Welcome To Talking Verse

This blog is dedicated to discussion on poetry.

Poetry, on the European side of the Atlantic, has hardly progressed since the early 20th Century. Whilst in the USA poetry continues to evolve and present itself afresh.

Part of the reason for this is that the issue of poetry has been debated widely in the USA whereas in Britain, for example, you will be hard pressed to find anything that challenges the status quo of poetry.

There have been a few attempts: the Liverpool Beat poets made an short-lived impact during the early 1960s, but they could only offer a poor imitation of a style from the USA.

A handful of poets in the 20th century did make an impact. Basil Bunting and Tom Leonard shook up the established schools. But compared to the US the impact is small. Whilst other art forms have managed to progress over the years, poetry has stood still. Only the narrative has altered to keep abreast of the times.

Many people look to poetry to ‘tell’ them something; as if poetry were some form of journalism or propaganda. The laureateship of Carol Anne Duffy has only reinforced that view. But it is not simply a case of blaming the poets. Duffy is only responding to a demand that arises out of a society that pushes art for other ends, rather than simply art for the sake of it.

Today there is a wide awareness of poetry, the internet is weighted down with poetry sites that offer varying degrees of quality. Poetry is as valid as any other art form but only as long as it operates as an art form. Poets should not be seen as harbingers and the audience should look for meaning rather than rely on the poet or critic to provide answers.


This blog welcomes essays and book reviews about poetry. Please do not submit any poetry. If you wish to use a blog to submit poetry then I would recommend The Poets' Graves Workshop.

All submissions will be read and editing suggestions may be put to the author before being posted. Rejection by the author of any suggestion does not preclude it from being posted on the site.

Talking Verse follows no particular school of thought and has no other remit apart from the widest debate on matters of poetry.

Please submit here

Wednesday, 1 June 2011

Don't You Wonder Sometimes About Sound And Vision?*

Two forms of poetry that succinctly display some of the most important elements of poetry are the Limerick and the haiku.

For many of us the first encounter with poetic s will be the Limerick and particularly those of Edward Lear.  The Limerick is a five-line poem (sometimes the third and fourth line appear as one to make a quatrain) whose rhyme scheme is AABBA.  The last word of the first line is also the last word of the final line.

The rhyme scheme (as well as the brevity of each poem) means that the Limerick is one that is easy to remember.  But the rhyme scheme also creates a sense of the comical or the absurd and though Lear intended these works for children we should not overlook how he exploited the ‘music’ of poetry to great effect, which meant that the primary experience of the Limerick is not the ‘meaning, but the sound the poem makes.  The playfulness of the language in the Limerick also helps to make it acceptable to the inexperience of childhood.

Here are a couple of example:

There was a Young Lady whose chin,
Resembled the point of a pin;
So she had it made sharp,
And purchased a harp,
And played several tunes with her chin.

There was an Old Man of Apulia,
Whose conduct was very peculiar
He fed twenty sons,
Upon nothing but buns,
That whimsical Man of Apulia.

There is no sense to the narrative of the poem, yet the language remains very adult.  Words such as ‘purchased’, instead of ‘bought’, or ‘whimsical’ instead of ‘funny’, which give rise to the idea that these poems were not intended for their meaning.

Lear was not the first to produce limericks.  In the second decade of the 19th century we know that there were, at least, three volumes of ‘nonsense’ poems produced, which were all written as Limericks.

This one by an unknown author has a more contrived feeling to it than Lear’s:

There was an Old Woman of Surrey,
Who was morn noon and night, in a hurry,
Call'd her husband a Fool,
Drove her children to school;
The worrying Old Woman of Surrey.

The final line, for instance, bears no relation to the preceding four.  There is no reason why the woman should be ‘worrying’  And though these are meant as nonsense, there is a need to make some sort of logic out of the final line.  I think that this is why Lear’s work has lasted so long.

This one by Spike Milligan is a modern example:

Things that go 'bump' in the night
Should not really give one a fright.
It's the hole in each ear
That lets in the fear,
That, and the absence of light!

The ending of the final line is a rhyme rather than a repeat of the final word of the first.  This repetition is another element of the Limerick that helps to make the poem more memorable.  It rounds off the poem, whereas Milligan’s seems to wallow in its own cleverness.  Also, whereas the traditional Limerick has a story to it, Milligan’s Limerick comes across as a knowing adult providing advice and, as such, the ‘nonsense’ element is absent.

Turning to another poetic form that has been more abused,  The Haiku is a form from traditional Japanese poetics.  It is probably the most abused form and definitely the most misunderstood in the West.

If you come across any description by western poetry sites or book, the first thing you will learn is that the haiku has three lines and a syllable count of 5 – 7 – 5.  And in essence this is right.  However it has led to some of the worst doggerel ever committed on paper by, not only amateurs, but professional poets.

So to set the record straight:  In Asian countries, such as Japan, the emphasis on syllable sound is stretched rather than having a hard or soft sound to it as is the case with Latin/Teutonic/Anglo-Saxon languages.
So a Japanese Haiku would sound like this:

hototogisu/Urami no Taki no/ura omote
(literally: cuckoo/backside falls of/both sides)

This may not seem to make sense.  But what the poet Matsuo Bashō is doing here is creating an image.  Urami no Taki literally means “waterfall to be seen from the back”, he is playing with the idea of seeing one side of a thing (in this case a cuckoo) at once, but from the back of the waterfall he can see both sides.

The translation of this by Jane Reichhold is:

seen from behind the waterfall
both sides.

What we now see is a short poem whereby each line has a purpose. The first line introduces the subject (the cuckoo), the second line describes an act (looking from behind the waterfall) and the third line states an outcome (both sides can be seen).  It is this particular structure which defines the Haiku.  It is irrelevant whether there are 2 lines or 3 and the syllable count is not the important aspect of Haiku.  Once these three issues are addressed within a small poem then we are closest to the structure of the haiku.

Oriental poetry relies heavily on the creation of an image rather than the creation of a sound (there is no rhyming in Asian poetry unless it is accidental).  The early imagists were inspired by the Oriental poetry.  One of the most famous and successful Haikus written by a Western poet is In a Station of the Metro by Ezra Pound:

The apparition of these faces (1) in the crowd (2) ;
Petals on a wet, black bough (3).

We can see clearly that Pound sticks to the important structure of Haiku: he introduces the subject (1) in an act –being in a crowd (2) and an outcome which is how he sees the crowd (3).  Pound goes much further than Bashō and other traditionalists in that he not only ‘paints’ an image but also makes demands on the reader’s imagination, by forcing us to understand and imagine a crowd, but also stretching the reader to see in that crowd what Pound sees.

I, arbitrarily, found this, unaccredited, ‘haiku’ on the UCLA International institute site:

 As the wind does blow
        Across the trees, I see the
                Buds blooming in May          

This is simply a statement.  The inclusion of ‘does’ in the first line illustrates the desperation of the author to make the line into five syllables (I have no idea why it is laid out this way).

It is possible to write a Haiku and not realise it. The author of this piece was unaware of what he had created until it was pointed out to him.

This unploughed field with idle scarecrow (1), this idle tombstone(2).
this untaught mind (3)

Eric Radcliffe’s Haiku stretches the imagination and demands the reader works to make the Haiku work.  At first glance this poem’s structure has less in common with Bashō’s than Ezra Pound’s poem, We have the subject of the scarecrow in a field, but the act is a transformation into an idle tombstone.  Pound does the same thing by transforming the faces into a crowd.  But that does not require as great a leap of the imagination as Eric’s poem demands.  What is also clever in this is that each aspect of the poem suggests disarray.

Whereas each line of Bashō and Pound is a ‘leap’ one viewpoint to the next requiring a change of gear in our imagination, Eric’s poem ‘steps’ along as if we were walking up a littered alleyway, but it is a much more sophisticated piece as a result.