An Essay on Writing Poetry
The chief perfections of that lovely dame
Had I sufficient skill to utter them
Would make a volume of enticing lines,
Able to ravish any dull conceit.
First Part of Henry VI V.v.12-15
The truest poetry is the most feigning.
As You Like It III.iii.19
Some poets and editors, strongly objecting to poetry that is nothing more, they say, than ‘chopped up prose’, insist that every line of a poem should be ‘a statement in its own right and connected to its preceding line and following line in complete harmony’, or that ‘each line should make sense on its own’.
Let us consider the opening lines of The Waste Land by T.S. Eliot:
April is the cruellest month, breeding
Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
Memory and desire, stirring
Dull roots with spring rain.
Winter kept us warm, covering
Earth in forgetful snow, feeding
A little life with dried tubers.
Quite clearly, not one of these seven lines is a statement in its own right or makes sense on its own. The poets and editors mentioned above might well brand them as ‘chopped-up prose’ and suggest they be ‘re-structured’, probably as follows:—
April is the cruellest month,
Breeding lilacs out of the dead land,
Mixing memory and desire,
Stirring dull roots with spring rain.
Winter kept us warm,
Covering earth in forgetful snow,
Feeding a little life with dried tubers.
‘Now,’ they would say, ‘each of the seven lines is a statement in its own right and makes sense on its own. Much better!’ Thus they would presume to ‘improve’ Eliot’s world famous poem!
Eliot, however, laid out these lines as in the first quotation above, with a floating present participle at the end of five of the seven lines. Now, instead of criticizing this as ‘wrong’, let us try to see why Eliot chose to arrange his lines like that. In the second ‘re-structured’ quotation, each line finishes with a comma or full stop, so the poem moves forward slowly in a series of short jerks, stopping or pausing at the end of each line; in other words, it has no ‘flow’ or fluidity, and this would be a serious fault in a long poem and would not hold the reader’s attention for long. By ending five of the lines with ‘floating’ present participles – ‘breeding’, ‘mixing’, ‘stirring’, ‘covering’ and ‘feeding’ – Eliot poses a sort of question each time: ‘breeding what?’, ‘mixing what?’, ‘stirring what?’ and so on – questions which are each answered respectively in the next line. Thus the reader is carried forward with a sense of curiosity to the next line, and so the poem carries itself forward by its own momentum. This is deliberate and skillful technique. Eliot arranged his lines like this on purpose: his line breaks are not random or illogical. The fact that five of the lines end with the same grammatical structure (present participles) also creates its own stylistic pattern – not rhyme but a sort of syntactical repetition and recurring rhythm. Thus Eliot creates his very own unique style in the opening lines of this, probably his greatest, poem.
This same style also places a gentle emphasis upon the first word or words of each line following the ‘-ing’ word of the previous line, so that ‘Lilacs’, ‘Memory’, ‘Dull roots’, ‘Earth’ and ‘A little life’ create a line or series of images which almost make a little poem of their own.
From all this we can see how a poet, by careful choices of line endings and line beginnings can ‘entice’ (captivate, persuade or fascinate) the reader. By using or inventing skillful techniques, any poet can create enticing lines. If the poet sticks to making every line a dull ‘statement in its own right’, with each ‘making sense on its own’ – he or she is unlikely ever to produce original or striking poetry.
There is no end to the possible ways poets can make use of line endings and beginnings. If a poet chooses not to make any deliberate use of line breaks, strictly speaking his poem should continue in one single continuous long line, and this in its turn would require the paper (or page) of the book in which the poem appears to be impossibly or impractically wide! Or the poem would have to be written out as prose like this paragraph you are reading now. Many poets are in the (bad) habit of making line breaks at certain points merely in order to keep their lines of reasonable length (i.e. suitable for the size of the page on which they [are to] appear). It is absolutely imperative that there is a properly considered reason why a line ends when it does – a reason not based on the size of the page, and a reason not based on the idea that each line must be an independent grammar unit or sense unit. There is nothing against a poem having each of its lines a grammar unit or sense unit; but no one has any right to say that each of a poem’s lines must be a grammar or sense unit; this is far too dogmatic, restrictive and stultifying.
Prose, according to Coleridge, is ‘words in their best order’ and poetry, he says, is ‘the best words in their best order’; to which I would add that good poetry is exactly that – good prose chopped up into lines. What makes the poetry good or bad is how the lines are chopped up. Now, however, I would like quietly to put this childish phrase ‘chopped up’ to death. Using this phrase suggests that the poetry was written as prose first and then chopped up (axe-like) into lines. Any true poet knows, however, that poetry is not written like that. I guess that only one poet in a thousand would write out his poem as prose and then re-arrange the prose by ‘chopping it up’ into lines. Most poets, I am sure, ‘think in lines’; or at least some sort of instinct moves them to compose their poems directly in lines, although of course they may re-arrange words, endings and beginnings afterwards. Thus it might be better to say that poetry is good prose arranged into, or deliberately composed in, lines. In this sense, lines can be made to rhyme or follow regular metres, or, as I have explained above, made to create suspense or surprise, or to keep a poem moving, etc., etc.
It seems to me nowadays, however, that too many so-called poets are writing down too many lines of what they call poetry without going through the labour of exhausting every possibility to see if the lines they have written are the very best they can do. So many published poems these days are the facile outpourings of shallow and lazy minds. What these people forget is that every line, every sentence and phrase needs to go ‘through the furnace’ of concentration, self-criticism, emotional verification, image-and-colour testing, sound-and-rhythm testing, balance-and-contrast testing, and a whole lot more of tests and reassessments until the writer is quite certain that his or her lines are as fully enticing as they possibly can be. Only a true poet will ‘know’ when this moment occurs; he or she will feel something click inwardly, and some instinct will speak internally: ‘Yes, this is right, this poem has achieved its inevitable existence, it has reached its point of perfection’ – and this voice will only be heard after intense labour has been undertaken. Unless the poet passes every word of his poem through the microscope of artistic examination, judgement and decision, he or she will never produce memorable work or even mildly interesting work.
Thus I come to the second quotation at the head of this essay: ‘The truest poetry is the most feigning’. The word ‘feigning’ here does not refer to simulation, dishonesty or telling lies, but rather to the idea of inventing, of making something seem other than it is by means of creative imagination or poetic skill. In other words, we have to strive to give words new meanings, new colours, new sounds, new rhythms – by juxtaposing them with other words, so that their encounters force themselves upon our attention and make themselves unforgettable; and these word-encounters, etc. can be strung together and formed into enticing lines of poetry.
Consider the word ‘formed’ here. Writing poetry involves forming words into lines; another word that could be used is ‘shaping’ – shaping words into the phrases, units and lines that make a poem. Thus a poet might be called ‘a shaper of words’. This exactly corresponds to the rarely-used and almost forgotten word ‘scop’. A scop, for those who are not familiar with this word, is a poet, more commonly a bardic poet of old (who usually orally ‘improvised’ or ‘shaped’ poetry according to many very strict rules, sometimes accompanying himself on a small harp). The word ‘scop’ has evolved into the modern words ‘shape’ or ‘shaper’.
The main point here is that a poet was originally regarded as a craftsman, a skilled practician who shaped poems with words, somewhat as a sculptor shapes his work from stone or as composer shapes melodies from sounds. There was no hanging about and waiting for inspiration (as so many would-be poets or modern versifiers imagine is requisite); they had to work, work hard to exercise their profession, just as builder or carpenter has to work hard. In fact, if a scop didn’t work hard enough and actually broke down during a professional public recitation, he might be instantly banished by the lord of the hall (i.e. community), sent into exile in disgrace. Perhaps the shapers of the beautiful Anglo-Saxon laments The Seafarer or The Wanderer were such exiled poets. One can hardly imagine a poet nowadays being treated in such a way because of professional ineptitude or negligence; but I sometimes feel that it would be a great service to true poetry if all those so-called poets who don’t work hard enough, or who don’t take the writing of poetry seriously enough, could be legally banned from writing any more poetry or at least from having it published. Just imagine how much trashy stuff would then be cleared away from the poetry scene! Seventy or eighty per cent of what today appears in some poetry magazines (nay, seventy or eighty per cent of the magazines themselves) would be wiped off the face of the earth! For indeed, there really is too much bad poetry floating about these days, too much inferior writing being published in the name of poetry – simply because poets don’t work hard enough to craft good verse and because editors themselves are not able discern which poetry has been well crafted and which is merely spouted or scribbled out without effort or re-examination.
To return to the subject of lines: I have said that a line of poetry had better exist as a line for a definite reason, or because of a deliberate choice – a choice of metre or rhyme, or a choice of meaning or rhythm, or for some other such reason; but not because it has to be of a certain length to fit the printed page. Where the novice poet comes unstuck is when he is at a loss how to craft lines which do not follow a regular metre or use rhyme. How, he might ask, can I compose free verse (or vers libre)? What rules can I use to govern the composition or length of a line of free verse?
The answers are very simple: study, read poetry, examine its techniques, and learn how to create or re-create them yourself. I will mention here two books that no serious poet should be without. One is The Literary Essays of Ezra Pound (especially the first essay ‘A Retrospect’), and the other is Pound’s ABC of Reading (Both published by Faber). I offer here some quotations from these two books, to help clarify my points. Firstly, (says Pound) ‘I think the artist [i.e. poet] should master all known forms and systems of metric.’ This gives one a firm foundation or diving board from which to launch out into experimentation with free verse. When we have mastered as many forms as possible, especially, for example, the sonnet, villanelle and other fairly demanding traditional forms, we may develop a facility or ability which for want of a better word I will call ‘ear’. In this context, ‘ear’ means the ability to sense the ‘right’ rhythm for a particular poetic expression or for a particular line of poetry or a particular group of lines (stanza). In other words, if one has learned how to dance, using all the correct steps and following the notes of the music exactly, one can then almost automatically or instinctively dance freely without counting the steps or the musical notes. This free style might not be mathematically ‘correct’ or based on a regular pattern, but it will possess this natural ‘ear’. A perfectly written free-verse poem will also possess this ‘ear’, and then we can say, ‘Ah, this poem has “ear”!’ and at the same time feel a sense of true artistic delight or satisfaction. If it lacks this ‘ear’, the poem will be dull and flat; if it possesses ‘ear’, it will sing and float in the air.
Ezra Pound, quoting T.S. Eliot, writes: ‘No vers is libre for the man who wants to do a good job.’ In other words, free verse can only be really free if it has been worked hard at and properly crafted. The word ‘craft’ here means ‘technique’; and a good poet must constantly strive to improve his technique. As Pound says, ‘technique [is] the test of a man’s sincerity.’ A true poet must work at his craft with absolute sincerity, and not strive for cheap or flashy effects or for quick publication and instant success.
To continue about ‘ear’: although poetry with ‘ear’ may not rhyme or follow a regular metre, it will have a certain kind of musicality about it. One of Pound’s poetic principles was ‘to compose in the sequence of the musical phrase, not in sequence of a metronome’. ‘There is,’ he says, ‘in the best verse a sort of residue of sound which remains in the ear of the hearer and acts more or less as an organ-base.’ Also: ‘Poetry atrophies when it gets too far from music.’ ‘Free verse can be used by a poet,’ he says, ‘when the thing [subject or emotion of the poem] builds up a rhythm more beautiful than that of set metres.’ On this difficult subject of non-regular rhythm he writes: ‘I believe in an “absolute rhythm”, a rhythm, that is, in poetry which corresponds exactly to the emotion or shade of emotion to be expressed.’ ‘When this rhythm, or when the vowel and consonantal melody or sequence seems truly to bear the trace of emotion which the poem….is intended to communicate, we say this part of the work is good. And “this part of the work” is by now “technique”.’
Basil Bunting (1900-1985), the much-neglected but very accomplished British poet, expressed similar views, but with the emphasis on the oral or aural aspects of poetry. ‘Poetry, like music,’ he said, ‘is to be heard. It lies dead on the page, until some voice brings it to life, just as music on the stave is no more than instructions to the player.’ I entirely agree with this. I don’t insist that all poetry should be written to be heard, but I do think that the best poetry to be found anywhere in the world is among that which is or was written to be heard – to be delivered by the spoken voice (i.e. recited aloud), or at least to be ‘sounded out within one’s mind’ as one reads it silently to oneself. This takes some time and effort. Many people read poetry too quickly and superficially, expecting to get an immediate effect or immediate satisfaction such as one might get from the trite jingle in a birthday or Christmas card. To obtain the full effect of a poem – and each line of a poem – one needs to read it aloud actually, or, as suggested above, read it ‘aloud’ silently in one’s own mind, appreciating it with one’s inner aural faculties.
‘Oh,’ some people will say, ‘but that is too difficult; it takes too much time. I want to enjoy poetry without making any complex efforts like that!’ This is exactly the kind of reaction caused by people’s addiction to cheap culture such as is churned out day after day by the mass media – a deplorable situation which has served to reduce the quality and depth of so much of artistic output in recent years. People are accustomed to instant gratification; they simply don’t want to make any intellectual effort, and any poem that appears on first glance to be difficult or obscure is just thrust aside as high-brow or over-bookish. As Pound says, however, ‘the reader will often misjudge a condensed writer by trying to read him too fast.’ The problem is that poetry nowadays has become hopelessly populist; writing poems is the ‘thing’ to do; and many of the poetry organs and institutions (some of them formerly of great distinction) appear to be run by people with a sort of teenager mentality. Pound expresses the same kind of scorn. ‘The secret of popular writing is never to put more on a given page than the common reader can lap off it with no strain whatsoever on his habitually slack attention.’ Many people might dismiss such pronouncements as smacking of academic snobbery, but a serious poet would not lower himself or herself in such a way so as to become popular.
‘Great literature is language charged with meaning.’ Pound further explains this pronouncement of his by saying that in the case of poetry we can charge our language with meaning by ‘inducing emotional correlations by the sound and the rhythm’ of the words. The meaning, rhythm, sound, line-arrangement – these elements are all inseparably bound up together, and if we are not aware of them, or not prepared to make efforts to understand and utilize their interrelations, we should not presume to call ourselves poets.
Returning to more simple and practical matters, Pound warns us not to ‘retell in mediocre verse what has already been done in good prose. Don’t think any intelligent person is going to be deceived when you try to shirk all the difficulties of the unspeakably difficult art of good prose by chopping your composition into line lengths [my italics].’ Consider the word ‘mediocre’ here. Mediocrity is the bane of modern culture, indeed of modern society at large. One is reminded of Salieri’s last speech in Peter Shaffer’s play Amadeus (1980): ‘Mediocrities everywhere – now and to come….’
Pound’s writings on poetry (some dating back to around 1918!) are full of ‘don’ts’. Some of these (even now in the year 2014) are so important, I feel, that I would like to quote a few more here:
‘Don’t imagine the art of poetry is any simpler than the art of music, or that you can please the expert [i.e. the intelligent reader] before you have spent at least as much effort on the art of verse as the average piano teacher spends on the art of music.’ Note here the word ‘art’. Writing poetry is not a mere pastime for pleasure: it is an art, and all good art requires formal training of some kind.
‘Don’t imagine that a thing will “go” in verse just because it’s too dull to go in prose.’ If you want to test how good or bad a poem is, try writing it out in prose, ignoring the line arrangement. If it seems dull, trite or flat as prose, then it will never be improved by arranging it in lines of verse.
‘Don’t make each line stop dead at the end, and then begin every next line with a heave. Let the beginning of the next line catch the rise of the rhythm wave, unless you want a definite longish pause.’ After reading this ‘don’t’ and then looking back at Eliot’s lines from The Waste Land quoted above, one can almost feel that Eliot was following Pound’s advice exactly, whereas the strictures referred to at the beginning of this essay would lead poets to fall exactly into the error Pound warns us to avoid. One cannot emphasize enough the need to ‘catch the rise of the rhythm wave’.
I will conclude this essay with a few basic principles and tests gleaned from the above material, which might help poets towards a better understanding and handling of lines of verse that are not governed by regular metre or by rhyme or other such controlling factors:
1. Train oneself in the use of as many traditional forms of poetry as possible, and try to acquire an instinctive ‘ear’ for sound, rhythm and emotion; then try writing some ‘free’ verse blending these elements together as much as possible.
2. When reading the poetry of others or one’s own poetry, and also when writing one’s own poetry, always try to read it aloud; or, if this may disturb others, try reading it aloud in the recitation hall of one’s inner sense of hearing. It’s worth remembering here that Beethoven ‘listened’ to the majority of his greater compositions in this way, not being actually able to hear them because of his deafness.
3. Read as much poetry, modern and traditional, as possible. Do not give up reading poetry that appears to be ‘difficult’. Milton’s poetry is exceedingly difficult at times, but try reading it aloud: it conveys much of its meaning through its rhythm, emotion and sound, even if it is not completely understood intellectually.
4. After one has written some lines of ‘free’ verse, try writing them out as prose. Is the writing still as interesting as you thought it was when it was formed into lines? Is it still as musical? What difference does its arrangement into lines make?
5. Always ask oneself about each word one has written: ‘Is this the best word? Has it been used before in the same way by someone else?’ Try to use words in new ways, even invent new words. For example, one could use ‘the wilderness in the voice’ (instead of John the Baptist’s ‘voice in the wilderness’). Or one could write of ‘those who love kevorkian endings’, creating a new adjective from the name of the famous suicide-promoter, Dr. Kevorkian. In yet another case, a phrase like ‘the liquid crystal display of a melting snowflake’ takes the technological term LCD (liquid crystal display) and uses it poetically to describe an aspect of nature.
6. If your poem is written in lines, make sure you have a definite reason for each line break, each line ending and beginning, and never base line breaks on the size of the page.
These are just a few of the ways those writing poetry may compose enticing lines and by means of various feigning techniques, cause their work to become original, beautiful and memorable.