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POETRY ISN’T PRETENTIOUS, IT’S PASSIONATE

Our popular culture is plagued by the idea that poetry is elitist and pretentious, and to be fair, it’s easy to see why. Modernism and modern art have tried to change the very basis upon which Art is founded: aka, they have shifted the focus from manifesting the divine within the human sphere towards the realisation of an academic idea or commentary. But where Art is only about ideas, it dies. Enjoyment of Art should not be predicated on contextual knowledge. Yes, all Art exists within a context, that cannot be avoided, but the greatest works resound throughout history and transcend the boundaries of the time period, language, or culture in which they were birthed. I do not need to know what it was like for Dante Allighieri to live as a fourteenth century Italian to appreciate The Divine Comedy. His work speaks for him. This is because real Art must be felt, experienced, and lived. It is transformative. 

There is a notion that many of the old English writers of the canon, such as Milton, were crusty academics that had no appreciation of what real life was like, yet when we read his work, we find something very different, we find something vital and alive. Milton is, I think, one of the most profoundly misunderstood writers of all time. For a start, his gift for ironic humour is rarely discussed. Paradise Lost is intentionally and spectacularly funny in places, especially when Satan is backtracking over his own warped and impossible trains of thought (Anton Lesser’s magical audiobook reading of the poem particularly highlights this element). But more than humour, Milton’s writing breathes with a tremendous, baroque passion. This passion causes the very form of the poem to bend and even break underneath the weight of his emotion. Indeed, in the very first line, “Of man’s first disobedience…” he disobeys the iambic pentameter of his own line. This could be read as a clever poetic technique, and perhaps it is, but I prefer to see it as a manifestation of the true meaning of the poem coming through. I dare anyone to read the opening to read Book 3 of Paradise Lost—in which Milton begins to realise he is going blind and calls upon God to help him finish the poem—and not be shaken: “but thou / Revisit’st not these eyes, that roll in vain / To find thy piercing ray, and find no dawn;”

This is where poetry differs from prose, and why we still need poetry in a world flooded with memes and literalism. I should say, before I go on, that I am not one of those elitist poets who believes in the superiority of poetry. How could I be? I am a novelist too, and I love novels! However, after years of rejecting and suppressing my inner poet, and then facing and unleashing this inner passion, I am forced to conclude that poetry offers something prose does not and never can, which is a way to stir the deepest tides of the human consciousness with merely a few lines. There are many reasons that the resultant outpouring of feeling can be so powerful. Rhythm is one. In other words, great poetry can affect the mind in the same way as music using alliteration, meter, and other formal techniques. This way, poetry can imbed the meaning of the words far deeper than prose. Don’t get me wrong, prose has rhythm too, but poetry cuts deeper. 

The second way is via rhyme. Rhyme is commonly misunderstood. For many modern commentators, rhyme is a pointless exercise, the poet simply “challenging” themselves, but this is a masturbatory view. The real purpose of rhyme is to link two ideas that would not normally be linked. When words rhyme, we begin to infer an association, however off-the-wall. For example, if we rhyme love and dove, we link the concept of human “love” with “peace” as the dove is a symbol of peace. Those two words have been rhymed far, far too often, so it is no longer an interesting rhyme to use, but you get the idea! We can also use para-rhyme (which includes vowel-rhyme and consonantal rhyme). For example, rhyming love and live is a consonantal half-rhyme. Rhyming wound and noon is a vowel-rhyme. This gives us access to a huge, huge range of possibilities, and given the English language has the fastest growing vocabulary in the world, and the most words, we are unlikely to exhaust the possibilities any time soon! 

Of course, bad poetry uses predictable or monotonous rhythm, and cliched and unoriginal rhyme, which destroys the potency of the verse. But the existence of bad formal poetry does not mean we should throw all formal poetry out, just as my inability to kick a football straight does not mean we should ban football as a sport. 

Poetry is a large and daunting field, despite the fact that people are eternally claiming “no one reads poetry” anymore. The truth is: people do, as the many YouTube channels dedicated to the study of poetry attest. The world is hungry for it, but some people may not know exactly what it is they are hungry for, because the field is so rife with politics and loaded with historicity.

Not only this, but great poets introduce new phrases into common speech all the time. We are forever loaning the words of poets, even if we don’t know the names of those poets. Percy Shelly said that poets were “the unacknowledged legislators of the world”. Whilst the statement is lofty, when it comes to language, it’s hard to deny its truth. And this brings us to one of my favourite quotes from Alan Moore: “Words offer the means to meaning, and for those who will listen, the enunciation of truth.” This, perhaps, might be the very definition of poetry itself! The thing about truth is it’s like the sun. We can’t look at it head on, because it would burn our eyes out. However, poetry, unlike prose or any other medium, can reveal the truth more obliquely. The seeming “weirdness” and veils of poetry allow us to glimpse the truth without being blinded. There is a powerful link between poetry and magic which is too deep to go into here. 

So, where to begin? No two poets are the same, though some have much in common, and ultimately we have to find the poet or poets who speaks to us. Arguably my favourite poem of all time is Childe Roland To The Dark Tower Came, by Robert Browning, which is one of the greatest pieces of literature ever written in my eyes. You can watch me doing a reading of it here. It is not too long and the language and feeling is awe-inspiring. Its meaning cannot be easily précised, but think about what the hero confronts at the end: is it death? despair? self-annihilation? guilt? Then consider how the hero faces it. Hair-raising stuff!

I also personally adore the work of Edmund Spenser, but many find him a little too formally rigid for modern tastes, and the size of his poems makes him difficult to get into. I find he is worth the effort though! My own upcoming work, Virtue’s End, is heavily inspired by Spenser’s Faerie Queene.

If you are looking for contemporary writers, though I am completely biased, I would have to recommend my wonderful father’s epic poem, HellWardas a starting point. The poem deals with his battle for cancer in the ward of a hospital which, as the title would suggest, is not all that it seems. Though epic poems can be daunting, the great thing is that they have narrative propulsion, which makes them a good starting point for someone who is new to poetry, or just looking to test the waters. We can follow the narrative and if some of the imagery or references go over our head, that’s okay, because we’re on a journey. After a while, we sink into the rhythm of things and realise our bearings. Another incredible modern epic poem is Andrew Benson Brown’s Legends of Libertywhich is a historical mock-epic set during the American war for independence. I previously reviewed this dazzling, hilarious, and moving work here.

Poetry is not for everyone. Except, I actually think it could be. That’s because real poetry isn’t understood with our left-brain, that is clouded by biases and intellect and judgement, it’s absorbed somewhere deeper, in the very soul, perhaps—though we have to open ourselves up to it. Any time we respond to a painting, piece of music, or literature with that unfettered, even explosive, emotional reaction, we are getting to the heart of what great Art—and poetry—is about. Archibald MacLeish once wrote, “A poem should not mean, but be.” In a world of ever more divisive opinions and politics, real poetry asks us not to decipher or argue, but to enter that immediate, present, and timeless being and feeling state. In the words of Emily Dickinson, “Forever is composed of nows.” 


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Review of Legends of Liberty by Andrew Benson Brown

Time moves in cycles—an ouroboros, if you will—and it is exciting to observe trends that seemed dead and gone forever return due to the cyclical nature of reality. We’re currently experiencing a complete resurgence of the Slasher genre, and a renewed interest in Horror overall. The existence of streaming services such as Shudder, and the popularity of modern films such as the Fear Street trilogy, are testament to this revival. What this says about our modern world, I leave to you, but certainly the narratives we invest in tell us something about who we are.

To be fair, Horror has always had a way of hanging on, and surviving cultural movements (even when banned or prohibited). It is one of those genres that never fully goes away, because human fear never truly goes away. It is far more impressive when a genre such as classical poetry makes its grand return. 

In the wake of modernism and post-modernism—the deconstruction of spiritual beliefs and national identity—and the advent of free-verse, classical poetry has been out of fashion for the last half-century. It is far beyond the scope of this review to explore the deeper reasons why here. However, what we can explore is how the genre is seeing a slow, steady, but powerful resurrection. 

In 2020, my own father James Sale published an epic written in terza rima called HellWard, echoing the form Dante used to craft his magnum opus The Divine Comedy. HellWard, whilst classically influenced, is based on my father’s very real personal experience of battling cancer. This is very revealing on a number of levels. It shows that poetry has never been the province of solely the elite, because real poetry, the poetry that influences culture in unimaginably potent ways, is always about true, human, relatable experiences (finding our way home, to our own soul (The Odyssey), or losing a loved one (The Iliad)). In writing HellWard, my father found a way to translate Dante’s sojourn into hell into a contemporary experience of fighting cancer tooth and nail. He has synthesised real trauma with myth

HellWard is the first instalment of The English Cantos, which will similarly mirror Dante’s tripartite model exploring hell, purgatory, and heaven. Whilst I am obviously biased, I am genuinely in awe of this book, and how it has captured the imaginations of so many. There have always been poets, either self-publishing their work or otherwise; this is not necessarily indicative of a revival of anything, especially when so much modern poetry reads like solipsism. But a popular, classically formed poem emerging in the maelstrom of Covid-19 and other catastrophes, now that begins to resemble the beginning of a movement! 

On the heels of HellWard comes Legends of Liberty, a new mock-epic poem written by Andrew Benson Brown. Benson Brown’s poem styles itself after Lord Byron, particularly Don Juan, and whilst the “mock” elements are certainly laugh-out-loud, there is no denying that the poem is serious at its heart and has some important things to say about modern society, the way history is taught in schools, literalism, where Western civilisation lost its way, and much more. Whereas HellWard is written by a Brit, Benson Brown speaks for an American audience, although his truths are universal. He deals with Thomas Jefferson confronting his sins in the inferno, with the battle for America’s independence from the British, and how new technology has shaped the landscape of war. However, Benson Brown never falls into the trap of giving a tedious, preachy history lesson, as many so-called poets do. His scenes have a surreal quality which at times is used for hugely comic effect, and at other times, to evoke mythic grandeur: 

“Their bayonets cast beams — reverse sundials 

Dissecting the empire’s diurnal span

That cast so many shadows on the globe.” 

There is so much to unpack from three lines like this. The image of the bayonets catching the light mirroring the ancient spears of the Greeks in The Iliad, but he does not stop at merely aping the original, but reverses the image, whereby we come to associate the weaponry with the oppressions of Western empire. We move from the “beams” of the bayonets, aka light, toward the “shadows” cast across the whole world. 

Benson Brown has a gift for aphoristic wit, a compact statement that seems to encapsulate the entirety of a gigantic concept. This is essential for writing mock-epic, which is often as much a commentary as it is a narrative, for example: 

“And wear beliefs as circumstance permits.

They’re diplomats by trade— we call then hypocrites.” 

This is where poetry shows its strengths. Form is not a restriction, it is a tool that can produce mimetic effects upon the reader when deployed by a master wordsmith, which Benson Brown assuredly is. In the words of Kurt Seligmann, form is “not resented as a coercion but rather welcomed as a liberation from the tyranny of chance.” The genius of rhyming “permit” and then half-rhyming “diplomat” (which “tricks” the brain into thinking the verse is done), only to then complete the couplet with the rhyme “hypocrites” amplifies the comedic effect by virtue of misdirection. The fact that permit and hypocrite is a “perfect” rhyme also conveys cleverly that “hypocrite” is the true term for the type of person he is describing. 

But Benson Brown does not only use the rhyme scheme to comedic effect. As I said before, the poem is serious at heart. There is a sense of mourning lost values and ideals, exemplified by how many heroic American figures are now forgotten, save for in obscure annals and Benson-Brown’s own poem (these obscure sources are extensively referred to in the poem’s copious notations, often witty, amusing, and informative). This sense of loss is perhaps no better exemplified than in the incredibly dense couplet:

“Of petals, perfect in their fair proportions.

What nature nurtures, time adopts, and chaos orphans.” 

From here, we have the full journey of a human life encapsulated. A petal, like a child, is made perfect. Nature nurtures it, which in itself is a clever play on words, referring to the endless debate as to whether we are more influenced by “nature” (our genes and biology) or “nurture” (what we are taught and experience). Benson Brown’s line here seems to appropriately suggest both play their part. In growing up, the child is taken under the wing of Time, entering the ouroboros of existence, before being orphaned by “chaos”. There are a number of meanings here for “chaos”. In one sense, we all become orphans eventually, as our parents must die. But in another, we are orphans in the sense we have to find our own way through life’s “chaos” and complexities. This is only scratching the surface of meaning.

Even if you are new to American history, or indeed to poetry, I highly recommend you read Legends of Liberty. It is witty, humorous, moving, and unlike anything you have read before. Classical poetry, much like Horror, is coming back from the dead in the hands of skilled writers like Benson Brown. The least we can do is give it a warm welcome. 

You can purchase Legends of Liberty below:

Amazon UK

Amazon US

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Good Writers Turn Weaknesses Into Strengths

So often we talk about what good writers do well. Or what bad writers do badly. Or to perhaps be more even-handed: what makes good or bad pieces of writing what they are. We rarely talk about the sometimes chronic weaknesses even the greatest writers exhibit or how they turn these seemingly inhibitive habits or traits into some of the strongest aspects of their work. I think this is one of the most fascinating topics, and examining it can help us less well-known writers improve dramatically. Half of becoming good at anything, after all, is learning how to play to your strengths, and fight the battle on your terms. If you were facing off against someone in a boxing match, and they had an incredibly swift jab, it would be a mistake to try and punch faster than them. Rather, you might find another way around, perhaps maintaining a good distance so their jabs are useless, or else waiting for the jab to come before making any kind of offensive manoeuvre so you can catch it with a parry. The same applies to writing. Whilst we can always work on and improve our weaknesses, sometimes it is also pertinent to steer the writing away from areas we might struggle with.

Let’s start with the one-and-only Stephen King.

Stephen King, in case you’ve been living under a rock for the last thirty years, is perhaps the greatest Horror writer alive today, and one of the most successful novelists of all time. His trademark is his compulsive un-put-downable prose style that drags you into its undercurrent like a vindictive ocean. However, despite King’s penchant for thrilling narrative and terrifying scenes, he is surprisingly indirect when it comes to unfolding his story. In fact, he loves to meander, sometimes going into literally hundreds of pages of sidebar for the sake of setting up his characters. For example, in 11.22.63, it is almost 250 pages, a third of the book, before we get to the main thrust of the narrative, in which our time-travelling protagonist meets the beautiful school-teacher Sadie back in the 60s. Imagine any other romantic novel in which the love interest was introduced so late… In The Stand, similarly, it is something like 600 pages before we even have all the heroes gathered in Boulder in order to prepare for the confrontation with Randall Flagg. Part of this is King’s self-professed discovery writing, feeling his way into the story by remaining emotionally true to his characters rather than planning his narrative arcs out at length. Another part of this, at least in my opinion, is that he is simply in love with his characters and cares more about their everyday humdrum than you might expect from a writer of fantasy.

You’d think that this tendency to get sidetracked, especially for a writer of genre fiction that necessitates a degree of plot and pace, would be career-crippling, but on the contrary, King has made it into a strength in many ways. Firstly, he uses these sidebars to build tension, which is essential for any Horror writer. He plants a seed of something sinister in our minds, then meanders off onto another topic: perhaps a mechanic fixing a car, or a kid playing with a paper boat in the rain, leaving us with this slowly growing dread as we sense something brooding out of the corner of our eye, something the ‘camera lens’ of the narrative refuses to focus on. Secondly, he uses it to deepen his characters so that we care. King said that horror is “rooted in sympathy” and so by taking his time to set up the people in his story and drawing us into their worlds, he makes the Horror, the tragedy, the tension all so much realer when we get to it. All good Horror movies, in fact almost any movie with real high-stakes storytelling, has to have that set up, that golden period before everything goes wrong. The Lord of the Rings is one of the best examples of this. Think how much time we spend in the Shire at the start of the book and films, how disproportionate it might seem in comparison with all the other important stuff that comes later and is so key to the narrative. But, without that time in the Shire and all the details of Bilbo’s birthday and this ludicrously pleasant and peaceful way of life, we cannot understand what is at stake, and even deeper, what Frodo must lose at the end.

Awareness is key. King is aware of what his genre requires and aware of his own style and his preferred way of writing it. What he’s done is found a way to draw the two together. He has made discovery writing and a habit of fleshing out seemingly mundane scenes into the perfect tool for creating intense horror.

Let’s look at another writer with a very different kind of weakness.

J. R. R. Tolkien, the creator of Middle Earth and its many languages, acclaimed Oxford scholar, author of The Lord of the Rings and numerous other best-selling works, has been accused time and again of simplistic storytelling. Michael Moorcook wrote a devastating essay on the topic in which he accused The Lord of the Rings as being no more stylistically worthy than Winnie the Pooh. It is perhaps for this reason that The Lord of the Rings has never been academically acclaimed, despite its enduring popularity, its mythological dimensions, and its undeniable power. Only now is The Lord of the Rings being studied at Universities in the UK but I would argue it is the very simplicity of Tolkien’s language that proves the driving strength of his narrative, and that gives it the incredible emotional payoff. Tolkien, it must be remembered, was an extraordinarily academic person, an expert in languages. He had an immense vocabulary at his disposal, however, he chose deliberately to write in a childlike, innocent way, forgoing long Latinate words that many of his Modernist contemporaries favoured and instead using the humbler Anglo-Saxon words as his foundation. What emerges is a prose-style that is unlike any other, and quite simply heartbreaking in its innocence.

Naivety is something publishers often reject upcoming writers about (I’ve been rejected for it myself) and the success of gritty stories such as Martin’s Game of Thrones (or A Song of Ice and Fire as the book series is called) reinforces this view that we want more violence, more sex, more horror, more realism. Tolkien, however, defies the idea that readers/viewers want gratuity, turning what might appear to be naivety into an astonishing purity, something so intertwined with the narrative that the story would literally have been impossible to tell without it. Think, for a moment, what The Lord of the Rings might have been like if halfway through we were treated to a graphic sexual scene between Aragorn and Arwen because “that’s what couples do”? Actually, it’s probably not wise for me to ask this question of the internet; invariably this has already been pictured at great length in some dark corner of the web… but you see what I’m saying about how that kind of grittiness would destroy the beauty and myth of their relationship?

The final scene at the Grey Havens is so moving because of the elegiac simplicity of the prose, as well as the simplicity of the story itself. Frodo and Sam’s relationship is heartwarmingly true, truer than almost any other friendship in the history of fiction, and so to see it ended, when seemingly nothing should now stand in the way of them growing old together, is almost unbearably sad. But then there is also hope, hope that Frodo might finally find rest. The Christian message at the end is pretty unmissable – and is another reason The Lord of the Rings comes under fire from the likes of Moorcock – but Tolkien here exposes, at least to my mind, a profound truth: regardless of what our rational beliefs are, any sane person desires that catharsis, that hope for something beyond death, beyond parting with loved ones, beyond the sorrow of the world, beyond pain and grief. People of extraordinarly widely ranging beliefs are still moved by what George R. R. Martin called the “bittersweet” ending of LOTR, and I think its because Tolkien taps in to how desperately we crave this better world, even if we think it’s fantasy.

Tolkien was no stranger to grittiness. He fought in World War I and returned home with trench-fever and shellshock, taking nearly a year to recover. He lived through World War II also. He was one of the last British soldiers ever to ride a horse into battle (and now you see why those cavalry scenes are so well done). He knew about grittiness, and there are moments where we get hints of it, such as when Frodo and Sam sit on the “blasted heath”, within view of Mordor, listening to the sound of fatal drumming in the distance. Does this sound like a soldier waiting on the hill, listening to bombs dropping in the distance? Less can be more, and Tolkien certainly makes it so. Tolkien’s prose has far broader appeal in some ways because it is less graphic. We populate the battle scenes with our own sense of what fighting looks like (although with the advent of the films we now most likely visualise these scenes). We populate the romance with our own degree of intimacy. And we feel the story at the deep level of a childhood fable, one that sticks with us and shapes us for all time.

Whereas King uses his “weakness” to enhance the effects he’s trying to achieve and work within his genre, Tolkien used his “weakness” to resonate on a deeper emotional level.

I’m now going to go back even further back in time and talk about the legendary poet John Milton.

This weakness, I believe, did not so much derive from the writing itself but from his personal circumstances.

Milton wrote the epic poem Paradise Lost published in 1667, depicting the war in heaven and the fall of human kind at the hands of Satan, who is, bizarrely, the hero of the narrative (or one of them). Milton is sort of going out of vogue at the moment. His writing could be described as a polar opposite to Tolkien: Latinate, extravagant, borderline bombastic. His language is difficult to access for those who have not read Greek and Roman literature, and he re-tells a Christian story in a very explicitly Christian way. Or so it seems. I actually believe the perception of Milton as a “stuffy academic” is completely false, because Paradise Lost ripples with sensual subversion, scenes of haunting sexual and violent intensity, and problematic morality. For one thing, Satan is a figure of empathy in the story, one who heroically defies the tyrannical God, using every ounce of his cunning to subvert the natural course of the universe and bring humanity to its knees. Is this the work of someone enamored of the status-quo? Methinks not.

As it stands, I do not believe that Milton’s taste for high-styling and complex writing was his weakness at all, though some would argue this was the case. Instead, I would argue it was something simpler and more overt: Milton was blind. Partway through writing Paradise Lost, he lost his sight. At the key moment, when he most needed vision, he was unable to see. For most writers, this would have proved a fatal blow. How could you compose poetry without the ability to see the text in front of you, or, to look out into the natural world and draw inspiration? But Milton found the strength to go on, and, helped by his daughter who transcribed his spoken composition, he finished the work. In the below extract from Book III of Paradise Lost, we see how Milton breaks the fourth wall, speaking directly to the reader about the absence of his sight and calling on God and the angels to give him a different kind of sight, an inner vision. Effectively, he kindles his own imagination, knowing that he can no longer draw on the world around him in the same way:

Thus with the Year
Seasons return, but not to me returns
Day, or the sweet approach of Ev’n or Morn,
Or sight of vernal bloom, or Summers Rose,
Or flocks, or heards, or human face divine;
But cloud in stead, and ever-during dark
Surrounds me, from the chearful wayes of men
Cut off, and for the Book of knowledg fair
Presented with a Universal blanc
Of Nature’s works to mee expung’d and ras’d,
And wisdome at one entrance quite shut out.
So much the rather thou Celestial light
Shine inward, and the mind through all her powers
Irradiate, there plant eyes, all mist from thence
Purge and disperse, that I may see and tell
Of things invisible to mortal sight.

In this astonishingly moving extract we see quite clearly how Milton turned his disadvantage into an advantage. He dispensed with the real and conjured pure imaginative thought. I think it’s fairly safe to say, like it or not, that he succeeded. Paradise Lost is one of the most richly vivid, visual, image-laden pieces of writing ever produced.

So, there you have it. Three writers who, in very different ways, turned their very weaknesses into astonishing triumphs of power and imagination.

Let’s open it up! What weaknesses do you think certain writers have and how do they overcome them? Let’s keep it respectful, peaceful and interesting; looking forward to hearing your thoughts!

Au revoir,

Like what you read here? Why not follow @josephwordsmith for more updates and content. You can check out The Mindflayer’s publishing venture 13Dark on Facebook or Twitter. For his books, go to Amazon.