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Lazy Criticism

much of what Mr. Eastman calls lazy verse has not even achieved the level of a good piece of journalism. For instance, Mr. Eastman's apostrophe to a blank-book, which he submits as showing that all one has to do to make a poem today is to say something, does not really say much, and what it does say it says badly—it is not good journalism, although it is rhythmical and almost, if not wholly, metrical. No, instead of indicating that what keeps journalism from being literature is exactly what keeps much vers libre from being poetry—and also what keeps much metrical verse from being poetry—and literature, Mr. Eastman falls into the very pitfalls that all the other critics have dug, and he even falls deeper in—buries himself like an exploding shell. For the total effect of his article is to put a halo about the head of anyone who writes metrical verse, however poor; to imply that there is some magic property in an arbitrary patterns, which of itself induces high powers or “the intense rhapsodies of art.” By direct inference from this article, all vers libre is journalism, all metrical verse literature—a conclusion hard to accept. In fact, Mr. Eastman's article itself is an example, not of fine and discriminating criticism, but of that very slipshod journalism which he affects to scorn. He has the courage of generalities—a journalistic trait, but not of particulars; and criticism adheres in particulars. He lumps all the writers of vers libre, with the exception of Whitman, Blake, King Solomon, Giovannitti and Tagore, into the discard. Those who found schools, or who have the tag of

a school, are necessarily inferior: a sweeping generalization—
(and this from Mr. Eastman, who believes in the organiza-
tion of labor, and the disorganization of capitalized gangs
like publishers, etc.')
What poetry needs today is a critic who has the courage
to discriminate among his contemporaries, no matter with
what schools their names may be associated, whether by
accident or design; one who will uphold a standard of good
style, a standard of literature, by which both vers libre and
metrical verse may be judged, and accepted or rejected. It
takes courage to criticize one's contemporaries, but a critic
who ventures only along the secure routes of the past, or
of accepted opinion, ventures nothing. Mr. Eastman has
avoided the issue. ;
Apropos of the aboriginal indolence of the writer of vers
libre, it is interesting to quote what Mr. Littell has to say
of Swinburne in the same number of The New Republic in
which Mr. Eastman's article appeared:

Often you wonder, as you read on and on, whether his habit was not to start a poem with some fragment that occurred of itself, and then to make more fragments in the same metre, until his ear desired another metre, when he would take what he had written, choose a first stanza and a last, and let the others arrange themselves. What are they like, these long and structureless poems, as empty of meaning as of movement from mood to mood P They are like blown fires that spread without arriving, like champing swift horses always in the same place, like huge elusive bellying sails that the mind cannot furl. The emptiness is filled with lines that call and clang, with a rushing wind of rhythm, with a musical movement repeated and repeated until it gets into one's blood, and the pulse beats to its measure, and long after the wind has blown itself out the waves keep up their rolling and washing.

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Lazy Criticism

And yet it is the people who do not respond to this form of “rhapsodic trance” who are, Mr. Eastman says, “people so neutralized by effete parlor civilization that their vital organs are incapable of resounding to the fundamental trance-engendering stroke of the tom-tom. They are incapable of hypnosis. They are incapable of “naively falling asleep to dream.” But is it not our effete parlor civilization that has produced this very verse with its empty, meaningless song? And if we demand a sharper sense of reality along with fundamental rhythms, is it then because we are stultified with civilization ? The difference between the hypnosis induced by this sophisticated poetry, and that of primitive poetry, is this: that whereas with primitive poetry the effect is produced by the reiteration of a single line or image, the sense of which is enlarged and intensified by repetition or by the “trance-engendering” beat of the tom-tom; with the kind of poetry spoken of above, the effect is produced by the rhythmical succession of phrases, the meaning and sense of which are lost in the mechanical drum-beat furnished by the verse itself. Take away the drum-beat of the latter form of verse and you have nothing left. Take away the tom-tom from primitive poetry, take away even the repetition of the phrase, and you still have the vital heart of the poem—the emotional image. . I can not follow Mr. Eastman's psychology. He implies that indulgence in vers libre is an example of aboriginal indolence; then he says that it is because we lack primitive

qualities, because of “too much neural excitation and too
little of the booming pulse of the blood”, that we do not
respond to the refinements of civilized verse. Vers libre is
not, Mr. Eastman says, “a return to primitive, naive or
simple styles of writing,” but the height of effort at sophisti-
cated stimulation of a jaded perception.” But could it not
be, is it not in fact, both 2
To say that poets write the new free verse out of sheer
indolence, to escape the restrictions imposed upon them by
metrical rhymed verse, is nonsense. If anything, the met-
rical pattern offers a greater opportunity to the naturally
indolent and lazy mind. At least it seems easier to disguise
lack of thought and feeling when a conventional metrical
pattern and a rhyme scheme are adopted. It is also foolish
to think that vers libre is not “a medium offering a vigorous
resistance of its own,” simply because that resistance is less
obvious. The poet knows that it is just as hard to write
good free verse as it is to write good metrical verse. When
either achieves the level of poetry, the distinction between
the two is unimportant.
Marlowe and his contemporaries did not engage the
medium of blank verse because it offered less resistance than
rhymed verse. Poets really do not react against conventional
forms for indolent or for journalistic reasons. There is
always an artistic, a psychological basis for such reactions.
The poet who uses vers libre is simply reacting against the
kind of swaddling metrical rhythm suffocating the sense em-
ployed by Swinburne and other poets, and more especially

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Lazy Criticism

by their less gifted followers. The reaction against this stultifying, deadening cloak of rhythm is as natural, and as justifiable artistically, as was Wordsworth's reaction against poetic diction and rhetoric. This is not to say that everyone who writes vers libre is a poet any more than that everyone who writes metrical verse has a right to the laurels with which Mr. Eastman crowns him. If the medium of vers libre has seemed to offer to prose-writers an easy method of rushing into print as poets, it is nevertheless true that the hand of the prose-writer can invariably be detected in free verse; nor does the mediocre poet do a bit better in this form than in his more conventional patterns. (Mr. Eastman no doubt would deny the word “form” to vers libre. But vers libre has form exactly as clouds have form, and as infinite a variety of patterns, although none may be regular or narrowly symmetrical.) Certainly no greater amount of “aching feeling” is poured into free verse today than was formerly expressed with a fatal and glib facility through the medium of metres of every known variety under the sun. This I have every reason to know. I am very, very tired of the futile discussion about the relative merits of vers libre and metrical verse. It really does not matter in which medium a poet chooses to express himself so long as he gives us real poetry, and I refuse to believe that either medium is too easy or too hard or too oldfashioned or too new to serve as a vehicle for the poet who is capable of using it. A. C. H.;

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