All my life I have been an earnest student of poetry. I have asked myself again and again how, I am to become a poet, rather than a versifier; I have implored myself to tell myself how the thing is done; and though for many years I have received no answer, at last I think I am beginning to see daylight.
The first thing to do, I have discovered, is get attuned to Nature. Studying the major poets, one finds they display an almost uncanny insight into the modus vivendi of birds and beasts and flowers. Who can remain unmoved by Tennyson's description of the pimpernel dozing on the lea, of Words- worth's discovery that a cloud can be lonely, or Shelley's revelation that a skylark wert not a bird?
Obviously one must delve into the psyches of Nature's children and then try to find some out-of-the-way adjectives to describe them. For in this 20th century of ours (why "of ours" I don't know, but that's what it is always called), it is very difficult to find anything fresh to say about anything. How glorious it must have been to live in the days before every possible epithet had been applied to the common objects of life! How wonderfull to be able to speak of night as sable-vested, of dawn as rosy-fingered, of the sea as multitudinous, without a twinge of conscience. Our only chance today of a suitable description for, say, a cow or a warm spring afternoon without plagiarizing the work of some predecessor is to discover adjectives which, by their very novelty, will appeal to the average uncultivated reader.
My father, a writer of lyrics, told me that one of the secrets of writing successful verse was to realize with what very little intelligence it would be read. He himself inventedm words that he felt sounded appropriate. "The glabrous toad," he wrote, "with wide elaborate eye/Whose breath inhales the lithe sporadic fly!" He never dared to look in the dictionary to see if the word "glabrous" existed and meant something quite awful, but he always felt that if a toad wasn't glabrous nothing could be.
Even if necessity is the mother of invention, this is going a bit far, but I do see I must seek out more offbeat definitions if I want to capture and hold the attention of my readers. What about "astrakhan-coated Night" or "Albertime-rose-toed Dawn"? Will that make me a poet?
Again, I ask, what is a poet?
Perhaps the would-be poet can take comfort from the fact that very few people can actually define the difference between poetry and verse. In words, that is.For most of us believe we know a poem when we see one. We are especially sure it is a poem when we cannot understand it, for poetry, particularly modern poetry, tends to be obscure, whereas verse is invariably comprehensible. The fact that some poetry is also intelligible is just bad luck.
But certainly a poet is several rungs higher up the literary ladder from a lyricist, for he has to wait for inspiration from the Muse and then turn his ideas into a "drainless shower of light," the versifier meanwhile struggling on a lower plane to find an original rhyme for love.
Everybody in the metrical-language business is, of course, expected sooner or later to touch upon the question of love, and it is here that the Anglo-Saxon writer is called upon to surmount an almost insuperable obstacle. By one of those inexplicable anomalies that outrage all the laws of supply and demand, the English language contains only three words that rhyme with the word love. Poets have a cruelly unfair advantage over verse-makers, in that they are allowed to pretend that love rhymes with "move," and "prove," and if pressed they can go to such literary excesses as to rhyme "bough" with "through" and "laughter" with "daughter." This is not playing the game. Poets who do this sort of things may be inspired, but they are also cads.
The only legitimate rhymes to "love" are "glove," "drove," an "above" . . . "shove" can be disregarded as being too slangly. Now it is quite easy for a lyricist to describe once or twicem how he found his lady's glove and cherished it to his bosom: he can occasionallym liken his mistress to a dove, even though doves are extremely foolish, very greedy, and have absurd pink feet. And every so oftenm he can declare by heaven above that a maiden's eyes are bluer than the skies above. quite so: but when he has repeated these hackneyed cliches half a dozen times the thing becomes monotonous. Besides which, however "above" they are, doves are not given to wearing gloves.
To the versemonger whose livelihood depends on rhyme and scansion the fact that there is no means of escaping from this apparent impasse is a burden he must bear with patience if not resignation. It is so manifestly unfair that poetry would be biased in favor of the poet when he already has everything, including incomprehensibility, going for him, the poor lyric writer should protest with all the words left at his command. Truly, it is nothing short of a scandal.