Interview with John Whitworth
with Michael R. Burch
John Whitworth is a British poet who has been widely published at home as well as Down Under. A straight-talking poet who expresses his views
unapologetically, Whitworth has no use for the sort of poetry that revels in amorphousness, "that dreadful formless way invented by Walt
Whitman and carried on by so many boring old farts (and young farts) who think they are God." And yet Whitworth sometimes sounds like a
Divine Oracle himself, so we decided to track him down and put him to the test: will he be able to enlighten those of us who consider Whitman
to be one of America's greatest poets? [Anyone interested in reading John Whitworth's poems and/or buying his books can do so by clicking
Dear John Whitworth,
As the editor-in-chief of The HyperTexts, I'm interested in the ongoing formal versus free verse debate. A "little
birdie" who lurks on Eratosphere told me that you have strong opinions on the subject. Would you be interested in doing an interview with
Michael R. Burch
Editor, The HyperTexts
An interview along the lines you suggest would be nice. I wouldn't say my views are strong. I just know I'm right.
MRB: John, I like your poem "The Examiners" and have long wanted
to ask this question: "Is this how you see the world yourself, or are you poking fun at what you see as the irrational fears of other
people?" A friend of mine thinks you believe the world really is this scary. I've argued that you're just pulling readers' legs. In any
case, congratulations on a fine poem that makes me smile and wince whenever I read it.
Where the house is cold and empty and the garden’s overgrown,
They are there.
Where the letters lie unopened by a disconnected phone,
They are there.
Where your footsteps echo strangely on each moonlit cobblestone,
Where a shadow streams behind you but the shadow’s not your own,
You may think the world’s your oyster but it’s bone, bone, bone:
They are there, they are there, they are there.
They can parse a Latin sentence; they’re as learned as Plotinus,
They are there.
They’re as sharp as Ockham’s razor, they’re as subtle as Aquinas,
They are there.
They define us and refine us with their beta-query-minus,
They’re the wall-constructing Emperors of undiscovered Chinas,
They confine us, then malign us, in the end they undermine us,
They are there, they are there, they are there.
They assume it as an impost or they take it as a toll,
They are there.
The contractors grant them all that they incontinently stole,
They are there.
They will shrivel your ambition with their quality control,
They will desiccate your passion, then eviscerate your soul,
Wring your life out like a sponge and stuff your body down a hole,
They are there, they are there, they are there.
In the desert of your dreaming they are humped behind the dunes,
They are there.
On the undiscovered planet with its seven circling moons,
They are there.
They are ticking all the boxes, making sure you eat your prunes,
They are sending secret messages by helium balloons,
They are humming Bach cantatas, they are playing looney tunes,
They are there, they are there, they are there
They are there, they are there like a whisper on the air,
They are there.
They are slippery and soapy with our hope and our despair,
They are there.
So it’s idle if we bridle or pretend we never care,
If the questions are superfluous and the marking isn’t fair,
For we know they’re going to get us, we just don’t know when or where,
They are there, they are there, they are there.
JW: The first thing to say about this, as about any of my poems, is that it is
just not helpful to enquire whether I mean it, whether I think the world is like
that. Are we being watched in everything we do? Am I a mad paranoiac who thinks
he is being followed, that his phone is tapped and that all his letters are
opened. No I am not. Who would want to do that? But if I were as mad as the late
and much-lamented Philip K. Dick, would that make any difference to the quality
of what I write? He could have been just as mad and been as bad a writer as H.P.
Lovecraft. (Actually Lovecraft is not all bad.) But, when I think of it, this is
the poem Philip K. Dick might have written if he had been the sort of poet I am.
Did I set out with a particular end in view? No, of
course I did not. If I could have seen to the end of the poem before I started
then I wouldn't have started in the first place, if you see what I mean. Every
poem is a journey and a discovery. If my poems are any good at all it is, to a
great extent, because I really do not know what I am doing. Some novelist, I've
forgotten who, but he's good, was asked how he went about planning a novel. 'Well,' he said,
'I think of a sentence and I write it down and I look at it.
Then I think of another sentence.' Let us suppose it was Raymond Chandler (it
wasn't). Certainly Chandler confessed that his plots took him by surprise and
that there are a couple of hoods with rods who come in about half way through 'The Big Sleep' and he never did know who they were.
In the case of 'The Examiners', which had no title when
I started it, I wrote the first stanza as a kind of essay in creepiness. The
best line seems to me:
And you think the world's your oyster but it's bone,
And that was indeed the last line to be composed. Like
Chandler I am more concerned with style than meaning. I think the meaning of a
poem is the last thing that should concern the poet. It will take care of
itself. Ask Wallace Stevens who the Emperor of Ice Cream was and I'll bet he didn't
know. Of course, being a clever fellow, he will think of something, or, like
Eliot in a similar situation, he will equivocate. What is most important to me
in a poem is the metre and the rhyme scheme. This one is sufficiently complex to
be interesting – I mean interesting to me.
In the second stanza the rhymes lined themselves up:
Aquinas, Plotinus, beta minus, which is an old Oxford and Cambridge method of
marking using Greek letters with plusses and minuses. It produced wonderful
marks like beta query minus, to be distinguished from beta minus query. How?
God alone knows. So I've got these rhymes and I'm looking for others. That's how
the Great Wall of China gets itself in. And last of all, the wall suggests an
undermining of the wall. You see, it's not having a meaning and then looking for
rhymes. It's the other way round. It was good enough for Poet Laureate John
Dryden who admitted the rhyme had often 'helped him to the sense'. It's really a method of allowing your unconscious
mind to work, or your Muse,
to use an older terminology. It's the same thing. It's analogous to a method my
daughter, who is a painter, uses. She sometimes lets the paint find its own way,
and this suggests things to her. The rhymes and the rhythms are my wet paint.
The only thing about the third stanza I would remark on
is that the fifth rhyme did indeed come fifth and I spent some time thinking
what it should be. 'Stuff your body down a hole' seemed, and seems, a good
solution, appreciably darkening the atmosphere of the poem. In the fourth stanza
the planet with the seven moons comes from an artist's impression of the view
from the non-surface of Saturn and the news that planets have been observed
going round very distant stars. These planets are all big gas giants because if
they were the size of the earth with little green men on them they would be too
small to see. The helium balloons belong to Shelley, who was a very fair chemist
and used to release them into the atmosphere with a freight of revolutionary
pamphlets. I hope I do not need to say that it is quite unnecessary to know
The last stanza is the last stanza because this
particular canvas is forty lines long, and forty lines is the usual maximum
length of a poem if it is to be submitted to a competition. This one was and won
second prize in the Times Literary Supplement competition which was voted for by its readers. They
don't do it any more, which is a pity I think. Particularly a pity for me
because I think I stood a fair chance of winning more money. I enter competitions all the time and win more than just sometimes. I
might point out that winnings in a poetry competition are free of tax whereas
direct payments for a poem by a journal (like the TLS) are not. So winnings are
worth 20% more under UK tax law. If I were as rich as I think I deserve to be,
it would be 40%. Buy my books! [Readers can buy John's books by clicking the
hyperlink at the top of this page.]
MRB: Well, I think the poem is a hoot, and it's interesting to hear how it came
to be composed. John, when I asked if you were interested in discussing the formal versus free verse
debate, because I had heard that you have strong opinions on the
subject, you responded: "I wouldn't say my views are strong. I just know I'm
right." Would you care to share what you know with our readers, and explain
how you arrived at this knowledge? Is your knowledge based on facts and logic
which can be communicated to other people, or is it
based on something more esoteric such as an intuition or hunch?
JW: Here is my initial answer. I will go further into it
if you wish and your questions may show me where to go into it. I could name
half a dozen UK poets and half a dozen Americans of the formalist persuasion who
I think are, Heavens, almost as good as I am.
Initially, I started to write at length in answer to
this question. But I have abandoned that and cut to the chase, as it were.
If you imagine two camps in Britain and in the US, one
of formal versifiers and one of free spirits, it seems to me that the formal
boys and girls have not, in the last fifty years or so, got their fair share of
goodies, government hand-outs, prizes and so forth. In other words I assert that
the Arts establishment is inimical to formal versifiers.
Why? Because this establishment, which is in general
made up of critics and apparatchiks (arts administrators and so forth) suppose
that formalists belong to the past, in the same way that painters, and
particularly painters of figures and landscapes and so forth, belong to the
past. The future is with installations and conceptual art. The very word
"formalist" brings to the inner eye someone old dressed in formal attire, a suit
and tie and so forth, probably mumbling Kipling's 'If' into his beard. I must tell
you that I have not worn a tie except to funerals since at least the millennium,
nor do I own a suit but I must not wish my charity-shop wardrobe on my
colleagues in the rhyming/scanning game. And I might also remark that there is a
considerable amount to be said for Kipling's 'If.'
Of course outside the Arts establishment things are
quite otherwise. The two most popular poets in the UK since the war are John
Betjeman and Philip Larkin and the most popular among living poets is the
redoubtable and altogether excellent Wendy Cope. Even I have won my fair share
of poetry prizes, though it should be noted and by God it is noted by me that I
have not won a damn thing in the National Poetry Competition for a quarter of a
century, and when I DID win a hundred pounds one of the judges was that same
Why is this? Partly it is fashion. The Arts
establishment, since they have no taste of their own, are absolute suckers for
fashion. They will give an award to a pile of elephant dung if they think it is
in the fashion. Do I despise them for it? Certainly I do.
Notice I am not asking that we rhymers-and-scanners get
ALL the pies, just our fair share. And we don't. Or we didn't. I think I begin to
detect a change. The pie-chart of pies is shifting round. Lordy, I shall be
MRB: John, I do understand about the problem of the best
poets not always being rewarded for their efforts. Do you think the best formal
poetry is better than the best free verse, and thus deserves the lion's share of
the fame, fortune and awards to be won? Today the editors of most literary
journals would rank the best work of poets like Whitman, Dickinson, Eliot and Pound higher
than the best work of poets like Kipling and Poe. So to them it would make sense
for the better free verse poets to garner the bulk of the literary awards. What
do you think: are they way off base, or do they make a degree of sense?
JW: The first thing to say is that Eliot is one of ours.
He does not write free verse. Indeed he said so himself. 'Sweeney Among the
Nightingales,' which is my favourite Eliot poem, is a rhyming, scanning verse.
The host with someone indistinct
Converses at the door apart.
The nightingales are singing near
The Convent of the Sacred Heart,
And sang within the bloody wood
When Agamemnon cried aloud
And let their liquid siftings fall
To stain the stiff dishonoured shroud.
'Prufrock', my second favourite, is Iambic Pentameter
and studded with rhymes. Where is his free verse? Pound, when he is any good,
writes metrically. I must say the idea that he is the equal of Kipling seems to
me risible. Of Poe maybe.
The two greatest American poets of the twentieth century
are Frost and Stevens. Does anybody dissent? Frost is a rhyme and metre man and
nobody could describe Stevens' great poems as FREE verse. My favourite poets
over here are Auden and Larkin. I also rate highly: Yeats, MacNeice, Dylan
Thomas, Betjeman. All rhyme and metre
men, more or less. Oh, and as everybody knows who knows anything about me, I
like Wendy Cope, Ann Drysdale and Sophie Hannah. To even things up a bit on the
I've never been able to get on with Whitman. He is a
blind spot, though I think I would allow he is an important influence, mostly
for the bad I would say. He tried to turn Art into a Religion, as Arnold had
done before them. Art is NOT a religion, A poet is NOT a priest. It is bad for
him to think that he is. If you want a religion then the Christian one will have
to do. Otherwise you must just do without. As Eliot said before me. The two
great American poets of the nineteenth century are Whitman and Emily Dickinson.
I wrote a poem about it which I will not inflict on you. I like Emily much
My favourite American poets who are not dead are all
people who rhyme and scan. Alicia Stallings. Sam Gwynn. People like that. I like that chap who is a mortician too. But I like his prose as much as
his verse, and the trouble with free verse is you often can't tell. That it is
poetry I mean. How do you know? The
only way you know is that the lines don't go down to the end of the page.
You know Yeats's poem 'The Second Coming'. Of course you
do. There are these eight lines that everybody remembers. In fact I have them by
heart, from 'Turning and turning…' down to '… full of passionate intensity.'
Eight lines, four iambic couplets with off-rhymes. And then there's another
verse/stanza/section in free verse. It's a mess. Stuff about 'Spiritus Mundi.' What's that? All that rubbish Yeats said he
believed. It's a kind of parable, that poem. Free verse seems to free you to
Well of course it doesn't always. But free versers do
tend to go on. Whitman goes on. I would go on if I didn't have rhyme and metre
to shut me up.
Prizes don't matter. You look at a list of the people
who have won the Nobel Prize for literature. You look at a list of those who
haven't. All the same, do I think formalists have been short-changed. I do. I
What has happened is that it has been inserted into the
psyche that rhymes and metres are VERSE things, not POETRY things. They are
LIGHT – not HEAVY, presumably. In poetry competitions I get SECOND prize. The
first goes to some solemn free verse stuff. To show that the judges have got
MRB: Thanks John. This helps because I believe I now have a better
idea of where you're "coming from." If formal poets are being
discriminated against, of course that's wrong, but it seems to me that many
formal/traditional poets are practicing reverse discrimination.
For instance, you accuse Whitman of being the priest of a new religion, presumably a false
religion because he wrote free verse. But Wallace Stevens, a poet you admire,
called poets the "priests of the invisible." Are you damning free verse poets
while allowing poets you consider to be in your camp off the hook? Stevens went
beyond Whitman because he saw poetry as a better religion than Christianity.
Socrates insisted that we define our
terms before using them. The reason Pound and Eliot are considered “free verse”
poets is that poems of theirs like “The Garden” and “Prufrock” were freer in
form, meter and rhyme schemes than sonnets and other traditional/patterned poems. (Did Kipling or Poe
write poems nearly as good as “The Garden” or "Prufrock"?) Many formalists seem
to consider Pound
and Eliot to be literary anarchists, if not antichrists or the devil himself. But
Eliot and Pound were accomplished poets who simply chose to employ "freer" methods than
those of poets of the past. It seems disingenuous to quote a few lines
from one of Eliot's more traditional poems and ignore the fact that his
best-known poems such as "Prufrock" and "The Wasteland" are quite different from
most older, more traditional poetry.
Obviously, there is
something different about the way Pound and Eliot approached poetry, and that
approach is commonly called “free verse.” The difference goes beyond iambs and
rhymes. Yes, "Prufrock" employs meter and rhyme. But what Eliot
did that was so innovative at the time was
to employ the "constant evasion and recognition of regularity," as he put it
his "Vers Libre" essay. Once poets of the past had established patterns of meter
and/or rhyme, they would generally stick to them. But Matthew Arnold in "Dover
Beach" and Eliot in "Prufrock" demonstrated that poetry does not have to be so
"orderly." Rather, an interplay of form and formlessness/randomness/chaos could
produce magical effects. We see the same thing in modern song lyrics, which are
generally freer in meter, rhyme and form than Shakespearean sonnets.
It's interesting to discuss such
things, but first it seems we must answer a fundamental question: if there are
two opposing churches (or armed camps) in poetry, called Formal/Traditional and
Free Verse, what does it mean if we say that all the poets who employ meter in
any form are on the Traditional side? Whitman wrote musical non-rhyming poems. If Whitman is a traditional poet,
perhaps there is no such thing as free verse. But then how can you complain that
Formalists are getting the short end of the stick? It seems to me that the real
debate is over formal meter and structured forms, versus the freedom of
poets to decide that “anything goes.”
Basically, Whitman, Dickinson, Pound and Eliot decided that they were free to do anything
they pleased and became liberated, burning their bras, so to speak. Other poets decided they looked better in
formal attire and still managed to write great poems (Frost, for instance). Obviously,
both churches/camps are able to produce great poems. But it seems to me that if
Whitman, Dickinson, Pound and Eliot are not considered free verse poets, there
is no such thing as free verse, only good poetry and bad poetry. To call oneself
a Formalist seems to require drawing a line somewhere and pledging allegiance to
formal meters and structured forms. So I suppose my next question must be: “Do
you consider yourself to be a Formalist, or are you a disciple of Whitman,
Dickinson, Pound and Eliot who feels free to use relaxed meters and freer forms?
Or is the whole "formal verse" versus "free verse" thing a chimera?”
JW: OK Mike. This seems to get us on a bit. You have to
remember that the term 'formalist' is purely American. Nobody calls himself or
herself a formalist over here. The divide is not patent, but latent, which is
what you'd expect of those dissembling Brits, isn't it?
We might accept that these labels are unfortunate if
free verse is to mean anything much it has to be verse that is free of
something. I thought it was rhyme and metre. Plainly Eliot does not write like
that. My illustration from Yeats ought to show you what I mean by free verse.
Who writes free verse? Why, William Carlos Williams of
course. That's the sort of thing I mean. There's shedloads of it everywhere you
look and I'm definitely against it. I don't like to quote someone who is writing
now because it seems a bit personal. So let's stick with Carlos Williams because
Old age is a flight of small cheeping birds skimming
bare trees above a snow glaze.
Old age is
a flight of small
above a snow glaze.
Pretentious doesn't even begin to cover it. It's
democratic because anyone can do it. How can you tell if it is good or bad? If I
am against anything in poetic modernism (and I am) then this is what I am
But on the other hand I have to admit that Carlos
Williams can get some good effects with his method and that I find the light
verse of Billy Collins (he's free verse isn't he?) very attractive. In my youth,
which I count as anywhere before my thirties, I wrote little free verse poems
myself. I stopped doing it because I didn't think they were very good and that 'formalism' (though I didn't know the word) got better poems out of me.
I consider myself in the tradition of Tennyson and Eliot
(which is the same tradition). I began as a disciple of Philip Larkin but I am
not that any more. I don't think a poet in his sixties should be a disciple of
anybody, do you? I consider the modernisms of Whitman and Carlos Williams to be
branches of the same tree and I would cut down that tree if I could, or at least
prune it drastically. But this is only my opinion and others think otherwise.
Let a hundred flowers bloom and all that.
But I think the free versers don't see it that way. They
are out with their weed killer to kill off the likes of me and all the others I
mentioned. The word 'elitist' is bandied about here. Do people use 'elitist' in
the same way as the word 'fascist' over on your side of the Atlantic, as a term
of general abuse? Of course my politics in supporting the present British
coalition, don't help. Would I be a Republican over in the US? No. To the left
of that, on the right wing of the Democrats, if they have a right wing. European
politics are to the left of American politics, always have been. All serious
European countries have free medicine for instance. However, some of my best
friends in poetry are Labour party supporters, which is just as well, or I would
scarcely have any friends at all.
MRB: John, while I see where you're going, please allow me to
play the devil's advocate (keeping in mind that most of the poetry I publish is
metrical/rhyming poetry, and most of the poetry I write myself is
metrical/rhyming poetry). You may not call yourself a "formalist" (I don't
particularly care for the term; perhaps we should say "traditionalist"), but you
seem to agree with American formalists who suggest that metrical poetry has some
sort of intrinsic advantage over free verse. Please feel free to say so if you
disagree, but I'll proceed on this premise. I will also proceed on my
premise that "free verse" is verse in which the rules are freer, or more
relaxed, than in formal poetry. Walt Whitman and William Carlos Williams are two
poets who more or less dispensed with formal meter and rhyme. Now, in the
example you gave ...
Old age is
a flight of small
above a snow glaze.
... I can't agree that the poem is "pretentious." While it may not be
the height of all art, it's better than most of the formal poetry I've
published. It seems to me that you start with the premise that free verse is
intrinsically flawed, then "throw out the baby with the bath water," so to
speak, when you dismiss good poets like Whitman and Williams out of hand. Why
not let me pick out some truly great free verse poems and you can explain why
they are not up to par with traditional poetry. If you can convince me that
these aren't good poems, you may have a convert. If not, I will remain
unconvinced and unconverted.
by Ezra Pound
Like a skein of loose silk blown against a wall
She walks by the railing of a path in Kensington
And she is dying piece-meal
of a sort of emotional anemia.
And round about there is a rabble
Of the filthy, sturdy, unkillable infants of the very
They shall inherit the earth.
In her is the end of breeding.
Her boredom is exquisite and excessive.
She would like some one to speak to her,
And is almost afraid that I
will commit that indiscretion.
A Noiseless Patient Spider
by Walt Whitman
A noiseless patient spider,
I mark'd where on a little promontory it stood isolated,
Mark'd how to explore the vacant vast surrounding,
It launch'd forth filament, filament, filament, out of
Ever unreeling them, ever tirelessly speeding them.
And you O my soul where you stand,
Surrounded, detached, in measureless oceans of space,
Ceaselessly musing, venturing, throwing, seeking the
spheres to connect them,
Till the bridge you will need be form'd, till the
ductile anchor hold,
Till the gossamer thread you fling catch somewhere, O my
The Snow Man
by Wallace Stevens
One must have a mind of winter
To regard the frost and the boughs
Of the pine-trees crusted with snow;
And have been cold a long time
To behold the junipers shagged with ice,
The spruces rough in the distant glitter
Of the January sun; and not to think
Of any misery in the sound of the wind,
In the sound of a few leaves,
Which is the sound of the land
Full of the same wind
That is blowing in the same bare place
For the listener, who listens in the snow,
And, nothing himself, beholds
Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is.
When I Heard The Learn'd Astronomer
by Walt Whitman
When I heard the learn'd astronomer,
When the proofs, the figures, were ranged in columns
When I was shown the charts and diagrams, to add,
divide, and measure them,
When I sitting heard the astronomer where he lectured
with much applause in the lecture-room,
How soon unaccountable I became tired and sick,
Till rising and gliding out I wander'd off by myself,
In the mystical moist night-air, and from time to time,
Look'd up in perfect silence at the stars.
Madame La Fleurie
by Wallace Stevens
Weight him down, O side-stars, with the great weightings
of the end.
Seal him there. He looked in a glass of the earth and thought he lived in it.
Now, he brings all that he saw into the earth, to the
His crisp knowledge is devoured by her, beneath a dew.
Weight him, weight, weight him with the sleepiness of
It was only a glass because he looked in it. It was nothing he could be told.
It was a language he spoke, because he must, yet did not
It was a page he had found in the handbook of
The black fugatos are strumming the blacknesses of black
. . .
The thick strings stutter the finial gutturals.
He does not lie there remembering the blue-jay, say the
His grief is that his mother should feed on him, himself
and what he saw,
In that distant chamber, a bearded queen, wicked in her
Of Modern Poetry
by Wallace Stevens
The poem of the mind in the act of finding
It has not always had
To find: the scene was set; it repeated what
Was in the script.
Then the theatre was changed
To something else.
Its past was a souvenir.
It has to be living, to learn the speech of the place.
It has to face the men of the time and to meet
The women of the time.
It has to think about war
And it has to find what will suffice. It has
To construct a new stage.
It has to be on that stage,
And, like an insatiable actor, slowly and
With meditation, speak words that in the ear,
In the delicatest ear of the mind, repeat,
Exactly, that which it wants to hear, at the sound
Of which, an invisible audience listens,
Not to the play, but to itself, expressed
In an emotion as of two people, as of two
Emotions becoming one.
The actor is
A metaphysician in the dark, twanging
An instrument, twanging a wiry string that gives
Sounds passing through sudden rightnesses, wholly
Containing the mind, below which it cannot descend,
Beyond which it has no will to rise.
Be the finding of a satisfaction, and may
Be of a man skating, a woman dancing, a woman
Combing. The poem of the act of the mind.
JW: I feel we may be backing ourselves down a blind
alley here, but it's probably my fault. All the poems you have given me have
poetic qualities. I find the Pound a little too mannered for my taste, but it is
certainly a poem and, at the very least, a goodish one. Yes, the Whitman has
quality. Indeed Whitman is a real poet. It is just that he doesn't edit it at
all, does he? We have to FIND the poetry in among all the other stuff. But I
want the poet to do the finding for me. As for Wallace Stevens, he is my favourite American poet. I like him better even than the great Emily or Robert
Frost, and you won't find me dissing anything he has written
It seems to me as if I had expressed doubts as to the
great and lasting qualities of Marcel Duchamp's ready-mades or the cuddly toys
of Jeff Kooning, and my interlocutor had responded with the request for a point
by point demolition of Matisse.
Let me then,
if I may, move the argument along from a sentence I found in an essay by Marilyn
L. Taylor called 'Semi-formal Verse and its Prosody' (in Able Muse: winter 2010).
Here is the sentence. '[Pound] urged poets to do away entirely with formal
metrical conventions, all of which he considered impediments to the sincere
expression of emotion.' It is that
last phrase that I take issue with – 'the sincere expression of emotion'. Is
that what poetry does? I say absolutely not. I think I am with Oscar Wilde here,
though I am not sure exactly what he said.
Let us consider one of the best lyric poems in the
language – at least according to me – Andrew Marvell's 'To his Coy Mistress'. Is
that the sincere expression of emotion? Did Marvell have a mistress, coy or
otherwise? Where does the poet's
emotion come into it. Has Marvell said a new thing? No. He has said a very old
thing. If you were to tell Marvell that it had all been said before would he
care? Would he indeed see it as a criticism at all.
Let's look at another seventeenth century poem, very
beautiful, according to me, Ben Jonson's 'On His First Son'. Is this not the
expression of sincere emotion? Jonson had a son and he did die and Jonson felt
the loss very deeply. The poem brings out such an emotional response in this
reader that I cannot recite it aloud. And yet it is very like a Latin poem of
Martial mourning the death of the little slave girl, Erotion. I wrote a poem
myself about the death of a child, not as good as Jonson's or Martial's, but a
good poem, I think. People have written to me to tell me so and, sometimes,
embarrassingly, to commiserate on my loss. They are falling into a modern error.
They suppose it is the sincere expression of personal emotion. The poem is about
the death of a child. Ergo: I suffered the death of a child of mine. If I did
not, then the poem is not sincere.
But nowhere does sincerity come into it. A poet is not
being sincere. A poet is arranging words on a page, as Matisse arranged colours
in a space. Matisse, incidentally, said that emotion was very important to him,
as it is to me. But the emotion is only fruitful, according to me, when fettered
in verse. Free verse encourages untrammelled emotion, a kind of moral hectoring.
This sort of thing:
How it says this –
politics – to your education education education; shouts
politics! – to your health and wealth; how it roars, to
conscience moral compass truth, POLITICS POLITICS
This is by our Laureate, Carol Ann Duffy, supposedly a
sonnet, though of course it isn't. She has written fine sonnets, but not here.
The freeness of the verse has encouraged the slackness of the thought. This is
poetry by shouting, poetry without taking care.
MRB: Wallace Stevens is one of my favorite modern poets, along with Hart Crane,
Conrad Aiken, Louise Bogan and Robert Frost. However, I would suggest that
Stevens was writing free verse in some of his best poems, because they don't
scan the way most formal metrical poems do. Frost was obviously a formal poet.
However Stevens, Crane and Bogan wrote free verse and their best free verse poems are
every bit as good as anything Frost wrote, in my opinion. To me, that suggests that both types
of poetry—formal and free verse—are equally good, in the hands of the
better poets. Crane's "Voyages" and Bogan's "After the Persian" rank with the
best poems in the English language, along with a number of Stevens' best free
verse poems. I think we have to be honest, and give the really good
free verse poets their due.
You say Whitman didn't "edit" and that we have to "find" the poetry in his work.
However, I think every syllable in his poems above is pure poetry. Who would
dare "edit" such poems by removing a single word?
Oscar Wilde said lots of things, many of them
undoubtedly tongue-in-cheek, or just to be cheeky, so I'm not sure he's the best
oracle to consult about the composition of poetry.
I have heard Formalists propose theories about "real" poetry not being true, not
being sincere, etc., but they make no sense to me. Obviously, Ben Jonson was
being sincere when he wrote about his dead son. Obviously Christian poets like
Herbert, Donne and Hopkins were being sincere when they wrote about God.
Obviously Yeats was being sincere when he wrote love poems to Maude Gonne. Obviously, Poe was not being as sincere when he wrote about a raven who
constantly cried, "Nevermore!" Some good poems have been very sincere and other good
poems have been less sincere. But why praise Jonson
for writing a poem that is obviously very sincere, then damn free verse poets
for writing sincerely?
I think Pound and many of his followers went overboard
with the "make it new" thing. Pound wanted to be an immortal poet and perhaps
trashing the work of his predecessors helped him in his leap-frogging act.
Charles Olson would soon go on to call Pound and Eliot "inferior predecessors,"
without having ever written a poem nearly as good as their best efforts (at least
that I have ever read). It's easy to be dismissive of other poets' work even if
their work is stellar, if we can claim that it's bad "just because." Now it seems many formal/traditional poets are doing
just that by suggesting that good free verse is bad
"just because." I think Pound was correct to criticize the poetry of his day,
which often sounded stilted and dated. But I think he was wrong to throw the
baby out with the bathwater, because poets like Frost and Dylan Thomas proved
that traditional methods remain viable in accomplished hands.
You said "But the emotion is only fruitful, according to
me, when fettered in verse. Free verse encourages untrammelled emotion, a kind
of moral hectoring." But to me that seems like slapping labels on poetry
indiscriminately. To disprove what you said, all I have to do is provide one
free verse poem that is free of moral hectoring and untrammeled emotion. And
there are many such free verse poems. I have included a few poems
below which, I believe, disprove what you said. Where is the moral hectoring and
untrammeled emotion in these poems, pray tell?
Also, by your definition, all prose would encourage
untrammelled emotion and moral hectoring, since it doesn't employ the fetters of
formal verse. Does that mean the collected works of Charles Dickens, Mark Twain,
et al, are worthless or inferior? Or are they simply composed differently, by
skillful artists who chose different colors from a large palette?
And it seems unfair to cite one bad free verse, then
stereotype all free verse. There are trillions of
bad formal/traditional poems. If I recite a few lines from one of them, does
that render the best sonnets of Shakespeare worthless?
I'm not convinced that we're heading down a blind alley
(I'm enjoying the discussion), but even though I'm a publisher of formal poetry, you haven't convinced me that
the arguments I hear all the time hold any water. If Williams and Whitman wrote
good poems, and contemporary traditionalists usually fail to reach the same
heights, does it really matter if they were "mannered" or failed to "edit" (by
which I assume you mean something like "polish" poems metrically, since Whitman
revised "Leaves of Grass" repeatedly even after its publication; he may have
been loose but he certainly wasn't lax). If a rough poem is better
than one produced via formal techniques, doesn't that prove formal
techniques aren't needed, and that poets are free to write however they please
as long as they can achieve good results?
Harsh and cold
autumn holds to it our naked trees:
If only you would free, at least,
the sparrows from the
tips of your fingers
and release a smile, a small smile
from the imprisoned cry
Sing! Can we sing
as if we were light, hand in hand
sheltered in shade, under a strong sun?
Will you remain, this way
stoking the fire, more beautiful than necessary, and
and the distant light is our only consolation —
one, which from the beginning has, little by little,
been flickering and is now
about to go out.
Come to me. Closer and closer.
I don't want to know my hand from yours.
And let's beware of sleep, lest the snow smother us.
Song of Solomon
from the King James Bible
I am the rose of Sharon, and the lily of the valleys.
As the lily among thorns, so is my love among the
As the apple tree among the trees of the wood, so is my
beloved among the sons.
I sat down under his shadow with great delight, and his
fruit was sweet to my taste.
He brought me to the banqueting house, and his banner
over me was love.
Stay me with flagons, comfort me with apples: for I am
sick of love.
His left hand is under my head, and his right hand doth
I charge you, O ye daughters of Jerusalem, by the roes,
and by the hinds of the field,
that ye stir not up, nor wake my love, till he
Wulf and Eadwacer
(Anonymous Anglo-Saxon Ballad, circa 960 AD)
translation by Michael R. Burch
It is to the others as if someone robbed them of a gift.
They will kill him if he comes in force.
It is otherwise with us.
Wulf is on one island; I, on another.
That island is fast, surrounded by fens.
There are fierce men on this island.
They will kill him if he comes in force.
It is otherwise with us.
Wulf's far wanderings, I suffered with hope.
Whenever it rained and I woke disconsolate
warrior came: he took me in his arms.
For me, that was pleasant, but it also was painful.
Wulf, O, my Wulf, my ache for you
has made me sick;
your infrequent visits have left me
famished, unable to eat.
Do you hear, Eadwacer? A wolf has borne
our wretched whelp to the woods.
One can easily sunder what never was one:
our song together.
In The Dark Season
by Richard Moore
I fall out of the foliage of my feelings.
That is the beginning, the ending,
when the orange peels appear
from the shrinking lips of the snow
and broken bottles, still clinging to their labels,
the gutter outside the church.
A silk stocking coils in the mud.
In the dark season, someone has sown
the seed of confusion.
The church will graze on the
the fruits of love, the soft nutritious pulp of remorse.
Do these events signify
summertime in another hemisphere?
One studied a new language in the darkness,
down into the well, into the hints of sunlight in its depths.
We are dead such a long time before
and will be dead such a long time after
this leaping into light
as a dolphin leaps from the sea
and carries the glare of that moment
back among the curious creatures
who have not known the light.
Don't tell me this is like Plato's cave; I know that.
But in death, our element, who swims with us? Do we even?
If God is light...No, but there may be,
as the poet says, a soft monster
deeply sleeping among his thousand
arms under millennia
unnumbered, and enormous polypi.
I think we have been frightened into life
as fish leap
from greater fish below.
We cry angrily in our cradles,
then overcome, grow tranquil through the years,
ready ever for the depths ever ready for us.
Yes, but of course, there is the need
for symmetry. Matter calls out
for antimatter, which forthwith
sings in the shadows. Thus, tonight
streetlight fingers new foliage
with breezes making light of it,
where unseen trunk divides itself
into a multitude of tips
above ground and below, as in
a mirror, strangers to each other,
two lives, depending on each other,
therefore the same life: in dark depth
and moisture one, in dry sunlight
the other: God and Satan, one,
female and male in each one, one.
Dolphins from darkness visit light.
Who from her glitter visits us?
These, lost inside you: look outside
in the not-you: you find them there.
Those Winter Sundays
by Robert Hayden
Sundays too my father got up early
and put his clothes on in the blueblack cold,
cracked hands that ached from labor
in the weekday weather made banked fires
No one ever thanked him.
I'd wake and hear the cold splintering, breaking.
When the rooms were warm, he'd call,
and slowly I would rise and dress,
fearing the chronic angers of that house,
indifferently to him,
who had driven out the cold
and polished my good shoes as
What did I know, what did I know
of love's austere and lonely offices?
After the Persian
by Louise Bogan
I do not wish to know
The depths of your terrible jungle:
From what nest your leopard leaps
Or what sterile lianas are at once your serpents'
I am the dweller on the temperate threshold, The strip
of corn and vine,
Where all is translucence (the light!)
Liquidity, and the
sound of water.
Here the days pass under shade
And the nights have the waxing and the waning moon.
Here the moths take flight at evening;
Here at morning the dove whistles and the pigeons coo.
Here, as night comes on, the fireflies wink and snap
Close to the cool ground,
Shining in a profusion
Celestial or marine.
Here it is never wholly dark but always wholly green,
And the day stains with what seems to be more than the sun
What may be more than
I have wept with the spring storm;
Burned with the brutal summer.
Now, hearing the wind and the twanging bow-strings,
know what winter brings.
The hunt sweeps out upon the plain
And the garden darkens.
They will bring the trophies home
To bleed and perish
Beside the trellis and the lattices,
Beside the fountain, still flinging diamond water,
Beside the pool
(Which is eight-sided, like my heart).
All has been translated into treasure:
Weightless as amber,
Translucent as the currant on the branch,
Dark as the
Where is the shimmer of evil?
This is the shell's iridescence
And the wild bird's wing.
Ignorant, I took up my burden in the wilderness.
Wise with great wisdom, I shall lay it down upon
There was so much to love,
I could not love it all;
could not love it enough.
Some things I overlooked, and some I could not find.
Let the crystal clasp them
When you drink your wine, in autumn.
by Luis Omar Salinas
Sometimes in the evening when love
tunes its harp and the crickets
celebrate life, I am like a troubadour
in search of friends, loved ones,
anyone who will share with me
a bit of conversation. My loneliness
arrives ghostlike and pretentious,
it seeks my soul, it is ravenous
and hurting. I admire my father
who always has advice in these matters,
but a game of chess won't do, or
the frivolity of religion.
I want to find a solution, so I
write letters, poems, and sometimes
I touch solitude on the shoulder
and surrender to a great tranquility.
I understand I need courage
and sometimes, mysteriously,
I feel whole.
JW: Mike, do forgive me for not answering you directly. The poems above are
all good and better than many poems that rhyme, etc. Nevertheless, my preference
is against them, the same preference that would prefer a Matisse on my wall to a
Mondrian. I'll just pop out and buy one now. Let me go off at two tangents.
One. It is difficult to see why some modern novels/prose works that I like
should not be looked on as 'free verse' poetry. What about 'Finnegan's Wake' for example, or many of the novels of Anthony Burgess, say
'Nothing Like The Sun', or some of the excellent short stories of Sheila Mackay.
Would you call it 'poetic prose'? What would you call it?
Two. Free verse encourages poets to express themselves
and to think that self-expression is the first duty of poetry. I think that is
an error. Did I send you this little rant already? If I did I apologise for
What, it seems to me, a poet has to guard against, is
the hubris, the conceit, of supposing that his poetry depends directly on his
experience, that the reader of his poetry (and after all, without readers there
is no poetry at all) is interested in the poet's particular experience. If you
want to share your experiences with the world, then write an autobiography – and
then see how many people want to know if you are not famous, or at least
celebrated. And a poet should have no time to be celebrated; he needs all his
time to write poetry, to learn to write it better. This is, after all, a lifetime
calling. There is no place, no time for mere egocentricity.
The business of a poet is to celebrate the language. And
how lucky we are to work in English, the greatest language in our culture since
Latin. We might have been born in Holland or Portugal, and then where would we
Consider a great English poem, 'To his Coy Mistress'. Do
we know (we do not), do we care (we do not) whether Marvell had such a mistress?
This poem is not about his own experience. It is about ours as human beings.
Ah, you may say, but what about another great
seventeenth century poem, Ben Jonson's mourning the death of his own child at
seven years old. Is this not from the poet's direct experience? Yes it is, in the
obvious sense that Ben Jonson lost a child. But in another way it is not. There
is nothing in the poem that would not fit ANY father who loses a son. It might
be Jonson. It might be you. It might be me. Only Jonson has the skill, only
Jonson's Muse is strong enough, to write the poem. It is not the particularity
of his experience, but the particularity of his skill that makes the poem live
over the centuries, just as Martial's Latin poem mourning the child Erotion
still speaks to those of us who still have the Latin, and speaks, through the
skill of translators, to those of us who do not.
It is the dreadful democracy of free verse, the fact
that anyone can do it, that makes me dislike it so much. Carlos Williams has a
skill, but it is too much of a hit-or-miss kind of a skill. He writes many, many
poems and I feel that he does not know himself which ones are better than which
other ones. And how would he? From what his heart tells him? Is that enough? And
anyway, free versers rarely play the romantic card. They are far more likely to
talk about the Tao, or Ancient Chinese philosophy or even – God save us! –
But we, the readers, don't care about any of that. Or we
don't care when we are reading poetry. If we want religion, or philosophy, or
political theory, then we know where we can get these things, and it is not
between the covers of a book of
MRB: John, while it's been interesting and fun to debate these things, I must
say that you haven't convinced me.
Does it make sense to prefer something that is less good, to something that is
better? To me that sounds like an irrational prejudice.
Yes, some prose rivals poetry in beauty and other "intangibles." I think it
would be fair to call such writing "poetic prose." But what matters is the
pleasure the writing produces in readers, not the labels we slap on the writing.
I would much rather read good poetic prose than bad formal poetry. But of course
I love good formal poetry. Why should I damn any writing that is good, or praise
any writing that is bad, out of prejudice?
Why should writing about one's experiences have to
be taken automatically as hubris or conceit? Great poems have been about the
real-life experiences of poets, such as Frost's magnificent but terrifying
"Directive." Frost cannot be accused of hubris or conceit; he was merely
communicating the anguish he felt as a child brought up under the dark cloud of
Christian predestination. He makes the reader feel his childhood despair at
being taught that billions of people had been created by God specifically
and unjustly to
burn in hell for all eternity. Where is the hubris in such a poem, or in the
magnificent war poems of Wilfred Owen, or in the
many poems I have published by poets who suffered through the Holocaust?
Jonson was obviously writing about his son and his own life experience. What you
seem to be saying is that formal poets can write about their life experiences, but
if free verse poets do the same thing the work is
automatically substandard. How is that not literary prejudice?
It is obviously not true that "anyone" can write free verse as good as that of
Whitman, Dickinson, Eliot, Bogan, Hart Crane and Wallace Stevens. Nor is it true
that the best free verse poets avoided romanticism or wrote exclusively about
esoteric subjects. Crane's "Voyages" is one of the most romantic, highly charged
poems in the English language. Dickinson, Eliot and Bogan wrote wonderful poems
about love and passion.
You say religion, philosophy and politics have no place in poetry books. But of
course there are great formal poems on these subjects. Hebert, Donne and Hopkins
wrote poems about religion. Shakespeare wrote philosophical sonnets. The great
Romantic poets wrote poems about politics: Blake, Keats, et al. Why
damn free verse poets for doing the same things formal poets have done
for many centuries? Why should any subject be off limits to poets like
Shakespeare and Whitman, who are capable of writing about anything they please?
You seem to be saying that formal poetry is better than free verse "just
because," the way white supremacists say caucasians are "superior" to people
with darker skin "just because." But here where I live in the South we have a
saying: "The proof is in the pudding." Men and women like George Washington
Carver, Martin Luther King Jr., Sojourner Truth and Harriet Tubman proved that blacks were not
inherently inferior to whites. Well, the poetry of the great free verse poets
clearly proves that free verse is not inherently inferior to formal poetry. This
makes choosing sides unnecessary and irrational, just as with racism. To prefer
something inferior to something better makes no sense to me. Why should I prefer
a good formal poem to a great verse poem? While I like certain poems by Kipling and Poe,
it seems obvious to me that their best poems fall short of the best poems of
free verse poets like Whitman, Dickinson, Eliot, Wallace Stevens and Hart Crane.
So I think we must give the devils their due, and
admit that the heretics who gave us free verse were great poets, period. But if
we say that any poet who employs rhythm is a traditional poet, then Whitman is a
traditional poet and formalists are barking up the wrong tree, because there is
only good poetry and bad poetry. In my opinion the "problem" is a chimera
because what the best free verse poets did is merely widen the horizons of the
tradition. Before modernism most poets were working with regular meter in
orderly forms. After modernism poets had more options and more flexibility. So
what is all the fuss about, really? Yes, it was wrong for editors to practice
knee-jerk discrimination against formal poetry, which undoubtedly happened. But
there is no need for Formalists to practice reverse discrimination, especially
when doing so tends to cramp their style and keep them corseted in a liberated