April is poetry month

Monday, April 02, 2007 at 9:29 AM

April is National Poetry Month in the states, also the cruelest, or, with her sweet showers piercing the drought of March to the root, rather more pleasant, depending on which canonical poet you're reading. No doubt many will be reflecting on the likes of Marianne Moore or Robert Frost during this time, but as an Englishman I figured I would cast the net a little further back in time and see what modern poetry is borne out of.

Writing poetry is not an easy job, of course, as 18th century poet William Cowper realised; perhaps the reason he called several hundred lines of mock-heroic blank verse "The Task." Then again, he wasn't helping himself with his choice of subject matter:
I sing the sofa...
Ingenious Fancy, never better pleased
Than when employed to accommodate the fair,
Heard the sweet moan with pity, and devised
The soft SETTEE

Surely, there was something else to write about. After all, it was the 18th century, time of the War of Independence and the French Revolution. Or perhaps that's why dear William fancied a good sit-down.

Seventeenth century poets had plenty of subject matter. England was dragged into civil war and saw the head of its king — still, at the time, thought to be put in that position by God Himself — roll under the axeman as puritans seized power and banned theatre, bright colours and smiling (or something like that). Then the whole country was turned upside-down again a decade or so later when Charles II returned. So what did Andrew Marvell, shrewd political wit, master of the heroic couplet, scribble away on? Love? Sex? Neither? You decide. But I'm pretty sure "Vegetable love should grow" isn't simply a reference to his usual love of talking about horticulture.

Marvell's poetry has a sinful side, as with many of those in the restoration, like Rochester, who was downright dirty when he wanted to be. Where did they get these ideas from? Surely not John Donne, Dean of Saint Paul's, arguably the greatest poet in the language? He had a romantic vision and could set the sweetest heart aflame — but not always.

There's a strong tradition in English poetry of verse with dubious subject matter. Even poetry which is hundreds of years old has the ability to raise eyebrows, as Geoffrey Chaucer proves. The Bard himself wasn't averse to a dabble in innuendo, though he came out better off than much of the debauchery happening on stage in his time. My favourite example of 'low' subject matter clashing with the higher register of verse is from Ben Jonson, playwright, poet, murderer, and general all-round thug. Though "base" in tone, these lines from the beginning of The Alchemist scan perfectly, so much so that they have become an example of choice for many Oxford lecturers explaining the iambic pentameter.

So this poetry month, when reflecting on those poets you're rightly proud of — remember that this is a tradition forged out of dirt, smut, and innuendo. Which, as an Englishman, I'm pretty proud of myself.


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