Discussion on walk. Started by the review of Diamond’s book. The reviewer basically considers that Diamond does not go far enough, Diamond says, yes, there are things we can learn from primitive societies such as better diet, sustainable use of resources, child care and so on but he does not conceive of there being anything more basic and far-reaching that we can learn from them, or at least take a hint from them as to where to go today.
I said that there is a basic difference in ‘world-view’ between modern and primitive societies, and that this difference tends to cut across virtually everything. In what does this difference consist? I said that one thing was that primitive peoples seem to have envisaged reality as a collaboration between ‘objective forces’, whether abstract or personalized, and humans. The purpose of rituals was to influence what was going on at a cosmic level. Yes, Keith said, and what the rituals were supposed to do was to maintain the existing physical order of things ─ not to innovate. Aborigine rituals helped to stop the cosmic forces pursuing the moon from eating it up at a lunar eclipse.
There are here at least two points. !. The aim is ‘cosmically’ to conserve, not to derange or develop. In consequence, primitive peoples, instead of looking for something new and better, focus on what they have in front of them and see if they can make it more stable and get more out of what is there. Keith mentioned the idea of Levi-Strauss that primitive man is a ‘bricoleur’, rather than a craftsman or industrialist (say more on this)
(2.) Conservation of the physical status quo is achieved amongst other things by human rituals : humans participate actively not just by changing the shape of the landscape as modern man does by digging canals and building dams, but by actually giving definition to physical reality in the first place.
This is interesting since, on the one hand, primitive man is traditionalist, wants to keep things as they are, but, paradoxically, he has a much more active role than what modern science and rationalism allows. In Newton’s universe the laws have been made for all time and man has a passive role, is essentially helpless, subject to cosmic determinism. Primitive societies see man as active rather than passive, though active in a deeply conservative way.
We passed on to my theory of Eventrics. In this theory acts and not things are paramount, and I claim that this approach is much closer to the weltanschauung (world-view) of early man. Whorf, who studied native American languages, claims that most of them are ‘verb orientated’ : ‘what happens’ is the key part of a sentence. Indo-European languages supposedly have a Subject-Predicate structure : typically a thing (object, person) is introduced and then something is said about this thing, the two being linked by the cupola ‘is’. As Whorf points out, this way of seeing things leads to rather ridiculous sentences such as “It is raining”. What is the ‘it’? There is nothing ‘doing’ the raining. In Hopi and other languages according to Whorf the ‘verbal gerund’ is the key player: the above sentence would simply be ‘raining’. I have myself in a SF novel The Web of Aoullnnia envisaged a language (Lenwhil Katylin) where the typical sentence gives an action, where the action takes place (the sky for example) and the consequences of the action (wetting the earth).
Returning to primitive man, Keith and I agreed that (1) it seems that primitive man was ‘onto something’ and (2) what he was onto was not an early crude version of our current scientific/rationalistic paradigm but something very different. The key figure from this point of view was the shaman, the equivalent of the modern scientist or engineer. The shaman aimed to obtain knowledge and influence events not by adroitly manipulating known processes as in leverage, but by penetrating to a deeper level of reality and using the knowledge gained to make predictions and diagnostics. Also in some cases by interfering in reality at this more basic level. Castaneda’s Don Juan defines sorcery in this way : “Sorcery is interference”.
So, is there a deeper level of reality to be accessed by trance and, if there is, can it be manipulated? Modern science does believe there is a deeper level but it is entirely abstract and mathematical and the very idea of ‘going’ to such a place and ‘doing’ something there is dismissed not just as misguided but nonsensical. This shamanistic world-view, duly intellectualized by Plato, has nonetheless had profound repercussions and is an idea that seemingly just will not go away. According to Plato, most humans are chained like prisoners in a cave with their backs to the light and they mistake the shadows made by (Javanese style) puppets as reality. But the sage has been outside the cave, and when he returns inside he is not deluded by the shadows on the wall.
However, Plato does not say how the sage can actually influence reality. There is a suggestive idea in some schools of Buddhism that physical reality does not just happen all at once but that everything goes through various stages (17 in all usually) from first vague inception to complete actualization. According to this scheme persons who can penetrate into the shadowy domain of the ‘not yet’ but ‘imminent’ can, if skilful enough, change things and produce a different end-result. I said this is to be compared to diverting water into a particular desired path as in irrigation. Except that we are not talking about water, we are talking about the constituents of reality ─ and these constituents are not atoms or molecules for the latter are fully formed. Intervention becomes more and more difficult the nearer we come to final actualization and once something has occurred that is it. I said one could make a parallel with Quantum Mechanics and the Schrödinger wave equation (as some people have done) but on the whole I think it better to keep Quantum Mechanics out of it.
To return. I surmise that primitive man took this ‘world-view’ about as far as he could at the time. I suspect that the world-view of early man, far from being a more superficial way of seeing things was actually deeper and more complex than ours. This world-view was displaced by the mechanistic world-view but the latter is now in trouble conceptually. My theory of Eventrics is in some sense a reversion to the earlier shamanistic view. Useful statement by Keith that it is not a question of “going back” as the Sixties generation thought, but of “referring back”, which is quite another matter.
Keith asked whether there could be any technological applications of my theories. I said possibly. Since in Eventrics perceived physical reality is not continuous but a sort of mosaic, it is not inconceivable that one could re-arrange the event-blocks as it were, swopping one for another. Secondly, and even more dramatically, if the theory that ‘reality’ goes through stages of actualization is correct, one could possibly intervene shamanistically at an earlier level. To do this would require not an extension of our hands by instrumentation as in modern technology but an extension of our ‘mental/psychic capacities’, ‘mind over matter’ if you like. All magico-mystical techniques concentrate on the development of alleged mental/psychic powers and religious leaders are usually credited with such powers, Christ was a faith healer, Tibetan Buddhist monks apparently can ‘make rain’ and ‘warm themselves without fire’.
Keith asked if I thought it important whether or not there could be a technical application. I said, yes, because firstly this is the only way to test the theory, to prove it actually works. I believe the world is a sphere not because science says it is but because people met have actually been round it in an aeroplane and I have seen photographs. Secondly, I have a strong practical bent, am impatient with ‘empty talk’.
However, I agreed that (1) it might not be a good thing if there were technical applications and (2) in a sense it doesn’t matter too much since anyway I shan’t see them. Newton was not much interested in applications, he wanted to understand physical reality but, as it happens, there were applications and similarly for Einstein’s theories. In the latter case it only took humanity forty years to go from Einstein’s ‘mass-energy’ equation to the atomic bomb. In the 21st century the pace is much quicker still. I predict that by 2050 ‘science’ will have homed in on the exact dimensions of ‘ultimate events’ and their ‘event-capsules’ and possibly will have begun to pay around with them. Unfortunately, it is generally a lot easier to imagine destructive applications of an idea than constructive and beneficial ones’ s. A terrorist group that attacked not buildings or people but the ‘connections between events’ in a particular region, would cause vast damage. The Pentagon does seemingly take the idea of ‘psychic attack’ quite seriously since it has apparently funded research into ‘far viewing’ and teleportation. My system involves not so much ‘far-viewing’ of what is actually going on elsewhere but ‘deep-viewing’, seeing what is just about to happen and maybe nipping it in the bud somehow.
Must Billy Budd Hang? A Conversation
On the last of our now regular walks-and-talks, Keith Walton mentioned his enthusiasm for Melville. I said that, though Moby Dick had one compelling character (Captain Ahab) and some fine speeches, it was too long and contained too much boring technical stuff about whaling. As to other works, I said I found Billy Budd repulsive.
Billy Budd is a story about a young seaman in the Royal Navy who is good-looking, extremely likeable and a sort of mascot for the crew. Under provocation, he strikes a sadistic officer and, as luck would have it, kills him with a single blow. The rest of the story is taken up with the deliberations of the senior officers and Captain about what should be done with Billy. Striking a superior officer was a serious offence even in peacetime and in time of war a capital offence. The gentlemanly senior officers, who like everyone else, adore Billy Budd, want somehow to avoid the death sentence but the Captain eventually persuades them that he must die “to set an example”. There is real danger of a mutiny but eventually the public hanging goes off more or less without a hitch. (Keith will correct me on details.) What is objectionable about the book is that Melville seems to be justifying this sort of thing on the grounds that “we must have law and order and authority must be respected at all costs.”
To my amazement, Keith didn’t agree with me at all and argued that the Captain had done the right thing and that the moral of the book was quite OK by him. He also added for good measure that Blake was wrong in saying that “Milton was on Satan’s side without realizing it” and that it was Satan’s fault for rebelling &c. &c. All this was a red rag to a life-long Romantic and rebel : I could hardly believe what I was hearing.
However, as is often the case with strong convictions that have rarely if ever been questioned, I found it rather difficult to defend my position rationally. I had to concede that there were situations when it was necessary for ‘innocent’, or at least ‘likeable’, people to be killed and that every society needs to instil some respect for authority. Indeed, ‘alternative’ mini-societies tend to be more, not less, coercive ─ they would claim they need to be. The French Resistants kidnapped and killed, often without trial, suspected informers. There is the officer in Malraux’s L’Espoir, who shoots volunteers in the Spanish Civil War for desertion ─ not because he despises them but simply because authority has to be maintained otherwise the war is lost. Of course, in the normal course of events, Billy Budd would today be convicted of manslaughter, not murder, but there remain cases where similar moral predicaments can and do arise.
I found myself losing ground by the minute. I said that I could just about envisage a situation where I felt it was necessary to shoot someone, and I hoped I’d have the guts to do so, while telling the person that I nonetheless respected him. For example I believe the Americans were (maybe) right to kill Bin Laden without risking putting him on trial, but Bin Laden, though a danger to humanity who deserved death ten times over, was nonetheless a man of conviction and courage and deserved respect for that.
Returning to Billy Budd, I said that I felt that the Captain did not make a convincing case for Billy’s execution and that there was something glib and shoddy about the whole business. I am not sure that this is fair on the Captain, but nonetheless the story leaves me with a nasty taste in the mouth. I also interpreted this story as a ‘sell out’ by Melville. As a young man Melville was, so I gathered, a romantic and a rebel who lived for some time in Polynesia and thought people were a lot better off for being without white man’s religion and American consumerism, and made himself unpopular for saying so back in the States. He then ends up with, to me, an abject apology for the status quo. Keith basically argued that my attitude was ‘immature’ (he didn’t use the word), that we had to accept unpleasant things in life and that Melville was confronting us with this and so doing a good job. I said if society needed injustices like Billy Budd being executed, it was hardly worth the candle, but then this drove me to saying that if this sort of thing is necessary for life to go on at all, then life is not a good thing either. This is somewhat of an extreme conclusion, however, that I’m not sure I want to put into practice personally quite yet. We did agree that there was a bit of a problem for someone who starts off as a complete rebel and idealist and is still alive at forty with mortgages to pay and kids, or the equivalent, and who doesn’t quite have the courage of his convictions to commit suicide, enlist in a ‘war of liberation’ somewhere or go insane. On this note the debate ended.
Traditionally, actions were judged by their consequences, so that even taking a life accidentally meant your life was forfeit, or at least given into the hands of the relatives of the victim. (It is still so in certain Islamic jurisdictions – a man about to hang for murder in Iran recently was pardoned by the victim’s mother, on the scaffold, at the cost of a slapped face.)
Later, governments took this out of the hands of the victim’s family. Partly to protect the weak, who might be unable to enforce justice on the powerful. Partly to bring order to a situation that often developed into vendetta. (‘An eye for an eye’ was an injunction to moderation.) Partly because governments like to control things.
At a basic level, I find it hard not to think that the rational response to person a. ending person b.’s, is to end person a.’s life. It doesn’t right a wrong, but it restores a balance. And surely Claggart’s wife, children, dependants, old mother have a right to something that approximates to ‘justice’?
Further, in the context of the time (the Napoleonic wars), hanging for a capital offence, in wartime, in a period when there were 219 other capital crimes in the British legal code, does not seem unduly harsh.
Since then we have nuanced our approach to crime and punishment. Sometimes in favour of the perpetrator, taking account of intention, sometimes of the victim, judging an action not by intent but by effect. But these nuancings often uncomfortably reflecting power relations in society (for example, in US the difference between sentences for possession of cocaine and crack cocaine). But I was applying the standards of the time.
However, as so often with Melville, things are rarely straightforward. Although in a sense, as Sebastian says, Billy must die to maintain law and order, and respect for authority, it is in a deeper sense than the context of the Napoleonic war.
On one hand, Beli and Budd are two names of the Celtic sun god, their Apollo. As it was their belief (this is taken from books on druidism and the Celtic world available to Melville: it doesn’t necessarily agree with today’s scholarship) that harmonious victory in war depended on a human sacrifice being made.
On the other, Billy clearly has Christ-like elements. Indeed, after his death “a chip of it [the spar from which Billy was hanged] was as a piece of the Cross” to the common seamen.
Melville consciously fuses the pre-Christian and Christian gods: for the Celts, victory depends on a sacrifice both of and to the god; for Christians, Jesus must die to save mankind, to redeem him after the Fall.
Vere’s action, reluctant as he is to take it (and an action that his mealy-mouthed fellow officers try to avoid taking), ensures victory. As one critic writes, “Vere fights not for the glory of war, but against the permanence of war.” Billy’s death is part of that fight. He is not Pilate washing his hands, but more like Moses, prepared to slay Isaac, obey god’s command, because only obedience to god keeps the world in balance, harmony, order.
As for Milton’s Satan. Clearly he is charismatic, and skilled. He did, after all, rebel against god in heaven, and almost succeed. But the reason Milton gives Satan so many qualities is not because he was of the devil’s party, but to emphasise the devilish attractiveness of evil, and therefore the importance of constant vigilance towards and resistance against it.
For, like that other Romantic hero, Prometheus, Satan’s actions separated man irrevocably from the gods, at irreparable cost. Satan’s whisperings got man ejected from Eden, imposed on Adam and Eve, and all their descendants, mortality, unremitting hard work, and painful childbirth. Prometheus’ tricking of Zeus, and then his theft of fire, resulted in the end of the golden age, and inflicted on man Pandora, with her box of ills, and brief lives of hard toil and painful death.
An Essay on Writing Poetry
by Gavin Bantock
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.
What makes a Good Poem?
by Sebastian Hayes
‘What features does a good poem have?’ “What makes a poem good?”
For a start one would expect a successful poem to be doing what poetry is good at — so one way of approaching this question is to ask what a poem can do that other literary forms cannot. Well, a poem is, or at any rate was originally, vocal, intended to be heard, and, whether heard or not, it differs from prose by having a discernible repeating rhythm. One would thus expect a good poem to be musical — Aristotle does not even bother to discuss lyric poetry in his Poetics since he considers it to be part of music (the lyrics).
Apart from being agreeable in itself, rhythm helps the reciter to learn a poem off by heart and helps the listener, or silent reader, to recall lines and passages without having ever made any conscious attempt to memorise them. Poetry — at any rate poetry that scans — is memorable: apart from proverbs and extracts from the Bible, most of the literary snips we carry around with us are in verse, and not in free verse either.
Despite Aristotle and Pater, a poem is not a piece of music nor does it generally aspire to be so: poetry is not music manqué. A poem uses words and words mean something in a way sounds do not — Oxford does not publish a dictionary of sounds. Many celebrated poets very much had a message to get across to the world, Dante, the Romantics, the World War I poets, Auden &c. &c. So why didn’t these people write reports or philosophic treatises? The answer is that for certain kinds of truth a poem is a very effective, indeed nearly ideal, vehicle. Truths of human experience, it would seem, as opposed to, for example, mathematical or physical truths. This, of course, applies to other art forms also such as theatre, but poetry holds an advantageous middle position: it is compelling enough to give you an ‘inside’ view, yet has enough distancing to encourage reflection. This is what Wordsworth was getting at with his famous phrase about “emotion recollected in tranquillity”. A good poem has intensity but also a certain objectivity: the visual image is usually too intense to make one reflect, the bare philosophic idea too dry.
A (good) poem, if read silently rather than listened to, needs to be read slowly – and this is an important point. It would be intolerable to be forced to read a book of (good) poems at the same pace as one reads a newspaper. But why is this the case? Basically, because a good poem has content that is worth dwelling on, coming back to again and again. One could say that a good poem should have depth but this is not quite the right word, since it is not exactly depth in the philosophic sense that is important. Often the points being made in certain very memorable poems are obvious, unsubtle, yet somehow well worth making, as when, for example, Housman writes
That is the land of lost content,
I see it shining plain,
The happy highways where I went
And cannot come again.
Instead of ‘depth’, to describe what I have in mind, I prefer the term pithy, though it is not perhaps ideal either. An author who has this quality to a remarkable degree is Thomas Hardy. This is why we read him, not for his sound or imagery.
A poem should attempt to make a definitive statement on a particular theme. I shouldn’t think many people who have read and enjoyed The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam in Fitzgerald’s translation are much tempted to want to try their hand at expressing this particular brand of melancholy hedonism in their own words — Fitzgerald has pre-empted them.
On the other hand a poem does not need to be read quite so carefully as a mathematical proof or philosophic treatise.
There is the question of limits. Poetry has constraints that prose does not — one might go so far as to define poetry as rhythmically constrained prose. (In the exceptional case of Haiku there are no metrical constraints, but there are, on the other hand, very rigorous constraints as to the number of syllables in each line and also, traditionally at any rate, with regard to subject matter.) If our aim is ‘truth’ in a narrow sense formal constraints are thoroughly undesirable which is why no contemporary scientist, journalist or historian writes in verse. Coleridge in his Essays and Lectures on Shakespeare says exactly this, “Poetry is not the proper antithesis to prose, but to science. (…) The proper and immediate object of science is the acquirement, or communication of, truth; the proper and immediate object of poetry is the communication of immediate pleasure.” The latter point is surely worth making: published poetry should be in some sense enjoyable and enjoyable by the reader or listener, should not simply be a personal outpouring that makes you feel good.
One might think that the question of enjoyment is too obvious to be worth mentioning. But this is not so : a large number of books and articles are written to instruct, not to give pleasure, and many journalistic articles are deliberately intended to shock, horrify or provoke indignation in the reader. Whether such poems can (or should) also be ‘enjoyable’ is an interesting and somewhat difficult question : seemingly some can since otherwise we would not read ‘with pleasure’ the World War I poets.
Poetry is not a realistic art form : it involves artifice because of its very form and the emotions it portrays, or seeks to evoke, are highly selective, and rightly so. The world of poetry is rooted in life but is not an imitation of it (nor should not be) : this is precisely why we say that someone’s life lacks ‘poetry’ and everyone understands what is meant. The aim of poetry is, if not to replace experience, at least to distil it, ‘improve’ on it. One doubts if even those who listened to Homer really believed that Odysseus had undergone all his adventures, or even could have done : in this respect poetry is closer to the theatre or to film than to the novel.
A poem should, on the basis of my selection, be (not in order of importance)
Of course, not every poem in my personal anthology exhibits 1 – 9 inclusive but they all score on at least five or six counts (though I repeat I did not choose them with my criteria at hand). I take two examples at random.
Dylan Thomas’s And Death Shall Have No Dominion is in my file (of favourite poems). I immediately give it a tick for 1, 3, 4, 6, 8, i.e. it is brief, musical, intense, definitive and memorable. And maybe it deserves a double tick for 3 (musiciality) — it sounds magnificent read out loud whether it means anything or not. No one, I think, would call Dylan Thomas pithy so he does not make 5. It is not certain that the poem is concise (2.). One can be brief without being concise — it all depends how much you are saying, or wanting to say, and with Dylan Thomas this is often difficult to gauge. It is debatable whether the poem is accessible since although no foreign or erudite words are used, as with all Thomas there is an uncertainty about his wild mixing of metaphors and how literally we are to take them. Still, I feel in this case he does carry it off : most ‘men-and-women-in-the-street’ hearing this poem recited at a funeral would get the broadly pantheistic message — and Dylan Thomas’s messages are never more than broad.
R.S. Thomas’s The Coming, a very different style of poem, makes it to my collection and scores at once 1, 2, 4, 5, 6, 8 . It rates double ticks for 2 conciseness and 5 pithiness. Though not disagreeable in sound, it is hardly in the Dylan Thomas class for reading aloud and so doesn’t make 3 (Musicality). Whether it rates 9 Accessibility depends on whether we believe a poet has the right to assume a working knowledge of Christian theology on the part of the reader. Certainly, this limits the accessibility as compared, say, to taking a more universal theme such as love or the coming of spring. And so on.
“Emotion recollected in tranquillity” (Wordsworth) — is this useful? Yes. Two parts: intense experience, emotion but not just churned out, ‘recollected’. Achieved by distancing but based on experience. Subjective, then objective. 4 and 6 perhaps.
“Poetry is not the proper antithesis to prose, but to science. Poetry is opposed to science and prose to metre. The proper and immediate object of science is the acquirement, or communication of, truth; the proper and immediate object of poetry is the communication of immediate pleasure.” (Coleridge, Essays and Lectures on Shakespeare)
“A poem is a species of composition opposed to science, as having intellectual pleasure for its object, and as attaining its end by the use of language natural to us in a state of excitement...” [my italics] (Coleridge, Ib. p. 10)
This latter point seems to be my ( 4.) — intense . The language of poetry should not be the language of everyday speech: it always needs to be heightened if only slightly. (This applies even to dramatic monologues.)
Coleridge cites Milton as saying somewhere that a poem should be “simple, sensuous, passionate”. I take this as covering three of my qualities, 9, 3 and 4 — accessibility, musicality and intensity. ‘Simple’ is not quite the right word, for it might suggest that the thought behind the poem is straightforward — which it need not be — or that the attitude taken is predictable — which it ought not to be.
As for ‘sensuous’ it may be as well to recall that a poem, at least if read aloud, only affects directly the ear — we do not see the images. And ‘intense’, being rather more extensive, is a better word than ‘passion’. Milton himself is defective in the first of these qualities ! But he sounds magnificent.
It will be perhaps not have escaped notice that I do not mention images in my list. And there are entirely successful and memorable poems that contain no images or similes or metaphors — for example most of Cavafy and a fair amount of R.S. Thomas. The image has in fact been overrated — and curiously enough overrated thanks to the efforts of a man who was not that strong visually (Pound). Pope is a great poet to my mind but he doesn’t use a lot of images, not at any rate in Essay on Man or even Heloise and Abelard.
Today practically “every poem tells a story” — why shouldn’t it? My answer is, “Why should it?” Narrative potential is not poetry’s strong point, so why take the risk? Epic, which is narrative poetry, was composed in verse mainly because it was much easier to memorise — a very important point in an oral culture. Also, it was more agreeable to listen to — because of the rhythm. But when poetry is read in complete silence, as is now almost universally the case, these considerations don’t apply — the novel, history book, biography have replaced epic and to a large extent narrative poetry as well.
P.S. Of course, it is up to you, reader or writer, to prove me wrong and one of my friends, Gavin Bantock, did write an epic Christ, shortly to be republished — though it is not my preferred work of this notable contemporary poet.
And death shall have no dominion
And death shall have no dominion.
Dead men naked they shall be one
With the man in the wind and the west moon;
When their bones are picked clean and the clean bones gone,
They shall have stars at elbow and feet;
Though the go mad they shall be sane,
Though they sink through the sea they shall rise again;
Though lovers be lost love shall not;
And death shall have no dominion.
And death shall have no dominion.
Under the windings of the sea
They lying long shall not die windily;
Twisting on racks when sinews give way,
Strapped to a wheel, yet they shall not break;
Faith in their hands shall snap in two,
And the unicorn evils run them through;
Split all ends up they shan’t crack;
And death shall have no dominion.
And death shall have no dominion.
No more may gulls cry at their ears
Or waves break loud on the seashores;
Where blew a flower may a flower no more
Lift its head to the blows of the rain;
Though they be mad and dead as nails,
Heads of the characters hammer through daisies;
Break in the sun till the sun breaks down,
And death shall have no dominion.
And God held up his hand
A small globe. Look, he said.
The son looked. Far off
As through water, he saw
A scorched land of fierce
Colour. The light burned
There, crusted buildings
Cast their shadows; a bright
Serpent, a river
Uncoiled itself, radiant
On a bare
Hill a bare tree saddened
The sky. Many people
Held out their thin arms
To it, as though waiting
For a vanished April
To return to its crossed
Boughs. The son watched
Them. Let me go there, he said.