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The Rules of Subversion

Questions of Possibility: Contemporary Poetry and Poetic Form by David Caplan. Oxford University Press, 2005.

As Reviewed By: J. S. Renau

The most charming aspect of David Caplan’s disjointed study of poetic form, Questions of Possibility, is his even-tempered catholicity. Caplan, who teaches in the Department of English at Ohio Wesleyan University, is one of a new (or at least, fairly new) breed of academic creature who has studied under poets as well as literary theorists. I can’t say that this alone accounts for his good nature and earnestness, but it has informed his scholarship with a rare quality, a willingness to give both formal poets and those of the so-called avant-garde a fair hearing, without feeling an urgent need to pit them against one another.

With this cast of mind, Caplan feels no trepidation in discussing Anthony Hecht alongside Charles Bernstein, or alluding to poets as varied as George Oppen and James Merrill. He goes at poems the way a botanist gazes at leaves and stems, delighting in the varieties while never so much chiding a weed for being itself. In David Caplan’s garden, all the shoots and tendrils are welcome. This approach has one major advantage and a couple of trifling flaws.

The advantage is that it opens up the possibility of surmounting the decades-old squabbles regarding verse and prose, or as Caplan writes in his introduction, “By highlighting this commerce between allegedly antagonistic practices, between prosody and ‘theory,’ ‘traditional’ and ‘experimental’ poetry, I hope to move discussion beyond the simple oppositions that often impede discussions of contemporary American verse.” This “commerce” that Caplan explores flourishes because it overturns a gross simplification—or worse, caricature—that has attached itself to formal verse.[private]

Foremost in Caplan’s study is his exploration of formal verse’s perceived endorsement of reactionary politics. Broadly speaking, this complaint has two distinct types. The older form of the argument, popular in the 1950s and 1960s, goes, crudely, something like this: because dead white males of the tradition wrote in formal verse, politically progressive souls should not. Prose poetry was then transformed into a political palliative, for while it did not end (despite the pretensions of some) the perceived oppression, it at least registered a break with the tradition that birthed the rough beast slouching toward Jerusalem. In the 1980s, this argument was updated and applied ad hominem to New Formalists, many of whom—unlike their literary forebears—actually were politically conservative. But the alignment of political conservatism and aesthetic conservatism is a relatively recent phenomenon, and in Questions of Possibility, Caplan seeks to recover an older tradition of formalism that is not premised on politics.

Caplan often accomplishes this via “identity poetics,” that is, using poetry written by black poets, gay poets, Commonwealth poets, and so on, as a means of breaking open the fallacy that form and politics must necessarily align with one another. This approach has the advantage of highlighting how “assigning stable values to poetic forms” is a myopia and demonstrates, perhaps, that the combatants of both sides of America’s wars over form are exceedingly provincial in their own ways. All politics, as Tip O’Neill once said, is local. Indeed. Whether exploring the gay love sonnets of Rafael Campo, the uncompromising formality of Derek Walcott, or the bawdy, jaunty ballads of Marilyn Nelson, Caplan’s argument—at least, as far as he is willing to take it—serves as an excellent reminder that no political camp holds the franchise rights to any poetic form, that in effect, “verse form is essentially senseless—an iamb, for instance, merely defines an abstract pattern—it stays open to multiform meanings, to new uses and unexpected inflections.”

This is fine and good, but what about those poets who can’t trade on their color, sexual preference, or exile status in order to take part in the “commerce” that Caplan so richly praises? While laudably charting a course around the tiresome debates over form, has Caplan unwittingly established identity (as defined by the Academy) as the authenticator of “valid” formal poetry?

While relying perhaps overmuch on the poetics of identity, Caplan does seek to place such poetry within a wider context of subversion. Particularly from Late Modernism on, most poets working in form (at least, most of those worthy of discussion) have recognized that our age requires subverting a verse form in order to fulfill it. This strategy is most readily seen in those verse forms that have had, historically, strong cultural antecedents, such as the love sonnet or the heroic couplet. Who can consider the love sonnet without Petrarch and the conventions of courtly love poetry coming to mind? Who thinks on the heroic couplet without involuntarily conjuring up the verse of Pope and the Augustans? But one man’s love poetry is another’s catalogue of fetishes; one man’s expression of order and clarity is another’s expression of cultural smugness. In order to draw upon the forms of the tradition, one must also be able to subvert them.

This subversion can occur on many levels, and certainly, one of those involves the identity of the poet. Is there not a delicious irony in having Derek Walcott echo back across the centuries the same couplets, laced with patois, that captured Britain at her imperial height? But as Caplan explains, Walcott’s usage of the couplet in his poem “The Spoiler’s Return” is no mere borrowing, but rather represents “the transnational, transcultural nature of poetic form.” While he may have marshaled the Augustans’ preferred poetic form to combat what he perceived as the ugliness of much prose poetry, Walcott himself is no Augustan. His choice to employ the couplet is not rooted in nostalgia, but rather in the practical utility such a verse form offers, given the content of the poem. In other words, the heroic couplet is altered by the mere fact that Walcott chose to adapt it to his own ends.

Using the poetics of identity is one method of performing the subversion necessary to formal poetry, but identity needn’t be non-male, non-white, or non-straight to offer opportunities for the subversion of poetic form. Take, for instance, another poem written in heroic couplets, Robert Lowell’s “After the Surprising Conversions.” In this case, Lowell—famously descended from ancient Massachusetts stock—uses the heroic couplet as a means of complicating his own cultural inheritance. The couplet was, of course, the favored verse form of the Puritans, and indeed, its tidiness tended to square very well with the concrete verities of Calvinist theology. Thus armed with the couplet, Edward Taylor could write:

Lord, pitty, pitty us, Lord pitty send:

A thousand pitties ‘tis should we offend.

But oh! we did, and are thereto propence:

And what we count off, oft thou Countst offence.

We’ve none to trust; but on thy Grace we ly,

If dy we must, in mercy’s arms wee’l dy.

Then pardon, Lord, and put away our guilt.

So we be thine, deale with us as thou wilt.

But in the hands of Lowell, the couplet’s tidiness is employed to quite opposite ends, performing a sort of rough reduction of religious fervor to cultural delirium and suicide. Because of Lowell’s pedigree—his identity—his “Puritan” poems have the distinct markings of “tales of the tribe,” and indeed, it is difficult to read “After the Surprising Conversions” without drawing upon the biography of the Lowell clan, the history of New England Congregationalism, and Lowell’s conflicted point of view regarding both. “Here,” Lowell seems to say, “you want tidiness? You want couplets? Here are your fucking couplets!”

Much of the critical opinion regarding Lowell’s work has tended to view Life Studies and beyond as his greatest period, but I would disagree. It is the early poems, such as “After the Surprising Conversions,” that stand as his major poems, and they do so for the primary reason that Caplan identifies in his explorations of contemporary formal poetry: the necessity of subversion.

But subversion has its limits. Compare the foregoing poem by Lowell to, say, Notebook, his volume of “sonnets,” published in final form in 1970. These poems test the limits of the sonnet, and in fact, are sonnets merely because Lowell claims them to be, or as he stated in the Afterthought to Notebook:

My meter, fourteen line unrhymed blank verse sections, is fairly strict at first and elsewhere, but often corrupts in single lines to the freedom of prose. Even with this license, I fear I have failed to avoid the themes and gigantism of the sonnet.

This sheepish apologia was how the children of Modern poets introduced a sonnet cycle, full of misgivings, false starts, reticence and corruptions, almost disbelief. The paragraph stumbles along until it hits the inexorable root of all this dilly-dallying—“the sonnet.” How to reconcile the urge to write sonnets with T. S. Eliot’s studied eulogy on the form? In Lowell’s case, it was to mangle the form almost beyond recognition. Gone is the meter, the rhyme scheme, and the resolving sestet (or couplet) with its Renaissance sureties. In its place stands a raw fourteen-line poem carved out a mountainside of language, heavily enjambed and grammatically scissored. Even the very logic (and rhetoric) with which sonnets are traditionally resolved is abandoned for a Modernist approach of colliding, fragmented images. For example, here’s how Lowell ended his sequence “In the Forties”:

Even in August, it turned autumn . . . all

Prospect Pond could harbor. No sound; no talk;

the dead match nicked the water and expired,

a target-circle on inverted sky,

nature’s mirror . . . just a little cold!

Our day was cold and short, love, and its sun

numb as the red carp, twenty inches long,

panting, a weak old dog, below a smashed

oar floating from a metal dock. The fish

is fungus; we too wear a larger face.

I rowed for the reflection, but it slid

between my fingers aground . . . . There the squirrels,

conservatives and vegetarians,

hold their roots and freehold, love, unsliding.

One must admire these Notebook poems, even if only in the way one admires a weightlifter, grunting as he heaves his barbells into the rafters, but these poems are sonnets in the same manner that icebergs are islands. It benefits us little to consider them so, except perhaps in fleeting, except in those rare moments in Notebook when the conventions of the form are carried to the extent that they can be subverted. But this should lead us to a fairly benign conclusion: subversion requires rules, or more precisely, subversion depends upon what is not subverted, for a verse form where no convention holds is not really a form at all—it’s the chaos one presumably wished to avoid in opting for form in the first place. 

At times, Caplan too readily dispenses with the limits of subversion in order to shoehorn a poet into the frame of his modus operandi. He appropriately begins his chapter on the ghazal with Adrienne Rich, who did as much as anyone to bring this particular verse form to the attention of American poets, but as with Lowell’s sonnets, Rich’s ghazals are perhaps best considered without demanding too much from the form the poet has invoked. After presenting the reader with the ghazal’s formal requirements, even Caplan is compelled to add, “Rich’s ghazals, like her translations [of Mirza Ghalib], adhere to none of the conventions I just outlined.” Caplan goes on to suggest that Rich chose to preserve “the ghazal’s traditional argumentative structure” in which each couplet operates as a stand-alone unit. It was this fragmentation that attracted Rich to the ghazal in the first place, and she simply discarded the onerous demands of the form, as well as the associations the form has in its native cultures. In short, there’s nothing particularly ghazal-like about Rich’s ghazals, except a tenuous connection to a rhetorical approach and the enclosed couplets. One could just as well say that the elegy made its way into English in the same manner, preserving a thematic while losing over time the associated meter (elegiacs); however, the classical elegy lost its meter in English for the very solid reason that it is nearly impossible to maintain it in an acceptable English idiom. The ghazal offers a much lower barrier to entry. 

Moreover, given the context of Questions of Possibility, in which formal subversion often provides the poetry under consideration with a pulse and a life, Rich’s ghazals demonstrate not so much formal subversion but appropriation. And of course, it is much easier to appropriate poetry (or religion, cuisine, etc.) when it is exotic, when it stands completely outside of one’s cultural inheritance. Such thinking is rooted in a kind of persimmon logic by which every native fruit is deemed too small and astringent when compared to a luscious import. Even nearly 40 years on, it’s difficult to say whether Rich’s homely adaptations are more or less gaudy for their lack of conversance with Persian and Urdu poetry, more or less apt to be likened to an exhibit at the Musée du Quai Branly. Caplan’s discussion of Rich, while interesting for its own sake, does little to advance his thesis, primarily because, as Caplan admits, Rich “employs it [the ghazal] as a motif, a non-Western gesture, not a prosody whose requirements she must fulfill,” and if that’s truly the case, it tempts one to sigh, why bother in the first place? 

It should be said that Caplan’s discussion of ghazals is saved by his fine treatment of Agha Shahid Ali. While I might chide him for not directly challenging Rich’s misuse of poetic license, it is characteristic of Caplan’s good nature and even temper that he refuses to make those judgments; instead, he’d rather let poets with similar formal concerns jostle against one another, and Ali is presented in precisely this manner, or as Caplan states, “Ali’s prosody implicitly criticizes Rich’s. In many of his essays on the subject, Ali describes how American ignorance of the ghazal tradition constitutes ‘an insult to a very significant element of my culture.’” Rich had appropriated the ghazal in order to provide herself with a neutral, non-Western ground for poetically engaging the Black nationalists with whom she sympathized, and so it is mildly ironic that Rich’s attempt to mollify Black nationalists of the late 1960s reverberated across the years to stoke resentment in those who feel a major component of their poetic inheritance had been sullied by a slack understanding of the appropriated form. Perhaps, in hindsight, it would have been better for Rich to stand on her own home turf, to engage the desired audience using a formal enterprise to which she can most solidly lay claim. Can one not imagine a fragmented prose-poem using the cadences and measures of, say, ancient Hebrew parallelism, for example? But what we have is the collection of poems that Rich chose to write, and moving as we have a good distance from the era in which they were written, Rich’s ghazals have not aged particularly well, striking one as odd little curiosities. 

If Caplan occasionally grants too much latitude to poets who leave nothing of a form to subvert, then at times he also errs in the opposite direction by not pointing out the defects of poems that don’t depart far enough from convention. In his discussion of the love sonnet, Caplan would have the reader see the form’s recent reinvigoration at the hands of gay poets as another identity-based method of subversion, and indeed it is, that is, when the poets choose to overturn convention. 

This is especially important in writing a love sonnet. Caplan devotes the first few pages of his chapter on the love sonnet to the historical development of the form, ending it with the standard contemporary view that finds formal declarations of love—such as the kind found in the traditional sonnet—suspect. Of course, whole volumes have taken up what Caplan glosses over in a few pages, and certainly, love poetry continues to haunt, tempt, and frustrate American poets, who collectively seem unsure how to address romantic love in poetry. Broadly speaking, American love poetry is largely forgettable, and one could argue that our erotic poetry is even worse, although in both instances, there are a few exceptions that prove the rule. It is against this historical current that the contemporary writer of the love sonnet must swim. 

Caplan sees many gay and lesbian poets as doing precisely that. He explores the work of three poets, Rafael Campo, Henri Cole, and Marilyn Hacker. Of these, Caplan’s use of Hacker works best within the bounds of his presentation. To begin, Hacker’s poem functions as a sonnet, fully satisfying (for me) some minimal requirement of sonnethood, whereas Henri Cole’s poems, their fourteen-line structures notwithstanding, have very little in common with a sonnet and veer off into a Notebook-like corrosion of the form. While clearly living within the sonnet tradition, Hacker’s poem also subverts it, although I grant that her manner of subversion is rather common, substituting a bittersweet plea for unalloyed passion or sickening sincerity. Americans have made such a gesture the template for “serious” love poetry for a few generations now, but given how the Hallmark sensibility remains in much love poetry—particularly the gaudy little volumes that lovers buy for one another—it would seem that contemporary love poetry is hemmed in by a pair of commonplaces. Nonetheless, Hacker does what she can, and of the sonnets that Caplan attempts to subsume under his approach, her poems are sufficient to the task. 

The most interesting discussion within the chapter on sonnets—and perhaps the book as a whole—is Caplan’s treatment of Rafael Campo’s “Safe Sex.” Caplan’s reading of the poem brought much more to the text than I would have gathered otherwise. Part of my erstwhile lack of interest in “Safe Sex” is likely a product of the poem’s inability to stray far enough from the tradition. I find it almost syrupy in its declarations. For Caplan, the fact that it is a gay love poem that explores the nexus of sex and death (via disease) mitigates the preciousness of the language (assuming that he finds it precious, which isn’t clear); however, if the medieval sonnet can be reduced to body parts and patriarchy, I don’t see how poems such as “Safe Sex” can surmount all that history, can somehow stand outside the tradition that invalidated such poetic sentiment in the first place; therefore, I find the poem—and Caplan’s use of it—unconvincing. 

But the attempt to view formal poetry as something less provincial, as a vessel capable carrying a wide variety of language, is welcome, for in his way, Caplan demonstrates a principle I’ve long asserted: formal verse is not the preserve of political conservatives, and by association, those poets who cut themselves off from their own poetic traditions based on their political conventions are apt to lose more than they gain. Caplan’s concluding chapter is a meandering exploration meant to put the verse/prose debates to bed once and for all, and while I doubt that will happen any time soon, his perspective and devotion is appreciated, or as he states it, “Prosody after ‘the poetry wars’ demands a less antagonistic, more nuanced model of creativity, one capable of acknowledging how writers echo even the ideas they dispute.” This is a fine starting point, for the “commerce” of which Caplan speaks has always required, as Pound once noted, both the sap and the root.[/private]

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- who has written 12 posts on Contemporary Poetry Review.

J. S. Renau has published poems in the Paris Review, Wallace Stevens Journal, and The Formalist. A native of Charleston, South Carolina, he currently resides in New York City.

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