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The Problems of Prosody

Why Quality Control in Poetry Need Not Be Blindsided by Traditionalism

As Reviewed By: James Rother

For decades now, responsible elements within the critical community have disagreed over how to save American poetry from itself. The matter vs. antimatter struggle pitting “strong measures” Parnassians against anything-goes free versers has lost little of its rancor after more than a half-century’s wrangling. Hardly anyone remembers when the battle-not-so-royal between Tweeds and Sandals first broke out, it was so long ago. Even through the “who gives a damn” ‘70s, poor relations between the two schools were the rule, and this persisted past the formalist revival of the ‘80s up to the attempt made by the present journal seven years ago to retrieve the ball dropped by Hilton Kramer’s The New Criterion and become The Newer Criterion. (Our intention was to make better, if not good, on the mandate of the original Criterion—T. S. Eliot’s, out of London—to counter barbarism and anarchy in the arts in the years of entre deux guerres). The great modernists caught in Pound’s magnetic field, though keen to sponsor upheavals in structure, remained staunchly loyal to the cult of form. Cultists of The Waste Land and The Cantos should never forget that at the conclusion of World War I, both Eliot and Pound restricted their output to satires composed in rhyming quatrains, and they did that to reverse the “open form” revolution they themselves had helped launch in 1912 under the brand name “Imagism.”

Is there a responsible alternative to the tight-assed approach, or is the “solution” arrived at by the pointy-headed nerds manning L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poetry’s Yahoo servers really all that’s out there? If the only remaining (note the avoidance of the word “viable”) option open to poets today are the algorithm and the music box morphing “new” Mozart tunes out of old, the time has come to cut off their credit cards and insist they find marketable skills to keep the enterprise going.[private]

Some might of course argue that a number of poets have already found such skills and are profiting handsomely by hawking them to the corporate world, especially the electronic media. They are even nesting comfortably in the moral-neutral world of advertising. Poetry, they will tell you (having been weaned on the revolution of the ‘90s) is no longer pre-eminently verbal, if it ever was so. To the contrary, it is most at home where immediacy and mindfulness converge, which is to say in the realm of pure motion, and motion is, not all that coincidentally, what the only tenuously verbal electronic media do best.

Does it have to be this way? Does poetry really have to choose between an Elba that is wholly untenable and a St. Helena from which only poisoners and gravediggers ever return? I don’t believe that it does, and I have a remedy for the ills afflicting contemporary poetry, though slammers and “summer school of the arts” types will likely pronounce it unworkable in equal numbers. Quite simply, it is this: Someone should declare the formalism-informalism war unwinnable and we should move on. To what? To a status quo ante suggested by Peter Viereck in “Anti-form or Neo: A Curse on Both Houses” as a starting point for restoring order and sanity to the affairs of contemporary poetry. Viereck’s essay appeared in Parnassus in 1993, so on the basis of simple math, we’re already twelve years behind schedule in getting things back on track.

Viereck begins with a defense of poetry’s traditional anchors, which is to say rhyme, metrical pulse, and the whole organicist arsenal of justifications for the ways poetry from its very beginnings has accommodated itself to the needs and expressive instruments of the human cardio-vascular system. “Imagine that you are drowning,” he begins by saying.

The water surrounds you, it enters your lungs. Your breath chokes, you are drawn downwards. Suddenly, an arm comes behind you and holds you up, and you are pulled slowly to shore. There on the beach, a lifeguard revives your heart and lungs, breathing into your mouth once for every five heart massages, as he or she was taught. Five to one. Ta-TUM. Ta-TUM, ta-TUM, ta-TUM, ta-TUM.

Your life has just been saved by iambic pentameter. Would you trust your life to a free-verse lifeguard? Our life, like our poetry, depends on this body rhythm, a rhythm denounced as outworn by Pound. Yet it outwears—how Shakespearean of nature!—its outwearers. During one of my campus poetry reading tours, a heckler interrupted me by exclaiming, “The iambs’s not a normal way of speech.” I invited him to scan his protest.

Neat, witty, and certainly pertinent from a life-saving angle. But it was over-familiar even before it sank to a cliché. And that applies also to its Siamese twin, the notion that the length of the human breath rather than the beating of the heart is the key factor in returning poetry to not just a human but a visceral theater of operations. The two views essentially comprise a single argument, certain superficial differences to the contrary not withstanding. Stanley Burnshaw’s The Seamless Web remains one of the best apologias ever provided this vita-suet, but it no more decides the case whether we should consider what makes poetry tick of a piece with what human clockwork needs to keep ticking than do Sidney’s and Shelley’s Platonically defensive brocades.

Actually, the “heartbeats and pulsebeats” rationale, as Viereck himself is quick to remind us, has its roots in Aristotle and Galen. “Poems,” he writes, “scan naturally on alternate beats, not every which way, because such is our flesh: We walk, march, or dance on exactly two feet, two alternating feet, not every which way on amoeba pseudopods.” He then proceeds to cite the martyred Russian poet Osip Mandelstam, who in his “Conversation about Dante” opined that “the metrical foot is the inhalation and exhalation of the step. . . . The step, linked with breathing and saturated with thought, Dante understood as the beginning of prosody.” Yet, is not the end of prosody the facilitation of those means by which the beginning of a line of poetry arrives at its own end with a minimum of fuss and a maximum of energy transfer from alpha-wave state to verbal consciousness in the mind of the poet? Without sounding too projectivist about it, I would argue (as does Viereck, though only after much fussing and clearing away of dust raised by his own broom) that form—the pons asinorum of poetasters everywhere—is what emerges to make poetry successful and memorable, not poetry from pre-established form. As the Pound whom Viereck mocks once divined, “some poems may have form as a tree has form, some as water poured into a vase.” And surely there is a third possibility: that marmoreal stringency upon which the first Imagistes harped and which seems akin to what Michelangelo was getting at in the remark he made (about the David or the Moses, I don’t remember which), that form is achieved by liberating a creative ideality from the lumpen materials imprisoning it.

Nor does such restraining material need to be unyielding as stone or marble. Form in verse should be viewed as the shape a poem makes in air rather than as a template settled for or into on the printed page. Like Pound, I will never surrender the notion that poetry and music are any less separable than Aristotle’s form and matter. These ancient conjugalists must never be persuaded that, as lovers well over the hill, they must somehow relinquish coupledom because the modern age has forced them to choose between botox and carapace and they can only arrive at such choices solo. For some crazy reason, almost no one has fought the divvying up the spoilage of American music by popular culture moguls on the one hand, and lesser, museum-culture moguls promoting the odd inversion of “live” symphony orchestras stuck on “historic reissues” and an anything-but-live recording industry churning out “classic,” recycled performances—on the other. This inexplicably under-discussed pusillanimity has not only allowed a lot of faux-poetry to ‘scape whipping, but has let a good deal more scrape by on the minimum of the very chops that used to separate the Ovids from the Virgils, the Cavalcantis from the Guinicellis, or the Tennysons from the Arnolds in the exhibition catalogs of even second-rank connoisseurs. (The age-old question as to whether Dryden or Pope is the more “musical” poet remains however, still open.)

The chief assumptions of Peter Viereck in the essay cited above have all too often been enough to elevate the pseudo over the genuine in contemporary poetry. (It’s too bad that an excess of the sine qua nons—music and non-metrical rhythm—at the cost of almost everything else in a poem like The Cantos of Pound should support his argument if only by default, but let it pass.) For example, a warning bell sounds when Viereck assigns “rational purposes” to his defense of rhyme in today’s poetry:

The rational purposes of rhyme are clear enough: resonance, mnemonics, the interlace of lines into stanza structure, the slowing or speeding of enjambment (long or short vowels, voiced or unvoiced consonants), and connecting excitingly two words normally unlinked. But life, even nonhuman life, may also perhaps have irrational, downright mysterious needs for rhyme. Here is a seemingly preposterous example from the scholarly journal Ethology; a scientist analyzes the obsessive use of rhyme sounds in whale songs. Why? No one knows. Perhaps a memory aid, perhaps a mating call.

Reading this, there are many questions one would like to put to Viereck, such as: If it were discovered by sexologists that the majority of coital partners make rhyming noises when reaching orgasm, would that argue for or against the use of rhyme in verse? (We could, I suppose, poll the whales on this.) But it’s no use. Poets as socked into traditional notions about poetry and the vatic impulse as Viereck will not reason, purposefully or otherwise, about such issues. He insists, on top of everything else, on the inarguable indispensability of meter—“(sheer biology)”—and what he terms the “rhyme function.” His definition of the latter? “To link opposites into parallels, to orchestrate stanzas, to control the pace of enjambment, to create the sorcery of resonance,” tout court.

Actually, Viereck has a new wrinkle to propose vis à vis the salvaging of rhyme—in our culture at least—since “existing rhymes, in a language as uninflected as English, are so few that they are often hopelessly outworn (an often valid argument for free verse)”: “crisscross rhyme.” This introduces a chiasmus effect of rhyming “not any word and not the entire word of a line but the first syllable of a line with the last syllable of another line.” “Two gains” result from this, Viereck argues. “First,” he writes, “by separating syllables from words, you get rhymes never used before: a sense of freshness. Second, you now get front-of-line stress of rhythm. The resulting new sound and accent can produce an evocative body language and overthrow the tyranny of overaccenting the rhymed last syllable of a line.” How one avoids the concurrent sing-song effect of thudding iambics (or trochaics) with this, as in his own model, “EYELIDS”—

Image of ambush,
Hushingly dim:
Gold-bellied hornet
Hangs from the ceiling.
Torment is dangling
Feelers at men. . . .

—Viereck neglects to say.

It’s all somehow reminiscent of the cockamamie game played with poetics in the (now dated) verse play by Archibald MacLeish, J. B. For one thing—and Viereck, being a senior member of the poetic confraternity, should know this—poetry is essentially a rope bridge of vowels, while prose, whatever its Flaubertian pretensions, is a causeway of consonants. Even voiced consonants lack what the French prosodists call durée. Only vowels possess it, and in the variable quantities needed for the full range of rhythmic effects poetry requires for its meeting of body and mind. (Yes, poetry does hinge upon a “somantic” meeting of minds merging the semantic with the somatic functions of the human organum, but not, and most definitely not, the traditional one Viereck proposes.)

But even this hardnosed veteran of the Tweeds & Sandals war is not disposed to dismissing free verse altogether.

The kind of free verse I reject lacks body rhythm. The kind I admire has its own kind of secret body rhythm, subtly expressing the contents, and its own kind of “rhyme function,” though not rhyme itself. Nor do I reject all neoformalism, only the inexpressive regularity of the inhuman metronome rather than the heart. Expressive form today fights on two fronts. Most (not all) free verse is the artlessness that conceals artlessness. Most (not all) neoformalism verse is finger exercises.

Though evenhanded enough as a statement of principle, free verse, like the short-end-of-the-stick inhabitants of Orwell’s Animal Farm, ends up, in Viereck’s scales at least, considerably less weighty than its antagonist.

The original frisson of free verse was the reader’s unconscious expectation of some outworn regularity, now excitingly strained against. But today a new generation no longer expects the regularity that makes free verse irregular; thereby free verse becomes one more regularity, that of prose. Expressive form, by being both more irregular and more regular than free verse, can raise the tensions between human emotions to an almost unbearable pitch, both ecstatic and tragic, thereby achieving art’s double function: as rebel and as conserver. …

Or so it seems at first. But if we read on, we find, not too much further down the page, something of a retrenchment:

In the 1970s and 1980s, I believed that the formless variety of free verse was the main danger to American poetry, a revolt of 1912 that had ossified into a new conformity. In Frost’s overquoted words: tennis without the net. But today in 1993, at age 77, I believe that an equal menace to creativity is often emerging from the pendulum swing to a new formalism, not the organic expressive use of form but a dead mechanical form, artificial rather than based on the human biology of walking, breathing feeling. To reverse Frost: this is net without the tennis.

A decade earlier, Robert Hass, in an essay titled “Listening and Making,” appearing in the 1982 edition of The Random Review, had made the case for free as against neoformalist verse from a standpoint directly opposed to Viereck’s in the piece just discussed. It’s impossible to tell whether Viereck was familiar with Hass’s argument when he decided to add his two pence to the pot, but the two essays seem almost eerily symmetrical in their declared preferences. Hass is decidedly anti-stanza, anti-metrical, anti-rhyme, though he does agree with Viereck that “rhythm is always revolutionary ground.” “Statements about rhythm,” he declares,

emphasize its natural character. The rhythm of poetry is sometimes said to be based on the rhythm of work, but no one wonders then why we work rhythmically. The heartbeat—pa-thunk, pa-thunk, pa-thunk—is pointed to as a basis for rhythm, but if you think about it for a minute, it seems obvious that it is a little monotonous to account for much. Prosody is not much taught or talked about, since it was a form of institutional terrorism in the previous, metrical orthodoxy. And during this time, I think, there has been an observable falling off in the inventive force of poetry. A likely outcome would be an equally mindless metrical revival. And I think that would be too bad. The range of possibilities for the poem—from chant to prose—have been extended enormously in English in the last seventy years.

Hass believes that the non-metrical route is the proper future for American poetry because in their search for non-traditionalist means of achieving resolution in a poem, advocates of “open form” are unwilling to fudge the all-important distinction between closure and foreclosure. “The free-verse poem, by stripping away familiar patterns of recurrence and keeping options open . . . ,” this writer concludes,“ “is able to address the forms of closure with the sense that there are multiple possibilities that the poem has to find its way to the right one.”

But I anticipate the main thrust of Hass’s argument which lays out a most persuasive rationale for the anti-formalist breakthrough of the ‘50s, culminating in the mainly Projectivist anthology, The New American Poetry, which Donald M. Allen edited in 1960 for Grove Press. Hass’s commitment to open form is uncompromising. If his attitude toward some of the claims made for metrics falls somewhat sort of outright hostility, it is hardly sympathetic. The core of his viewpoint is an expansive one but still worth quoting at length:

The difference [between free and metrical verse] lies . . . in the stages of announcing and developing a rhythm. Every metrical poem announces a relationship to the idea of order at the outset, though the range of relationships to that idea it can suggest is immense. Free-verse poems do not commit themselves so soon to a particular order, but they are poems so they commit themselves to the idea of its possibility, and, as soon as recurrences begin to develop, an order begins to emerge. The difference is, in some ways, huge; the metrical poem begins with an assumption of human life which takes place in a pattern of orderly recurrence with which the poet must come to terms, the free-verse poem with an assumption of openness or chaos in which order must be discovered. Another way to say this is to observe that most metrical poems, by establishing an order so quickly, move almost immediately from the stage of listening for an order to the stage of hearing it in dialogue with itself. They suppress animal attention in the rush to psychic magic and they do so by laying claim to art and the traditions of art at the beginning. The free-verse poem insists on the first stage of sensual attention, of possibility and emergence—which is one of the reasons why it seemed fresher and more individual to the twentieth century. . . .

Calling upon Gary Snyder, Walt Whitman, and Louis Zukofsky as exemplars of a new way of conceiving modern prosody as the tensional alternation between three- and four-stress lines (citing along the way composer-conductor Leonard Bernstein’s observation: “Two is the rhythm of the body, three is the rhythm of the mind”), Hass counters the most valuable talking point of the traditionalists, the bodily origin of regularized poetic rhythm. There is no “organic” justification for the archtypically Whitmanian playing of three stresses off against four in line after line of his verse—most typically in the arch “decouplet”—

I loaf and invite my soul,

I lean and loaf at my ease, observing a spear of summer grass.

—the pattern being, as Hass confirms, “three stresses in the first line, seven in the second with a strong pause after ease [. . . ] 3, 3/4.” And he finds the same controlled arhythmia in the three- or four-line stanzas of Zukofsky’s poem, “4 Other Countries”:

La Gloire in the black 2
flags of the valley 2
of the -
Loire 1

A lavender plough 2
in Windermere 1
The French blue 2
door 1

Of a gray 1
stone 1
house in 1
Angers 1

Walled farms 2
little lanes 2
of entry, orange- 2
red roofs 2

“The rhythm of this passage . . . doesn’t appear in the notation of the rhythm,” Hass insists, “because Zukofsky has broken it across the line, everywhere, into units of one or two stresses and passed the whole through the balanced proposal of the four-line stanza.” From there he elicits the complementary surmise that “the line, when a poem is alive in its sound, measures: it is a proposal about listening,” and from that pops out the rationale for his essay title, “Listening and Making.”

It would be lovely if every aspiring poet had the musical ear and rhythmic facility of a Zukofsky or a Pound, but very, very few do, and if their gifts in this highly concentrative area are formidable, they rarely have the depth of intellect or mastery over matter that the very greatest poets have in abundance. Wallace Stevens had, and John Ashbery has, an exceptional sense for the fluid line; yet neither, for all the inspired glitziness of their respective manners, manages to rise above the tautological pretentiousness of their matter all that often. (“Idea of Order at Key West” and “Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror” remain the two most fatuously tautological poems by first-rank poets in the entire American language, but who can imagine being without either of them?) It’s hard to draw a bead on just what makes a superb poetic line superb, though Kenneth Burke did come close to pulling it off in his Philosophy of Literary Form nearly seventy years ago. Some of the most potent poetics are packed into mundane and utterly contentless phrases like puppy chow and ding dong (William Faulkner plucked this last one from certain doom—and before the King of Sweden, no less), so who can blame prosodists who throw up their hands when confronted yet again with the unchewable chestnut of just what it is in a line of poetry that sets an Emily Dickinson’s spine a-tingle or puts an A. E. Housman’s jugular at risk when the act of shaving crosses blades with blood-rippling verse.

Having negotiated those choppy waters, can anyone seriously argue, given today’s slate of attention-mopping disorders, that metrics and rhyme still serve a useful purpose in poetry, that they add so much as an iota of novelty to anything but their own dotty recidivism? Even skilled employers of the latter such as Shelley, writing when blank verse had to justify its existence all over again to an age up to its cravat in odes and rimes royal, showed in contrasting versions of Queen Mab that a good anti-Castlereagh diatribe could be laid low rather than improved by superadding chimes to its already overstrained percussion. Here is “Falsehood and Vice” in Queen Mab:

Since tyrants, by the sale of human life,
Heap luxuries to their sensualism, and fame
To their wide-wasting and insatiate pride,
Success has sanctioned to a credulous world
The ruin, the disgrace, and woe of war.
His hosts of blind and unresisting dupes
The despot numbers; from his cabinet
These puppets of his schemes he moves at will,
Even as the slaves by force or famine driven,
Beneath a vulgar master, to perform
A task of cold and brutal drudgery;—
Hardened to hope, insensible to fear,
Scarce living pulleys of a dead machine,
Mere wheels of work and articles of trade,
That grace the proud and noisy pomp of wealth!

And here, with rhyme, is Queen Mab-Lite:

Whilst monarchs laugh’d upon their thrones
To hear a famished nation’s groans,
And hugged the wealth wrung from the woe
That makes its eyes and veins o’erflow,—
Those thrones, high built upon the heaps
Of bones where frenzied Famine sleeps,
Where Slavery wields her scourge of iron,
Red with mankind’s unheeded gore,
And War’s mad fiends the scene environ,
Mingling with shrieks a drunken roar,
There Vice and Falsehood took their stand,
High raised above the unhappy land.

Woe, o’erflow; heaps, sleeps; gore, roar: how many times have these and similar breakers crashed upon the shores of poesy? And how much longer must they need to? One hundred and fifty years after Shelley, straggling mutants of these same sounds can be heard beaching themselves in these lines from Derek Mahon’s “Table Talk”:

You think I am your servant but you are wrong—
The service lies with you. During your long
Labours at me, I am the indulgent wood,
Tolerant of your painstaking ineptitude.
Your poems were torn from me by violence;
I am here to receive your homage in dark silence.

Remembering the chain-saw surgery and the seaward groan,
Like a bound and goaded exodus from Babylon,
I pray for a wood-spirit to make me dance,
To scare you shitless and upset your balance,
Destroy the sedate poise with which you pour
Forth your ephemeral stream of literature. . . .

Anything, even being scared shitless, is preferable to floating becalmed on this ephemeral stream of literature. However, Mahon has got one thing right: only a table could talk in so wooden and constricted a manner for twenty-four lines. And he’s no doubt owed a beer for having at last settled the pronunciation of “wood,” “groan,” and “pour” as wude, grawn, and pure respectively. Learning that these fitly rhyme with such odd-chiming words as “ineptitude,” “Babylon, and “literature” has caused a small corner of the veil of ignorance to be lifted—at least on this side of the word processor. But weren’t these meant as slant- or off-rhymes and not full rhymes at all, you ask, and isn’t that more than just skittles? Don’t be so sure, I say. In Mahon’s “Table Talk” we may have a poet whose “acknowledgement of convention” (to quote Richard Howard on a poem by Daryl Hine) is “so rapt we may wonder where the freedom is,” but in this enclosure of strong measures, raptness is all, and wrappedness, its homonymic twin, all, sundry, and just about everything in between. And isn’t it precisely this—Shelley’s couplets gone unheroic—that got our poetry into its present fix in the first place?[/private]

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- who has written 19 posts on Contemporary Poetry Review.

James Rother studied at McGill University and the University of California at Santa Barbara. His critical work has appeared in Contemporary Literature and the American Book Review. He is a professor of literature at San Diego State University.

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