The freedom of free verse (vers libre) is as easily abused as other kinds of freedom. Together, these two books show its merits, its limits, and what can happen when the limits are exceeded.
Some critics have not been able to accept free verse at any price. G. M. Young called T. S. Eliot's verse "a gash at the roots of our poetry." G. K. Chesterton snorted: "You might as well call living in a ditch 'free architecture'."
The justification of free verse is usually much the same as the justification of cubism in art, or the "stream of consciousness" in such novels as James Joyce's "Ulysses" or Virginia Woolf's "The Waves": that the 'fragmentation' of life in the 2Oth Century, caused by faster transport and by the disruption of society by World War I, the Russian Revolution and the Depression, demanded a new kind of artistic and literary expression. The symmetry of heroic couplets and the tameness of villanelles were inadequate for conveying shell-shock, airplane flight or the scenes racing past an express-train window.
In the novel, stream-of-consciousness has proved to be a cul-de-sac, if one excepts Flann O'Brien's "At Swim Two Birds" and a diluted influence on such novelists as Anthony Burgess and John Updike. It is a grand failed experiment. Why did it fail? Because the reading public simply would not put up with acres and acres of gibberish a la "Finnegans Wake." But it will still put up with small patches of gibberish known as poems. Aldous Huxley was already satirizing pretentious free verse in 1923 in the absurd poem that Lypiatt is made to recite in "Antic Hay," beginning "Look down, Conquistador!" But the genre persists.
Neither of the books under review is in the gibberish class. Indeed, Christopher Reid--a poet who already boasts the triple crown of a Gregory Award, the Somerset Maugham Award and the prestigious Hawthornden Prize-- must be counted among the best writers of free verse since Eliot and Auden. Sometimes his poems come dangerously near to pastiche, even parody, of Eliot. His "A Tune" not only resembles "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" in prosody, it seems to contain direct echoes of Eliot's poem. Reid writes:
Stammered on a mandolin. . . .
I have heard the same song
in numerous clever disguises--
embellished with hesitations and surprise chords
by my cousin, the promising fiddler. . . .
But others of Reid's poems have a springtime freshness that has little in common with Eliot's academic allusion and willful obscurantism. In their epigrammatic ease, they are reminiscent of Arthur Waley's wonderful translations of Chinese poems, such as "We plucked the bracken." Reid usually captures us with his first line. Who could resist reading the rest of a poem that begins: "So the Muse of History is a man!"?
He has what the more portentous free verse poets fatally lack: wit. It shows not only in his frequent jokes, but also in his vivacious phrase-making: the "gloating hover" of mosquitoes; the "harpist's opportunistic flourish" with which a spider crosses its web; the "thoughtful flatulence" of a bass tuba--"a sound half-way between serious and rude." A new-born baby is "a little howling blood-sausage."
And then there are the jolting apercus that it is the special business of a poet to offer us:
Somebody hoicked up the lid of the concert piano,
the massive black slab,
and at once I thought of resurrection....
Reid is most successful when he is engaged enough by his subject to discard all his bons mots, contrivances and special effects and to tell it straight. An example is "What the Uneducated Old Woman Told Me"--in which an old lady (perhaps plunking herself down beside the poet on a park bench or in a doctor's waiting-room--Reid doesn't say) recites a litany of complaints, confidences, gobbets of folk wisdom, and Old Wives' Tales.
Reid's poems provoke this question: Could they have been better if he had chosen meter and rhyme, as, say, Philip Larkin would have done? Rhyme is often cunningly implicit in Reid's verse, as in the 'surprise' that follows 'disguises' in the Eliotesque passage quoted above. But, like an Anglo-Catholic flirting with Rome, he won't go all the way. W. B. Yeats said that poetry should be "a dance in chains"-- a picturesque way of suggesting that poetry is enhanced, not constrained, by an adherence to certain rules. We get a bonus in marveling at the legerdemain of the technique. I think that many of Reid's poems would gain an extra dimension and impressiveness if he subjected his often profound thought to the discipline of rhyme and meter. (Think how much less satisfying most of Seamus Heaney's poems would be if he had permitted himself the looseness of free verse.) On the other hand, there are times when the casual, the inconsequential, the ragged-edged approach is more apt, and it is no doubt heartening for a poet to know that he has both techniques at his disposal.