Sunday, April 13, 2008

Free Verse is not poetry.


Today’s The Observer carried this article: “Poetry Guardians Reject Modern Verse”. The Queen’s English Group, spear-headed by Michael George Gibson, has launched an attack on Modern Free Verse, quite simply stating that it isn’t poetry.


As a mission statement, the society has this to say: “The Society hopes to attract those who are interested in, and knowledgeable about, the English language.” According to its website, that is about 1000 in number. Not a massive following then. And judging from its latest AGM, it doesn’t seem to contain many worthies in the fields of English, linguistics and literature.

Michael George Gibson, however, clearly considers himself a worthy and his aim is clear: Andrew Motion as the Poet Laureate (a rather easy target) and Michael Schmidt (one of the Poetry Society Judges in 2007 and something of a moving target). Gibson does not consider the winner of The Poetry Society award to be a poet (obviously Michael Schmidt did…well, had to, bearing in mind he publishes her work under the imprint of Carcanet!). For Gibson, poetry is simple: it has rhythm and rhyme and all would be much better if the English language returned to medieval and earlier models. More alliteration. More music! More general silliness!

Gibson also seems disgruntled because The Poetry Society has been recalcitrant in the war of words and refused to give a definition of poetry. At least, one with which The Queen’s English Group would agree.

Unfortunately, The Observer does not publish a poem by Michael George Gibson. It sets up an argument between Donne’s “The Sun Rising” (liked by Gibson) and Schmidt’s “Pangur Ban” (disliked by Gibson, but hardly Schmidt at his best—something of a fixed fight, I’d say). In the interest of a fair fight, here is a poem by the bruiser of the English Guard:

The Fisher:

She is the sea; and he is the fisher
Who watches the surf sliding over the sand:
She is the sea; and he the fond wisher,
Who waits with his hook and coiled line on the strand.

The tide when right in will be foaming and fish-full -
Silvered with herring, blue-mackerel-teeming - :
She is the sea; and he stands there, wish-full,
Ready to cast, awaiting the gleaming
Of silver and blue in the surging-green-streaming.

Well, poets “in glass houses”… and is this English grammar-:?

In defence of free-verse poetry, Ruth Padel quotes Eliot. She ought to have cited Pound: “No verse is free for the man who wants to do a good job”. Old Ez should have added woman, but that aside, that’s moreorless the issue. Yes, there is rather a lot of free verse that trickles these days like treacle or urine, without much sense of technique or thought. But Pound was right. Modern English is not suited to rhyme in the way that Chaucer's French-English was. Modern English is not Old English and the days of The Seafarer crossed the whale-road of time a long time ago. (Incidentally, did Beowulf, that paradigm of English rhyme?) Gibson’s “The Fisher” is a throw-back to days long gone. And “surging green streaming” has to be one of the most ill-sounding and ill- imagined lines ever written. And was it too hard to write two four-line stanzas?

Schmidt compares Gibson’s baying to the “new formalism” in the US. He is too polite. He gives his opponent’s argument too much intellectual weight. The arguments of The Queen’s English Society ought to be allowed to fade way like an English mist upon a dark mire: The Observer should not have bothered to observe them and given them credibility.

Wednesday, April 09, 2008

Tom Paulin, The Secret Life of Poems.


Tom Paulin has a reputation as the scourge of the cultural establishment. Often the tv critic who kicks against the pricks and does not feel (rightly so) the need to court popular opinion and just be a likeable media personality. Perhaps, therefore, The Secret Life of Poems, carries something of an interrogatory tone: the secret life will be dragged alive and kicking into the bright gaze of Paulin’s stare. A few critics have read his latest book in this way, finding it rough and rude and unfinished. This is to do a fascinating book a real injustice! (Is that ! too much? A reading of Paulin’s book leaves a reader questioning practices). Paulin has a forensic intelligence...in this volume he also comes across as a great reader of human life.

The Secret Life of Poems is called “A Poetry Primer”. This it certainly isn’t. It is a “primer” in the painting sense. A layer of interpretation is applied to the poem: as a canvas is primed, then parts of the canvas are worked on. Paulin works on the areas that interest him and this is what gives the book its vigour and life. Instead of the usual polished lit crit approach, a reader is introduced to lines of enquiry…and different lines of enquiry in different poems. Some of the strongest insights come when Paulin begins in one direction and ends in another. So, he starts off looking for the weakness in Lowell’s “Sailing home from Rapallo” and finishes by finding that it has a “finer structure”. Paulin’s method includes an elasticity— how far might a poem be stretched before it starts to resist the approach. Such a method could become a kind of torture…not so in Paulin’s hands…he is aware (as a poet) of the poetic medium and how far the body of the poem can be shaped.

There are three principal strengths to this book. Firstly, it ranges from the English Renaissance to contemporary poetry. Secondly, it selects from American and English traditions. None of the Silliman “School of Quietude” nonsense for Paulin. Thirdly, it follows what is often neglected in poetry criticism: the meaning in the music of the poem, how sound and stress work within the sensitive reader to draw connections and secret/implied links.

Paulin’s reading of Milton is interesting because he finds fault with Milton and from those faults comes to an appreciation of deeper virtues. His analysis of Lowell is engaging. He approaches the dark elements of (Ted) Hughes. His reading of Muldoon's "Quoof" hears all of the poems subtleties. Herbert's "The Flower" blossoms. Keats’ “To Autumn” is wonderfully re-imagined as a piece of sociological and political criticism, rather than a piece of Romantic pastoral. And that points to the strong element of Paulin’s readings and also his occasional weaknesses. When Paulin senses that a poem is earthed in politics, he is a gardener gardening. When poems becomes rarified, he produces a battle of wills. Strangely, his reading of “Sailing to Byzantium” is one of the least satisfactory. Paulin’s Irish bias gives Yeats a place. But “Sailing to Byzantium”, though it talks of youth and age, is grounded in a virtual, occult world, not Ireland. The poem was in early form a draft for Yeats’ initiation into the grade of Adeptus Exemptus in The Golden Dawn. This was the Jupiter grade looking towards the Saturn grade. Written some years later than this, “Sailing to Byzantium” gazes from the land of Jupiter (and youth) towards the city of Saturn (old age and eternal wisdom). Byzantium is more than Wisdom. It is the eternal land across the abyss of the Tree of Life— and entrance into eternity and “unageing intellect”. This is a context of no interest to the non-hermetic Paulin. If there is another flaw in the book it is the fact that Paulin sometimes over reads. The critic Edna Longley has stated that Paulin’s criticism sometimes becomes a criticism of what Paulin has recently read in his head. That comment would seem to be true of his approach to Craine Raine. One common word is enough to send Paulin into detailed comparisons with Larkin. It is as if Raine has suddenly acquired Pound’s logopoetic precision in Mauberley and one word implies a treatise. But this ought to be overlooked. Paulin is someone who reads poetry, for the words, for the texture, not just for the general feeling. He reads to find the new--not what a hundred other critics have trotted out in tribute to each other (rather than the poem).

There is much to enjoy in Paulin’s The Secret Lives of Poems. And the book is provocative, speculative, experimental, brilliant, simply a book that takes the reader into a labyrinth of sounds and contexts. Dull this book isn’t. The final poem investigated is McKendrick’s “Apotheosis”. It makes a fitting ending to a study that metamorphoses literary criticism.