I had a row with a friend the other day. An excellent friend, the kind of friend where the friendship can survive any number of rows. (And we do it properly – loudly, publicly, occasionally drunkenly, invariably vehemently but always parting the very best of friends afterwards).
The subject of this particular argument was poetry. My friend is a highly accomplished singer songwriter who believes passionately (as a result of his own work with song writing) in the merits of structuring poetry into formal metre. He argues that poetry has more worth when it follows a structure and that as a resulting of structuring to form it shows more effort must have gone into writing the poem. He believes that the value of poetry is expressing what it is you are writing about in a set way.
To him, the form appears to be greater than the subject (If I'm misrepresenting you dear its probably because you conduct most of your arguments with your fingers in your ears going la la la…….) I won't repeat some of the language he uses to describe the concept of free verse as it doesn't conjure up a very flattering image of how some of my favourite poets do their writing. But in summary he thinks free verse is highly pretentious and extraordinarily easy to write.
I am an avid reader and occasional writer of poetry and I disagree with him entirely. He seems to think rhyming is an art. Well it isn’t. I could write you any amount of rhyming couplets. Really I could. I could do you a couple of hundred lines in an evening, no effort at all. They would scan correctly, appear fairly clever and literate but crucially would be utterly devoid of meaning or worth. I would fool you into thinking I am a poet because I understand the structure of poetry. But I am not a poet. A true poet distills the beauty of an idea into words on the page. They take an image or an idea and represent it in such a way that they take you with them into their emotion. They know how to make you feel. If, out of every poem I have ever written I have more than one or two that has achieved anything even close to this, frankly I'd be surprised. I can trick you into thinking what I write is profound, I could trick you very easily but the truth is that I haven’t that spark of whatever it is that brings you across into my world. An ability to understand and emulate rhyme, structure and form does not make a poet.
(Incidentally, a sound grasp of poetic structure is an excellent asset to being a witch. I’m very hot on rhyming spells. I find it a lot easier to write spells to a structure. This is probably a good thing. If I were to hang around waiting for that gem of inspiration for a free verse spell, likely as not I would never get anything done. And so many people would go unhexed. That would be such a shame!)
What my friend means when he says anyone could write free verse is that he thinks anyone could string a load of random sentences and images together. Well yes, I agree, I am sure that most people could. But the point is that if they can’t do that and achieve emotional engagement, they are not writing poetry and they may as well be writing their shopping list. True, some free verse leaves me cold. Some of it is genuinely is pretentious nonsense (I’ve never liked anything by Ted Hughes). But some of it is also completely non compromising unvarnished passion. I’m biased of course, my love affair with TS Eliot has lasted for years. But nobody (Please Goddess….) nobody, could read Eliot’s Waste Land and wish he had made all the sentences the same length and thrown a few more rhymes in. If he had chosen to force his mighty vision of a poem into a conventional structure so much of his voice would have been lost.
Writing free verse is a bitch. It entirely rests on the imagery and the language of the poem. You can’t hide behind a clever rhyme or the rhythm of the poem’s flow. It is your ideas and emotions that are being scrutinised. There is nowhere to hide. The perception of whether your poem is good or bad relates directly to whether your reader has an empathy with your emotion. So to me, once you step out from the confines of rhymes and metre, you are up there on the high wire, out on your own. Conventional poetic structures can mask a myriad of false emotions. Nothing can mask whether you can write poetry or not when you use free verse.
Take that absolutely worthless piece of crap by Auden. It means nothing. The imagery is pathetic. It is one of the worst poems I have ever read. Yet it makes top 100 poem lists with astonishing regularity. Classic example of a familiar rhyme masking the fact that the poet simply has nothing to say.
Stop all the clocks, cut off the telephone,
Prevent the dog from barking with a juicy bone,
Silence the pianos and with muffled drum
Bring out the coffin, let the mourners come.
Let aeroplanes circle moaning overhead
Scribbling on the sky the message He Is Dead,
Put crepe bows round the white necks of the public doves,
Let the traffic policemen wear black cotton gloves.
He was my North, my South, my East and West,
My working week and my Sunday rest,
My noon, my midnight, my talk, my song;
I thought that love would last for ever: I was wrong.
The stars are not wanted now: put out every one;
Pack up the moon and dismantle the sun;
Pour away the ocean and sweep up the wood.
For nothing now can ever come to any good.
(See what I mean - abysmal!)
My friend would argue that a good poet should be able to formulate his ideas into a structure without compromise and that that is the true art of poetry. But again I disagree. Simply put, there may not be a way of getting the entirety of a single idea onto the page in any structured format. Language demands that there must always be a degree of compromise. To him compromise for the sake of form is worth it, to me it isn't. I don't care what poets have to do to generate emotion in me, I don't care if they break form, make up words, drop words out, even change language (I’m looking at you Eliot). I don't care if they have no understanding of assonance or alliteration. I'm an emotion junkie, all I care about is the feelings they are able to inspire in me. And I don't want the poets to have to compromise anything at all as they pass an image from their mind into mine. I want the genuine experience, not some modified reworked second rate retelling.
I think, to be fair, that writing poetry is different to writing songs. The song writer has no choice but to consider the music. He may think he is free to do whatever he desires but he is deeply constrained by the tune and rhythm of the music. The poet has no such constraints. He can focus entirely on passing the image and emotion into the mind of his reader. The line between the two is blurred at times (Bob Dylan?) but essentially the poet does not have to work to a structure and the song writer does. I would probably argue that song lyrics lose something in the translation from idea to melody. My friend would tell you the ideas are better when worked on for long enough to create a fit to form and melody. Likely we will never agree. Nor would I want to. I do not have enough people in my life to argue about poetry with.
Image http://www.sxc.hu/browse.phtml?f=view&id=1182631 (mzecha)
Join the Witch Path Forward Facebook community. (Click the icon).