Sunday, 19 August 2012

Poetic Form and other ‘arse-dribble’…

By Jennifer Lane

“If poetry comes not as naturally as the leaves to a tree, then it had better not come at all”. John Keats said that, I’ll have you know. Or if you’re a closet fan of Hollywood biopics, it was uttered by a wispy Ben Whishaw. Whilst this is all very lovely, foppish, and just-lay-me-on-the-divan, it’s not always practical advice for everyday life. Keats probably never tried navigating Manchester town centre or working nine-to-five selling men’s knitwear. I’m sure he had too many clouds to gawp at.

We don’t all have the time to be lolling around, inspired; where every spilt dribble of espresso has an extra level of meaning. Whilst I’d love to be traipsing through bluebells (or even some realistic Astroturf), there aren’t many of us who can say we have a spare moment in the day.

Some might say that if you’re a poet in the busy busyness of the world, poetic form seems like a blessing.

Structure! Rhyming couplets! Enjambment! Just hook them to my veins! Having someone tell you how to formulate a poem can seem as straightforward as following the list for the weekly shop. You just have to fill in the blanks… right?

In his book, “The Ode Less Travelled”, Stephen Fry ordered legions of budding writers to embrace iambic pentameter: to take it into their bosoms and caress it like a slightly neglected, yet still loveable Labrador. But no, Stephen, no. As much as I am subject to your theatrical charms, I just can’t do it. Iambic pentameter is inarguably very impressive, and was extremely popular… about four-hundred years ago. But forcing language into this strict prescribed mould makes for stilted reading and some wincingly bad rhymes. Its painful de-dum-de-dums make me think of a Year Five literacy class, minus the promise of Play Doh.

John Donne always said that words “fetter’d in verse” are enhanced in meaning. But sometimes focusing too much on structure can leave the real meanings bedraggled and forgotten.


I am a massive fan of free-verse. I find it endlessly creative, thought-provoking and just a little bit fabulous. Mr Fry intervenes once more and labels it “arse-dribble” (a phrase which I do find a lexical dream); but this seems to be missing a point. Free verse gives free-reign to the imagination, and hey, if I want to use that twenty-seven syllable line, I bloomin’ well will!

Poetry has evolved away from the forced verse of Tudor courts. Although classic poetic form can still be appreciated in hushed gallery awe, throwing off a rigid format can give a poet more space to breathe. People are not structured – our lives are busy: overflowing. Maybe our poetry should be too.


Lindsay said...

Thanks for joining us this week Jen, an entertaining, witty and educated view on the topic, great post :)

Ashley R Lister said...


Like Lindsay said - witty and entertaining.

Personally I love the restrictions of form but I think is partly because I lack confidence in my own writing so I can understand Mr Fry's accusations of arse-dribble.

And I'm sure you know I only added the final clause to that sentence so I could type the compound 'arse-dribble'.

Thanks for joining us again,


Christo Heyworth said...

Most enjoyable and much in line with how I feel - thanks.

Jim Murdoch said...

Free verse is not necessarily as free as it sounds. There is such a thing as too free. Take bloatware for example. When I first started programming I had a 48K Spectrum and I managed to cram a graphic adventure onto it that threw up a random map every time your played so that even I couldn’t sit down and cheat. Now we talk in terms of gigabytes of space. Programmers have got lazy. Having to cram everything I wanted to do into 48K forced me to be creative. I didn’t use numbers. I used variables because they took up fractionally less space.

I know Jonathan Lehrer is in hot water over putting words into Bob Dylan’s mouth at the moment but that doesn’t mean everything he’s ever said can now be discounted. He thinks that there is a definite plus side to working with structured forms:

But that's exactly the point. Unless poets are stumped by the form, unless they are forced to look beyond the obvious associations, they'll never invent an original line. They'll be stuck with clichés and conventions, with predictable adjectives and boring verbs. And this is why poetic forms are so important.

I don’t use traditional forms—I’ve never written a sestina or a sonnet and I’ve only ever written a single haiku in almost 1100 poems—but I do believe in structure and those structures become self-evident as I write a piece. The problem with a lot of free verse is that it’s not poetry; it is chopped-up prose. Poetry employs a great many techniques apart from rhyme and rhythm and many poets are so keen not to replicate the Romantic verse they were force-fed as kid that they eschew all poetic technique and I think that’s a great shame. Some, of course, are just bad poets but get away with it because everyone is terrified these days to point the finger and say, “That’s crap.” Freedom means that anyone can say that this or that clump of words is a poem “because I say it is” but that doesn’t make it true.