Ezra Pound, generally regarded as the principle founder of modernism, wrote of the need to refresh poetics: 'No good poetry is ever written in a manner twenty years old,' he wrote in 1912, 'for to write in such a manner shows conclusively that the writer thinks from books, convention and cliche, not from real life.' He went further, asserting that extant poetical language and modes were in fact defunct, he declared war on all existing formal structures, metre, rhyme and genre. We should observe that he was a researcher in Romance languages, devoted to medieval troubadour verse, Chinese, Japanese, Sicilian, Greek, Spanish, French and Italian forms and much besides. His call to free verse was not a manifesto for ignorant, self-indulgent maundering and uneducated anarchy. His poems are syntactically and semantically difficult, laden with allusion and steeped in his profound knowledge of classical and oriental forms and culture: they are often laid out in structures that recall or exactly follow ancient forms, cantos, odes and even, [...], that most strict and venerable of forms, the sestina. Pound was also a Nazi-sympathising, anti-Semitic, antagonistic son of a bitch as it happens: he wasn't trying to open poetry for all, to democratise verse for the kids and create a friendly free-form world in which everyone is equal. But if the old fascist was right in determining that his generation needed to get away from the heavy manner and glutinous cliches of Victorian verse, its archaic words and reflex tricks of poetical language, and all out-dated modes of expression and thought in order to free itself for a new century, is it not equally true that we need to escape from the dreary, self-indulgent, randomly lineated drivel that today passes for poetry for precisely the same reasons? After a hundred years of free verse and Open Field poetry the condition of English-language poetics is every bit as tattered and tired as that which Pound and his coevals inherited. 'People find ideas a bore,' Pound wrote, 'because they do not distinguish between live ones and stuffed ones on a shelf.' Unfortunately the tide has turned, and now it is some of Pound's once new ideas that have been stuffed and shelved and become a bore. He wrote in 1910: 'The art of letters will come to an end before AD 2000. I shall survive as a curiosity.' It might be tempting to agree that 'the art of letters' has indeed come to an end, and to wonder whether a doctrinaire abandonment of healthy, living forms for the sake of a dogma of stillborn originality might not have to shoulder some of the responsiblity for such a state of affairs.
Add a feeble-minded kind of political correctness to the mix (something Pound would certainly never have countenanced) and it is a wonder that any considerable poetry at all has been written over the last fifty years. It is as if we have been encouraged to believe that form is a kind of fascism and that to acquire knowlegde is to drive a jackboot into the face of those poor souls who are too incurious, dull-witted or idle to find out what poetry can be. Surely better to use another word for such free-form meanderings: 'prose-therapy' about covers it, 'emotional masturbation', perhaps; auto-omphaloscopy might be an acceptable coinage - gazing at one's own navel. Let us reserve the word 'poetry' for something worth fighting for, an ideal we can strive to live up to.
Looking back over the last few paragraphs I am aware that you might think me a dreadful, hidebound old dinosaur. I assure you I am not. I am uncertain why I should feel the need to prove this, but I do want you to understand that I am far from contemptuous of Modernism and free verse, the experimental and the avant-garde or of the poetry of the streets. Whitman, Cummings, O'Hara, Wyndham Lewis, Eliot, Jandl, Olsen, Ginsberg, Pound and Zephaniah are poets that have given me, and continue to give me, immense pleasure. I do not despise free verse. Read this:
Post coitum omne animal triste
i see you
with your coming
- is it a trick of the light? -
i see you
worlded with pain
loaded against yourself
you seem so yes bold
but nuded and afterloved
you are not so strong
There's the problem. The above is precisely the kind of worthless arse-dribble I am forced to read whenever I agree to judge a poetry competition. It took me under a minute and a half to write and while I dare say you can see what utter wank it is, there are many who would accept it as poetry. All the cliches are there, pointless lineation, meaningless punctuation and presentation, fatuous creations of new verbs 'cigaretted and drinked', 'worlded', 'nuded', 'afterloved', a posy Latin title - every pathology is presented. Like so much of what passes for poetry today it is also listless, utterly drained of energy and drive - a common problem with much contemporary art but an especial problem with poetry that chooses to close itself off from all metrical pattern and form. It is like music without beat or shape or harmony: not music at all, in fact. 'Writing free verse is like playing tennis with the net down,' Robert Frost wrote. Not much of a game at all, really.
-- Stephen Fry, The Ode Less Travelled, pp.173-177 --
Everyone should read this book. It ought to be law.