Friday, 25 June 2010

Time to ditch the daffodils?

(Author's note: this article first appeared in issue 85 of NAWG LINK)

Having had a few choice words to say about pseudo-intellectual free verse in a previous Poet's Soapbox, I think it's time to direct my ire elsewhere. Critics of the poetic "establishment" often raise the accusation that the more prestigious poetry journals seem to have no time for verse which the general public would actually recognise as poetry. The mystical, the avant-garde and the just-plain-pretentious is fine; but try sending these journals anything which has a regular metre or which actually rhymes, and your chances of publication are about as remote as my beloved Tranmere Rovers' hopes of winning the Champions League.

Many poets feel hard done by on this score. Rhyming verse, after all, is central to the British literary heritage. Shakespeare's sonnets, Blake's Jerusalem and Lear's nonsense rhymes are as much a part of the English psyche as cricket, roast beef and rain-swept seaside holidays. Burns' ballads and satires are at the heart of Scottish lore and its modern national identity. Rhymesmiths like Roger McGough, Pam Ayres and the two great Barkers (Les and the late lamented Ronnie) are almost national treasures. More importantly, their verse is actually recognisable as verse – a relief in a world where poetry can be so mystifying it seems to require a doctorate to appreciate it.

So why do the premier journals and the competition judges seem to despise rhyming poetry? I have a few theories about this. And the most persuasive, for me, is that such a lot of today's rhyming verse is awful.

Is that controversial? Good. To support my thesis I'd like to cite poet Norman Johnson, who a couple of years ago set up a journal specifically dedicated to rhyming verse. You'd think that Star Poetry, as it was known, would be inundated. After all, isn't this what the grumblers had been crying out for – an editor who knew and loved good rhyming verse and was willing to go the extra mile to champion it? The sad fact was that Star Poetry closed after just two issues. The reason Norman gave for closing it down was that he didn't get anything like enough submissions that were of a standard worthy of publication.

When I judged the Speakeasy poetry competition a few years back, roughly 1 in 3 of the poems I received was a rhyming poem. Only three made it to the shortlist. The year before it was even worse, with just one rhyming poem shortlisted from a postbag of over 160. The reasons that all the others were eliminated? Many were binned on technical grounds. The rhythms were inconsistent, so the poems didn't hold the music which is essential to rhyming poetry. The words were often jumbled up in ways that meant they rhymed, but lost all coherence in the process. They read as if Yoda had written them. A few were better crafted, but were so full of "thee"s, "twixt"s and "'neath"s that they read like pastiches of Victorian verse instead of modern poems with something to say in their own merit. And an even larger category went into the recycling bin on the grounds of toe-curling sentimentality.

Why is there such a dearth of good rhyming verse? When those who complain about the poetic status quo insist that the people want rhyme, why do the people seem to be so incapable of producing it to an acceptable standard?

I think I know the answer to that. It's because generations of English-speaking people have been brought up with the idea that William Wordsworth's Daffodils is the pinnacle of poetic accomplishment.

The popularity of this poem (listed at No. 5 in The Nation's Favourite Poems) mystifies me. For the standards of its time, Daffodils is mediocre. Its formal structure is flawed; the iambic tetrameter stutters in ways that no poetry tutor would allow nowadays. And that opening line contains one of the most ridiculous similes ever penned. I wandered lonely as a cloud, for goodness' sake? Never mind whether or not clouds can feel loneliness – even the most anthropomorphic cloud "floating on high" o'er the Lake District would be anything but lonely. It’s the one part of England where you can guarantee there will be plenty of other clouds for company!

Daffodils presents a whimsical, sentimentalised view of the natural world, or Wordsworth's corner of it. For me, the great thing about nature poetry is the way it provides a window into the human soul. Robert Burns' "sleekit, cow'rin', timorous beastie", for instance, is a metaphor for the frustration of human (as well as animal) endeavour. Oliver Goldsmith's memories of The Deserted Village form the backdrop to a ferocious social and political commentary, making this ostensibly rustic poem one of the first truly modern protest songs. Even Matthew Arnold's Scholar Gipsy, which contains some of the most overblown pastoral wittering in English verse, has a serious point to make about the threat of Progress to traditional wisdom. But Daffodils offers no such insight. Nothing new or surprising, or especially deep.

Herein lies the problem. All the time Daffodils has been held up as the quintessential English poem, generations of English people have been brought up believing that this is how poems should be written. Schoolchildren, at least until recently, were taught to emulate Wordsworth's Daffodils when writing their own poems. Thankfully, these days poetry in schools tends to be more contemporary; but the damage has already been done. Countless thousands have grown up thinking that poetry means trite nature studies in forced rhyme schemes, interspersed with sentimental metaphors.

No wonder so many fail to get beyond this, and lose interest in poetry altogether. No wonder, too, that many who return to writing poetry later in life start flooding the literary presses with over-sentimentalised nature poems filled with twee poetic inversions and awful rhymes. They were first taught poetry as children re-hashing Daffodils – and are writing it now, like children re-hashing Daffodils, because they don't know any better.

There is great rhyming poetry in the English-language poetic canon. But Daffodils is not it. Those who want to know how to write good rhyming verse with a modern feel should be looking at Auden, Larkin or Betjeman – or even at Roger McGough, who combines the music of rhyming verse with an exhilarating freedom of form. They should appreciate the intensity of craftsmanship that goes into sounding as effortlessly silly as Pam Ayres or Les Barker. And they really should ditch the Daffodils.


  1. Found your article entertaining and dare I say funny. On a serious note I'm not sure people should ditch reading any classic poem. What they should be doing is reading (and watching - slams etc) more poetry in general.

  2. I think I agree... and from a teacher's point of view, there are "uses" for 'Daffodils'. Link it to Dorothy's journals, and there is a point being shown about the importance of direct and clear observation. Is it Coleridge's 'Christabel' which contains "the one red leaf, the last of its clan / which dances as often as danced it can" [forgive me if I'm not as exact about this as I should be] which brings a section of the poem to vivid life for me.

  3. Andy, I mentioned your blog and this piece about rhymes (I do wish they weren't so avoided now) in a (private) Google Group for Devon area poets and there's been three comments there after people read your blog. More than we usually get!

    If you wish I could send a Google invite for you to certainly view (and receive stuff if you wanted). You'd need to give me an e-mail though. My own e-mail is knapp.tony which is or Cheers - Tony

  4. Dave: Christabel is also the poem that contains the immortal couplet:

    "Is the night chilly and dark?
    The night is chilly but not dark"

    - so I'm not sure Coleridge is the best person to cite in defence of rhyme! Direct observation is fine, but it needs to serve a purpose, to make a connection with the wider world. Normally, as poets, we observe the outside world because of the light it sheds on the inner world. But there's none of this in "Daffodils", just a slightly self-indulgent poet "in pensive mood". No originality of insight, no wider universal connection.

  5. Poets Poetry Poems: yes, people should be reading more. Classics and contemporary poetry, rhymed and unrhymed. I couldn't agree more. But people who want to develop their craft as writers need to be reading CRITICALLY. Holding up the bloomin' Daffodils as some sort of paragon of classic verse ends up doing classic verse a disservice - and it probably puts more people off the classics than it attracts. Poetry has SO much more to offer than just flower heads fluttering and dancing in the breeze.

  6. Loving all the feedback by the way - keep it coming!

  7. Can you find me three people who were taught to imitate Wordworth's Daffodils at school? Sounds like urban myth to me. Also, as a manifesto statement about the nature of imagination and emotion I think it's not a bad poem - not Wordsworth's best but by no means the worst. The secret of its popularity seems to me to be the date of publication - 1815, which put it right in the middle of the post-Waterloo rush of national euphoria and celebration.