Poetry and the Democratic Impulse


 The tradition of poetry in any language – whether it is English, Yiddish or Yoruba - usually has a plethora of rhetorical rules circumscribing it. The formalist accretions of English prosody can be very tasking and restrictive – prescriptive even, as in any other language. There was a point in history when the poet’s imprisonment by say, the sonnet or by meter was considered good ‘time done’. To have mastery of craft the poet had to show technical dexterity by submitting to the imposed rigour of traditional forms. True it did highlight mastery – even if it is only of form and meter, nevertheless another result of such a catholic deference to tradition was that it limited the creative impulse, even within a seeming perfection of form. This derived from the fact that the poet could be possessed by a mechanical tendency towards form, leaving a huge hole within the body of the work. Form had the grip of a delirium, such that sometimes words were forced into place for the sake of meeting the rhyming requirements of, say, a couplet, heroic of cowardly! We see this in the ‘witticisms’ of eighteenth century ‘false wit’, exemplified and practiced in the epigram as form. The epigram became so fashionable that the poet of the day was over-swayed by its declaiming and uncritical gambits. Critics of the day had to begin to warn about the military excesses of the Augustan epigram, especially its ribaldry and deployment of maxims.


 The tyranny of form also leads to other ‘bad habits’, for example the poet who is enslaved to form as an idea might cultivate other personalised professional quirks – as long as the end result keeps within the general intimations of what poetry is supposed to be like as text on the page; in other cases such approximations might sacrifice, grammatical, syntactical and semantic unity either amongst lexical units or in their relation to the universe of the poem or to an entire collection. We have contemporary examples in experimental work that incorporates all kind of quirks of execution – diagrams along with poetry texts, irrational line arrangements that do not add to sense or deadens it, versified prose which sometimes masquerades as the ‘prose poem’ and so on. These professional quirks appear in strange forms sometimes when the poet, even an otherwise finished poet, devolves into strange experiments or habits since the end result – due to its semblance on the printed page – would be mimicking the form of poetry. Seamus Heaney in The Government of the Tongue recounts a strange habit in W. H Auden in his younger professional days. Here is Heaney quoting Christopher Isherwood reporting on one of Auden’s quirks as a young poet.


 He was very lazy. He hated polishing and making corrections. If I didn’t like a poem, he threw it away and wrote another. If I liked one line, he would keep it and work it into a new poem. In this way whole poems were constructed which were simply anthologies of my favourite lines, entirely regardless of grammar or sense. This is the simple explanation of much of Auden’s celebrated obscurity. 



 Isherwood was an Anglo-American writer and life-long friend of W. H. Auden. His account above of Auden at work reveals the strange predilections which the tyranny of form can force upon a poet – especially because at the end of the day the poem as form – seems to fit the technical requirements of that form to the detriment of sense. If it looks like it is poetry then fine!


 In contemporary times there are other new-fangled quirks like ascribing to an art form the name of ‘poetry’ simply by the very simple act of naming these hybrids thus. So  you have sound poetry, slam poetry, film poetry and ‘poetry’ that yokes several media together; how the mongrel is supposed to work towards sense as distinct from aesthetic pleasure is left to the postmodern imagination. Of course there is a popularising intention at work, besides one could easily argue that such uncoupling of poetry from it’s traditionally features is liberating and has a democratising effect. But a closer look at the results will show that the democratising is only an appearance – not unlike conducting an election but then rigging it at the same time and thereby cancelling out whatever presumptions of free choice, inclusion and diversity was pretended. Any experiment should be true to the usual spirit of poetry – sense, poignancy, aesthetic pleasure, grammatical unity and so on. In the case of ‘mixed media’ poetry, aesthetic pleasure – visual or aural – seems to be the main effect, to the detriment of all other values; as such  the final product is mostly sensational and a corollary to the popularising gambit. The kind of democratic impulse intended here is the one ushered in by modernity.


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Sentinel Poetry (Online) #46

The International Journal of Poetry & Graphics...since 2002                  

ISSN 1479-425X

Editor: Amatoritsero Ede

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