the further it gets from dance: poetry declines the
further it gets from song." We're not sure who
coined this apothegm, but it's probably true. And
both poetry and music have been much on our minds
here at Snakeskin Towers this month.
We were discussing Auden's definition of
poetry as "memorable speech", and how well
the definition fits Auden's poetry, and Eliot's too.
Cadences so identified with their meaning that you
can't forget them. Once read, they're there in your
mind. Larkin too. Whole stanzas have declared
squatters rights in the brains of every literate
English reader, and we'll never get them out. There
are lines of Hughes that stick like toffee, and
images by Plath that you'd like to get rid of if only
But the living? The name of dear
potato-faced Seamus arose, of course, and we all
remembered poems by him - or at least we sort of
remembered what they were sort of about - there's the
one about his dad's spade, for example (notably
mocked by Wayne
Carvosso in the Snakeskin
archive) and there are the ones about Bog People...
but the words weren't engraved on the linings of our
skulls. We remembered the ideas, but not the poems.
Other British contemporaries
performed rather dimly too. James Fenton was the
grand exception (one of our number could recite the
whole of "Every girl has four vaginas/Boys are
one vagina minus" with notable panache). Tony
Harrison scored reasonably, too. But the rest...
Well, someone sort of knew a bit of Carol Anne Duffy,
but falteringly, falteringly.
With Americans we fared even worse.
After Eliot, and the Pound of Cathay and
Mauberley, and Frost, of course, and
Stevens, and cummings, all of whom pass the memory
test effortlessly, there are just fragments. Some
bits of W C Williams everyone knows, because they're
famous for being famous.
And then - Plath we've mentioned -
but otherwise a few patches of Lowell and Berryman
and Ginsberg. Patches only. For the rest - well, we
were appalled that we had collectively read so many
slim volumes by our contemporaries, and could recall
so little of it with any precision. Is the fault
ours, or have the poets not managed to meet the
"memorable speech" criterion?
What we noticed was that the poets
we found memorable used a pretty full battery of
prosodic techniques. Rhyme, metre (regular, free or
idiosyncratic), assonance, alliteration, and so on.
These had the effect of concentrating meaning,
charging the words. And the less memorable - well,
they maybe aimed for speech, but maybe more often
achieved a sort of prosiness.
And then we faced the extraodinary
contradiction. While American poets seemed to have
been in a retreat from memorability, American
songwriters had triumphed. The phrases coming in
triumph through from the twentieth century to the
twenty-first, the phrases that have entered the
language, as few poets' phrases have since the heyday
of Eliot, are those of the twentieth-century American
songwriters, from Irving Berlin to Randy newman to
whoever your current favourite is.
Anthologies of Elizabethan verse
put the songwriters next to the sonneteers and
metaphysicals. When will an editor of
twentieth-century verse do the same? To get a sense
of the magic that has been created with words during
the century, we need a collection that places Lorenz
Hart next to Wallace Stevens, Johnny Mercer next to
Robert Frost, Bob Dylan next to John Berryman,
Stephen Sondheim next to John Ashbury. And finds room
for Lieber and Stoller, and Hoagy Carmichael, and...
It might put quite a few things
into perspective. And help us to see what good poems
have in common with good songs. And to see that words
can do plenty of things undreamt of in the deadening
academic-modernist tradition that stretches from late
Pound to Olson to L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E to whatever is next
on the fashionable agenda.