Thursday, 23 January 2014

Poetry and Verse

In connection with Byron I mentioned the distinction between poetry and verse. Many people might disagree with what follows (if they read it): this is what I think; how I use the two terms.

Poetry is the essence, the distillation, of language: a poem is a single malt as opposed to the good claret of an essay by Thomas de Quincey or the Watney’s Red Barrel of Frederick Forsyth. In poetry, words are chosen not just for their denotations but also for their connotations, their length and sound, their stresses, their possible rhymes of course, and even for their shapes on the page. (And that last is not a new idea: George Herbert was doing it 400 years ago.)

Much poetry is written in verse, but not all verse is poetry. Verse is just words, almost prose, arranged in lines with some sort of rhythm and often rhyme. I don’t think poetry in the sense I’m using the word can be sustained for more than a page, unless one is Rilke and possessed by Angels. Most poets, even good ones, degenerate into mere verse when they try to write long poems.

Here are two examples from Tennyson’s very long (40 pages in a small print edition) poem ‘Maud’. For the first, so as not to be too selectively unfair, I have deliberately avoided the many highly ‘romantic’ episodes in the story and taken an ‘ordinary’ bit about people going home after a party:


Now half to the setting moon are gone,
            And half to the rising day;
Low on the sand and loud on the stone
            The last wheel echoes away.


That is one of the places where the huge farrago of verse that is ‘Maud’ rises to the level of Poetry.  Now a couplet a page or two away from that verse:


Her brother is coming back tonight,
Breaking up my dream of delight.


That is dire; it wouldn’t get past the editor of the South Norwood Amateur Poets’ magazine. Tennyson could only get away with it because he was Poet Laureate. Well, I’m not sure he had yet been awarded the laureateship (often the kiss of death to a poet) when he wrote ‘Maud’, but he was a big deal and had written some very fine poetry. That couplet might be verse; poetry it aint.

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