[»»] Main Site Homepage     [»»] Links to documents   [»»] Links to photos   OFFSITE: [»»] My Journal at

John Tranter: Notes to Poems

«Verse and Worse», by R. D. FitzGerald, 1973

Southerly magazine, Volume Thirty-Three Number Two 1973, page 156.

Verse and Worse

R. D. FitzGerald

Developed from a lecture at the Australian National University, Canberra, in 1971.


MANY strange things are called poetry today which quite go against anything my own generation looked for once such as order, composition, melody, harmony, emotion, meaning and what has become a really dirty word: beauty. So many indeed that rather than trying to sort out which truly qualify for the name it is more practical to let them all have it. A. D. Hope once pointed out something I have often quoted, to the effect that there is no one thing called poetry: there are many poetries, and certainly one would hardly demand of any poet in today’s literary atmosphere that he cast himself in the mould Thomas Carlyle specified for poets in his essay on Robert Burns:


A true poet, a man in whose heart resides some effluence of Wisdom, some tone of the “Eternal Melodies” is the most precious gift that can be bestowed on a generation; we see in him a freer, purer development of whatever is noblest in ourselves; his life is a rich lesson to us; and we mourn his death as that of a benefactor who has loved and taught us.


This ideal character for a true poet is, by inference, more limiting on what poetry itself should be than surely Burns, for one, would have endured, let alone poets of succeeding eras including our own. All right then, there are many poetries but for present purposes let us confine the term “poetry” to a quality expected in true poems yet incapable of definition — that quality which we most admire in good verse when, by virtue of the perfect nature of the word-music and imagery for what the poem has to say, more seems to be conveyed, through a kind of nervous tension transmitted from writer to reader, than the actual stated meanings — and let us confine discussion to “poems”, a term which can be restricted more precisely, yet widely enough to allow for a number of varieties. For my present purposes, concerned chiefly with verse and worse, I propose to restrict the term “poems” to compositions in verse, heightened certainly by that possibly illusory “poetry” but exclusive of what is both formless and — except perhaps for special initiates — meaningless. It must be granted that this is still a very elastic restriction since what constitutes verse is more varied than a dictionary might persuade you.


Such poems comprise most or all of what I believe to be the “many poetries” A. D. Hope had in mind; they also, by virtue of their interest as representations of human life and environment, comply with Matthew Arnold’s mandate for a poetical work in his 1853 Preface:


Every representation . . . which is consistently drawn may be supposed to be interesting, inasmuch as it gratifies this natural interest in knowledge of all kinds. What is not interesting is that which does not add to our knowledge of any kind; that which is vaguely conceived and loosely drawn; a representation which is general, indeterminate, and faint, instead of being particular, precise and firm.


Any accurate representation may therefore be expected to be interesting; but if the representation be a poetical one, more than this is demanded. It is demanded not only that it shall interest, but also that it shall inspirit and rejoice the reader: that it shall convey a charm and infuse delight.


Poems on this view are comprehensible and of interest to ordinary human beings, some kinds to some people and other kinds to other people diversely scattered, not just to a poet’s particular friends or fellow-cultists. Yet there are limitations on understanding due to other factors than a poet’s manner of writing. I have constantly to remind myself of what that much undervalued, almost forgotten poet Humbert Wolfe said in his preface to his book of poems, The Unknown Goddess, to the effect that there is no such thing as modern verse: “There are only oldish men in each generation misunderstanding what is being written now, side by side with youngish men misunderstanding what was written then. Verse itself cares neither for the oldish nor the youngish men, nor indeed for anything but itself.” Even extremes are not necessarily valueless. However transient, they are still part of the working of the creative spirit; and this though today there seems to be in many quarters a preference for the fragmentary statement as against the constructed poem; for shapelessness as against shape; for incoherence as against concreteness; as if what is disjointed or meaningless or just phoney is being substituted for the old aim at what Wolfe elsewhere in that preface called partial sanity. Concern with the subconscious may have started the move in this direction; for whatever else the subconscious may be, its manifestations could hardly be called consecutive or rational.


Myself of the day before yesterday, perhaps I was talking just there of yesterday rather than today; for the work I see crawling formlessly over the pages of the little magazines, the better ones too and the Saturday pages of the dailies, does now as a rule say what can be understood if too often it is very trivial The objections I raise to it, admittedly as one of Humbert Wolfe’s oldish men, is usually that it is not in fact verse, or otherwise it is verse of a uniformly monotonous kind. And I do agree that poems, at their best, work in language of more than usual intensity on more levels of communication than the surface level of consciousness. Below the uppermost level of what the words actually say as nouns, verbs, adjectives, set out as phrases and sentences, there may infrequently be an underlying symbolized or allegorical meaning, subtle or obvious; and below that again, usually without the writer’s conscious knowledge, though seldom at odds with his intentions, there are often enough shades of meaning or inflection or suggestion arising from the associations, or connotations, as they are called, and also the sounds, of the words actually used — subconscious meanings perhaps, and subconsciously understood. It is only when a writer tries to get directly to that underlying, or subconscious level, that his “poetry” shows all the signs of the region’s formlessness or, often, madness. Nevertheless it is within that undermost stratum of communication that, chiefly but not entirely, the undefined quality, poetry, exerts its force. Verse is simpler. Verse is language which can be analysed by meter, neither more nor less than that.


There could be annoying questions. What about rhythm, cadence, quantity, free verse? The answer is that all these can be analysed in terms of meter. I spell the word American fashion, as in water-meter or gas-meter rather than in the fashion of the metric system; for meter, as I see it, is an instrument of measurement, not a unit of measurement, not a division of language into those set units of measurement called feet despite the inconsistency with the said metric system. If you ever sit on a hard chair in a cold hall with a tile floor, waiting for some appointment, you are bound to look down on the tiles and see red, yellow, blue, green, and then you’ll decide no, it’s yellow, blue, green, red; or blue, green, red, yellow; or green, red, yellow, blue; until you come round again to red, yellow, blue, green. There are no real divisions; and there are no real divisions into separated units or feet when it comes to reading, writing or listening to verse; nothing usually to distinguish between anapaest, amphibrach or dactyl; nothing, or very little, to distinguish between iambic or trochaic measures. Consider the opening lines of Milton’s L’Allegro:


Haste thee nymph, and bring with thee
Jest and joyful Jollity,
Quips and Cranks, and wanton Wiles,
Nods and Becks, and wreathed Smiles . . .


This, I think, is usually considered iambic verse lacking one slack syllabic at the start of each line. If you call it acephalated, people may even suppose you know what you are talking about. But where, really, did the pattern of those tiles begin? At red? At green? Where is the actual dividing-line between the feet? Or, as I prefer, is there no such dividing-line? For consider the only words of more than one syllable in those lines of Milton’s, namely joyful, jollity, wanton and wreathed; they are all accented on the first syllable like most two and three syllable words, and so are natural trochees. Thus another way of hearing the verse is as trochees with the concluding syllable cut off like a tail cut off from the “Hiawatha” measure. Catalectic is the word this time. It might get students credits.


These terms and dozens like them may be useful to scholars for some purposes; yet I remain dubious about the wisdom of dividing any line of verse into marked-off feet, preferring to consider the line as a rhythmic quantitative whole. The terms are quite redundant for what verse itself tries to do in making a poem.


Last century and previous centuries and edging well into this one, the view was clearly held of the foot not simply as a means of examining verse but as a rule for writing it: the work had to be made scan. I take it such a view was formulated at the desks of scholars and found its way into the studies of educated poets, though clearly (in chicken versus egg terms) there must have been poems already in existence for the scholars to puzzle their heads over in order to devise the foot and all its terminology. Presumably they would have been classical scholars with Latin and Greek verse in mind. One cannot believe that the bards of English balladry and Anglo-Saxon epic worked on their rhythms to fit them in to feet classified long before.


There have always been liberalizing elements, of course; but it is really only within my own lifetime that the restrictions imposed by classical scansion have eased up to the extent of authorizing the admission of so-called prose-rhythms into verse, thereby converting those prose-rhythms into verse-rhythms in association with other liberalized verse-rhythms. It is when, unskilfully, they fail to be so converted and so associated that these rhythms are thrust back into their former associations and are, necessarily, no more and no other than the prose they had always been. As our language expands and interest shifts towards new and enlarging subject-matters, styles will certainly and properly change and accommodate themselves; and I do recall Kenneth Slessor saying somewhere that experiment is an essential part of writing poems. But, as his own practice showed, he was certainly referring to experiments within the medium of verse. Prose is still not verse, whatever funny shapes you may try to make out of it on a nice clean page of paper.


Possibly it can be poetry — prose-poetry — even accepting the term in the sense of that quality, nebulous to define, whereby, as I have conceded above, appropriate perfection and interrelation of words and music may convey more on the deepest level of communication than those words actually contain. But prose lacks most of the very tools whereby this quality is brought into being. It is to poems that we look for it; and that it does exist amply in true poems, and in the manner I claim for it, I call on none other than my great hero Montaigne to witness :


It is easier to write an indifferent poem than to understand a good one. There is indeed a certain low and moderate sort of poetry that a man may well enough judge by certain rules of art; but the true, supreme and divine poesie is equally above all rules and reason. And whosoever discerns the beauty of it, with the most assured and steady sight, sees no more than the quick reflection of a flash of lightning. This is a sort of poesie that does not exercise, but ravishes and overwhelms our judgement.
(“Of Cato the Younger”)


This ultimate sublimity notwithstanding, one must not disregard the fact that a lesser poem can still be a true poem or indeed that it is not out of keeping for a true, if lesser, poem to be fun even poetry with the lofty purposes Carlyle had in mind. For remember he was writing about Robert Burns. And consider the lovely fun in some of Kenneth Slessor’s best poems. But this does not mean conversely that that all fun will make poems. I have in mind the fun some people have been having making “shaped verse” as it used to be called — “concrete poetry” as it is called today. Why “concrete” I can only suppose because there is the mixture of a fine aggregate of small letters, coarse aggregate of whole words, and the cement of ink on paper; and these, in varying proportions parallel the constituents of any kerb-and-gutter concrete. This kind of poetry is certainly not concrete in the sense of providing the concrete imagery which my generation used to insist on as an essential for poetry — imagery, that is to say, brought to the mind in forms almost as tangible as actual substance, as in Kenneth Slessor’s superb examples. But I agree that the best-poured samples of the word-concrete can be fun to walk round and look at. I did not say read. You can’t. I don’t suppose you are meant to. You are just meant to be astonished at the ingenuity and novelty.


But it is not in fact new. Montaigne again had something to say about it several centuries ago, as I was recently reminded; and he was referring to fun of yet several centuries earlier:


There are a sort of little knacks and frivolous subtilties from which men sometimes expect to derive reputation and applause: as the poets who compose whole poems with every line beginning with the same letter; we see the shapes of eggs, globes, wings and hatchets cut out by the ancient Greeks by the measure of their verses, making them longer or shorter, to represent such or such a figure.
(“Of Vain Subtilties”)


So this kind of fun has a long tradition; it is not to be condemned outright, “vain subtiltie” or not, provided we are not expected to regard as a poem a verse cut out as a hatchet and reading a bit as if it were cut out with one. But there are other kinds of visual effects less acceptable, such as the exaggerated use of indentations for no apparent purpose. I do realize that in this television age the eye is trained into accepting all sorts of effects and even deriving meaning from many of them; but such visual effects, whether blatant or subtle, whether a matter of words or of pictures or what else, achieve their significances by making direct or indirect statements of their own proper kind in their own proper media. No statement, direct or indirect, is made by scattering words around paper in curious alignments — not to point up a rhyme or a rhythm or emphasize a clause but simply, as far as one can see, for the sake of the scatteration.


Yet I have much more sympathy with “little knacks and frivolous subtilties” — those attempts to catch the eye’s attention, even to the neglect of the ear — than ever I have for the far more prevalent deadness of those poetries which abandon all concern with form whatever, making only such use of meter, if any, as will break up rather than create recognizable rhythm or, at best, win create rhythms just to break and change them immediately and quite indiscriminately so far as any ordinary ear can discern, and without any correspondence with shifts and changes of intensity in the subject-matters, such as one expects of rhythms in true verse, free or otherwise. It is the monotony, these days, of un-rhymed unrhythmical non-verse which is so distressing on page after page of magazine after magazine; and I am by no means an enemy of free-verse. I remember my early homage to Ezra Pound.


True free-verse, however, believe it or not, is metrical in that its rhythms and cadences can be measured. It is quite other than prose lines of varied lengths monotonously unrelated either to message or cadence. Good free-verse uses rhythm and cadence and even rhyme with point and purpose; and breaks those effects with equal purpose. Professor Joseph Malof of the University of Texas an expert in this subject, has identified and listed a number of species: polyphonic prose; phrasal free-verse using cumulative repetition and incremental repetition; syntactic free-verse and cadenced free-verse, among several more. Of these the most important is probably cadenced free-verse, as it usually embraces features of most of the others. “Cadence” is a difficult term; and the dictionary won’t help much as almost any definition is almost equally applicable to rhythm; roughly it is a matter of balance of sounds in one part of the verse against sounds of other parts. Malof has a definition the most applicable I know of to ordinary cases: “cadence is the rhythmic shape of the span of language between natural voice pauses (not metrical pauses) measured or descried impressionistically”. (See Joseph Malof, A Manual of English Meters.)


The matter of free-verse can be left at that in the present discussion after simply noting that T. S. Eliot, who I am sure will be accepted as an expert witness in this matter even at this late date, has been quoted as saying the “ghost of some simple metre should lurk behind the arras in even the freest verse to advance menacingly as we doze, and withdraw as we rouse”. (In Joseph Malof, “Meter as Organic Form”, Modern Language Quarterly, March 1966.) What seems strange though as an afterthought here is that whereas older centuries of poets have sought to liberalize and expand their mediums, Humbert Wolfe’s “youngish men” choose, it would seem, to confine themselves within the sameness of a limited technique. The bewildering thing about many recent examples of poetry is the extent of the misunderstanding that Wolfe expected and accepted: the misunderstanding of what earlier verse was attempting and the value of the tools it had used. This limitation within shapeless unrhymed verse, abandoning the advantages of many measures and forms available for the provision of variation, is the more astonishing in that, though not thus in verse-form, yet in the use of language, diversity is obviously one of the aims of modernist poetries at their best. At their worst the arbitrary irregularities are just a monotonous mess; and the gimmicks like the silly slashes and peculiar punctuation or lack of it are simply dishonest.


One item I have rather avoided up to now is rhyme. This is simply because rhyme does not measure. It is not an element of meter, that essential for verse which, in turn, I specified as an essential for poems. Still I find it worth calling to mind how one of the best of our modernists tried to tell me of a drawback. “I find,” he said, “that when one comes to complete a line on a rhyme set by a preceding line it is often necessary to change the sense of what I had to say.” I hope I concealed my shock adequately, for I was tempted to shock him in turn by suggesting that a poem is usually at its best when the poetry itself takes charge. Several poets I have discussed this aspect with have agreed that this is so — a matter probably related to that deepest level of communication discussed earlier. If it were not so in the case this man had in mind, then clearly he wasn’t fully understanding his job: he should have gone back to that earlier line and started afresh. One must say in verse what is needed to be said, and there are usually half a dozen ways of saying it, but one must also create a completed work of art. And this is always a matter of work and more work. The virtue of spontaneity is a myth; it is usually far inferior to a spurious spontaneity artificially achieved, the reward of hard work.


Professor Joseph Malof had something important and relevant to say in regard to this matter of subjects and their presentation as art in a reprint he did me the honour of sending me recently:


Ordinary speech means language that is entirely subordinate to the message it contains, disposable after its utilitarian function has been fulfilled. A prose statement is a report of some kind of experience; but giving it a stylized form brings it into existence as an object.
“Meter as Organic Form”, loc. cit.


— an object, as I think you will see, having in it that element of construction, of work, which is not (to use Malof’s word) disposable.


Disposable language is prose. It might be thought that since prose rhythms are often introduced into verse they do not really differ from verse rhythms but are at all times naturally rhythmical even in their own settings, disposable or not. This does not necessarily follow. Only in association with more strictly measurable effects can prose rhythms be measured as meter or become part of a rhythmical pattern. It could be that failure to understand this accounts for a lot of prose innocently masquerading as free verse.


I should be careful at this stage to insist that rhythmical design is by no means identical with metrical pattern though in some degree dependent on it. Its effects are gained to a major extent by working against fixed patterns and upsetting them, even while working subversively within them. As born subversives, poets like it that way.


Thus a purely metrical line may have extra syllables imposed upon it or have its quota of syllables cut down. It may let slacks and stresses reverse their metrical positions; it may have slacks so placed that metrically they might be read as stresses, and stresses put where strict meter would have to tone them down to slacks. Pairs of stresses get juxtaposed, so that if you insisted on dividing the line into feet you would call them spondees. The metrical pattern is completely upset; but the rhythmical design weaves through it on its own happy varying way.


This applies even in cases where meter seems to be at its strictest, and rhythm seems to have dropped into step with it: left, right, left, right — obeying all the orders. Yet a kind of rebellious instinct or spirit may still be whispering in the ears of the obedient puppet. Take that very standard verse that is often used to illustrate the strict iambic pentameter: the opening stanza of Gray’s “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard”:


The Curfew tolls the knell of parting day,
The lowing herd wind slowly o’er the lea,
The plowman homeward plods his weary way,
And leaves the world to darkness and to me.


Bar the weak stress on the last “and”, this is perfect iambic meter to which rhythm keeps perfect five-beat iambic time and marches under orders. But that rebellious whisper says: “It’s a pity about the solemnity of the words, for it could be quite a gay tune in three-beat time. Sing it, mate, sing it”.


The Curfew tolls the knell of parting day,
The lowing herd wind slowly o’er the lea,
The plowman homeward plods his weary way,
And leaves the world to darkness and to me.


Not that the rhythm really goes like that in this case; but it does in many. I simply want to illustrate what is meant by rhythm being in some degree subversive of meter. The designs of any satisfactory rhythm grow and develop as structurally intrinsic to what is being said. In the case of free-verse they do so without reference to initial or underlying patterns and leave meter following after them, just tagging along. Yet if meter does not tag along, the rhythm becomes prose however much or in whatever way the sentences may be chopped up to play at being verse. Oh yes, it is poetry if you like. In these days anything is. But as a completed work of art, a poem, it is (lovely word!) disposable.


My concern has been little with matters other than technical; yet many things said herein about the techniques of many modernist poetries would require little modification to make them applicable to the language and the treatment of subject-matters in those poetries and relevant to misunderstandings by their authors which make those poetries fall short as true poems. And this remains the case even if we exclude from this generalization so much that says so little and says it in vague and abstract terms, or goes beyond the vague and abstract into language which is only understood by its authors and perhaps a few cronies or is even utterly incomprehensible to anyone.


There is this to add: that though it may be regrettable when oldish men find it hard to shed their prejudices, it would be criminal should youngish men fail to shed theirs, and so for a lifetime refuse to accept either the technical means or the disciplines of tradition. These are not restrictions, but equipment for use in experiment or exploration such as it is well to have in hand when leaving main roads for open country, though often thrown away in side-tracks that lead into dead ends. Moreover tradition is not just an impulse out of the past; it is a progressive movement overtaking the present and helping carry it into the future. To step aside from tradition could be one way of being left soon in some small corner which the present has already deserted.


But poetry itself always sorts out the poets it requires and gives the best of them their orders; so despite the monotony of much that is formless in today’s poetry I believe the very incoherence and craziness of most that it has to say are indications of that underlying discontent and activity of mind out of which poetry — and poems — erupt.


The Internet address of this page is

Copyright Notice: Please respect the fact that all material in the site is copyright © John Tranter and the individual authors 1997 et seq. and is made available here without charge for personal use only, and it may not be stored, displayed, published, or reproduced for group or class use or for any other purpose.