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Forms and InspirationsVikram Seth
Vol. 10 No. 17 · 29 September 1988

Forms and Inspirations

Vikram Seth

5838 words

The first writing I did – apart from school essays and articles for the school paper – was some poems I wrote when I was unhappily lovestruck at University. They were in very free measures, and, indeed, very free syntax. I had read enough modern poetry by then to convince myself that rhyme and metre were passé, and that, anyway, the fierce and miserable beating of my heart was not to be contained by what Frost, I believe, called, with seeming disparagement, ‘rhymey-dimey stuff’. So, unrhymed and unmetered it all poured out, and since I had no poetic control to replace rhyme and metre, most of it was embarrassingly bad. Luckily I never showed it to anyone at that stage, let alone to its onlie begetter. I was looking through some of my papers in a trunk the other day when I came across these poems, and they made me cringe.

However, among them were a few which for some reason, were not awful. One poem had to do with memories and a dream of trees, and was set in the stanza of Yeats’s ‘The Wild Swans at Coole’. Here is the last stanza of my poem:

Last night, when from that pitted roadway
I wandered as I dreamt,
The trees were bent, hostile, entangled,
Weeds massed, and grass unkempt,
The house locked, and the only key inside,
So ingress was denied.

That, as I said, I can still read without wincing. But I will now embarrass myself by quoting a few lines of a poem I wrote at about the same time which is more typical of my undergraduate writing. I do tell myself, in mitigation, that I was only twenty then: but that fact does not console me much. Here is the beginning of ‘Khamsin: A Sequence’:

From the Khamsin of passion
There is no escape –
Only the greying peace of the silent fields
Will ease my heart.
The effort of owing one’s life to others
Strikes at the root of life.
O, loved as you are,
Have you any rights at all?

Well, that is enough of that. I will move from the callow glory of ‘Khamsin: A Sequence’, and the earlier poem about trees, to a general point. When I look at these two samples now, I discover that when I used a tight metrical or rhyme scheme, I could usually save myself from my own worst idiocies. Because I couldn’t shoot forwards without check, I had to think more slowly. I had to work more; I had to understand what it was I meant to say. Because the rhyme scheme made a kind of sense, I felt that my sentences should do the same. And finally, because particular rhyme schemes carried resonances of particular poets, they seemed to demand a certain minimal standard of respect: of accessible diction, clarity of argument, compression, and honesty of feeling. I couldn’t blather all over the page as I found I could and did when I attempted free verse. Pouring my spirit into a cup into which some poet I admired had poured his, I found I was seized with an energy that came from outside myself. My inspiration was heightened; and because I was ashamed to pour bilge into, say, a stanzaic form hallowed by Yeats, so was the control. And at the end of it, there was often a click, a sense of rightness and completion that I never got when I felt that rhythmically I could do entirely as I pleased. As a result, the experience I had hoped to describe had a better chance of being expressed in a memorable manner.

I don’t think I could have convinced myself of this on my own. Admittedly, my high-schooling in India meant that I had read – thanks also to The Albatross Book of Verse left lying around the house – a great deal of Wordsworth and Tennyson and Shakespeare, and – at least in the classroom – not very much of 20th-century verse, and was therefore susceptible to the music and structure of stanzaic poetry despite my own initial rejection of it.

But when I left my undergraduate university in England for the wilder shores of graduate California, I did not expect this particular susceptibility to be reinforced. I thought, in fact, that I might well be cured entirely of my occasional reactionary lapses into artifice. But as it turned out it was in California that I had the great good fortune to meet two poets, two very different poets, who enabled me to come to terms with the way poetic form and poetic inspiration work to search each other out.

One of these poets was Donald Davie, the other Timothy Steele. Let me talk about Donald first. In the middle of my studies in Economics at Stanford University, I was given the chance to spend a year in the Creative Writing Program in the English Department. I was not at all convinced that creative writing could be taught in the classroom, but I felt I could do with a year’s time to think and write. For two afternoons each week I and about ten of my fellow students would gather for two hours in a book-lined lounge overlooking the huge and sunny Stanford quad, and would seat ourselves around a long oval table. Professor Davie would sit at the head, and the student-poet whose work was to be discussed that day would sit at the foot. A selection from the poet’s work – four poems or so – would have been circulated a couple of weeks previously to the others, so that all of us would have had plenty of time to read it and think about it. Donald Davie, with his somewhat intimidating Yorkshire severity, would make a jovial comment or two, and the proceedings would begin.

There were three parts to the session. First, the poet would read his or her poems aloud, and we would discuss the reading simply as a reading, without going too far into the substance of the poems: ‘Why did you pause before that particular word?’ or ‘You don’t seem to wish to emphasise the line endings – is this because you feel that the half-rhymes do that job sufficiently well?’ and so forth. Donald felt that the crucial oral element in poetry required this training in – or understanding of – the art of reading. The poet in the hot seat would respond to these questions. This process took about ten minutes altogether. Then came the second, and by far the longest, stage: for the next hour and a half, we – the other students – would consider the poems before us and the poet would remain entirely silent, no matter how much he or she was tempted to intervene. We, for our part, would pretend he – let me use ‘he’ – had left the room. In fact, we soon forgot about him. We could not turn to him and say: ‘Why did you use an archaic word in line six in an otherwise informal, even slangy, sentence?’ We had to work it out for ourselves. We couldn’t say: ‘How can your “tongues of passion” at the beginning of stanza two grow “weak-kneed” three lines later?’ We had to see whether the image worked for us. We couldn’t even say: ‘What did you want this poem to mean?’ We had lived with these poems for two or three weeks, and if at the end of that period, separately and in conclave, we couldn’t figure it out, the poet would have to draw his own conclusions. Very rarely did he decide that he was so far ahead of his time that ten tolerably intelligent, reasonably generous, fairly diverse fellow poets couldn’t be expected to fathom his profundities. Donald presided gently but incisively, and made sure that in the course of the discussion, everyone – except the poet – voiced his ideas, his interpretations, his preferences, his opinions The poet got the opportunity of being a privileged listener to the sort of conversation he might otherwise never hear in his life, in which his own work was discussed by his peers at some length in a concentrated and considered manner.

The experience could of course be harrowing. When the third part of the proceedings took place – the ten minutes’ response by the poet to the discussion he had just suffered through – some of us found we were so stupefied by the reaction of the class to our poems that we had nothing to say. There were the corpses of our creations lying dead on the oval table, mauled by the wilful misunderstanding – well, we had to admit it was not quite wilful – of our unseeing fellows. (It was entirely obvious, surely, that the ‘she’ referred to in the poem about the quilt was not the grandmother who was doing the blessing but the granddaughter who was being blessed.) Some of us couldn’t write for months after being subjected to this dissection. But when we did begin to write again, I think it was with a greater assurance – and a greater insistence within ourselves that what we wrote, if it was ever to see the light of day, should in fairness mean something not just to ourselves but to our readers too.

Donald, though gruff, is far from being the high priest of high seriousness, and the sessions were often very funny. But I believe that the overall formality of the proceedings, their immutable structure, had an effect upon my attitude towards poetry. I had – I still have – a great tendency towards flippancy, and I would quite often be satisfied with one of my poems that showed a degree of technical polish even if it said almost nothing at all. During one of my sessions in the hot seat, one of my sprightlier, emptier poems was savaged by the class, gently guided by questions from Donald like: ‘Does any emotion seem invested in this poem at all?’ and ‘Given that this poem is technically accomplished, is it something that we would wish to re-read?’ I squirmed. My rebuttal was resentful. But I hope I learned that in the matter of form and inspiration, the skilful engineering of form was by no means enough.

In order to introduce Timothy Steele – the other poet whose company has deeply influenced me – I’d like to quote a brief poem from his first collection, Uncertainties and Rest. It is called ‘Coda in Wind’.

Now moonlight has defined
The agile spruce and fir,
And though we draw the blind
We hear their dark limbs stir

The mild, familiar air
That we would shut outside
If only we knew where,
Or when, or what, to hide.

I mentioned earlier that my own undergraduate poem about memories and a dream of trees did not make me wince. But the effect of ‘Coda in Wind’ (which is again – at the first level – about trees and reveries) is to send shivers down my spine. It is, to my mind, a great poem, one of the deathless poems of the language, and one of the many curious things about it is that it was written by Timothy Steele when he was an undergraduate – it was, in fact, the first poem by himself that he decided to keep.

When I met Tim, he was teaching at Stanford. He is just a few years older than I am, and I had never heard of him. When I first got to Stanford, I looked up the class offerings in the Time Schedule, and discovered that the English Department was offering an introductory poetry course whose timing conflicted with that of my compulsory core sequence in Macroeconomics. I was disappointed, but decided to visit the English Department to see if I could work something out with the instructors, both named Tim, who shared an office. I entered quite hesitantly, and talked to the corduroy-jacketed, mild-mannered, unbardic young man sitting at the desk closer to the door. This was Timothy Steele.

We agreed to meet once a fortnight or so, and I’d bring some of my poems for him to look at. I was as reticent about this mentally as I was forward in my actions, because my poetry was unabashedly personal: at that stage I believed very much in bicycle-pumping the human heart. This was long before Donald Davie’s classes, and I had no sense of how poems could be analysed, looked at, improved. Tim and I discussed them over a sandwich in the patio at the back of the nearby Coffee House, and I slowly began to look at poetry as not simply an indulgence, a letting off of passionate steam, but as an attempt to crystallise experience, to make from it memorable communication. Tim, in his gentle but uncompromising way, was a great one for tightening things up, for using form to pack things in ice or salt, in Yeats’s memorable phrase. These tightening-up operations, aimed at my poems and suggested in the mildest, most convincing manner, sometimes left me incredulous. In one case I had written a poem in iambic pentameter couplets. Tim went through it with a pencil. ‘It strikes me,’ he said, ‘that the first line is a bit padded here ... and if you cut out this word here, the enjambment that stops on the first syllable of the next line – an awkward device at the best of times – can be avoided.’ This is how the beginning of that poem, as I wrote it, read:

It is a cool, cloud-carpeted but clear
Day. The eucalypti growing here
Are now refreshed, and all along their white
And slender stems appears a violet light.

And this is the version I saw after Tim’s excisions:

It is cloud-carpeted but clear.
The eucalypti growing here
Are now refreshed; along their white
Slim stems appears a violet light.

Before my astonished eyes the pentameter poem, losing a foot in each line, was transformed into tetrameter. Though still no work of art, it was far superior to the raw material it began from: less garrulous, less diffuse, more straightforward. The substance, which had fitted loosely in the five-foot line, was well suited to the four-foot line. The inspiration had found its form.

If I learned from Donald Davie that skill and form were not by themselves enough, what I learned from Timothy Steele was that passion and inspiration, by themselves, were not enough either. I learned this through work on my own poems, of course, but an equally effective lesson came from the work of other living poets who used form. Tim introduced me to the poetry of Philip Larkin, whom again, ignorant economist that I was, I only knew as the compiler of The Oxford Book of Twentieth-Century English Verse. But as I read Larkin (whose poem beginning, ‘The trees are coming into leaf/Like something almost being said,’ has a very similar formal shape to the very different poem that goes, ‘They fuck you up, your mum and dad./They may not mean to but they do’), I began to realise the flexibility as well as the power and memorability of good ‘formal’ verse. And when, after many months of cajoling, I got Tim to show me some of his own poems – he had not at the time published a book – I realised that it was possible for a poet of my own generation to write about contemporary concerns in rhyme and metre – however unfashionable and dated the idea might seem to someone who had not read the actual poems. Timothy Steele has now written two books – neither, unfortunately, yet published in England – but he is a poet of the originality and excellence of Larkin or Hardy or Frost, and in that same direct, humane, moving tradition. In his work I see – and through his work I have learned to see – how form and inspiration can and need to work off each other in any telling, any lasting, work.

Perhaps I should elaborate with examples from poets other than myself what the process of tightening the form of a poem may entail. In the example I gave, a foot was lopped off from each line, and this extreme surgery gave the poem the chance to live. In Wilfred Owen’s ‘Anthem for Doomed Youth’, which in its first draft was in unpadded but unrhymed and slightly irregular pentameter, there was no necessity for this: what he did, for the effect of greater resonance, was simultaneously to regularise the pentameter line, to introduce rhyme, and to alter the feel of the phrases. Here is the first quatrain of the sonnet in its first draft:

What passing-bells for these who die so fast?
– Only the monstrous anger of our guns.
Let the majestic insults of their iron mouths
Be as the requiem of their burials.

Once rhyme was introduced, this became:

What passing-bells for you who die in herds?
– Only the monstrous anger of the guns!
– Only the stuttering rifles’ rattled words
Can patter out your hasty orisons.

Later, the device of rhyme was maintained but the actual rhyme changed:

What passing-bells for these dumb-dying cattle?
– Only the monstrous anger of more guns!
Only the stuttering rifles’ rapid rattle
Can patter out their hasty orisons.

And later still, in the form we know it:

What passing bells for these who die as cattle?
– Only the monstrous anger of the guns.
Only the stuttering rifles’ rapid rattle
Can patter out their hasty orisons.

What is remarkable about this fourth draft is that it is less dense, less compressed than the third draft. We lose the word ‘dumb’, and the word ‘more’, but what we gain is a simplicity, a colloquiality, and thus a generality, that more than compensates for the mere loss of information. ‘Load every rift with ore’ has to be balanced with another critical injunction: ‘Allow the poem to breathe.’

As for examples about the flexibility of form, these are not hard to seek. Those two contrasting poems by Larkin that share a similar (though admittedly not identical) shape are a case in point. The poems of Yeats that use ottava rima – like ‘Among School Children’ or ‘The Circus Animals’ Desertion’ or ‘Sailing to Byzantium’ – could not be more different from the poems of Byron that are the first great works in English in that stanza: ‘Beppo’, ‘A Vision of Judgment’, Don Juan – though here again it might be said that Yeats’s insistent use of off-rhyme almost transforms the stanzaic rules. Then there is the sonnet – and the enormous variety of content it has encompassed. Or, to widen the geographical scope of this discussion, we may consider another tradition, that of one of the very strictest forms, the Chinese ci, a form taken from folk song. In a particular ci form we find lines of unequal but fixed numbers of syllables, with a fixed pattern of tones, repetitions and rhymes. Into this strict structure of lines you fill words. (The choice of terms is telling: equal-lined verse or shi is ‘written’, but the strictly unequal-lined ci is ‘filled’.) This form, predominant throughout the Sung Dynasty (from the tenth to the 13th century), admits a great range of content. Here are two poems, both of which can be sung to the tune and tone pattern of a song that happens to be called ‘As in a Dream’. A feature displayed even by these unrhymed translations (which I have taken from an anthology entitled Sunflower Splendor) is the repetition of a phrase in the fifth line (out of six). The first poem is by a woman, the great poet Li Qingzhao.

Last night, a bit of rain, gusty wind,
a deep sleep did not dispel the last of the wine.
I ask the maid, rolling up the blinds –
but she replies: ‘The crab apple is just as it was.’
         Doesn’t she know?
                   doesn’t she know?
The leaves should be lush and the petals frail.

This is a poem of gentle tipsiness but quite daring eroticism: that last line, ‘The leaves should be lush and the petals frail’ (or, more literally, ‘The green should be stronger and the red weaker’), is usually interpreted as symbolising a man, who supposedly gains strength, and a woman, who supposedly loses it, after they have made love.

The other poem in the same ci form is by a man, the calligrapher, essayist, politician and poet Su Shi, also known as Su Dongpo. This is the way he fills the identical form with his more philosophical inspiration:

Make yourself pure before you purify others.
Myself, I perspire and I pant.
Let me say this to the bathers:
Why not play with your naked body?
Stoop yourself for the world’s every living thing.

I don’t mean to imply by these examples of the flexibility of particular forms that there is not much to choose from among them – that their ability to contain multitudes means that they do not lend a strong flavour of their own to what is being said. ‘Doesn’t she know? Doesn’t she know?’ and ‘Splash! Splash!’, the required repetitions in the fifth line (which in the originals sound much more equal – they are, in each poem, two syllables long), say something in much the same way as do the lines ‘Come away, come away, death’ and ‘Not a flower, not a flower sweet’ (which, interestingly, also appear in an unequal-lined song): they are richer, more evocative, more passionate, than lines that waste no space in what might seem to be redundancy.

I now turn to longer forms – in particular, to the form I have had some recent experience with: the novel in verse. Pushkin’s great novel in verse, Eugene Onegin, which inspired me to try the form, was set in St Petersburg in the 1820s. My own novel, The Golden Gate, is set in California in the 1980s. In the course of telling the story, I allow myself an occasional authorial intrusion. One of these, about a third of the way through the book, is a short apologia for the novel itself, and I will use these stanzas to touch on the question of inspiration in this larger form:


How do I justify this stanza?
These feminine rhymes? My wrinkled muse?
This whole passé extravaganza?
How can I (careless of time) use
The dusty bread moulds of Onegin
In the brave bakery of Reagan?
The loaves will surely fail to rise
Or else go stale before my eyes.
The truth is, I can’t justify it.
But as no shroud of critical terms
Can save my corpse from boring worms,
I may as well have fun and try it.
If it works, good; and if not, well,
A theory won’t postpone its knell.


Why, asks a friend, attempt tetrameter?
Because it once was noble, yet
Capers before the proud pentameter,
Tyrant of English. I regret
To see this marvellous swift metre
Demean its heritage, and peter
Into mere Hudibrastic tricks,
Unapostolic knacks and knicks.
But why take all this quite so badly?
I would not, had I world and time
To wait for reason, rhythm, rhyme
To reassert themselves, but sadly
The time is not remote when I
Will not be here to wait. That’s why.

These lines and the two or three stanzas surrounding them ask and then answer several questions, but leave several others unasked and unanswered. With respect to a novel in verse, the word ‘form’ can mean two things: the overarching form of a novel at the macro level, and the specific stanzaic form at the micro level. The specific stanzaic form I used – with its strict alternation of masculine and feminine rhyme, its tetrameter, its 14 lines – is borrowed from the sonnet-stanza of Pushkin’s original poem, which is miraculously and fluidly preserved in Charles Johnston’s translation in the Penguin Classics. One would not think that feminine rhyme and tetrameter, which in the English tradition are usually associated with light verse, would be suitable media for a story which I knew would contain both happiness and sadness, both frivolity and (I hoped) deep seriousness, as, for example, in an anti-nuclear speech by a Catholic priest during a peaceful protest outside a weapons research laboratory. But I had found myself in the course of reading Eugene Onegin both laughing out loud and weeping, and so the Onegin sonnet-stanza struck me as being more accommodating, more flexible, than I might at first have imagined.

I accepted that I should follow Pushkin in using tetrameter, not simply because it was a noble metre that had fallen on hard times, but also because it seemed to me to have a narrative propulsiveness that more than compensated for the slight extra difficulty of rhymes more densely spaced than in pentameter. But there was one feature of the Onegin stanza that I feared might well hamstring my inspiration: this was the use of feminine rhyme. English is poor in rhyme compared to, say, Russian, and even poorer in feminine rhyme, rhyme that isn’t stressed on the last syllable. There is a much more pleasant colloquial feel to lines that alternate masculine and feminine rhymes as opposed to lines that use only masculine rhyme, but I was worried that the paucity of feminine rhyming words in English might distort what I wanted to say and the direction that the story wanted to go. What made me finally decide to attempt it anyway was the fact that Charles Johnston, after all, had done it in a translation, with one hand, in effect, tied behind his back. It was his success in this more difficult endeavour that encouraged me not to be too timorous.

How does a verse novel differ from a novel in prose? In an epic poem the characters are divine or heroic, but in my novel in verse – just as in a prose novel – they are fairly ordinary human beings. Clearly the difference does not lie in the characters themselves. But the fact is that verse narrative does not easily admit of detailed description of character, and one needs in this respect a broader, a more impressionistic brush than one needs for a prose novel. A verse novel, besides, is usually quite short as novels go: if it were formatted and printed as if it were prose, the three hundred-odd pages of my novel, for instance, would shrink to a mere hundred. This again constrains the space that can be permitted for certain kinds of character development.

A short novel but a long poem: the fact that it was a poem forced me to be fairly sure of my plot in the first draft. Even changing ‘April’ to ‘September’ in a subsequent draft – a comparatively painless substitution in a prose paragraph – would mean a great deal of unravelling of rhyme and metre in a poetic stanza. Here is another, somewhat unfavourable, difference between prose and verse.

Why then, considering the constraints, use verse at all? The answer for me is plain: the emotional power of verse is something that prose cannot, at similar length, match. Verse enhances: when it works, it makes amusing passages more amusing, sadder passages sadder. And a verse novel allows greater scope for natural, unobtrusive variation of tone and mood than a prose novel does: the unity, to some extent, is provided by the repeating template of the stanza, and divagation or authorial entry are not as jarring as they might be in a less cyclical form. This is not to say that one needs to avail oneself of every possibility of a given form: I use authorial observation far less than the work that inspired me. But in this, too, I have a precedent: Eugene Onegin has far less authorial commentary than the picaresque and delightfully digressive Don Juan which was its initial inspiration. The proportion of different kinds of writing in a work must reflect its author’s voice: to attempt to imitate another author’s mix of tone would be an impossibility, and, unlike the attempt to imitate another author’s form, psychologically servile.

I am now engaged on a novel or series of novels set in India, this time very firmly in prose. What the peculiarities of that form – the prose novel – are I will in time find out, and it is best not to speculate about the difficulties and pleasures of what one is at present engaged on. But writing a novel of any kind is an exciting business, and forces one to acquire or hone abilities suited to that form. When I compare the writing of any novel, prose or verse, with, say, the writing of a travel book, what comes home to me is that it is not sufficient to have an eye for detail, a feel for structure, the power of description, a sense of inspiration. What a novel requires in great measure is invention, something that a good travel book ought really to eschew. In my Tibetan travel book, From Heaven Lake, the story line was the hitch-hiking journey itself; in my verse novel I had to invent the plot. In the travel book, the characters, colourful or colourless, were the people I met along the way; in the novel I had to invent them or compose them or imagine them. In the travel book, the story moved in a single line, following the traveller across Sinkiang and Tibet; in the novel, there were several lines – the threads carrying different characters Simultaneously along in real time – which had to be intertwined in such a way that the reader didn’t forget about those who had last been mentioned several chapters back. Finally, in the travel book the interest, the pacing, the suspense were to some extent in-built: would the traveller make it to Lhasa, and if so, how? In the novel, on the other hand, the surprises, the climaxes, the buildups, the necessary uneventful breathing-spaces needed, through a sense of pacing and balance – sometimes unconscious, sometimes quite deliberate – to be created without the support of actual remembered event.

Last summer, after reading some of Richard Wilbur’s wonderfully lively translations of Molière, I was inspired to write a play set in London that dealt with the shenanigans inside a publishing firm threatened by American takeover. The play would be in alexandrine couplets, I decided, partly in deference to Molière, partly because, having tried a four-foot line in The Golden Gate, I thought it might be enjoyable to try a six-foot one. (Like most poets in English, I had written far too much pentameter, I told myself.) I completed a first draft last year, but it needs a good deal more work. While writing it, I was prepared for certain economic or practical constraints that would impinge upon the form. I couldn’t have more than six or seven characters, since almost no one can afford to put on a play with more. The number of scene changes had to be limited. The length needed to be kept under two hours, unless for very good reason. And so on. But what I was not prepared for – and had to discover for myself – were the obvious constraints on the imagination: I couldn’t comment, as I could in the novel, on the action or the scene or the characters, unless I had someone playing the part of a Greek chorus – and this I decided would not work. Nor could I express what people were thinking, unless I allowed asides and soliloquies: upon consideration, I decided that soliloquies were fine for my play, but asides not. Then I got involved in the mechanics of getting characters on and off-stage while maintaining continuity; if too many transitions conform to the same pattern, the artifice of a play is too nakedly exposed. I would hope that the reader or viewer would be entirely unconscious of these behind-the-scenes technical manoeuvres. But what to me as a writer was almost as intriguing as discovering what the characters would do were these discoveries of what the form would allow, discoveries no doubt obvious to someone who has studied even the elements of play writing, but entirely surprising to me as a novice.

What, I am sometimes asked, are the advantages of writing in several forms instead of concentrating on one? I am not sure that I have a good answer.

The chef who cooks beef, chicken, pork,
Duck, mutton, ham and veal
Cooks chicken better than the chef
Who cooks it at each meal.

But whether that culinary logic – the logic of inspirational and technical cross-pollination – carries over into literature is not obvious. For my own part, I find the possibilities of different genres attract me – I would be bored if I were confined to one, and this boredom would show in what I wrote; on the other hand, versatility has always raised natural suspicions of dilettantism, of ‘not yet having found one’s voice’. Perhaps one really should stick to one’s strongest genre, as Henry James found out when he was hissed off the stage as a playwright. Most fine writers are known for excelling in one particular category: those like Pushkin, who wrote everything from erotic poetry to a history of Pugachev’s rebellion, or Goethe, who encompassed both the prose of Werther and the drama and poetry of Faust, are rarer than those who like Sophocles or Dostoevsky or George Eliot were inspired to concentrate on a single major form. Eventually it is best left to the writer’s temperament: different strokes for different folks; what works, works; on this subject I agree with all the clichés.

There is one unmitigated advantage and one unmitigated disadvantage to writing in diverse forms. The advantage is that the critics cannot get at you where it hurts most. When my prose novel is published, it may flop. It may flop badly. It may be shredded by the critics. But they will not be able to compare it, in any meaningful sense, to The Golden Gate. They will not be able to use a previous success to emphasise the incompetence into which I will have sunk. The worst they can do is say it is bad. They cannot shake their heads in judicious regret and murmur: ‘Ah, what a falling off was there.’ The disadvantage of changing one’s form is more obvious. It is that your publishers, when they find out what you’ve been up to, will drop you like a hot potato. The publishers of my travel book jettisoned me when I offered them my book of poems. The publishers of my book of poems threw me out when I sent them The Golden Gate. And I have no doubt that the publishers of The Golden Gate will drop a tear and sharpen an axe when I send them my dissertation in economic demography, which I am thinking at present of writing in sestinas.

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Vol. 10 No. 18 · 13 October 1988

May I make one reservation with respect to Vikram Seth’s lucid and interesting essay on his poetry (LRB, 29 September), with its persuasive apologia for regular form and rhyme? In his useful discussion of the first four lines of Owen’s ‘Anthem for Doomed Youth’ he rightly says that the fourth version he quotes is ‘less dense, less compressed than the third draft’ and concludes: ‘ “Load every rift with ore" has to be balanced with “Allow the poem to breathe." ’ The points are well made, and I take them. But I wonder if the virtues he argues for must invariably be enshrined in regular forms and rhymes – which is, I believe, the implication of much of this essay. Metre and rhyme do not necessarily produce clearer thought or feeling than free verse. I am not ‘against’ the use of regular form; the poems of mine LRB has printed are that way. But Mr Seth’s comparison of his own free verse with work of his in regular, stanzaic forms does not establish that the verse was better only because it was regular and metrical. He chose one solution, and found it worked. To argue from such a success that regular and stanzaic forms are the better or even the most likely approach seems unrealistic. It may be, for instance, that a success in regular form – producing the effect of ease – may have preempted an even more substantial success in another form. Also: I wonder if the regular and metrical forms he apparently prefers do not only accommodate but encourage authorial intrusion and direction. I don’t know, but I do wonder.

Jon Silkin
Midlothian, Scotland

Vol. 10 No. 20 · 10 November 1988

In Vikram Seth’s article ‘Forms and Inspirations’ (LRB, 29 September), stanza 5.3 of his poem The Golden Gate should have read as follows:

How do I justify this stanza?
These feminine rhymes? My wrinkled muse?
This whole passé extravaganza?
How can I (careless of time) use
The dusty bread moulds of Onegin
In the brave bakery of Reagan?
The loaves will surely fail to rise
Or else go stale before my eyes.
The truth is, I can’t justify it.
But as no shroud of critical terms
Can save my corpse from boring worms,
I may as well have fun and try it.
If it works, good; and if not, well,
A theory won’t postpone its knell.

Editors, ‘London Review’

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