I dropped round to see my parents on Sunday. My father wanted to show me an article from the Weekend Herald on the necessity of rhyme and metre in poetry. He assumed it would interest me, but I'm afraid that I was very dismissive of it and him. And now I'm feeling guilty about it, because I read the article online this morning, and it interests me very much. So sorry Dades. I'll be way less offhand next time.
Basically the article (actually reprinted from the British Observer) discusses a group of people called the "Queen's English Society" who 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."
The campaigners say that there should be a new definition of poetry, outlining the characteristics needed before a piece of work can be called a poem.
"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."
Michael George Gibson, who is heading the campaign, goes on to say:
"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".
Gibson praised the work of Chaucer, Shakespeare, John Donne, Robert Graves and even Queen Elizabeth I, all of whom he thought followed the rules of poetry. But he was critical of current writers ...
I guess that Gibson must have become aware of the difficulties of his position when he realised that, by his own society's rules, Homer and Virgil didn't write poetry -- nor did any of the Classical poets or dramatists, in fact. Rhyme only became a technical resource for European poetry in the Middle Ages.
In fact, it's conjectured by many that the Troubadours, who first pioneered its use in their songs and ballads, borrowed rhyme from the Arabic poets of Spain. Some medieval Latin poets had already begun to use rhyme rather than the syllable-length-based metres employed by Green and Latin poets before that, though, so the question is a controversial one.
I don't want to seem as if I'm splitting hairs or trying to bury the argument in pure historical detail. If the "Queen's English" society are solely interested in the rules of poetry in English, I think there may be certain problems with their argument even then.
Is blank verse, the standard English iambic pentameter, "poetic"? Shakespeare, singled out for special praise above, very seldom wrote in rhyme. In his songs and sonnets, yes, but not in his plays. Is the concluding couplet the only piece of "poetry" in his scenes? Do his plays become less poetic as the metre gets looser and harder to scan? By that argument, "Two Gentlemen of Verona" (an early, very regularly written play, in careful accentual pentameters) is closer to poetry than late masterpieces such as "King Lear" or "Hamlet."
Milton specifically decried "the modern barbarism of rhyming" in his preface to Paradise Lost. Is that a poem? It certainly doesn't rhyme. Was Milton only a poet in his early work, when he did use rhymes - in "L'Allegro and "Il Penseroso," for instance? Milton thought he was being more poetic by not rhyming -- he hated the jogtrot rhyming heroic couplets which would dominate English verse for the next century, preferring instead to refer to Classical models for his own epic diction. Is Pope's Dunciad (rhyming) a better poem than Paradise Lost (unrhymed)?
"Measure" and "alliteration," the two words Gibson uses to accompany "rhyme" as identifying features of "true poetry", were presumably chosen to get over this difficulty. After all, Anglo-Saxon poetry didn't rhyme - Beowulf was composed in alliterative verse. Rhyme came into England with the Norman conquest, in fact, and took a good two or three centuries to take hold here.
Strangest of all is the contrast the article ends on.
John Donne's bizarre, eccentric (electrifying) masterpiece "The Sun Rising" is contrasted with a recent poem by "Michael Schmidt, a contemporary poet and academic who had been awarded an OBE. Schmidt's piece "Pangur Ban" was not poetry, said Gibson."
Jerome has his enormous dozy lion.
Myself, I have a cat, my Pangur Ban.
What did Jerome feed up his lion with?
Always he's fat and fleecy, always sleeping
As if after a meal.
Perhaps a Christian?
Perhaps a lamb, or a fish, or a loaf of bread.
His lion's always smiling, chin on paw,
What looks like purring rippling his face
And there on Jerome's escritoire by the quill and ink pot
The long black thorn he drew from the lion's paw.
I have to say that these lines sounded pretty familiar to me. And, sure enough, a quick search revealed the (admittedly rhyming) Irish original of Schmidt's poem:
Messe ocus Pangur Bán,
cechtar nathar fria saindan:
bíth a menmasam fri seilgg,
mu memna céin im saincheirdd.
Caraimse fos (ferr cach clu)
oc mu lebran, leir ingnu;
ni foirmtech frimm Pangur Bán:
caraid cesin a maccdán.
O ru biam (scél cen scís)
innar tegdais, ar n-oendís,
taithiunn, dichrichide clius,
ni fris tarddam ar n-áthius.
Gnáth, huaraib, ar gressaib gal
glenaid luch inna línsam;
os mé, du-fuit im lín chéin
dliged ndoraid cu ndronchéill.
Fuachaidsem fri frega fál
a rosc, a nglése comlán;
fuachimm chein fri fegi fis
mu rosc reil, cesu imdis.
Faelidsem cu ndene dul
hi nglen luch inna gerchrub;
hi tucu cheist ndoraid ndil
os me chene am faelid.
Cia beimmi a-min nach ré
ni derban cách a chele:
maith la cechtar nár a dán;
subaigthius a óenurán.
He fesin as choimsid dáu
in muid du-ngni cach oenláu;
du thabairt doraid du glé
for mu mud cein am messe.
In other words, the Queen's English Society's argument has now extended to translations (and adaptations) of existing poems.
The Irish monk who originally wrote that lovely poem about his cat, did indeed use rhyme. Does that mean that all subsequent translators should do the same, even if their versions sound far limper than Schmidt's?
I and Pangur Ban my cat,
'Tis a like task we are at:
Hunting mice is his delight,
Hunting words I sit all night ... etc. etc. (trans. Robin Flower)
So was Pope on the right track in translating Homer into rhyming couplets, thus turning his (unrhyming) Greek hexameters into poetry? Or is it better to translate Homer into English hexameters, even though English is a stress-based language which can't really reproduce the metrical forms of unstressed languages such as Latin and Greek? Or would it be better to use (unrhymed) blank verse, even though it doesn't really resemble the Greek forms at all?
The responses Gibson has received are quite instructive, also:
One Poetry Society 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."
Ruth Padel, a prize-winning poet who used to be chair of trustees at the Poetry Society, added: "In The Use of Poetry TS Eliot said, `We learn what poetry is - if we ever learn - by reading it'."
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."
The "rhyme and metre" argument is certainly too simplistic to match the complexity of what has traditionally been regarded as "poetry" even in the English-speaking world. I mean, the QES's argument, if taken to extremes would argue that only the metrical versions of the Biblical Psalms turn them into true poems:
The Lord's my shepherd, I'll not want.
He makes me down to lie
In pastures green, he leadeth me
The quiet waters by.
Is that a "poem" in a way that the Authorised version's translation, which tries to reproduce something of the parallelism characteristic of Hebrew poetry, isn't?
The Lord is my shepherd:
I shall not want.
He maketh me to lie down in green pastures:
he leadeth me beside the still waters.
He restoreth my soul:
he leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his name's sake.
I'm reminded of the character who denounced the idea of a new translation of the Bible by saying that since the Authorised version was good enough for St. James, it was good enough for him ...
"Against stupidity the gods themselves contend in vain," as the German poet Schiller once remarked.
Mind you, I certainly think it's interesting to continue to debate what precisely is the difference between the heightened, patterned language we call "poetry" and that less-obtrusive medium we call "prose." Once might even argue that its the tension between the two which provides a good deal of the electricity surge we call "literature."
But to think that these terms can even be neatly parcelled up in the manner Gibson and his buddies suggest is, I'm afraid, a little akin to the nineteenth-century American state legislature which voted to make the mathematical ratio "pi" a round number. Yeah, it'd be nice if you could, but since the subject's really a lot more complicated than that, let's debate it seriously if we're going to talk about it at all.
In the meantime, I'll keep on reading Homer and Milton, and Gibson can stick to the collected lyrics of Elizabeth the First ...