Terse Verse

Tum-diddyumtum-tumtum. Yes, a simple pattern of taps. But it has a significance. Try it out with your fingers. The neurologists tell us that our brains respond to such rhythms and form corresponding patterns in our neurons. This is why marching and dancing are not only synchronised but the participants become consciously aware of the group who are sharing that rhythm in their brains. Watch a squad drilling on Horse Guards Parade and you see one unit and one purpose. The evolutionists suggest that this is how poetry started. The chants and songs used by primitive societies brought them together, built up their courage and, when necessary, created a collective force to face the enemy. Change ‘pattern’ to ‘metre’ and the connection is obvious.

Early great poetry used metre alone to raise the grandeur of the account and to support memorability. Homer’s works were probably not written down for hundreds of years. Milton provides a more recent example in Paradise Lost. I have marked the five feet (pentameter) in the second line,

“I may assert eternal providence,
And just–ify–the ways–of God–to men “

Sometimes people complain about the lack of rhyme in much modern poetry. Is it really poetry at all? But Milton would have disagreed; he referred to “The troublesome and modern bondage of rhyming” And so did Dryden. Some argue that rhyme can interfere with meaning, others claim that rhyme forces the poet’s mind to explore. Who would be without Chaucer’s 14th century poetry:

“Whan that Aprille with his shoures soote
The droghte of Marche hath perced to the roote”

I have remembered much of that for 70 years. It tells me that rhyme plays a big part in memorability.

There are conventional forms for poetry. Perhaps the best known is the Shakespearean sonnet (“Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?”) with its 14 pentameter lines and rhyming pattern. Another is the villanelle: think of Dylan Thomas’s “Do not go gentle into that good night.” Or the Japanese haiku: three lines of five seven and five syllables. Such characteristics as metre, rhyme and form in effect frame poetry – presenting it to us for deeper response than we would ordinarily give to prose. Length is not relevant: think of Kipling’s World War 1 poem: “If they ask you why they died, tell them because their fathers lied.” Try and improve on that.

Poetry is allowed by convention to use higher flown language than prose. Metaphor is much used. Herbert’s “Love bade me welcome” uses metaphor with power, you can read it simply as a prayer. Think of Wilfred Owens’ Anthem for Doomed Youth: “The shrill demented choirs of wailing shells”. That line challenges our imagination to grasp its impact. He also uses onomatopoeia: “the stuttering rifles rapid rattle”. Can you hear them? Alliteration also plays its part: “The weal which warned the way which once we went” That might have looked overdone in prose.

Poetry is open ended in the sense that the poet presents to us his emotions and his insights in a way which invites us to respond in terms of our own emotions and insights. Since the experience is different for every reader, each encounter is a new work of art. But be careful: Macaulay’s remark that “Perhaps no person can be a poet, or even enjoy poetry, without a certain unsoundness of mind.” tells us that the sound mind – confined to the literal and rational – will get little from it. This may explain the great tradition of English Catholic poetry. Names such as Chesterton, Manley Hopkins, Francis Thompson, and many others, show us that poetry is a fitting medium for bringing us face to face with mystery.

It is an art which needs only a scrap of paper and a pencil stump. So Audre Lord (described in my source as African-American, lesbian, socialist, feminist) called it the only politically correct art form. It is always satisfying Cicero tells us: “I have never yet known a poet who did not think himself super-excellent.” But not always rewarding according to the writer de Vere Stacpoole: “A publisher of today would as soon see a burglar in his office as a poet.

About Quentin

Portrait © Jacqueline Alma
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14 Responses to Terse Verse

  1. galerimo says:

    ‘Swans sing before they die – ’twere no bad thing
    Did certain persons die before they sing.’


  2. Barrie Machin says:

    Quentin thou art a poet
    Thou durst not tell
    Thou scarce doth know it.

    What always amazes me about poetry is the small segments of so many poems you became acquainted with at school still linger in the mind many years later. I feel quite emotional when snippets crop up from these bits as you do very often link them with a place, school friends, the English master who first laid down the never to be forgotten lines.
    Such lines as ‘I remember I remember the house where I was born’ and ‘men may come and men may go but I go on forever.’ It seems to me that so much more can be evoked from these snatches than the best crafted line of prose. I wonder if the poets were aware of this when they wrote the verses we recall with such pleasure that they would have this effect at all levels of consciousness years after they were written or remembered ?

  3. Martha says:

    I think the Psalms are some of the finest poetry ever written, and combined with music, the words resonate and articulate profound thoughts and feelings. Some of them are very hackneyed precisely because what they convey is so universal. I first sang The Lord is My Shepherd with the school choir when my father was very ill and dying, and have never tired of it in over 65 years since, Other verses and hymns are just as powerful, Newman’s Lead Kindly Light, Abide with Me, How Great Thou Art. They express what is in the heart in words that I certainly could never put together myself.

  4. tim says:

    It is a truth
    Widely if not universally acknowledged
    That all you have to do to produce a poem
    Is to insert line breaks
    Into your prose.

    Verse (also poetry) requires a pattern This may be a rhyme scheme. It may be more exotic, eg alliteration, or repetition (as in the Psalms). The most common – in the western tradition – is scansion. Regularity of scansion helps to make verse memorable and add meaning and emphasis. Quentin quotes Milton’s iambic pentameters. Here is a more recent poet (Robert Graves):

    “The butterfly, the cabbage white
    His honest idiocy of flight
    Will never now, it is too late
    Master the art of flying straight.”

    Iambic tetrameters, in rhyming couplets. – de-dum, de-dum, de-dum, de-dum. The scansion is not absolutely unblemished – ‘master’ in the fourth line goes ‘dum-de’ instead of ‘de-dum’ – but the whole thing is charming and memorable (I had no need to look it up). Aspiring poets should be encouraged to write verse that scans – and indeed to use traditional forms, such as sonnets, triolets, even limericks. Try Wendy Cope, if you haven’t already. It seems that scansion is no longer taught in schools – and ignorant sub-editors allow misquotations in consequence – as in the following lines that appeared n the Times a decade or so back
    “… and thou beside me in the wilderness
    Then wilderness were paradise now.”
    And there are two errors in the (otherwise excellent) Oxford Dictionary of Scientific Quotations arising from sub-editing failure to take scansion into account.

    The tide is on the turn, however, and schoolchildren (some at least) are being encouraged to learn poetry by heart. They will find this much easier if it rhymes and scans – and remember it better in later life.

    • Quentin says:

      But your introductory lines, Tim, ironically would fit into my theories as real poetry. You make us attend to it by its pattern. You have something meaningful to say. And I’m still wondering whether your terminal ‘Not’ denies or supports your theme.

      Here’s one of mine for you to consider:


      I doubt if King James wrote it,

      But the one who did

      Knew the force of short, brute words;

      And did not, if there were no clear need,

      Write polysyllabically.

      • tim says:

        Refutation of an argument by counter-example is always effective. I confess to being shaken, but shall regroup. Meanwhile, a diversionary tactic. In music (I am told, I am musically illiterate) there are accepted rules. Master composers break them. But it is necessary to learn them first. It is fine for you with half a century’s experience of writing of all kinds, to produce ‘free verse’. But I don’t think we should encourage schoolchildren to treat it as a model. Discipline is worth learning – it is easier to relax than tighten it.

        I agree that my chopped prose is ambiguous – a bad fault. Substitute ‘Sad’ for ‘Not’

      • Quentin says:

        I agree. One of my daughters works with backward children. To help them to grasp metre and rhyme I have prepared work on limericks. I think it’s a good start. The only problem is that vulgar limericks keep slipping into my mind.

  5. Martha says:

    For many of us, nursery rhymes are some of the most memorable we will ever hear, mainly because of their vigorous rhythms and often accompanying actions, as well as alliterative words:

    Humpty Dumpty sat on a Wall,
    Humpty Dumpty had a great fall . . .

    Ride a Cock Horse to Banbury Cross,
    To see a Fine Lady on a White Horse . . .

    A good selection of such verses in childhood probably plays its part in preparing the brain for more adult poetry later.

  6. Brendan says:

    Historical memory of a people and the more macabre pan-European doggerel with echoes of a more chilling past….Great Plague, Black Death… plays a part in childs ‘ play-with-rhyme ‘ , though to the modern ear having lost its original meaning:-
    Ring-a-ring o’ roses
    A pocket full of poses,
    A-tishoo! A-tishoo !
    We all fall down.

    • Martha says:

      Yes, Brendan, and one I don’t like at all is Mary, Mary, quite contrary, for (bloody) Mary Tudor, in contrast to ??”Good Queen Bess.” Interesting to speculate how this doggerel has survived as children’s verse.

  7. Brendan says:

    ‘ Cultural ‘ poetry keeps many a dark period in ones history ‘ festering ‘ beneath the skin particularly when rhyme is put into song , keeping many unwanted/unwarranted ‘ memories ‘ false or otherwise alive …sadly even today . Cue, the ‘ Troubles ‘ of Northern Ireland.

    • galerimo says:

      True – George Orwell uses “Oranges and Lemons”, in 1984 to recall a past when things were different and looks to a future when knowing the truth will put life at risk.

      A sinister and haunting rhyme from the time of moving the executions of people and the jailing of debtors from Tyburn to Newgate

      – around the same time when Australia had to replace America for the deportation of undesirables.

      You can hear the bells tolling in the verses.

      “here comes a candle to light you to bed.
      here comes a chopper to chop off your head”.

  8. Brendan says:

    And so amid’st the worlds puzzling cacophony, something Catholic…?
    Elected silence sing to me
    And beat upon my whorled ear,
    Pipe me to pastures still and be
    The music that I care to hear.
    ” The Habit of Perfection ”- Gerard Manley Hopkins, S.J.( just pre-conversion )

  9. Brendan says:

    There is no doubting the ‘ Catholicity ‘ of J.R.R.Tolkein’s – ‘Lord of The Rings ‘ prose work , of apocalyptic proportions. But what gives it depth and a sense ageless history is its poetry replete throughout. At times one style just seemingly to merge into other , hardly distinguishable……poetry or prose.
    My wife and I re- newed our acquaintance with the whole trliology last weekend….time well spent!
    All that is gold does not glitter,
    Not all those who wander are lost ;
    The old that is strong does not wither,
    Deep roots are not reached by the frost.

    From the ashes a fire shall be woken,
    A light from the shadows shall spring;
    Renewed shall be blade that was broken,
    The crownless again shall be king. ( The Fellowship of The Ring )


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