Monday 9 August 2021

Guest review by Jonty Driver: THE CRAFT OF POETRY, a Primer in Verse, by Lucy Newlyn


 "This isn’t a primer ‘about’ verse, but in verse..."

C J Driver is always called Jonty. Later this year the Uhlanga Press will publish Still Further, New Poems 2000-2020.

The Yale University Press has recently published Lucy Newlyn’s The Craft of Poetry: A Primer in Verse. There are other primers: I can see some of them on the shelf immediately in front of me: Unlocked, Reading & Writing Prompts for Practising Poets, by Sue Butler & Helena Nelson (Happenstance Press, 2020); Metre, Rhythm and Verse Form, by Philip Hobsbaum (Routledge, 1996); Rhyme’s Reason, A Guide to English Verse, by John Hollander (Yale NB, 2001); and A Measure of English Poetry, by Anne Ridler (The Perpetua Press, 1991).

Then there are the close relations of primers, such as I Wanted to Write a Poem by William Carlos Williams (Cape, 1967); How to Read and Why, by Harold Bloom (Fourth Estate, 2000); Poetry Notebook 2006-2014, by Clive James (Picador, 2014); A Poetry Chronicle by Ian Hamilton (Faber, 1973); The Poet Who Forgot, by Catherine Cole (UWA Press, 2008) – and I’d better stop there, or the editor will get out a blue pen ... In my view, it’s a brilliant reading list, but Lucy Newlyn’s book bids fair to take a proud place in that little collection.

Ms Newlyn’s book is unusual in two ways. Firstly, it asserts that “to read and write poetry well, you must undergo a practical training in the delights and rigours of poetic craft.” “Practical?” “Rigorous?” “Training?” Let me spell it out, writing poems is not just about having strong feelings that you let overflow into words, vaguely divided into lines to show it isn’t prose (which it clearly isn’t because it doesn’t have to have as a clear meaning as prose presumably must). Almost anything will pass as a poem these days; but not if poets and their teachers were to pay attention to Lucy Newlyn. Indeed, one is never too experienced to learn.

Secondly, this isn’t a primer ‘about’ verse, but in verse. John Hollander used his own poems as illustrations, but most of his primer is in prose. Lucy Newlyn uses her “own verse (freshly written for the purpose) to introduce and exemplify key poetic figures, techniques, forms and concepts.” The setting of the poems is a small village in North Yorkshire where she spent much of her childhood; as a result, each poem stands on its own, in a sense despite its instructive title. For instance, this is a stanza from Lyric: 

Far from the village on the high bleak fell
among all lonely things you walk alone
seeking deliverance in sky and stone
where wind keens low and all the earth is still.

But the village, the beck which runs through it and the Yorkshire moors unify the poems, when the examples in a book of this kind could so easily be disparate. Lucy Newlyn’s fluency is astonishing: it’s not a slim volume – 186 pages and close on 150 individual poems divided into five parts: Foundations, Figures, Techniques, Forms and Concepts. If there are any omissions of form or technique, figure or concept, I haven’t spotted them.
A particular favourite of mine is one called simply Line. In part this is because it is dedicated to a friend, Ken Gross, Professor of Literature in the University of Rochester in the USA, but more because in it, Lucy tackles what seems to me a crucial element in poetry that is more and more ignored these days. When I go to poetry readings and can get hold of a text beforehand, I make a habit of marking (with a pencil if it is a book) where the poet/reader makes the break of breath which should signify the line change (there are of course caesuras too). It astonishes me how often the lines as the poet/reader speaks them have no relation to what is on the page. I know then that they have failed to understand the simplest and most basic aspect of poems: why they are divided into lines at all. So, it isn’t uncommon these days to find the article ‘the’ ending one line and its noun beginning the next. As Lucy Newlyn says: “Be alert to the line’s length; / to the turn as it ends before the sentence / and to the points where, artificially contained, / it meets a sudden stop.”

Or, as Yeats put it a good many years ago:

Irish poets, learn your trade,
Sing whatever is well made,
Scorn the sort now growing up,
All out of shape from toe to top...

The Craft of Poetry is published by Yale University Press.

More posts by Jonty Driver:

Italian Life by Tim Parks 

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