The Magazine

The Poet on Poetry

James Fenton muses about his craft.

Jan 20, 2003, Vol. 8, No. 18 • By BARTON SWAIM
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

An Introduction to English Poetry
by James Fenton
Farrar Strauss & Giroux, 144 pp., $20

IN 1798 A SLIM VOLUME OF POEMS appeared in Bristol, England, entitled "Lyrical Ballads," the anonymous work of two young and little-known poets, William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge. It sold well, despite an overwhelmingly hostile critical reception; a second edition appeared in 1800, a third in 1802. The two young men went on, of course, to become the greatest poets of the age, indeed of the century in Wordsworth's case.

What made these poems so successful? Literary historians have often singled out the "Lyrical Ballads" as the book that started the poetic revolution known as English Romanticism: The poems violated a number of conventions common to poetry of the day, and they were cast in the language of everyday speech rather than in the grandiloquent diction then thought essential to poetry. But while there is some truth in this account of things, scholars over the last three or four decades have shown pretty convincingly that the poems in "Lyrical Ballads" weren't so original in form or subject as the poets themselves claimed them to be. Why, then, were they so successful? How did they start a revolution? The answer has less to do with their originality than with the fact that they were so exceptionally, thrillingly good. In other words, Romanticism in English poetry came about largely because the English literate public of the early nineteenth century were capable of discerning great poetry when they saw it, whatever hidebound reviewers might say.

Alas, if a work of equal power and depth were to be published in 2002, it would have little chance of being read by more than a handful of people, and virtually no chance of igniting the imaginations of two or three generations, as eventually Wordsworth and Coleridge's poetry did. The reasons for this can hardly be crammed into a book review. But several come to mind, chief among them that poetry must now compete with movies, television, and pop music. Another reason for this state of affairs, though, deserves consideration: the sheer awfulness of most of the verse written over the last four decades, and the effect it has had on the reading public.

Ask the average intelligent person whether he or she likes poetry, and the response will fall somewhere between a polite no and an embarrassed shrug. Probe, and almost certainly you will find that the reason has something to do with not understanding what poetry is "all about." No surprise there. English metrics haven't been seriously taught to the young for decades, and since the 1960s, poets themselves, with a few honorable exceptions, have eschewed metrics as "inauthentic" and confined themselves to "free verse," the ostentatious absence of meter. But while there may be some merit in free verse (I do not think so), its imposition as doctrinal orthodoxy since the '60s has rendered generations of intelligent people deaf to the rhythms and melodies of English meter--from schoolchildren who are taught to write "poems" but not instructed in meter (except for the haiku), to poets who think of metrics as a weird convention of yesteryear, like photographing dead people.

THUS DOES IT FALL to the poet James Fenton in his splendid little book "An Introduction to English Poetry" to acquaint the interested but perplexed with English language poetry, and, in the process, to plead with today's poets to take poetic form--which is to say, poetry--seriously.

Fenton's twenty-two small chapters seek to explain, as accessibly and winsomely as possible, the basic ideas involved in reading and understanding English poetry. What is the purpose of rhyme? What are iambs and trochees, pentameter and fourteeners, and how have poets used these things to make their words say more than would be possible otherwise?

In answering such questions Fenton is aware that many contemporary poets view metrics as little more than arbitrary and life-denying rules that poets of bygone eras imposed on themselves just to see if they could do it. Fenton goes shows this notion to be the self-serving sham it is, but he does so by definition and analysis rather than by argument and ridicule, appropriate as argument and ridicule would have been in this context.