Tag Archives: Coleridge

Can you *decide* to write a poem? 

Can you decide to write a poem?

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Hmmm…

In an odd but interesting book called “Poet’s Choice” that came out in 1962, editors Paul Engle and Joseph Langland asked 100 poets from Robert Frost to Leonard Cohen to name a favourite poem, and provide some insight into their choice. (Some wrote three lines, some three pages.) One of the most extensive answers came from John Wain. Here is an excerpt:

If I write a novel, or a story, or a critical essay, I soon make up my mind as to its merits; I can read it, more or less, as if it had been written by someone else. But I cannot do this with my poems because they are more instinctual; they arrive, from some deep place in my being where forces are at work which I cannot command, though I can thwart and deny them. After a poem has arrived, and been born, I look at it much as one looks at a natural object: I didn’t write it–it happened to me. As a professional writer, I can say, “Today I will write a story,” or some criticism, or a scene for a play, or whatever it may be: but I cannot say, and no one has ever been able to say, “Today I will write poetry.”

Poems, in this understanding, are the closest form of writing to dreams. We may have some control, but not a lot. As Wain points out, we can thwart or deny them when they are available or (if they are part of our will separate from our conscious mind) when they are trying to come. But we cannot consciously create them if they are not available. They are absolutely mood-dependent. In the right mood, Coleridge could knock out the 54 lines of “Kubla Khan” as fast as he could pen them. In the wrong mood, Oscar Wilde could say “I was working on the proof of one of my poems all the morning, and took out a comma. In the afternoon I put it back again.”

So the difference is between deciding to write a poem, and knowing when you can write one. But how and when would you know you could? And can you enhance the chances of it happening? This will be the subject of the next post.

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Why “formal” verse?

This blog is dedicated to the proposition that not all poetry is equal – indeed, that not all of it is even poetry. “Poetry” went off the rails in the 20th century for a variety of reasons – accidentally? suicidally? – but it is slowly getting back on track.

Chatterton

“The Death of Chatterton” – the poet died at 17 (it is uncertain whether he committed suicide or took an accidental overdose, trying to cure himself of venereal disease).

“Poetry – the best words in their best order,” said Coleridge. Aristotle says “rhythm, language and harmony,” and that it is the use of harmony that distinguishes poetry from the other language-based forms. “Harmony” again from Thomas Campion, talking of poetry as the “ioyning of words to harmony”. Ezra Pound rewrites Aristotle’s definition as “Poetry is a composition of words set to music”.

This requirement for “rhythm”, “harmony”, “music” is what has been missing from most of what people styled “poetry” through the last 50 years. But it never goes away from popular culture, because it lives in musicals, rock, c&w, rap, the chants of street protests, and the nursery rhymes and lullabyes sung to babies. It never goes away from popular culture, because it is deeply ingrained in all of us, beginning with the heartbeat that surrounds us before we are born.

And rhyme, rhythm, alliteration and other tricks of formal poetry are not just some meaningless style: they are the hooks on which we hang our memory of the exact words. Ask anyone to recite a poem, and it will be a song, a nursery rhyme, or something else with strong formal elements to it. If you want something to be memorable – not in the sense of remembering the experience, but of remembering a text word for word – if it is anything more than a dozen words, it is far, far more easily remembered if it has rhythm and rhyme.

This blog argues that formal elements are essential to poetry. “Free verse” may be insightful, emotional, witty, descriptive (or, often, none of those), but it isn’t poetry. It’s prose.