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History for the Reformation 

Missing Measures: Modern Poetry and the Revolt Against Meter by Timothy Steele. University of Arkansas Press, 1990. 349 pages.

As Reviewed By: Jan Schreiber

A great deal of foolishness has been written over a wide swath of history regarding the composition of poetry. Much of the critical legacy is judiciously reviewed in Timothy Steele’s book Missing Measures, which was published several years ago but never given adequate critical notice. Early in the twentieth century the foolishness rose to a crescendo that may seem louder because of proximity. Perhaps we are being deafened by the hullabaloo, but it is more than sound and fury. The last hundred years have witnessed a striking transformation in the notion of what constitutes a respectable poem, and the result has been a radically changed practice.

In Missing Measures Steele traces ideas about the writing of poetry—in fact about the definition of poetry—from the early Greeks to the present. He shows how closely entwined the notions of poetry and metrical composition are, and he offers thoughtful and convincing explanations for this intimate relation. The book could be a treatise on English prosody, but it is not. Such treatises have been written by others. Instead it is an intellectual history, covering changing philosophies of literature that sometimes stray far from questions of metrics but always come back to that central issue.[private]

Briefly and simplistically, there was a time when the writing of prestige was metrical writing, whether the matter was imaginative literature or more prosaic stuff. Although both dramatic and lyric poetry were always written in meter, mere metrical composition was not automatically accorded the status of poetry. Verse, that is, was seen as a necessary but not sufficient condition of poetry. Over the centuries, the province of metrical writing became progressively narrower. The first territory to be claimed by prose was factual narrative, i.e. history. Then came fictional narrative (with the rise of the novel) and drama. Near the end of the nineteenth century, the notion that verse was necessary to poetry began to dissolve, and in the early years of the twentieth century several writers, the self-styled revolutionaries, propounded the heresy that verse was not only unnecessary to poetry but inimical or antithetical to it.

Verse today thrives, curiously, only in popular culture. Songs, whether folk songs, rock songs, country and western, rap music, or the artful pop songs of the 1930’s and 1940’s, are written in meter and rhyme, though the riming style is largely disdained by literary purists. But in the academy, and among serious writers, yesterday’s heresy has become today’s orthodoxy: In the majority of journals publishing poems today, and among the majority of editors and reviewers, metrical composition is simply not taken seriously. A few of the more tolerant regard it as quaint.

Steele examines many of the reasons for this state of affairs, among them the influence of aesthetics as a discipline (which worked to homogenize thinking about poetry, music, and painting), the prestige acquired by science in modern times, tending to validate anything seen as experimental, and the evident despair of many writers that they could ever achieve the power of their forebears by using the same methods. He is particularly acute in describing the efforts of twentieth-century writers like Ezra Pound and William Carlos Williams to reconceive the structures of poetry in musical terms of phrasing and breath. He might have observed further that these writers seem limited in their understanding of underlying musical principles. First, music depends deeply upon a fundamental beat, analogous to the metric pulse the revolutionaries were trying to discard. Phrasing in music works in relation to the beat, not as a substitute for it. Second, although it lacks the denotative elements of poetry (elements the revolutionaries were doing their best to obliterate), music has unavoidable melodic and harmonic qualities inherent in the scale, qualities that can be reduced in importance by adopting certain compositional strategies but never abandoned altogether unless one gives up all instruments except the drum – and then we are back to a fundamental beat. So the yearning for music as a model for a new structural principle of poetry is a wistful and romantic yearning founded on ignorance of music and a rather surprising lack of insight into the resources of one’s own medium.

Given the tendentious nature of the modern verse-adverse manifestos, it would have been easy for Steele to adopt a polemical stance in this treatise. To his credit he does not. In fact his book is scholarly and judicious as it makes its way across a very broad landscape ranging from Plotinus to Pound and from Kant to Kandinsky. There are times when the specific issue of metrical writing seems momentarily forgotten amid broader philological questions such as the publication history of Aristotle’s Poetics or the ranking of the arts implied by the medieval trivium and quadrivium, but however far he ranges intellectually, Steele always returns to the central theme with further illumination of our present curious plight.

It is only in the book’s conclusion that Steele allows himself to be more the pamphleteer than the scholar, and by this point he can do so with an impressive weight of scholarship behind him. His last pages are an eloquent defense of the traditional craft of poetry and a muscular attack on the spokesmen (such as Robert Bly) for the current formless norm:

[I]f one reads the poems in current literary journals and in the collections of verse being published, one may well feel that the hopes for a fresher diction and subject matter have been disappointed, too. In fact, in the absence of meter, many poets seem to have adopted a highly mannered diction to distinguish their work from prose. In this sense, the effect of free verse has been contrary to its intentions.

One might wish for a few more concrete examples of the sort of verse Steele refers to. I suspect one would find, in a judicious survey, that the matter is a little more complicated than it is portrayed. Certain poets avoid regular meter but also flirt with metrical writing. As has been remarked in the past, the ghost of iambic meter can be perceived floating through the lines of numerous poems, but when one whirls and fixes one’s gaze on the spot, the ghost vanishes. Eliot, in particular, was masterful at almost writing metrical lines, but continually defeating expectation. (“Too penty!” Pound scolded him on a draft page of “The Waste Land” when the despised form seemed momentarily in danger of taking hold.)

But are there degrees of metrical writing? Can some forms be looser than others? Assuredly there are appreciable differences between the casual measure of late Wallace Stevens and the insistent beat of E. A. Robinson. I would have welcomed some investigation of these differences, and of the ways in which meter can sometimes infiltrate the avant garde, as when Robert Mezey includes a slyly rhymed metrical effort in his own anthology called Naked Poetry: Recent American Poetry in Open Forms (1969). Surely metrical practice can admit wide variation.

The problem, as J.V. Cunningham has pointed out (in “The Problem of Form,” from Collected Essays of J.V. Cunningham), is that a form that refuses to stay put is not a form. Arbitrary departures from form are meaningless because, with the underlying rules suspended, reader and writer cannot share an expectation of what will happen next. On the other hand, within a set of shared expectations, that is, within a form, all variations, transpositions, or changes of emphasis carry meaning and emotional nuance. Understandably, illustration of these and related points (such as the shocking spread of tone deafness) from the works of living writers could have put Steele in the middle of a hornet’s nest, but it would nevertheless clarify the complexity and pervasiveness of the problem and heighten the appreciation of what has been lost.

And what are the gains? Certainly the breaking down of stilted and inflated diction, including the diction forced by a strain for rhyme, is a gain. Poetry gained the ability to say “Now Albert’s coming back, make yourself a bit smart. / He’ll want to know what you done with that money he gave you / To get yourself some teeth” (“The Waste Land”). That is an achievement we should not discount. But it is perhaps not so great an achievement as we were led to think, and it did not require the forfeiture of rhyme and meter, for it is not the case that rhyme and meter stand in opposition to the colloquial. They in fact permit the colloquial and the eloquent to coexist, as in Frost: “From what I’ve tasted of desire / I hold with those who favor fire.” Eliot’s lines conjure up a London pub; for diction alone the second line in the Frost quotation might well conjure up a New England town meeting. And, as Steele observes, it is not the case that formlessness at least ensures natural and unaffected diction. As evidence I cite these lines chosen almost at random from a poem in the New Yorker (July 14, 1997) by Jorie Graham: “Even the plenitude is tired of the magnanimous, disciplined, beached eye in / its thrall. Even the accuracy / is tired—the assimilation tired— / of entering the mind.”

In abandoning meter and indeed all formal principles in the construction of poems, we have in effect invented a new genre. In form it is prose with perhaps something analogous to the phrase-marks of music (i.e. line ends and sometimes extra spaces between words), though these phrase-marks do not work against any other principle of measure. This new entity is distinguished by the negative principles that it must not rhyme and it should have no noticeable meter. In content it avoids factual narration but prizes figurative writing, tangential association, allusiveness, ambiguity. Its diction purports to be modeled on common speech, though it would rarely be mistaken for such. It is short—usually less than a page; it claims as its province private insight and in pursuit of this object it often invites readers to share in a momentary madness. Its effect depends on the happy coincidence that the reader shares an insight and a sensibility with the writer. Poetry has always depended on this, but it traditionally has also rewarded the reader with an almost hypnotic sensuousness of sound and rhythm and with the subliminal pleasure of seeing technical problems moment by moment faced and solved. These rewards are now withheld. Small wonder, then, that the readers of poetry are a steadily shrinking breed and that, as the editors of literary journals can attest, more people today write poetry than read it.

And why not? The writing of poetry has been made laughably easy. There are no technical constraints. Knowledge of the tradition is not necessary, nor is a desire to communicate, this having been supplanted in many practitioners by the more urgent desire to express themselves. Even sophistication in the manipulation of syntax is not sought. Poetry, it seems, need no longer be at least as well written as prose.

Steele cites many reasons for the current state of affairs, ranging from the heightened prestige of science and technology to the unlooked-for success of the revolt against romantic excess. But one reason, perhaps more legitimate than all the others, has been with us as long as poetry and rhetoric have been, yet it receives little attention. In discussing the ancient orator’s reluctance to let his rhetorical devices become too obvious, Steele writes,

If his rhythms are too readily recognizable and predictable, his audience may consider his composition excessively contrived. Conspicuous refinements of style could prove especially deleterious in forensic oratory, where they might well indicate an absence of conviction on the part of the pleader. (p. 74)

This passage was written many years before the O.J. Simpson trial, but it is uncannily prescient. Exactly this reaction occurred in some Americans when Johnnie Cochrane uttered his celebrated admonition to the jury: “If it doesn’t fit, you must acquit!”

An encounter between a reader and a text has many of the qualities of a seduction. The reader is perhaps not unwilling to be seduced, but she (the reader takes the traditionally feminine role in this drama) does not want to yield too easily and does not appreciate an approach in which the intent is obvious. She likes the encounter to take place on apparently neutral ground and to feel that, unmanipulated, she is falling in love on her own. The presence of meter is like romantic music in the background. It sets up an event.

In the face of this resistance, the writer may adopt any of a number of countermeasures. That word is least appropriate for Williams and his legions of followers, who dispensed with meter altogether and attempted the seduction in a poem indistinguishable by the ear from prose. Since at his best Williams wrote uncommonly well, he succeeded in creating a body of prosy poems that can still be read with pleasure, albeit a perhaps muted pleasure. Most of his followers were not so fortunate, or so talented. Other writers have tried other stratagems. Here is Stevens in a late poem (“An Ordinary Evening in New Haven”), allowing extra syllables into the pentameter line, but not so many as to destroy the form:

Like an evening evoking the spectrum of violet,
A philosopher practicing scales on his piano,
A woman writing a note and tearing it up.

It is not in the premise that reality
Is a solid. It may be a shade that traverses
A dusk, a force that traverses a shade.

Here the last line has just four feet, unless one perversely considers the word “that” to be a monosyllabic foot unto itself.

Or one can emulate Milton’s verse line without his grandiloquence, to produce heavily enjambed lines that the unwary can construe as prose (or prose-like) even though they are not:


That these alternative strategies have persisted through the revolution against meter indicates that plurality still survives in the house of poetry. And indeed, the artful dance between writer and reader will go on, with writers contriving perennially to make their lines appear uncontrived, and readers nervously scrutinizing each dark and handsome text that appears to have designs on them. But it is evident that the serious game of approach and avoidance does not require the abandonment of meter altogether. It is also evident that, suitably chastened, verse is being allowed here and there into the drawing room again, perhaps even into the boudoir. Heaney, after all, like Walcott before him, was awarded the Nobel Prize for a body of work that is predominantly metrical.

Should we then read Steele’s engrossing book as a document marking the moment just before the tide began to turn in favor of metrical writing? I would not be so sanguine. The battle rages still, and the outcome will always be in doubt. Those who want to understand the cultural forces that culminated in the peculiar revolution we have been witness to can have no better guide than Steele’s book. Those who want to understand why meter is worth arguing over should also read it, though they might also read a work on prosody, such as James McAuley’s Versification: A Short Introduction, cited by Steele. And then, of course, one should read many poems in many different kinds of meter, preferably aloud, until one can hear the underlying pulse.

For the situation at the moment is that no clear directions or standards prevail. A Russian visitor to America several years ago was astonished to find that two purportedly comprehensive anthologies of American poetry could be published without a single poet in common between them. We have lost consensus, and to a large degree we have lost our ear. The most distressing consequence is that poets have lost a large portion of their audience and readers have lost contact with something of inestimable value. Timothy Steele’s book is a landmark attempt to regain what was lost, but it can be at best one influence among many. Writers need to cultivate poetry in verse. Magazines need to publish it, not just as a kind of affirmative action (to show that they are really broad-minded), but because they recognize that it is powerful and indispensable. Universities need to teach it as a strong modern stream, not merely as an artifact of a bygone literary culture. It needs to become once again the standard by which poetry in general should be judged. It needs to be recognized as not only timeless but modern and (dare we say) trendy.

When that happens, the counter revolution will be upon us.

Editor’s Note: This review originally appeared in Expansive Poetry & Music. In addition, Timothy Steele will be given the Robert Fitzgerald Award, for his contributions to the study of metrics, at the West Chester Poetry Conference, June 9-12, 2004. For more information, click here.[/private]