From Free Life, Issue 17, January 1993
ISSN: 0260 5112
Observing the English
Majority Rights, London, 1991 24pp, £3
Some years ago, hoping for a grant from the Greater London Council, I composed An Anthology of Lesbian Verse. The star item, Obloquy by Liz Merdle, went as follows:
drips between the legs
of the girl
whose father raped her,
dyeing her knickers
sisters some primaeval scream
and wonder if
perhaps our mothers
I never got my grant, worst luck. What I did gain, however—since neither this nor any of the 24 other items took more than five minutes to compose—was a reinforced contempt for the whole modern movement in poetry.
It is not enough to express one's thoughts in prose with a ragged right margin and to call the result a poem. There is scansion. There is rhyme. There is quantity and pitch, and the various kinds of poetic diction. The rules of English prosody are as elaborate and fixed as the rules of Latin grammar. They may often seem a hindrance to free expression. They must even so be learned and practised until they are second nature. Until then, nothing of value can be produced.
I am sad that Mr Tong does not appear to have appreciated this point, for he is by my standards a most politically correct poet. He is a patriot and a reactionary. He clearly sees the approaching death of England, and has gone into print attacking those who celebrate or contribute to this monstrous event. It is a pity that his book contains scarcely a line of poetry.
Take, for example, his On the Statue of Oliver Cromwell at Westminster. I quote the final half:
It recalls the stubborn patriot firmly
rooted in his fertile fenland acres,
reluctantly accepting his destiny,
becoming the dominant figure of his age.
It recalls a triumph of Englishness: a man
intuitively just and reasonable,
yet relentless in defending liberty
of conscience, parliamentary institutions
and his nation's interests.
Now Cromwell is most certainly to be admired—if not always for the reasons given by Mr Tong. But what atrocious language this is in which to express admiration. "Becoming the dominant figure of his age": this is not poetry. It is neither beautiful nor memorable. Still worse, it is both ugly and platitudinous. It would barely do for the voice-over in a television documentary. Though here, even intoned by Mr Michael Woods, with his usual accompaniment of drum beats and distant wailing, it would not be rescued from evident banality. The same can be said of every other line quoted above, and of almost every other line in the book.
Nevertheless, I do wish Mr Tong every success in selling his work. There is, most regrettably, a market for "modern poetry", and it is probably better that people should buy this than something that is wholly devoid of redeeming features.
Marian Halcombe (Sean Gabb)
© 1993 – 2015, seangabb.
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