Against Poetry: #1 in an occasional series


(NB: For my purposes here, I am talking only about rhyming poetry. Unrhyming poetry (blank or free verse) is, in my opinion, best discussed as an over-reduced, and rather meagre, form of prose.)

Rhyming poetry involves the action of choosing words for their sound rather than for their meaning. The poet is preoccupied with what he is pleased to call the ‘music’ of language, by which he means the accident that some words sound rather like other, unrelated, words. This is called rhyme, or when rhyme is not fully achieved, assonance. The poet must fit his meanings to the straitjacket of assonance, and if his meaning suffers as a consequence, so be it. It is as if, for the poet, a language is no more than a stack of brightly coloured food tins which a bored child arranges into the shape of a battleship.

Let us consider William Blake. In The Sick Rose, Blake rhymes ‘worm’ with ‘storm’. It is because he wants to use the word ‘storm’ that he must make his contaminating agent a ‘worm’ – a worm, moreover, which flies, which worms, notoriously, do not. He is led to this absurdity by the demand that his poem rhyme. But ‘worm’ does not rhyme with ‘storm’, it just looks as if it does. So his meaning is twisted, not even for the dubious sake of a meaningless chime of syllables, but for the visual illusion of one (what I understand is called an ‘eye rhyme’).

And what is his meaning anyway? A prose translation would yield: ‘Oh rose, you have got an (invisible, flying) worm in you, it’ll kill you, probably.’ Does anything follow from this observation? It does not. Infestations are not exactly unknown in the natural world; the phenomenon of one organism destroying another is an inescapable part of the order of things. So Blake here is really saying: ‘I have noticed that flowers are sometimes subject to infestation’, a remark which would perhaps be of interest in a discussion of horticulture amongst simple-minded people who had hitherto had no contact whatsoever with growing things, but can only be considered the most crashing commonplace to those of us who have been outside once in our lives.

So is there some further meaning to be teased out here, beyond the horticultural? ‘All things are subject to decay’, for instance? Again, for those of us who have observed just about anything at all, ever, this is not really news. Or possibly: ‘things are not what they seem’? But who amongst Blake’s readers believes that they are? Who above the age of six believes such a thing?  Perhaps then: ‘good things are destroyed by bad things’? But are (invisible, flying) worms, in any quantifiable sense, worse than roses? According to whose criteria? Or maybe: ‘beauty can be deceptive’? Is there anyone breathing to whom this is a revelation, and how have they managed to avoid death through the ill-advised consumption of, for instance, poisonous berries or brightly-coloured plastic beads?

So poetry mangles language in order to utter commonplaces. Poetry really should be called to account on these issues. It is nothing short of a scandal that such abuses of language are perpetrated, celebrated and transmitted. The Government should appoint a Poetry Czar, whose first and final act would be the abolition of poetry in any form. People of Britain, take to the streets and demand an end to this so-called artform. You have nothing to lose but your invisible, flying worms.

Below is a handy cut-out-and-keep quick guide to some well known poems, with their ‘meanings’ explained.

The Sick Rose. W Blake

What It Says:

Oh rose, you are playing host to a flying, parasitic worm, which will, in due course, kill you.

What It Means:

  1. Things are not always what they seem
  2. All things must pass.
  3. My garden is full of invisible, flying worms.

The Waste Land. T.S.Eliot

What It Says:

The modern world is a debased version of a richer, mythical world which only I really know about, because I can read Dante in the Italian.

What It Means:

  1. Things are not what they used to be.
  2. Modern life is rubbish.

The Four Quartets. T.S.Eliot

What It Says:

The future’s a mystery, the past is just history, today is a gift: that’s why it’s called The Present!

What It Means:

  1. Things are not what they used to be
  2. Nor are they likely to improve
  3. I’m cleverer than you.

I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud. W.Wordsworth

What It Says:

  1. I saw some daffodils
  2. There were a lot of them.

What It Means:

  1. Daffodils are nice.
  2. I saw some.

Next week: Against Punk.

6 thoughts on “Against Poetry: #1 in an occasional series

  1. Sonali Grewal says:

    Hi Simon. Let me start by saying that I am a ‘fan’ of your stuff, in the hope that it makes it OK to say that I wasn’t keen on the whole ‘flying worm/poetry is rubbish’ thing. I suppose that’s the thing about blogs – there’s nobody but you to edit you. Poetry is largely ignored by the Western world these days and the only people who have an active opinion are damaged students of literature who’ve read about too many flying worms for comfort, or those who wish they’d studied literature and who find it easier to adopt a hostile stance to validate their alternative study choices – oh, and those who actually like poetry. I was trying to decide whether you’re just exploiting the comic potential of vestigial language or whether you really don’t like poetry. I imagine that being a ‘serious’ novelist, like being a ‘serious’ poet, brings with it the risk of being perceived as a shamefully high-brow type, and you must be under a certain amount of pressure to cover your tracks and dilute your messages with humour and items of guaranteed populist credibility. Are you really against all poetry?

    • Hi Sonali. Thanks for your comment, and thanks for being a fan. No, I really do have a fixed animus against the whole area of poetry. I proudly display my elitist tastes in other fields (I’m a classical music person), and I have no hesitation in reading and openly admiring all kinds of written work: and I do happen to be a huge fan of TSEliot, for whom I would make an exception. It’s not just the poetry itself, though: I also object strongly to the way it is described and analysed. For instance, a critic will describe how certain syllabic tones are ‘sombre’ or ‘glittering’, but select only those words that reinforce this impression, ignoring those that don’t. So for instance ‘brown’ and ‘drown’: “the low, open ‘ow’ sound represents the dark and dismal nature of the text”. But what about ‘clown’? Or ‘astounding’? Are these also dark and dismal words? The whole exercise is riddled with amateurish and unargued prejudice like this. “I say it’s broccoli and I say the hell with it.” (George Bush Snr)

  2. Luc says:

    Hi Simon,

    I’m new to your blog and your literature but seeing that I am a fellow Brightonian I thought I’d stick up for (some) poets out there who are not given the same credit ((they think they deserve) (like me)) as a novelist.

    Do poets have a right to use their licence to commit the crimes you speak of? I think they do. Most poetry is self-indulgent but there are instances, where a few poets, dead and alive, have created something so unique and compelling by using techniques like “eye rhyme” and assonance.

    I wouldn’t be writing today if it weren’t for Emily Dickinson and Wilfred Owen. Wouldn’t you consider these writers as nothing short of great?

    I enjoyed reading your blog, I’m pleased that I stumbled across it, and will continue to visit. Thanks.

    Best wishes,

    • Hi Luc. Delighted to make your acquaintance, and thanks very much for your comment. No, Emily Dickinson and Wilfred Owen get locked up alongside all the rest of them, I’m afraid. It may seem harsh, but there it is. ;0)

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