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.

7 comments:

Id it is said...

Truly 'The Observer' should not have observed them!

Saur♥Kraut said...

;o) I would agree, and I've been lauded by the Poetry Society myself.

Eshuneutics said...

Did you have time to look at the link and read the rest of the rhyme, iditis? No, spare yourself that.

;o) agree with whom, Saur?

Id it is said...

Yes I did,unfortunately! Though I know you would not have wished that on me, hehe

Saur♥Kraut said...

Esh, I agree that freeform is too easy - it's not real verse usually.

There are exceptions to everything, of course, but my admiration is extended to whatever is obviously brilliant and original. And generally rhyming takes more thought and effort. That is, unless you are exposed to something obscenely puerile.

Eshuneutics said...

Saur, hi, it is, as you say, the content is what determines the value of a poem, not some camp for this or that.

Oracle said...

I believe poetry captures a moment, although there's less work in free verse. It can't be disqualified.

I think itz about the words.