Monday, 14 November 2005


The complexity of the modern world presents us with questions and doubts that would hardly have occurred in the minds of our forebears. For instance, when we come across an eccentrically punctuated and ungrammatical rant, arbitrarily broken into a mess of lines singularly lacking in sense or aesthetic qualities, we have to decide whether it is the by-product of a disturbed and disordered mind largely unacquainted with the language in which it presumes to bother us, or it is a poem.
In many cases, our task is made easy because we have the author’s testimony that it is the latter, and being that we would do anything for an easy life, we tend to take the author’s word for it.
The acquiescence to this view, that an artefact is what the artificer tells us, is a simple proposed solution to a complex problem of definition, and it has advantages for the barbarian who wishes to make his way in this world: firstly, in that it is a simplification; secondly, in that it serves to display a thoroughly modern and sophisticated tolerance for things about which he couldn’t care less, for which boon he need expend no veritable generosity of mind; and thirdly, in that it applies to his own works.
If, then, we are to take to be a sufficient definition of poetry that it be a piece of writing, arbitrarily broken into awkward lines, singularly unconcerned with metre, grammar, beauty or sense, for which we have the author’s testimony that it is indeed poetry, then we have the potential to become truly a land of poets; for all we need do is persuade the vast numbers of semi-literate savages, for which this country does not want, to bestow the name of poetry upon any rubbishy scribbling of theirs. They could all produce trash of this calibre, for example:
Summer thoughts of icicles imprint
voices on the fibers of young skin.
License to use syllables is painted
topaz maybe maybe yarn perhaps gold.
She rinsed her mail in salt water
protectively left leaves to dry.
Night defined by memory elapses
into solo heat that self erases.
He moved where nobody would recognize
his penmanship and started signing checks.
Weeds in the new yard grew fresh and tall.
He, loving extension of his beard.
(Sheila E. Murphy, “Loving Extension Of” Lynx, XI:2, June, 1996.)
It would be wrong of me to describe this as having no intrinsic qualities. After all, it made me laugh, and I must give due credit for the provocation to the author’s work, as well as to my own merry soul. But we have only the context and the author’s word with which to decide that it ought to be described as a poem, rather than as an embarrassing case of logorrhoea.
It often appears that the only barrier to becoming a modern poet is an aesthetic sense of decency and rhythm; and even our very own Nobel laureate Harold Pinter has overcome this barrier to produce work that “proceeds to its own law and discipline” (Quoted by Martin Esslin, Pinter: The Playwright (London: Methuen, 1970) at

And after noon the well-dressed creatures come
To sniff among the dead
And have their lunch
And all the many well-dressed creatures pluck
The swollen avocados from the dust
And stir the minestrone with stray bones
And after lunch
They loll and lounge about
Decanting claret in convenient skulls

(Harold Pinter, “After Lunch”, online at
Should not such pap fill the heart of every talentless troglodyte with the stench of hope? For if this is poetry – and by our modern definition it is – then every man, woman and misbegotten child has the righteous claim to be a poet. But then, I suspect that that is the point.


dearieme said...

Remind us who it was who defined Modern Poetry as prose that is not justified.

The Pedant-General said...

Is this poetry? I fear that we need more dialogue and debate before reaching such a momentous conclusion.


Toodle Pip!

Deogolwulf said...

Dearieme, I'm sorry to say, I have no idea. Could you inform us?

P-G, aha! Indeed we do. I shall fetch the cushions of comfortable distraction and the steaming mugs of bullshit.

Juggling Mother said...

I totally agree - most poetry is written by people who can't write decent prose.

when I said something along those lines re: Elizabeth Barret-Browning it didn't go down too well,, although possibly my bEnglish Lit university lecturer wasn't the best person to say it to:-)

shite poetry isn't a modern invention, its just that nearly all of it vgets forgotten in a generation or less

dearieme said...

I don't know the source otherwise I might have been tempted to show off by attributing it. I think I first heard it as "prose that doesn't reach the right margin" and improved it by introducing the double meaning. There again, perhaps I flatter myself.

Anonymous said...

You remind me of the opening of Stoppard's play "Travesties":

"[SD:] We begin in the library. There are places for [James] JOYCE, LENIN and [Tristan] TZARA. GWEN sits with JOYCE. They are occupied with books, papers, pencils ...

LENIN is also writing quietly, among books and papers. TZARA is writing as the play begins. On his table are a hat and a large pair of scissors. TZARA finishes writing, then takes up the scissors and cuts the paper, word by word, into his hat. When all the words are in the hat he shakes the hat and empties it on the table. He rapidly separates the the bits of paper into random lines, turning a few over, etc., and then reads the result in a loud voice.

TZARA: Eel ate enormous appletzara/ key dairy chef's hat he'll learn oomparah!/Ill raced alas whispers kill later nut east/ noon avuncular ill dat Clara!"

It is, of course, a Dada-ist poem, and with it, Stoppard sets us off into one of the greatest plays of the 20th century, and with his usual sly humour he has plenty to say on the modernist movement in the arts.

Anonymous said...

Ah, but you've failed to understand the nature of the beast you're dealing with here. Your first poem looks like an example of "language poetry", a radical new school of verse which emerged in the early 70s alongside the equally innovative "sound music" and "paint painting" movements. More information to be found here: , including this:

"Q. Do you feel that Language poetry is becoming more and more of a threat to the United States?

A. In the short term, yes. American readers, group aesthetics, and literary communities continue to find themselves in areas of increasing poetic instability. This makes them vulnerable to anti-referential, anti-mainstream, or other extremist acts. Domestically, there seems to be an increasing trend of experimental rhetoric and activity throughout the United States--some of which manifests itself in radical disjunction. In the long term, whether these trends pose an increasing threat to America depends on a number of variables, including changes in international and domestic poetic currents, how the public and media react to Language poetry, how governments deal with Language poetry, and whether the Language poets themselves discontinue or change strategies and tactics."

I'm really concerned that the CIA is devoting so much time to Al-Qaeda while ignoring this elephant in their living room.