John Gould Fletcher

Irradiations, Sand and Spray







[IX] THE art of poetry as practised in the English-speaking countries to-day, is in a greatly backward state. Among the reading public there are exactly three opinions generally held about it. The first, and by far the most popular, view is that all poets are fools and that poetry is absurd. The second is that poetry is an agreeable after-dinner entertainment, and that a poet is great because he has written quotable lines. The last and worst is that which strives to press the poet into the service of some philosophical dogma, ism, or fad.

For these views the poets themselves, and no others, are largely responsible. With their exaggerated vanity, they have attempted to make of their craft a Masonic secret, iterating that a poet composes by ear alone; that rhythm is not to be analyzed, that rhyme is sacrosanct; that poets, by some special dispensation of Providence, write by inspiration, being born with more insight than other men; and so forth. Is it any wonder that the public is indifferent, hostile, or befooled when poets themselves disdain to explain clearly what they are trying to do, and refuse to admit the public into the privacy of their carefully guarded workrooms?

It was Théophile Gautier, I think, who offered to teach any one how to write poetry in twenty-five lessons. Now [X] this view has in it some exaggeration, but, at the same time, much truth. No amount of lessoning will turn an idiot into a wise man, or enable a man to say something when he is naturally one who has nothing to say. Nevertheless, I believe that there would have been fewer mute inglorious Miltons, greater respect paid to poetry, and many better poets, if the poets themselves had stopped working through sheer instinct and set themselves the task of considering some elementary principles in their craft. In this belief, and in the hope of enlightening some one as to the aim and purpose of my work, I am writing this preface.

To begin with, the basis of English poetry is rhythm, or, as some would prefer to call it, cadence. This rhythm is obtained by mingling stressed and unstressed syllables. Stress may be produced by accent. It may – and often is – produced by what is known as quantity, the breath required to pronounce certain syllables being more than is required on certain others. However it be produced, it is precisely this insistence upon cadence, upon the rhythm of the line when spoken, which sets poetry apart from prose, and not – be it said at the outset – a certain way of printing, with a capital letter at the beginning of each line, or an insistence upon end-rhymes.

Now this rhythm can be made the same in every line of the poem. This was the aim of Alexander Pope, for instance. My objection to this method is that it is both arti[XI]ficial and unmusical. In the case of the eighteenth-century men, it gave the effect of a perfectly balanced pattern, like a minuet or fugue. In the case of the modern imitator of Kipling or Masefield, it gives the effect of monotonous rag-time. In neither case does it offer full scope for emotional development.

I maintain that poetry is capable of as many gradations in cadence as music is in time. We can have a rapid group of syllables – what is called a line – succeeded by a slow heavy one; like the swift, scurrying-up of the wave and the sullen dragging of itself away. Or we can gradually increase or decrease our tempo, creating accelerando and rallentando effects. Or we can follow a group of rapid lines with a group of slow ones, or a single slow, or vice versa. Finally, we can have a perfectly even and unaltered movement throughout if we desire to be monotonous.

The good poem is that in which all these effects are properly used to convey the underlying emotions of its author, and that which welds all these emotions into a work of art by the use of dominant motif, subordinate themes proportionate treatment, repetition, variation, – what in music is called development, reversal of rôles, and return In short, the good poem fixes a free emotion, or a free range of emotions, into an inevitable and artistic whole. The real secret of the greatest English poets lies not in their views on life, – which were, naturally, only those which every sane [XII] man is obliged to hold, – but in their profound knowledge of their craft, whereby they were enabled to put forth their views in perfect form. Each era of man has its unique and self-sufficing range of expression and experience, and therefore every poet must seek anew for himself, out of the language-medium at his disposal, rhythms which are adequate and forms which are expressive of his own unique personality.

As regards the length of the lines themselves, that depends altogether upon the apparatus which Nature has given us, to enable us to breathe and to speak. Each line of a poem, however many or few its stresses, represents a single breath, and therefore a single perception. The relation between breath and perception is a commonplace of Oriental philosophy. As we breathe so do we know the universe, whether by sudden, powerful gusts of inspiration, or through the calmer – but rarer – gradual ascent into the hidden mysteries of knowledge, and slow falling away therefrom into darkness.

So much for the question of metre. The second range of problems with which we are immediately concerned, when we examine the poetic craft, is that which is generally expressed under the name of rhyme.

Now rhyme is undoubtedly an element of poetry, but it is neither an indissoluble element, nor is it, in every case, an inevitable one. In the main, the instinct which makes for [XIII] rhyme is sound. Poetry is an art which demands – though not invariably – the utmost richness and fulness of musical effect. When rhyme is considered as an additional instrument of what may be called the poetic orchestra, it both loses and gains in importance. It loses because it becomes of no greater import than assonance, consonance, alliteration, and a host of similar devices. It gains because it is used intelligently as a device for adding richness of effect, instead of blindly as a mere tag at the end of a line.

The system which demands that the end of every line of poetry must rhyme with the end of some one preceding or following it, has not even the merit of high antiquity or of civilized adherence. In its essence it is barbarous; it derives from the stamping of feet, clapping of hands, pounding of drums, or like devices of savage peoples to mark the rhythms in their dances and songs. And its introduction into European poetry, as a rule to be invariably followed, dates precisely from the time of the break-up of the Latin civilization, and the approach of what the historians know as the Dark Ages. Since it has come into common use among European peoples, every poet of eminence has tried to avoid its fatiguing monotony, by constructing new stanza-forms. Dante, Petrarch, Chaucer, Spenser, all these were innovators or developers of what may be known as formal metre. But let us not forget that the greatest of all, Shakespeare, used rhyme in his plays, only as additional decora[XIV]tion to a lyric, or in a perfectly legitimate fashion as marking the necessary pause at the close of a scene. Let us also remember that, as he advanced in thought and expression, he gradually abandoned rhyme for the only reason that an artist abandons anything; because it was no longer adequate.

The process that began with the Pervigilium Veneris, the mediæval hymn-writers, and the Provencal troubadours, and which culminated in the orchestral blank verse of Shakespeare, has now passed through all the stages of reduction to formula, eclecticism, archaistic reaction, vulgarization, gramaphone popularity, and death. Milton – Gibbon among poets – reduced it to his too-monotonous organ-roll. Dryden, Pope and his followers, endlessly repeated a formula. Blake, Wordsworth, Coleridge, attempted a return to the Elizabethan and to the even earlier ballad forms. In the later nineteenth century we come back to still earlier forms. Ballades, rondeaus, even sestinas appear. Gradually we find the public attention dropping away from these juggling feats performed with stale form, and turning to what may be called the new balladist – the street singer who is content to doggerelize and make strident a once noble form. We have our Masefields, our Kiplings, and worse. Rag-time has at last made its appearance in poetry. Let us be grateful to the man who invented it – Nicholas Vachel Lindsay – but let us admit that the force of nature can no further go.

[XV] It is time to create something new. It is time to strip poetry of meaningless tatters of form, and to clothe her in new, suitable garments. Portents and precursors there have been in plenty. We already have Blake, Matthew Arnold, Whitman, Samuel Butler, and I know not how many more. Every one is talking – many poets, poeticules, and poetasters are writing – what they call "free verse." Let there be no mistake about one thing. Free verse that is flabby, in organic, shapelessly obvious, is as much of a crime against poetry as the cheapest echo of a Masefield that any doggerel scribbler ever strummed. Let poets drop their formulas – "free" or otherwise – and determine to discipline themselves through experiment. There is much to be learned from the precursors I have mentioned. There is a great deal to be learned from the French poets – Parnassians, Symbolists, Whitmanites, Fantaisistes – who have, in the years 1860 to 1900, created a new Renaissance under our noses. But above all, what will teach us the most is our language and life. Never was life lived more richly, more fully, with more terrible blind intensity than it is being lived at this instant. Never was the noble language which is ours surpassed either in richness or in concision. We have the material with which to work, and the tools to do the work with. It is America's opportunity to lay the foundations for a new flowering of English verse, and to lay them as broad as they are strong.
      January, 1915.





Erstdruck und Druckvorlage

John Gould Fletcher: Irradiations, Sand and Spray.
Boston u. New York: Houghton Mifflin 1915, S. IX-XV.


Die Textwiedergabe erfolgt nach dem ersten Druck (Editionsrichtlinien).





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Lyriktheorie » R. Brandmeyer