At the court of the Shogun Iyenari, it was a tense moment. Hokusai, already well established as a prodigiously gifted artist, was competing with a conventional brush-stroke painter in a face-off judged by the shogun personally. Hokusai painted a blue curve on a big piece of paper, chased a chicken across it whose feet had been dipped in red paint, and explained the result to the shogun: it was a landscape showing the Tatsuta River with floating red maple leaves. Hokusai won the competition. The story is well known but the reaction of the conventional brush-stroke artist was not recorded. It's quite likely that he thought Hokusai had done not much more than register an idea, or, as we would say today, a concept. A loser's view, perhaps; though not without substance. If Hokusai had spent his career dipping chickens in red paint, he would have been Yoko Ono.
But Hokusai did a lot more, and the same applies to ever artist we respect, in any field: sometimes they delight us with absurdly simple things, but we expect them to back it up with plenty of evidence that they can do complicated things as well. And anyway, on close examination the absurdly simple thing might turn out to be achieved not entirely without technique. Late in his career Picasso would take ten seconds to turn a bicycle saddle and a pair of handlebars into a bull's head and expect to charge you a fortune for it, but when he was sixteen he could paint a cardinal's full-length portrait that looked better than anything ever signed by Velazquez. You can't tell, just from looking at the bull's head, that it was assembled by a hand commanding infinities of know-how, but you would have been able to tell, from looking at Hokusai's prize-winning picture, that a lot of assurance lay behind the sweep of blue paint, and that he had professionally observed floating red maple leaves long enough to know that the prints of a chicken's red-painted feet would resemble them, as long as the chicken could be induced to move briskly and not just hang about making puddles.
When we switch this test apparatus to poetry, we arrive quickly at a clear division between poets who are hoping to achieve something by keeping technical considerations out of it, and other poets who want to keep technique out of it because they don't have any. R.F. Langley, one of the school of poets around Jeremy Prynne, died recently. As adept of that school, he had put many dedicated years into perfection the kind of poem whose integrity depends on its avoiding any hint of superficial attraction. Part of one of his poems was quoted in the tribute by the Guardian
obituarist, himself an affiliate of the Prynne cenacle. It was instantly apparent that the poet had succeeded in all his aims:
We leave unachieved in the
summer dusk. There are no
maps of moonlight. We find
peace in the room and don't
ask what won't be answered.
Impeccably bland, resolutely combed for any hint of the conventionally poetic, its lack of melody exactly matched by its lack of rhythm, Langley's poem had shaken off all trace of the technical heritage, leaving only the question of whether to be thus unencumbered is a guarantee of novelty. Hard not to think of how far modern poetry has come since T.S. Eliot continually improved his technical command in order to make his effects by leaving it unemphasized, a vastly different approach to the question:
They are rattling breakfast plates in basement kitchens,
And along the trampled edges of the street
I am aware of the damp souls of housemaids
Sprouting despondently at area gates.
-From Morning at the Window
To write a stanza like that, with no end-rhymes but with a subtle interplay of interior echoes, we tend to assume that the poet needed to be able to write the rhymed stanzas of "Sweeney Among the Nightingales," and then sit on the knowledge. At the time it was written, even the most absolute of enthusiasts for modern poetry would have hesitated to point out the truth - that the stanza was held together by its rhythmic drive - unless he further pointed out that it was also held together by the sophisticated assiduity with which it didn't rhyme. In other words, the whole of English poetry's technical heritage was present in Eliot's work, and never more so than when it seemed free in form.