Geoffrey Heptonstall


Asked about the structure of poetry, Robert Frost, so the story goes, reminded his audience that Homer wrote in hexameters because his work needed a disciplined technique. The implication is that Frost was magisterially ruling on the necessity of tight metrical form. But we know that Frost advocated no such thing. Looking at work by his English friend, Edward Thomas, Frost showed how Thomas’s prose might easily be turned into verse. Thomas was amazed. He never had thought of himself as capable of poetry. Frost released a gift within his friend, the gift by which Edward Thomas is remembered now. It was free verse, but none the less verse. It had the feel of poetry in its rhythm and imagery.

The quest for magisterial strictures in poetry misses the point. Homer wrote in the tight metrical form of hexameters because he was writing work, in Greek, to be recited, just as Shakespeare wrote for performance. The written text was secondary. Shaw once remarked that all we have of Shakespeare are prompt copies. All we have of Homer is an inscription of a long tradition of aural recitation, with all the variations and improvisation such work entails. So much is now lost. The work was spoken, and only survived if remembered. So, of course, a mechanism for holding the verse in memory was essential.

The question of free verse is an old one. The matter ought to be resolved by now. There ought to be general acceptance. But, as with James Joyce and Picasso, the debate rages as if a century had not passed, as if nothing had been decided. That may not be such a bad thing: better to have debate and dissent than a monolithic orthodoxy. General agreement is another matter; it allows for discussion, for consideration of what needs to be considered. Strict adherence to the rules is a warrant for mediocrity.

There is a lot of good poetry being published, but most poetry submitted is mediocre. Poetry is the one form everyone supposes they can do. It looks easy, like playing the drums looks easy. It is easy to write badly. It is easy to write prose in an affected arrangement of lines. The poetry is not in the structure, but in the nature. Behind the words are unspoken words. The poetry is in the distillation of language to its crystalline essence. The essence of language is metaphor. Poetry is metaphor. A poem is a weaving of metaphors into a pattern. The more interesting patterns bear the signature of the weaver.

In the aftermath of Modernism we cannot write as if a revolution had not occurred, a revolution of extraordinarily creative generosity which we are fortunate to have inherited. We can discard the perverse dynamic that led to fascism. We can ignore the banalities of bourgeois realism. What we have is the freedom to experiment. We have the obligation to re-create the world as a liberating experience. We open the doors every time they close. Our perceptions are open to the relentless challenges of expressive language.

Free verse does not circumvent the need to respond to the challenges it offers. Picasso’s caution that after him would come many charlatans is true for all Modernism. Frost’s much-quoted remark that free verse is ‘playing tennis with the net down’ may be revised as ‘walking the tightrope without a net’. Put like that free verse becomes the supreme challenge of poetry. It is interesting to learn that Frost suggested an alternative word for form in poetry is performance. In contractual law performance is deemed to be the fulfilment of an obligation in a manner that releases the performer from further contractual liabilities. To perform is to find a means toward liberation. Say the appropriate words in the appropriate way and you are free.

Of course free verse is not free of all obligations. It has to adhere to some common understandings of what is meant by poetry. The intensity of language is one mark of contrast between poetry and prose. The potent imagery is another. There are resonances of language that are peculiar to poetry. Technique is only a part of it. Hebrew poetry had no metre. Some Classical Chinese verse used irregular metre. Even the Shakespearian iambic pentameter was adaptable, as John Livingston Lowes demonstrated. Shakespeare did not keep to the strict regulation of metre because it proved contrary to the meaning and power of the language employed.

Not all Modernist poetry was written in free verse, but the breaking of bounds, the adoption of abstract forms and arcane allusions, denote another freedom from the exhausted and archaic conventions of a debased late Romanticism.

‘I have never been able to retain the names of feet or metres, or to pay proper respect to the accepted rules of scansion.’ There may be those even now who are scandalized by the apparent ignorance and stupidity of this confession. It seems to show no feeling at all for form, and no respect for the tradition of which all literature must adhere in some way. So T.S. Eliot was wrong to speak as he did? The context of his confession, The Music of Poetry, shows great concern for form and tradition. It shows also how Eliot learned his craft by intuitions about the poetry he read. He not only read the poetry: he absorbed it. He took it into his sensibility and refined it in the aesthesis of his creative practice. Eliot’s experimental style was not a denial of tradition, where tradition was vigorous, but a response to it. The radical goes to the root of matter. Eliot’s political conservatism, however orthodox he may have declared it to be, cannot evade the aesthetic revolutionary in the pin stripe suit.

The defence Eliot made of Kipling, a defence echoed by George Orwell, may be considered a special case, as Kipling himself was a special case. It is difficult now to engage with Kipling, harder yet to appreciate any qualities he may have displayed. The imperial shadow proves chilling. Kipling’s verse is anything but vers libre. It is neither Modernist nor contemporary. The sentiments are Nineteenth Century in a narrow and discredited way. The technique, however, is interesting. Kipling’s use of music hall styles and language predicts (and perhaps influenced) the infusion of popular culture into poetry. It was the use of ordinary speech, not the language associated with ‘poetic’ style that distinguishes Kipling. Eliot himself was to use ordinary speech (the barmaid’s monologue in The Waste Land, Sweeney Agonistes).

By 1950 Charles Olson was confident in declaring sound in a poem to be more important than sense. He spoke of Modernist poetry as ‘the revolution of the ear.’ The musical phrase had replaced the metronome. Vers libre had begun the task of liberating poetry from the corsetry of correct form. What Olson named projective or open verse was to develop the revolution of 1910: ‘Verse now, 1950, if it is to go ahead, if it is to be of essential use, must, I take it, catch up and put into itself certain laws and possibilities of the breath, of the breathing of the man who writes as well as of his listenings.’ Because one perception leads to another perception in a seamless flow of sensation, the poet must discard the strictures of closed form in favour of a transfer of energy to ‘keep it moving as fast you can, citizen.’

What is essential to the technique of open verse is the syllable. ‘It is by their syllables that words juxtapose in beauty, by these particles of sound as clearly as by the sense of the words which they compose.’ Relieved of its strictures, poetry may discover its radical energy in its essential being. It may tend towards the choriambic line. That is natural and intuitive discovery. The consciously inherited line is exhausted, whereas the potential energy in the syllable may be, to the human imagination, infinite. ‘What does not change is the will to change.’

Olson was writing in 1950. The idea of open verse is a manifesto, a testament rather than a dogma. It is open to challenge, but it cannot be ignored. It has not been ignored. It need not be accepted in its entirety, but it has to be taken into account. The alternative is to write as if nothing had happened after 1900 but a riot of confusion. An aesthetic of the genteel and the parochial may produce well-observed and elegant verse, but that is to impose a limitation against which the dynamic of poetry always will be straining to break free.

The Movement poets of the Fifties are a case in point. Thom Gunn’s strict adherence to traditional metre worked against the innovative themes and language of his early work. Sharply-observed poetry of contemporary urgency, like Elvis Presley – ‘He turns revolt into a style.’ – cried out for the liberating dynamic of a form more open to the possibilities contained within the subject matter. Gunn did break free. The alternative prospect was a slow absorption into a world so safe that nothing happens. This world of predictable words in familiar arrangements may be where the fees are high and the public profile is large, but it is not where the poetry is, citizen.

Geoffrey Heptonstall © 2013