What are we to make of FB's proxy cogitations? I suppose his aim in
producing the piece was to present a kind of "laypersons' guide" - an
easy-access version of some of the arguments which have been presented
more fully by others for a very long time, leading up to his own theories.
No harm in that, in one sense - Bunting does much the same thing (but to
different effect!) in his lectures _Thumps_ and _Wyat_ (edited by Peter
Makin, in "Sharp Study and Long Toil", available from the Bunting Centre
for a tenner...). But...
What we're presented with is a sort of white-knuckle ride through the
history of world poetry: was that Welsh or Anglo-Saxon poetry just
flashing by? It's all so generalised (as in lacking specifics) and prone
to generalisation (as in sweeping statements): try this: "This was the
result in all probability of either Latin and Greek lacking the heavy
accentuation that characterises English for most of its history, or
(possibly) to fit in with various musical systems we know little about."
Ouch! Unsupported generalisation and speculation in the same sentence! And
when he generalises the whole of the Nineteenth Century "to have reached
away from the two syllable foot into something more irregular, and more
medieval" are we really supposed to believe that (a) all the C19 did this,
and that (b) none of C15-C18 did? Or is this just the global poetic
economist's big picture, the A4 executive summary of all those individuals
slogging it out over the years?
When he does favour us with examples, they're no more convincing. To be
fair, after comparing Silkin's reading of the opening of _The Ship Of
Death_ with his own, he does conclude that "alternative scansions of the
same line by different systems is [sic] possible" - damned right! And well
worth remembering when he's squeezing Whitman into lines of "something
like six feet". To do this he presents us with "When / lilacs / last / ...
/ early drooped / in the / western sky /" - and asks us to accept that
"each foot takes a similar time to speak"! I don't think so!
None of this would matter - Fred's as entitled to warble on as anyone -
were it not for his ridiculous they've-all-lost-the-true-path conclusion -
"all the basic tools of rhythmic procedure are being tossed to one side".
No examples are given here, everyone's equally guilty. How arrogant to
sweep aside the vast range of possibilities currently being explored by
serious "practicing poets" across the world. How dispiritingly tired and
negative to recline back once more on the assertion of past greatnesses,
the reassurance of an ill-defined "music".
Fred, or Douglas, or both (and I wouldn't be writing thus if I couldn't be
sure that Fred was using Douglas as mouth and ears in this context), as
Ives said: "Stand up and use your ears like a man!" I could name so many
who avoid the "chopped up prose" charge - it seems almost invidious to
name any, but, to chose four not on this list: Maggie O'Sullivan and Bill
Griffiths and Maurice Scully and Catherine Walsh don't "scan for quantity"
(though it's almost certainly possible to use the sloppy kind of scansion
Beake proposes on their work after the fact) - but their work is amongst
that which is, it seems to me, slowly establishing the beat and rhythm of
the time we live in. Who knows where it will lead? At times, no doubt, it
will have reference back to, and draw strength from, the practices of past
poets - but it will use them to its own end. I hope someone shoots me
before I get so bored with this unfolding process that I have to start
barking for the euro-poetic-metrification rules movement.
Durham University Library, Stockton Rd., Durham DH1 3LY, UK
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"before the rules made poetry a pedant's game"
- Basil Bunting