Such “False and Unruly Stuff”

or "babble and balderdash"

Such False and Unruly Stuff

Ruth Padel has been ‘Chair’ of The Poetry Society, and is an authoress of note.

I present here an analysis of some of her recent writing about English poetry.


Ms Padel published a book in 2002 called 52 WAYS OF LOOKING AT A POEM. She has more recently had a paper published in ‘Poetry Review’, the magazine of The Poetry Society.

This essay deals with material in her book, which was published by Chatto and Windus. This book might have been better titled, ‘READINGS OF 52 POEMS’. It contains a prefatory essay, called Reading Poetry Today, which might have been better called, ‘Writing Poetry Today’.

Ms Padel first addresses the question of Rules? It is for her a big question. Let us take this section of the essay paragraph by paragraph.

She begins:

From leatherwork to Pacific Rim cuisine, all crafts have evolved their ways of making things. Jewellers have to make sure the earring’s metal won’t infect the ear. Bakers keep stones and pesticides out of their bread.

The suggestion is made that poetry may be usefully compared as a craft with four others that use physical materials rather than words or sounds. This comparison is somewhat metaphorical, leaving us to propose what might be the ‘stones’ or ‘pesticides’ that a poet must guard against in his or her ‘loaves’.

Ms Padel’s second paragraph reads:

If you are looking for rules, that is the place to start: the materials, their practical requirements and essential courtesy to the customer. No one will buy your earrings if the garnets fall out.

That first sentence is a very poor one. She is rushing herself and her readers. Surely, with the materials would have been more stylish and would have shown more courtesy to the customer. Furthermore, the grammar of the sentence implies that somehow materials can show essential courtesy to the customer, when what she means is that a maker may or may not show courtesy. We next note Ms Padel’s mention of garnets ‘falling out’. This is surely a reference to poor technique, not to a ‘discourteous’ choice of materials. This is all rather silly stuff.

This is the third paragraph:

Then there are the conventions of your craft: the traditional shapes of a loaf, or ways of twisting silver. These are things you can play with. You can invent a new shape of baking tin, make earrings out of recycled coca-cola cans or cattle dung. If you make them well enough, people will buy the new things as well as the old.

This moves things forward by proposing that there may be conventions of a craft, which may be distinguished from rules. (For ease, we might have the words such as inserted after the colon.) Thus Ms Padel ‘flits’ again from consideration of techniques of shaping things, to considerations of materials. Surely, earrings made out of cattle dung, even if set with garnets, would be likely to infect the ear, and this would be ‘a breaking of the rules’.

The fourth paragraph reads:

Poets work along similar lines. There are general writing principles which apply particularly sharply to poetry because it is so concentrated, so small-scale. You have less room to manoeuvre than in prose, and every word has to count. (Ideally, of course, every word counts in prose, too, but poets feel prose writers can get away with things they cannot.) You must, for instance, have movement through your poem or there won’t be any life in it. You must reveal or imply rather than spell out. (Workshop students know this as “show, don’t tell”, and groan when you point out they have infringed it, as we all do, yet again.) You must be on guard against the great spellers-out ~ adjectives (especially) adverbs. Be sparing with abstract nouns: they convey much less to readers than vivid, concrete language. And, at the end, frisk every word to make sure it’s necessary, that it’s pulling its weight.

Now we may consider what philosophical or technical distinctions may be made between rules, conventions, and principles. Ms Padel does not enlighten us; but we are invited to consider how such writing principles may be more or less sharply ~ or even bluntly applied. Then we are given an example of one of these writing principles: your poem is the better for movement, which gives life to it. This is a vapid remark. It is followed by further ill-defined ideas which tend to obfuscate the argument rather than clarify it. The next sentence, You must reveal or imply rather than spell out, requires us to divine the difference between reveal and spell out. When we have resolved that problem, or not, we encounter the illogic of the or in reveal or imply. Two more of what may possibly be rules are laid down. Then we come to the strange last sentence in this paragraph. We may, in our mind’s eye, as it were, see workshops full of aspiring poets hunched over their metaphorical earrings, made of metaphorical cattle dung, and such, ‘frisking’ them with little feather dusters or some other special instrument.

Now here is the next paragraph:

But over and above these basic writing requirements, what is unique to poetry is gritty technical stuff, and that is all to do with pattern and sound. Line length, line-ending, relation of vowel and consonant, arrangement of lines (or not) into ‘stanzas’ (‘stanza’ means ‘room’; stanzas are ‘rooms’ in the house of a poem), the length and stress of each syllable in relation to all the others. Plus beat and rhythms; especially, but not only, metre.

First let us deal with a few distractions. We might remove the qualifying gritty: it is an intrusive metaphorical embellishment in what is intended as a technical discourse. Then we note the two verbless, i.e., false sentences which follow. Then there is the question of the function of the words (or not): do they apply to lines or to arrangements? Now let us consider other matters. The first sentence begs questions. It would appear that technical stuff is in itself a new term which is philosophically or technically distinct from the term principles ~ that is, if the word requirements, in basic writing requirements, is the same as principles in the previous paragraph. Further, we may take it that technical stuff is also a term distinct from ~ that is, over and above ~ the term rules and conventions. The technical stuff is somehow all to do with pattern and sound. This statement is then amplified in a verbless sentence containing a categorical list of further terms; and is then further amplified in another such verbless sentence, so that many more questions are begged. What is the meaning of especially as used here? Is metre a type of beat, or a type of rhythm, or both? Ms Padel fails to distinguish her terms. Is metre not something to do with line length and line-ending? If so, what is the function of the word plus? A confused idea of cattle dung and garnets and the ring-pulls of coca-cola cans all muddled up in an irregularly-shaped baking tin, comes to mind.

Paragraph six reads:

These things are important: the instruments on the carpenter’s bench which help you make a chair proportionate, stable, good to look at and sit in. They make a poem hang together musically, be aurally convincing. They have always been part of the poetry, and still are. You can’t work without them.

Ms Padel is telling us about gritty technical stuff; but, lest we should be put off by the ‘grittiness’ of it, she eases things by introducing a metaphor comparing these terms with a carpenter’s instruments. However, this is a false comparison, or analogy, which again demonstrates the muddle of her discourse. Beat, rhythm and line length are actual formal features of a poem, elements in its formal existence, aurally or visually: but a carpenter’s tools no more enter into the formal existence of a chair than does the pen into these sentences as they are written. Ms Padel, now moves on to a new metaphor in which a poem will somehow hang together musically ~ a notion which is given no validation here but which sounds convincing enough.

Here now is the seventh paragraph:

But they are tools, not rules. Not bye-laws to be obeyed but a ball to run with. Too conservative a technique does turn the tools into rules, but the more experienced a poet, the more eclectic and daring he or she can be with the instruments, picking them up, putting them down, using them in new ways.

First we are asked to return our thoughts to the metaphor of the carpenter’s instruments. Then we proceed into a ‘non-sentence’ which mixes two further metaphors. It is kind of Ms Padel to try to make us, as it were, feel like children playing with a ball on grass that the Borough and the park-keeper do not want us to play on ~ possibly for good reason, such as that it has just been reseeded ~: but this does not make for clear argument and explication of important technical matters.

Here is the last paragraph in the first section of the essay:

Part of the art is making the way you use these tools as invisible as possible in the finished product. You don’t see the glue blobs or the tooth marks of the adze on a Chippendale chair. Many readers who feel alienated from today’s poetry only see, as it were, the invisibility of those tools. The biggest alienating thing, the place where contemporary poetry seems to them to have broken with earlier poetry and therefore with what they feel poetry ought to be, is the role of rhyme.

Ms Padel ‘churns on’ incompetently. One small thing to note in the first sentence is that the making of poems has now become an art rather than a craft. Then it may be suggested that it would have been better to write one’s use of these tools rather than the way we use these tools. The second sentence is clear enough ~ though we might opine that it is unlikely that Mr Chippendale used a adze. The third sentence seems, frankly, ‘potty’. Ms Padel has recommended making the way you use these tools as invisible as possible. Now she says that this is an alienating artifice. She seems to have confused herself; because the fourth sentence is simply a nonsense, in that it states: the biggest alienating thing…is the role of rhyme. Surely, the role of rhyme cannot ‘alienate’ anybody? Perhaps this stream of absurdity is meant to distract us from an important consideration. The instruments that Ms Padel ‘laid out’ for us were line length, line-ending, relation of vowel and consonant (whatever that may mean), arrangement of lines (or not) into stanzas, beat, rhythm, and metre. Are we seriously meant to be unaware of these things in the finished poem? The body of her book is devoted to illuminating the use of these things in 52 ‘poems’; but what we have here is ‘babble and balderdash’: Ms Padel has presented us with quite false and unruly stuff in answering her question, Rules?

The next section of the chapter is headed, Do You Use Rhyme? We will forego detailed analysis of it here, but we will quote from it briefly:

Rhyme makes an idea feel like law. But there is an impulse in poetry and the writing of it that keeps trying to get away from law to freedom…

The suggestion that something called rhyme somehow makes something called an idea somehow feel like something called law, could bear considerable scrutiny. Further: does the notion of there being some sort of impulse in poetry, that keeps trying to get away from law, make any sense? Is the impulse like a mouse perhaps; or even a tigress? However, it is dangerous to mix the ‘poetic’ with the technical in the same discourse because true and useful technical conclusions are unlikely to result.

It would, then, we conclude, be a waste of time and energy to complete a detailed critique of her whole essay; but a survey of the ‘terrain of such a journey’ might be of interest to anyone who does not have the book to hand. The essay is in five parts. These are the parts, and the sub-sections of those parts:-

  1. ‘I want to know about modern poetry, what are the rules?’
    Do You Use Rhyme?
    How A Poem Hangs Together: The Partnership of Sound and Sense
    Poetry ‘Without Rhyme’: Blank Verse, Free Verse and Iambic Pentameter
    Rhyme Without Rhyme-Scheme, Rhyming Variety
    Saying the Unsaid, the Now
  2. History: A Changing Britain
    Regionalism, Thatcherism
    Wit, Allusiveness, Adspeak: Screen and Street in the Age of the Image
    The Mother of Metaphor: Censorship and the Surrealities of Eastern Europe
  3. Fall-out from British Rule: The Common Wealth of English
    Meeting the British
    Non-Standard English and Other Languages
    Identity – and History’s Twisted Root
  4. Women
    How Do Men Read? Think Technical, Think Male
    Feminism Breaks Wind: Why the Starting Point is Different
    Escaping the Ghetto: Persona, Tone and Talking Back
  5. Readers: This is your Poetry
    Why Has Poetry Lost Its Audience?
    The Literary Community: the Media
    It’s Not that Difficult, Not Elitist, Obscure or Irrelevant: and it’s Written for You


What I shall do now is to consider part of another essay in the book – that in which Ms Padel discusses the first ‘poem’ and unpacks some technical points about form and rhythm. I consider it my inevitable Duty as a Thinking Male to assess Ms Padel’s more detailed ideas about some of the techniques or ‘tools’ of poets or would-be poets.

However, first I must own up to a silly jape Yes, I did miswrite one of the section- headings above. The heading for the second section of the fourth part of the essay actually reads:- Feminism’s Breaking Wave: Why the Starting Point is Different. My jape was by way of a response to the previous section-heading.

Permission to quote from ’52 Ways of Looking at a Poem’ by Ruth Padel, published by Chatto and Windus, has kindly been given by The Random House Group Ltd.