At the court of the Shogun Iyenari, it was a tense moment. Hokusai, already well established as a prodigiously gifted artist, was competing with a conventional brush-stroke painter in a face-off judged by the shogun personally. Hokusai painted a blue curve on a big piece of paper, chased a chicken across it whose feet had been dipped in red paint, and explained the result to the shogun: it was a landscape showing the Tatsuta River with floating red maple leaves. Hokusai won the competition. The story is well known but the reaction of the conventional brush-stroke artist was not recorded. It’s quite likely that he thought Hokusai had done not much more than register an idea, or, as we would say today, a concept. A loser’s view, perhaps; though not without substance. If Hokusai had spent his career dipping chickens in red paint, he would have been Yoko Ono.
But Hokusai did a lot more, and the same applies to every artist we respect, in any field: sometimes they delight us with absurdly simple things, but we expect them to back it up with plenty of evidence that they can do complicated things as well. And anyway, on close examination the absurdly simple thing might turn out to be achieved not entirely without technique. Late in his career Picasso would take ten seconds to turn a bicycle saddle and a pair of handlebars into a bull’s head and expect to charge you a fortune for it, but when he was sixteen he could paint a cardinal’s full-length portrait that looked better than anything ever signed by Velázquez. You can’t tell, just from looking at the bull’s head, that it was assembled by a hand commanding infinities of know-how, but you would have been able to tell, from looking at Hokusai’s prize-winning picture, that a lot of assurance lay behind the sweep of blue paint, and that he had professionally observed floating red maple leaves long enough to know that the prints of a chicken’s red-painted feet would resemble them, as long as the chicken could be induced to move briskly and not just hang about making puddles.
When we switch this test apparatus to poetry, we arrive quickly at a clear division between poets who are hoping to achieve something by keeping technical considerations out of it, and other poets who want to keep technique out of it because they don’t have any. R.F. Langley, one of the school of poets around Jeremy Prynne, died recently. As an adept of that school, he had put many dedicated years into perfecting the kind of poem whose integrity depends on its avoiding any hint of superficial attraction. Part of one of his poems was quoted in tribute by the Guardian obituarist, himself an affiliate of the Prynne cenacle. It was instantly apparent that the poet had succeeded in all his aims:
We leave unachieved in the
summer dusk. There are no
maps of moonlight. We find
peace in the room and don’t
ask what won’t be answered.
Impeccably bland, resolutely combed for any hint of the conventionally poetic, its lack of melody exactly matched by its lack of rhythm, Langley’s poem had shaken off all trace of the technical heritage, leaving only the question of whether to be thus unencumbered is a guarantee of novelty. Hard not to think of how far modern poetry has come since T.S. Eliot continually improved his technical command in order to make his effects by leaving it unemphasized, a vastly different approach to the question:
They are rattling breakfast plates in basement kitchens,
And along the trampled edges of the street
I am aware of the damp souls of housemaids
Sprouting despondently at area gates.
—From Morning at the Window
To write a stanza like that, with no end-rhymes but with a subtle interplay of interior echoes, we tend to assume that the poet needed to be able to write the rhymed stanzas of “Sweeney Among the Nightingales,” and then sit on the knowledge. At the time it was written, even the most absolute of enthusiasts for modern poetry would have hesitated to point out the truth—that the stanza was held together by its rhythmic drive—unless he further pointed out that it was also held together by the sophisticated assiduity with which it didn’t rhyme. In other words, the whole of English poetry’s technical heritage was present in Eliot’s work, and never more so than when it seemed free in form.
But since that time, there has been a big shift in belief, and we are living with the consequences now. Ezra Pound might have insisted that only a genius should excuse himself from traditional measures, but he soon decided that he was a genius, and several generations of his spiritual descendants either felt the same about themselves or—much more likely—took the new liberties more and more for granted as time went on. The moderns not only conquered the fields of art, they conquered the fields in which art is thought about. The idea that form can be perfectly free has had so great a victory, everywhere in the English-speaking world, that the belief in its hidden technical support no longer holds up. Or rather, and more simply, the idea of technique has changed. It is no longer pinned to forms. If few territories go quite so far as Australia, where it is generally held to be unlikely that a poem can be formally structured and still be modern, nevertheless the general assumption that beginning poets had to put in their time with technical training, like musicians learning their scales, is everywhere regarded as out of date. This near-consensus is wrong, in my view, but you can see why it prevails. And it does have one big advantage. Though a poet who can’t count stresses and syllables might write mediocre poetry, there is a certain kind of bad poetry that he won’t write.
Every editor in the world knows what kind of bad poetry I am talking about. It arrives by the sheaf, by the bundle, by the bale. The poet, usually young, but sometimes in his old age, has discovered his power to rhyme, and what he thinks is rhythm. The editor, in his turn, discovers over and over that the more a poet’s creativity might be lacking, the more his productivity will be torrential. The trouble with a really awful poem is not that its author lacks technique, but that his technique is fully expressed: whatever he can do, he does, especially if he has got past the early, drunken stages of finding rhymes and has entered the determined stage of making lists. Whole careers have been ruined by virtuoso exuberance, as when a tenor who can sing a clean top C spends all day singing nothing else, and leaves his chest voice in rags.
In the first half of the twentieth century, there was an accomplished poet in just that condition. He was the Australian émigré man of letters W.J. Turner. Having based himself in London, he had built up an enviable reputation as an expert on music: he was a valued friend of the great pianist Artur Schnabel, and his book about Mozart, still read today, was held to be in a class with the monograph by Alfred Einstein. But Turner was also a prolific Georgian poet, and in his prolificity lay his ticket to oblivion. His work might have survived being wildly overpraised by Yeats, but it could not survive its own fluency. He had a certain success with a poem about the Aztecs. Studded with catchy pre-Colombian names, it was the sort of thing that could be recited after dinner in a drawing room. (On YouTube he can be seen reciting the poem himself, in an over-enunciated voice weirdly suggesting ectoplasm and planchette.) But in masses of other poems he overdid the catchiness, and everything in the poem was so attention-getting there was no way to recall it: the purposeless glitter was packed tight like a second-hand furniture dealer’s storeroom full of chandeliers:
In a sea Cytherean
Billows are rolling, rolling, rolling
Over stillness molybdenean
Hung with the scrolling
Abyss-plants whose fingers Chaldean
Rock slumber under foam-froth where lumber . . .
Threatening always to give birth to Edith Sitwell like Venus in a sea-shell, even in its heyday such billowing foam-froth counted as high spirits at best, and in the long term a whole tradition was doomed by wordplay: you can hear why, a few decades down the line, the danger of making so much vapid noise should have driven the Prynne people to a Trappist vow of making no noise at all.
But on at least one occasion Turner wrote differently, and it was probably because he was in the grip of a real emotion. It was a case of the visione amorosa, in that especially painful version when the aging man finds himself suddenly longing for the unattainable young woman. His title, “Hymn to Her Unknown,” betrays all his usual deafness (Hymn to Her Unknown What?), but the text itself, from the first line to the last, is fully judged, with no sign of automatism. He starts by setting the scene of a memory:
In despair at not being able to rival the creations of God
I thought on her
Whom I saw on the twenty-fourth of August nineteen thirty-four
Having tea in the fifth story of Swan and Edgar’s
In Piccadilly Circus.
From then on, throughout the barely fifty lines of his tiny epic, his sole apparent trick is to go on raising the level of the diction, from the Biblical through the heroic to the ecstatic. The unapparent tricks are many—he really did know how to balance a line—but they are all camouflaged in support of this main strategy, which he sensibly doesn’t vary until the last stanza, when a few rhymes are allowed in as evidence of the effort it has taken to keep them out. The young lady is married, she has her child with her, and clearly, though she knows the poet is watching her, nothing he could do would alter her life as she might alter his if she so chose. Such is the powerful combination of her beauty and moral character than he can’t describe her adequately, even with his language at full stretch:
What is the use of being a poet?
Is it not a farce to call an artist a creator,
Who can create nothing, not even re-present what his eyes have seen?
But of course in calling her indescribable he has described her, and has defined a moment that we will all grow better at recognizing as we grow older. The poet will be born again, and so will the young woman that he adores. It is a stunning poem to have been almost entirely forgotten.
One of the questions the poem raises, however, is whether Turner really had to learn all that tricky stuff he did elsewhere just to increase the effect of leaving it out here. With T.S. Eliot the results of his formal work are so sharp that we can take it for granted that the acquired skill helped to make his informal work even sharper, although really we are betting on a case of correlation as causation. But by now we have seen so many successful informal poems that we must contemplate the possibility that there is such a thing as an informal technique, in which it is no longer necessary to count stresses or master any regular stanza. Most poets now will never feel called upon to make a poem look organized. Those who do feel the call often produce results so clumsy that we are tempted to conclude that the thing can’t be done without practice. But this again might be an unwarranted assumption: maybe those particular poets just haven’t got the knack. This concession would leave room for the further possibility that some poets do have the knack but it hasn’t shown up because they haven’t felt called upon to exploit it.
Here we are perilously close to the pestiferous Lucy, the Peanuts character who thought she could play the piano like her little friend Schroeder if she just knew which keys to press down. Unfortunately for any dreams of critical simplicity, such a fantasy is not empty. There are some who are ignorant yet can perform prodigies, educating themselves with frightening speed as they go. Nobody devoid of a proper musical education is ever going to saw away in a scratch orchestra and produce a theme from Bach. Performance skill is too great a factor. But in poetry, the performance skills for organizing chains of words into forms seem often to be lying around piecemeal in the linguistic attainments of tyros who have never learned to count a stress. In a phrase that we tend to avoid because it doesn’t sound precise enough, they have a feel for it.
In the Guggenheim Museum on Fifth Avenue you can see a nightclub scene by Picasso that proves he mastered the whole heritage of the Impressionist painters in about a month. The important thing here is not to belittle an intrinsically complex process just because it betrays less overt effort than we think appropriate. Take one of the smallest and apparently most elementary of the standard poetic forms, the couplet. For the poet, the heroic couplet is a wickedly difficult frame in which to narrate. This being known to be true, a whole critical mythology has built up about what Dryden did to develop the trick that Pope perfected. But really, as a form, the couplet was perfected long before, and almost overnight, by Robert Herrick:
Come, my Corinna, come; and, coming, mark
How each field turns a street, each street a park.
When Pope, in The Rape of the Lock, turned couplets as light and neat as that, he got famous for it. Nobody remembers Herrick for inventing the possibilities because he never exploited them. His favored form, even in the most frivolous lyric, was an argued paragraph rather than a ladder of couplets: in that respect he was strangely like the much more serious, much more holy George Herbert, who would invent some shapely little edifice of words in order to fit the structure of a thought, and then move on. For Herbert, the thought was the poetic substance. Unlike Donne, he wasn’t distracted even by imagery. Herbert could do images, but they had to fit the argument. This purity of purpose makes Herbert the most metaphysical of all the poets we give that name. The name has been prominent since the first appearance of Grierson’s anthology in 1921, and famous since Eliot sought amongst metaphysical poetry the hard antidote for flummery. But what Eliot learned best from Herbert, what we all learn, is how to argue; or rather, we learn that the argument is the action.
The contemporary American poet Daniel Brown writes as if he were taking classes from Herbert once a week. Throughout his slim but weighty collection Taking the Occasion, Brown proves that for him the reasoning is in command of the imagery and not vice versa. Since practically the whole of the modern movement in poetry, as we have come to recognize it, was based on the notion that imagery ruled, Brown’s priorities would seem willfully archaic if not for the functionality of his neatness, which reminds us that his hero Herbert, thinking as he went, necessarily operated in the here and now.
Reasoning is as contemporary an activity as you can get. In his poem “On Being Asked by Our Receptionist If I Liked the Flowers,” Brown makes capital out of explaining, for himself and us, the mental process by which the vase of lilies she was referring to had been condemned by her existence to the status of “A splendor I’d have seen for sure,/If less employed in seeing her.” Herbert would have approved of how the image arose from the idea, and of the compactness of the wrapping: a couplet hard at work through making itself look easy.
Contrary to more than a hundred years of steadily accumulating scholarly opinion, Pope never made the couplet look easy, even at his most frolicsome. His social poems fit into a plaster and glass pavilion as though part of the furniture, but they are under a greater strain than their surroundings: an internal strain. Heroic couplets are closed, and the closure exerts pressure even when nothing much is being conveyed except atmosphere. When a reasoned argument is being conveyed, the pressure can split the pipes. It was recognized even at the time that the vaunted logical progression of “Essay on Man” was a succession of limps and stumbles in mechanical shoes. By his very diligence, Pope proved that his favored form’s self-contained refinement was a clumsy vehicle for argument. Except when expressible in an individual aperçu, thought is seldom self-contained. Probably for that reason, the mature Shakespeare usually confined his use of the couplet to clinching a scene. The couplet stops the action. Pope never took the hint.
Just before wwi, George Saintsbury, in his little book The Peace of the Augustans, found the right language for disliking “Essay on Man” and also went deeper to spot something inflexible about the heroic couplet in itself: Pope’s rigorously observed caesura, the central pause of the line, formed a “crease down the page.” But really the heroic couplet had already been practically, if not critically, undone in the day of its domination, by poets who wished to keep the rhyme of the couplet but not its self-containment. Charles Churchill is not much thought of now, but his popularity at the time depended on his knack for making the couplet spring along instead of hanging about. Instead of being buttoned up at the end of the second line, the syntax of a so-called “romance” couplet ran on into the couplet that came next. Samuel Johnson, rigorously formal author of “The Vanity of Human Wishes,” would have been horrified at the thought of letting a couplet do that; and Oliver Goldsmith, whose accomplishments as a poet Johnson rightly revered, wrote his masterpiece The Deserted Village without slipping out of the heroic frame even once. (At the author’s invitation, Johnson even contributed a few couplets to Goldsmith’s poem, and they fit right in: you can hardly see the join.)
But the new possibilities provided by the romance couplet were now there, and in the nineteenth century Browning made authoritative use of them to create the proudly demented narrative fluency deployed by the narrator of “My Last Duchess.” Unimpeded by enforced caesura or end-stopped second line, the Duke’s suavely heightened conversational virtuosity, as if emanating from the carefully trimmed beard of Vincent Price by firelight, doubles the impact when we realize that he is as nutty as a fruitcake. He killed her. Stop him before he kills again.
It is an open question which form of the couplet demands the more technique, heroic or romance. All we can be sure of is that each version demands plenty. Perhaps the romance couplet always demanded most, as it headed towards the freedom we enjoy now, in which we persuade ourselves that freedom from all predictability equals the perfectly expressive. Whether they stop and start or flow forward in a paragraph, couplets require their author to put his syllables and stresses in all the right places. Rhyming is the easy part of the job, and even that turns out to be devilishly hard after the initial spasm of euphoria. A first-timer is likely to go back to his opening night’s work and despair of life, let alone of his poetic hopes. But here as always we must be careful not to underestimate the speed of assimilation that can be induced by the urgency of an idea. After wwii there was a show-stopping example of instantaneously acquired mastery when Vladimir Nabokov published Pale Fire, a work which revolves around a thousand-line poem composed in couplets. A tour de force of fake history and pseudo-scholarship, the book would have been daunting enough had the poem been clumsy. But it was perfect.
Perfect, or nearly so. A professional might have niggled that in line 497 (“In the wet starlight and on the wet ground”) the second “the,” which ought to be stressed but can’t be, dictates a needlessly attention-getting departure from strict rhythm; but otherwise scarcely a foot had been wrongly placed. The sweetly flowing tide of romance couplets even had fully formed heroic couplets occasionally decorating them, like candles floating on the water:
The little scissors I am holding are
A dazzling synthesis of sun and star.
There could be no objecting to that. Here was the occasion for the astonished reader to remember that Nabokov was a neophyte poet only in English. In Russian he had been an expert, and all the Russian expert poets are expert technicians, because Pushkin, the supreme technician, sets the historic pace. Nevertheless, Nabokov had pulled this marvel out of his hat the first time, a rabbit as big as a freight train. How was it possible?
The only answer is that he did it because he wanted to. He had had an idea about a prominent American poet being stalked by a conceited scholar who was really a wacko European monarch on the run, and for the screwball plot to work he needed a poem: so he wrote one. The urge had preceded the accomplishment, as it always must. If Nabokov had been writing a treatise on English prosody, it would not have led him to write the poem in Pale Fire. Technique is a subservient impulse. One of the ways we know this to be true is the mess that ensues when fashion makes it a dominant one, and artists in all fields start shoving stuff in just because they can do it. Critics become more useful when they learn to appreciate that the creative urge leading to a work of art may be a complex, irreducible compound of the impulse to get something new said and the impulse to get a new technique into action. But the second component should always attend upon the first, even when, as so often happens with a poem, a technical possibility is the first thing to hit the page. The possibility won’t go far unless the constructive urgency takes over. The point is proved, rather than otherwise, by the poets who gush technique but hardly ever write a poem.
Turner’s “Hymn” was, and is, a unicorn raised among a herd of horses. Since the poem is impossible to find even on Google, I am very conscious at this point that I should get ahead with my long-cherished project to edit an anthology of one-off poems, by poets who wrote only one hit among their many duds, or never wrote anything except the hit. I have several titles for the book—“They Never Had a Chance” and “Poems of the Doomed” are two of them—but publishers want names, and names are usually what such poets don’t have, even the productive ones, buried while they breathed under the tumulus of their own output.
It can take a long time for a poet to build a name, but once the name is built it affects everything, like gravity. Just recently on the secondhand book market, Elizabeth Bishop’s copy of Jude the Obscure, in the Modern Library edition, came up for sale. The mere presence of her ownership signature on the flyleaf would already have put the price up, but putting the price through the roof was the presence in one of the endpapers of the draft for a poem. Never mind for the moment what such a rare occurrence says about the confluence of art and commerce. Let’s just marvel at what it says about poetry and criticism. Here, we may be sure, is the clearest proof that we are dealing, down there at bedrock level, with an urge as strong as life, if no more simple. She was out somewhere without her notebook, and she had an idea. It couldn’t wait, so she started writing it down on the only blank paper available. Any poet will read about this, scan his crowded bookshelves with a sad eye, remember the number of times he was caught by the same fever, and wonder if some book he once owned will ever be news because he scribbled in it. The chances are that it won’t. But that’s the chance that makes the whole deal more exciting than Grand Slam tennis. Unless you can get beyond yourself, you were never there.