Many years ago I chanced upon Louis MacNeice’s book-length poem Autumn Journal1. Written in 24 sections from August to December 1938, it recorded his state of mind as World War II loomed closer. I loved how the undernotes of coming doom rolled forward with quiet clarity. The lines intentionally avoided a strict iambic pentameter, but soothed with their continuous iambic-like rhythm.

Recently, I was delighted to discover MacNeice’s book of essays Modern Poetry, first published the year before Autumn Journal. In it, he defended free verse against literary critic G.M. Young, who argued that poets should compose in recognized metres.

To take the extreme case of ‘free verse’—Mr. Young suggests that it is only distinguished from prose by its typographical arrangement on the page. But such an arrangement deploys the lines and phrases in such a way that we at least get a better view of them than if they were printed as prose. The words are more poised than in prose; they are not only, like the words in typical prose, contributory to the total effect, but are to be attended to, in passing, for their own sake. In typical prose each sentence forgets the sentence preceding.2

Poised”—what a discerning characterization of good free verse’s word choices as ripe with meaning, which deserve notice in their own right. Such a contrast to prose sentences hurtling forward, to the next idea and the next.

The book also yielded another gem after my own heart, on the healing power of creating: “writing poetry is the way that the poet returns to normal”.3


1. Louis MacNeice, Autumn Journal (London: Faber and Faber, 1939). 

2. MacNeice, “Rhythm and Rhyme”, Modern Poetry: A Personal Essay (New York: Haskell House Publishers Ltd., 1969), pp. 115-116.

3. MacNeice, “The Personal Factor”, op. cit., p. 77.