The Innocent Ear: Some Thoughts on the Popular Disdain for Versification

A few years ago, for the brief span of a few classes, I attended a poetry workshop class at Boston University. Though I was not formally enrolled in the class, the teacher had generously invited me to attend-and since the teacher was one of the great living masters of the art I accepted, though it necessitated my commuting between California and Massachusetts for several months. I had wanted, for some time, to visit a poetry class conducted by a distinguished poet–and, by extension, to see how one of the most exclusive creative writing programs in the country turned its students into Masters of Fine Arts.

The class was held in a tiny room. Nine students filed in and, shortly after, the teacher arrived and took his seat. He carried with him copies of a poem by Federico Garcia Lorca, translated by Stephen Spender, which he handed to us. Each student, in turn, was directed to read aloud a dozen lines or so. I was subsequently astonished by two facts. The first was that the nine students who read had, not a variety of speaking voices, but a remarkably uniform delivery: they mumbled out the lines as rapidly as they could read them, oblivious to line breaks, or rhyme, or rhythm. Garcia Lorca was read, essentially, in the same monotone accorded an office memo.

The second fact was that the teacher, by invariably interrupting each student after a few lines to correct the speed and intonation of their faulty recital, was aware that these near-graduates of a prestigious writing program, these most promising of our young poets, had still to learn how to read poetry.

Certain melancholy conclusions follow inevitably from these facts. The fundamental confusion, which is everywhere apparent, between poetry and prose in America has become the abyss from which very few young poets escape. The vast majority of them consider rhyme and meter unnecessary to their craft.

Of course, to the question, “What, then, remains of the craft of poetry?” they have no answer. This is a new generation of poets who simply can’t hear poetry—they have, to put the matter delicately, innocent ears.

How American poetry found itself engulfed in this aesthetic chaos is a story worth recounting. It is not, contrary to popular opinion, the result of a disagreement between the New Formalists and the Language poets a few years ago or, going back a bit further, between the Beats and the Academics, or the Sandals and the Tweeds. The confusion began much earlier. As long ago as 1913, Ezra Pound had speculated on the sudden popularity of vers libre in his “Retrospect”:

I think the desire for vers libre is due to the sense of quantity reasserting itself after years of starvation. But I doubt if we can take over, for English, the rules of quantity laid down for Greek and Latin, mostly by Latin grammarians.

I think one should write vers libre only when one ‘must’, that is to say, only when the ‘thing’ builds up a rhythm more beautiful than that of set metres, or more real, more a part of the emotion of the ‘thing’, more germane, intimate, interpretative than the measure of regular accentual verse; a rhythm which discontents one with set iambic or set anapaestic.

[from “A Retrospect” by Ezra Pound (1913)]

Notice that the free verse revolution begins with ambiguous origins and aims: it has something to do with a returning interest in quantitative verse but the rules of quantity don’t work well in English. Pound adds later in the same essay, “I think progress lies rather in an attempt to approximate classical quantitative metres (NOT to copy them) than in a carelessness regarding such things.” This last subtlety went so entirely disregarded that when T. S. Eliot published his “Reflections on Vers Libre four years later, he thought it best to warn the poets that vers libre did not actually exist, as it

is not defined by absence of pattern or absence of rhyme, for other verse is without these; that [it] is not defined by non-existence of metre, since even the worst verse can be scanned; and we conclude that the division between Conservative Verse and vers libre does not exist, for there is only good verse, bad verse and chaos.”

It is a passage our poets never read, or didn’t understand. Indeed, the vast majority today not only believe that free verse exists, they write it exclusively. And so their efforts have met with—what a scientist would call—predictable results. [i]

Why our contemporary poets took to heart William Carlos Williams’ “variable feet” but never his warning that “without measure, we are lost” is curious—just as it’s odd Ezra Pound’s dictum that “poetry should be as well written as prose” was obeyed, only with “as well” removed from the instructions. They never listened to Pound’s admonition: “Eliot has said the thing very well when he said, ‘No vers is libre for the man who wants to do a good job'”—they only heard Pound’s call to break the pentameter. Duly instructed, several generations of American poets can’t tell a dactyl from a dictum, and have published countless poems to prove it.

Even the contemporary critics who are most indulgent to this confusion have found this state of affairs untenable. At a symposium convened in 2000, Marjorie Perloff issued the following remarks concerning a promising graduate student:

We talked to a young man who had done very well; his whole honors thesis was on Shelley’s “Epipsychidion.” He went on about gender, he talked about masculinity and femininity, and how Shelley wanted to be a mother. But when I asked about the sound structure of the poem, he said “what?” I asked, “what’s it written in? Is it written in terza rima?” and he drew a complete blank. I really did find that quite shocking. Obviously Shelley had a reason for writing the poem as he did, as any poet does, and I think inattention to sound structure has produced the kind of flaccid free verse that a lot of poets use today; it’s not really poetry at all. It’s not that I don’t think it’s good poetry; I don’t think it’s poetry.

What does it mean to suffer from this “inattention to sound structure” that Perloff considers fatal? What, for that matter, is sound structure? Perloff is not alone in creating her own terms, while refusing to supply adequate definitions—and if one assumes, as I do, that she has merely invented another name for meter then the problem of obfuscation for its own sake must be raised. Perloff, however, is at worst only an endorser of our aesthetic chaos, not its begetter. For that culprit, we must look elsewhere. As another critic has written:

Ezra Pound has been fathered with vers libre in English, with all its vices and virtues. The term is a loose one-any verse is called “free” by people whose ears are not accustomed to it—in the second place, Pound’s use of this medium has shown the temperance of the artist, and his belief in it as a vehicle is not that of the fanatic. He has said himself that when one has the proper material for a sonnet, one should use the sonnet form; but that it happens very rarely to any poet to find himself in possession of just the block of stuff which can perfectly be modelled into the sonnet. It is true that up to very recently it was impossible to get free verse printed in any periodical except those in which Pound had influence; and that now it is possible to print free verse (second, third, or tenth-rate) in almost any American magazine. Who is responsible for the bad free verse is a question of no importance, inasmuch as its authors would have written bad verse in any form; Pound has at least the right to be judged by the success or failure of his own. Pound’s vers libre is such as is only possible for a poet who has worked tirelessly with rigid forms and different systems of metric.

This from T. S. Eliot again in 1917, in a pamphlet published anonymously. It should also be noted that the father of free verse wrote very little of it himself—the slim volume Cathay (1915) being the outstanding sample—and such was Pound’s horror at the torrent of bad poetry that he unleashed (personified most amply in the figure of Amy Lowell) that Eliot was moved to defend his friend only two years later.

From the start, then, the father of American free verse suffered anxiety from his influence—and with good reason. Pound was much too shrewd to miss the fact that he, contrary to his own intentions and practice, would be held responsible for releasing poets from the discipline of their own art.[ii]

The Beats and the Black Mountain poets never tired of claiming Pound as their great sire—the man who had broken all metrical rules to measure verse by “breath stops” in Allen Ginsberg’s unforgettably primitive formulation—though the older poet would have disavowed paternity. Consider Eliot’s explanation of Pound’s singular success with free verse, “such as is only possible for a poet who has worked tirelessly with rigid forms and different systems of metric.” A generation later, poets like Ginsberg simply denied that metrics existed at all, and so dispensed with the need to study the art of poetry altogether. Where Pound broke with pentameter, they broke with prosody—as silly and unintentional a revolution in the arts as has ever taken place. This was barbarism pure and simple, or as Pound might have growled, “Amygism redivivus.”

Put another way, to understand the crisis of American poetry one must understand the career of Ezra Pound. How long has chaos reigned? 1913 is as good a date as any, and that year might usefully serve as a rallying cry in our scholarly magazines and schools—for a past mistake that still haunts our present culture. 

[i] That same year—1917—Pound responded to “Reflections” in a review of Eliot’s poetry by returning to his initial point: “In a recent article Mr. Eliot contended, or seemed to contend, that good vers libre was little more than a skillful evasion of the better known English meters. His article was defective in that he omitted all consideration of meters depending on quantity, alliteration, etc.; in fact, he wrote as if all meters were measured by accent.”   

Neither Eliot’s oversimplification nor Pound’s insistence on subtleties much impressed the horde of fashionable vers librists who suddenly appeared in all the little magazines, and whose progeny continue to this day.   

[ii] In this, he is not entirely blameless. “To break the pentameter, that was the first heave,” as Pound famously declared, but he never said what the second revolution would bring. I suspect that Pound wanted poems to be written in several meters, rather than the repetition of a single foot, no matter how varied. Why not a stanza of trochees, followed by dactyls, followed by some other foot? As he proclaimed, “As regarding rhythm: to compose in the sequence of the musical phrase, not in sequence of a metronome.” Varied feet then, not variable as William Carlos Williams so characteristically misconstrued.

About Garrick Davis

Garrick Davis is the founding editor of the Contemporary Poetry Review, the largest online archive of poetry criticism in the world. The magazine was founded in 1998, and was one of the earliest literary reviews in the United States to be published exclusively on the Internet. His poetry and criticism have appeared in the New Criterion, Verse, the Weekly Standard, McSweeney’s, and the New York Sun. He is the editor of Praising It New: The Best of the New Criticism (Swallow Press, 2008) and Child of the Ocmulgee: the Selected Poems of Freda Quenneville (Michigan State University Press, 2002). His book of poems, Terminal Diagrams, is also available (Swallow Press, 2010). He served as the literary specialist of the National Endowment for the Arts in Washington, D.C. from 2005-2008. He currently serves as a multidiscipline specialist responsible for the NEA’s Arts Journalism Institutes.
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