Through considering prosody, the art of metrical composition in words, we encounter perhaps the most general issue concerning artistic creation, the necessary constraints imposed by rules, either adopted or invented, and the temptation occasionally to break them, or more decisively break with them. The challenge to find a way between the rigidity that lawfulness imposes, and the chaos into which freedom is liable to descend if lawlessness predominates. My favourite expression of this dilemma is from a traditional standpoint and comes in Goethe’s Sonnet, Nature and Art, superbly translated here by Michael Hamburger. Art stands for daily effort and nature for freedom. The dialectic is resolved in the concluding sestet.
So too all growth and ripening of the mind: To the pure heights of ultimate consummation In vain the unbound spirit seeks to flee. Who seeks great gain leaves easy gain behind. None proves a master but by limitation And only law can give us liberty.
Auden, who in later life described himself as a minor trans-Atlantic Goethe, expressed the same thought in prose. ‘ I am thankful that my first master (Hardy) did not write in free verse for I might have been tempted to believe that free verse is easier to write than stricter forms, where as I now know it is far more difficult’. Breaking rules is likely to be self indulgent and a failure. When is it justified? In the gifted young who wish, in the slogan of an impatient Ezra Pound to ‘Make it new.’ The rules of artistic creation are not as binding as the laws of society, but some artistic experimentation produces almost as much outrage as law breaking. And over time in any vital society, laws will change as well as the assumptions of art, usually in connected ways. One of the most radical novels of the twentieth century is Robert Musil’s The Man Without Qualities. The joke is that the State is preparing a vast and pretentious celebration of the reign of Franz Josef, and his indestructible Empire on the eve of the outbreak of the Great War which will sweep it away. Fate played a cruel joke on Musil, the novel was unfinished when he died in 1942 and he was far from reaching the events of 1914 despite the enormous length of his manuscript. One cannot help feeling the novel had become 95% of his reason for living. Perhaps the most successful of the great radical prose masterpieces of the early twentieth century is Joyce’s Ulysses, which superbly illustrates Pound’s imperative that poetry should be at least as good as prose. In this novel the prose is thrillingly superior to much of the poetry being written at that time. Sadly Pound’s Cantos, despite flashes of brilliance, are a sprawling chaos, and the poetry rarely attains the musicality of Joyce’s prose. What I most remember when I first read Ulysses in my twenties was speed, fleetness was the word I told myself, as the narrative careered around Dublin, capturing the exhilaration of being young and alive. Molly Bloom’s monologue is better than the already excellent dramatic monologues of Browning. It led me to feel there was a futility in trying to draw a definite line between prose and poetry, as futile as discussing whether viruses are animate or inanimate. Now free verse is everywhere as are prose poems. Masterpieces are as a rare now as ever, but the poetry scene is vibrant in the UK and indeed here in Bristol where I live.
I would like to draw a parallel with modern jazz. After the death of Charlie Parker, bebop coarsened somewhat into hard bop, more rhythmically insistent and less lyrical. Then in the early sixties there was another flowering, of which one element was the free jazz of Ornette Coleman. I found his music immensely exciting, if uneven. There was a freshness and a lyric gift. Looking back, I don’t think it quite delivered what it promised, wonderful though it was for a few years. And I think the problem was to do with a lack of tension, passages of great beauty but somehow unresolved. As Paul Desmond said when he interviewed Charlie Parker, ‘ You always tell a story.’ It seems I need stories, meanings even in the most abstract of arts, music. ‘Only law can give us liberty.’