I have a great interest in English poetry, as I am sure do many if not all members of The Queen’s English Society. I think that ‘the world of English poetry’, if it may be called that, is in considerable confusion in some respects. My membership of The Queen’s English Society has brought me much encouragement in my efforts to draw more public attention to this confusion, and if possible to dispel it. I will here give you some account of my ‘game’, as I call it, in this matter.
An interest in poetry was fostered in me as a boy without my knowing truly what poetry was except through inference from the examples put before me.
This interest was given impetus at my secondary school where I won a prize for English Verse. My knowledge of poetry was broadened when I studied for a General Bachelor of Arts degree of the London University in the 1960s. The study of English Literature was a third part of this course ~ Psychology and Aesthetics were the other very suitable components that I chose. In the course of these studies I was acquainted with more English poetry back as far as Chaucer and the ‘Gawain’ poet. I wrote occasional pieces of what I took to be poetry.
About thirty years ago I began to write more pieces of what I would now call perhaps ‘pseudo-poetry’ ~ or perhaps just bad poetry. But in the next ten years or so I did become in a small way something of a true poet in that I wrote in measured and rhymed verses. I would not claim any more for my pieces than that.
At the same time I began to acquaint myself with more of the whole span of English poetry back to its beginnings, and at the Manchester University I was able to get some insight into the nature of the oldest stuff written. I was particularly concerned to discover, if I could, ‘how it all went’, in the sense of finding out so far as possible what may have been the original rhythmic basis of English verse.
I now think that I have done this and that I have in fact got closer than anyone yet in recovering the much debated and much obscured rhythm of such stuff as ‘Beowulf’.
I have been bringing my proposals ~ for they are no more than that ~ concerning the rhythms of English poetry over 1,300 years to as wide an audience as possible through performance at Arts and Literature Festivals and so forth, and on one occasion at The International Medieval Congress at Leeds, where I also presented a paper on my metrical theory and proposals.
At the same time I was becoming aware that, in the world of modern ‘poetry’, what I took to be the original ‘craft-principles’ of poetry were not being much followed and were even in some quarters being denigrated. I was, and still am, a member of The Poetry Society, and it had become clear to me that this organisation was not as interested as I thought that it might be in the whole span of English poetry and its craft traditions. Indeed, I found that, whereas on its foundation the Society’s aim had been “to advance public education in the understanding and use of poetry”, its stated purpose had become “to promote contemporary poetry and poets”. I thought that this was a fraud and a disgrace.
It was at this stage, three years or so ago, that I wrote a paper entitled On English Poetry and Poems in which I set out a case for distinguishing, taxonomically as it were, the modern so-called ‘poems’ from true poems. I argued that, if the original craft-principles of measure and rhyme or alliteration were not employed in the production of any ‘word-thing’, then that thing could not logically be called ‘a poem’ and should be placed in some other, perhaps new category of literary things.
That paper went out to the editors of every magazine in the country which published ‘poetry’; to the Literary Editors of all the national newspapers; to politicians; to the Poet Laureate; and to the Director, ‘Chair’ and every Trustee of The Poetry Society. The paper was not responded to, except by the editors of a few of the smaller magazines. Nobody at all has yet replied systematically and thoroughly to the argument set out in what is a short and uncomplicated submission.
It was at this time that I began to make persistent enquiries of The Poetry Society, the ‘Chair’ of which at the time was Ms Ruth Padel FRSL, to try to obtain an explanation of its shifting ‘aims and objectives’, and to be advised of its working definitions of ‘poetry’ and ‘poem’. In this matter nothing was forthcoming except this extraordinary statement that was made to me ~ on his own behalf, let it be said, not on behalf of The Poetry Society ~ by one of the serving Trustees:
There is poetry in everything we say and do and if something is presented to me as a poem by its creator, or by an observer, I accept that something as a poem.
It was then that, as a relatively new member of The Queen’s English Society, I submitted the paper to the Editor of its Journal, Quest, and was delighted that he agreed to publish it; and this led to my coming down to London in 2007 to meet some of my fellow members at the Luncheon at the New Cavendish Club. I had a word with Dr Bernard Lamb, and suggested that I might do a performance of poetry and music at a London Branch meeting. This duly happened in November that year. My performance was titled: ‘Beowulf’s Boxer-shorts: A Thousand Years of English Poetry Stripped Down to its Rhythmic Essentials’. Afterwards I was delightfully entertained by Bernard and Brenda Lamb at East Sheen.
Last year the game was given fresh impetus. Dr Lamb’s review of the performance was published in Quest and caught the attention of Anushka Asthana at The Observer. Remarks that I had made about The Poetry Society and so forth interested her. Bernard Lamb put her in touch with me, and the article in The Observer of April 13th 2008, ‘Poetry guardians reject modern verse’, was the result.
Miss Asthana took it upon herself to describe me as “the spearhead of The Queen’s English Society’s campaign for a new definition of poetry”. I hope that this may not displease the Society too much ~ the game has been very much my own so far, and has been a long, arduous and thorough one. In the course of our discussions I drew in two prominent figures in ‘the poetry world’, Andrew Motion, the ‘Poet Laureate’, and Michael Schmidt, Principal of the Carcanet Press in Manchester, possibly this country’s biggest publisher of poetry, and author of books on ‘The Lives of the Poets’ and ‘The Story of English Poetry’. Professor Schmidt might well be described as at present the country’s ‘top poetry-man’. I said that both these gentlemen ~ both silent recipients of my paper ‘On English Poetry and Poems’ ~ on occasions wrote pieces that were called ‘poems’ but were not truly so.
The result of all this was Bernard Lamb’s appearance ‘head to head’ with Michael Schmidt on the BBC Radio 4 programme Today on April 14th 2008. Dr Lamb has provided me with a tape-recording of the session, which I have, with his further help, duly transcribed, so that the debate may be fully analysed. I present the transcription here in full, and follow it with a critical analysis.
“WHAT’S A POEM?”
This is a transcript of a debate between Dr Bernard Lamb, Reader in Genetics at Imperial College, London, President of The Queen’s English Society, and Michael Schmidt, Professor of Poetry at Glasgow University and Director of The Carcanet Press in Manchester, on the Today programme, BBC Radio 4, Monday, April 14th 2008. The interviewer was Evan Davis.
- What’s a poem? The question is clearly vexing the guardians of the English Language ~ self appointed ~ in The Queen’s English Society. You say too often strings of words have been labelled poems despite having no rhyme or metre. Poets, you will be unsurprised to hear, beg to differ. Bernard Lamb is President of The Queen’s English Society, and Michael Schmidt is a poet and Professor of Poetry at Glasgow University. He joins us from Manchester. Good morning to you both.
- Good morning.
- Bernard Lamb, it upsets you all this modern poetry, does it, without rhyme and stuff?
- A lot of it doesn’t seem like poetry to me.
- Give us some…have you got any examples with you of something that you…
- Yes, I’ve got something which I wrote: There was a Neanderthal man who found that his grunts didn’t scan. This hearty meat-eater invented the metre to prove that they certainly can.
- [Laughs] So that…that counts as a poem because it rhymes very obviously…
- And it scans.
- And it scans…er…T.S. Eliot, I mean, that…doesn’t all rhyme and scan in such an obvious form, would that not be poetry?
- It…it has metre, it has regularities.
- So that squeezes in. Michael…Michael Schmidt, can you… can you read us a poem that you think isn’t a poem on…er…Bernard Lamb’s criterion but which you think is a poem…I…perhaps one of your own?
- Well, I think all my poems are poems on Bernard Lamb’s criteria despite his reservations. I…I’ll read three stanzas of a little poem [ED: O.K.] about the Incarnation which isn’t I’m afraid funny so your listeners may be disappointed.
- [Slight, muffled response.]
- Language can never quite translate the motion here or draw the line * that’s where the mystery abides, the process, not the A or B * the place where substance, alchemy transforms and cannot be turned back * the wine is salty in the wound, the loaf is baking on the cross * it is not only Christ who has given such bold transitions, such regrets * to hold him in our hands and mouths, to swallow and ourselves become.
[I have marked the main pauses that Michael Schmidt used in his delivery thus, *, and put in some commas. MG]
- Thank you. Bernard Lamb, is that a poem or not?
- Difficult to tell; I think if it was written out as straight prose I wouldn’t realise that it was meant to be a poem.
- [Attempts to say something, but Michael Schmidt interrupts.]
- That’s sort of unfortunate, I mean…er…listening to…to Mr Lamb’s…er…amusing…er…um…amusing limerick…er…to put that in the scales against…er…the biblical translations, against Blake, Whitman and Ginsberg, against Milton who’s almost never regular, against Wordsworth who learned so much from Milton and doesn’t rhyme in the whole of The Prelude, it seems a little bit…um…er…what would you call it, excessive.
- But Bernard Lamb, we don’t want all poetry to be like Pam Ayres do we? I wonder whether you are being just a little bit strict in your…in your definition here.
- No, I mean the sort of thing that upsets us is, a Trustee of The Poetry Society was quoted as saying: ‘If something’s presented to me as a poem by its creator or an observer I accept that something as a poem’.
- ? That doesn’t mean…[This is over-ridden by Bernard Lamb.]
- That means that everything is poetry, which means there’s no point in having Professors of Poetry or Poetry Societies.
- [Laughs] Mr Schmidt, what is the difference between prose and poetry, or are you willing to accept that anybody can declare anything of words they put together as a poem if they want to?
- I’m quite happy to accept that, providing that they allow me to say that this is a good poem or a bad poem. I think the most useful definitions almost always break down or are broken down by practice. To say that poetry has line-endings and that line-endings are im…are important seems to be a very good beginning of a definition; but then there is prose-poetry written by Baudelaire, written by Rimbaud, and by a number of English poets, which is poetry too. It has a lot, as Mr Lamb correctly says, I think, to do with sound and with sound-patterning, but to speak of metre, rhyme, alliteration as I was…as I was led to believe this is what…is what…these are the great desiderata of…of the…er…Queen’s English Society…leaves out so much…We…we only learn…er…metre from Norman French; before that we had accentual poetry, which wasn’t regular in terms of syllable-count. We didn’t have the sonnet, the sonnet came in with Wyatt, and Wyatt does a very irregular kind of sonnet, which is then perfected by Surrey and made completely bland.
- You…you…you clearly…you know your poets. Is there anything that you would think people might say is a poem that you would say that that is not a poem at all, to stop talking nonsense? Is there anything you would…you would…you would dismiss as not, non-poetry?
- There is much I would dismiss as bad poetry. Er…and…er…
- But aren’t you just extending the use of the word ‘poem’ a little bit further than most of us would in that regard?
- I don’t think so; I think I’m just…just trying to reinstate the notion of quality. Er…I would suggest that Mr Lamb’s limerick, though a delightful limerick perhaps, is not a poem. Let’s, let’s say that that’s verse, let’s say that’s verse. There is a quite interesting difference between verse…writing…writing things mechanically and metrically and delightfully perhaps, and poetry which…which I think tries to go a little bit deeper into the language and possibly into meaning.
- Bernard Lamb, is this a serious campaign by The Queen’s English Society, or is this…ah…a publicity…
- It is a serious campaign by one of our poets, Michael Gibson, who’s repeatedly tried to get The Poetry Society to tell him what they think poetry is, and they refuse; so what are they about if they don’t know what poetry is?
- Bernard Lamb, Michael Schmidt, thank you very, very much indeed.
The Prattling Professor of Poetry
On the 14th April 2008 there was a discussion on the BBC Radio 4 programme ‘Today’ between Dr Bernard Lamb, President of the Queen’s English Society, and Reader in Genetics at Imperial College London, and Michael Schmidt, Professor of Poetry at Glasgow University, and founder of the Carcanet Press.
“What’s a poem?”
When he had asked the question, the interviewer, Evan Davis, then offered The Queen’s English Society a gratuitous insult by referring to it or to some of its members as the guardians of the English language ~ self appointed. Of course, it was the BBC that was appointing the Society’s members as such.
Bernard Lamb, who was not granted his full academic title, or described as a poet, as Michael Schmidt had been, was then invited to give an example of a poem. He offered a short word-thing that plainly rhymed and scanned, and which we too would deem a poem on simple, logical grounds: There was a Neanderthal man who found that his grunts didn’t scan. This hearty meat-eater invented the metre to prove that they certainly can.
In the next phase of the debate the interviewer introduces the case of a named writer, T.S. Eliot, and uses the term poetry in respect of his work generally, but fails to suggest any particular examples of ‘poems’ for consideration. Dr Lamb reasonably replies in a general way, it has metre, it has regularities, and the interviewer quite unwarrantedly says, So that squeezes in.
The interviewer then makes a somewhat incoherent invitation:
Michael..Michael Schmidt, can you…can you read us a poem that you think isn’t a poem on…er…Bernard Lamb’s criterion but which you think is a poem…perhaps one of your own?
Michael Schmidt replies:
Well, I think all my poems are poems on Bernard Lamb’s criteria, despite his reservations. I…I’ll read three stanzas of a little poem about the Incarnation, which isn’t, I’m afraid funny, so your listeners may be disappointed…
In the context of the debate so far, Professor Schmidt’s opening statement can mean only one thing: he is asserting that all his so-called poems, wherever published, scan and rhyme. He then reads part of a particular word-thing of his own; but not before making a strange remark that might be taken as an admonishment or even gratuitous insult ~ but to whom? The remark may well imply that he thinks that Bernard Lamb’s word-thing is somehow not serious enough to qualify as a poem.
Presented here is what Professor Schmidt performed as ‘a poem’, or part of one. Indications of the main pauses in his delivery have been inserted, and some commas put into the transcript to aid the sense and to show other pauses in the performance:
Language can never quite translate the motion here or draw the line * that’s where the mystery abides, the process, not the A or B * the place where substance, alchemy transforms and cannot be turned back * the wine is salty in the wound, the loaf is baking on the cross * it is not only Christ who has given such bold transitions, such regrets * to hold in our hands and mouths, to swallow and become ourselves.
Plainly, there is no rhyme-scheme; and it was not possible to be sure, either from Mr Schmidt’s own delivery, or from the words when written down, where the line- and stanza-breaks occur. Clearly this thing cannot, as the professor led us to believe it would, fulfil Bernard Lamb’s criteria for a ‘poem’.
Dr Lamb is then asked if he thinks it is a poem or not, and he gives a simple and straightforward response:
Difficult to tell. I think if it was written out as straight prose I wouldn’t realise that it was meant to be a poem.
What happens now is somewhat comical and most interesting. The interviewer starts to say something; but it is quite obscured by Michael Schmidt’s interruption, thus:
That’s sort of unfortunate, I mean…er…listening to…to Mr Lamb’s…er…amusing …er…um…amusing limerick…er…to put that in the scales against…er…the biblical translations, against Blake, Whitman and Ginsberg, against Milton who’s almost never regular, against Wordsworth who learned so much from Milton and doesn’t rhyme in the whole of The Prelude, it seems a little bit…um…er…what would you call it, excessive.
Excessive is a word that could well be used of this outburst.
We have the initial fumbling of amusing limerick, which is then to be put in the scales against other things. We find here an element in Mr Schmidt’s argument that will come out more clearly and explicitly later: he is concerned to make use of ideas of literary or aesthetic worth in this debate, i.e., to make evaluative statements about works of art. In a debate with the expressed subject What’s a Poem? we must distinguish statements concerned with definition from statements concerned with evaluation. A word-thing should be defined before evaluative statements are made about it.
Now observe what the professor puts in his ‘scale-pan’ against the amusing limerick that Dr Lamb has placed in his. We are offered certain specific items ~ Wordsworth’s Prelude in all its many volumes, and an unspecified number of biblical translations ~ and in addition perhaps the entire works of various writers with various reputations. This is a sort of ‘gamesmanship’ in debate that we should not allow to divert us. We further note that he hasn’t said if he considers Dr Lamb’s limerick to be a ‘poem’ or not.
We may now notice that Mr Schmidt reintroduces the term rhyme. This, it should be noted, is a shift from the earlier hint, or feint, at an evaluative approach, to one more of definition. It would seem that he is here making the statement that there are a number of more or less important writers of what have been deemed ‘poetry’ and ‘poems’ who didn’t (at all? or perhaps only sometimes?) systematically rhyme the verses of their word-things. (Whether or not they were metred we are not told.)
Some detachment and scepticism are needed here. It may be submitted that, just because Professor Schmidt and indeed many other literary analysts and critics over many years have been accustomed to calling all or some of the works of such writers as Blake, Whitman, Ginsberg, Milton and Wordsworth ‘poems’ when, for instance, they do not employ systematic rhyme-schemes or perhaps are not regularly metred, this does not prove that they are ‘poems’. It may be the case that a logical error has been made in this matter, a questionable usage has become entrenched, and that what one may call ‘simple common sense’ can show this to be so.
Let us bring some ‘common sense’ to bear on one part of Mr Schmidt’s argument here. He brings the Bible, in translation, into the discussion. In doing so he is making a common assertion that does not make sense. It is often said that the Bible, or some part of it, ‘is poetry’. This assertion logically entails another, never following through with, that the whole Bible, or some part of it, is a ‘poem’. This assertion is false. The confusion occurs, we suggest, because the original statement, ‘is poetry’, is really standing in for ‘is poetical’ or ‘is poetic’. It may be suggested that it is the illogical use of the adjectival and loosely defined term ‘poetical’ that renders most enquiries into the question ‘What is a poem?’ ineffectual.
Michael Schmidt’s impromptu remarks are then followed by the interviewer asking somewhat tendentiously and provocatively:
But Bernard Lamb, we don’t want all poetry to be like Pam Ayres, do we? I wonder whether you are being just a little bit strict in your…in your definition here?
This allows Dr Lamb to move the discussion into a new phase ~ and in doing so he also overrides the presenter:
No, I mean the sort of thing that upsets us is, a Trustee of the Poetry Society was quoted as saying: ‘If something’s presented to me as a poem by its creator or an observer, I accept that something as a poem.’
[Then the presenter begins, ? That doesn’t mean…]
That means that everything is poetry, which means that there is no point in having Professors of Poetry or Poetry Societies.
The presenter, after laughing, takes up the point:
Mr Schmidt, what is the difference between prose and poetry, or are you willing to accept that anybody can declare anything of words they put together as a poem if they want to?
This is a double question, but in fact the two parts bear on the same logical enquiry. Professor Schmidt does not attempt to directly answer the challenge to distinguish between prose and poetry, but allows the second, more propositional enquiry:
I’m quite happy to accept that, provided that they allow me to say that this is a good poem or a bad poem.
This is quite astonishing. Where he says, I am quite happy to accept that, he is assenting a) to the presenter’s proposal that anybody can declare anything of words that they can put together as a poem, and thus b) to the validity of the expressed opinion of the Trustee of The Poetry Society; and he is c) endorsing Bernard Lamb’s statement, That means that everything is poetry. This is absurd: it means that we could present to Mr Schmidt any portion of a letter, or a scientific report, or a novel as ‘a poem’ and he would agree that it is so. Furthermore, it follows that he is tacitly accepting Dr Lamb’s limerick as a poem. In the second part of his sentence above, the Professor indicates that he would then evaluate the presented thing as a good poem or a bad poem according to criteria he has not yet propounded. We look forward to having these criteria further elucidated for us; but the fact remains that Michael Schmidt is saying, in effect, that any sort of ‘word-thing’ is a poem.
Mr Schmidt then proceeds into a non-sequitor:
I think that the most useful definitions almost always break down or are broken down in practice. To say that poetry has line-endings and that line-endings are im…are important seems to be a very good beginning of a definition…
This is more of what might be called ‘gamesmanship’. The term line-endings is a new one, and it is a technical one that could have some sort of objective definition. Professor Schmidt may be linking back to Dr Lamb’s introduction of ‘rhyme’ and ‘metre’ as objective, defining properties of ‘a poem’. We don’t know; but we do know that Mr Schmidt has tacitly rejected ‘rhyme’ as a defining property or quality of ‘poetry’ and a ‘poem’: so Bernard Lamb’s limerick may be said to be a poem despite its rhyme-scheme.
The matter of ‘metre’, which is an objective feature of many if not all of the word-things that most of us think of as ‘poems’, and which we consider to be a defining characteristic of them, is not directly raised by Mr Schmidt as yet; but he perhaps hints at it as he completes the sentence begun above:
…but there is prose-poetry written by Baudelaire, written by Rimbaud, and by a number of English poets, which is poetry too.
To most people the term ‘prose-poetry’ is simply a contradiction in terms. As there is no further discussion of this term in this radio ‘debate’, we can only observe its use and move on; but it would be interesting if Professor Schmidt were to be invited to address The Queen’s English Society at some time: he might tell us if a ‘prose-poem’ is like to, and as objective as a ‘tigron’, or is more of a ‘chimera’ of some other sort; and we might ask him if we were warranted to use the term ‘pear-apple’ for either of these fruit, or even to introduce a category of things to be called ‘potato-tomatoes’.
Mr Schmidt continues his disreputable piece of, well, ‘blather’, with this:
It has a lot, as Mr Lamb correctly says, I think, to do with sound and with sound-patterning…
We may pause the tape-recording here, as it were, so as to concentrate on this little bit of ‘sleight of hand’ or of mouth or brain. It presumably means ‘The distinction between prose and poetry’ or some such phrase. Once we have taken that in, we can proceed to Michael Schmidt’s false or confused attribution to Dr Lamb of some remark about sound or sound-patterning. Dr Lamb has said nothing of the sort. (In our ‘mind’s eye’ we may see Professor Schmidt as a startled chaffinch jinking ahead of a chasing sparrow-hawk; but also as a man roughly dressed as a sparrow-hawk chucking up models of sparrows that he can appear to kill…However, we must curb these flights of poetic imagination and keep the discourse on a proper discursive path.) Mr Schmidt’s next utterance is:
…but to speak of metre, rhyme and alliteration…
Now, Bernard Lamb had introduced the two technical terms ‘rhyme’ and ‘metre’, but not as examples of sound or sound-patterning in literature. Mr Schmidt is now adding a third term, alliteration, not used before in this discussion. All three of these terms should be linked to the concepts of sound and sound-patterning introduced by Mr Schmidt; but, of course, that is not directly done. Mr Schmidt’s method of argument is elusive and evasive: he piles up references to writers and theoretical ‘stuff’, of which we must assume he has mastery, knowing that they are unlikely to be examined and debated in the course of a short radio discussion. His ‘blathering gamesmanship’ continues as he prepares to concentrate on one of the three terms:
…as I was…as I was led to believe this is what…is what…these are the great desiderata of…of the…er…Queen’s English Society…
What is happening here, we might suspect, is that, probably unknown to most of the audience, Professor Schmidt is referring to the article in The Observer that led to the setting-up of this debate on Radio 4. In that article I was quoted, as a Queen’s English Society member, as saying:
For centuries word-things, called poems, have been made according to primary and defining craft-principles of, first, measure and, second, alliteration and rhyme. Word-things not made according to these principles are not poems.
We may now let Professor Schmidt complete his sentence, which runs on:
…leaves out so much…We…we only learn…er…metre from Norman French; before that we had accentual poetry, which wasn’t regular in terms of syllable-count.
His argument here is simply misleading. First we may surmise that his strategy is to assume that Dr Lamb, and the presenter, and the radio audience may not be quite so conversant with Middle and Old English poetry as he and others of us may be. It is just possible that he is unexpectedly, and comically, ignorant. Be that as it may, he brings into the discourse the new technical considerations of accentual poetry and syllable-count.
The professor’s statement that we only learn…er…metre from Norman French is quite false. What he is saying is that poetry in Old English from, say, the mid-7th century was not metred or ‘measured’. How curious, astonishing even, that a Professor of Poetry could make such a statement. Poetry in Old English may, as he suggests, be described as accentual. Indeed, there were regular and predictable patterns or ‘accents’ or ‘beats’ in each line of verse ~ that is, properly, ‘in each verse’; for a ‘line’ is a ‘verse’. This is measure, metre. The syllable-count in Old English verses was not regular, that is true: but the verses were in a full and simple sense ‘metred’. The term ‘metre’ does not necessarily entail a regularity of syllable-count in a succession of verses. Professor Schmidt is talking nonsense.
He finishes his speech with these observations:
We didn’t have the sonnet, the sonnet came in with Wyatt, and Wyatt does a very irregular kind of sonnet which is then perfected by Surrey and made completely bland.
What is Mr Schmidt’s argument here in saying Wyatt does a very irregular kind of sonnet? The implication is that all Wyatt’s ‘sonnets’ were very irregular. That is a false statement, but not one that can be dealt with here or could possibly have been dealt with on the ‘Today’ programme. Professor Schmidt is just ‘blathering’. Could it be that the professor is ignorant of the true metrical nature of Wyatt’s poetry? Wyatt was a ‘melodious versifier’; amongst his many accomplishments he was a lutanist and song-maker. The charge of ‘irregularities’ in metre is sometimes made by those who do not pronounce his verses in the tones and dialect of the day, and who thus misinterpret his rhythm. We cannot demonstrate here the sort of metrical ‘problems’ that may arise and how they may be solved; but that is actually beside the point in this debate. We must still ask why Mr Schmidt puts Wyatt’s supposed ‘irregularities’ into this debate on ‘What is a poem?’ and what he may be implying.. We may suggest that his unstated argument runs along these lines: Wyatt wrote ‘poems’; but some of the lines or verses in some of his poems don’t, to some people, seem to scan; therefore those who argue that regular metre is a defining characteristic of a ‘poem’ are wrong. This is not a respectable argument from a leading authority on poetry. Now we may ask, what is the import of his remark about Surrey? The implication here seems to be that Surrey produced ‘poems’ in a regular metre (always?); but they were bland, and that this demonstrates in another way why regular ‘metre’ is not a defining characteristic of a ‘poem’. This is quite silly.
Now the interviewer attempts to bring the discussion back to its original simple premise; if he can ‘gather his wits’:
You…you…you clearly…you know your poets. Is there anything that you would think people might say is a poem that you would say that that is not a poem at all, to stop talking nonsense? Is there anything you would…you would…you would dismiss as not, non-poetry?
Professor Schmidt’s reply is:
There is much I would dismiss as bad poetry.. Er…and…er…
In making this statement he is again assenting to the proposition that any ‘word-thing’ may be called a ‘poem’. The interviewer returns:
But aren’t you just extending the use of the word “poem” a little bit further than most of us would in that regard?
In trying to extricate himself from his absurd position the professor goes off into a further strange and astonishing contradiction:
I don’t think so; I think I’m just…just trying to reinstate the notion of quality. Er…I would suggest that Mr Lamb’s limerick, though a delightful limerick perhaps, is not a poem. Let’s, let’s say that that’s verse, let’s say that’s verse. There is a quite interesting difference between verse…writing …writing things mechanically and delightfully perhaps, and poetry which …which I think tries to go a little bit deeper into the language and possibly into meaning.
Mr Schmidt has previously tacitly admitted that Bernard Lamb’s limerick is a ‘poem’ because anything in words may be called a poem, and Bernard Lamb has called his limerick such. Now the Professor argues that Dr Lamb’s limerick is not a poem and is but verse. We should further note that he neglects to consider that the limerick also has a rhyme-scheme; for, should he do so, he would further expose the partiality and contradictions of his argument. In a final attempt to get himself out of the pile of his own inconsistencies he then suggests that some other qualities of literature such as ‘depth’ of language and of meaning may be considered and brought to bear on the matter of defining what a ‘poem’ may be, if there were time and space ~ but the session is concluded thus:
Bernard Lamb, is this a serious campaign by The Queen’s English Society, or is this, ah, a publicity stunt?
It is a serious campaign by one of our poets, Michael Gibson, who’s repeatedly tried to get The Poetry Society to tell him what they think poetry is, and they refuse; so what are they about if they don’t know what poetry is?
Bernard Lamb, Michael Schmidt, thank you very, very much indeed.
We are left to consider that the Professor of Poetry has, in this discussion of the topic ‘What’s a poem?’, shown himself to be an unreliable, indeed an incompetent ‘authority’. This exchange illustrates the sort of dire and often duplicitous confusion that the modern poetry ‘establishment’ visits on itself and upon a bemused audience.
MGG February 2009
(Note: In the ‘Today’ interview Michael Schmidt employed 2¼ times the number of words ~ including ums and ers ~ that Dr Lamb used.
Permission was kindly granted by the BBC for a transcript of the interview to be published, with the proviso that the permission of the two protagonists be first obtained. Dr Lamb has granted his permission. Professor Schmidt has declined to do so.)