Reflections on the monotony of poetry

Reading Poetry In the Thirties and then The Penguin Book of Spanish Civil War Verse, an unexpected theme emerges which is: the boring repetitiveness of so much of the poetry; the extraordinarily narrow range of language, and the incredibly restricted vocabulary it uses.

When I was at school they told me English had the biggest vocabulary of any European language. You wouldn’t have thought so from reading these poems. So many of the poems seem like the result of moving an extremely limited number of verbal counters into slightly varying combinations.

The monotonous repetition of a handful of ‘poetic’ buzzwords eventually drains them of all meaning and makes many of the poems feel very samey. Here’s an A-list of the most commonly, numbingly repeated buzzwords, some of which appear in every poem in these collections:

blood, breast, death, dream, eye, heart, love, pain, red, star, sun, tears, time

What would happen to poetry if these words were simply banned? Or if poets were fined for using them? Almost all the poems in both these anthologies would disappear in a puff of banality.

It’s odd, it’s a bit mad even, that poets like to swank about fighting cliché and dead language when in fact reading poetry often feels like being force-fed whole boxfuls of dusty old clichés. Here’s the B-list of overused ‘poetic’ words, not quite so common, but still overdone:

bone, breath, clock, dark, dream, earth, fate, flesh, future, grave, life, light, memory, moon, night, road, sorrow, space, year, world

Well over a hundred thousand words to choose from and the poets in these collections bang on with the same 20 words, round and round like a donkey tied to a well.

So many of the poets seem to think they’ve done their job if they’ve strung together ‘blood’, ‘death’ and ‘time’ in a vaguely novel arrangement. But, in a way, as I read the hundredth poem about ‘blood’ flowing from the ‘red’ ‘rose’ of the dying ‘earth’ etc, I began to think they were undoing something, draining these words of power, and draining their own indignation and compassion by failing to find new words and new vocabulary to express it.

Stephen Spender manages, all by himself, to drain the word ‘world’ of any meaning, overtones or symbolism by his obsessive use of it in almost every poem he wrote (and his autobiography, which is titled World Within World).

The pleasure of older poetry

This is why it’s more enjoyable to read old poetry, the more enjoyable the further back in time you go, because you are increasingly likely to be pleasantly surprised by odd and unexpected vocabulary or by different meanings attached to words which have been bled dry in our time.

The success of W.H. Auden

Looking at the poetry of the 1930s from this angle – from the perspective of lexical variety – sheds a different light on Auden’s success. Put simply, Auden had a larger vocabulary than anyone else. In his poetry you can hear Auden continually reaching for unexpected, novel words and combinations. Sometimes they feel contrived, but at least he’s making an effort to refresh poetry from new sources.

On that arid square, that fragment nipped off from hot
Africa, soldered so crudely to inventive Europe;
On that tableland scored by rivers,
Our thoughts have bodies; the menacing shapes of our fever

Are precise and alive.

‘Nip’ and ‘solder’ and ‘tableland’, God what a relief not to be reading about ‘blood’ and ‘hearts’ and ‘love’ and ‘time’ and ‘tears’ and ‘graves’.

To be fair Auden uses these latter poetic keywords as much as anyone else – but he regularly goes beyond what you could call Baseline Poetic Vocabulary, to deliberately refresh and expand its possibilities.

Yesterday the installation of dynamos and turbines,
The construction of railways in the colonial desert;
Yesterday the classic lecture
On the origin of Mankind. But to-day the struggle…

To-morrow, perhaps the future. The research on fatigue
And the movements of packers; the gradual exploring of all the
Octaves of radiation;
To-morrow the enlarging of consciousness by diet and breathing…

‘Octaves of radiation’, nobody could accuse that of being a poetic cliché.

I’m not saying that Poetry In the Thirties and The Penguin Book of Spanish Civil War Verse don’t contain good poems, lots of them – the Val Cunningham anthology in particular is a marvel of diligent research in the archives. He has turned up all kinds of obscure treasures. It is a cornucopia of interest and elucidation.

BUT the downside of such profusion is the reader can’t help noting the obsessive repetition of the same images and phrases again and again and eventually longs for real variety of diction and phrasing.


Examples of very limited, highly repetitive vocabulary

The same narrow round of imagery, the same four colours, death and time and world and blood, over and over.

At five the man fell under the trees
The watch flew off stopped at a moon
Of time staring from the dead wrist.
(Stephen Spender)

World world O world
Youth without promise in our long days
A sun reflected in the muddy stream
An eye duller than last night’s dream.
(Edgar Foxall)

Death stalked the olive trees picking his men
His leaden finger beckoned again and again.
(John Lepper)

Backed to the brown walls of the square
The lightless lorry headlamps stare
With glinting reflectors through the night
At our gliding star of light.
(Stephen Spender)

And on the hillside
That is the colour of peasant bread
Is the rectangular
White village of the dead.
(Sylvia Townsend Warner)

Why do you not take comfort then, my heart?
(Ewart Milne)

Time stops when the bullet strikes
Or moves to a new rhyme;
No longer measured by the eyes
Leap, pulse-beat, thought-flow.
(Tom Wintringham)

Our enemies can praise death and adore death
For us endurance, the sun; and now in the night
(Tom Wintringham)

My life confronts my life with eyes, the world
The world with microscopes; and the self-image
Lifted in light against the lens
Stares back with my dumb wall of eyes.
(Stephen Spender)

Light, light with that lunar death our fate;
Make more dazzling with your agony’s gold
The death that lays us all in the sand.
Gaze with that gutted eye on our endeavour
To be the human brute, not the brute human;
And if I feel your gaze upon me, ever,
I’ll wear the robe of blood that love illumines.
(George Barker)

Swells the seed, and now tight sound-buds
Vibrate upholding their paean flowers
To the sun. There are bees in sky-bells droning
Flares of crimson at the heart unfold.
(C. Day-Lewis)

Who would think the Spanish war
Flared like new tenure of a star,
The way our rhymes and writings are?
That Hilliard spilled his boxer’s blood
Through Albecete’s snow and mud
And smiled to comrade death, Salud?  (Blanaid Salkeld)

The horror of the nightmare is that it evades
Your steady look, steals past the corner of the eye,
Lurks in the sides of pictures. Death
Is fearful for the fifth part of a second,
A fear that shakes the heart: and that fear lost
As soon, yet leaves and sickness and a chill,
Heavy hands and the weight of another day.
Here in Madrid, facing death
my narrow heart keeps hidden
a love which grieves me but which I cannot
even reveal to this night.
(Stephen Spender)

You are stalwart, strong;
Young generations of sturdy miners
Have forged you – iron is in your blood.
(Charlotte Haldane)

Dark falls the afternoon,
Dark amid rain and mud
(José Moreno Villa translated by Stanley Richardson)

I’m singing in every country
Where I tread through the streets of Time
(Clive Branson)

When from the deep sky
And digging in the harsh earth,
When by words hard as bullets
Thoughts simple as death
(Tom Wintringham)

In the night, the cause I fight for
Draws a mist of horror up, damps me with blood
(Miles Tomalin)

There, in the frond, the instant lurks
With its metal fang planned for my heart
When the finger tugs and the clock strikes.
(Stephen Spender)

Why are there only three emotions, love or hate or fear? The whole world of subtle feelings and emotion in between these extremes – shyness, demurral, shrugging, hesitation, indignation, humour – is absent.

Out of the singing and the dancing came
Civil dissension, bitter deeds, and cruel;
Out of the poet and the murdered fool
The blood leapt rigid in a rage of shame.
(J.C. Hall)

Enemies hidden in ambush
Hidden among the branches;
Weeping comes to the eyes,
Harvests go up in flames,
And hysterical Death
Over the puddles of blood
Howls and dances in rage,
Leaps and fastens on flesh.
(Pla y Bektrana translated by Rolfe Humphries)

Why is it either primal day or night?

We’d left our training base
And by the time night fell
Stood facing the universe
Singing the ‘Internationale’.
(Clive Branson)

Why is every other thought about death? I appreciate they’re poems about war, but other things happen in war apart from just death, subtle things, interesting things. But here everything is reduced to the same handful of Big Allegorical Concepts.

Too many people are in love with Death.
(Tom Wintringham)

The map of Spain
bleeds under my fingers, cracked with rivers
of unceasing tears, and scraped with desolation
and valleyed with these moaning winds of death.
(Jack Lindsay)

But even now reproaching stars can sound
from death‘s horizon into which they dive…
(Kathleen Raine)

Fear will alight on each like a dunce’s cap
Or an unguessed disease unless death drops
Quicker than the sirens or the traffic stops.
(Bernard Gutteridge)

It’s not that it’s inappropriate to write of death during a war, it’s just that the word is bandied around too easily and too glibly. It’s the monotony of this one boring word which becomes so grinding.

Now we can walk into the picture easily
To be the unknown hero and the death
(Bernard Gutteridge)

Ask of the eagle that yelped overhead
where in the blaze of death the Spanish workers blocked
the Guadarrama passes with their dead.
(Jack Lindsay)

(The hundreds of poets who rhyme ‘death’ with ‘breath’ deserve to be shot.)

And why are the only parts of the human body these poets know about the heart, the eye and blood, flesh and bone?

Men, worlds, nations,
pay heed, listen to my cry pouring out blood,
gather together the pulses of my breaking heart
into your spacious hearts,
because I clutch the soul when I sing.
(Miguel Hernandez translated by Stephen Spender)

Scorched and splintered lie its stones,
Blood is dust with flesh and hair…  (Miles Tomalin)

There are over 650 named muscles in the human body, over 200 bones, and scores of other fluids besides blood and tears. But only blood and heart and eye and flesh and bone are ever mentioned, and not just occasionally, but over and over again, a handful of body parts endlessly re-arranged by a madman.

Heart of the heartless world,
Dear heart, the thought of you
Is the pain at my side,
The shadow that chills my view.
(John Cornford)

Why are the only things above us the sky, the sun, the moon and the stars? In the real world clouds come in a hundred forms with scores of names, the weather is complex and changeable, there are scores of constellations, the feel and shape of the skyscape changes continually. Not in these poems, they don’t.

The sun warmed the valley but no birds sang
The sky was rent with shrapnel and metallic clang.
Ten years of sun and shadow.
Ten years of the premonition of love and the omen of death…
(H.B. Mallalieu)

Searchlights now wipe the windscreen of the sky,
Which once was clear,
When from the garden we saw planes go by
Not dulled by fear.
(H.B. Mallalieu)

Why is the only flower any of these poets have heard of ‘the rose’?

Can’t you smell the rose held in their teeth
Tighter than death?
(Clive Branson)

The centre of my heart like a red tree
Puts forth a hand and indicates the common red rose.
(George Barker)

Why are there only two colours, red or black? It’s extraordinary, when we know that the human eyes can distinguish between about ten million shades of colour, that the only colours the poets in this collection refer to are red or black (OK brown appears once or twice and grey a few times – but red or black hundreds of times.)

Out of the newsprint blows this wind of honour,
pause reading amid the traffic blast. Seal down,
red as the heart, the oath that we must swear
if we are still to live on such an earth.
(Jack Lindsay)

It is night like a red rag
drawn across the eyes
the flesh is bitterly pinned
to desperate vigilance
the blood is stuttering with fear.
(Laurie Lee)

Why is the only animal the dog? OK, the ox also appears a few times. There might be a few chickens. Are they all the animal species which exist in Spain or which poets can imagine?

The world is full to overflowing with millions of things, hundreds of thousands of plants and animals and fungi, the entire range of modern machinery and technology, thousands of colours, countless  shapes and changes of weather, a kaleidoscope of human feelings, with thousands of words to name and describe the million intricate specificities of life.

It’s amazing how much of all that is left out of these poems. It’s as if the poets are operating within agreed codes, convinced that reducing their diction gives it extra power. Maybe Hemingway has something to do with it. The ethos of the time held that dropping adjectives and using an impoverished vocabulary made poetry somehow more profound, hard-hitting. Verbiage i.e. exuberant variety of lexicon was eschewed for black night and dark blood and the red rose.

Read in isolation, it might well work for individual poems, conveying a sense of engaging with the primitive and primal realities of life and death etc. But read any number of them and a) it gets really monotonous and then b) it comes to feel like a collective dereliction of the poet’s duty to keep the language alive and make it new.


Related links

Poetry reviews

Classical poetry

Dark Age poetry

Medieval poetry

Renaissance poetry

Restoration poetry

Victorian poetry

Kipling

1930s poetry

Modern poetry

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