To verse, or not to verse

365 Days of Verse icon

Two related misconceptions that I encounter in life happen in seemingly unrelated life domains: psychology, and writing verse. In the former, I often encounter the reaction, That seems obvious, while in the latter, something akin to, That seems easy. Typically neither is altogether true.

I’ll explain. I have a psychology degree and research thesis under my belt. As often enough happens, I find myself talking with enthusiasm about a research topic that I’ve been personally involved in researching or which I’ve been reading about. Inevitably, someone remarks that the research findings are obvious. I can’t blame people for this reaction, after all, throughout the ages, poets and philosophers have studied human beings and written about it, leaving their imprint on the human minds that have read their works, if not always consciously. Then later, when confronted with research findings which support that same concept or conclusion, the person who’s confronted that same concept or conclusion before notes that it seems obvious. I’ve done this myself on many occasions.

As an example, I’m currently reading Flow [1], which discusses the idea of ordering one’s consciousness so as to have a better life, something that has been taught through the ages by schools of thought as varied as Confucians and Stoics (which the author points out), and which resonates throughout the line in Hamlet,

there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so

It would be easy enough for me to say to myself as I’m reading, “Oh well that’s all perfectly obvious.”, and not appreciate fully what the author has to say. While it may be obvious in some ways to me because I have encountered those concepts previously, it may nonetheless be worth my while to consider carefully what I’m reading. The reason is that, “It depends”, which is a favorite quote of a friend and mentor when discussing various psych topics. He’s emphatically correct. Sometimes research suggests that things we assume as commonplace and obvious are in fact categorically not that. We sometimes find that people don’t behave a certain way, as we had assumed. Sometimes things aren’t as obvious as they seem.

“Yes, but what on earth does this have to do with verse?”, you may ask.

I will further explain. The problem with writing verse is that, the best verse hides itself, hides its art and its rough edges. In other words, it ends up sounding easy, for lack of a better word. I’ve had my work inanely described as song lyrics[2], and again let me say that, as a song-writer I have generally heard more poetry in song lyrics than many a modern poet. But I digress.

In the same way that painters and sculptors of old did their best to hide their brush strokes or their chisel marks, the best written verse gets out of its own way and doesn’t wish for you to know the difficulty that went into its making. Often, a line that rolls off the tongue and brings delight to the reader (and if spoken aloud, the listener) may sound as though it were just rattled off easily in mere seconds. And perhaps it was. And then again, perhaps it wasn’t. Perhaps it took hours to craft.

Having spent many hours writing verse (the good, the bad, the ugly, and that which one could not even properly label as verse but which at the time escaped my attention), I can vouch for anyone who hasn’t done much of it: it can be mind-numbingly difficult. But it can be one of the greatest joys a poet can have. The effort involved is truly its own reward, because verse presents us with problems to solve. And such wonderful problems they are. The meter, the rhyme scheme. Even blank verse is so. In fact, I’ve gotten to where I can scarcely consider spending time writing much else. Though I’ve never asked anyone directly, my suspicion is that those who spend a lot of time writing verse essentially become… addicts.

So here’s the rub: Many simply don’t and cannot appreciate verse.

There, I said it. Put me on a pike. Lash me to a tree. Burn me at a stake. I’ve spoken a blunt truth, but I stand by it.

More specifically as regards the main thrust of this post, many don’t understand that something which sounds like it was easy to create can still be appreciated as something worthwhile and meaningful. When did people decide that poetry which rhymed was bad or antiquated? When did people decide to abandon all structure and look for ways to make their work seem as complicated or labored as possible? When did poetry which sounds like it could be song lyrics, or song lyrics themselves, become somehow less than modern ‘poetry’? I want to vomit when I hear such assertions.

If you watch Messi score a goal and he makes it looks easy, do you think it is easy?

Hopefully you answer that question in the negative and get my drift. If you don’t know who Messi is, just substitute Tiger Woods making an impossibly difficult putt and making it look easy.

And if this all seems anecdotal on my part, you need only look to the hallowed ground of the poetry foundation to find the idiocy I’m describing. Here’s a choice quote by John Barr,

Verse, I have come to think, is poetry written in pursuit of limited objectives: to entertain us with a joke or tall tale, to give us the inherent pleasures of meter and rhyme. It is not great art, nor is it trying to be. Verse, as Orwell says, tells us something we already know—as often as not something we know we already know. Verse is not an instrument of exploration, but rather a tool of affirmation. Its rewards lie not in the excitements of discovery, but in the pleasures of encountering the familiar. Writers of verse have done their job when they make lines that conform to the chosen meter—and do not go beyond it. Frost’s notion, “The possibilities for tune from dramatic tones of meaning struck across the rigidity of a limited meter are endless,” is unvisited territory. Verse does not seek to know the unknown or to express the unexpected, nor does it undertake the risk of failure that both entail. [3]

Bollocks. Utter bollocks. The only people who could possibly write this kind of tripe are those who have never endeavored to write verse. He quotes Frost, and deigns think that he and his followers are correct, while Frost is wrong. They make ridiculous claims and assertions about verse, surmising what they will because, as I surmise it, they are probably afraid for the world to discover that they lack the ability to write good verse. They wish to write “serious poetry”, as he continues on in his next paragraph, which has no basis of comparison, and no rules. And supposedly, because there is no meter to contend with, such poetry must enlighten us in ways that verse cannot. Give me a break.

Do rules make meaning? Of course not. However, this kind of illogical waste is much like a modern day “composer” saying that he would feel “limited” by writing in a form developed and used by Bach. There’s a very large chance that the translation to such a statement should read, “I don’t know how to write in the manner of Bach, so I just write this other crap.” I’ve encountered this kind of posturing all my adult life. I’m here to tell you, a “poet” who considers their “serious poetry” to be better than verse because of reasons laid out by Barr and his ilk likely has no idea how to write verse, and therefore has no business criticizing it on the grounds Barr chooses. It’s fine to say one doesn’t care for verse, but to make statements such as this,

Verse is often a term of disparagement in the poetry world, used to dismiss the work of people who want to write poetry but don’t know how. Verse, in this usage, means unsophisticated or poorly written poetry. [3]

Is just stupid. Whitman wrote in verse. Frost. Browning. I could go on, the list of amazing poets who crafted great verse is near endless. Yet, Barr continues,

“Serious” poetry, on the other hand, is written in pursuit of an open-ended goal. It seeks to use language, in its full potential, to encompass reality, both external and internal, in the fullness of its complexity. Unlike verse, poetry does not bring our experience of the world down to the level of the homily or the bromide, and sum it all up in a soothing platitude. It does not pursue simple conclusions or familiar returns. Rather, it is a voyage of discovery into the unknown. [3]

only cementing his place in the world as a lackwit who has clearly never read any verse of substance, or if he has, was so intimidated by it that he threw it in the fireplace and promptly convinced himself that it didn’t, in fact, exist.

It’s these kind of people that make me hate poets. There, I said it.

As someone who writes poetry in verse (does it piss people like Barr off when one says poetry in verse? I hope so.) it can be quite frustrating to have one’s work be so misunderstood and misinterpreted. People like Barr think it’s a song lyric (again, not that there’s anything wrong with that) or that the verse is “cute”, and miss what’s really going on beyond what is immediately apparent. I think this is mostly to be blamed on the fact that many do not encounter or read much verse as part of their schooling anymore, which is regrettable. Nor does verse get anything but a bad name by verse hate-groups such as the poetry foundation. As Barr proves my point,

Most verse has no following in the critical world because it needs none to be understood and appreciated. [3]

Again, bollocks.

To give an example of some brilliant verse which could easily be misinterpreted as easy or cute, I give you some Ovid as translated by Marlowe:

And let thine eyes constrainèd learn to weep,

That this or that man may thy cheeks moist keep.

and

In verse to praise kind wenches ’tis my part,

And whom I like eternize by mine art.

And let me not stop there before I’m done, // for Auden has some lovelies of his own,

Let them leave language to their lonely betters

Who count some days and long for certain letters;

We, too, make noises when we laugh or weep:

Words are for those with promises to keep.

-W.H.Auden, Their Lonely Betters

[sarcasm] You’re right Barr, there’s nothing worthwhile in that at all. Not at all. [/sarcasm]

I can only imagine that in Marlowe’s and even in Auden’s lifetimes (at least in Auden’s early life) that reading and appreciating verse was much more commonplace and appreciated. I don’t doubt that for quite some time it was a past time only enjoyed by the wealthy, and then became more popular as books became more readily available. Yet, I can’t help but lament that, in our era, where information flows so easily, and so freely, that appreciation of the art form seems to have all but vanished.

I have no solutions to offer. I write verse. I wish that people better understood what it is that I do and work on. I wish a lot of things. But rather than just sit on the couch and wish this, I decided to write something about it. At the very least, I hope that anyone who reads this may give a second thought to some “simple rhyme” they hear before they dismiss it out of hand. Often those simple rhymes are the ones that bring smiles to our faces, and levity to our hearts. Let us not forget that the poet who wrought those lines also wrought that human magic, and that it was their intention to do so.

Sigh no more, ladies, sigh nor more;
Men were deceivers ever;
One foot in sea and one on shore,
To one thing constant never;
Then sigh not so,
But let them go,
And be you blithe and bonny;
Converting all your sounds of woe
Into. Hey nonny, nonny.

-Shake-speare, Much Ado about Nothing


[1] Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience
[2] w-h-auden-and-the-temple-of-doom
[3] http://www.poetryfoundation.org/article/178645

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