The recent election of the American poet A.E. Stallings as the new Oxford Professor of Poetry shines the spotlight on her support for the traditional procedures of writing poetry that have served English poetry so well for five hundred years. If it seems strange that Stallings had felt it necessary in her electoral pitch to emphasize her ‘interest in technique, especially in rhyme, meter and stanzas’, it is because poetry that uses the traditional skills has been marginalized by free verse (or what is more commonly known as prose-poetry) for much of the Twentieth Century. The consequence of this change in poetry was clearly defined by Cleanth Brooks and Robert Penn Warren’s book Understanding Poetry (published in America in 1938) which pointed out that in free verse ‘lineation (line length) functions largely as a visual element’ whereas in traditional, formal verse it is ‘the heard or felt meter that defines the line’. This approximation of free verse to the prose line had already been commented on in the Faber Book of Modern Verse (published in 1936), when the editor, Michael Roberts, admitted that the existence of free verse ‘blurs the distinction between prose and poetry’.
By the 1960s, concern was mounting as to where poetry was heading. In his six Norton lectures delivered at Harvard University in 1965, C. Day Lewis commented that the ‘dense, concentrated texture of modern poetry needs ‘aerating’ and suggested that there should be more association with music because ‘if you write words for a tune, you find the tune clears much of the verbal undergrowth’. His words bring to mind the opening lines of a sonnet by Richard Barnfield (1574-1627):
If music and sweet poetry agree,
As they must needs, the sister and the brother,
Day Lewis also recommended recitation to help encourage clarity of writing. But for the most part, warnings went unheeded as the prejudice against the traditional skills of poetry continued as exemplified in an interview with the American poet, Donald Hall, in the November/December 2014 issue of Poets & Writers which emphasized his long held belief in the need to ‘smash the shackles of formalism’ in order to convey effectively the ‘crucial area of feeling’. Such an opinion wilfully ignores innumerable examples of well-loved poems written throughout the centuries within the ‘constraints’ of the traditional skills that deal with the ‘crucial area of feeling’. The later poems of John Clare (1793-1864) are obvious examples.
It is not only the traditional skills of writing poetry that concern A.E. Stallings but also the environment in which poetry is promoted. In an interview with The Telegraph after the election, she commented that she felt ‘estranged from some of the US scene, partly because so much of it is based in academia and creative writing programmes’. Her remarks chime with a recent article (‘Everyone’s a Critic’) in The New Yorker by Merve Emre, reviewing a new book Professing Criticism by John Guillery whose argument is that commenting on literature in the Twentieth Century has become the prerogative of a narrow class of university trained practitioners (the ‘professoriat’), employing the ‘professionalized language of the literary scholar’. The origins of this practice can be traced back to the beginning of the Twentieth Century when the new degree of English literature was under pressure to establish its credentials compared with the much older university disciplines such as Theology and Classics. To this end, the Cambridge apologists like F.R. Leavis, William Empson and I.A Richards turned the appreciation of English literature into a more scientific study with a canon of literary figures whose work could be dissected and interpreted. The corollary of this academic approach was that any poet not requiring studious interpretation would tend to be disregarded. Such a case was W.H. Davies (1871-1940), one of the most popular poets of his time who employed the traditional skills of poetry but was omitted from Michael Robert’s Faber Book of Modern Verse because he did not match Roberts’ criterion of only including poets who were ‘likely to influence the future development of poetry and language .... developing the implications of its idioms, metaphors and symbols.’ It is somewhat ironic that by promoting this academic direction for modern poetry Roberts acknowledges that ‘a great deal of new poetry does meet with indifference because it seems private and incomprehensible.’ This would still seem to be the case as the Introduction to the 2022 Forward Book of Poetry laments that ‘there are still too many people who wouldn’t think of picking up a book of contemporary poetry.’
The Creative Writing programmes from which Stallings also feels estranged have become a huge business over the last fifty years in America and England. In America, there are more than two hundred and fifty fee-paying MFA (Master of Fine Arts) Creative Writing courses aimed at achieving publication for their alumni. However, the lack of a national curriculum for these courses means that they are susceptible to the likes and dislikes of the individual tutors – a danger that an experienced course director, Helen Betya Rubinstein, highlighted in an article in the 2018 September/October edition of Poets & Writers when she said, 'I’ve seen far too many workshops become an indoctrination into an instructor’s taste’. In England, there is a similar unashamedly commercial agenda. The prospectus for the MA in Creative Writing (Poetry) offered by the University of East Anglia (the first to offer such a course in 1970) states that ‘We aim to support you in writing poetry of a publishable standard’, although this does not guarantee that it will be liked or even read. To this end, exercises are set which are aimed at developing powers of perception and description as in making lists of people or places and then writing poems incorporating the collected material. But these exercises bear a strong resemblance to the observation and recall tasks in systems like Pelmanism that are aimed primarily at training the mind, not writing poetry.
This didactic approach to writing poetry is entirely at odds with comments of well-known poets such as Philip Larkin (voted ‘the best loved poet of the previous fifty years’ by the Poetry Book Society in 2003) who stated in an interview with Paris Review in 1982, that ’I’ve never been didactic, never tried to make poetry do things, never gone out to look for it. I waited for it to come to me ....’ He might have added that the Muse only comes to ground prepared by a long acquaintance with reading and reciting poetry which, in turn, breeds a familiarity with the traditional skills required to write it – a belief that A.E. Stallings supported in an interview in 2002 for The Courtland Review, when she exclaimed in some astonishment: ‘Why not use these great tools? .... Rhyme and meter make things memorable .... Form frees you up to think about other, more interesting choices in the poem’. One can only add that ‘memorable’ should be taken in both its senses of being worthy to be remembered and through use of the traditional skills easier to be committed to memory.