Time to get serious

I apologise in advance for this blog which is rather remorselessly technical; but it may be interesting at least to some readers of poetry; and these are matters which teachers and students in Creative Writing classes should certainly consider from time to time.

In a recent issue of his journal Areté Craig Raine has an article about ‘the line’ in poetry, arguing that it is the basic unit of meaning, and that it sets a pattern against which the deviations essential to a work of art are measured.  This is one of those important subjects poets do, or certainly should, think about constantly, but seldom write about because so much is dependent on instinct, and it’s so very hard to make and defend rules.  It is brave of Raine to have a shot at it.
            My response is the Leavisite one: ‘Yes, but…’

My first reservation is that he puts too much emphasis on the iambus – the da dum metre.  When I was young I quickly decided that the basic unit of English poetry was the pentameter – five stresses, which the line did not encourage you to speak as if they were iambics, though historically they mostly were.  There is a brief period when the iambus rules, and you hear the da dum drum beating – in Dryden and Pope, in Dr Johnson – but that historical phase passes quickly.  Before and after, while observing the iambic in writing, poets invite you to ignore it in the reading – or at most to hear it only as a ghostly presence, a ghostly absence.  The measures are there; but you are not asked to hear them, or sound them in reading.

 Ben Jonson said ‘Donne for not keeping of accent deserved hanging.’  What did he mean by this?  Only that in reading his poems you have to ignore, forget, pass over, what the poet has not ignored in the writing.  Donne’s discipline in ‘A Nocturnal upon St Lucy’s Day’ is extraordinary – five 9-line stanzas, each rhyming abbacccdd, and with the lines being, in order, 2 pentameters, 2 tetrameters, 1 trimeter, and 4 pentameters.    

            Tis the year’s midnight, and it is the day’s,
            Lucy’s, who scarce seven hours herself unmasks,    
                 The sun is spent, and now his flasks  
                 Send forth light squibs, no constant rays;          
                            The world’s whole sap is sunk:
            The general balm th’hydroptic earth hath drunk,
            Whither, as to the bed’s-feet, life is shrunk,
            Dead and interred; yet all these seem to laugh
            Compar’d with me, who am their epitaph.                        

Keats’s Nightingale ode is 8 stanzas of 10 lines, all iambic pentameters except the 8th, a trimeter, and rhyming ababcdecde; but to read them as you would read lines by Pope would sound artificial and absurd.*

            My heart aches and a drowsy numbness pains
                    My sense as though of hemlock I had drunk,
            Or emptied some dull opiate to the drains
                    One minute past and Lethe-wards had sunk:
            Tis not through envy of thy happy lot,
                    But being too happy in thine happiness –
            That thou, light-wingèd Dryad of the trees,
                                In some melodious plot
            Of beechen green, and shadows numberless,
            Singest of summer in full-throated ease.

When it comes to the 20th century there is a general freeing up. In the 1950s the idea of speech stresses was common.  The basic line was still the pentameter, but you counted, not iambic feet, but where you felt the speech stress fell.  The lines were mostly pentameters, but could move around rather loosely between three, four and five stresses.
And then there was Ezra Pound, whose case Raine avoids altogether.  Pound said, ‘to break the pentameter – that was the first heave’ (Canto LXXXI).  He doesn’t say ‘the iambic pentameter’.  It was the norm of the five stress line that he felt was constructing and had to be broken.  Pound did it by a general looseness, the rule of instinct, and even of lawlessness, rather than the rule of law – insubordination of the kind which Donald Davie, who thought he was England’s advocate for Pound, nonetheless deplored as a symptom of social and even moral decay.

            The enormous tragedy of the dream in the peasant’s
            bent shoulders
            Manes! Manes was tanned and stuffed,
            Thus Ben and la Clare a Milano
                             by the heels at Milano
            That maggots shd/ eat the dead bullock
            […]                        but the twice crucified
                                         where in history will you find it?
            yet say to the Possum: a bang, not a whimper
                 with a bang not with a whimper,
            To build the city of Dioce whose terraces are the colour of

            The suave eyes, quiet, not scornful,
                                         Rain also is of the process.
            What you depart from is not the way
            and olive tree blown white in the wind
            washed in the Kiang and Han
            what whiteness will you add to this whiteness,
                                                                 what candour?

It is not only the iambus that is gone; so is the pentameter.  Craig Raine would probably say the line is still there – and that that was his point; and it’s true that the lines and the line-breaks in that passage, and probably in most of Pound, are important.
            But Raine’s article makes an exception to his rule that the line must be a unit of sense.  His exception is W.C. Williams famous ‘The Red Wheelbarrow’:

            so much depends

            the red wheel

            glazed with rain

            beside the white

(He suggests, cleverly, that each of these pairs is visually – i.e. in its shape – a wheelbarrow.) I think if you make one exception there will always be more.  It is easy to find an absurd example, as he does, of Robert Creeley’s strung out poems; but not difficult, to find one that works.

            light –


The point here perhaps, as with the Williams wheelbarrow, is the direction, down the page.  That is another kind of ‘poem’ – the kind that races over the line and achieves an onward momentum by not allowing the line to be the unit of sense, but part of a larger sense which won’t allow it to stop.

I remember asking myself why James K. Baxter’s open (unrhymed) sonnets were spaced out in couplets when there was nothing, neither rhyme nor the run of sense, that made it necessary or was advanced by it.  It was a form he took from Lawrence Durrell; and I decided it was just a matter of eye-and-mind, to make the reader take the poem more slowly and consider the words more carefully.  Fourteen unrhymed lines hunched up on a page are not encouraging.  They don’t invite, or suggest, an open mind or a relaxed discourse.  Spread out, even in pairs which are otherwise lacking any particular utility, they are more inviting. And for the reader to be puzzled, asking, ‘Why these breaks?’ and finding no obvious answer, is keeping attention longer and more carefully focussed.

Slowness or speed – the spacing can collaborate with either, and affect the sense; which is why Anne Carson, in another example Raine offers, has breaks which (he complains) are ‘arbitrary’.  Arbitrariness is a little assault on the reader, like a nudge – or even an elbow-jolt.  It’s uncomfortable not to be able to cite a rule, or at least a reason, why something is as it is, and why it works or doesn’t; but that, I think, is what poetry has become.  More, it is what it has always been.  Criticism, saying and showing why poems work or don’t work, was always a matter of preferences dressed up in the uniform of authority.  The critic succeeds, not by being ‘right’ (any fool can be right) but by persuasion.  You like it?  Try to tell me why, and I will try to tell you why I don’t.

Discussing the Carson example Raine says it may seem stuffy to object – ‘a bit like faulting Jackson Pollock’s drip paintings.’  But his way around this is to reiterate his basic point, as if by simple repetition its truth is established:

            But the line is the fundamental unit of poetry.  The line is the steering wheel that
            harnesses the Pegasus power of poetry.  You can’t give up the steering wheel,
            you can’t relinquish control completely.

It is so because it is so; and there’s a slip into analogies-and-assertions in combo – the line is like the steering wheel in the car, and we all know how important that is!  To me these statements are very nearly meaningless.  As for the Pollock analogy, it deserves better consideration than the aside it gets: ‘I’m with Giacometti, who characterized Abstract Expressionism as “l’art du mouchoir”’.

One element in the making of modern poems which Raine doesn’t mention is syllabics – something Auden learned, I think, from Marianne Moore and Elizabeth Bishop.  In About the House, the poems he wrote to celebrate his enormous satisfaction in at last achieving home ownership, Auden offers a sequence of chatty introductions, one poem to each room.  ‘This egocentric monologue’ he calls the one addressed to the ghost of Louis MacNeice, about the room in which his writing was done – ‘The Cave of Making’.

                                                     After all it’s rather a privilege
                 amid the affluent traffic
            to serve this unpopular art which cannot be turned into
                 background noise for study
            or hung as a status trophy by rising executives,
                 cannot be ‘done’ like Venice
            or abridged like Tolstoy, but stubbornly still insists upon
                 being read or ignored: our handful
            of clients at least can rune.

The syllable count is loose, but throughout quite a long poem it roughly alternates 15 and 8, producing, not a sense of form so much as an amble – a passeggiata as untidy as the man himself, and as interestingly full of quirky information.  I think syllabic poems of this kind challenge Raine’s idea of the line as the unit of sense.  It runs on like prose, and the sense runs with it.  If we apprehend it as poetry, that has little or nothing to do with the line, and depends on distinction in the language, the grammar and syntax, on wit and intelligence, and on the sense of compression and linguistic economy.  Yes it could all be written as prose, and no that would not be the same; so the fact that it is ‘in lines’ is important – but that is not the same as saying ‘the line’ is the ‘unit of sense’.  If there is anything of primary importance it is the forward momentum, grammatical and syntactical: in other words, the writing.

It will be useful here if I take an example from my own work, because I can explain the thinking behind it.  In my novel My name was Judas I made Judas a poet, and each chapter ends with a poem which in some degree reiterates what has just happened, but also adds to it and sometimes reflects on it.  For each of these I used a form I’d used a few times before, the three-line thirteen syllable tercet.  This meant the individual lines varied in length, but each three line group added up to thirteen syllables.  I had thought of putting a tercet at the front of the book which would explain, or excuse, the form, but decided against it, hoping someone might arrive at it without prompting.  So far as I know only one person did – Professor Mac Jackson who is also an expert on Shakespeare’s sonnets.  The key was going to be

            Thirteen syllables
            because there were
            thirteen of us.

which is, of course, itself thirteen syllables, the number of Jesus and his twelve disciples.  Here is the poem* at the end of chapter 4, in which the boy Jesus, visiting the Temple in Jerusalem, is given the opportunity to offer a pigeon for sacrifice, but at the last moment, when he is supposed to utter the prescribed prayer and hand the bird to the Levite ready with the knife, he releases it, saying that was what Yahweh instructed him to do:

            In the beginning
            was the word, the
            sentence, the text

            that made of the
            pigeon a paradigm
            of the soul

            and gave to
            the stone he held the
            light of the divine.

            He was his own
            first convert, able
            to see himself

            burning, bathed
            in the white fire of
            the noun and the verb.

There are two complete sentences here.  The poem could, of course, be set out as five 13-syllable lines, but that would have a different effect and still not alter my argument.  It is not the line as unit that matters here but the sense of a march of meaning down the page.  That was the effect I was most conscious of in writing these poems – that I was working always for economy, for a movement of sense ahead, and that the syllable count forced me to consider every word and every alternative way of making the same sense – not line by line, not even thirteen by thirteen, but sentence by sentence, and as a poem.

Postscript:  Craig Raine is an old friend and when I sent him this piece he protested that I had not done justice to his argument – indeed, that I had misrepresented it.  I wanted to add his protest (and anything further he had to say) to the blog, but he wouldn’t allow that because it ‘had not been written for publication’.  So I simply record here that that is what he felt, and leave the reader to discover exactly what he said in Areté itself, in issue 48, Winter 2015.  In any case, whether fair to Raine or not, it seems to me what I wrote here about poetic form and the poetic line is of interest without reference to what triggered it.  These are matters that should be thought about consciously by anyone/everyone who aspires to write poetry.  If you think you can get away with writing stuff that doesn’t go all the way to the edge of the page, but without giving matters of poetic form and its history a thought, you are deluding yourself and should try something else – singing in the bath, for example.

Areté has a surprising range of top contributors, the result partly of Raine’s network of connections dating from the time when he was Faber’s poetry editor, and equally from his many friends in the British literary and academic community.  He has been a don at Oxford during the past decade or more, and has recently retired but is still a Fellow of New College.  If you wish to subscribe to Areté, or persuade your librarian to subscribe, it can be ordered on line at www.aretemagazine.com  

The address is Areté Magazine, New College, 8 New College Lane, OXFORD OX1 3BN, U.K.

And a note to Auckland readers: Dean Parker’s play POLO, currently on at the Sky City Theatre, is not just a left-liberal satirical romp with side-swipes at Judith Collins and the National Party, but more than that – a comedy that becomes a poem about Auckland, a sort of love lyric to our city, whimsical and in the end quite moving.

                                                                                                            C.K. Stead

* Oddly there is one irregularity – the last line of stanza 2 is inexplicably an alexandrine.
* ‘The stone he held’ is a reference back to something earlier in the chapter, where the boy Jesus gives an impromptu sermon on a stone,

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