, if not more so:

The Poetry Society has responded to the criticisms. One trustee told Gibson: “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.”

This is the kind of airy fairy poetry definition that makes the Queen’s English Society look good. If the Poetry Society truly responded that everything is a poem just because somebody told them so, then they are brain dead. If nothing else, their poetry “trusteeship” isn’t to be trusted and should be revoked. Try telling your local journal editor that your Aspirin bottle’s ingredients list is a poem. (Evidently, that would be good enough for the Poetry Society.) There’s a reason colleges rake in millions of dollars from MFA programs. And it’s not because anything and everything is a poem.

Another trustee, Ruth Padel, dropped back and punted a T.S. Eliot:

Ruth Padel, a prize-winning poet who used to be chair of trustees at The Poetry Society, added: ‘As for “what poetry is”: in The Use of Poetry TS Eliot said, “We learn what poetry is – if we ever learn – by reading it.”‘

Apparently, her prize-winningness doesn’t do well with definitions of poetry. Padel, in effect, is putting words into Eliot’s mouth. What Eliot meant and what Padel meant could have been two entirely different things. But we’ll never know because Eliot isn’t around to clarify (which is why you should always quote the dead). My own opinion is that Eliot’s quote doesn’t help her cause. The poetry that Eliot would have read and learned from didn’t  include the free verse of the 20th century (which he thought had gone too far). Rather, it included the very poetry that Gibson and QOS would consider… well… Poetry.

Michael Schmidt, whose “word things” Gibson and the Queen’s Snark refused to consider poetry, responded thusly:

Schmidt, professor of poetry at the University of Glasgow, argued that for centuries poets had added variations to patterns and rules. ‘It seems a primitive and even infantile notion that there are rules poetry must obey,’ said Schmidt, who accused the QES of placing poetry in a ‘straitjacket’. ‘Poetry that follows the rules too closely is bad poetry. I think every form of verse, free or metrical, establishes a pattern and plays on variations of it.’

To which one can only respond: “It seems an equally primitive and even infantile notion that there aren’t any rules poetry must obey.”

The Queen's English Society's Definition of Poetry?

The Queen’s English Society’s Definition of Poetry?

Of course, Schmidt immediately contradicts himself. (It’s hard to be consistent when you don’t have a definition.) He says: “Poetry that follows the rules too closely is bad poetry.”

Quoi?

That is, Schmidt admits that there are rules that should be obeyed, but not too closely. OK, so he thinks there are rules but they’re not really “rules”. But wait a minute, Schmidt then muddies the mud. He says that “every form of verse… establishes a pattern… and plays on it.” And just what pattern would that be? And is a “pattern” the same as a rule? And who decides on the pattern? It seems, once again, that a poem is whatever the author wants it to be. Hieronymus Bosch anyone?

So, where does that leave us?

My own feeling is that arguments about the definition of poetry are futile (but a great spectator sport). The term Poetry, during the last 100 years, has been applied to everything. In certain ways, the Poetry Society is correct (though not in their intended sense). The word Poetry is meaningless. It means whatever you want it to mean. I can understand how that would depress or enrage some connoisseurs of poetry and the English language. The word Poetry has caché. It’s got class. Everybody wants a piece of it and everybody got a piece of it. In the latest issue of Poetry, cartoon strips are now considered poems – albeit with the appellation conceptual.

A Subtle Truth…

You know how women poets resent being called women poets? – as if they were a subset of real poets (read men). If you really want to get under their skin, keep saying things like: “Yeah, she’s great for a woman-poet.” Well, the same thing works for writers of free-verse. If you really want to get under their skin, consistently refer to them as free verse poets, as though they were a subset of real poets (that is, poets who write rhyme and meter).

The subtle truth is that there is already a name for the “word things” that word thingers have been writing for the last century. It is called free verse. The next time you meet a word thinger who tells you that he or she writes poetry – ask whether they mean free verse or poetry. Keep a lawn chair close by. You’ll want to be comfortable.

Gibson should take comfort from the fact that the average reader makes a distinction, rightly or wrongly, between poetry and free verse. Ron Silliman has gone on at length railing at this subtle injustice (conspiracy). It’s one of the reasons why he futily attempts to break down poetry into schools. If he could just pull it off, then all schools of poetry would be on  equal footing. There wouldn’t be Poetry and/or free verse. There wouldn’t be Poetry and/or the avant-garde. One could point to any given poet and say (succinctly, beautifully and precisely) that he is a member of this or that school. Finally, all poets would be equal.

Poetry and/or Free Verse

But there’s a reason to distinguish between poetry and free verse poetry. As I wrote in a previous post, The Art of  Rhyme and Meter, poetry began as an oral tradition – and many free versifiers have studiously eschewed that tradition.

Consider Homer’s Odyssey. The original tale is probably far older than Homer and may have been handed down for centuries from one storyteller to the next. Each storyteller probably added details and expanded the story until, by the time Homer learned it, the epic was a real feat of memorization. And as every reader of Mother Goose knows, a ditty or poem that has a rhythm or rhyme is easier to remember than one that doesn’t. And the rhythm of the Odyssey is the  Dactylic Hexameter. The meter made the epic easier to remember.

But even before Homer, the tightly wound relationship between dance, music, rhythm and sound was demonstrated by recently discovered poems from ancient Egypt. National Geographic's Egyptian Poetry DiscoveryIn a book called The Ancient Egyptian Culture Revealed, Moustafa Gadalla writes:

The Egyptians perceived language and music as two sides of the same coin. Spoken, written, and musical composition follow the same exact patterns. Both poetry and singing followed similar rules for musical composition. Poetry is written not only with a rhyme scheme, but also with a recurring pattern of accented and unaccented syllables. Each syllable alternates between accented and unaccented, making a double/quadruple meter and several other varieties. Patterns of set rhythms or lengths of phrases of Ancient Egyptian poems, praises, hymns, and songs of all kinds, which are known to have been changed or performed with some musical accompaniment, were rhythmic with uniform meters and a structured rhyme. ¶ Ancient Egyptian texts show that Egyptians spoke and sang in musical patterns on all occasions and for all purposes–from the most sacred to the most mundane. [p. 155]

This oral tradition continued with the very first works of the Anglo Saxons, the alliteration of Beowulf, right up until the start of the 20th Century, when poets like Frost, Cummings, and Yeats, continued to imbue their poetry with the sounds and rhythms of its oral, storytelling ancestry.

Maybe its controversial to suggest that free verse is a new genre (only tangentially related to the poetry of the previous 2000 years), but the assertion isn’t to the detriment of free verse. Free verse practitioners have themselves, to varying degrees, deliberately avoided the traditional rhythms of a regular meter; have eschewed rhyme; have avoided alliteration; and whole schools have rejected techniques like metaphor. All these techniques grew out of an oral tradition – frequently, or so scholars think, as mnemonic aids or for musical accompaniment.

Free verse is the child of the 20th Century printing press (which isn’t to say that free verse can’t be read aloud and enjoyed as such). And it’s not to say that free verse doesn’t borrow techniques from the oral tradition, but free verse doesn’t do so systematically (Poets, like William Carlos Williams, studiously avoided anything short of what he considered plain speech or plain English and the avant-garde is premised on the avoidance of anything that smacks of traditional poetry.) It was the explosive availability of the printed word that made the visual cues of free verse possible. Aurally, there is frequently nothing that distinguishes free verse from prose.  Cleave Poetry, for example, is defined by its visual appearance  (rather than any aural cues).

Free verse declares itself poetry on the page. (No listener could reconstruct the poem by ear.)

The poetry of rhyme and meter declares itself poetry in the listener’s ear. The roots of traditional poetry are in music, song and lyric. (The attentive listener could, with a good memory, reconstruct a poem’s shape.)

In short, free verse didn’t evolve from the poetry of the oral tradition, it replaced it.

But is Free Verse Poetry?

Yes, but it’s the poetry of the printed page. It’s a different genre.

If all the printed records of free verse were lost and if all we had were audio recordings, only a handful could ever hope to be reconstructed on the page (depending on how pointedly the poet paused after each line break). What traditionally distinguished poetry from prose was regular linguistic patterning, not length or subject matter. Without any kind of regular linguistic pattern, there is nothing to distinguish  free verse from a paragraph of prose. If free verse isn’t printed, the genre provides no clues as to how it should be lineated.

Put Paradise Lost into one long prosy paragraph, and I will relineate it exactly the way Milton intended. Do the same with any of Shakespeare’s sonnets and I, or any one familiar with the sonnet form, could put them back together.

So, if the Queen’s English Society really wants to pursue a beautiful and precise definition of poetry, let them start there.

Just give me time to get my lawn chair.

❧ September 15, 2009 from up in Vermont.