All for Love & the Modern Formalists – Megan Grumbling

  • January 28 2010: Slightly edited.

The peculiarity of modern formalist poetry is that the poetry’s effect is frequently that of free verse, as though the poets were either embarrassed to be writing formally or unable to shake its ghost from their ears.

Old habits die hard.

The symptoms are similar to those of Restoration Poets who tried to write blank verse. John Dryden’s play “All for Love or, The World Well Lost”, was printed in 1692. This play, another dramatization of Anthony and Cleopatra, was expressly “Written in Imitation of Shakespeare’s Stile”. However, by the time Dryden published his play, blank verse had long since been abandoned in favor of heroic couplets (iambic pentameter written in rhyming couplets).

Restoration Poets found blank verse too licentious. Even anapests were sometimes considered politically subversive and aesthetically scandalous. The Restoration was the age of heroic couplets in the same sense that the “Modern Age” is the age of Free Verse. For a taste of heroic couplets, here’s a prologue written by Dryden from “The Conquest of Granada”. (For all the propriety of his age, Dryden had a healthy sense of humor when it came to sex.) Note the rhyming couplets:

They who write Ill, and they who ne’r durst write,
Turn Critiques, out of mere Revenge and Spight…

…Some wiser Poet now would leave Fame first:
But elder wits are like old Lovers, curst;
Who, when the vigor of their youth is spent,
Still grow more fond as they grow impotent.
This, some years hence, our Poets case may prove;
But, yet, he hopes, he’s young enough to love.

But in return for propriety, the restoration poets gave up the flexibility and malleability of blank verse. And since there were no towering geniuses during this period, heroic couplets never equaled the blank verse of the previous age. (Fortunately Milton, in writing Paradise Lost, dispensed with heroic couplets.) One of the salient features of the period’s heroic couplets is in their frequently end-stopped lines – an imitation of the Latin poetry they were emulating. Restoration poets learned to tailor their thoughts and phrases to coincide with every couplet. In the brief excerpts above, there is not a single example of enjambment. Every thought or phrase ends with every line. Dryden’s lines fall neatly into syntactical units that end, elegantly, with each line.

And when it came time for Dryden to imitate Shakespeare, the force of compositional habit imprinted itself, ghostlike, in every passage of “All for Love”.

I pity Dollabella; but she’s dangerous:
Her eyes have pow’r beyond Thessalian Charms
To draw the Moon from Heav’n; for Eloquence,
The Sea-green Syrens taught her Voice their flatt’ry;
And, while she speaks, Night steals upon the Day,
Unmark’d of those that hear; Then she’s so charming,
Age buds at sight of her, and swells to youth:
The holy Priests gaze on her when she smiles;
And with heav’d hands forgetting Gravity,
They bless her wanton Eyes: Even I who hate her,
With a malignant joy behold such Beauty… [IV: 264]

Compared with Shakespeare’s equivalent passage:

I saw her once
Hop forty paces through the public street;
And having lost her breath, she spoke, and panted
That she did make defect perfection,
And, breathless, power breath forth.

….Age cannot wither her, nor custom stale
Her infinite variety; other women cloy
The appetites they feed, but she makes hungry
Where most she satisfies; for vilest things
Become themselves in her, that the holy preists
Bless her when she is riggish. [II, ii, 239]

In Dryden’s passage, though he is writing blank verse, his meaning falls into the ghostly pattern of heroic couplets:

A– Her eyes have pow’r beyond Thessalian Charms
A– To draw the Moon from Heav’n; for Eloquence,

B – The Sea-green Syrens taught her Voice their flatt’ry;
B – And, while she speaks, Night steals upon the Day…

C – …Then she’s so charming,
C – Age buds at sight of her, and swells to youth:

The line endings still mostly break with their syntactical units. In Dryden’s passage there is only one example of enjambment, and weak at that. In Shakespeare’s passage there are seven instances of enjambment.

And now we return to the twenty-first century.

Instead of Restoration propriety, free verse dominates. If Dryden and his ilk were to step into our modern colleges, he might think he had stepped into a sort of “mirror-mirror” world. He would learn that some modern poets considered iambic pentameter to be a politically corrupt form, so much so that formalism is seen as subversive (patriarchal). He would struggle to find employment in any college writing program. Dryden – a strict formalist, intellectual, white and distinctly British – might find employment as a plumber.

Even so, one is increasingly finding blank verse and some formality. In the January 2006 issue of POETRY magazine, we find some beautiful poems by Megan Grumbling. But remember, this is mirror mirror world. Just as Dryden’s heroic couplets showed up, ghostlike, in his blank verse, free verse asserts itself, ghostlike, in modern formal verse.

“Their strident hold upon the back roads pulls
our morning drive, out to where Oak Woods Road
crosses the river that they call Great Woks.
The nearby fields so rich it’s hard to breathe–
the hay treacly with auburn, grasses bronzed–
we stop before a red farmhouse, just shy
of where the river runs, where maple trees
have laid the front lawns ravished with their loss.”

The enjambment of the first three lines has all the flavor of free-verse. There are no auditory clues (in the way of syntactical units) that might hint to a listener that these are lines of blank verse. One might as easily write the first sentence as follows:

Their strident hold upon the back roads pulls our morning drive, out to where Oak Woods Road crosses the river that they call Great Woks.

The average reader would never suspect that this was blank verse. He or she might, in a moment of preternatural attentiveness, notice that the line is entirely iambic. That said, there is no indication that this sentence is Iambic Pentameter. Given Grumbling’s approach, one might as easily print her poem as follows:

Their stri|dent hold |upon |the back
roads pulls |our mor|ning drive, |out to
where Oak |Woods Road |crosses |the river
they call |Great Woks. |The near|by fields
so rich |it’s hard |to breathe– |the hay
treacly |with au|burn, grass|es bronzed–
we stop |before |a red |farmhouse,
just shy |of where |the ri|ver runs,
where ma|ple trees |have laid |the front
lawns ra|vished with |their loss.

This is perfectly acceptable iambic tetrameter, but for the short last line. I only had to remove the purely metric “that”. It might be argued that one could submit any iambic pentameter poem to the same exercise, but such an argument would only be partially true. One would find it exceedingly difficult to apply the same exercise to Shakespeare’s passage from Antony and Cleopatra. Or, more fairly, consider Frost’s An Encounter. (More fairly because Grumbling’s poetry is clearly inspired by Frost.)

Once on the kind of day called “weather breeder,”
When the heat slowly hazes and the sun
By its own power seems to be undone,
I was half boring through, half climbing through
A swamp of cedar. Choked with oil of cedar
And scurf of plants, and weary and over-heated,
And sorry I ever left the road I knew,
I paused and rested on a sort of hook
That had me by the coat as good as seated…

And now for the tetrameter version:

Once on |the kind |of day |called “weather
breeder,” |When the |heat slow|ly hazes
and the |sun by |its own |power seems
to be |undone, |I was |half boring
through, half |climbing |through a swamp
of ce|dar. Choked |with oil |of cedar
And scurf |of plants, |and wear|y and
over-|heated, |And sor|ry I
ever |left the |road I |knew, I
paused and |rested |on a sort |of hook
That had |me by |the coat |as good
as seat|ed…

The latter isn’t a very passable version of iambic tatrameter. The third line is entirely trochaic and can only be “rescued” if we elide power to read pow’r; or read the line as follows:

and the |sun by |its own pow|er seems

Though this too is unsatisfactory. The fifth line fails altogether. I picked Frost’s poem at random (lest the reader think I picked one poem especially antithetical to such treatment). What the poem illustrates is Frost’s skillful wedding of sense(grammatical & otherwise) to blank verse – Iambic Pentameter.

The same commitment is not sensed in Grumbling’s poem, skillful though it is. One might assert that Grumbling’s poem is primarily iambic and only secondarily pentameter. The ghostly influence of free-verse pervades her poem, just as the ghost of heroic couplets pervaded Dryden’s blank verse. One might say that she only grasps the surface of blank verse. But her choices might also be deliberate.

More to the point, while she is not the worst offender, her verse is harmed by metrical expediency. One of the first words that need to be banished from the Formalist’s dictionary is “upon”.  It’s appearance in modern poetry is primarily due to formalist poets . They use it because it is a ready made iamb. Grumbling wastes no time falling upon its tempting ictus.

we skim as much brimmed crimson as these few
stout bags will hold within, enough to lay
four inches of the fall upon this field.

The word “within” is metrical padding. How else does a bag hold anything but “within”? The word “upon” appears again,

More metrical padding appears with “out to where the Oak Woods Road…” Using modern English, we say: “out where the Oak Woods Road…” The unnecessary “to” reminds me of “for to”, as in, “I picked my roses for to kiss my love…” Happily, this archaism died from sheer embarrassment at the end of the 16th century. Who knows, its ghost might live on in some Amish communities…

However, in fairness to Grumbling, the promise of her poetry far outweighs the learning pangs.

As autumn and the Great Works trickle by,
we skim as much brimmed crimson as these few
stout bags will hold within, enough to lay
four inches of the fall upon this fields.
October’s task has raked the colors high.

These are beautiful lines of poetry. They show a willingness to learn from the old masters (an especially subversive and ridiculed practice in some modern circles). She has a sense for the music of language, like Frost, and is richly visual (perhaps at the expense of her other senses).

The aging oaks have puckered, mollusk-like,
to clutch and hold the sun-blanched, rain-run board,
and all its ancient measurements, in place…

From Measures – Poetry Magazine January 2006.

I can’t wait to see more from her. I can’t wait to see how she develops and how her mastery of metrical verse progresses.

The Shape of Poetry

It used to be that what separated poetry from paragraphs were the shapes poets poured their words into. Poets worked the miraculous, transforming water into wine. Gilgamesh, though it wasn’t verse, was written in grammatic parallels. Homer wrote using the Classical Hexameter. The earliest poetry from what became the English Language is found in the few and rare poems of the Anglo Saxons. In his introduction to “The Earliest English Poems”, Michael Alexander:

“Old English prose never achieved the sophisticated word-order or complex syntax of Greek or Latin…. This does not apply to verse. Poetry is a much older human accomplishment than prose, and the poets used a special archaic diction inherited from days when their art had been purely oral.”

When Beowulf’s telling rang in the halls of the Anglo Saxons, the shape of it took from an extempore oral tradition. The bards were like the great musical composers who riveted audiences with their skills at extempore performance. Today, the best rappers come closest to the story telling of the ancient bards, mixing improvised rhyme and rhythm with its own rhetoric and grammar. The elemental recognition of language’s rhythm and music, the source of poetry, is alive and well in rap.

Not so in modern poetry.

Twentieth century poets redefined poetry. Poetry was no longer known by rhyme, rhythm, meter, rhetoric, or metaphor. The old forms out of the oral tradition were brittle and stylized by the end of the nineteenth century. The oral roots of poetry were suffocated under the weight of literary tradition. What was changeable and malleable in the oral tradition turned rigid and stultifying under the Victorians.

The “free verse” poems were a gust of fresh air. The formless form was taken with fresh ideas. However, unlike the changing before it, free verse has remained the same for over a century. The first impulses that made it have, like the poetry it replaced, stagnated and suffocated. It is an aesthetic that dominates even a hundred years (or more by some accounts) after its beginning. Arguably, no other aesthetic has so dominated poetry for so long and so absolutely.

The shelves of our bookstores are filled with it. (It’s hard to find a contemporary Formalist on a store shelf.) Hundreds of new free-verse books are published every year. Every college houses its poet who makes and teaches the free verse poem (soon to be a decade into the twenty-first century). The pot is full. The roots are rotting.

Where is poetry going?

If there is a transition, what will it be and what will be the greatness of it? Free verse may go on or it may not, but it’s gone flat – the ground is fallow and ready for a new planting.