Sassoon and Owen told it like it was.

None of your fine uplifting stuff for those

Who’d been there, seen the worst, and then – because

Of what they’d seen – wrenched language to expose

The old lie these two nailed. Stuff the applause,

Their off-rhymes said, for the false art that goes

Into a well-bred verse-technique and draws

High praise for its devices to keep prose,


Along with factual reportage, at bay,

So showing its rapt readership (by grace

Of flawless rhyme and meter) the best way

To gain safe entrance to the other place,

That tranquil ‘corner of some foreign field’. Here they

Can act out their heroics in a space

Reserved for poetasters who obey,

Like him, the rule: let prosody outface


All such threats to its sacrosanct domain

As might come from a poetry that veers

Rhyme-wise and metrically against the grain,

As also from the moral shift of gears

Whereby those two condemned the whole insane

Scenario where escalating fears

On both sides conjured up the very bane

Both sides made war on. For indeed the spheres


Where warmongers and lyric warblers dwell

Are not so far apart as might be thought

Since, after all, the stories both lots tell

By popular request are of the sort

That help conceal whatever glimpse of hell

Might otherwise poke through and so cut short

Those stirring tales with accents that rebel

Against the martial beat. If they distort

The victor’s view of things it’s by the kind

Of dislocating jolt that shocks the old-

School prosodists as much as those who find

The devil’s hand in all that breaks the mould

Of custom or explodes the lies that bind

Bad poets to bad causes. These take hold

Through formulas that line us up behind

Their source in myths or meters tight-controlled


By emanations of the Nietzschean Will-

To-Power whose long dissimulated drive

Adopts more subtly muted forms until

It spawns those calls-to-slaughter that contrive

To sound like elegies, or tales that thrill

The warrior nerve yet whose narrators strive

To couch them in such tones as might instil

No craving more malign than to revive


Time-honoured pieties. We may expect

This age-old ruse itself to undergo

Revivals on the principle that Brecht

Spelled out with grim precision: that although

They’d stood up, killed the bastard, and so checked

One Hitler in his tracks, still they should know

That all their hopes of progress might be wrecked

The next time round. Brecht’s closing comments go


More snappily: that even now ‘the bitch

That bore him is in heat again’, so they’d

Best not allow this latest hard-won switch

Of fortunes to annul the gains they’d made

By letting false assurances bewitch

Their wiser minds. That’s roughly what’s conveyed

By Owen’s off-key rhymes that queer the pitch

For anyone whose aural nerves are frayed


When poets heed Brecht’s lesson and refuse

The Brookean way of melding perfect rhymes

With classic verse-forms. It’s a mode that woos

The unresisting reader and so primes

The violence masked by all those strict taboos

That bid state-chroniclers ignore state-crimes

Or teach tame versifiers how to schmooze

The regnant powers by any style that chimes


With regnant tastes. Yet Brecht’s point still applies

When free-verse zealots tout a final break

With rhyme and meter since they’d otherwise,

(They think) be fobbing readers off with fake

Emotions like the old-time poet guys

Who wrote such stuff. In which case better take

The creed on board full-strength and improvise,

Like true verse-liberators, ways to make


A virtue of renouncing all control

And, above all, not adding to the pile

Of well-formed verbal icons. So the sole

Constraint you’ll need to have in mind – since style

Comes down to what permits an easy stroll

Through genial themes – is how best to beguile

The passive reader who’s assigned a role

With no allowance for such versatile


Capacities as once required a keen

And practised ear. Such were the skills that went

Into that amicable strife between

Speech-rhythms and how meter would accent

The poet’s vocables had they not been

Still part-immersed within the element

Of ordinary speech that has them mean,

Up to a point, what those words would have meant


In plain-prose talk. Yet – some would say – beyond

That point the poem enters realms unknown

To all save some few readers who respond

In ways that verbal acumen alone

Could scarcely grasp. At least they won’t be conned,

Those vers-libristes, by any jumped-up tone

That strives to transcendentalize the bond

Of sound and sense, so leaving sceptics prone

To seek salvation in a cult of free-

Form verse that yokes its star to the eclipse

Of formal structure since its apogee

Comes often when a martial fervour grips

The poets and induces them to see

No merit but in poetry that whips

Up kindred sentiments. For them, the key

To truth in verse is that which promptly tips


The reader off that here we have a case

Of skilled technique so splendidly at one

With its high theme that every verbal grace

Conspires to spin the yarn routinely spun

By poets keen to show their public face

To best advantage through a lengthy run

Of formal features perfectly in place.

Whence their late-comers’ stake in work begun


In that primordial tryst of sound and sense

Through which, as Benjamin obscurely said,

Adam once had the genius to condense

Kind-fixing essences in names that led

Him, first and last among us, to dispense

With l’arbitraire du signe and instead

Bestow God’s signatures. Thus would commence

The poets’ endless quest for what might wed


Sound, sense and reference in a union blessed

By the old Cratylist belief that signs

Might once again reveal themselves possessed

Of such Adamic power. When this combines

With lyric feelings of the sort expressed

In (let’s admit) the most effective lines

From Brooke’s Grantchester poem – like the rest

Of those whose hybrid character defines


‘War poetry’ pre-Owen and Sassoon,

And all too often since – the mixture’s apt

To stir emotions through an opportune

Deployment of the language-functions mapped

By formalists as an almighty boon

To poets and recruiting-sergeants wrapped

In words like flags. That’s why the more rough-hewn

Verse-forms and rhythms nowadays adapt


So readily to what the ear perceives

As beauty’s crying need to give the beast

Its chance, or anyway be sure it leaves

Some space where verse-disorder can at least

Find elbow-room. That’s also why what ‘heaves

The heart into the mouth’ – what old Lear ceased

To credit far too late – is that which weaves

A story-line whose mob-appeal’s increased


Ten-fold by those well-practised verse techniques

Which prompt the disaffected to resist

Their suasive force by all the Brechtian tweaks

Of rhyme and rhythm that contrive to twist

The sense around and skew whatever seeks

To reinforce the customary gist

Of martial oratory with verse that speaks

Only those noble lies that serve as grist


To some warmonger’s mill. And yet, and yet,

How should we hope to figure out what’s true

In poetry, or even – just to let

The Larkin qualifier have its due,

Not wholly untrue – if the meter’s set

At zero deviance from what will do

In daily chatter? Then it’s a safe bet

That, since such attributes are now taboo,


All remnant rhymes or half-rhymes will be held

Just chance events, or put down to some sad

Since past-fixated practice, or expelled

From poet-school as witnessing a bad

Since rhyme-fixated ear. Though they rebelled,

Those anti-prosodists, against what had

By then such false allure as might have quelled

Those poets’ songs at source or sent them mad

Through formal servitude, still they’d have hit

A truer key-note if they’d picked the route

That led to Owen’s off-rhymes as the grit

In his best pearls, or chosen to permute

The rhyme-rules so as each time to commit

A well-judged breach of concord and so suit

Medium to message in an age unfit

For ampler harmonies. Let’s not impute


Some failure of poetic nerve or lapse

Into false consciousness should poets opt

To use verse-forms that, though they may set traps

For less attentive readers, might have stopped

Those readers, plus some poets – Brooke perhaps –

From doing war-work elegantly propped

By classic rhyme and meter. If this taps

A formal drive we moderns should have swapped


For manners less amenable, that’s not

To play Cassandra to the greatest gift

That rhyme and meter bring with them, like plot

In fiction, one that promises to lift

The curse of mythic claims to know the lot

Back to year zero then down through each shift

In Being’s tone. Rather, they help us spot

The sorts of claim where Being is likelier miffed


At such portentous talk but also those

Where an off-rhyme or rhythmic twist athwart

The metric pulse conveys to one who knows

How poems work that this must be the sort

Of verse, like Owen’s, to help diagnose

What shock first cracked rhyme’s bell were we but taught

Such hermeneutic tact as might disclose

Where things went wrong. The lessons here, in short:


Watch out when rhyme’s seduction starts to lead

The mind on etymo-poetic tracks

Since that’s where (vide Heidegger) there breed

Monsters in plenty. Still we should relax

The veto just so far as to concede

How verse-forms might not merely fill the cracks

In culture’s edifice but meet a need

Unmet by any poetry that lacks


A sense of rhyme’s beneficence or feel

For meter’s gift to thought. Else it’s as if

We took the Schoenberg line as a done deal,

Made a fixed rule of his high-profile tiff

With tonal harmony, and set our seal

Of musical approval on no riff

Or note-row that betrayed a flagging zeal

For atonality. So there’s a whiff


Of self-denying ordinance or sheer

Perversity about the drive against

Those formal features that, vers-libristes fear,

Will leave the realm of poetry so fenced

Around with props and outworks that to clear

Them off’s the Sisyphean task commenced

Each time from scratch by those at the frontier

Where art has to negotiate its tensed


Encounter with Apollo. Thus what tends

To shield it from exposure to the ‘air

Of a new planet’ (Schoenberg) and so lends

Fresh courage to the tribe of derrière-

Gardistes is just what sundry later trends

Of free verse helped to propagate since they’re

Intent on smoothing out all that offends

A cautious ear and mind whose only care


Is not to interact in risky ways

That might expose their partnership to some

Full-scale dérèglement. It’s here rhyme plays

Its duplex role through sound-effects that come

Most often as the tribute music pays

To speech in a well-tuned sensorium

But sometimes, as in Owen, out-of-phase

With any vibes remotely tuned to drum





Up sentiments in that heroic vein

That Plato said defined the only mode

Of music fit to hear. The vocal grain

Of rhyme, once brushed against, may then encode

Resistance to the grand-heroic strain

Of thought or feeling with a force that’s owed

To its still pitching camp on rhyme’s terrain

Now mined with off-rhymes ready to explode.


By this stage, reader, you’ll be quick to catch

Me out in having taken pains to rhyme

Ear-charmingly, and making sure to match

Speech-stress with metric pulse, while all the time

Admonishing that poets not attach

Such weight to mere effects of verbal chime

Or fluent verse-technique. Let me dispatch

That point with this tu quoque: think what I’m


Essaying here, then think of what they did,

In verse, the Owens and Sassoons, to stave

Off horrors such that pity might forbid

Some Dante redivivus to engrave

Their truth in words that opened wide the lid

On sufferings worse than even God could crave,

That stoker of infernos. It’s the quid

    Pro quo of verse-redemption that they save,


Those poets, from co-option by the force

Of habit, usage, rhythm, rhyme, or all

Thought-regimens that coax us to endorse

The way things are. These readily enthral

Our morals, like our language, to some source

Of wisdom or authority on call

When needed since, with custom’s late divorce

From conscience, every case is apt to fall


Under some code or other. So it’s crass

(Forgive me, reader) to suppose my verse

Must risk a flat performative impasse

Should it flunk Conrad’s dictum to ‘immerse

In the destructive element’, amass

The bitter truths accrued from Adam’s curse,

To Auden’s ‘history may say alas’,

And through discordia concors then disburse


Scant reparation. Hence the tribute paid

By Owen’s ars poetica to both

The savagery those clashing rhymes portrayed

And the farewell to it (‘My hands were loath

And cold’). Most likely a denouement they’d

Reject, the pacifists, since it’s the sloth

Of sheer war-weariness that’s here displayed

And not, as might be hoped, the heartfelt troth


Of one who finds ‘kill or be killed’ at last

A deathwatch maxim that indeed pertains,

Like Maxim guns, to a benighted past

Or kingdom of the blind. That’s why the strains

Show up in verse-forms not so much recast

As wrenched to fit what little now remains

Of their old dignity and so hold fast,

Despite the language-ravaging campaigns


Of neo-barbarism, to the chance

That in such broken rhymes there might endure

Something of Psyche’s strength to look askance

At each new threat. What vanquishes the pure

In heart, bloodline or diction may enhance

That strength and help such hybrid types ensure

Survival through the half-averted glance

That joins with subtlest mindset to secure


Just the apotropaic power required

To ward off swarming horrors from the sleep

Of reason. Better still it not get tired

For lack of formal exercise to keep


On the qui vive against those long-expired

Verse-genres now retailing on the cheap,

Yet also have its rhythmic nerve-ends fired

Or its imagination take a leap


Not, or not only, at the usual sorts

Of poet-prompt but at the kinds that bare

A nerve so raw that rhyme itself contorts

Into strange couplings that can seem to share

No more with old ideas of what comports

With what than we’ve good warrant to compare

Wars new and old. And so it self-aborts,

Old rhyme, or else attempts to self-repair


Only to self-transform into a stun-

Grenade with pin drawn ready to be thrown

Back in and finish any work undone

In war’s long harrowing of the border-zone

Where rhyme and reason merge. If, then, there’s none

Of that discordant music in my own

Traversal it’s because this mother’s son

Wrote, thankfully, of things he’d never known.