One interesting question is ‘why
specifically?’ I am currently writing an ‘epic’ called The
English Cantos, and I have
chosen to write my epic in terza rima. There are many forms of
storytelling in the modern world, so why write poetry, when in real
terms, it is such a niche interest? Surely a novel-series or a
screenplay might have broader appeal? My son, in fact, has written an
series on unusual epics
of the modern era, from anime to television. However, I think there
is still massive, in some ways untapped value in writing poetry, and
I would encourage anyone reading this to do it!
Let me outline this for you based on my personal experience.
is not merely for the sake of tradition. In fact, when all is said
and done, I am not a very traditional person. There is the added pull
that terza rima is Dante’s chosen form, my own epic being modelled
on his opus: The Divine Comedy.
Therefore, the English
Cantos might also be read as a
continuation of The Divine
Comedy, just as Virgil’s
a continuation of Homer’s Iliad
and Dante’s own work a
continuation of The Aeneid.
Each text engages with the one
prior to it, and in some places re-write their ideas. Virgil, for
example, portrays Odysseus (called Ulysses in the Latin) as a
deceiver and traitor, rather unlike the conflicted, intelligent, but
ultimately good hero of Homer’s duology. It should also be noted
that terza rima is an under-utilised poetic form in English poetry,
with very few attempts to write narrative using it. As I outline in
the introduction to my collection Divine
the most famous example and use of terza rima being Shelley’s Triumph
of Life, which interestingly is
unfinished. In particular, I realised that the form provided me with
the key to creating compelling narrative: blank verse is great for
narrative, but Milton’s done it. Second greatest epic in the English
language? Spenser’s Faerie
Queene, but the Spenserian
stanza for narrative purposes is clunky and slow, relatively
speaking, and lends itself to gorgeous picture-making (so Keats’
Eve of St Agnes
exploits the form superbly – it is a narrative but one of a richly,
static kind). But perhaps terza rima could supply the necessary form
to sustain the long poem.’
there is actually a deeper reason for my choice of poetry in general.
That is, beauty.
would say ‘everywhere’ in our modern world, but perhaps it is
fairer to say ‘almost everywhere’, we see the deconstruction of
beauty. Whether it be the dismissal of spiritual values, the
undermining of real art and culture in favour of what can turn
profits or sensationalise, or even just in the architecture around
us. Many people, arguably, live bleaker lives now than they did in
the Middle Ages, which is saying something. Depression and suicide
are at an all-time high, alongside addictions and compulsive
behaviours. Meanwhile, people cling to any current trend, opinion, or
voice shouting louder than the rest, in the hope that if they follow
it will give their lives meaning.
are in many ways a floundering species, and I believe it is primarily
because of the false prophets of secularism. We are told we don’t
need God, that we can create our own value-system, our own morality,
our own purpose. The classics had a word for this: ‘hubris’. We
all need external help and guidance from time to time, whether that
be from the people we love, an expert, or the contrivances of fate!
To appoint ourselves as the gods of our own universe is to say we
need nobody but
ourselves. Ironically, that is in the first instance to go backwards
and re-live the Tower of Babel myth and all its resulting confusion
(and isn’t confusion a good word for the state of the contemporary
world?); and secondly, it is to expose our own inadequacies as we
experience the fragmentation that results from everyone being their
own ‘god’. Never before has there been so much transmission, and
so little communication, as solipsistically we are all talking to
ourselves, while no-one listens.
are told, too, that technology is going to solve all of our problems,
and yet after 100 years or so of technological revolution, it has
only brought us closer to extinction, distanced us from the natural
world, and deprived many people of meaning and fulfilment. I’m not
a Luddite. I like technology
and use it. But, it is the idolatrous worship of technology that I
find worrying and the blind sense that we are endlessly ‘progressing’
to some utopia, somewhere. Again, the ancients (Greeks, Egyptians,
Indians, to mention three venerable cultures) thought exactly the
opposite: the world had fallen away from a Golden Age and was in or
about to enter the Iron Age. Regression, therefore, not progression.
Whether they are right in their predictions, I leave to you.
secularism, and the utilitarianism that is so often associated with
that, is a kind of ugliness. I mentioned the architecture of modern
buildings: that is a start. But it is also in the books we read; we
find poetry bereft of any form or beauty, but then praised as being
‘stark’, ‘clear’, ‘unflinching’, ‘bold’, ‘honest’
and such like – as if the mere act of regurgitating negativity is
in itself laudable. Ugliness and horror have their place in
literature and art, but they must be assimilated as part of a greater
whole. To use a word Clive Barker loved: they must be reconciled.
The same story is true in so
many realms. In popular ‘music’ we find a single bar of
electronic beats looped for a song’s duration, where once there
would have been artfully crafted percussion.
should add that I do not wish to sound like an old man grumbling.
There are of course exceptions to these observations; in music, for
example, young bands or musicians who are branching out. I listened
to Mumford & Sons’ recent
album Delta, and
there is a track on it called ‘Darkness Visible’ which
extensively quotes John Milton’s Paradise Lost (the title itself
being part of it). It is blissfully inventive music.In the realm of independent
read a story by David Hartley (published in a short story collection
Creek) written in iambic pentameter!
It depicts a disturbed lighthouse keeper talking via radio to a
person he believes to be William Shakespeare; gloriously creative,
and beautifully written. Like I said, there are exceptions, but one
has to notice the overwhelming trends, the tendencies, and what
people in authority are, more and more, advocating and supporting.
And when we say, advocating and supporting, we mean where the money
and the ‘reputation’ goes.
poetry is a counter to all of this, particularly poetry which has
shape, form, metre, rhyme, and rhythm. Poetry is about beauty,
creating it even from tremendous pain. Perhaps one of the best
examples one could give of this is Wilfred Owen. Despite the horrors
of war he faced, his lyricism is beautiful. Tolkien might also be
cited as an example of this. He fought in the Somme, one of the worst
battles in human history, and yet he emerged from it with profound
spirituality, courage, optimism, and beauty in his work. We must
remember Tolkien was as much a poet as a prose-author. Intriguingly
the ‘modernists’ who have defined so much of modern writing: the
T. S. Eliots, the Virginia Wolfes, the Ezra Pounds, did not have any
frontline experience of the war! Instead, they had a lot of opinions.
To put this at its strongest: Owen and Tolkien faced the profoundest
horrors of this life and produced literature for the soul and deep
beauty; Eliot, Woolf and Pound were all armchair critics who simply
faced domestic ‘terrors’ and most of their work is – in varying
degrees here – highly negative.
of the arguments against traditional or ‘formal’ poetry is that
it is too restrictive, but as is always the case, the greatest
creativity and best inventions come from restriction. In America, the
short story is highly valued specifically for this reason, and in
some ways the ability to write a good 2000 – 3000 word short story
is considered a higher art form than a novel! The sonnet is a case in
point, too. In the British tradition, the sonnet was once considered
the sine qua non of a good poet. Could you write a 14 liner that
would move the soul? Poetry is one of the most profound ways to
create beauty, precisely because of the restrictions it places on the
writer. Like music, there are only so many chords, and only so many
chords that work in combination, and only so many rhythms, but how
can we then generate something new within these frameworks? One might
even stretch the point to make a commentary on society here. We want
unrestricted lives: to see as many people as we like, travel as far
as we want, eat as much as we like, watch as much TV as we like,
binge, binge, binge. None of this is truly healthy, or, indeed,
beautiful. Invariably, the greatest beauty derives from restraint,
and the deepest emotion comes from holding back.
should abandon our modern impulse to operate ‘freely (which is not
‘free’ at all but actually chaos), and instead focus on making
beauty with disciplined control. By harnessing true poetic techniques
and the deep spirituality, we might yet create wonders.