Thursday, 18 May 2017

Book Review - A primer of English Versification by James McAuley

A primer of English versification by James McAuley

Sydney: Sydney University Press, 1967

James McAuley's reputation has suffered many slings and arrows over the years, some of which are undeserved. Most famously remembered as being one half of the Ern Malley hoax, and perhaps less so for being editor of the right-wing magazine Quadrant, which received money from the Congress for Cultural Freedom (which had links to the CIA). Cassandra Pybus wrote a vitriolic book about him, which hasn't helped his reputation.

It is a shame, because he was a fine poet, and thoughtful critic. His bent was to formality in verse - which explains his participation in the Malley fiasco - and over the years he wrote several useful books about poetry.

A primer of English versification has many good points, the first being its short length. At 60 pages, it is a book that can be read often, and repays re-reading. As the title suggests, the book is a first-stop for those trying to understand English verse, particularly metre and rhythm. McAuley gives us brief descriptions of basic metre, stress and sound, and how they add up along with meaning to create poetry. Poetry is a tension between all these things, and McAuley shows that by careful use of all these factors, the poet can create something new and beautiful.

What I particularly like about this book, after spending years in University unproductively scanning lines, is how McAuley puts all these factors into perspective. If the verse is in iambic pentameter, don't stress too much about feet that don't seem to fit - look at the whole verse, not just a single line, and the metre should be obvious: don't worry too much about small changes. In fact it's often the small changes to a metre that give the verse its energy.

If you are someone who wants to understand verse better, or just needs reminding of stuff you might already know, this little book is worth hunting out and keeping on your desk.

Highly recommended.

Cheers for now, from
A View Over the Bell

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