07 November 2013

Advice from a Poet: Better to be vulgar than affected

Selections from the Preface to the Collected Poems (1911) of Ford Madox Ford (17 December 1873 – 26 June 1939):

I do not wish to apologize for this publication, but I wish to propitiate beforehand those who may object that I am putting out Collected Poems rather than a Selection, and I wish to make some speculations as to the differences between prose and verse as they are written nowadays. I do the latter here because there is no periodical in this town that would print my musings — and quite rightly, because few living souls would wish to read them. Let me then become frankly biographic, a thing which may be permitted to the verse-writing mood.

The collection here presented is made up of reprints of five volumes of verse which have appeared at odd times during the last fifteen years. The last poem in the book was ivritten when I was fifteen, the first, a year ago, so that, roughly speaking, this volume represents the work of twenty-five years.

But the writing of verse hardly appears to me to be a matter of work: it is a process, as far as I am concerned, too uncontrollable. From time to time words in verse form have come into my head and I have written them down, quite powerlessly and without much interest, under the stress of certain emotions. And, as for knowing whether one or the other is good, bad or indifferent, I simply cannot begin to trust myself to make a selection. And, as for trusting any friend to make a selection, one cannot bring oneself to do it either. They have — one's friends — too many mental axes to grind. One will admire certain verses about a place because in that place they were once happy ; one will find fault with a certain other paper of verses because it does not seem likely to form a piece of prentice work in a school that he is desirous of founding. I should say that most of the verses here printed are rather derivative, and too much governed by the passing emotions of the moment. But I simply cannot tell; is it not the function of verse to register passing emotions? Besides, one cherishes vague, pathetic hopes of having written masterpieces unaware, as if one's hackney mare should by accident be got with a winner of the Two Thousand.

With prose, that conscious and workable medium, it is a perfectly different matter. One finds a subject somewhere — in the course of gossip or in the Letters and State Papers of some sovereign deceased, published by the Record Office. Immediately the mind gets to work upon the "form," blocks out patches of matter, of dialogue, of description. If the subject is to grow into a short short-story, one knows that one will start with a short, sharp, definite sentence, so as to set the pace:

"Mr Lamotte," one will write, "returned from fishing. His eyes were red; the ends of his collar, pressed open because he had hung down his head in the depths of his reflection. . . ."

Or, if it is to be a long short-story, we shall qualify the sharpness of the opening sentence and damp it down as thus:

"When, on a late afternoon of July, Mr Lamotte walked up from the river with his rod in his hand ..."

Or again, if the subject seems one for a novel, we begin :

" Mr Lamotte had resided at the White House for sixteen years. The property consisted of 627 acres, of which one hundred and forty were park-land intersected by the river Torridge, of forty acres of hop-land . . ." and so on. We shall proceed to "get in" Mr Lamotte and his property and his ancestry and his landscape and his society. We shall think about these things for a long time and with an absolute certainty of aim ; we shall know what we want to do, and — to the measure of the light vouchsafed — we shall do it.

But with verse I just do not know: I do not know anything at all. As far as I am concerned, it just comes.


Is there something about the mere framing of verse, the mere sound of it in the ear, that it must at once throw its practitioner or its devotee into an artificial frame of mind ? Verse presumably quickens the perceptions of its writer as do hashish or ether. But must it necessarily quicken them to the perception only of the sentimental, the false, the hackneyed aspects of life ? Must it make us, because we live in cities, babble incessantly of green fields; or because we live in the twentieth century must we deem nothing poetically good that did not take place before the year 1603 ?

This is not saying that one should not soak oneself with the Greek traditions : study every fragment of Sappho ; delve ages long in the works of Bertran de Born ; translate for years the minnelieder of Walther von der Vogelweide or that we should forget the bardic chants of Patric of the Seven Kingdoms. Let us do anything in the world that will widen our perceptions. We are the heirs of all the ages. But, in the end, I feel fairly assured that the purpose of all these pleasant travails is the right appreciation of such facets of our own day...


I remember seeing in a house in Hertford an American cartoon representing a dog pursuing a cat out of the door of a particularly hideous tenement house, and beneath this picture was inscribed the words: "This is life — one damn thing after another." Now I think it would be better to be able to put that sentiment into lyric verse than to remake a ballad of the sorrows of Cuchullain or to paraphrase the Book of Job. I do not mean to say that Job is not picturesque; I do not mean to say that it is not a good thing to have the Book of the Seven Sorrows of whom you will in the background of your mind or even colouring your outlook. But it is better to see life in the terms of one damn thing after another, vulgar as is the phraseology or even the attitude, than to render it in terms of withering gourds and other poetic paraphernalia. It is, in fact, better to be vulgar than affected, at any rate if you practise poetry.


To get a sort of truth, a sort of genuineness into your attitude towards the life that God makes you lead, to follow up your real preferences, to like as some of us like the hard, bitter, ironical German poets, the life of restaurants, of Crowds, of flashed impressions, to love, as we may love, in our own way, the Blessed Virgin, Saint Katharine or the sardonic figure of Christina of Milan — and to render it — that is one good thing. Or again, to be genuinely Irish, with all the historic background of death, swords, flames, mists, sorrows, wakes, and again mists — to love those things and the Irish sanctities and Paganisms — that is another good thing if it is truly rendered ; the main thing is the genuine love and the faithful rendering of the received impression.

The actual language — the vernacular employed — is a secondary matter. I prefer personally the language of my own day, a language clear enough for certain matters, employing slang where slang is felicitous and vulgarity where it seems to me that vulgarity is the only weapon against dullness.


(...I am merely, quite humbly, trying to voice what I imagine will be the views or the aspirations, the preferences or the prejudices, of the poet of my day and circumstances when he shall at last appear and voice the life of dust, toil, discouragement, excitement, and enervation that I and many millions lead to-day.)

When that poet does come it seems to me that his species will be much that of the gentlemen I have several times mentioned. His attitude towards life will be theirs ; his circumstances only will be different. An elephant is an elephant whether he pours, at an African water-hole, mud and water over his free and scorched flanks, or whether, in the Zoological Gardens, he carries children about upon his back.

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