What do you think? Youngish children whom I sometimes teach define it by saying that it
rhymes and goes dum-di- dum-di dum. Nope. Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star goes dum-di- dum-
di-dum perfectly; and it rhymes impeccably. But it isn’t poetry. It’s not even a poem. It’s just
Verse. And Carroll’s Twinkle, Twinkle Little Bat*, although glorious, isn’t poetry either. It’s
But we have to be careful – you can’t label either version of Twinkle as verse merely
because it sounds daft and pointless. The original Twinkle is actually sensible, albeit banal.
And Carroll’s Twinkle, though insanely, enjoyably silly, isn’t nourishing as poetry must be,
beyond a quick giggle.
There is poetry that sounds daft and pointless but which isn’t. For example, E.E Cummings’
Anyone Lived in a Pretty How Town** which one enters with disorientation, ends up,
if given half a chance, being touching and true. It never stops being weird, but it stops
seeming daft. Both versions of Twinkle are mechanically spot on and therefore satisfy our
ear: both have seven metrical feet per line, both have AABB rhyme schemes. But however
four-square they are to hear, (which is what the child of every age enjoys), they are without
other nutrition. They stay daft. One can’t develop them; unlike E.E. Cummings, they don’t
move from inanity to nourishment. They’re just verse.
There is also intelligent verse which sounds like poetry but isn’t. From time to time I avidly
read Noel Coward’s Collected Verse (Methuen). I read it because Coward is a virtuoso of
metre and rhyme, and he’s intricate, articulate. But Methuen is right, it’s mostly verse not
poetry; it does not develop.
It may be that Poetry, in order to be called such, must somehow interact with its hearers or
readers. Coward’s highly sophisticated stuff is mostly closed and finished; clever, technically
sound, entertaining, but nevertheless statement, not exploration. There are exceptions: his
I Am No Good at Love*** is excruciatingly open, raw and insightful. It is a poetry on which
we may endlessly feed.
Thanks for reading this. Another day we’ll look at how dum-di dum and rhyming can come in
handy. But for now I leave you with a question about the piece below: Poetry – or Verse?
When I am sad and weary
When I think all hope has gone
When I walk along High Holborn
I think of you with nothing on Adrian Mitchell
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