ON ENGLISH POETRY AND POEMS
Michael George Gibson
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
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:
kind of poetry that does not conform to any regular
the length of its lines are irregular, as is its use
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.
The Oxford English Dictionary
A Thesaurus of Old English (King’s College, London. 1995)
The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Literary Terms 1996