Thursday, 17 April 2008

Bring Back W E Henley

Never mind the School of Quietude. There are still people out there who want us all to return to rhyme and regular metre. Only a couple of days ago a Queen’s English Society spokesperson (and I would be jumped upon for using this term) came on Radio 4’s breakfast program to urge this practice upon us. The arguments for seem to be (1) that this is how it has always been done, and (2) this is the way to write if you wish your verse to be memorable. I don’t think it’s at all clear that the first argument holds; what you get through history (and I’m only thinking of English language writing here) is a variety of forms, some quite ‘loose’. As for memorability, well, yes I can remember some lines from a John Masefield poem that my mother recited to me at some stage (‘I must go down to the sea again/To the lonely sea and the sky/And all I ask is a tall ship/And a star to steer her by’), but it is memorable to me in the same way that anything chanted uniformly by a class of primary school children is memorable. I carry nothing else away from these lines. They have not made me want to write or indeed to read any more of the same kind of work (even the same poem) again. I came away with more from John Keats but this was very much to do with the density of his language, and though Keats made use of rhyme and metre neither of these tools seemed responsible for the sheer compression of the poem. When I first read TS Eliot’s ‘The Waste Land’ it struck me immediately, though its overall form is far from regular. Its vividness has stayed with me, though many of the modernists whose work I love have loathed Eliot for supposedly returning poetry to the classroom.

I think the QES argument about what is memorable and what isn’t is not entirely what it seems to be. Memory is a useful tool (where would we be without it), but there is a distinction between rote learning and culture. Things that seem to exist purely as memorials, like the statues in public gardens, are often things that we disregard (or, to use a term the QES people would loathe, ‘de-notice’). Of course you can structure memory through the use of rhyme and metre (it was invaluable – and practical - for Osip Mandelstam and his circle), but memory can work in other, subtler ways. I return to certain poems not because I remember them line-by-line, but because I know I am returning to something whose overall movement has affected me to the extent that I wish to go back there again. There’s nothing vague about this either. Re-reading is reliving to an extent rote learning can never replicate.


david lumsden said...

Nicely argued post - such restraint in the face of the Queen's English Society nonsense, which seems (at least on the face of it from this distance) to be silly and hopelessly ignorant. Milton doesn't use rhyme (except in the sonnets), and 'Samson Agonistes' has some remarkably experimental looseness ... so he's out as well?

I was puzzled a little by your choice of Henley in the title. Some of the free verse passages in his very personal sequence (almost 'confessional' by the standards of the day) 'In Hospital' (1875?) seem to stand in the direct line of development towards early Modernism.

Jaya said...

Hi Laurie,

I like the distinction (mentioned to me by Malouf but perhaps mentioned elsewhere) between 'rote learning' and 'learning by heart'.

I agree, a poem etched into the memory because it was learned rote as a child might be otherwise 'forgettable'. It could be argued that learning something 'by heart', is slightly, though crucially, different.

I guess I'd draw the distinction (which is quite possible a figment) between one being in the predicament of having to learn a poem, and one wanting to learn it - or even committing it to memory unintentionally, because of a compulsion to reread it.

That is, in this view, learning 'by heart' can only be done by someone whose 'heart is in it', as it were.

Rhyming can help, but it seems just as likely to get in the way. It can make a poem more memorable, but only by making us forget, for a moment, what the poem is saying. In this way it can be distracting - our ears are pricked by the pattern, nothing more; the heart can get lost... rhyme as the mnemonic that induces a certain kind of forgetfulness, perhaps?