skip to Main Content

A new kind of poetry?

A hundred years ago Ezra Pound was busy creating modern poetry in London.  He helped Yeats to write more directly and more symbolically, then set about “breaking the pentameter” by following T E Hulme and others to create imagism and, a bit later, vorticism.  He recognised the originality of Eliot, Joyce and Lawrence and published the first two, worked with William Carlos Williams (a friend from university) and as Foreign Editor of Poetry (Chicago), permanently influenced the writing of Marianne Moore, E E Cummings and Wallace Stevens.  In less than ten years, poetry had changed unrecognisably through the work of a small group of very different people who saw the need for change.

I’m wondering whether poetry is due for another radical change, perhaps starting in cities like London again.  It’s fascinating how English poetry changes by conforming to or reacting against the dominant language mode – printed prose – often under the influence of ideas from France.  The growth of regular newspapers and journals in the late 17th century, written in correct ‘classical’ style, led to a century of tightly metric, tightly rhymed verse dominated by the heroic couplet, a ‘classical’ import from France.  Eventually Wordworth and Coleridge led a reaction against this, complexly inspired by the French Revolution, but the formality of Victorian prose squeezed the life out most of the century’s English poetry – French symbolism didn’t take hold here and two of the three great radical poets (Hopkins and Emily Dickinson; the third is Whitman) were unpublished in their lifetimes.

The modernist poets of 1914 were responding among other things to the flood of cheap newspapers, the jingoistic ‘yellow press’, which the great Austrian satirist Karl Kraus saw as dangerously simplifying the way people saw the world and therefore could feel about it.  Popular poets like Kipling, Newbolt and Masefield were boisterously simplistic.  Pound and Eliot took several French ideas – Baudelaire’s flâneur poems, symbolism, Laforgue’s adaptations of Whitman – created imagism (originally called imagisme to make it sound French) as a short-term expedient and by 1922 had created modern poetry.

Today we have iPads and smartphones which quite a lot of writers believe are changing the way we think, both simplifying and complicating the way we see the world so that people’s ability to concentrate is impaired.  Will this affect poetry?  I think it already has, and for the better.  The rise of interconnected electronic media since the mid 90s has paralleled a rise in reading and writing poetry – a huge increase over the same period of poetry magazines, websites, pamphlets, books, courses, degrees and competitions.  I think this is because reading and writing poetry is something we can’t do quickly or interruptedly.

As with cheap newspapers in the early years of the last century, poetry is responding to an electronically connected world.  (Interestingly the other electronic media – radio, cinema, television – have had almost no effect on poetry; it’s words that are read which count.)  I think we shall have no more great poets like Seamus Heaney whose formative years were spent in a small rural community.  I sense that poetry will increasingly express feeling in a world of instant communication through new versions of the artifice that poems have always used – perhaps sound-based, formalist in new ways, Oulipian (the influence of France again; Oulipo – Ouvroir de la Littérature Potentielle – devises ways of stimulating creativity by restricting the choices available to writers, as in Georges Perec’s novel La Disparition which is written without the letter ‘e’.  It’s perhaps poetry’s most exciting new idea.)

I’ll be exploring these ideas and others in Magma 58 which comes out soon and tracing the development of modern verse in Make It New! how poetry became modern, a course at London’s City Lit which starts shortly – for details see here




This Post Has 20 Comments

  1. First, I highly recommend Laurie’s courses at City Lit.

    The current issue of American Poetry Review has a fine article by Joy Ladin, called, ‘Emperors of Ice Cream. Sense, Non-sense and Silliness in American Poetry’, a discussion of our struggle to find meaning when, quoting Robert Frost, we should be attending to ‘the sound of sense’, sense-suggesting tones one gleans ‘from voices behind a door that cuts off the words.’

    Ladin introduces the term ‘sense-optional’ — poems that ‘can only be read and written competently when we recognize when they are and aren’t making sense, and understand what kind of non-sense they are making.’ The careless poet (ever more common, and she names one, quoting his poem) doesn’t distinguish between sense, non-sense and silliness. By contrast, Ginsberg in ‘Howl’ carefully maintained syntactical control over the three attributes. With poems like the former’s ‘readers stop expecting poetic language to have any relation to sense, which means that poets need worry ever less about it.’

  2. I find it an infinitely sad thought there will never be another Seaumus Heaney.
    there are poets who write out of silence and solitude who enter the zeiitgesit at their own pace/level when they feel thay have something to say

  3. Isn’t it rather narrow-visioned (and western-orientated) to suggest that the rural cannot produce any more great poets? Or that newness must come from the city? Wordsworth and Coleridge’s revolutionary poetic project is thrown in here, but no attention drawn to the fact that they began this living in the rural south-west and realised it living in the rural north-west. The city is not the future anymore than rural communities are the past. Yes, a new poetry will almost certainly emerge, as new poetries are always doing, in some way or other, but it seems rather old-fashioned to assume it must be from the great modern metropolis alone. Didn’t that – as this piece notes – already happen in the C20th?

  4. In the age of smartphones and kindles, poetry stands out because of its portability. In between metro stops, I can read through a poem, and then take time to go over it again, mouthing the words. No-one knows what I am doing. I could be singing along to music, for all they know, or playing Candy Crush. It’s a very private pleasure; no-one I know reads poetry.

    But a single non-talkative reader isn’t what makes big names of people. There’s an evergrowing social network that will surely put poetry back into the media spotlight if only for a brief while. There will surely be a new “young turk”, and a new “vanguard” of writer followers. I won’t be waiting up for it, though.

    To me, poetry is where I am between stops, apps, calls, and emails.

  5. I’m assuming you mean no future great poet will emerge from a rural background,
    rather than that no great poets will emerge, but I rather think your recipe for the future of poetry as an apparently transient and superficial art form means we will never know another great poet. The idea is both appalling and nonsense, and as Polly Atkin says above, very narrow-visioned.

  6. Extremely interesting, Laurie, but I do wonder if forecasts of change can miss the eventual survival of elements of the old tradition. I think of Joyce’s statement that in his day film had usurped the narrative role of the novel – yet the novel survives with a strong narrative element, even in the age of post-modernism. I think even of the prophecies that the appearance of the camera would see the end of portrait and landscape painting (even, it was argued, painting per se), which again has not really happened. I’m sure that the ambience of rapid communication we live with will affect poetry, and radically, but much else will survive.
    But thanks for a stimulating piece.
    Is there a different yet adjacent argument here as to whether the Kindle will replace the book?

  7. The revolution which happened in the eighties, which was very exciting time for writers, was anti-metropolitan, and was not planned or predictable. That mysterious thing called zeitgeist meant the development of what we called the Huddersfield-Notingham-Suffolk axis. The North, The Wide Skirt, Slow Dancer, joe soap’s canoe were all part of it, and many others. Simon Armitage, Carol Ann Duffy, Ian McMillan, Peter Sansom – influenced by the New York Poets and others, older poets like Bunting and Roy Fisher, and publishers such as Carcanet and. Bloodaxe. It seems invidious to name names – there were so many. It was a blissful time to be alive and a young/ new writer. Computers and social media have radically changed the way writers publish and disseminate their work. My ineptitude with my ipad causes many interesting variations in the English language, which I tend to leave rather than submit to the tedium of correction. Is t his a new trend? Misprints have always been with us. But a computer is only another type of implement like a pen or pencil. Poems still need energy, imagination, technique.

  8. I can think of many reasons why a new kind of poetry will emerge – principally the extraordinary change in perception and communication that has arisen as a result of the internet. On the other hand, I see no reason why a “new” poetry should be London-based: what distinguishes the UK poetry scene is precisely the vibrant activity in the provinces. Nor do I see any particular reason why in this case the innovative ideas should be coming from France (and I say this as French-speaker and francophile). Changes of the magnitude of modernism are by their nature impossible to predict – I doubt whether Ezra Pound would have predicted change – he implemented it. But God help us if change means writing a poem without the letter e.

  9. Interesting, yes, very, but. Oulipo is the sixties, and Perec’s novel is an intellectual ‘tour de force’ and an exercise of some sort, I suppose, but is it beautiful, strong, and moving like Heaney’s poetry? Does it move the heart, the soul as well as the brain? The (parisian) french love word-play, the intellectual, the abstract and the absurd, but do they hold the key to modernity in poetry? I doubt it. In their open-mindedness they did/do give it a chance, an open space or a forum, a headstart, like with Picasso, Bracque… And that, admittedly, is déjà a whole lot.
    I have always preferred Rimbaud and Verlaine to Baudelaire or, say, Apollinaire. When you reread the verse… check it out for yourself, what is still ‘new’?
    And they were all simple, rather solitary men, with a talent, who tried their best to humbly sound just like themselves, like Heaney or Whitman or… did. Originals. Clever rather than sophisticated. Plain. True. Honest, surprisingly open. Small-town/rural. Perhaps the city may even be an impediment to writing poetry?
    Your piece reminded me of the intro of ‘Poetry’ ‘s new editor, who seems to have set out to discover the timeless poetry, the Art, of our time. It’s too big a job for one man, or a magazine; only Time can tell. ‘The New’ and ‘the Timeless’, to me seem akin. To recognize what is good, this is, what really moves you, surprises you, and is -always- fresh (rather than new) seems to me the ‘défi’, to seek for the new for the sake of the new, or (start) the hype, the old pitfall or the ‘défaite’. Picasso: ‘Je ne cherche pas, je trouve.’ Good luck.

  10. I suspect this kind of debate about a re-ified ‘poetry’ is what, 50 years ago at university, made me think that, curiously, whilst I liked reading all sorts of poems, and listening to them, and performing them, and that this was a family that included Milton and Little Richard and John Donne, Marriott Edgar, Flanders and Swan, Elvis and Hopkins, Dylan Thomas and Dylan and McGough and the Beatles , ‘poetry’ was not for the likes of me.And the article depresses me, because I find hard to believe that it’s still possible to talk about poetry as though it comes with a capital P, and is a single ‘thing’. And while we’re at it, I’m staggered by the notion of Heaney’ s remote rural upbringing. As though he had no education; as though the Catholic grammar schools and the storytelling and the languages of sectarianism ,the radio, and the complex poetries of Catholicism and the registers and dialects of farming were as nothing. This is the kind of thinking that had DH Lawrence down as some sort of idiot savant, or noble savage because he came from a pit village. It’s almost as though Tony Harrison never existed or that he was a bit of an eccentric for faffing about with rhetorical devices like couplets and Meredithean sonnets.

  11. Grahaeme, I don’t believe poetry need be “transient and superficial”, only that it will have to respond to what most people read and how they do this, as has happened at various times in the past. And this is now increasingly electronically and interconnectedly.

    Heaney repeatedly said that his sensibility was formed by growing up in rural Derry. This wasn’t his only influence, of course – he was inspired and confirmed in becoming a poet by his education, particularly Queen’s University, Belfast, just as Wordsworth and Coleridge developed as poets after going to Cambridge. My point is that a poet growing up in the countryside will no longer have only the influences John Foggin lists, but also access to the whole world of text and image and their development as a poet (or any other kind of writer) will have to take account of this.

    I don’t think this is a western-orientated point, Polly. The fastest growth of mobile phones, etc, is now in the developing world. I think the total interconnectedness described at the end of Wyndham’s The Chrysalids is well on its way, but electronically, not telepathically.

    I’ve no idea how poetry will respond to the new ways of accessing text – Oulipo or a greater emphasis on sound or structure are just guesses – but respond I’m sure it will.

  12. London has no particular claim to be where “it” is going to happen, especially as everything’s online so the physical location has less effect. But London is so big and full of people including poets that the kind of things that thrive on face-to-face happen fairly easily, as long as the people do get to meet (which is not always easy in London). That can also happen in a smaller place with a determined bunch of like-minded poets – the example of Huddersfield in the 80s is a good one, and it became the “poetry capital” because although there was more happening in London, in a place like Huddersfield it was visible. That’s also why poetry festivals do well in smallish places, when quite a big event in London is a drop in the ocean. Some developments in poetry will be nurtured in London, and others will be nurtured by the internet or by isolation and sheer chance. I don’t see why the childhood of a Heaney should be impossible anywhere – becoming a great poet is not a formula. On the whole I feel pessimistic about where poetry is, but that’s a worm’s eye view of the swamp, and whatever is happening is probably hard for any of us to see at the moment.

  13. Hello Laurie, a good but difficult question you have put before us, one consisting of many other questions that remain open. Du choc des idées jaillit la lumière (my computer almost corrected this into ‘du chic des idées…’, which is certainly untrue!)

    Some of the poets mentioned above were almost recluses and avoided connection with (too many) others, they kept society at a distance.
    On what level is our interconnectedness (to be) situated? I believe it to be on a more practical, more superficial level; surface. Is it connection (yet)? Or is it fac simile? Is it even speech? Is fast communication per se ‘condensed’? Is ‘txt’ more condensed than ‘text’? Language is certainly being made new faster than ever.

    I agree with you if you mean to imply that poetry is connected to plain speech, or thought, and may/must therefore change along with the new ways of everyday communication.

    Returning to Pound, I think he re-newed (also) by systematically searching for the roots, the history of poetry, or: the very old (le provencal, Li Po…). His implementation of other poetry, mainly the eastern -chinese- poetry tradition has had an enormous effect on western poetry, notably on Williams’s work. Pound connected with (other) traditions. And the chinese were far ahead; more dense, more direct, one might even say more brave. Moderns in 800 AD. Pound insisted that it must sound, in order stick, as did Verlaine (‘la musique avant toute chose’).
    Also important to the modernists (and earlier than Pound) was Rilke, who like Pound travelled a lot (two main innovators not only ‘found’ but also ‘searched’. But where did they look? Or to what did they listen? It seems that Rilke just had it pouring out of him, and poured it into the old form of the sonnet, so reviving the form). He wasn’t too fond of the influences of society or zeitgeist, though, and like Li Po and a good deal of the chinese poets, he practically fled into nature, silence, the absence of words and others, connecting to what? Himself, right?

    And then there’s Sappho! They go their own way, the new, and unwillingly shock.

  14. Every good poem is a new form of dialogue with an assumed audience:it is the refreshment of this thesis which creates important developments like the Lyrical Ballads or Imagism, and I imagine that a big issue in the age of digital communication is to try and gauge the audience. I don’t just mean their demographic or location, but how do you reach beneath common parlance and shared, internet-driven mythologies to an inner listener craving a real and affecting poetic address to its antennae. When it happens we’ll know it, whether hung up on “e”s or not.

  15. One day the poets which are now fashionable will be denigrated in the way in which one of the writers of the responses denigrates Kipling. I challenge him / her to write poetry as good as Kipling or Hardy, both of whom were considered great in their day.
    It is, of course easy to break conventions: some may be worth breaking, others just reflect the current readers’ likes and dislikes.

  16. Do many people other than students read Pound these days (versus Shakespeare, Frost, Owen etc., etc.)? His imagiste programme was an interesting and stimulating avant-garde experiment, but did his own vers libre approach really work? Unlike scientists the artistic avant-garde tend not to evaluate experiments objectively. Joyce was an exception. He had no illusions about Finnegans Wake.
    I suggest that new media channels are less important for the creation of good or great poetry than themes, experiences, issues and formal devices that favour lyrical and/or dramatic expression of ideas about life.
    The near disappearance of the classical and popular lyrical framework used by earlier poets is something to lament. I think many of the most popular modern poems (including songs) retain some elements of that framework.

  17. Pound might have been one of the people to found modernism, but he didn’t finish it. English poetry is able to respond to Pound and Eliot with Geoffrey Hill, who doesn’t define himself against new French forms.

    I think the questions are who can respond to Hill, and can this sort of high modernism, which is certainly taxing if not elitist, be democratised? A true democracy doesn’t make the subject easier,or even simpler, it increases the capacity of people to understand and absorb.

    Oulipo stays a game in this sense. Christina Rossetti used to play word games. They can be productive. But they don’t produce King Log, or Speech Speech.

  18. Laurie in your article in issue #48 “Is it beautiful?” you posed a similar issue to your focus here. I believe things must evolve. Not becuse everything must change but as people, poets learn more from reading and writing and attempting new things (I do not include in this gimmicks which have a great deal to do with Contemporary Poetry) they revitalize the language. They learn new ways of saying old things. If there seems to be no great poetry it is only because the subject of much poetry written today has been narrowed down to the inane and banal. It is as if to approach an expansive concept–even by doing so in a small way–has fallen out of fashion. But it has not fallen out of fashion with the reader, rather it is the current editors of poetry magazines many who have come out of poetry factories of MFA programs that have narrowed what get’s published. I don’t think forms, style or what have you makes any bit of difference. Everything depends on what and how it is being said. A good poem is a good poem and I sadly see very little that is good in what is being published. There is probably more good poetry and some great poetry being posted on blogs, which precludes them from being accepted for publication in literary magazines regardless of how small their readership may be, than in all the poetry journals en masse. I include work published in that holy of holies The New Yorker which seems to smack of a kind of nepotism and leaning toward obtuse writing–the more obfuscating it seems the better. We are living in a period of the Emperor’s New Clothes and those that pull the strings have little inclination in seeing and telling the truth about how much really bad poetry is out there. In conclusion and as an example, I had a conversation with a published poet sometime ago and we got onto the subject of using metaphors. That conversation ended when she told me quite out of hand that oh she never used them. I rest my case. Thanks. Great article. >KB

Comments are closed.

Back To Top