A long title like that deserves a serious book reading group reommendation, so here it is.
When, quite late in life, I was reading for a Masters in Modern and Contemporary Literature at Birkbeck, my struggle each end of term was to find even one essay title from among the many offered. It wasn’t just finding something that would allow me to show how well I had grasped the import of the set texts but, quite simply, I wasn’t even sure I understood the rubrics at all. One desperate term, I could see nothing at all until I found this:
How far do you think prosody and metrical analysis are useful for the study of post-war poetry in English? Are better methods available?
Since I could see nothing else, I went for it and, first of all, found enormous satisfaction from all the poetry I had to read and, secondly, that I warmed so much to the subject that I gained the highest essay mark I ever attained. One book was invaluable in giving me so many insights and explaining the rules and conventions, traditions and tradecraft of poetry that I went out and bought my own copy; not cheap even second-hand but priceless. I’m talking about The Poetry Handbook: A Guide to Reading Poetry for Pleasure and Practical Criticism by John Lennard [Oxford: OUP, 1996].
Lennard wanted to write a book that gave anyone who wanted get more out of reading poetry a better understanding of its craft and technique and he achieved that without speaking down to the amateur but, at the same time, writing an undergraduate (and in my case a postgraduate) primer that makes clear that the basics of poetry are ‘an understanding of, and an ability to judge, the elements of the poet’s craft. This gave me several pointers and much encouragement to think that one could use prosody and metrical analysis in the study of contemporary poetry. As I went on to discover, even the most modern of poets love to test their ingenuity and verbal dexterity by writing in verse forms that were well-known anything from 500 to 1,000 years earlier. Take the villanelle, nineteen lines of iambic pentameter (di-dum five times) with only two end-rhymes, lines 1, 6, 12, and 18 a refrain and lines 3, 9, 15, and 19 a second refrain. Before you run a mile from seeming complexity, remember that the skilful poet will build something beautiful on this scaffolding such that you cannot see it, only feel it, through the wonder of the language. One very well-known example is the Dylan Thomas loud lament for the death of his father, ‘Do not go gentle into that good night’.
More of us know about sonnets, another ancient form of fourteen lines and various rhyme schemes and the ‘turn’ that after (generally) eight lines sends the poem off in another direction and to its conclusion. It is still in wide use today. Lennard’s cool and clear analysis allowed me to see that, in all probability, better methods are generally not available and not really required if what one is reading is real poetry.
So marooned on my mythical lighthouse, I will have the leisure to re-read Lennard and, when I am liberated, go back to reading (out loud if possible) even more poetry from across the ages. Do remember, however, that one man’s metre is another man’s paeon, and we each need to find and enjoy our favourite verse forms. Stuck on the lighthouse with the storm raging outside, I will turn to the third book I brought along, of which more tomorrow.