As I wrote yesterday, Oscar Wilde might have been talking about poetry
itself when he said that American and England were "divided by a common
language." And one area in which poetry is conspicuously divided by
commonalities is in the use of good old rhyme and metre.
The division lies in the fact that, at least in mainstream practice, it ain't really an issue over here: the division never really happened. And it has no political, and certainly no party-political, implications. You lose no street-cred for it - unless you're in some high modernist cabal in Cambridge, and even there I'm sure you could pull it off if you wanted to, and had the knack. The practice of poetry is broad, the mainstream is broad, and the border with the "innovative" or "avant" is increasingly unmarked.
Michael Donaghy, the Irish-born American poet (and erstwhile editor of the Chicago Review) who lived in London, pointed to this fact when he said, a bit plaintively, "But the old formalists never went away!" In the UK there have always been state-of-the-art poets writing partly, or largely, mainly, or exclusively, in rhyme and metre. It is, as it has always been, still used as a rousing basis for protest poetry. Names I can think of off the top of my head include James Fenton and Christopher Logue (both anti-war in the sixties), as well as Adrian Mitchell, who sadly died at Christmas. (Here is a stanza from his final poem, written two days before he died:
Alphabet Soup was all my joy!
From Dreadfast up to Winnertime
I swam, a naked Pushkinboy
Up wodka vaterfalls of rhyme...)
Donaghy himself was a polymath who brought his love of traditional Irish music to bear on a poetry that was radical in its originality and delicacy (and he also wrote free verse, sestinas, prose poems, pastiche, and - under an assumed name - L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poetry):
As fine sand filaments the unclenched hand
Or leaves the palm grit-filmed but crazed, lines end
Across prismatic windscreens. Every friend
A meteorologist's diagram of wind.
Ian Duhig is another example, whose last book, The Speed of Dark, was a staunchly political work based - in tone, theme and form - on a medieval French satire.You could hardly call him a conservative:
Seigneurs et dames, you're welcome all!
I'm just flown in from Charles de Gaulle,
your man-stroke-horse-stroke-King-Fauvel —
your interlocutor as well
with hopes my new verse may enhance
this show from medieval France…
… Europe's seen enough of schism:
two Popes, you prods; its left and right
took turns to reign as day with night
to chase some ism with a wasm.
Rhyme in Britain these days is just as happily ensconced at the performance end of things as in the rarer areas of the page. There is a strong Cockney, rhyming slang, music hall heritage (bad word, I know) over here, and it never - unlike the Hallmark-kitsch you get in the USA - lost its grit. It took me a long time in London to get used to rhyming slang - you expect slang to be based on some kind of meaning, maybe a pun, maybe a synonym - but people really do say "china plate" for "mate" - as in, "Wotcha, me old china". They do say "tea leaf" for "thief." And I really am a septic "...tank" - yank).
What this means is that, down the pub, you're as likely to hear the shaved-headed guy giving you something lively in an ABAB as in a staccato monotone rich with hidden significance. (Humour also plays a big part in it. I suspect, though I have never carried out an examination, that there is generally speaking more humour in British poetry than in American. Because what is called British humour is often very dry or oblique - or based in juxtaposition rather than meaning - it does lend itself easily to poetry.)
This may be part of what Annie Finch meant in her now-famous (over here, anyway) post on Harriet about the UK poetry scene, when she talked about links with tradition. (Or she may have meant links with Keats, Coleridge, Shakespeare...) It may be that what we call the mainstream over here is, negative-like, simply the other side of the fence from the current US mainstream.
Whatever, it does mean that this simple binary code of prosody doesn;t seem to have quite the power to dismay that it has in the States: or, rather, to polarise. I do know plenty of poets who don't write in rhyming metrics because, as they say, they "don't know how." But that's a different thing.
As the Yorkshire poet Tim Turnbull - with another fitting dialectical nod to the sage Wilde - wrote in his poem New Romantic:
On other, brighter days the sense of utter
desolation lifts, the penny drops
and it strikes me that we're all in the gutter
but some of us are gazing at the shops.