“Why don’t poets write in rhyme?”

  • The title is the search term that brought a visitor to my blog.

It’s Not Me, It’s You

In the teacup that is poetry, the question stirs up tempests. Many rationalizations for the rejection of rhyme have been given, some are genuine but just as many, I think, have been disingenuous. Some of the most absurd rationalizations have been sociopolitical. Formal poetry, and by extension rhyme and meter, has been saddled with accusations of being unpatriotic (Diane Wakoski ~ American Book Review May/June 1986), patriarchal (Adrienne Rich, Deinse Levertov, Diane Wakoski), nationalist (starting with Whitman wanting to break with the poetic tradition of the “Old World”), and whatever other -ism suits whatever chip a poet or critic carries on their shoulder.

“As long as the States continue to absorb and be dominated by the poetry of the Old World, and remain unsupplied with autochthonous song… so long will they stop short of first-class Nationality and remain defective.”

The quote above comes from Walt Whitman’s 1888 version of A Backward Glance O’er Travel’d Roads. Whitman’s reference to the “Old World” was code for what Whitman considered the “European” tradition of meter, rhyme and form. The chip on Whitman’s shoulder? — his poetry wasn’t as widely read as he thought it should be (compared to the rhyming and metrical Longfellow). The following is from Ezra Pound’s preface to Some Imagist Poets 1915.

To create new rhythms — as the expression of new moods — and not to copy old rhythms, which merely echo old moods. We do not insist upon “free-verse” as the only method of writing poetry. We fight for it as for a principle of liberty. We believe that the individuality of a poet may often be better expressed in free-verse than in conventional forms. In poetry a new cadence means a new idea.

That last line, “In poetry a new cadence means a new idea“, is pure Romanticism. The 19th century created and enshrined the artistic paradigms of genius, creativity and originality, concepts that were less clearly defined in earlier centuries. At the beginning of the 19th century, Kant wrote that “genius does not follow rules”.  Pound is essentially saying the same thing. A “new cadence”, by definition, breaks from the past and presumably from any rules – such as rhyme or meter. The ideal of creativity is restated as the “new idea”.

Pound’s contemporaries absorbed his argument and transformed its tenets into the free verse of Modernism.

For a time though, two competing visions of poetry were at war. Pound, from the outset, framed the debate when he referred to the “old moods” of traditional poetry, echoing Whitman’s nationalistic “Old World”, along with his insistence that free verse is a fight for the “principle of liberty”. Pound’s rhetoric takes on unmistakably political undertones. Disagree with me, he seems to warn, and the fight will be political; and that, as time passed, is how many poets justified their rejection of techniques like rhyme – through the politics of race, gender, and class. Any new artistic movement must validate itself; and, it seems, the best validation is political.

So, my first answer to the question, “Why don’t poets write in rhyme?”, is to answer that the disappearance of rhyme resulted from the desire to reject what had become the stifling tradition of Victorian rhyme and meter (which is what Pound was chaffing against). And because no artistic revolution goes unchallenged, the rise of free verse had to be defended (forcefully in some quarters) by portraying advocates of traditional poetry (and by extension the techniques of meter and rhyme) as reactionary, conservative, patriarchal, etc… In other words, it’s not the poet, it’s the poetry at fault; it’s not me, it’s you.

I don’t find any of these rationalizations against traditional poetry convincing or compelling; however, it can be equally stated that the political arguments against free verse were just as absurd. To some, free verse came to represent anarchy and moral degradation. I don’t buy those arguments either.

It’s the Poet, not the Poetry

It used to be that a poet’s meter and rhyme were what weeded the poet from the poetaster. Walt Whitman changed that. Whitman was not a talented writer of meter or rhyme, but he proved that being a great poet and a talented formalist were two different things.

With that in mind, there is an implicit confession in Pound’s revolution that many poets don’t care to admit or discuss. Implicit in Pound’s manifesto is an admission that the vast majority of poets just are not good at rhyme or meter — the problem with Victorian poetry was only partly it’s subject matter. The worst of it was the sing-song, amateurish quality of its lines.

Though it is better to cast free verse as a triumphant “new idea” rather than an admission of defeat, Pound’s manifesto nevertheless implicitly confesses that rhyme and meter are hard, that even the Victorians don’t do it well, and that most poets would be better off if they just didn’t try (or, as he more favorably put it, that they be “liberated” from the expectation). Of course, Pound didn’t put it that way publicly. He did so privately with T.S. Eliot:

Pound’s criticism of The Waste Land was not of its meaning; he liked its despair and was indulgent of its neo-Christian hope. He dealt instead with its stylistic adequacy and freshness. For example, there was an extended, unsuccessful imitation of The Rape of the Lock at the beginning of “The Fire Sermon.” It described the lady Fresca (imported to the waste land from “Gerontion” and one day to be exported to the States for the soft drink trade). Instead of making her toilet like Pope’s Belinda, Fresca is going to it, like Joyce’s Bloom. Pound warned Eliot that since Pope had done the couplets better, and Joyce the defacation, there was no point in another round. To this shrewd advice we are indebted for the disappearance of such lines as:

The white-armed Fresca blinks, and yawns, and gapes,
Aroused from dreams of love and pleasant rapes.
Electric summons of the busy bell
Brings brisk Amanda to destroy the spell
Leaving the bubbling beverage to cool,
Fresca slips softly to the needful stool,
Where the pathetic tale of Richardson
Eases her labour till the deed is done . . .
This ended, to the steaming bath she moves,
Her tresses fanned by little flutt’ring Loves;
Odours, confected by the cunning French,
Disguise the good old hearty female stench.

From On The Composition of The Waste Land by Richard Ellman

Says Pound, Pope did it better. The problem, Pound tells Eliot, is not that he is using rhyme and meter, but that he isn’t that good at it.

The truth is, the vast majority of free verse poets are not good at rhyme or meter (possibly none of them). And to be fair, the majority of formalist poets are also not that good at it. The majority of readers don’t know that, yes, the  majority of contemporary poets aren’t good at rhyme or meter because those poets are sensible enough not to try it. (Rue the day that a poet like Ron Silliman tries to write meter or rhyme.) And it is a far more pleasant thing that rhyme be rejected for trumped up reasons than that the poet admit he or she isn’t good at it.

There are exceptions. John Ashbery, for one, has gracefully stated that, if he could, he would write traditional poetry, that he likes traditional poetry, but that his talent lies elsewhere. I have had many free verse poets tell me, in private, that they have tried to write rhyme or meter, that they admire it, but that they lack the talent for it.

So, my more fully honest answer to the question, “Why don’t poets write in rhyme?”, is that poets aren’t good at it.

It’s not that poets “don’t write rhyme” because they reject it, but because they’re not, and never were, good at it. If you are writing poetry that rhymes and uses meter, be good at it. (Just as poets recognize their own limitations, they’re especially good at recognizing the limitations of others.) If you don’t “write rhyme” well, criticism will come where criticism is due. The best poets recognize good rhyme and meter when they see it. At worst, traditional poetic techniques are slighted for ideological reasons, and even envy.  Until you can tell the difference, ignore everyone and write what’s in your heart.

If your interest is in reading modern traditional poets, a few of us are around.

I’m always ready to recommend a few. Every heard of Duncan MacLaurin? He’s a poet about the same age as myself. Take a look and see what you think. Click on August/September 2011 Snakeskin 179, and look for MacLaurin at the top left. A pdf of MacLaurin’s poetry is available, along with a selection of eight at The Hyper Texts.

Language, Poets & the treachery of Women

my summer-vacation reading…

I’m making some time to catch up on reading and writing. Two passages from two very different books struck me. Thought I would share them. The first is from Russ McDonald’s Shakespeare’s Late Style. (I’ll write my next post about the other.) For fanciers of language, poetics and Shakespeare, this is a fascinating book. I’m having to read it twice.  Most readers would probably consider the book dry as chalk dust (McDonald isn’t exactly an engaging writer). Me? My second reading involves heavy underlining. MacDonald’s text is thick with information and ideas.

His book is primarily concerned with the “problem” of Shakespeare’s late style. Personally, I’ve never understood why Shakespeare’s late style is referred to as the problem. Shakespeare’s style changed with age. Why is that a problem? Interestingly, Shakespeare’s stylistic progression is no different, in my view, than the progression of all the great artist’s with whom I’m familiar. Consider Bach, Da Vinci, Mozart, Beethoven, Haydn, Frost, even Keats, and the great pianist Glenn Gould (compare his first performance of the Goldberg variations to his final performance). Or what about the Beatles? Their youthful works (such as Bach’s toccatas or the Beatles first albums) are marked by youthful enthusiasm, passionate flourishes (often in excess), and unrestrained (undisciplined) enthusiasm bordering, in some cases, on mawkishness. McDonald quotes the great Shakespearean critic A.C. Bradley:

After Hamlet the style, in the more emotional passages, is heigthened. It becomes grander, sometimes wilder, sometimes more swelling, even tumid. It is also more concentrated, rapid, varied, and, in construction, less regular, not seldom twisted or elliptical. It is, therefore, not easy and lucid and in the more ordinary dialogue is sometimes involved and obscure, and from these and other causes deficient in charm. (p. 30 Shakespeare’s Late Style)

What I find so fascinating is that this criticism is almost, word for word, the same as the criticism leveled at Beethoven’s late music (as well as Bach and even Mozart). That Bradley would consider the maturation of Shakespeare’s style “deficient”, reveals the deficiencies in his own critical acumen – though his comments are typical of his age.

As all these artists aged, they seemed to prune the excess, searching for, discovering and refining the essence of their genius, voice and style, seeking compression and concentration. Compare Bach’s very early keyboard Toccatas to his late works: the Musical Offering or The Art of the Fugue. Compare Beethoven’s lavish early Piano Sonatas to his last (or his late quartets). The album Let It Be was, in large part, the outcome of John Lennon’s desire to get back to the fundamentals of his rock and roll – a pruning of excess (the Naked version supposedly being closer to Lennon’s intent).

Anyway (and to me) Shakespeare’s late style isn’t problematic. It represents the natural progression of a maturing artist – no more problematic than Bach’s Art of the Fugue or Beethoven’s late quartets.

the corrupting influence of women…

The one passage that I found particularly fascinating had little to do with Shakespeare’s late style. Rather, it was McDonald’s observation concerning women, rhetoric and medieval thought. I wanted to excerpt the passage as gist for thought. McDonald is examining Shakespeare’s play, Coriolanus. I’m cherry picking passages for the sake of brevity, but hopefully the following will give you some idea of the whole. McDonald begins the sub-chapter with the heading, MEN AND WOMAN AND STYLE. He writes:

Shakespeare’s self-consciousness about the perils and opportunities of language coincides with the contemporary debate over the available forms of prose style and the philosophical implications of those positions. A brief review of the controversy reminds us that the old fashioned Ciceronian model, with its elaborate syntactical constructions symmetrical patterns of words and clauses, and devotion to ornament, came into conflict with the self-consciously modern approach, modeled on Seneca, with its obviously broken periods and asymmetrical grouping of words, a severity of of vocabulary and sound, and a Spartan disdain for decoration. (p. 61)

Interestingly, the tug of war  between aesthetic “excess” or exuberance and aesthetic “restraint” is ongoing. Consider Islam’s historical aversion to representative art – and the religion’s hyper-masculine aversion to the feminine (it’s concealment of women’s facial features and form). Representative art was surely (and remains) tied to the idea of the feminine – to ornament, excess, distraction, treachery and error. Islam is hardly alone. The same strain is to be found in other religions, including Christianity (especially Catholicism), Buddhism, Taoism and Hinduism. The aesthetic divide seems to be a human preoccupation that expresses itself in all matters pertaining to self-expression. Bach was ceaselessly upbraided by his ecclesiastical employers for the distracting “excesses”  of his music. His employers felt that his music should focus the churchgoers’ mind on (G)od, not music. Bach, to put it mildly, disagreed. In all cases, the root of the aesthetic difference seems to boil down to a difference in a culture’s conception of the feminine. That is what I find so interesting. (Art, much removed from the idealized conception of the war-like male, was considered a feminine pursuit throughout the history of western culture.)  McDonald continues:

This debate is self-evidently grounded in conceptions of sexual difference and related to the figuration of language as feminine and action as masculine in medieval and early modern language theory. This misogynistic tradition propagates the identification of language and women as treacherous and unreliable, subject to extravagance, malleability, and error. It originates in the classical period and receives virulent expression in the writings of some of the Church Fathers, particularly Tertullian, St. John Chrysostom, and St. Augustine. As Howard Block has demonstrated in some detail, this gendered conception is responsible for the series of identifications, still with us, of the masculine with the primary, with essence, with form, with unity; and of the feminine with the secondary, the accidental, the material, the duplicitous or ambiguous. In the most notorious anti-feminine passages in medieval literature, a familiar and loudly asserted complaint against women is their proclivity for loud complaint. Garrulousness, nagging, shrewishness, bickering, demanding — the most common laments from the molestiae nuptiarum or the tradition of anti-marriage literature, have to do with the verbal miseries inevitably attendant upon the taking of a wife. In other words, the attack on women is often a simultaneous attack on language. (p. 62)

A straight line can be drawn from this tradition to the Pope’s modern day demand for celibacy (an institution still steeped in the medieval dye). The unspoken (or spoken) assumption is that the feminine will have a corrupting and treacherous effect on the priesthood. For an institution that identifies the “word” of God as the fundamental truth, that relies on language to communicate is doctrines, and which conceives this truth as, ultimately, a masculine expression, the feminine influence (read speech) can only be understood as diluting and corrupting. McDonald continues:

Commentators reach as far back as Eden to connect the female with the decorative, the artificial, the inessential: in the Genesis account, Eve’s verbal seduction of Adam into eating the fruit of the Forbidden Tree led to the need for covering, and from that time forward there existed a contest between the natural body and the dressings invented for it. As Tertullian put it, “with the word the garment entered.” In a related treatment of the topic, St. Augustine distinguishes between numerical signs as masculine and verbal signs as feminine: “From that time forth she [Reason] found it hard to believe that the splendor and purity [of numbers] was sullied by the corporeal matter of words. And just as what the spirit sees is always present and is held to be immortal and numbers appear such, while sound, being a sensible thing, is lost into the past.” Numerals are identified with the virtues of constancy, order, and clarity, in short, with the spirit. Words connote corruption and impermanence and are linked with the body, specifically with the female body and its traditional ornaments – clothing, makeup, hairstyle, jewelry.

We might now return to Bacon’s attack on Ciceronian style as “that delicate and polished kind of learning” that “allured” the boys from Cambrdige: “delicate and polished” is a gendered phrase, pejorative adjectives denoting a sissified style. Patricia Parker summarizes this debate with a major instance from the early Tudor period:

Erasmus in his Ciceronianus (1528) speaks of seeking in vain in Ciceronian eloquence for something “masculine” and of his own desire for a “more masculine” style. Ciceronian copia in these discussions is both effeminate and the style of a more prodigal youth, to be outgrown once one had become a man: “I used to imitate Cicero.” writes Lipsius; “but I have become a man, and my tastes have changed. Asiatic feasts have ceased to please me; I prefer the Attic.”

And this bias appears also in the Renaissance view of the femininity of verse and the Puritan attack on the effeminacy of the stage, we remember Sidney’s Defense, written as a rejoinder to the attack on theatrical poetry as immoral, frivolous, and unmanly. The sentence cited at the beginning of this chapter, Thomas Howell’s “Women are wordes, Men deedes,” should remind us of Hotspur, that quintessential man of action, who proclaims his contempt for “mincing poetry” and who on the battlefield is infuriated when the King’s effeminate ambassador addresses him in “man holiday and lady terms.” This still-prevalent view that poetry or dramatics is for girls, while science and mathematics – real learning – is best left to boys, descends from this ancient derisory association of women and words. (pp. 64-65)

McDonald’s last observation, that poetry is still considered an effeminate occupation, is one that I would have made myself. Robert Frost, in his own day and referring to his beginnings, stated that one might as well wear a millstone round one’s neck as declare oneself a poet. His grandfather, who effectively bankrolled the first half of Frost’s literary career, expected more “manly” pursuits from his grandson.

  • Image above & right. Bathsheba by Jan Matsys. Image above & left. Bathsheba by Jean Leon Gerome. Do these images of feminine nudity offend you? The biblical story of Bathsheba and the story of Susannah (like the paintings), nicely captures the west’s conflicted attitude toward feminine beauty and seductiveness.  The temptations of Bathsheba’s beauty proves to be a destructive one when David sends Bathsheba’s husband to die in battle. God punishes both lovers with the death of their child. Interestingly, the paintings warn us against the seductiveness of feminine beauty while also lulling us with the same, inviting us to be just as seduced by it. The same attraction to, and distrust of, language characterizes Shakespeare’s great plays and medieval attitudes toward language in general.

Interesting too, is the strong link between religious fundamentalism, authoritarianism, intolerance and hyper-masculinity. The puritans, who detested the poetry of Elizabethan England and reviled the dramatic stage (and successfully closed it down for a period of time), were religious fundamentalists who would have found common cause with the hyper-masculine religiosity of present day (fundamentalist) Islamists (such as the Taliban). Their cultural triumph was brief, however. The puritans quickly found themselves on the receiving end of intolerance. What did they do? They fled to Plymouth Rock— not a very pleasant group of people. They are presently celebrated every Thanksgiving as benign settlers seeking freedom from intolerance.  Hardly. As the joke has it: They fled intolerance to more freely express their own intolerance. Londoners were all too glad to be rid of them.

What’s so fascinating is that these biases continue today and are as firmly rooted as they ever were. One is tempted to think there is something in human nature that would recreate this division between the masculine (positive) and feminine (negative), even if the history of such biases were erased. Consider the passage at left, the introductory words to an essay by James H. McGoldrick, published in the The English Journal, Vol. 43, No. 5 (May, 1954), pp. 257-259 .

Notice that it’s not enough to say that poetry is effeminate. Associated with the idea of femininity is the sentimental and that which wastes ones time. The implication is that the feminine, and the pursuit of anything construed as feminine, is unworthy of effort.

Is it really human nature, or is it cultural? Consider the following from The Encyclopaedia of Indian Literature Vol. 2:

Nirala, in that very introduction to Parimal maintains elsewhere: ‘just as metres, being self-forgetful in a state of joy bound within the ambit of rule, dance beautifully and lull the listeners into an ecstacy along with the auditory melody, similarly free verse affords us eternal asethetics of simlutaneity in its extraordinary flow as if it were the little and large waves of the infinite ocean, rising and falling with one single unified motion. Free verse is the verse that remains free even though growing on the ground of metre; the flow of free verse itself sustains and supports it; it establishes its metres and expresses the magesty of its freedom and literature of its law’. Nirala finds the beauty of ‘unequal similarity’ in free verse. He accepts the ‘flow’ of poetry as its great quality. In his famous article ‘Pant aur Pallava’ (1927-28) he writes, ‘In free verse one cannot get the art of music, there is the art of reading; it is not concerned with vowel but with consonant; it is not the feminine tenderness of poetry but the masculine courage or poetry. It’s beauty is not in music, but in conversation.”

Free verse becomes an effort to reclaim poetry’s masculinity. Fascinating, again, are the parallels to the rhetoric of western medieval bias. Remember that the writings of St. Augustine, among others, associated the masculine with the essence – the primary. In Nirala’s rhetoric, free verse is understood as the “infinite ocean” (which is nothing if not primary) whereas meter is understood as the more obviously feminine  – a seductive dance that lulls the listener with its ephemeral beauty. (We are reminded of Bathsheba, Susannah or Salome.) In the latter description, Nirala could as easily be describing the lulling effect of pornography. And there’s no mistake in the choice of  lull, which as part of its definition includes the meaning: to give or lead to feel a false sense of safety; cause to be less alert, aware, or watchful (Dictionary.com). Such a vision of the feminine is thoroughly in keeping with the west’s prejudices.

  • Susanna and the Old Men by Guercino. The old man, having stumbled across Susanna as she bathes, threaten to blackmail her (accuse her of an illicit affair) if she doesn’t have sex with them. She doesn’t. The elder men accuse her of fornication. Although Susanna is exonerated in the end, one is tempted to read the story not as the exoneration of an innocent woman but as a warning against the temptations of feminine seductiveness (and youthful excess). Susanna’s beguiling beauty can only end in destruction (the old men are sentenced to death once their lies are found out). Once again, Guercino invites the viewer to enjoy the beauty of the naked woman even as the narrative warns us against the lurid temptation. Message: Feminine beauty is a youthful folly and should be left to the youthful.

Ezra Pound, heralding the dawn of free verse in his manifesto “A Retrospect“, uses vocabulary no less loaded. He writes:

As to Twentieth century poetry, and the poetry which I expect to see written during the next decade or so, it will, I think, move against poppy-cock, it will be harder and saner, it will be what Mr Hewlett calls ‘nearer the bone’. It will be as much like granite as it can be, its force will lie in its truth, its interpretative power (of course, poetic force does always rest there); I mean it will not try to seem forcible by rhetorical din, and luxurious riot. We will have fewer painted adjectives impeding the shock and stroke of it. At least for myself, I want it so, austere, direct, free from emotional slither.

“Harder and saner” he writes. The implication is that the poetry of the Victorians, drenched in meter and rhyme, was softer (more feminine) and less sane (less rational and too emotional – read womanly). The poetry of free verse will be like “granite” – an inescapably masculine adjective. Pound goes on to describe the poetry of the previous decades as “rhetorical din, and luxurious riot”. There is little that separates such description from the “misogynistic tradition [that] propagates the identification of language and women as treacherous and unreliable, subject to extravagance, malleability, and error…” Pound’s “rhetorical din” is eerily similar to those “notorious anti-feminine passages in medieval literature” that associate the feminine with a “proclivity for loud complaint. Garrulousness, nagging, shrewishness, bickering, demanding…” As if to remove any doubt, Pound uses the adjective painted when describing the Victorians’ over reliance on adjectives. Painted recalls St. Augustine’s association of words with with the “corruption and impermanence” of “the body, specifically with the female body and its traditional ornaments – clothing, makeup, hairstyle, jewelry.” Painted, historically, has the meaning “covered with makeup, esp. to excess.” Pound’s use of the word is meant to imply that the aesthetics of the previous generation (read meter and rhyme) were effeminate, painted, and garish. The blogger Mike Chaser neatly sums up Pound’s manifesto in his post “Chick Lit?“:

In “A Retrospect” from 1918, Ezra Pound states his desire to produce a new, masculine poetry that is “harder and saner,” “nearer the bone,” and “free from [the] emotional slither” that, in his estimation, characterized the effeminate verse of the genteel nineteenth century.

Just as poetry itself is associated with the feminine, even in Shakespeare’s time, the insulting approbation, effeminate, was used by other modernist poets (including W.C. Williams) to differentiate (or elevate) their own efforts as more masculine (and therefore more respectable). The Ciceronian and Senecan divide was (and is) as alive as ever.

  • With that in mind, it’s breathtakingly ironic when self-professed feminists like Adrienne Rich proclaim their feminism by writing free verse – asserting that form in poetry (meter and rhyme) are oppressive patriarchal contrivances. Such immature and self-serving pronouncements merely reinforce the gendered biases which they are supposedly rejecting. It had been better and more honest if Rich had simply admitted that she lacked the talent to be a “good formalist”, rather than hide behind a rationalization.

McDonald closes his discussion of the feminine and masculine in language with a passage from Shakespeare’s Coriolanus:

.     .    .   I prithee now, my son,
Go to them, with this bonnet in they hand,
And thus far having stretch’d it (here be with them),
Thy knee bussing the stones (for in such business
Action is eloquence, and the eyes of th’ignorant
More learned than the ears), waving thy head,
Which often thus correcting thy stout heart,
Now humble as the ripest mulberry
That will not hold the handling: or say to them,
Thou art their soldier, and, being bred in broils,
Hast not the soft way which, thou dost confess,
Were fit for thee to use as they to claim,
In asking their good loves, but thou wilt frame
Thyself, forsooth, hereafter theirs, so far
As thou hast power and person.

The immediate relevance of this passage is found in its grammatical structure, particularly the contrast with Coriolanus’s masculine style.

Even if the passage is punctuated so as to divide into two sentences, there is no break in thought. The length and the syntactical involutions suggest the association of women and copia: the paratactic, additive form of the plea, supported and extended as it is by the participles, connotes the endlessness of female speech, the ungoverned tongue familiar from the misogynist tradition; at the same time, the hypotactic intrusions and parenthesis attest to the indirections and potential waywardness of women and their words. Metrically, the expectations of regularity established by the pentameter are frustrated by the liberty and variety of the phrasing: the semantic demands and wayward rhythmic drive introduce disruptions that poke holes in the order of the line and threaten a kind of aural chaos. (…)

Coriolanus, then, presents a contest of styles, with each side sexually marked. The Baconian, phallic position informs the laconic speech of Coriolanus, who flees from words. Volumnia, on the other hand, embodies Ciceronian loquacity and indirection. (pp. 64-65)

Compare Volumnia’s statement that Coriolanus “hast not the soft way” with Ezra Pound’s emphatic demand for a poetry and language that is harder and “and that will be as much like granite as it can be”. In case the implication isn’t obvious, Pound, like Shakespeare, drives it home. The “force” of a more masculine language will “lie in its truth”. The inescapable corollary is the that feminine language is the language of deception. (It amazes me how little the terms of the debate have changed over 400 years.) To what degree the generations of free verse poets (who followed Pound) internalized Pound’s language is open to debate. But the tendency, as with Adrienne Rich, to rationalize ones aesthetics (ones likes and dislikes) in gender specific terms has never gone away. For Adrienne Rich, form, rhyme and meter are too patriarchal (read masculine).  Pound, on the other hand, considers the same tradition too effeminate. Go figure.

  • Image above right: Venturia at the feet of Coriolanus. Notice how the artist portrays the women. They kneel subserviently and obsequiously.  Coriolanus may be trying to lift the woman or push her away. His gesture is ambiguous. He is portrayed as a man of action (reinforced by the seemingly indifferent soldier who accompanies him and seems impatient to move on). The women are creatures of language – they resort to complaint and pleading.

Shakespeare’s maturity

According to McDonald, Shakespeare eventually rejects the notion of poetry as effeminate and unworthy. While Shakespeare uses Coriolanus to more or less dramatize the debate which was swirling around him,  Antony & Cleopatra, according to McDonald, represents a dramatic resolution. He writes:

The final movement, from Antony’s suicide to Caesar’s eulogy, may be considered a bridge between the tragedies and the romances because it attests to Shakespeare’s developing attitude toward fictional [feminine] language. Cleopatra seems to have occupied Shakespeare’s imagination, making a great gap in Plutarch’s tale by inserting herself into, and thereby transforming what might have been simply a tragedy of Antony. She not only memorializes Antony in a virtuosic act of poetic [feminine] construction  but also stages her own spectacular end by a creative manipulation of costume, setting, and words [the emphasis is my own].  The represented death of the historical female is for Shakespeare the birth of the fictional Cleopatra…

McDonald goes on to quote from Suffocating Mothers, p. 177

By locating Antony’s heroic manhood within Cleopatra’s vision of him, Shakespeare attempts in effect to imagine his way beyond this impasse [the impasse between masculine and feminine language].

This imaginative union of the masculine and the feminine helps to account for Shakespeare’s re-conceived attitude towards words, dramatic mode, and the theatrical enterprise itself.

Translation: The feminine fiction of Cleopatra’s poetic vision immortalizes the masculine facts of Antony’s deeds.

and the immaturity of the other 2,ooo years…

Shakespeare’s artistic equilibrium made no lasting impression on the generations that followed. Consider the following contemporary article (2007) by Douglas Wilson, entitled “The Loss of Poetry“. It begins:

The causes are not easy to identify, but poetry has fallen on hard times.
Poetry today huddles in its prescribed little ghettoes – the sentimentalism of greeting cards and cupboard poetry, the small clutch of arcane poetry journals with a circulation of thirteen, self-absorbed adolescents scribbling pages of navel-gazing free verse, nationally-ignored poet laureates, and that about covers the world of poetry.

What is the alternative to sentimentalism, self-absorption and navel-gazing? Wilson tells us:

…if we are Christians, we need to learn… [that] our understanding of revelation will continue to be truncated… until we give ourselves to the recovery of poetry.
[A] great problem has been the gradual feminization of poetry. This is not mentioned as a criticism of women with a poetic gift. Rather, rightly understood, poetry is a human phenomenon and should reflect that broad reality. An essential part of this is making a place for masculine poetry, and the fact that masculine poetry seems oxymoronic to us now illustrates the problem nicely.
The upshot is that men no longer lead through poetry; they merely put up with the various forms of poetry that may briefly touch their lives. When we think of poetry we think of cowslips and dewdrops, and various forms of moon Juning. We no longer think of Beowulf among “ancient kings and the glory they cut for themselves, swinging mighty swords!” We no longer think of David, a warrior king, singing psalms of piercing strength and loveliness. We think rather of a Romantic poet, wandering lonely as a cloud.

Through his definition of masculine poetry (or language), we can tease out his definition of feminine poetry and language (which is necessarily defined as the opposite); and his definition is almost identical to the attitudes of the medieval Christian writers. Wilson (like Tertullian, St. John Chrysostom, and St. Augustine) defines masculine poetry as a human phenomena, a  poetry concerned  “with the primary, with essence, with form, with unity”. And like the early Christian theologians, he defines “the feminine with the secondary, the accidental, the material”. Feminine poetry doesn’t reflect “broad reality“.

Masculine poetry leads. Feminine poetry “puts up with the various forms of poetry that may briefly touch their lives”. Feminine poetry lulls and beguiles with images of the material and ephemeral “cowslips and dewdrops”, while masculine poetry contends with (what Wilson considers) the universal and lasting – ancient kings (status), glory (reputation), mighty swords (conquest), and the psalms of piercing strength (Wilson was surely  aware of the sexual suggestiveness in his choice of words – the insinuation of masculine sexual conquest).

Wilson’s exhortation could have been written 2,000 years ago or it could have been written during Shakespeare’s day. In either case, it would have been warmly received.

And it’s not that the division of masculine and feminine isn’t a useful division or that these terms don’t represent real and natural differences between the two halves of the human population, but that the feminine is so often construed as the negative (or the lesser of the two). But the masculine voice is just as replete with negatives (if that’s the focus) — empty bombast, vanity, boorishness, pretentiousness, and all the attendant preoccupations with station, rank and reputation. Propagandist poetry could be considered masculine poetry – the poetry of nationalism, colonialism, and chauvinism.

My own observation is so obvious as to be trite: The greatest poets, whether male or female, seem to synthesize what is best in both the masculine and feminine tradition. It’s a wonder that it bears repeating.

Why do Poets write Iambic Pentameter?

  • May 14, 2009 Tweaked & corrected some typos.

mount-everest-colored-edgeBecause it wasn’t there.

During the sixteenth century, which culminated in poets like Drayton, Sidney, Spenser, Daniel, and Shakespeare, English was seen as common and vulgar – fit for record keeping. Latin was still considered, by many, to be the language of true literature. Latin was essentially the second language of every educated Elizabethan and many poets, even the much later Milton, wrote poetry in Latin rather than English.

Iambic Pentameter originated as an attempt to develop a meter for the English language legitimizing English as an alternative and equal to Latin (as a language also capable of great poetry and literature). Encyclopedia of Spenser - ExtractSince meter was a feature of all great Latin poetry, it was deemed essential that an equivalent be developed for the English Language. But poets couldn’t simply adopt Latin’s dactylic hexameter or dactylic pentameter lines. Latin uses quantitative meter, a meter based on  alternating long and short syllables. English, on the other hand, is an accentual language – meaning that words are “accented” or stressed while others are, in a relative sense, unstressed.  (There are no long or short syllables in English, comparable to Latin.)

False Starts

But this didn’t stop Elizabethan poets from trying. A circle of Elizabethan poets, including Sidney and Spenser, all tried to adapt quantitative meter to the English language. Here’s the problem. Even in their own day Latin and Classical Greek were dead languages – dead for a thousand years. Nobody knew what these languages really sounded like and we still don’t. Imagine if all memory of the French language vanished tomorrow (along with any recordings). French uses the same alphabet, but how would we know how to pronounce it? Americans would pronounce it like Americans, Germans would pronounce like Germans, etc… The French accent would be gone – forever. The same is true for Latin. So, while we may intellectually know that syllables were spoken as long or short, we have no idea how the language was actually pronounced. It’s tone and accent are gone. When the Elizabethans spoke Latin, they pronounced and accented Latin like Elizabethans. They assumed that this was how Latin had always been pronounced. For this reason, perhaps, Adopting the Dactylic hexameters of Latin didn’t seem so far-fetched.

The  Spenser Encyclopedia, from which I obtained the passage at right, includes the following “dazzling” example of quantitative meter in English:

Quantitative Verse (Sample from Spenser Encyclopedia)

The symbols used to scan the poem reflect Spenser’s attempt to imitate the long and short syllables of Latin. The experiments were lackluster. Spenser and Sidney moved on, giving up on the idea of reproducing long and short syllables. The development of Iambic Pentameter began in earnest. (Though Sidney continued to experiment with accentual hexameters – for more on this, check out my post on Sidney: His Meter & His Sonnets.)

Those were heady times. Iambic Pentameter was new and dynamic. Spenser adopted Iambic Pentameter with an unremitting determination. Anyone who has read the Faerie Queen knows just how determined. (That said, each Spenserian Stanza – as they came to be called – ended with an Alexandrine , an Iambic Hexameter line – as if Spenser couldn’t resist a reference to the Hexameters of Latin and Greek.)

Why the Drama?

Just as with Virgil and Homer for Epic Poetry, the Classical Latin and Greek cultures were admired for their Drama – Aeschylus, Terence, Aristophanes, Euripides, Sophocles. Classical drama was as admired as classical saga.

As Iambic Pentameter quickly began to be adopted by poets as an equivalent to the classical meters of Greek and Latin, dramatists recognized Iambic Pentameter as a way to legitimize their own efforts. In other words, they wanted to elevate their drama into the realm of serious, literary works – works of poetry meant to be held in the same esteem as the classical Greek and Latin dramas. Dramatists, especially during Shakespeare’s day, were held in ill-repute, to say the least. Their playhouses were invariably centers of theft, gambling, intoxication, and rampant prostitution. Dgorboduc-title-pageramatists themselves were considered nothing better than unprincipled purveyors of vulgarity – all too ready to serve up whatever dish the rabble wanted to gorge on.

There was some truth to that. The playhouses had to earn a living. The actors and dramatists, like Hollywood today, were more than willing to churn out the easy money-maker. Thomas Heywood, a dramatist and pamphleteer who was a contemporary of Shakespeare, claimed to have had “an entire hand or at least a main finger in two hundred and twenty plays”.

That said, aspirations of greatness were in the air. This was the Elizabethan Age – the small nation of England was coming into its own. The colonization of America was about to begin. The ships of England were establishing new trade routes. The Spanish dominance of the seas was giving way. England was ready to take its place in the world – first as a great nation, than as an empire. The poets and dramatists of the age were no less ambitious. Many wanted to equal the accomplishments of the Greeks and Romans – Marlowe, Shakespeare, Jonson, Webster, Beaumont and Fletcher, Middleton…

Ben Jonson, in his own lifetime, published a collection of his own works – plays and poetry. This was a man who took himself seriously. The Greeks and Romans wrote their Drama in verse, and so did he. The Romans and Greeks had quantitative meter, and now the Elizabethans had Iambic Pentameter – Blank Verse. Serious plays were written in verse, quick entertainments, plays meant to fill a week-end and turn a profit, were written in prose – The Merry Wives of Windsor, by Shakespeare, was written to entertain, was written quickly, and was written in prose.

As I’ve mentioned elsewhere, Sackville and Norton were the first dramatists to write Drama, the play Gorboduc, using Iambic Pentameter or, as it came to be known, blank verse. For a brief sample of their verse you can check out my post on The Writing & Art of Iambic Pentameter.

Poets and Poet/Dramatists were quick to recognize the potential in blank verse. Early Dramatists like Greene, Peele and Kyd were quick to adopt it. Their efforts bequeathed poetry to the new verse form, but it was First Part Tamburlaine the Great & Christopher MarloweChristopher Marlowe who upped the ante by elevating not just the poetry but the verse form itself. Suddenly Iambic Pentameter was given a powerful new voice all of its own.

Hair standing on end, other poets soon referred to Marlowe’s blank verse as Marlowe’s Mighty Line. Reading Marlowe’s verse now, with 500 years of history between, the verse appears inflexible and monochromatic. It was Shakespeare who soon demonstrated to other poets the subtlety and flexibility that Blank Verse (Iambic Pentameter) was capable of. Shakespeare’s skill even influenced Marlowe (who had earlier influenced Shakespeare). Shakespeare’s influence is felt in Marlowe’s Faustus and Edward II, by which time Marlowe’s verse becomes more supple.

The passage above is spoken by Tamburlaine, who has been smitten by Zenocrate, “daughter to the Soldan of Egypt“. Up to meeting Zenocrate, Tamburlaine’s sole ambition had been to conquer and ruthlessly expand his empire. He’s a soldier’s soldier. But his passion for Zenocrate embarrasses him. He feels, in his equally blinding passion for her, that he “harbors thoughts effeminate and faint”.

Tamburlaine, with Marlowe’s inimitable poetry, readily rationalizes his “crush”. Utterly true to his character, he essentially reasons that beauty is a spoil rightly belonging to the valorous. He will subdue both (war and love), he pointedly remarks (rather than be subdued).  After all, says Tamburlaine in a fit of self-adulation, if beauty can seduce the gods, then why not Tamburlaine?  But make no mistake, it’s not that Tamburlaine has been subdued by love, no, he will “give the world note”, by the beauty of Zenocrate, that the “sum of glory” is “virtue”. In short, and in one of the most poetically transcendent passages in Elizabethan literature, Tamburlaine is the first to express the concept of a “trophy wife”.

Not to be missed is the Elizabethan sense of the word “virtue” – in reference to women, it meant modesty and chastity. Naturally enough, in men, it meant just the opposite – virility, potency, manhood, prowess. So, what Tamburlaine is saying is not that modesty and chastity are the “sum of glory”, but virility. The ‘taking’ of a beautiful women, in the martial, sexual and marital sense, fashions “men with true nobility”. It’s no mistake that Marlowe chose “virtue”, rather than love, when writing for Tamburlaine. Tamburlaine’s only mention of love is in reference to fame, valor and victory, not affection.

Anyway, I couldn’t resist interpreting the passage just a little. So many readers tend to read these passages at face value – which, with Elizabethan poets, frequently misses the boat.

As to the meter… Notice how the meaning sweeps from one line to the next. Most of the lines are syntactically unbroken, complete units. This is partly what poets were referring to when they described Marlowe’s lines as “mighty”.  what-you-doNotice also that that the whole of the speech can be read as unvarying Iambic Pentameter and probably should be.

By way of comparison, at right is how Shakespeare was writing toward the end of his career. The effect he produced is far different. The iambic pentameter (Blank Verse) doesn’t sweep from one line to the next. The most memorable and beautiful image in this passage is when Florizel wishes Perdita, when she dances, to be like “a wave o’the sea”. And any number of critics have seen, in this passage, a graceful equivalent in the ebb and flow of Shakespeare’s blank verse. The syntactic units halt, then resume, then halt again, variably across the surface of the Iambic Pentameter pattern. The overall effect creates one of the most beautiful passages in all of Shakespeare, and not just for its content and imagery, but also for its supple verse. The Elizabethans, in Shakespeare, bettered the Greek and Romans. In 1598, Francis Meres, fully understanding the tenor of the times, wrote:

“As the Greeke tongue is made famous and eloquent by Homer, Hesiod, Euripedes, Aeschilus, Sophocles, Pindarus, Phocylides and Aristophanes; and the Latine tongue by Virfill, Ovid, Horace, Silius Italicus, Lucanus, Lucretius, Ausonius, and Claudianus: so the English tongue is mightily enriched, and gorgeously invested in rare ornaments and respledent abiliments by Sir Philip Sidney, Spencer, Daniel, Drayton, Warner, Shakespeare, Marlow and Chapman

As the soule of Euphorbus was thought to live in Pythagoras : so the sweet wittie soule of Ovid lives in mellifluous & honytongued Shakespeare, witnes his Venus and Adonis, his Lucrece, his sugred Sonnets among his private frinds, &c…

As Plautus and Seneca are accounted the best for Comedy and Tragedy among the Latines : so Shakespeare among y’ English is the most excellent in both kinds for the stage; for Comedy, witnes his Ge’tleme’ of Verona, his Errors, his Love labors lost, his Love labours wonne, his Midsummer night dreame, & his Merchant of Venice : for Tragedy his Richard the 2. Richard the 3. Henry the 4. King John, Titus Andronicus and his Romeo and Juliet.
As Epius Stolo said, that the Muses would speake with Plautus tongue, if they would speak Latin : so I say that the Muses would speak with Shakespeares fine filed phrase, if they would speake English.”

Finally, the English were creating their own literary heritage. Up to now, if the English wanted to read great literature, they read Latin and Greek.

But Not Latin Enough

The Elizabethans and Jocabeans firmly established Iambic Pentameter as the great Meter of the English language. But the youth of each generation wants to reject and improve on their elders. George ChapmanThe Elizabethans and Jacobeans were old news to the eighteen and twenty year old poets who would found the restoration. They wanted to prove not just that they could find an alternative to quantitative meter, they wanted to prove that they could write just as well as the great Latin poets – English verse could be as great as Latin verse and in the same way. And so English poetry entered the age of the Heroic Couplet.

Poets had written heroic couplets before, but they were primarily open heroic couplets. The restoration poets wanted to reproduce the Latin distich – a verse from in which every rhyming couplet is also a distinct syntactic unit. This meant writing closed heroic couplets. If you want a clearer understanding of what this means, try my post About Heroic Couplets.

Anyway, the meter is still Iambic Pentameter, though the verse form has changed (Heroic, when attached to couplets, means couplets written in Iambic Pentameter). In other words, it’s not Iambic Pentameter with which the restoration poets were dissatisfied, it was unrhymed Iambic Pentameter (Blank Verse) which  restoration poets found inadequate. Alexander PopeLike the Elizabethans, they wanted English literature to be the equal of Latin and Greek literature. Blank verse wasn’t enough.

One of the best ways, perhaps, to get a feel for what restoration poets were trying to accomplish is to compare similar passages from translations. Below are three translations. The first is by George Chapman (Chapman’s Homer), an Elizabethan Poet and Dramatist, contemporary of Shakespeare and, some say, a friend of Shakespeare. Chapman writes Open Heroic Couplets – a sort of cross between blank verse and closed heroic couplets. The second translation is by Alexander Pope, a contemporary of Dryden and, with Dryden, the greatest poet of the restoration. He writes closed heroic couplets.

odyssey-book-12-chapman-pope

And now compare Pope’s translation to Robert Fitzgerald’s modern translation (1963). Fitzgerald writes blank verse and his translation is considered, along with Lattimore’s, the finest 20th Century translation available. I personally prefer Fitzgerald, if only because I prefer blank verse. Lattimore’s translation is essentially lineated prose (or free verse).

odyssey-book-12-pope-fitzgerald

Which of these translations do you like best? Fitzgerald’s is probably the most accurate. Which comes closest to capturing the spirit of Homer’s original – the poetry? I don’t think that anyone knows (since no one speaks the language that Homer spoke).

All three of these translations are written in Iambic Pentameter but, as you can see, they are all vastly different: Open Heroic Couplets, Closed Heroic Couplets, and Blank Verse. The reasons for writing them in Iambic Pentameter, in each case, was the same – an effort to reproduce in English what it must have been like for the ancient Greeks to read Homer’s Dactylic Hexameters.  Additionally, in the case of Chapman and Pope, it was an effort to legitimize the English language, once and for all, as a language capable of great literature.

Enough with the Romans and Greeks

Toward the end of the restoration, Iambic Pentameter was no longer a novelty. The meter had become the standard meter of the English language. At this point one may wonder why. Why not Iambic Tetrameter, or Iambic Hexameter? Or why not Trochaic Tetrameter?

These are questions for linguists, neuro-linguists and psycho-linguists.  No one really knows why Iambic Pentameter appeals to English speakers. Iambic Tetrameter feels too short for longer poems while hexameters feel wordy and overlong. There’s something about the length of the Iambic Pentameter line that suits the English language. Theories have been put forward, none of them without controversy. Some say that the Iambic Pentameter line is roughly equivalent to a human breath. M.L. Harvey, in his book Iambic Pentameter from Shakespeare to Browning (if memory serves) offers up such a theory.

Interestingly, every language finds has found its own normative meter. For the French language, its hexameters (or Alexandrines), for Latin and Greek it was dactylic Hexameter and Pentameter). Just as in English, no one can say why certain metrical lengths seem to have become the norm in their respective languages. There’s probably something universal (since the line lengths of the various languages all seem similar and we are all human)  but also unique to the qualities of each language.

Anyway, once Iambic Pentameter had been established, poets began to think that translating Homer and Virgil, yet again, was getting somewhat tiresome. English language Dramatists had already equaled and excelled the drama of the Romans and Greeks. The sonnet sequences of Drayton, Daniel, Shakespeare, Sidney and Spenser proved equal to the Italian Sonnets of Petrarch – in the minds of English poets at least. The restoration poets brought discursiveness to poetry. They used poetry to argue and debate. The one thing that was missing was an epic unique to the English language. Where was England’s Homer? – Virgil? Where was England’s Odyssey?

Enter Milton

Milton, at the outset, didn’t know he was going to write about Adam & Eve.

He was deeply familiar with Homer and Virgil.  He called Spenser his “original”, the first among English poets and a “better teacher than Aquinus“.  John MiltonBut Spenser’s Faerie Queen was written in the tradition of the English Romance. It lacked the elevated grandeur of a true epic and so Milton rejected it. He was also familiar with Dante’s Divine Comedy. But the reasons for Milton choosing the story of Adam & Eve are less important, in this post, than the verse form that he chose. At first, writing in the age of the heroic couplet, Milton’s intention was to use the verse of his peers.

But Milton was losing his eyesight. That and the constraints Heroic Couplets placed on narrative were too much for him. He chose Blank Verse. In the end, the genius of Milton’s prosody and narrative conferred on blank verse the status it needed.  Blank verse became the language of epic poetry – not heroic couplets; Milton’s blank verse was the standard against which the poetry of all other epic poems would be measured. From this point forward, later poets would primarily draw their inspiration from the English poets that had come before (not the poets of classical Greece or Rome).Paradise Lost Book 8 [Extract] Paradise Lost successfully rivaled the Odyssey and the Iliad.

The extract at right is from Book 8 of Paradise Lost. Adam, naturally enough, wants to know about the cosmos. Since reading up on Cosmology is one of my favorite pastimes, I’ve always liked this passage. The extract is just the beginning. Milton has an educated man’s knowledge of 17th Century Cosmology,  but must write as if he knows more than he does. In writing for Raphael however (the Angel who describes the Cosmos to Adam), Milton must  write as though Raphael admits less than he knows. The effect is curious. At the outset, Raphael says that the great Architect (God) wisely “concealed” the workings of the  Cosmos; that humanity, rather than trying to “scan” God’s secrets, “ought rather admire” the universe! This is a convenient dodge. Raphael then launches into a series of beautifully expressed rhetorical questions that neatly sum up Cosmological knowledge and ignorance in Milton’s day. It is a testament to the power of poetry & blank verse that such a thread-bare understanding of the universe can be made to sound so persuasively knowledgeable.  Great stuff.

With Milton, the English Language had all but established its own literature; and Iambic Pentameter, until the  20th Century, was the normative meter in which all English speaking poets would measure themselves.

The Novelty Wears Off

After the restoration poets, the focus of poets was less on meter than on subject matter. Poets didn’t write Iambic Pentameter because they were thirsting for a new expressive meter in their own language, but because it’s use was expected. Predictably, over the next century and a half, Iambic Pentameter became rigid and rule bound.  The meter was now a tradition which poets were expected to work within.

John Keats: The Fall of HyperionThis isn’t to say that great poetry wasn’t written during the eighteenth and nineteenth century. Keats’ Hyperion, short as it was, equaled and exceeded the masterful Blank Verse of Milton (perhaps some of the most beautiful blank verse ever written) – but the beauty was in his phrasing, imagery and language, not in any novel use of Iambic Pentameter. Wordsworth wrote The Prelude and Browning wrote an entire novel, The Ring & the Book, using blank verse. There was Shelley and Tennyson, but none of them developed Iambic Pentameter beyond the first examples of the Elizabethans.

The Fall of Iambic Pentameter

By the end of the Victorian Era (1837-1901), and in the hands of the worst poets, Iambic Pentameter had become little more than an exercise in filling-in-the-blanks. The rules governing the meter were inflexible and predictable. It was time for a change. The poet most credited with making that change is Ezra Pound. Whether or not Pound was, himself, a great poet, remains debatable. Most would say that he was not. What is indisputable is his influence on and associations with poets who were great or nearly great: Yeats, T.S. Eliot (whose poetry he closely edited), Ezra PoundFrost, William Carlos Williams, Marriane Moore. It was Pound who forcefully rejected the all too predictable sing-song patterns of the worst Victorian verse, who helped initiate the writing of free verse among English speaking poets. And the free verse that Pound initiated has become the indisputably dominant verse form of the 20th century and 21st century, more pervasive and ubiquitous than any other verse form in the history of English Poetry – more so than all metrical poems combined. While succeeding generations during the last 100 years, in one way or another, have rejected almost every element of the prior generation’s poetics, none of them have meaningfully questioned their parents’ verse form. The ubiquity and predictability of free verse has become as stifling as Iambic Pentameter during the Victorian era.

But not all poets followed Pound’s lead.

A wonderful thing happened. With the collapse of the Victorian aesthetic, poets who still wrote traditional poetry were also freed to experiment. Robert Frost, William Butler Yeats, E.E. Cummings, Wallace Stevens: Idea of Order at Key WestWallace Stevens all infused Iambic Pentameter with fresh ideas and innovations. Stevens, Frost and Yeats stretched the meter in ways that it hadn’t been stretched since the days of the Elizabethan and Jacobean Dramatists. Robert Frost’s genius for inflection in speech was greatly enhanced by his anapestic variant feet. His poems, The Road Not Taken, and Birches both exhibit his innovative use of anapests to lend his verse a more colloquial feel. The links are to two of my own posts.

T.S. Eliot interspersed passages of free verse with blank verse.

Wallace Stevens, like Thomas Middleton, pushed Iambic Pentameter to the point of dissolution. But Stevens’ most famous poem, The Idea of Order at Key West, is elegant blank verse – as skillfully written as any poem before it.

Yeats also enriched his meter with variant feet that no Victorian poet would have attempted. His great poem, Sailing to Byzantium, is written in blank verse, as is The Second Coming.

Yeats, Frost, Stevens, Eliot, Pound all came of age during the closing years of the Victorian Era. They carry on the tradition of the last 500 years, informed by the innovations of their contemporaries. They were the last. Poets growing up after the moderns have grown up in a century of free verse. As with all great artistic movements, many practitioners of the new free-verse aesthetic were quick to rationalize their aesthetic by vilifying the practitioners of traditional poetry. Writers of metrical poetry were accused (and still are) of anti-Americanism (poetry written in meter and rhyme were seen as beholden to British poetry),  patriarchal oppression (on the baseless assertion that meter was a male paradigm),  of moral and ethical corruption. Hard to believe? The preface to Rebel Angels writes:

One of the most notorious attacks upon poets who have the affrontery to use rhyme and meter was Diane Wakoski’s essay, “The New Conservatism in American Poetry” (American Book Review, May-June 1986), which denounced poets as diverse as John Holander, Robert Pinsky, T.S. Eliot, and Robert Frost for using techniques Wakoski considered Eurocentric. She is particularly incensed with younger poets writing in measure.

The preface goes on to note that Wakoski called Holander, “Satan”. No doubt, calling the use of Meter and Rhyme a “Conservative” movement (this at the height of Reaganism), was arguably the most insulting epithet Wakoski could hurl. So, religion, nationalism and politics were all martialed against meter and rhyme. The hegemony of free verse was and is hardly under threat. The vehemence of Wakoski’s attacks, anticipated and echoed by others, has the ring of an aging and resentful generation fearing (ironically) the demise of its own aesthetics at the hand of its children (which is why she was “particularly incensed with younger poets). How dare they reject us? Don’t they understand how important we are?

But such behavior is hardly limited to writers of free verse. The 18th century Restoration poets behaved just the same, questioning the character of any poet who didn’t write heroic couplets. Artistic movements throughout the ages have usually rationalized their own tastes at the expense of their forebears while, ironically, expecting and demanding that ensuing generations behave.

Poets who choose to write Iambic Pentameter after the moderns are swimming against a tidal wave of conformity – made additionally difficult because so many poets in and out of academia no longer comprehend the art of metrical poetry. In some halls, it’s a lost art.

blank-versePart of the cause is that poets of the generation immediately following the moderns “treated Iambic Pentameter more as a point of departure than as a form consistently sustained.” Robert B. Shaw, in his book, Blank Verse: A Guide to its History and Use, goes on to write, “the great volume and variety of their modernist-influenced experiments make this period a perplexing one for the young poet in search of models.” (p. 161)

Poets like Delmore Schwartz and Randall Jarrell were uneven poets – moving in and out of Iambic Pentameter. Their efforts aren’t compelling. Karl Shapiro brought far more knowledge to bear. Robert Shaw offers up a nice quote from Shapiro:

The absence of rhyme and stanza form invites prolixity and diffuseness–so easy is it to wander on and on. And blank verse [Iambic Pentameter] has to be handled in a skillful. ever-attentive way to compensate for such qualities as the musical, architectural, and emphatic properties of rhyme; for the sense of direction one feels within a well-turned stanza; and for the rests that come in stanzas. There are no helps. It is like going into a thick woods in unfamiliar acres. (p. 137)

And some poets like to go into thick woods and unfamiliar acres. (This is, after all, still a post on why poets write Iambic Pentameter. And here is one poet’s answer.) The writing of a metrical poem, Shapiro seems to be saying, forces one to navigate in ways that free verse poets don’t have to. The free verse poet must consider content as the first and foremost quality of his or her poem. For the poet writing meter and rhyme, Shapiro implies, there is a thicket of considerations that go beyond content.

There is also John Ciardi, Howard Nemerov and, perhaps the greatest of his generation, Richard Wilbur. Wilbur writes:

There are not so many basic rhythms for American and English poets, but the possibilities of varying these rhythms are infinite. One thing modern poets do not write, thank heaven, is virtuoso poems of near perfect conformity to basic rhythms as Byron, Swinburne, and Browning did in their worst moments. By good poets of any age, rhythm is generally varied cleverly and forcefully to abet the expressive purposes of the whole poem. (p. 189)

By rhythms, Wilbur is referring to meters. Wilbur is essentially stating that when the good poet chooses to write meter, (Iambic Pentameter let’s say), he sees the rhythm (the metrical pattern) as something which, when cleverly varied, “[abets] the expressive purposes of the whole poem”. It’s a poetic and linguistic tool unavailable to the free verse poet. Period.

Robert Frost, who lived into the latter half of the 20th Century, famously quipped in response to free-verse poet Carl Sandburg:

“Writing free verse is like playing tennis with the net down.”

Rebel AngelsAs free verse asserted an absolute domination over the poetic aesthetic, writing meter and rhyme increasingly became an act of non-conformity, even defiance. It’s in this spirit that a small group of poets, who ended up being called “New Formalists”, published a book called Rebel Angels in the mid 1990’s – the emphasis being on Rebel. The most recognizable names in the book were Dana Goioia, R.S. Gwynn,  and Timothy Steele. The preface, already quoted above, attempts to frame its poets as revolutionaries from word one:

Revolution, as the critic Monroe Spears has observed, is bred in the bone of the American character. That character has been manifest in modern American poetry in particular. So it is no surprise that the most significant development in recent American poetry has been a resurgence of meter and rhyme, as well as narrative, among large numbers of younger poets, after a period when these essential elements of verse had been surpressed.

The word “American” turns up in each of the three (first three) introductory sentences. Lest there be any mistake, the intent was to frame themselves not as Eurocentric poets beholden to an older European tradition, but as American Revolutionaries. So what does that make the poets and critics who criticize them? – un-American? -establishmentarian? – conformist? – royalist conservatives?

So it goes.

If the intent was to initiate a new movement, the movement landed with a thud. The book is out of print and, as far as  I know, few to none of the books by those “large numbers of younger poets” have actually made it onto bookshelves. The poems in the anthology are accomplished and competent, but not transcendent. None of the poets wrote anything for the ages.

The rebellion was short lived.

Modern Iambic Pentameter

Nowadays, I personally don’t notice the fierce partisanship of the previous decades. Most of the fiercest dialectic seems to be between the various schools of free verse poetics. Traditional poetry, the poetry of meter and rhyme, is all but irrelevant even as all the best selling poetry remains in meter and rhyme! – Robert Frost, Yeats, E.E. Cummings, Stevens, Shakespeare, Shelley, Keats, Millay, Dr. Seuss, Mother Goose and the thousands of nursery rhymes that are sold to new parents.

The Green Gate: ExtractBut why do poets write Iambic Pentameter nowadays?

As far as I know, I am one of the few poets of my own generation (Generation X) writing in form, along with A.E. Stallings and Catherine Tufariello. And why do I write Iambic Pentameter? Because I like it and because I can produce effects that no poet can produce writing free verse. I’ve talked about some of those effects when analyzing poems by Shakespeare, his Sonnet 116, John Donne’s “Death be not Proud”, and Frost’s Birches. I use all of the techniques, found in these poems, in my own poetry.

I write about traditional poetry with the hope that an ostensibly lost art form can be fully enjoyed and  appreciated.

One of my favorite moments in the Star Wars series is when Ben Kenobi kills General Grievous with a blaster instead of a Light Saber. Kenobi tosses down the blaster saying: “So uncivilized.”  Blasters do the job. But it’s the Light Saber that makes the Jedi. There are just a few poets who really understand meter and rhyme.

But enough with delusions of grandeur. At right is an extract from one of my own poems. You can click on the image  to see the full poem. One of my latest poems, written in blank verse, is Erlkönigen.

To write poetry using meter or rhyme, these days, is to be a fringe poet – out of step and, in some cases, treated with disdain and contempt by poets writing in the dominant free verse  aesthetic.

There has never been a better time to be a fringe poet! It’s usually where the most innovative work is done.

  • Note: There are critics & poets who deny that meter “exists”. I tend to group them with flat-earthers and moon landing denialists. Dan Schneider, of Cosmoetica, is one of them. If you’re curious to read my response to some of his writing, read Critiquing the Critic: Is Meter Real.

One Last Comparison

Going back to Homer’s Odyssey. One of the genres in which iambic pentameter still flourishes is in translating, suitably enough, Latin and Greek epic poetry. Here is one more modern Blank Verse (Iambic Pentameter) translation by Allen Mandelbaum, compared to Robert Fitzgerald’s (which we’ve already seen above). Mandalbaum’s translation was completed in 1990 – Fitzgerald’s in 1963. Seeing the same passage and content treated by two different poets gives an idea of how differently Iambic Pentameter can be treated even in modern times. The tone and color of the verse, in the hands of Fitzgerald and Mandelbaum, is completely different. I still can’t decide which I like better, though readers familiar with the original claim that Fitzgerald’s is more faithful to the tone of the original.

odyssey-book-12-fitzgerald-mandelbaum

  • Here’s a good article on blank verse, mostly because of it’s generous links: Absolute Astronomy.

Afterthoughts • August 7 2010

With some distance from this post, I realize that I never discussed meter’s origins. And it is this: Song. In every culture that I’ve explored (in terms of their oldest recorded poetry) all poems originated as lyrics to popular songs. Recently discovered Egyptian poems strongly suggest  that they originated as lyrics to songs. If you read Chinese poetry, you will discover (dependent on the translator’s willingness to note the fact)  that a great many of the poems were written to the tune of this or that well-known song. Likewise, the meter of ancient Greek poetry is also said to be based on popular song tunes. Many scholars believe that the Odyssey was originally chanted by story tellers though no one knows whether the recitation might have been accompanied.

The first poems from the English continent are Anglo-Saxon. The alliterative meter of these poems, as argued by some, are a reflection that they too were written to the tune of this or that song. The early 20th century critic William Ellery Leonard, for example, held “that our meter of “Sing a Song of Six-Pence” is directly descended from the Anglo-Saxon meter of Beowulf” [Creative Poetry: A Study of its Organic Principles p. 252]. Though none of his poetry survives, Aldhelm, bishop of Sherborne (d. 709), is said to have performed his secular songs while accompanied on the harp. None of Aldhelm’s Anglo-Saxon poetry remains. What is known to us is related by the ancient English historian Willliam of Malmesbury.

In short, meter is the remnant of music’s time signature.

The roots of Iambic Pentameter are in song (just as meter in every language and culture appears to be rooted in song and music). And it’s for this reason that the twaddle of a Dan Schneider is so misleading. Likewise,  poets like Marriane Moore who postured over the artificiality of meter, were ignorant of meter’s origins. Arguments over the naturalness of meter are irrelevant. Iambic Pentameter is no more natural to the English language than the elaborate meter and rhyme of a rapper. It’s an art.

And it’s this that separates Free Verse from Traditional Poetry.

  • Image above right: Fragment of an ancient Greek song.

Conversely, free verse is not rooted in music but only imitates the typographical presentation (the lineation) of metrical poetry. Why make this distinction? Because it’s another reason why poets write Iambic Pentameter. Writing metrical poetry is an acknowledgement of poetry’s musical roots. Meter acknowledges our human capacity to find rhythm and pattern within language (as within all things). I won’t argue that it’s a better way to write poetry. However, I will argue that writing meter is to partake in a tradition of poetry that is ancient and innate.

Vernacular, Colloquial, Common, Dialectal

[This is a relatively old post and there has been a lot of interest in it (given the number of hits it receives per day). The article has undergone a drastic revision but even now I think one could dedicate a book to the subject. This post is thin gruel, all considered. I give just a few paragraphs to each poet but at least this may serve as a starting point. My apologies to those looking for a far more detailed and thorough treatment. Maybe on some upcoming posts I’ll go into more detail with specific poets.  Last revision Jan 1, 2009]

Wikipedia, as of my writing this, defines Colloquial as language “considered to be characteristic of or only appropriate for casual, ordinary, familiar, or informal conversation rather than formal speech or writing.”

The Challenge

A number of modern poets have said that they consider the proper voice for poetry to be ordinary speech. Some phrase this as the responsibility of the poet, others equate this choice as a political statement and for others it is a gender issue.

The reasons poets give, however, is not so interesting to me as the practical exercise, especially when it comes to the fusion of colloquial rhythms with metrical poetry. So my focus is on poets who write metrical (or formal) poetry with the hope that what I write can be applied to free verse poets as well.

The question is why, over a stretch of four centuries, there have been so few poets who write colloquially in metered verse. The answer, in part, is that it takes a special confluence of talents – the ability to work within meter with ease and mastery along with the talent to hear and reproduce the tone and inflection of ordinary speech. The two abilities don’t always go together. Add to this the circumstance of time and place, and it’s no wonder such a poet is so rare.

Back in the Day

william-shakespeareWhat makes writing colloquially in metered verse so difficult is that the rhythm of colloquial speech frequently runs counter to the regular patterns of accentual syllabic verse. It didn’t always used to be so difficult. When Shakespeare needed to write colloquially or dialectally, and needed to do it in Blank Verse, he could use all sorts of metrical cheats and did – elevating such devices to an art form. Here are just some of those tricks, drawn from Shakepeare’s Use of the Arts of Language, by Sister Miriam Joseph.

If Shakespeare needed an extra syllable, he used prosthesis to change rattle to berattle.

If he needed to change a trochaic word to a dactyl, he used epenthesis, changing meetly to meeterly.

If he needed to omit a syllable he could use aphaeresis, changing against to gainst.

If he needed to omit a syllable from the middle of the word he used syncope, changing prosperous to prosp’rous.

In short, Shakespeare could freely omit or add syllables as necessary. It was the norm and was prized in Elizabethan times when done skillfully. It was through the use of prosthesis and proparalepsis (adding a syllable to the end of a word), that many of our modern words were coined by Shakespeare. The bottom line is that using these techniques made writing colloquially and dialectally, in meter (Iambic Pentameter), much, much easier. Consider the Nurse in Romeo & Juliet, one of the most memorably colloquial characters in all of Shakespeare:

Lord, how my head aches! what a head have I!
It beats as it would fall in twenty pieces.
My back o’ t’ other side,–O, my back, my back!
Beshrew your heart for sending me about,
To catch my death with jaunting up and down!

In the second line Shakespeare uses the figure elipsis or eclipsis to eliminate the word if and the figure apocope to eliminate the last syllable of the preposition into. In other words, the line should read: It beats as if it would fall into twenty pieces. However, this would introduce two anapests (in the third & fourth foot) into the Iambic line, an embarrassing disaster in Shakespeare’s day.

scansion-romeo-juliet

I’m not sure a modern poet would dare to use the same techniques. Then, in the third line, the nurse’s colloquial speech once again threatens to rupture the Iambic Pentameter pattern.

scansion-romeo-juliet-2

This could probably be scanned differently, but this is my stab it. I’ve chosen to treat the third foot as a heavy feminine ending before a midline break (the comma after O). One could argue, perhaps, that the midline break really comes after side. In which case it would read:

scansion-romeo-juliet-3

In this case, the fourth foot would be a kind of double-onset after the midline break (after the word side). In both cases, the scansions are easily within the realm of acceptable iambic pentameter variants. In fact, the lines are mostly iambic. Shakespeare, of course, pulls this off by using the figure syncope, removal of a letter or syllable from the midle of a word – o’t’other side. If he hadn’t used this figure, the second foot would have been an anapest. In Shakespeare’s day, this anapest, along with the heavy feminine ending or the double onset (however you choose to scan it) would have exceeded the bounds of a tolerable variant.

A brief note on Shakespeare’s use of Proverbs. Of all the poets who put pen to paper, Shakespeare is the most conversant in the proverbial lore of this day. His mind was filled with proverbs and their use is like a multi-colored thread through the entirety of his output. At some point I may write a post on his use of proverbs. They give to his verse and to the voice of his characters an earthiness and familiarity that we hear as colloquial  and vernacular. But Shakespeare wasn’t unique in his love of proverbs. The Elizabethans were avid collectors of proverbs and they were taught them from their childhood schooldays. All the great Elizabethan playwrights sprinkled their writing with proverbial lore – if not so skillfully as Shakespeare.

Robert Burns

robert-burns-2One of the most dialectal, as opposed to colloquial, of English poets is Robert Burns, so much so that some of his poems are almost incomprehensible without annotation.

The night was still, and o’er the hill
The moon shone on the castle wa’;
The mavis sang, while dew-drops hang
Around her on the castle wa’.

Sae merrily they danc’d the ring,
Frae e’enin till the cocks did craw,
And aye the owerword o’ the spring
Was Irvine’s bairns are bonie a’.

This wonderful little tetrameter poem was written in rhyming couplets. Burns uses several metrical “cheats” to fit the dialect within the feet – all the same as those in Shakespeare’s day. He uses syncope to change over to o’er and evening to e’ening. In both cases he avoided an anapest. Notice that he doesn’t elide the word merrily. Even though we might, ourselves, be tempted to pronounce it with two syllable – merr’ly – Burns clearly wants it pronounced as a three syllable word – mer-ri-lyotherwise the solidly iambic patter breaks down.

Now, there’s one line that is especially tricky. How do you read: And aye the owerword o’the spring? One might be tempted to read the line as follows:

scansion-robert-burns

However, this would give us a dactyl in the third foot – something which, up to now, Burns has studiously avoided. The elipsis o’the, reducing two syllables to one, gives us a clue as to how Burns would like us to read the line.

scansion-robert-burns-2

With this reading the perfectly iambic pattern of the lyric is preserved. In fact, Burns (for all his dialect) is far, far more conservative than Shakespeare ever was and even Milton! His poems are all, by in large, strictly iambic.  And he accomplishes this feat using a variety of metrical “cheats”. Burns, it seems, valued metrical regularity over the irregular pull of dialectal diction. Another interesting facet of Burns’ poems is that, for all the dialectal vocabulary, his use of colloquialism or the vernacular voice is relatively normal. He may use colloquial or proverbial phrases, but not in any way that truly sets him apart from other poets. From A Dedication:

Be to the poor like ony whunstane,
And haud their noses to the grunstane;

The phrase the poor like ony whunstane has a proverbial ring to it. The colloquial expression hold their noses to the grindstone is typical of Burns’ use. Unlike Shakespeare, who poetically enriches his proverbs, Burns writes them out as he’s heard them. Having said all that, his use of these effects, when added to the rich dialectal voice of his poetry, unquestionably lends his poetry (despite their strict metrical devices) an air of the commonplace and the common voice.

But my point, in all this, is to demonstrate just how many metrical cheats poets were able to employ when writing colloquially or otherwise.

john-clareJohn Clare

John Clare’s career began as Burns’ ended. Like Burns he wrote about common things, but did so without  Burns’ virtuosity.When other poets were writing (or attempting to write) with a more elevated and heightened style, in a High Mimetic Mode, Clare was writing about common things in a common voice.

From The Nightingale’s Nest:

Hush! let the wood-gate softly clap for fear
The noise might drive her from her home of love,
From here I’ve heard her many a merry year
At morn, at eve, nay, all the livelong day,
As though she lived on song.

The phrase many a merry year is colloquial, as well as all the livelong day – an idiomatic & vernacular English (as opposed to uniquely American) expression. Like Burns, though, Clare is very careful to stay within the metrical foot – archly conservative in his use of variants. The only variants I could find were trochaic first feet (blank verse).  In the lines above, one might be tempted to read the third line as a variant.

scansion-clare

This reading would create an anapestic fourth foot. In the entirety of the poem, no line veers from ten syllables and hardly veers from Iambic. Although Clare hasn’t used syncope or elipsis to slur the syllables, the correct reading is almost certainly as follows:

scansion-clare-21

This reading retains the strong Iambic Pentameter pattern of the poem. It again shows how poets, writing in meter, expected to fuse colloquial diction with the demands of meter. Clare’s omission of elipsis was a sign of the future – when more modern poets, writing in meter, would omit the visible indication of slurred syllables on the presumption that a knowledgeable reader of metered verse would slur the syllables without prompting – other modern poets – not aware of this tradition – simply read their lines as anapests and see up to two or three anapests as an acceptable variant. My own feeling is that more than two anapests in a line tends to be a departure from Iambic Pantameter rather than a variant.

At other times, there was no need for Clare to use such figures of grammar. His colloquial speech fit effortlessly into the pattern of whatever meter he was writing:

Hark! there she is as usual- let’s be hush –
For in this blackthorn-clump, if rightly guessed,
Her curious house is hidden. Part aside
Those hazel branches in a gentle way
And stoop right cautious ‘neath the rustling boughs…

Such colloquial phrases as if rightly guessed and stoop right cautious fit neatly in the iambic pattern. Clare’s only concession was use aphaeresis when changing beneath to ‘neath – the only such figure in the entirety of the blank verse poem.

Most of John Clare’s poetry follows this similar pattern. An attentive reader can deduce that he wrote quickly, his verse frequently filled with words that do little more than fill out the meter, but his voice is always at ease and filled with the sort of speech and rhythms that seldom found their way into the more rarefied poeticizing of his contemporaries.

That said, and like Burns, Clare’s meter always remains rigid and archly conservative.

In fact, after the Elizabethans, the history of meter is one of ever increasing rigidity. The plasticity of a developing language hardened. By the end of the 17th Century words and their usages were all but standardized in comparison to the free-wheeling heydey of Shakespeare’s period. What this meant was that these techniques, rather than being an outgrowth of (and contributing to) a developing language, were becoming tools of poetry rather than of language. The coinage of new words declined rapidly and was even frowned on. Concomitant to this reining in of loose canons was an increasingly formal tone in poetry. Erudition, refinement and dignity were the bywords of Restoration Poetry – the stuff of Pope, Dryden , Davenant, Milton – not colloquialism. The malleable freedom of blank verse gave way to the strict accounting of heroic couplets. So, even though poets had the tools available to them, the times weren’t right. Colloquialism no longer found its way into the poetry of the leading poets.

After the restoration, even as the tyranny of heroic couplets finally began to give way, the rigidity of the restoration left its stamp of the following generations. The extravagant adventurousness of the Elizabethans were all but forgotten and seldom imitated, even as the nineteenth century fell under the sway of Keats, Shelley, Wordsworth and the great Victorains – Browning and Tennyson.

By the end of the nineteenth century many of the techniques used to fulfill the demands of meter and rhyme had become no more than mannerisms. It was to this that Pound was reacting when he rejected the sing-song meter of the Victorians. He believed that the only way to liberate poetry from the stale exigencies of meter and rhyme was to liberate it from meter and rhyme. Free verse was born and the exigencies were thrown out the window. They were no longer needed.

To some poets, though, Pound was taking the easy way out.

A few Poets looked for a new way to fuse the colloquial voice with metrical poetry.

Colloquialism without the Cheats

ea-robinsonE.A. Robinson was already meeting the demands of meter without recourse to the tired devices of his contemporaries — the tired metrical cheats, the flowery language and expostulations. Robinson’s poetry, for the first time in English language poetry,  reunited the common, colloquial voice with the demands of formal poetry.

The Blank Verse poem Aunt Imogen is a fine example of Robinson’s more vernacular and supple style. There are no thees or thous, no syncope, no elipsis, no aphaerisis.

The verse begins with an informality that was, up to this point, unheard of .

Aunt Imogen was coming, and therefore
The children—Jane, Sylvester, and Young George—
Were eyes and ears; for there was only one
Aunt Imogen to them in the whole world,
And she was in it only for four weeks
In fifty-two.

Knowing that the verse is iambic pentameter blank verse, we know a few things about the first line:

aunt-imogen

The first is that the first & last syllable of Imogen receives the strong stress, not the second syllable. The second thing we know is that therefore is pronounced differently than nowadays, with the second syllable receiving the stress – there-fore’. A quick search in Webster’s (not the dinky collegiate version but the old one the size of a cinder block) confirms that the older pronunciation of therefore was more prevalent in Robinson’s day. (Trochaic feet, in the fifth foot of an Iambic Pentameter line, is extremely rare before the middle of the 20th Century.) Robinson doesn’t mind the Pyrrhic fourth foot, willing to exchange metrical rigidity for phrasal flexibility.

After the informality of the first line Robinson offers up some American vernacular. “Were eyes and ears” comes from the expression all ears, a uniquely American Idiomatic expression. Then the next lines seek to echo the voice of the children saying that  “there was only one/Aunt Imogen to them in the whole world. It is the kind of exaggerated expression children are prone to but which, up to now, rarely found its way into serious poetry. Robinson ends this first sentence with the following: “And she was in it only for four weeks
In fifty-two”.
The closing words have the feeling of a conversational aside, adding to the air of informality and colloquial speech – something which Frost was to develop even further. There is, deliberately, no rhetorical heightening in any  of these lines.

In terms of the meter, Robinson relaxes his strict accounting, allowing the colloquialism to disrupt the iambic pattern.

robinson-in-the-whole-world

I read the first of the two lines as containing what’s called a double foot – a Pyrrhic-Spondee. (The double foot is an Iambic Pentameter variant which Sidney, an early pioneer of Iambic Pentameter, made frequent use of.)  The next line mirrors the first, though this time I read the line as having five feet. Though it probably was not deliberate on Robinson’s part, the second line helps re-affirm the Iambic Pentameter pattern without sacrificing Robinson’s colloquial effects. The effect is supple and flexible. It is a new voice in the poetry of blank verse.

There’s more to say about this poem but I think another poem will better demonstrate the other salient feature of Robinson’s verse – his magnificent Sonnet “The Sheaves”. He generally resists altering the natural grammar of spoken English for the sake of rhyme or metrical rhythm. He finds ways to preserve normal speech patterns while preserving the integrity of the Iambic Pentameter pattern. This is significant. Up until Robinson, poets regularly reversed grammatical units depending on what Iamb or Rhyme they needed.

For example, consider Wordsworth’s Scorn not the Sonnet:

“the melody
Of this small lute gave ease to Petrarch’s wound;
A thousand times this pipe did Tasso sound”

The last line reverses the normal grammatical order for the sake of the rhyme wound/sound. Allowing that we don’t use the auxillary verb do as an expletive, one would normall say: Tasso did sound this pipe a thousand times or Tasso sounded this pipe a thousand times.

Robinson tries to dispense with such devices, rhetorical heightening, the use of the antiquated pronouns thee or thou for a much more familiar and “low American”  colloquial voice or or “low mimetic style” (See my post on the Oratorical Style for a discussion of high and low mimetic styles – the discussion is in reference to Fantasy Writers but applies to poetry as well. Apart from the poets mentioned in this post, and up until the 20th Century, most poets writing in meter chose to write in a high mimetic style, including Emily Dickinson.)

Where long the shadows of the wind had rolled,
Green wheat was yielding to the change assigned;
And as by some vast magic undivined
The world was turning slowly into gold.
Like nothing that was ever bought or sold
It waited there, the body and the mind;
And with a mighty meaning of a kind
That tells the more the more it is not told.

So in a land where all days are not fair,
Fair days went on till on another day
A thousand golden sheaves were lying there,
Shining and still, but not for long to stay —
As if a thousand girls with golden hair
Might rise from where they slept and go away.

Robinson’s concessions are change assigned, magic undivined and long to stay (where one would normally expect assigned change, undivined magic and to stay long. Other than that, the poem sounds thoroughly modern to an American ear. Whitman can sound modern to an American ear, but Whitman set aside meter to do it. Robinson didn’t and that, and if only in this respect, is all the more impressive.

Robert Frost: A Master of Colloquialism in Poetry

robert-frost-youngAfter Robinson, Robert Frost became the unrivaled twentieth century master of the colloquial. Frost, through skill, genius or sheer determination, dispensed with any metrical concessions. His verse is free of grammatical inversions, syncope, elision or any of the other metrical concessions. And there are no wasted words – words merely to pad the meter. His colloquial phrases strain the meter (and he was criticized for it even by his students – Robert Francis). But nonetheless, he mastered both the demands of formal poetry and colloquial sense and discursiveness – the halting, digressive, deliberative and informal pattern of our daily talk.

We don’t speak in five paragraph essays, but feel our away forward, our thoughts shaped by what we build on. This is the tone that Frost mastered.  His uniqueness, in this respect, and the difficulty of his art is attested to by the fact that, so far, few poets and fewer poems have achieved anything comparable.

‘The wonder is I didn’t see at once.
I never noticed it from here before.
I must be wonted to it – that’s the reason.
The little graveyard where my people are!
So small the window frames the whole of it.
Not so much larger than a bedroom, is it?
There are three stones of slate and one of marble,
Broad-shouldered little slabs there in the sunlight
On the sidehill. We haven’t to mind those.
But I understand: it is not the stones,
But the child’s mound’

~ Home Burial: Robert Frost

Notice how Frost imitates the deliberative pattern of colloquial speech. The husband says: “I never noticed it from here before.” Then, colloquially, he reflects: “I must be wonted to it“. The poem is written in Blank Verse and the phrase fits neatly within the meter.  Outside the sphere of Dramatic Verse, no other poet before Frost ever introduced the everyday pattern of speech into verse.  This was Frost’s innovation. Notice the dialectal effect of “We haven’t to mind those.”

Dictionary.com defines Dialect “as a variety of a language that is distinguished from other varieties of the same language by features of phonology, grammar, and vocabulary, and by its use by a group of speakers who are set off from others geographically or socially.”

The pithiness of “We haven’t to mind those” is characteristic of the New England dialect still alive and well, up in Vermont – a tight, clipped and northerly accent. However, the dialectal language strains against the meter.

scansion-home-burial

This is a hard line to scan and don’t hold me to it. “We have” is iambic but from there, the dialect of the voice plays against the meter – the sort of liberty that Frost was criticized for by more traditional poets.  Nevertheless, Frost just manages to fuse the colloquial tone with the overall Iambic Pentameter pattern (the variant feet are an allowable variant).

That’s hard to do, especially for modern poets. One has to have an ear for colloquial language, for meter, and how to fit the two together. My own poetry shows the learning process. In my poem Come Out!, the first of my poems where I was able to fuse colloquial speech and meter, there are still some poetic turns of phrases that, if I were to write it now, I might avoid.

But I might be taught,
I should supposeI can’t say I see how.
A man must partly give up being a man
With womenfolk.  We could have some arrangement
By which I’d bind myself to keep hands off
Anything special you’re a-mind to name.

The phrase I should suppose is a Frostian touch followed by the colloquial asseveration  I can’t say I see how. It’s worth noting that he could have written I can’t see how but he needed the extra iamb |say I| to fill the meter. Because the phrase is speech-like and feels natural, the filling out of the line feels natural. But there’s another Frostian feature of the line, and that is the tension between natural speech pattern and the Iambic Pentameter pattern. A colloquial reading might go something like this:

robert-frost-i-should-suppose-colloquial-reading

This, at least, is how I would expect a local to say it. But something Frost is renowned for, and probably because of the tension between phrase and meter, is his tendency to put the expected metrical stress on words that normally might not receive stress. Here’s how the phrase reads if one takes the meter into account:

robert-frost-i-should-suppose

With this second reading, should takes empasis. The husband knows he should be more cognizant of his wife’s experience. And we know that this is how Frost meant the line to be read because the husband immediately avers, reconsiders, saying I can’t say I see how. In this phrase the iambic stress is on can’t and I. The husband has already determined that he can’t see through his wife’s experience and probably won’t. Not I he says.

The effect finds parallels in A Swinger of Birches, among other poems. The speaker seems to turn back, aver, reconsider what he’s spoken just as we do in everyday speech.

You may see their trunks arching in the woods
Years afterwards, trailing their leaves on the ground,
Like girls on hands and knees that throw their hair
Before them over their heads to dry in the sun.
But I was going to say when Truth broke in
With all her matter-of-fact about the ice-storm
,
I should prefer to have some boy bend them

The colloquialism of the italicized lines, like many of the lines, plays hard against the meter. In this sample, there is only one line that is indisputable Iambic Pentamter: Like girl on hands and knees that throw their hair. Taken at face value, the iambic pattern is lost, breaks down in these lines, but there is the echo of an older reading in these lines (and it is with this knowledge that Frost allowed himself some variance).

For instance, in Shakespeare’s day a little syncope and elipsis would have regularized the line :

Before them over their heads to dry in the sun
Before them o’er   their heads to dry i’th’sun

But he was going to to say when Truth broke in

[Where going is slurred via elision to read as one syllable.]

matter-of-fact-elision

On the other hand, Frost allows himself a more flexibility, willing to end a final foot with a trochee: bend them; willing to vary the Pentameter with a Tetrameter line having two anapests.

frost-anapestic-lines

In short, Frost was skilled at matching colloquial phrase to the metrical line, but he was also willing to deviate from the pattern when the phrasing mattered more than the meter. It was a flexibility that served him beautifully, and which he seemed to beautifully balance (never completely losing the iambic pentameter feel) – a flexibility which, as we will see, no modern poets writing in meter seem to have absorbed from Frost – despite their study and admiration of the poet. As for myself, my own poem All Hallows’ Eve works toward that ideal, along with some newer poems I have’t posted yet.

[For a look at meter and colloquialism in another Frost poem, check out my post on A Road Not Taken.]

After Frost

richard-wilburRichard Wilbur , probably considered the natural heir to Frost, seldom touches on the colloquial voice the way Robert Frost does. His voice and technique harken back to an older poetry – to Robinson mor than to Frost. Not only are Wilbur’s poems frequently formal in structure, but they mostly sound formal, even his free verse. The are spoken with an air of formality or literariness that works against the colloquial voice. Consider “Seed Leaves”, dedicated to R.F. (Robert Frost?). The poem begins:

Dislodging the earth crumbs
Here something stubborn comes,
It comes up bending double,
And looks like a green staple.
And making crusty rubble.

The inverted grammar of the first line, for the sake of the rhyming “comes/crumbs” firmly undercuts the feeling of a colloquial voice. The subject/verb inversion as much as announces the presence of Poet, much as one clears his throat before he speaks. In his latest collection, “Mayflies”, perhaps the most masterful , none of the poems are written in a voice other than his own — always the poet speaking. “The Crow’s Nest” begins:

That lofty stand of trees beyond the field,
Which in the storm of summer stood revealed…

Once again, this time in the second line, the normal order of subject, object and verb gives way to the exigencies of rhyme. And this is the trap of formal poetry, which only Frost seems to have overcome– how to write a metrical and rhyming poem while preserving the vernacular, colloquial voice.

Timothy Steele

timothy-steeleTimothy Steele, a contemporary poet well-liked for his skill in formal poetry, succeeds in areas where Wilbur does not. In one of his most Frostian poems, he largely succeeds, but Steele pays a dear price. It is excessively derivative both in voice and subject matter, as though Steele couldn’t write a colloquial poem without adopting not just Frost’s voice, but also his subject matter. Consider “Timothy“:

Although the field lay cut in swaths,
Grass at the edge survived the crop:
Stiff stems. with lateral blades of leaf,
Dense cattail flower-spikes at the top.
If there was breeze and open sky,
We raked each swath into a row;
If not , we took the hay to dry
To the barn’s golden-showering mow.

Compare this to extracts from Frost’s poems “Mowing” and “Tuft of Flowers”, written, probably, a hundred years earlier:

[Notice the echo of gold in the poem above and below…]

It was no dream of the gift of idle hours,

Or easy gold…

[Or the echo of “row” and Frost’s “swale” with Steel’s “swaths”…]

To the earnest love that laid the swale in rows…

[Or compare how flowers and spikes show up in both poems…]

Not without feeble-pointed spokes of flowers…

Or compare Steele’s “we took the hay to dry” with Frost’s “to toss the grass to dry“…

Steel’s poem is rife with Frostian parallels, so much so that one suspects that Steele either deliberately imitated Frost in style and subject as a way to learn , or that Steele is altogether too pickled in his admiration. His reverence borders outright theft. Thankfully, Steel’s other poems are not as pickled, but he does not, to my knowledge, ever write in another’s voice – something which lends itself to colloquial or dialectal diction. It were as though none of the formal poets had ever read anything beyond Frost’s very first book?

[Current revision ends here – Dec 21 2008]

Rebel Angels

[My intention is to provide some fuller examples from Lea’s poem – Dec 21 2008].

Sydney Lea

Sydney Lea

I paged through “Rebel Angels” a compendium of 25 poets: “Poets of the New Formalism”; and I could not firmly identify any poem as being written in a voice other than the “poet’s”, as opposed to say, Frost’s The Housekeeper, or The Witch of Coos or The Pauper Witch of Grafton. The only poet who might count is Sydney Lea and the poem The Feud. Lea comes the closest to a distinct (which is to say not Frostian) colloquial voice. His poems begins:

I don’t know your stories. This one here
is the meanest one I’ve got or ever hope to.
Less than a year ago. Last of November,
but hot by God! I saw the Walker gang…

In an earlier version of the post, I remarked that Lea’s meter was too variable to be true blank verse.

No longer. In fact, I find Lea’s meter to be somewhat conservative; and reading it now, I sometimes wish the colloquial phrasing conformed a little less to the Iambic pattern! That said, I wish the same for some of my poems. Lea’s poem is an admirable  effort – more so now that I’ve given it a second consideration.

My only disappointment remains the use of Italics (in the second line) – and something Sydney uses elsewhere in the poem.

One of the great advantages of meter, which free verse is incapable of, is in the ability to stress words that otherwise might not be stressed, according to their place in the metrical line. Consider Shakespeare’s most famous sonnet that begins “Let me not to the marriage of true minds/Admit impediments…” The temptation is to read it as follows: “Let me not to the marriage of true minds” However, Shakespeare’s sonnets rarely, some say never, deviate from the iambic norm. A safer bet is to assume that Shakespeare is playing against the meter, expecting us to read it as follows: “Let me not to the marriage of true minds” Admittedly, the prepositions [to] and [of] should not receive much stress.

The meaning of Shakespeare’s poem is very different when the meter is kept in mind. Lea, on the other hand, fails to use the meter to advantage. The italics, in fact, vary from the meter and act as a sort of cheat. In Lea’s poem we’ve come full circle. Only now, the effect is not to preserve the meter but to ignore it!

Coda

There’s more to write on this  subject, and I will.

It would be interesting to consider how colloquialism has been used in differing forms. For now, I still hope to find the formal poet who can re-unite the colloquial, common and vernacular with meter, verse and rhyme.