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Modernism, Poetry, Verse and Worse




Anthony Cooney


(First published in 1994 in Liverpool University's English magazine, Off The Cuff)



As a poetry editor for the past fifteen years, I have read the submissions of thousands of hopefuls, and published poems by people ranging from “first timers” to established poets such as Peter Russell, the friend of Ezra Pound. One does not have to edit a poetry magazine for very long before becoming aware of the difference between verse and poetry. That there is a difference few would care to deny. Defining that difference has been the subject of a good many learned articles and lectures, and I do not flatter myself that I can do much more than add a few footnotes to the dispute. Certainly, this article does not pretend to be a Last Word on the subject.


It is easier to define “Verse” than to define “Poetry”. We might say that verse consists of strings of words arranged in lines of different lengths, as opposed to lines which are blocked on the right margin, which condition would render them prose. This definition however requires some considerable refinement, in spite of the Sixties conviction that everyone could now write poetry, because everyone could write “Free Verse”. Whilst the would-be poet may be persuaded that line stopping is determined by some cadence in his thought, it is unlikely that this exquisite reason will be communicated to the reader, or even to the author himself after a lapse of time. ‘I have no exquisite reason for it, but I have reason enough’, as Sir Andrew Aguecheek declared and the verse writer had better have reason enough for his line stops; that is he must have a canon external to the poem (if such it be) itself. One such canon has always been end rhymes. Another is measured “feet” of stressed and unstressed syllables. Older still are syllable count, vowel count or consonantal count, as in Welsh Bardic verse, all of these require a break (the caesura) in the line from which the voice rises and falls.


There is in fact nothing greatly new about free verse. Milton used it in parts of Samson Agonistes, Meredith used it frequently, Coleridge made a great point of it in Christabel, using lines of five stressed syllables with as many unstressed as he found convenient. Somewhere or other, Browning makes an aside about ‘The new prose poet’ generally believed to be Walt Whitman, who published the first edition of Leaves of Grass in 1885. Hopkins gave free verse a system by his invention (or as he claimed rediscovery) of Sprung Rhythm, stress count combined with the consonantal count of Bardic poetry. The notion of Free Verse as lines of purely arbitrary length rests upon a misconception, based upon a too literal translation of the French “Vers libre”. French prosody until the late 19th century had a highly formal stanza structure with rigid rules for internal rhyming patterns, and alternate male and female end rhymes. Towards the end of the century, French poets turned to the simpler structures of English prosody, which outraged French critics immediately dubbed “Vers libre”. The phrase migrated to Great Britain as “Free Verse”, meaning for many no structure at all. Eliot explained “Free Verse” as ‘Advancing towards or retreating from iambic pentameter’, and Free Verse became inseparable from Modernism. It may be opportune to remark here that Free Verse is the easiest verse to write badly and the most difficult verse to write well.


As Modernism is now somewhat older than the aeroplane or the wireless, reaching its Mannerist phase with Dylan Thomas, it may be pertinent to ask, “What was Modernism?” Briefly, so far as poetry is concerned, it involved a new SYNTAX, which could be best described as Free Verse. This is not to say that any old “Free Verse” is therefore “Modernist”. Take for example:


Where are thou

my fair one with golden hair


to me


That is a conventional sentiment in conventional syntax, and building up the lines does not make it anything else. Nor for that matter is the following “Modernist”:



I went for (a)


There were five

(5) orange pips

on the garden



That is not Modernist, it is not poetry and except in the sense of our original broad definition, it is not verse. For reasons beyond analysis, e. e. cummings’s ‘In just…’is all three because the poem creates its own autonomy and a new syntax.


T. S. Eliot has been accused of responsibility for a vast quantity of bad poetry because he gave us the unskilled Free Verse. This is unfair. Those responsible were the loosely trained and over-enthused teachers of the Sixties, ably satirised by Alex Anderson in his creation of  “Mr Curly Thanatos, Poet in Residence”. They misunderstood Modernism because they failed to grasp that it was a syntactic revolution and only conditional upon that, a prosodial revolution. Characteristic of Modernist syntax is the IMAGE and SYMBOLISM, and it is these which validate Free Verse, the golden rule being “Don’t tell me, show me”. The Modernist poet must not tell us about an experience, he must present us with it by the creation of an interior landscape of multiple perspectives; creating a “cubist” diversity of views seen from a central point occupied by the spectator. For example, the first two lines of The Waste Land combine the perspectives of Chaucer, Sir James Frazer and Jennie Weston. Modernist syntax, instead of subjecting thoughts to the logic of consecutive statement, presents the whole thing “at once” by means of a few vivid strokes. The correlation between Modern poetry, properly so called, and Modern Art, is plain enough. It follows, I think, that Free Verse is not the medium for narrative, descriptive or discursive poetry, and the attempts at these in Free Verse which I have experienced as an editor simply fail to be either verse or poetry.


To define “Poetry” would be exceedingly difficult. Few people would deny that there is such a thing as Prose Poetry, and equally few would maintain that anything written in regular metre and rhyme is therefore, ipso facto, poetry. This as it happens is not a “Modernist” post-Poundian insight. Chaucer was well aware of the difference when he satirised the writers of doggerel in his “own” contribution to the Canterbury Tales; the characters of whom he was the creator, bringing his tale to an end with yells of derision and howls of scorn—‘He came unto his own, and they received him not’.


Perhaps we can approach, if not a definition, at least an understanding and agreement, if we consider something else. What is “Sportsmanship”? A man who knows the rules of cricket and who has mastered the techniques of play might yet not be a “Sportsman”, for the concept involves an ethic or “Quality” which is ultimately beyond analysis. However, no matter how possessed of that ethic a man might be, if he did not know the rules of the game and lacked all but the rudimentary skills its playing required, he would still not be described as a “Sportsman”. We might suspect that in spite of his amiable qualities, respect for the Umpires, goodwill to opponents, etc., he lacked enthusiasm for the game itself.


Poetry involves a “Quality” beyond analysis in terms of verse forms, syntax, diction and vocabulary. A piece if verse, let us say of the “Patience Strong” variety, may be perfect in these and yet fail to be poetry. Perhaps it can be illustrated in this way. We habitually speak of a “breadth of knowledge” and of a “depth of understanding”. The implication is that knowledge is two- dimensional but that understanding is three-dimensional. (I use the terms in their generalised mathematical sense, not as arrangements of Euclidean space.) It is within everyone’s mental experience that we begin the study of a subject by accumulating a variety of facts. We might accumulate a great many facts over a wide spectrum without their making much difference to us; until, suddenly, they fall into place; we experiences an insight or understanding, in which all the bits and pieces of knowledge are arranged into a pattern. Our two-dimentional knowledge has deepened into a three-diemtional understanding. Certainly, the expression of the “Quality” we recognise as “Poetry”, like the expression of the “Quality” we recognise as “Sportsmanship” requires mastery of the appropriate techniques, and would-be poets who do not attempt to gain that mastery may be suspected of not being enthusiastic. The techniques are, like mere knowing, a two-dimensional thing into which suddenly and mysteriously enters the “Quality” which gives them the new, third- dimension of poetry.


An aspect, and probably the major aspect, of that “Quality” is originality. The word is used here in a special sense, not originality of language or verse structure, which a competent writer can achieve without too much trouble, but originality of insight which is conveyed to the reader as a release of new emotion or energy.  For example, let us take the word “STOP” uttered or written. It trades upon what is already known: of authority, of traffic regulations, of warnings. It releases no new emotions in us, no new delights, no new terrors. It is simply a command. We may go a step further and consider the rhyme, ‘Thirty days have September…’ This happens to be a moderately clever stanza designed to impact factual information, and its effect upon the hearer ends right there. Let us now consider the sort of verse that can be found on a birthday card. Certainly there is more than the information, “I hope you have a happy birthday” but the emotion traded upon is old emotion, just as the illustration on the front of it, of a cottage or a winsome kitten, trades upon old emotion, conventional notions and hackneyed sentiment. We dismiss it as “chocolate box”. The same criticism may be made of the lyrics of popular songs and light verse; there is no release of new energy. This, incidentally, is the real criticism of pornography; it trades on stereotypes, it exploits what is already there. Let us finally take a work such as King Lear. (I might easily have chosen Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman or the film Casablanca.) In reading, hearing or viewing, we experience a new emotion, a new insight into the human condition, a transfer of energy from the author to the recipient, via the medium. There is a ‘purging of pity and terror’ (Miller) as the work achieves catharsis. Nor is it a question of saying, “Well yes, I read the poem and it did all that you describe, but if I read it again, surely it will be trading on an existing emotion; has it therefore ceased to be poetry for me?” The essence of it being poetry is not that at a second or a hundredth reading it trades upon the emotion it originally released, but that it deepens and enriches that emotion.


Some of the work that has passed across my desk in the last fifteen years has had at least a tinge of this originality. All too often however, even with that tinge, the poems are expressions of unassimilated experiences, meaningful to their authors, but not sufficiently generalised to communicate the experience to others. The ability to generalise lies in the field of technical competence, which so many plainly lack. It is difficult to know which is the worst error—the error of those who firmly believe that technical competence is satisfied so long as a “traditional” rhyming pattern is adopted, or the error of those who believe, equally firmly, that it is achieved by eccentric line stoppings.


There remains the question of the “Size” of a poem or other work of art. Again the word is used in a special sense; not in the sense of the number of lines, but of the size of concept. A minor poem is still a poem, and a minor poet is still a poet, but what is it which elevates a poem and a poet to the category of “Major”, what defines a great work of art? Although no such poem has ever landed on my desk, I think I can say that the essential quality is “bigness” of theme and concept, and concomitant with that, the mastery of the technique necessary to compose it. Mahler’s “8th”is a great work because of the immensity of the musical concepts involved; but also because of the scale of the musical forces commanded to express them. A Chopin “Prelude” may be a very beautiful miniature, but we can neither say that the concept is vast, nor, even it were, that the forces devoted to it are sufficient for its expression. Transferring the example to poetry, Milton’s Paradise Lost is a colossal work, first in concept then in technique.


In spite of what I wrote earlier about the special sense in which I used the word “size”, it must be obvious that sheer size is a necessary aspect of the Major Work. Of course, ten thousand lines about trivia will not be a great poem, but a poem great in theme and concept demands largeness of execution, and every poet worth his salt must display a mastery of the long poem in producing his magnus opus. This creates a problem for Modernist poetry. The “image” by definition is intense and concentrated. Perhaps the most sustained image in English poetry, Donne’s “conceit” (as images were then called) of the compasses in A Valediction Forbidding Mourning, employs only twelve lines. In a long narrative poem such as Masefield’s Everlasting Mercy, the storyline gives unity. Not all long poems are narrative. Campbell’s The Pleasure of Hope is a philosophical reflection; Pope’s Essay on Man is a scholarly discourse. In this kind of poem, it is the argument that holds the poem together. However neither storyline nor discourse make them poems, what makes these poems is the flawless structure of their verse, without that they would be prose treaties; that plus theme and content make them poems. It is difficult to conceive of an Image being sustained for more than Donne’s twelve lines, and certainly not throughout a poem of major length.


An early solution to the problems posed by the long poem was to write a series of short imagist poems, “stitched together” by a theme, analogous to “Variations” in music. It became apparent that with this sort of structure it was not necessary to progress along a horizontal line. Images could be clustered around a central important image, which provides a fixed point of reference, analogous to “Melodic Tonality” in Debussy’s music. A problem here is to decide whether a collection is a limited number of short poems or one long poem. Pound’s Cathay is a case in point, and among living poets Alex Anderson’s Caves of Mali is another. In both cases, it is the title of the collection that provides the central “Tonic” image.


This early turning to the deep “structures of music” to create a new structure for poetry had important results for Modernism. Eliot’s poetry illustrates a progression from the early collections such as Prufrock where the position (one poem or several?) is ambiguous, to his final work the Four Quartets. The latter is of Magnus Opus size, employing images and symbolic landscape, distributed between four Voices. In each Quartet, the images are clustered round a “tonic” image of a season and an element, and all are brought together in an orchestral climax at the end.


The Four Quartets is a single poem by reason of its subject matter; the Mystery of Time and Eternity. Each Quartet develops the subject and in this the poem is analogous to Sonata. The sonata form consists of three movements and a Coda. In the first movement certain themes are restated, in the second they are developed and “discussed” by the several “voices”, in the third the themes are restated and the Coda brings about a resolution and finale. Unity is also given to the poem by the themes of each Quartet, the four seasons (Time) and the four Elements (Substance). In each Quartet each section is related to the corresponding section of the other three, analogous to Counterpoint in music. Eliot employs the four-stressed line in which he was most at home with as many unstressed syllables as are convenient. This results in a non-metric pulse comparable to impressionist developments in music. As Free Verse it is the kind used by Coleridge in Christabel rather than the Sprung Rhythm of Hopkins, which requires “pointing” by alliteration and employs the Bardic technique of “outriders” to achieve compression of meaning.


In The Waste Land, Eliot achieved “pure image” (the poem IS it doesn’t “mean” something else) in his rejection of the discursive poetry of the Romantics, in which the poem addressed an audience. Eliot maintained this achievement in Ash Wednesday, but in Four Quartets, he enters into discussion, not directly between himself and an audience, but between the “Voices” of the Quartet. Pope might very well have tackled the subject matter of the Four Quartets but he would have done so in the totally discursive manner of the “Philosophies”. In the Four Quartets Eliot has produced a poem with layers of meaning. He refuses to build up a poem with a single meaning, and deliberately frustrates any attempt to derive a single meaning by avoiding a narrative progression, and by the ambiguity of the image. It is through images, the “rose”, “fire”, etc., analogous to musical motifs and phrases, that the multi-layered meaning is communicated. In short, as in music, the structure dramatises the subject.


I do not know if being an editor of a poetry magazine qualifies one to speculate on the future of poetry in general and of Modernism (my own area) in particular, probably not. The phrase “Post-modernism” is often bandied about. I do not know what it means and I suspect that those who use it do not. If it applies to the Movement poets, Larkin, Hughes and others, I do not see how they are more “post-modern” than, say, Auden, Lewis, Spender and MacNiece were in the ‘Thirties. If it applies to the generation after the Movement, then again I cannot find any distinguishing marks. The Four Quartets are obviously a tour de force that would be difficult for anyone to follow. They illustrate the observation we started with: that Free Verse is the hardest verse to write well and the easiest to write badly. A long poem in “simple” Free Verse (lines ended where it seems right to the poet as the poem flows onto the page) is not really conceivable. The contemporary poet setting out to produce his Magnus Opus must either master the traditional metric prosody or devise a logical structure comparable to Eliot’s. As I have said, one has not landed on my desk yet; but have I the ability to recognise it for what it is, if it should?





copyright © Anthony Cooney





Anthony Cooney was born in Liverpool in 1932. From the late 1970s to the mid-1990s he edited The Old Police Station (TOPS) poetry magazine. His literary output includes Social Credit: Obelisks, consisting of a philosophy of history with applications to particular historical problems; a scholarly study of turn-of-the-century poor relief in Liverpool; six books of poetry (one in the University of Salzburg's English Literature, Poetic Drama and Poetic Theory series); two plays in verse; critical studies of Douglas, Chesterton and Belloc; a monograph on St. George and a children's book.