By Dennis, Felix
New Statesman (1996) , Vol. 133, No. 4709
I was a dunce at almost everything in school except English literature and cross-country running. Too small to bulldoze my way out of trouble on the rugby pitch and too idle to obtain approval through serious study, I learned that a smart mouth and a retentive memory were the best ways to escape the bullying of classmates or the wrath of masters. Poetry came early to my rescue. By chance, I had a kindly, enthusiastic English teacher, known to us as "Abdul" Rowe (on account of his long black beard and swarthy complexion), who took to lending me his heavily annotated poetry anthologies. By my mid-teens, I had devoured Donne, Herrick, Raleigh, Herbert and Shakespeare's sonnets ("almost certainly not written by a glove-maker's son from Warwickshire", Abdul opined airily) and was eagerly making my way through Blake, Tennyson, Byron, Shelley, Browning and Wordsworth. The real discoveries came shortly before my expulsion from school at 15, when the works of A E Housman, Robert Frost, Edward Thomas, W H Auden, Charlotte Mew and Emily Dickinson gripped me by the throat.
I was dazzled and utterly entranced. I also struggled with T S Eliot and Ezra Pound, but they left me mostly unmoved. Nor could I make too much of Allen Ginsberg and the Beat poets, even with an inexpertly rolled reefer in my hand. "Free verse" seemed to me then, as it does now, 40 years later, too slick, too facile, with insufficient craft and a great deal of deliberate obscurity masquerading as erudition. Far too often, late 20th-century poetry left me feeling that I had somehow missed the point.
Where was the melody? Where was the meter? Where was the musical complexity of form? Where was the rhyme? And where, oh where, was the meaning? I found I was unable to retain it in my memory. As the retention of crucial lines of verse is one of the great joys of poetry, I eventually did what most readers did--I simply stopped reading many "modern" poets and sought refuge in the great anthologies and "complete works" of traditionalist masters.
Some free verse is marvellous. Many lines from Stevie Smith, Sylvia Plath, Les Murray, Ted Hughes, James Fenton and Cathy Song are engraved in my memory. Their work has given me enormous pleasure. It is not so much the form or approach of free verse that I object to. It is more the arrogant demand from a section of the literary world that all contemporary poetry be written in that form, and that form exclusively.
I draw the line when modern critics and poets assert, loudly and very rudely, that anyone who writes today in traditional forms is a "philistine" and "can never be a true poet". …