I'd. The verb.

by Michael Peverett

This essay consists of two blog posts, the first from summer 2017 and the second from about a year later.


Post 1. I'd.

This post isn't so much a post - at least not yet - as a construction site. It aims to collate, investigate, speculate, pontificate and posture about an observation that I made many years ago but first mentioned on the Britsh-poets forum a year or so back.

The observation, in very crude terms, is this:

"I'd" (and other related words such as "she'd", "we'd" and "they'd") are very popular words in modern mainstream poetry in English. Contrariwise, these words almost never appear in experimental/avant-garde/alternative poetry in English.

This appears to be the case even though few if any practitioners are aware of it. So I see this as to some extent a matter of sociolinguistics.

Response on the forum was muted or hostile, perhaps because few poets like to think their diction is unconsciously determined, or perhaps because of ideological resistance to the idea that there are different poetries, or because the word mainstream is deemed to be always pejorative.

[On this last point, I will only assert here that both these poetic camps have existed for over half a century and there is a formidable tradition of important poets in each camp (as well as plenty of poets that nobody has ever taken much notice of). The claim that one camp is as a whole better than the other camp is not easy to defend convincingly.]

Anyway, here's the middle part of Andrew McMillan's "Dancer", which was the Friday Poem on Radio 3 (in this case it was also aligned with Radio 3's Gay Britannia celebration). I'm not sure where McMillan's line breaks occur (the poem won't be published until next year) so I've simply cut the text into lengths.


Even after rehearsal when I invite him
back to the flat to shower before the night's performance
he moves through the rooms so carefully
as though deciding a way to best inhabit them

I'd imagined he would be too beautiful to be curious but
each shelf and photo receives his audience of wet hair
tight body where each part's connection to another part is visible
his battered feet leaving their notations on the false wood floor


(It isn't relevant to what I'm going to say about them, but I do like these lines very much.)

"I'd" is present here, and it reveals the mainstream tradition in which this poem functions; that is, the poem is more Mark Doty than John Riley (to name a couple of poets that have been reported as McMillan faves).


So, why? 

There are three elements to our collocation: Pronoun, contraction, and verb/tense.

The combination is more important than the individual elements. A pronoun, an idiomatic contraction, and even a past perfect might all crop up in experimental poetry, but the presence of all of them together tends to go with a stable narrative frame: a frame in which "I" ("She", He"...) has a certain definite identitiy, including a previous history (promoting such tenses as the past perfect "I had + PP" or past continuous "I had been + vb + ING" or past habitual "I would + INF", all of which can be contracted to "I'd".) Contrariwise the "I" ("She", "He"...) of experimental poetry often exists only in the now, as an experiencing entity; as often as not, we have no idea who I/she/he is.

"I'd", then, is a collocation that appears in anecdotes. But not just any sort of anecdote. A dramatic or extraordinary event may not need a carefully constructed backstory. Unliterary narrators, sticking to the strict sequence of events or speech-acts, would see it as a failure of art to have to slot in achronological information in the past perfect. The collocation comes into its own in those unsensational stories in which the significance resides more in an accumulation of psychology and individual experience than in the event itself; even more so when the narration deviates artfully from the timeline in a Conradian manner; more so still when the past is conceived as a realm of greater significance and interest than the now. [This is obviously not a factor in McMillan's poem, but it's very much a factor in the wider world of poetry, whose typical audiences (and practitioners) are nearly as elderly as church congregations.]

The act of contraction itself is a less important element. Nevertheless, it can be associated with a conversational, idiomatic, informal diction, such as is usual in mainstream poetry, which aspires to be taught in schools.  (On my TEFL course we're encouraged always to teach our students to use the contracted forms -- though not when "had" is the simple past tense of  "to have", as in the Heaney quote below.) The mainstream poetry scene is heavily imbued with the belief that regional accents go with good poetry and that it's good thing if a poetic text suggests the distinctive inflections of an individual voice. [Experimental poetry tends to be informal too, even aggressively so, but it's far less committed to seeking the most idiomatic and natural ways of saying something.]

These more or less relevant generalizations arise from the observation, but they don't fully explain it. To go further is to note the poetic diction that exists as much now as in the eighteenth century; both the mainstream poet and (perhaps more damagingly) the experimental poet have each an unconscious poetic diction, which is a selection of vocabulary and syntactic forms that comes to hand when making up the next line. The choice is not as free as it seems. This individual poetic diction is what the "source text" of Mac Low's diastic verse is intended to replace. In fact the poetic diction is a kind of source text already; that is, it is limited though ample, and it isn't, for the most part, unique to the individual who writes, but is shared with other poets who write the same kind of poetry.


"I'll have been working here for eight years, come the end of November..."

Poetry in English, no doubt, has always favoured a straitened selection of verb forms. Tenses such as the future perfect continuous (as in the sentence above) are part of the standard English toolkit but they are not particularly common in any form of discourse, and they deter poets in particular because they use so many syllables.

Nevertheless experimental poetry stands out for its excessively narrow range of verb forms. It avoids nearly all the standard tenses, except the simple present, in favour of floating forms (in particular, present participles). This is because of of its willed indefinition of agency and chronology.
Experimental poetry tends to be about the general state of things. From this perspective the verb tends to be a suspect device. It appears as an anthropomorphic piece of publicity about what someone thinks they are doing, or even worse, what they want other people to think they are doing. Experimental poetry believes that the social processes at work outrun this human language of verbs in much the same way that particle physics outruns the common language of time and identity.



William Wordsworth, "The World is Too Much With Us"
.--Great God! I'd rather be
          A Pagan suckled in a creed outworn  ( I would)

Edward Thomas, "Up in the Wind"

But I do wish
The road was nearer and the wind farther off,
Or once now and then quite still, though when I die
I'd have it blowing that I might go with it (I would)

Siegfried Sassoon, "Base Details"
I'd live with scarlet Majors at the Base (I would)

Philip Larkin, "Church Going"
Mounting the lectern I peruse a few
hectoring large-scale verses and pronounce
Here endeth much more loudly than I'd meant... (I had)

Dannie Abse, "Return to Cardiff"
No sooner than I'd arrived the other Cardiff had gone,
smoke in the memory, those but tinned resemblances,
where the boy I was not and the man I am not
met, hesitated, left double footsteps, then walked on. (I had)

Derek Walcott, "The Fortunate Traveller"
I'd light the gas and see a tiger's tongue. (I would)

Derek Mahon, "Afterlives"
But the hills are still the same
Grey-blue above Belfast.
Perhaps if I’d stayed behind
And lived it bomb by bomb
I might have grown up at last
And learnt what is meant by home. (I had)

Mark Doty, "Source"
I'd been traveling all day, driving north
—smaller and smaller roads, clapboard houses
startled awake by the new green around them—  (I had)
I'd pulled over onto the grassy shoulder
of the highway—   (I had)

Ted Hughes, "Epiphany" (from Birthday Letters)
I glanced at him for the first time as I passed him
Because I noticed (I couldn't believe it)
What I'd been ignoring.           
Not the bulge of a small animal
Buttoned into the top of his jacket
The way colliers used to wear their whippets –
But its actual face. (I had)

Peter Porter, "Afterburner"
I'd been raised an Anglican. 'In the Name of the Larder,
the Bun and the Mouldy Toast. (I had)

Moniza Alvi, "I would like to be a dot in a painting by Miro"
I’d survey the beauty of the linescape (I would)

Seamus Heaney, "Two Lorries"
As time fastforwards and a different lorry
Groans into shot, up Broad Street, with a payload
That will blow the bus station to dust and ashes...
After that happened, I'd a vision of my mother,  (I had)

Christopher Reid, "Late"
Of course, I’d forgotten she’d died.
Adjusting my arm for the usual
cuddle and caress (I had)

Carol Ann Duffy, "Salome"
I'd done it before (and doubtless I'll do it again, sooner or later)
woke up with a head on the pillow beside me (I had)

Jo Shapcott, "Mrs Noah: Taken After the Flood"
Now the real sea beats inside me, here, where I'd press fur and feathers if I could. (I would)

Kathleen Jamie, "Glamourie"
When I found I'd lost you -
not beside me, nor ahead,  (I had)

Owen Sheers, "Late Spring"

one-handed, like a man milking,

two soaped beans into a delicate purse,
while gesturing with his other
for the tool, a pliers in reverse

which I’d pass to him then stand and stare
as he let his clenched fist open
to crown them. (I would)

Daljit Nagra, "In a White Town"

That's why
I'd bin the letters about Parents' Evenings,

why I'd police the noise of her holy songs (I would)

Simon Armitage, "Privet"
Because I'd done wrong I was sent to hell (I had)
Roderick Benziger "Piano lessons"

and all I'd hear was the stream's dance
no drip, drop; and I'd feel in league

with my five-year-old self, cocooned in bed,
a bar of light under the door,


Post 2. The verb.

Spruce trees in Klövsjö, Jämtland

[Image source: http://www.arkivcentrumnord.se/skogensarkiv/skogsbruk_text.html. Photo by Rolf Boström.]

This is the name of the popular poetry show on Friday nights on Radio 3,  hosted by Ian McMillan.

Once upon a time, not so long ago, the verb was indeed feted in some poetry circles. Poets like Ted Hughes and Robert Lowell and Seamus Heaney were admired for fierce and forceful verbs, a hint at the vigour of medieval alliterative poetry.

The sea was still breaking violently and night
Had steamed into our North Atlantic Fleet,
When the drowned sailor clutched the drag-net.    (Robert Lowell, "The Quaker Gaveyard at Nantucket")

The apes yawn and adore their fleas in the sun.
The parrots shriek as if they were on fire, or strut
Like cheap tarts to attract the stroller with the nut.... (Ted Hughes, "The Jaguar")

The coarse boot nestled on the lug, the shaft
Against the inside knee was levered firmly.
He rooted out tall tops, buried the bright edge deep
To scatter new potatoes that we picked,
Loving their cool hardness in our hands.  (Seamus Heaney, "Digging")


It's often claimed (and not always by poets) that poetry is the deployment of language at its most strenuous and complex. But this is misleading. Poetry can be markedly complex in certain ways, but this play of forces can only be unleashed if there is, in other respects, an equally marked simplicity.

One valuable  thing I learned from my TEFL course (I've qualified, by the way) was the grammar of English, for example its 12 standard verb tenses in a table (plus all the others that aren't in the table).

I realized that poetry is characterized, probably always has been, by a limited palette of verb forms.
In the modern poetry that I like best, the impoverishment of verb forms is particularly severe. Indeed the verb itself is an object of suspicion.

And yet verb tenses such as the past perfect continuous (e.g. "had been feeling unwell"), which are so rare in poetry, are everyday working forms of language. They're common in discursive prose, but also in vernacular speech; in fact anywhere there's narrative. With few exceptions there's nothing academic or high-falutin about these verb forms. They are, however, definitional. They place action in a certain relation, most commonly a time relation, to other events.

But the lesson poets have absorbed from such forms as the haiku is that the world comes through the poem in a less mediated way if, so far as possible, we eliminate extraneous matter. Naturally I've always understood about the resulting distaste for adjectives and adverbs: the instinct that if we write




we bring an experience to the reader's mind with a sort of  integrity and directness, compared with when we write of "the dark, brooding stand of fir trees that dripped with rain..."   , or  "the corporal shrugged rapidly, hunching over the embers, ..."

What I had not understood (probably through mere ignorance) is that the same argument tells equally against the verb in poetry. 

For verbs are nothing if not interpretive. A discursive text full of verbs provides, as it were, a running commentary on the actions performed by its agents, an interpretation of what happened by an observer (which may sometimes be the agent her/himself, but this makes the commentary no less suspect).

This is most apparent when our agents are non-human. Most verbs originate in human activity. When we say that a tree "stands", or that a deer "walks", we assert an interpretation that cannot be shared by the agents themselves. Isn't the rangy springy floaty movement of the deer's legs utterly traduced by such a misleading image as the movement of human legs? Isn't the tree's  slow occupation entirely different from the stiffening pause that we experience as standing?

But the same argument applies, to a large degree, when our agents are human. When we report that a person gestures, or shrugs, defends, or agrees, hits out, strokes, and so on, we allege these things on the basis of a commentary from outside. Everyone knows how often such commentary is disclaimed by the parties involved. But when this is not so, what all consent to is rather a manner of speaking, that is, a communal cliche, a cliche of literature, than the real quality of the event itself.  Yes, I am happy that my behaviour is categorized under the received idea of "gesturing": the accumulated bundle of stereotypic movement connoted by that word. The reality is that action, behaviour, movement, thought, have no boundaries, no species, and no borders: the world of action is entirely fluid and continuous. The verb, however, seizes (or even creates) a certain event from this continuum, and drops it into a little pre-defined pigeonhole, such as "gesture" .... or "break", "steam", "clutch", "yawn" ...

A poem consisting only of nouns (like the rather short poems  above), makes no such allegation. The nouns and noun phrases float there, for the readers to make of them what they will.

Movement can be implied by verbal nouns and suspended tenses such as floating participles, but without specifying who or when: in other words, by dropping tenses.  So widespread is this poetic diction that sometimes when we are reading a modern poem and we do run across a more definitional phrase it looks like an intrusion; it looks like a quotation. The assertion was asserted somewhere else, we suppose; but it isn't asserted in the poem we are reading.

In mainstream poetry, often anecdotal or narrative in nature, the verb and some of its leaner tenses have survived. That was the point of my earlier post (above), in which I proposed that the presence of the words I'd/He'd/She'd was characteristic of modern mainstream poetry, their absence equally characteristic of modern non-mainstream poetry.


This proposal was vulnerable to counter-examples sourced from non-mainstream poetry, and Jamie McKendrick wasn't long in discovering one. He pointed out that Denise Riley, a poet commonly agreed to be non-mainstream, used my indicator words quite a bit in her recent collection Say Something Back (Picador, 2016).

He was right.  As early as the first poem, "A Part Song", she writes:

You'd rather not, yet you must go
Briskly around on beaming show.

And in a poem such as "The patient who had no insides", we read: "I'd slumped at home"... "I'd glimpsed the radiographer's dark film"... "How well you look, they'd said to me at work".

But I wasn't put out by this anomaly, it being apparent that Denise in this collection wrote in a great number of styles, some of them (such as "The patient who had no insides") unapologetically close to mainstream. In fact, Denise has always been strikingly individual in her poetic,and not easily assimilated to the common interests of the Cambridge School. She adopted almost none of the fashionable strategies and mannerisms of alternative poetry, and her own probing of the epistemology of personal sentiment and anecdotal poetry has often involved a kind of parodic immersion rather than a rebarbative resistance. Some of this work has communicated beyond the confines of theory; it's not a sheer accident that she was the only "alternative" poet to appear (albeit with one short poem only) in Paul Keegan's Penguin Anthology of English Verse.


Readers who are interested in this kind of stuff might also like this earlier piece:


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