In the run-up to the election of a new Professor of Poetry, Paul Gittins warns the medium will continue to be muzzled and muddled unless there is a renaissance in its traditional skills.
By Paul Gittins (Exeter College, 1964)
Research into recitation, and encouragement of recitation, are helping to stimulate interest in poetry — this much I made clear in a previous Oxford Today article on the direction of modern poetry. But the research also shows that poetry that uses the traditional skills is more conducive to recitation than free verse which makes up the bulk of modern poetry. The reason is obvious. Most modern poetry is unappealing to readers and listeners alike because it is so often obscure and difficult to follow.
This diffuseness is nothing new. Back in 1964, C Day Lewis warned in his Norton Lectures at Harvard (published as The Lyric Impulse) that modern poetry needed ‘aerating’, and he went on to suggest two solutions to make poetry more accessible. Firstly music, because if you ‘write words for a tune, you find the tune clears much of the verbal undergrowth’; and secondly (pre-dating the Poetry Archive’s Poetry by Heart competition by fifty years) recitation, ‘as many people enjoy listening to poetry who seldom or never read it’.
A third solution would be to stop venerating poets as sages, as this inhibits criticism. A poet, after all, is no wiser than most other people. What he or she does have is a heightened sense of feeling and imagination, coupled with a practised skill in arranging words. ‘Poetry’ as Robert Graves said, ‘is the profession of private truth, supported by craftsmanship in the use of words’.
A more sceptical attitude to poets would also weed out the self-promoters and those who regard poetry as a form of psychotherapy, as in a recent number of the American magazine Poets and Writers which elicited such confessions from debut poets as ‘If I could write the poems … I could speak about my trauma’ or ‘I knew I had to write to break into that silence, disarm that solitude.’
Unfortunately, most modern poetry is written in free verse (or prose-poetry as it should be more accurately called) — a hybrid form of writing which is neither prose nor poetry. By turning their backs on the traditional skills of poetry as old-fashioned and restrictive, the prose-poets like to boast that they are freeing themselves from the shackles of ‘formalism’. But with no system of checks and balances to curb their imaginations, the result is the rambling complexity that characterises so much modern poetry. As Robert Frost famously once said: ‘Free verse is like playing tennis without a net.’
Why should prose-poets, or any poet for that matter, think that they are exempt from learning and practising a craft that has resulted in centuries of literary heritage? By all means adapt the diction or prosody to suit the temper of the time; but throwing the baby out with the bath water is wilful and self-defeating.
It is, of course, true (as James Fenton pointed out in his 2003 Introduction to English Poetry) that poetry cannot be practised in the same way as a more physical skill like playing the piano or riding a horse. But by reading and studying the poets of the past, practice is achieved by a form of osmosis, so that the poet will develop an instinctive feeling for the ‘rightness’ of a word in a line of poetry, which is not so crucial an element in the construction of the longer, less tensioned prose line. Then, a poet with something original to say will possess the imbued skill to express it. And if really confident of having written something of value, he or she should offer it for recitation as the ultimate test for approval.
Paul Gittins’ Scratching Around: Selected Poems is published by Editions Illador (2014) in English and bilingual English–French editions.
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