Waxing lyrical

An Introduction to English Poetry

James Fenton <em>Viking, 138pp, £14.99</em>

ISBN 0670911003

Here is a book with a simple title that conceals great ambiguities within its two baldly associated terms: what is English poetry? What, for that matter, is poetry? The first question is dealt with in chapter one, grandiloquently entitled "The History and Scope of English Poetry" (it occupies pages 1 to 9). As a former professor of poetry at Oxford, Fenton must know a thing or two about this. English poetry, he asserts, begins "some time around the reign of Henry VIII". Chaucer, let alone the Gawain or Beowulf poets, are excluded, as they are not readily comprehensible to us today as English. No matter that most anthologies of English poetry tend to start around 1300, or that there is such a thing as The Oxford Book of Medieval English Verse.

As for scope, that's as broad as the global spread of the language itself. "When a North American, an Australian, an Indian or a Jamaican writes a poem in English, that poem enters the corpus of English poetry." Fenton does not stop to consider whether the English that is spoken in, say, the Bronx or Port of Spain is readily comprehensible as such to a reader in Aberdeen or Delhi.

The other question - what is poetry? - is one of life's great imponderables. Fenton (who has written libretti for operas, as well as poetry) wants as broad a definition as possible. The roots of song and poetry, after all, are intertwined, so why not allow rap and other popular, music-based forms to be called poetry? (Whether they are good poetry is another question altogether.)

In order for the term to be meaningful, however, we have to decide on some criteria for delimiting poetry from other kinds of writing, or vocalising. This is where poets themselves oft wax grandiose: they talk about poetry as "language in orbit" (Seamus Heaney), as "a zoo in which you keep demons and angels" (Les Murray), as being "born of speech and silence" (Paul Durcan). All very nice, but it doesn't help us with the strict issue of taxonomy. "The voice is raised, and that is where poetry begins," Fenton tells us. Well, if you ask me, that's where football chants begin. And much as one admires the wit and technical finesse in such terrace anthems as "If I had the wings of an angel/and the arse of a big black cow,/I'd fly over Burnley tomorrow/and shit on the bastards below", it's, well, not quite Milton.

These discussions are confined to the first two chapters. The rest of the book is mainly taken up with prosody, which is fine for those who take an interest in such things (I do, as it happens, and anyone who writes poetry should, too). Fenton explains the various elements of English metre clearly and effectively, with well-chosen examples. The trouble is, there isn't really anything new to say on the subject. And even then, the balance is a little odd. I mean, the trochee is without doubt a fascinating animal; I'm as big a fan as the next chap. But two whole chapters on it? There is, to be fair, a brief but interesting discursus on some obscure classical measures, the mollosus and the dochmiac, which you won't readily come across elsewhere but, as Fenton admits, their application is limited, their relevance disputable. Not unlike his book.

Adam Newey is the New Statesman poetry editor