The collapse of artistic tradition in poetry is nowhere shown as clearly as in the USA. By tradition I precisely mean knowledge, craft, expertise. One doubts that a real feeling for the English-language poetry tradition can be gained even in colleges and universities any more.

Be sure: tradition is not a matter of pastiche and form is not a matter of metre and rhyme (bit and bridle). Tradition is as TS Eliot said it was, a changing body of experience that modifies the present and is modified by it:

It cannot be inherited, and if you want it you must obtain it by great labour.

Wilfred Owen

Form is the means whereby art achieves its transformation of reality and, in poetry, this means such considerations as length, verse or stanza structure, speakability, momentum, voice and register, drama and intensity, rhetoric and eloquence. With the systematic introduction of half-rhymes early in the last century (see Wilfred Owen’s Strange Meeting), poetry became a vast acoustic with long-held echoes. The accentual or stress-syllable patterns, characteristic of English, have made the iambic pentameter an unfailing harbour from which adventurous barks forever set sail, or to which they return, rather like the French alexandrine (hexameter) which is native to the different, syllabic prosody of the French language.

Free verse is a sort of poetry that walks by itself, very much a speaker’s voice and often appropriate and successful, but normally now a characteristic of the flood of illiterate adolescent outpouring that has become the steel-hard, inexorable convention.

Consider the following:[1]

Walking, you thumb the remote to scan news, watch the weather girl dance both hands, pivot, smile, and point to the other coast. So what does morning look like? What does the world. From this motel: an anywhere town, across the bay, shining. Elsewhere mountains. Miles beyond hills, the capital cities, their walls behind walls. Monuments to our lies, to our self-blinded lives. Above us now, two fishhawks, cheeping musical shrieks, the risen sun easing their wingbeats. Over us all, daylight’s invisible satellites, shamelessly bouncing back from space the emptiness we feed them.

In these 93 words of prose, one may detect some ambiguity in the first sentence: Is it ‘you’ or the weather girl who pivots, smiles and points to the other coast? Dance here is used as a transitive verb. Cannot ‘What does the world’ have the question mark it needs? Is the motel in an ‘anywhere town’ or is an example of the latter visible, ‘across the bay’, from the motel window? Cities are pilloried as Sodom and Gomorrah, emblematic of ‘lies’ and self-blinded lives’ (with no explanation). In keeping with this rejection of modern worldliness, satellites send and receive ‘emptiness’ (including to those who arrive successfully by SatNav after a complex journey). Perhaps thumbing the remote is evidence of the contemporary inanity of the poet’s companion.

The passage appears to be a mere grumble, confided perhaps to a notebook, to be taken up later and turned into a poem, or abandoned. Good clear prose obeys certain laws of basic communication and this specimen enables us to see its flaws readily enough.

But the passage has been rendered as prose by me! Let us reintroduce the line-breaks with which it was endowed at publication by its author:

Walking, you thumb the remote

to scan news,

watch the weather girl

dance both hands, pivot,

smile, and point to

the other coast.

So what does morning look like?

What does the world.

From this motel:

an anywhere town, across the bay, shining.

Elsewhere mountains.

Miles beyond hills,

the capital cities, their walls behind walls.

Monuments to our lies,

to our self-blinded lives.

Above us now, two fishhawks, cheeping musical shrieks,

the risen sun easing their wingbeats.

Over us all, daylight’s invisible satellites, shamelessly

bouncing back from space the emptiness we feed them.

Now we are certainly taking up more space and, for those readers lacking stamina, short lines enable more rapid breathing. But what exactly is added to the passage by thus inserting carriage-returns all over the place? Perhaps one ambiguity becomes clear: it may be the companion, because of the line-beak after ’girl’, who watches the weather girl, dances her (the companion’s own) hands, pivots etc. But in this case, why not resort to the humble comma? Line-breaks are the defining feature of poems; but here the final line-break seems to have been inserted after ‘shamelessly’, dividing up a verb phrase, simply, one feels, because the poet did not want a line that was too long. Here, he was obeying Ezra Pound’s asinine injunction, a century ago, to ‘Break it up! Break it up!’

Ezra Pound

We may think this crumbled prose, but the product is an authentic, paid-up, modern American poem, complete with an occasional grunt of disregard for ordinary punctuation. To remove this veneer of pretension certainly exposes the communicative fragility and argumentative poverty of the piece. How often is the main verb, that motor of the prose sentence, suppressed.

But, wait: we have not finished. There is another layer of varnish available to the poet, with a couple of flicks of his word-processor, by means of which he may strengthen his claims to be the right-on, modern American poet, a technique further redolent of The Cantos, that vast and popular[2] primer of illiteracy, the technique of indentation:

Views

Walking, you thumb the remote

to scan news,

watch the weather girl

dance both hands, pivot,

smile, and point to

the other coast.

So what does morning look like?

What does the world.

From this motel:

an anywhere town, across the bay, shining.

Elsewhere mountains.

Miles beyond hills,

the capital cities, their walls behind walls.

Monuments to our lies,

to our self-blinded lives.

Above us now, two fishhawks, cheeping musical shrieks,

the risen sun easing their wingbeats.

Over us all,

daylight’s invisible satellites, shamelessly

bouncing back from space the emptiness we feed them.[3]

Philip Booth

Now it even looks like a poem! In addition to completely arbitrary and superficial line-breaks, we now have a verse-array!

But I don’t want to be unduly negative about this still-born little slip of a poem. Let it be put back gently in the Museum of Literature whence it came and where it belongs. The point, surely, is that this poet hasn’t even begun to think about the form of the whole, the life that builds up from the line into the verse-paragraph, the suite or sequence, and the work as a whole. I doubt if metre-and-rhyme would improve matters (the mould improve the jelly?), although the extinction of the tedious autobiographical American poetic voice would be a relief (Whitman is the other unfortunate godfather of officially sanctioned American ignorance). On the other hand, the prose-poem is a perfectly valid, muscular yet stream-lined genre that has been too little exploited. Let all such poems be presented as prose. Their shortcomings will be exposed, but a natural weeding-out will leave the best standing beside those of Rimbaud and Baudelaire.

Walt Whitman

Let us have a little less lazy revolution and a little more dedicated apprenticeship.


[1] ‘Views’ by Philip Booth, the daily offering of the Writer’s Almanac for 30-Jan-10, rendered as prose.

[2] Pound hd invtd the txt msg half a century before the mobile phone.

[3] Philip Booth, from Lifelines: Selected Poems 1950-1999, Penguin Group, 1999.

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