I have spent the last two mornings thinking about a specific line or two of poetry. Did I choose a certain word simply because it rhymed with another? Does it matter if I did? Can the word in question be integrated naturally into the body of the poem, or will there always be a sense of strain about its presence? The problem is not so much with the word as with the phrase commonly associated with it. If I can’t fit the phrase into the poem then I’m not happy about using the word. And it’s no use tampering with the phrase. To do that would betray the inappropriateness of the word under scrutiny. I manage finally to use the entire phrase as it occurs in everyday speech, but this has an impact on the phrase that comes next. The integration of the phrase calls for an alteration of the articles that ensue: this personal adjective should be replaced by a definite article. However, we now have two definite articles in the phrase. So perhaps one of these could have an indefinite article substituted for it.
I believe such niceties matter. Licence is in general inadmissible. There is nothing poetic about it. Very good verse observes all the conventions of prose, while fine prose is often imbued with poetry, or at least as sensitive to its own rhythms as poetry is to the rhythms of verse. It is reasonable to put aside a word because its use brings about a clash of sibilants. An s at the end of one word will merge with an s at the start of the next, causing a slur in the diction. One of the great qualities of Alexander Pope’s couplets is that their accurate rhymes are embedded in the flow of an elegant and appropriate syntax. There is a satisfying irony about the prosaic tenor of successful verse that is akin to that of form contradicting content, as it does in the writings of the Marquis de Sade, of whom it has been said that he was capable of expressing the most gross indecencies in a style that remains a model for good manners. To put it another way, his prose is meticulous in its observation of the rules while he advocates the desecration of all values. In a similar way, poetry may employ the conventions of prosody to highlight a coincidental music that contradicts that aspect of the text.
It is more than a matter of behaving oneself on the page. Words are pictures of facts, and the integration of words into appropriate phrases serves to enhance the coherence of the picture. Tenses and numbers need to agree. A singular metaphor cannot serve a plural subject without considerable finessing. But as one gradually ‘gets things right’ a resonance starts to emerge from the lines. This is a quality which may go unrecognised but at least one knows that the job is being done.
Each niggle needs to be dealt with, for the poem’s final timbre is dependent on the stamina of the writer’s dissatisfaction. Getting things right is largely a matter of correcting what is wrong. The positive outcome, that resonance, is the result of a critical process that identifies drawbacks. One responds to one’s own ‘negative criticism’. Here the poem isn’t quite working because a rhyme is false or a phrase out of true or a rhythm poorly handled. Here words rooted in Latin predominate, calling for some pithy Anglo-Saxon substitutes. Here a number of extravagant lines need to be tempered by the interjection of an ordinary phrase. Here a simple conjunction has been used too often, or the preposition is the wrong one. Perhaps it is the look of the poem on the page that appears wrong. Each problem needs to be addressed, and, on being addressed, fresh wrongs may occur or become apparent.
It might be argued that, like a neat haircut, a poem cannot afford to have anything out of place. A phrase may even be rejected because it has already been used in some other poem. At the same time, one must bear Robert Herrick’s perception in mind. ‘A sweet disorder’ in the poem kindles a wantonness in the reader, who therefore asks for a little displacement. Those with not a hair out of place may look neatly turned out, spruce even, but that in itself can imply constraint and a merely meticulous effort. Craft is invoked, not art.
Everyone knows that in art ‘naturalness’ is a sophisticated device. The semblance of ease is hard won. But a certain insouciance is, paradoxically, de rigeur. Even so, while something may be fetchingly awry, it needs to occur within a context of awareness. The perceptive faculty capable of judging when a balance is achieved may well become dulled by excessive bouts of focussing. When this happens, one probably needs to put the poem away. After an interval, one may be able to ‘see’ the lines one is working on again. With a freshened eye and ear, they either jar or sound just right. Ultimately it is the little words that matter: the prepositions, the pronouns, the parts of auxiliary verbs.
Anthony Howell, unpublished note, 14/11/2004