Monday, April 21, 2008

The "Queen's English Society" on Poetry

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:

Pangur Ban

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 ...


maps said...

The irony is that Schmidt himself is a bit of a reactionary - although he has written well about modern poetry (his Fifty Modern British Poets was a Bible for me when I was 20) he prefers the older stuff - and I mean the much older, pre-eighteenth century stuff, and a lot of his poems lament the modern world in a Leavisian manner.

But these QES people are so completely stupid that they can't have noticed any of that. I suspect what they want to read is not formal verse, but *light* 'rum te tum te tum' verse. They'd be all at sea reading any highly formal but intense and complex poem which employed rhyme.

Rhyme will never be used again by serious English-language peots, simply because it is alien to English, and was only really popular once for political reasons. On the other hand, even experimental Russian poets have been happy to write rhymed poems, because of the vast number of potential rhymes their lnaguage provides.

Jack Ross said...

Yes, it's odd that they've chosen two such wild-eyed revolutionaries Andrew Motion and Michael Schmidt to bear the brunt of their displeasure ... I mean, how would they react to Susan Howe or Richard Taylor? I still think rhyme's an important poetic resource -- why else the popularity of rap lyrics? But the great age of W.S. Gilbert and A. A. Milne (G. M. Hopkins for that matter) is definitely past.

Richard Taylor said...

Jack I recall you and I having a discussion about rhyme and so on in poetry at the London bar once - very informative. Also I learnt quite lot from Bryony Jagger who had read the poetry of Virgil, Homer and so on in Latin and or Greek.

It is amazing the number of people (supposedly poets - or would be poets) who, besides not knowing the Anglo Saxon (mostly) unrhymed poetry etc, don't even know that introduction by Milton.

Milton was - for his times - also quite politically daring - his ('Areopagitica', against censorship, his Republicanism etc).

"The New Formalists" were also unable to write poetry even in the forms they advocated.

Rhyme is used - but not rhyme as used say by Pope (good by him in 'The Dunciad' as that is satirical of course) - rhyme has a place but the formality advocated by these conservative writers is quite restrictive.

I am actually quite pleased to be mentioned in the same line as Susan Howe! A poet I admire very much. Howe has a complex rationale (not that such as I need any such complex rationale!) for her use of lines at angles, lines crushed into each other, word's separated in space, and so on (but she uses rhyme when it is needed)* - following from Olson who derives ideas I suppose from Mallarme et al and Laforgue (said by some to be the originator of free verse);

But I wouldn't throw G M Hopkins out! Any aspiring writer or poet needs to study his works...

For me the most strange and hauntingly good use of rhyme (and iambic pentameter) is in the poem that is the basis of Nabokov's "Pale Fire".

These various devices - rhyme, alliteration an soon are tools only - there are no set rules here.

I feel that via my The Infinite Poem and EYELIGHT I am breaking away from conventional divisions of writing into poetry and prose or even say science and poetry etc
(Alan Sondheim does also this although his project is rather different from what I am

This is probably a more widespread practice than I can ascertain...

But I wanted a kind of literary equivalent of a "Unified Field Theory" - I wanted (as Wagner originally did) to bridge all (or many) disciplines - of course practicality is the limiter here... and there are (perhaps) some natural and useful divisions.

There is a lot of interesting stuff on UbuWeb.

I think though that some (too many)of these Formalist (and other) poets also have no sense of the intense beauty of even the "old" poetry...if one is to write in "jagged" (or very formal) forms etc one also has to have that intense sense of the primal power language - its deep sounds, images, and springs.**

* we that were wood
when that a wide wood was

In a physical Universe playing with


Bark be my limbs my hair be leaf

Bride be my bow my lyre my quiver

Not strict rhyme - and "Pythagorean Silence" is quite radical in form - but always has that intensity of language. BTW the quote above, I am fairly sure, is partly used (well) by M Leggott in 'DIA' - I mean it (or perhaps I mean the tone of Howe's "Pythagorean Silence") is transformed in that great long poem "Blue Irises" - but there are many resonances and "quotes" in that poem sequence (perhaps some of the greatest writing I have ever read) she wrote in a loose sonnet form in the form (more or less) of E Barrett Browning... showing that we "owe" to the "tradition" even if we reject it and or re-configure it etc That is an example of that combination of language play and deep linguistic and even lyric intensity - that virtually avoids rhyme or metre as such (but 'owes' to the "tradition" both outside and inside NZ).

** Not necessarily the "deep image" poetry say of Robert Bly - o.k. some of his are indeed great - but not too much of Bly! Bly with a dash of Bernstein (go easy with the salt!) and a peck of Taylor, Hamilton, Macassey, or Ross etc! Other "suspects" could mentioned at this junction...

Tim Jones said...

Maps' point about Russian poetry shows up the feebleness of the QES' position. Many English translation of Russian poetry have attempted to reproduce, or at least mimic, the rhyme scheme of the original. The results are usually disappointing.

The English versions are weakened by improbable word choices to fit the rhyme scheme and/or the insertion of unnecessary phrases to fit the metre.

Dispensing with rhyme - although not always popular with Russian speakers - encourages translations that echo the shape and tone of the original.

I still think rhyme and metre have a place in English poetry, but to employ them as a foundation is to build upon sand rather than stone.

Jack Ross said...

Yes, I don't subscribe to Maps' statement that "Rhyme will never be used again by serious English-language poets" -- nor do I see it as intrinsically "alien to English" (It's such a mongrel Germanic / Latin dialect that nothing seems exactly alien or indigenous to it anymore). Rhyme has a long and illustrious history in English, and may have again (though I doubt it).

Maps is bang-on about the politics of it, though: in the 14th and 15th century it was a political issue: writers and people aligning themselves with Norman or English culture, along class lines. If he restated his point as "Rhyme is unlikely ever again to be the dominant structural device for English-language poets," I'd certainly agree with that.

Richard Taylor said...

Jack(and Tim) - yes I agree -
interesting 'the class lines' - how language is unavoidably of the "socious" or even political almost to the core - the passion people feel say about their favourite style of music is similar...

BTW what is our view of Stead (keep it clean!! - I know you have certain dudgeonly disgruntlements re that earnest gentleman of letters; but he's not "evil" - I just re-read his "Geographies" in the light of Maps's comment -or re-write of his review in Pandar ... of "Straw Into Gold" (very good books both) now the long poem sequence "Yes t.s." in ('Geographies') is very good. At times brilliant...

Reaction (reasonable critical) to Stead is justified but the kind of hate he seem to have gotten seems to me excessive. (I'm referring in part to a Listener review of recent book he has put out - and I know SOME of his views are - well - little prescriptive and perhaps "fussy" but then so are those of many we know!))

We need to not let personalities intrude too much (we cant exclude the personal etc of course...)

Jack Ross said...

I like Stead's work -- some bits more than others, but I think a lot of his early poetry is quite strong. I'm certainly looking forward to his collected poems, which is supposed to be coming out later this year, as I understand it. I use to read Over he Bar when I was at school, and (at that age) it was probably the first book of NZ poetry that spoke to me at all.

Steve Blakey said...

No literary comment, sorry, but I am interested in finding out where you found "Irish Monk in the Scriptorium" illumination? Please give me more information on that.

Jack Ross said...

Dear Steve,

Sorry about that. Nowadays I always put up the web address of any illustrations I've borrowed. This particular one can be found here:

I've added it to the post, also.

Steve Blakey said...

Thanks for the speedy response. I will inquire on their site. I appreciate your help.