Formal poetry or free verse?

Ben Jonson, Ezra Pound, formal poetry, free verse, rhyme, rhythm, T.S. Eliot, the Waste Land, Uncategorized
The days of the sonnet, the villanelle and the ballade are over. The what? you say. You know, formal poetry with strict rhyme schemes and regular rhythms and stuff. That has been the mantra among the echelons of the poetry world for as long as living memory can stretch. Ever since T.S. Eliot stunned the world with the Waste Land people have been tolling the death knell of formal poetry and nowadays nobody writes formal poetry any more, do they?
Well, in actually fact, the Waste Land is peppered with formal poetry elements in disguise, and nowadays there is a growing battery of “new formalism” poetry journals and magazines that publish nothing but formal poetry. Formal poetry still doesn’t have the punching heft or the inviolable, lofty status as free verse, for most people, but it is making a come back.
T.S. Eliot himself was heard to say: “When forced to work within a strict framework the imagination is taxed to its utmost — and will produce its richest ideas. Given total freedom the work is likely to sprawl.” That in fact is what happened to The Waste Land, his epic masterpiece. In its original form it was a sprawling mess of a poem. As Ezra Pound (who eventually managed to edit it down to half its original size) mentioned to Eliot, he had written “the longest poem in the English langwidge [sic].” The poem turns out to be mostly free verse with formal elements infiltrating it all the way through. Another gnomic utterance from Eliot states: “It’s not wise to violate rules until you know how to observe them.” This still stands today as an indictment against would-be poets who never really take the trouble to learn how to practice the rules of formal poetry but stick to free verse all the way through.
So which is better: formal poetry or free verse? Well, it depends on a number of things, including the subject matter, the occasion and the audience. Sometimes rhyming poetry works best and sometimes free verse does.
I have found Eliot’s comment about working within a strict framework producing the richest ideas to be true, for the most part. Writing rhyming and scanning poetry forces you to concentrate. It’s a bit like working on a cryptic crossword puzzle. It can be fun, but it can also be infuriatingly frustrating. You have to think more carefully about your word choice, make sure you don’t add extra syllables to a line, make sure the rhyme scheme is adhered to (even if they are only slant-rhymes) and in some cases (for example, with sonnets) make sure you have finished what you want to say by the time you run out of space and reach the end of the poem. Of course, it is possible to write a technically brilliant poem that doesn’t say anything much…
Free verse, on the other hand, by definition doesn’t have the constraints of formal poetry. You can literally write anything you want. But because of that a free verse poem has to stand on its own two feet without the surrounding support of a structure to hang your thoughts on. It is easy to waffle. It is easy to produce flabby lines that lack concision or thought. It is easy to produce a poem that sounds just like prose. So why do so many people prefer it to formal poetry? Poets prefer it because it appears to be relatively easy to write (although not so easy to write well). Readers of poetry prefer it because often it is easier to understand than the alternative.
But even if you are writing free verse, it can help to put some formal constraints on what you write, such as making each line a set number of syllables, having stanzas that are of a uniform length, or using an iambic rhythm in each line. It can help to add a little discipline to what you write. Similarly, if you are writing formal poetry you still have some latitude to depart occasionally from the scheme you have chosen if it helps get the meaning across or emphasizes certain words. In actual fact, the more you look at it, the distance between formal and free verse gets closer and seems more like a continuum rather that two discrete styles.
Formal poetry gets the reputation of being stuffy and, well, formal. Free verse gets the reputation of allowing the emotions of the poet to come out, well, freely.
So just to mix things up a bit, here is a formal poem that exudes poignant emotions but still manages to do it within the rules of the form: Ben Jonson’s poem “On My First Sonne.” It is an incredibly touching poem set down in rhyming couplets – lines which rhyme in pairs – which you would not have thought at all suited to powerful emotion. It was written on the death of his little son, on the child’s seventh birthday. The little boy was named Benjamin after his father, and Benjamin, in Hebrew, means “child of my right hand” hence the opening line. There are three short verses:
Farewell, thou child of my right hand, and joy;
    My sin was too much hope of thee, lov’d boy.
Seven years thou wert lent to me, and I thee pay,
    Exacted by thy fate, on the just day.
Oh, could I lose all father now! For why
    Will man lament the state he should envy?
To have so soon ’scaped world’s and flesh’s rage,
    And if no other misery, yet age!
Rest in soft peace, and, asked, say, Here doth lie
    Ben Jonson his best piece of poetry.
For whose sake henceforth all his vows be such
    As what he loves may never like too much.
And here’s part of the aforementioned Waste Land, which is written in free verse but is still concise and compelling:
What are the roots that clutch, what branches grow
Out of this stony rubbish? Son of man,
You cannot say, or guess, for you know only
A heap of broken images, where the sun beats,
And the dead tree gives no shelter, the cricket no relief,
And the dry stone no sound of water. Only
There is shadow under this red rock,
(Come in under the shadow of this red rock),
And I will show you something different from either
Your shadow at morning striding behind you
Or your shadow at evening rising to meet you;
I will show you fear in a handful of dust.
Free verse does have a value and can be used to devastating effect. But, as Eliot says, it is much better to learn the rules of formal poetry first before you decide to break them.


Dante’s Inferno

Clive James, Dante, Dante's Inferno, Ezra Pound, hell, quatrains, rhyme, T.S. Eliot, terza rima, translation, Uncategorized
I have just finished reading Clive James’s translation of Dante’s Inferno. Clive’s James’s entry in Wikipedia begins thus:

“Clive James AO CBE (born Vivian Leopold James on 7 October 1939) is an Australian author, critic, broadcaster, poet, translator and memoirist, best known for his autobiographical series Unreliable Memoirs, for his chat shows and documentaries on British television and for his prolific journalism. He has lived and worked in the United Kingdom since 1962.”

Anyone familiar with James’s television work would probably be astonished to find that he is a poet and translator. Yet these are the two key skills needed to tackle Dante’s humungous 34-canto epic.
Dante composed Inferno in terza rima, which is poetry written in groups of three lines, especially in iambs, which rhyme aba bcb cdc. This particular form is rather difficult to keep up in English because, as you can see, in order to do it properly you have to come up with line endings containing three words that rhyme. In Italian, which is the language the Inferno was written in, that’s not so difficult since most of words end in one vowel or another. So James uses a much easier form for the translation. He divides the text into quatrains, that is four-line groups which rhyme abab cdcd efef. That way he only had to rhyme two words together at the line endings. (I trust I make myself obscure.) It is an inspired choice and enabled him to proceed with the translation without bending over backwards to accommodate a difficult rhyme scheme.
Most of the time James’s translation is superb. But he alternates between a “high” style of writing and a “low” one and usually this works – usually. To give you an example, here are some lines from canto 2:
And then Paul’s ship,
The Chosen Vessel, came to Rome as well—
The vessel, in a sense, that Faith might sip
Renewal from, and did. But now, pray tell,
Why me? Who says I get to go there?
Do I look like Aeneas? Am I Paul?
See what I mean? He juxtaposes the rather archaic “pray tell” with “Who says I get to go there? / Do I look like Aeneas?” which to modern ears sounds distinctly colloquial. It’s a style that was used successfully by Ezra Pound and T.S. Eliot and ultimately by Dante himself.
James had to make a number of choices when writing the translation, leaving out parts of Dante’s text and adding other parts here and there in order to produce something that worked as poetry. He has been criticized for that, but I think it makes the whole thing much more readable in most cases. He also does away with footnotes, preferring instead to incorporate some of the external material into the text itself, which of course is another stroke of genius.
What he doesn’t stint on is Dante’s gruesome imagination. As the narrator is led through hell he comes across various atrocities as individuals and groups are punished for their sins, usually with a punishment that bears some relation to the sin they committed. We see people wandering around with their entrails dangling out, giants munching away at various sinners, one guy gnawing away at another guy’s head, and everywhere demons with whips strut around to make sure the crowd keeps moving. Dante was not kind to some of the people he knew and places them down there among the nine levels of hell to endure their punishment for past sins.
The book is, in fact, a great read and has something of the flavor of a thriller about it. It may not be a word-for-word translation of the famous text, but it is compelling enough to keep you reading and has all the drama needed to offer new and exciting manifestations of brutality on every page! All in all, I’d recommend it.


Humorous Verse

Belloc, Chesterton, Harry Graham, humorous verse, new yorker, ogden nash, poetry, rhyme, Uncategorized
One of the types of poetry that has fallen into disuse is humorous verse. It had been popular in the first half of the twentieth century but seemed to falter and die out from the mid-sixties onwards, only turning up now and then in magazines like the New Yorker as a kind of homage to the greats of the genre. In some ways, it transmogrified into the humorous songs to be found in Broadway musicals and Hollywood movies, which is a pity because often this kind of verse sounds better in its native environment, the unaccompanied human voice, where the proper emphasis can be placed of the key words to humorous effect. Some of the rhyming verse produced by such eminent writers as G.K. Chesterton and Hilaire Belloc is now so obscure that nobody can understand it anymore, because it refers to people, places and events of the time in which it were written. But most of it – at least the bulk of what has been published in book form so far – is by turns hilarious, droll, amusing and clever.
Hilaire Belloc, in particular, wrote verse that purported to be for children, but which in fact contains a level of verbosity that would stump the average nipper and even some adults, but that’s actually part of the fun. Many of these poems were cautionary tales about little children who were naughty and came to tragic ends. For most adult readers, Belloc’s poems can be a source of great pleasure especially when read aloud, because he is a master not only of rhyme but also of rhythm. Here are a few snippets from his book “The Bad Child’s Book of Beasts:”
The Hippopotamus
I shoot the hippopotamus with bullets made of platinum
Because if I use leaden ones his hide is sure to flatten ’em.
The Frog
Be kind and tender to the frog
   And do not call him names
As ‘Slimy skin’, or ‘Polly-wog’
   Or likewise ‘Ugly James’
Or ‘Gap-a-grin’ or ‘Toad-gone-wrong’,
   Or ‘Billy Bandy-knees’:
The frog is justly sensitive
   To epithets like these.
No animal will more repay
   A treatment kind and fair;
At least so lonely people say
   Who keep a frog (and by the way,
They are extremely rare).
The Python
A python I should not advise, –
It needs a doctor for its eyes
And has the measles yearly.
However, if you feel inclined
To get one (to improve your mind,
And not from fashion merely),
Allow no music near its cage;
And when it flies into a rage
Chastise it, most severely.
I had an aunt in Yucatan
Who bought a python from a man
And kept it for a pet.
She died because she never knew
These simple little rules and few; –
The snake is living yet.
Then there’s the slightly darker humor of Harry Graham whose “Ruthless Rhymes for Heartless Homes” contains some classic verse, to wit:
Weep not for little Leonie,
Abducted by a French Marquis!
Though loss of honor was a wrench,
Just think how it’s improved her French.
Billy, in one of his nice new sashes
Fell in the fire and was burnt to ashes
And now, although the room grows chilly,
I haven’t the heart to poke poor Billy.
Nurse, who peppered baby’s face
(She mistook it for a muffin),
Held her tongue and kept her place,
‘Laying low and sayin’ nuffin’;
Mother, seeing baby blinded,
Said, “Oh, nurse, how absent-minded!”
And G.K. Chesterton?
Of Uncle Humphrey who can sing?
His name can’t rhyme with anything,
How much superior is Aunt Harriet
Who rhymes correctly to Iscariot
But, at least stateside, the most famous exponent of the short, sharp, ditty is Ogden Nash, whose humorous verse infiltrated the popular magazines of the day. “I think in terms of rhyme, and have since I was six years old,” he stated in a 1958 news interview. Here are a few of his zingers:
Reflections on Ice-breaking
Is dandy
But liquor
Is quicker
Family Court
One would be in less danger
From the wiles of the stranger
If one’s own kin and kith
Were more fun to be with.
Introspective Reflection
I would live all my life in nonchalance and insouciance
Were it not for making a living, which is rather a nouciance.
It is a pity that there are not more outlets for this sort of brilliance nowadays. And it is brilliance because, despite how easy it looks, it takes a great deal of skill to write convincing humorous poetry – just as much skill, I would argue, as it takes to produce serious poetry.
I leave you with a slightly longer poem by Harry Graham which is so clever you wonder how he could come up with it. It’s called “Poetical Economy”.
Poetical Economy
What hours I spent of precious time,
What pints of ink I used to waste,
Attempting to secure a rhyme
To suit the public taste,
Until I found a simple plan
Which makes the tamest lyric scan!
When I’ve a syllable de trop,
I cut it off, without apol.:
This verbal sacrifice, I know,
May irritate the schol.;
But all must praise my dev’lish cunn.
Who realize that Time is Mon.
My sense remains as clear as cryst.,
My style as pure as any Duch.
Who does not boast a bar sinist.
Upon her fam. escutch.;
And I can treat with scornful pit.
The sneers of ev’ry captious crit.
I gladly publish to the pop.
A scheme of which I make no myst.,
And beg my fellow scribes. to cop.
This labor-saving syst.
I offer it to the consid.
Of ev’ry thoughtful individ.
The author, working like a beav.,
His readers’ pleasure could redoub.
Did he but now and then abbrev.
The work he gives his pub.
(This view I most partic. suggest
To A. C. Bens. and G. K. Chest.)
If Mr. Caine rewrote The Scape.,
And Miss Corell, condensed Barabb.,
What could they save in foolscap pape.
Did they but cult. the hab.,
Which teaches people to suppress
All syllables that are unnec.!
If playwrights would but thus dimin.
The length of time each drama takes,
(The Second Mrs. Tanq. by Pin.
or even Ham., by Shakes.)
We could maintain a watchful att.
When at a Mat. on Wed. or Sat.
Have done, ye bards, with dull monot.!
Foll. my examp., O, Stephen Phill.,
O, Owen Seam., O, William Wat.,
O, Ella Wheeler Wil.,
And share with me the grave respons.
of writing this amazing nons.!


5 Rookie mistakes when writing poetry

emotion, plain language, poetry, purpose, rhyme, rookie mistakes, scansion, Uncategorized, writing poetry
“Poetry is like fish: if it’s fresh, it’s good; if it’s stale, it’s bad; and if you’re not certain, try it on the cat.” Osbert Sitwell
A surprising number of people like to write poetry, try to write poetry, or want to write poetry. I’m not quite sure why that is, but a growing number of people find poetry attractive. Here are five mistakes that are quite commonly made when approaching poetry for the first time. The reason I feel qualified to even talk about them is because I have fallen into these howlers plenty of times myself.
1. Thinking strong emotion produces good poetry
The first one is thinking that poetry is all about expressing emotion. In fact, many people seem to believe that the strength of the poetry lies in how intense the emotion is. Here’s an example of a heartfelt poem such as you might stumble across on any of the popular poetry websites:
I brought you apples, pears and oranges
And you threw them back at me.
So I wandered among the bluebells on the cliff.
My heart was bursting inside of me and I wondered if
I could ever regain your love,
Which came to me once like a lightning bolt from above.
Oh where can I go with my passion and pain?
I stand out here in the pouring rain.
You are my love, my heart and my soul.
You are what makes me feel whole.
A gallant effort, and the poem does use metaphor and simile to express… something, but we’re not quite sure what. It appears to be reporting an incident in which the poet, after being pelted with fruit, has a heart attack while wandering about on a cliff in the rain and is hit by a lightning bolt – a  kind of primitive defibrillator, if you will. There is obviously some deep emotion at play here, related to unrequited love, but that doesn’t make it a good poem.
2. Defective scansion
One of the most common mistakes that is made in rhyming poetry is not adhering to credible scansion or meter. Scansion can be described as “the dividing of lines of poetry into feet by indicating accents and counting syllables to determine the meter of a poem. It is a means of studying the mechanical elements by which the poet has established his rhythmical effects.” In other words – at least for rhymed poetry – the usual method is to have a set number of syllables in each line. Iambic pentameter for example has ten syllables in each line, alternating short and long, thus: de da de da de da de da de da.
The poem above doesn’t follow any of these rules. Line one has eleven syllables, line two has fourteen, line three has seven, and so on. It is a common practice to produce poems that rhyme, but don’t scan.
3. Leaving yourself difficult rhymes
The tricky thing about rhymed poetry is that you have to make sure you don’t catch yourself out by giving yourself some impossible rhyme to match. In the above poem the poet falls into this gaping hole right at the start, by giving himself the impossible task of finding a word to rhyme with “oranges.” It is a well-known fact that nothing does rhyme with that word in English, so the poet simply ignores it. The key to successful rhyming is reading ahead and working out what you are going to say and how you are going to say it, to make sure you never paint yourself into a poetical corner.
4. Having no purpose
Another pitfall is starting to write a poem in the grip of some powerful emotion when you don’t really know what you want to say. I’ve done that a number of times and what I generally end up with is a poem that is vague, confusing and rambles on and on with no destination in view. It’s amazing the amount of time you can waste on this kind of drivel!
The best way to keep your poetry fresh and convincing, I’ve found, is to come up with a theme. Can you summarize in a few words what your poem is supposed to be about? If not, you’re probably destined to be sucked irretrievably down into the quagmire of mind-numbing mumbo jumbo (which is just as difficult to say aloud as it is to read in a poem).
5. Using plain language
This may sound weird, because in most other settings plain language is what people should be striving for, but poetry is different. As mentioned, the above poem does use metaphor and simile to get across what the poet wants to say – albeit somewhat clumsily. If you don’t make use of these and other poetical techniques you can end up, not with a poem, but with an advertising slogan, a news bulletin or a simply paragraph of prose.
Here are a few lines from “Dulce et Decorum Est” written by the First-World-War poet Wilfred Owen:
Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,
Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs
And towards our distant rest began to trudge.
Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots
But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame; all blind;
Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots
Of tired, outstripped Five-Nines that dropped behind.
Gas! Gas! Quick, boys! – An ecstasy of fumbling,
Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time;



That sounds much more effective that simply saying “we were plodding wearily back to the barracks when were attacked with poison gas shells,” now doesn’t it?