Formal Wear

Glyn Maxwell, On Poetry

Oberon Books, 170pp, £12.99, ISBN 9781849430852

reviewed by Hugh Foley

Midway through On Poetry, the poet and playwright Glyn Maxwell stops to indulge in a nice bit of épatering of the bourgeoisie. Describing a fictional creative writing class ‘moving short words millimetres backwards and forwards at the taxpayers’ expense’, he conjures the image of those philistine taxpayers, ‘all the taxpayers in the nation ... lining up to give young dreamers the hard earned money we’d planned to spend on crisps.’ This is the closest Maxwell comes to mounting a ‘defence’ of poetry in the tradition of Phillip Sidney and Percy Shelley. Shelley’s unacknowledged legislator becomes, as is the way of modernisation, an underappreciated civil servant. It is this creative writing class that centres Maxwell’s argument about the forms and capabilities of poetry. It serves as a conceit for leading the reader through both reflections and exercises, as Maxwell demonstrates what undoubtedly makes him a fine teacher of the craft of poetry.

For Maxwell, poetry is at the front of humankind’s never-ending battle against time. He quotes Delmore Shwartz’s ‘Calmly we walk through this April’s day’: ‘Time is the school in which we learn / Time is the fire in which we burn’. His book is an elegant explanation of what poetry does, which is to use temporal features, the temporary patterning of an utterance to signify something more lasting, ‘the coherent presence of a human creature’. This is in a sense what all language does; the tree does not stop existing when the word tree finishes its progress through the air. Poetry though, if it can be defined, is perhaps the noticing of this gap between the immensity of the tree and the little syllable we use to point it out. It is a form of strenuous attention. The question is whether poetry rewards this attention or whether, as Maxwell somewhat dramatically puts it, you can ‘see the whiteness eating away’ at the words on the page.

It is to this end that Maxwell sets about exploring ways of enacting this struggle, showing how great poems reward attention to their form. His deft use of illustrative poems, including some well done forgeries and bowdlerisations (his version of Yeats’ ‘The Second Coming’, written using only the vowels I, U and O, where ‘things go to shit’ is a particular highlight) helps to drive his argument that form is what a poet needs ‘to go up against time’. Using the analogy of a violinist who refuses to learn anything from previous musicians, Maxwell makes a powerful case for the continuing utility of traditional forms and, indeed, of the necessity for some kind of order in the poem. Like the biblical parallel, Maxwell argues, wise poets build their house upon the rock of tradition.

It is on this question of form though that the limitations of Maxwell’s argument become clear. ‘Let’s recite some we know by heart’, he says of the kind of free verse that does not include ‘Stein or Eliot or Pound or Jones or HD or Rosenberg or Williams or Bunting,’ as if this were all that was needed to judge a poem’s worth. If these are exceptions to his idea of free verse, it becomes hard to get a handle on what free verse actually is. It is undoubtedly true that the best poets are intimately concerned with the formal properties of their verse; it is almost tautological to say it but are mnemonic aspects, whether or not they are the root of poetry, the only necessary ones? There are hundreds of badly written and forgotten poems from every era, not because people did not use the historically accreted powers of traditional forms but because they did not use the given shapes effectively; they were not paying enough attention. Few people today read Richard Aldington or TE Hulme’s imagism, and few people read Wilfred Wilson Gibson or Ralph Hodgson’s traditionally formal poetry. They read Eliot and Pound, they read Auden and Hardy. Maxwell knows that technique is everything in poetry, but the book rarely gets beyond the refinement of technique. At one point, he rightly mocks those who call him a ‘neo-con’ for using traditional forms, but if he thinks the minutiae of poetic technique have grand implications for the human spirit, and that if ‘you master form you master time’, why couldn’t they have political significance? It may not be a fixed one, any more than forms have a fixed emotional significance, but within context all poetic technique is a kind of social practice.

Maxwell seems to create a straw man argument: a free verse poet who never has any desire other than to lineate his or her feelings. It is here that the institutional situation of poetry, cadging harder working people’s crisp money comes into play. If there is one place this straw man might exist, it is in creative writing classrooms, among students who have yet to do enough apprentice work to improve their craft(how many poets now do a large portion of their thinking arguing with a student about the merits of not capitalising their ‘I’?). Very few people are willing to pay enough attention to craft when they first start writing poetry.

The problem with Maxwell’s argument is that he seems to conflate the problems that come from lack of attention, anti-formalism in the strict sense, with the issues thrown up by poetry that at first glance seems a million miles removed from traditional forms, but which reminds us that poetry is not about first glances. Writing about dangerous trends in contemporary poetry, he provides us with its main evils:

Formlessness says time is broken, Postmodernism thinks it’s come to a stop and Obscurity can’t even muster the nerve to look it in the eye. Three monkeys. Move on

He follows this up by paraphrasing his ‘teacher’ (who I assume is Derek Walcott) that contemporary poetry, if it takes these directions, will run the risk of not having any audience at all. A note of scepticism might be raised: Richard Wilbur or Tony Harrison hardly sell thousands of copies to teenagers who never buy other poems, or to those deprived of their rightful rhymes.

All recurring structures are a kind of obscuring of some ideal of prose sense, but in that obscuring they reveal other truths, are in fact the most efficient way of saying and embodying something. There is much poetry that does not look like ‘proper’ verse on the page, poetry which is obscure precisely because it embraces an extreme formalism but which still rewards attention. The work of people like the American L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poets, or the ‘Cambridge School’ of British poetry is a mixed bag but when their ‘obscurity’ succeeds it is for reasons not so different from those that Maxwell demonstrates using his canonical examples of ‘traditional verse’.

Maxwell rightly points out the historically specific nature of modernism’s formal innovations, but this does not seem to stop him from claiming the physiological status of iambic pentameter, ‘the line as long as a breath’. Poets with very different lines have also placed the breath as their unit of measure, from Charles Olson to Allen Ginsberg. The ‘New Formalist’ poet, Frederick Turner wrote a book with neuroscientist Ernst Poppel called The Neural Lyre, where he argued that the poetic line was an innate biological fact, somewhere between 3 and 4 seconds in length (placing Iambic pentameter at a comfortable 3.30 seconds). Might it not be possible to argue that poetry is not about comfortably accepting limitations, even physiological ones? People cannot physiologically fly, but poets and writers more broadly have been giving voice to the desire to do so. Poetry might, in the process of constructing our attention, help the reader to realise more than the ‘consistent presence of a human creature’. To embrace a tradition of challenging formal expectations might be to expand the horizon of the way we look at people, to question our definition of coherent humanity, perhaps encouraging this latter idea more so.

Maxwell is right that those who reject form and tradition limit their poetic arsenal. He is right about many of the questions of technique that poets argue about; however the question the book only approaches gently is not ‘how poetry?’, but ‘why poetry?’ Maxwell provides great guidance as to how one could make better poems, but perhaps to others it might be less self-evident as to why one should make better poems. What is it that approaching language through poetry can achieve? Arguments about form and tradition have their place and are vitally instructive but perhaps the classroom, comfortably institutionalised and safe from the taxpayers, does in fact need to make a case as to why poetry is more valuable than crisps.