On one of my visits to India (where I am bound again in a fortnight), probably the third, I got into a disagreement with a very fine novelist, Allan Sealy, whose book Red I had just finished and very much enjoyed. Clearly it was not a straightforward novel, but was based around the various people who come to see a particular painting by Matisse. This is the Amazon 'product description':
Billed as an alphabet, and narrated by the nameless 'N', Red introduces us first to N's friend, Zach. In St Petersburg for a music festival, Zach encounters the red-headed Aline in the Matisse Room at the Hermitage and is immediately bewitched. The two fall in love as quickly as they fall into bed and it seems that nothing can keep them apart. But other characters also appear between the sheets: a gang of six black-shorted, grease-smeared, soot-smudged men, who take what they want, stealing money (and, on one occasion, a piece of art) from homes of the rich; a girl who tends pigs, and wants to keep what is hers; a workman whose wants are few, but with devastating consequences. Even aspects of N's own life are revealed: his awkward relationships with his teenage daughter and her American mother. As these stories overlap and entwine, Red is revealed as a vibrant, violent tale: a love story and a story about the love of art, about life imitating art, about the end of love -- and the end of life.
Allan insisted the book was poetry and that he was a poet. That seemed to me to stretch the terms poetry and poet too far, so we went at it hammer-and-tongs, albeit pizzicato, without resolution. I could see that there was a poetic conception to his novel and that it contained passages of writing that were poetic in the best sense of the word but I still did not find it in me to call the whole set of tales a poem or its author a poet.
I went away wondering whether the debate was usefully located, and began to formulate a definition of poetry in terms of verse. Verse was far easier to define than poetry. Verse was written and conceived in lines and played around with regular rhythms, or at the edges of them. One could talk quite concretely about versification. This is a line: this, on the other hand, is a sentence in a paragraph.
This was not to diminish either poetry or fiction. In the previous post I suggested that sport can offer moments of poetry, as can dance, and indeed almost anything else that invited observation in a particular way. I bore in mind, particularly, Robert Frost's view (one I had often repeated and instinctively put into practice) that the basic unit of the poem is the sentence. To interpret that in absolute terms is misleading and I tend to prefer the sense of counterpoint, where the music and nature of the sentence is played against the music and nature of the line, producing, at best, a kind of manageable, comprehensible, polyphony, one in which the mesmeric effect of rhythm and the whole range poetic devices, particularly metaphor, is brought into contact with syntax, that is to say the world of synecdoche and metonym, statement and information, much as it is - or so I reasoned and felt - in life as we listen to it.
Poetry then, to put it crudely, was verse and expectations of verse as played off against prose and expectations of prose, while prose (or story) was prose and expectations of prose, with elements absorbed from poetry.
In the Rooney post I tried to describe the form of the poetic in the move that ends with Rooney's goal. The movement there depended on certain given quantities and factors: the size of the pitch, the rules of the game, the notion of formations, the state of the pitch, the size of the crowd etc.
Talking of sporting analogies I think it was Frost, again, who said that writing free verse was like playing tennis without a net. That is not my view: what I am suggesting is that the idea of the net remains in place, that free verse has an understanding of the vestigeal iambic or trochaic (or any other metre) around which it hovers as if in acknowledgment.
But that means the net survives and is necessary: that rule is required to bring poetry-as-verse into being.
More next time.