ON ENGLISH POETRY AND POEMS
Michael George Gibson
There is some perplexity in people’s minds as to what English poetry and a poem may be. Poetry was, and to some extent, still is, an important part of our culture and sense of nationhood. I therefore propose to make a definition of English ‘poetry’ and a ‘poem’. In fact these terms were not widely used in English until the 16th century: but I think that it is fair to apply them to some things which were made in this land in earlier centuries.
We have some written stuff from the 8th century onwards which may be called English poetry. In Anglo-Saxon times there were word-things then called ‘lays’ or ‘songs’ which were of essentially the same nature as the things later called ‘poems’. Anglo-Saxon lays and songs were made according to ‘lay-craft’, ‘song-craft’ or ‘word-craft’. The Anglo-Saxons spoke of their lay-craft or song-craft as one in which the parts of the lay or song were ‘verses’. The word ‘verse’ meant a ploughed furrow both in the sense of its line and length and in its turn to make another furrow. These early makers also spoke of theirs verses having ‘feet’ and of their being ‘metered’. Their verses were by and large of much the same length and had much the same amount of stuff in them as the others in a particular ‘fitt’.
The word ‘rhythm’ was not used in those days but was implicit in the word ‘song’. Their songs were markedly rhythmical - as is the case, one presumes, in all early cultures. This was so that anyone could partake in the song and often the dance that might go with it. This is why the word ‘foot’ was used in describing and defining the craft.
The metered verses of the Anglo-Saxon or Old English poetry were further shaped by means of a system of internal correspondences of consonants or vowels at the beginnings of some of the words in each verse. This we now call ‘alliteration’. It is clear that in most Old English poetry a verse usually had in it four main beats or pulses which were linked by the initial sounds of the words rather than their endings - though this was not usually the case for all four beats in a verse.
In due course ‘end rhyme’ came to be used at the ends of some verses, and this system of shaping poetry eventually overtook the alliterative way during the Middle English period. But the metering out of verse into feet was always done. It is to word-things made up of metered and rhymed verses to which the words ‘poetry’ and ‘poem’ were later applied. There were of course other aspects of the use of language that came into the consideration of the nature of poetry: but these were not fundamental to a definition of ‘poetry’ or a ‘poem’.
It was several centuries before any very different way of doing things was tried. Towards the end of the 19th century ‘free-verse’ - from the French vers-libre - became a technique of writing. But I hold that the term is illogical, a nonsense.
The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Literary Terms (1990) defines ‘free verse’ as:
a kind of poetry that does not conform to any regular
meter: the length of its lines are irregular, as is its use
of rhyme - if any.
The definition is exact and right except in one respect: it contained a wrong use of the word ‘poetry’, which should be replaced by the term ‘writing’ or ‘word-stuff’, or some such.
In its original sense a verse, or furrow, was metered out and turned in accordance with a system of related furrows (which of course all accorded with the form of the field). This accordance was and is essential to the craft of ploughing and the craft of poetry. ‘Free verse’ is a contradiction in terms: a verse is by definition metered and therefore not free - it cannot be both.
There is something of the same sort of confusion in the matter of rhyme. ‘Rhyme’ means identify of end sound in words.’ Anything less - be it called ‘half-rhyme’ or ‘part-rhyme’ or whatever - is not rhyme, it is other than rhyme.
In the last hundred years writing styles have changed more quickly. Very different things are presented to us as ‘poems’. Trying to find new ways of doing things and new things to make are natural human traits. It is also natural to look for the differences in things and to find words with which to describe and name them in order to discriminate between one thing and another.
‘Songcraft’, later called ‘poetry’, was and is the making of word-things according to certain clear, objective, defining and essential rules and techniques of metre and alliteration and rhyme. These things may be called ‘poems’. To avoid confusion, word-things not made according to these rules but according to some different - and, one hopes, objectifiable - rules, should, as things of a different kind, be given a different name.
Some Further Notes:-
The case presented in this short Paper is deficient in some respects. It does not deal well enough with the crucial matter of rhythm; and it does not introduce the useful and important terms 'measure' and 'pattern'.
Verses of poetry are metred out in measures, as in music; and the sequences of measures which compose the verses are, as in music, rthymically patterned.
Rhythmical sequences of measures are one primary sort of patterning in poems. Additional patterning is provided by systematic alliteration or end-rhyming.
These formal characteristics are technical ones of 'sonics' rather than 'semantics'. Word-things* with these primary defining characteristics came to be called 'poems'.
What we call 'poetry' and 'poems' also display to varying degrees additional features which may be broadly described as those of 'heightened and expressive language'. Though they are important in themselves, these characteristics are, logically speaking, of a secondary nature, since they may be found in prose as well as verse.
All these matters are being further dealt with in a thesis to be published in due course.
(*The term 'word-thing' is used to refer to anything made of words.)
The Oxford English Dictionary
A Thesaurus of Old English (King’s College, London. 1995)
The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Literary Terms 1996