11 NOVEMBER 1978, Page 29

Last word

Verse and worse

Geoffrey Wheatcroft

At Oxford on Saturday Convocation duly elected a new Professor of Poetry, amid Hogarthian scenes of corruption. There Were no obvious imbeciles or lunatics car ried to the polls, but drink ran freely, in more than one sense. What most alarmed tile as a first-time voter was that the poll was y secret. The ballot paper was taken 'tom one by the Vice-Chancellor and was „then put on a table, face up, for the person nehind to take a shufti. Worse: I'm now told that candidates may inspect the ballot pape. rs. so that anyone who — in the best traditions of the Parliamentary Labour Party — eneerfully assured more than one candidate of his vote is in trouble. Hm. Of the candidates two could claim to be Professional poets (I recognise what an Inadequate word 'professional' is in the eont-ett). One seems to me a poet of distinction. None, though, is ever likely to write a famPus Poem. I pondered this on the train to Oxford as I turned the pages of Kingsley '4'nus's new anthology, The Faber Popular R.eciter (Faber £6.95, £2.95 in softback). It Is a collection of poems designed for declamation were ; or, more accurately, poems which once widely learned by heart: in other words a Silver Treasury of popular verse. Amis implies in his Introduction _ 'Most of that, together with much else, is gone — m at no one now memorises verse. It :armed me, as another symptom of preglature senility, to see how many of the Poth ems I could recite, nearly two dozen of not word-perfect, and sometimes vvIth hiatuses, but more or less. This says soinething about the poems, as well as abOut me. As Mr Amis points out, Shakes e Peare and Tennyson are the only two writle rs with blank-verse poems in the coletlon. Simple rhythm and rhyme are esSential for memorising. That holds true with twentieth-century verse. I can quote r'eral Poems by Auden who, despite his dnripvations and despite an odd, almost t ell.berate prosodic clumsiness, had a Vicrla0's grasp of rhythm. And in the same is'"haY Larkin is the only poet writing in Engl f k)elaY whose poems are memorisable, reasons of metrical directness —and also, course, of a quality that can only be called ue,tween-the-eyesness: how can one forget a ni beginning 'Sexual intercourse began a' nineteen-sixty-three', or, 'I work all day 11,1...go to bed half drunk. . victorian is a key word. Of Mr Amis:s thn. tr etY:four poets (excluding 'anon ), antY'flve came of age in Victoria's reign, d that definition doesn't include in,,ac,u,lay, Newman, Tennyson or Brown kid nineteenth century was the age of a Ind of Ind of Popular verse which, with much else, is gone. How do we define that verse? Mr Amis inevitably and rightly introduces Orwell's phrase, 'good bad poetry', charac terised by vulgarity and sentimentality: 'a graceful monument to the obvious'. This definiton is useful enough; and Orwell is correct in saying that good bad poetry did not exist until around 1790, which leads us into the deep waters of literature and industrial society as explored by Mrs Leavis and others; I propose to steer away from them. But to some extent the definition fads. How, for example, do we place Tennyson? 'Tears, Idle Tears' (which I can recite) is here. It is to an extent both sentimental and vulgar, but transcends both faults. 'A Ballad of the Fleet', otherwise 'At Flores in the Azores . . (which I never managed to learn completely) is in a different case. Its subject matter may seem trite or embarrassing: post-romantic writers do not find it easy to treat battle as a high subject. But for all that it undeniably displays Tennyson's dazzling technical gifts at their fullest. By no means all that the Reciter contains is good bad verse. Some is. Some is bad bad verse: for example 'Is life worth living. . • by Alfred Austin (who, as Evelyn Waugh once pointed out, was the nineteenthcentury Stephen Spender, a poet of minimal gifts who made his name by writing political pamphlets). And some is great poetry. Some of the Tennyson — e.g. 'Ulysses' —can be so described. And 'Easter 1916', despite being quoted far too often, sometimes in ignoble contexts, remains one of the greatest political poems in the language. The question of how one should regard popular or light literature is complicated. Of course, it does not arise if one simply dismisses light verse and fiction, as Cambridge would have us do. But is has always seemed to me that precisely what was wrong with a certain school of criticism was its wholesale condemnation of Wodehouse, say, on the pleonastic grounds that he is frivolous. Of course Summer Lightning is not Aliddlemarch, but then Don Pasquale isn't Parsifal (thank heavens — or rather P.G.W. and Donizetti respectively — even.' would say). Rather than agonising over this 'problem' it would be simpler just to enjoy things as they come. I enjoyed Mr Amis's anthology (despite slovenly editing and indexing: see for example what happens when you look up Emerson in the index). .I enjoyed it in the same not very serious spirit that I enjoyed taking part in Oxford's lustral election. And I'm pleased that this frivolous manner of choosing a Professor of Poetry continues at the University which, to its eternal credit, conferred a Doctorate on W ode ho use.