The Forms of Poetry

The essay below originally appeared in the Summer 1992 Issue of Brandeis Review.

When I was eight or nine, my mother read me Tennyson’s “Locksley Hall.” She admired the poem for its hope that our race’s propensity for war would one day cease and give way to “the Parliament of Man, the Federation of the World.” Though I was too young to understand international politics, I was much taken with those famous lines which are sometimes said to foretell modern aviation:

             For I dipt into the future, far as human eye could see,
            Saw the vision of the world, and all the wonder that would be;
            Saw the heavens fill with commerce, argosies of magic sails,
           Pilots of the purple twilight, dropping down with costly bales.

Indeed, this passage so impressed me that I memorized it, something I had never consciously done with any piece of literature before. It had a stirring cadence, and the rhymes delighted me. I must have previously heard poetry; my mother in fact has told me that she had earlier read my brother and sister and me Mother Goose and Stevenson’s Child’s Garden of Verses. Yet this was the first time that I realized that poetry was something special and that by means of it language could carry music as well as meaning.

Tastes and perceptions change, and “Locksley Hall” is, for various reasons, no longer my favorite poem. But I am still moved by the same qualities that enchanted me when my mother read Tennyson. Metered and rhymed verse creates a sensuous appeal to the ear and mind that no other kind of composition makes. And, for me at least, there is no greater joy than hearing a fine poet harmonize the variable rhythms of human speech with the fixed patterns of poetic form.

It was for this reason that when I began to write poems in the late 1960s and early 1970s, I did so in meter and rhyme and stanza. I hoped that one day something I wrote might offer others the same kind of pleasure that I derived from poetry.

At that time, however, the traditional tools of poetic art were out of favor, as they still mostly are today. Free verse held sway, and form was alleged to place absurd and archaic limits on self-expression. Yet even in my first fumbling attempts at composing verse, I never felt that meter or rhyme were adversarial checks or chains. They resisted me, to be sure, but in ways that let me develop and test my strength. And on those rare occasions when a couplet or a stanza clicked with my own voice and phrasing, I felt incredibly cheered. I felt I belonged, albeit in a small and tenuous way, to a community of writers that included Shakespeare and Ben Jonson, Keats and Christina Rossetti, Dickinson and Hardy.

Probably my outlook was also affected by having been born and raised in Vermont and by the fact that, from the later stages of elementary school on, my classmates and I were exposed to the work of a local bard named Robert Frost, who was officially installed as the state’s Laureate in the summer of 1961, when I was between the seventh and eighth grades. He wrote with spellbinding accuracy about a world my friends and I saw around us every day. As Vladimir Nabokov once noted, no one else ever made snowflakes settle as well as Frost did.

Especially riveting was Frost’s ability to bring his perceptions into sync with poetic form. He was a consummate technician, who time and again demonstrated the ways in which scene and mood could be shaped and pointed by verse structure. Though this quality is difficult to illustrate in short quotations—one really should read a number of Frost’s poems to feel its effect—the following two stanzas of “A Late Walk” may indicate something of his musical intelligence:

              And when I come to the garden ground
             The whir of sober birds
             Up from the tangle of withered weeds
             Is sadder than any words.

              A tree beside the wall stands bare,
             But a leaf that lingered brown,
             Disturbed, I doubt not, by my thought
             Comes softly rattling down.

Frost was as well a master of surprising, yet unstrained, rhyme. In his“Evening in a Sugar Orchard,” for example, he describes sparks which, rising from a sugarhouse chimney, catch in the bare maples above and form sublunary constellations. And he says of them:

              They were content to figure in the trees
             As Leo, Orion, and the Pleiades.

What reader, hearing the initial “trees” termination, would anticipate its being answered by “Pleiades”? Yet this word is just right. It is visually apt. It is, moreover, intellectually striking, concluding as it does the arresting comparison between the small, transitory sparks in the trees and the vast and virtually immutable stellar groups in the heavens. And it is typical of Frost’s dexterity and tact that “Pleiades” clinches rather than sets up the rhyme. If one flipflopped the lines, they would still make grammatical sense. But something of the charm of the couplet would be lost; the rhyme would not startle us with the same pleasure were the unusual word to precede rather than follow the common word.

Clearly, Frost’s self-expression was not inhibited or made archaic by poetic form. Nor was he at all reticent about his allegiance to meter and rhyme. It was he who compared writing free verse to playing tennis with the net down. And even if I had not loved traditional poetry to begin with, his imposing example would have made me cautious of writing poetry in any mode without learning beforehand the time-tested procedures for versing. I would have felt like a pianist presuming to perform sonatas without having learned scales.

For the first ten or twelve years that I was writing, literary life was lonely, yet there were, happily, some extraordinarily gifted established poets working in traditional form, among them Richard Wilbur and the teacher with whom I worked as a graduate student at Brandeis, the late J.V. Cunningham. Cunningham’s métier was the epigram, which is a short poem that aims at making a witty point. Cunningham’s wit, however, was never simply humorous. His epigrams were funny and entertaining (qualities too little in evidence in recent poetry); but, as the following two-liner reveals, he could at the same time be biting and serious:

              The Humanist whom no belief constrained
             Grew so broad-minded he was scatter-brained.

And this next piece, however clever in its compression, is quietly reflective:

              Life flows to death as rivers to the sea,
             And life is fresh and death is salt to me.

Like Cunningham, Wilbur is a deft craftsman, and he has a marvelous ear and eye for detail. No poet observes the physical world with greater warmth and acuity. Consider his recent poem, “Transit”:

              A woman I have never seen before
            Steps from the darkness of her town-house door
             At just the crux of time when she is made
             So beautiful that she or time must fade.

               What use to claim that as she tugs her gloves
              A phantom heraldry of all the loves
              Blares from the lintel? That the staggered sun
              Forgets, in his confusion, how to run?

               Still, nothing changes as her perfect feet
              Click down the walk that issues in the street,
              Leaving the stations of her body there
              As a whip maps the countries of the air.

Wilbur’s choice of words is unerring. “Tugs” perfectly renders the image of the woman pulling on or adjusting her gloves; “clicks” does the same for the heels coming down the walk; “maps” neatly conveys the motion of a whip that fluidly slices the air into precincts.

The poem also illustrates the manner in which poetic form can support and vivify subject matter. If Cunningham’s epigrams achieve their incisiveness partly by their meter and rhyme, something comparable occurs in “Transit.” The poem’s subject is the transience of human beauty, and its title may recall for some readers the observation of Thomas à Kempis, Sic transit gloria mundi—“Thus passes away the glory of this world.” The poignancy of the poem derives from the keenly felt realization that, as lovely as the woman is, she will fade in time. Yet the poem also intimates that in another respect her beauty is as absolute as time itself. “Still, nothing changes,” Wilbur writes; and his superb final couplet, in which he imagines that the woman’s progress to the street is so vivid as to leave behind after-images, suggests that she shapes the very air and world through which she passes. And the poem’s intuition that there is something lasting in the evanescent miracle it perceives is affirmed and made convincing in the form. It is by his skillful use of form that Wilbur catches and distills the moment. On the one hand, there is the ephemeral experience; on the other, there are those much more permanent measures of poetry (the pentameter couplet Wilbur employs so well here goes back at least as far as Chaucer’s time), measures which can preserve and sustain the experience.

The work of Cunningham and Wilbur was a great comfort and inspiration when I was starting to write. Yet in their fidelity to metrical craft, they were the rare exceptions, not the rule. The overwhelming majority of poets wrote free verse. This situation was summed up by the poet Stanley Kunitz in an interview with Antaeus magazine that appeared in 1978. “Non-metrical verse,” Kunitz commented, “has swept the field, so that there is no longer any real adversary from the metricians.”

Among the younger generation of American poets during this period, there seemed no interest whatever in form. When my first book appeared in 1979, the reviewer for The Hudson Review, the late Richmond Lattimore, cited and described one of its poems as “desperately and delightfully unfashionable.” I had read Lattimore’s translation of The Iliad in college, and was pleased that he thought the poem delightful. But I experienced a rueful twinge about the desperate part of the characterization, since writing in meter and rhyme did make me feel at times like a living fossil.

Fortunately, this situation began to alter in the 1980s. It turned out that, here and there, other young poets had been working in traditional forms. The gradual emergence of our work was noticed and, to my surprise and probably to theirs as well, critics informed us that we were a movement—“the New Formalism.” Recently, I published a work of historical scholarship, Missing Measures: Modern Poetry and the Revolt Against Meter, which examines the ideas and conditions that led to modern poetry’s break with metrical convention. Had the book appeared a decade earlier, it would have sunk without trace. Appearing now, however, it has been much reviewed and debated. Needless to say, many people have resented my raising questions about the role of poetic form in poetry, and not all comment about the book has been favorable. But at least poets are again thinking and talking about meter and rhyme and versification.

Why this has happened now is not clear. I suspect that there is a broad-based anxiety, as we approach the twenty-first century, that the great revolution in the arts that took place at the dawn of the twentieth may have been misguided. The original revolutionaries perceived more acutely what they wished to challenge or undermine—meter and rhyme in poetry, representation in painting and sculpture, conventional melodic arrangement in music—than what they wished to establish. As a result, the revolution had considerable destructive vitality, but it did not have comparable constructive powers to create alternatives to replace the conventions it swept away.

One sees this situation in the field of poetry. After the triumph of the free verse movement led by Ezra Pound, T.S. Eliot, and William Carlos Williams, poetry was left at something of a loss. As Williams noted uneasily in the early 1930s, the art had entered a kind of “formless interim.” But the interim led nowhere, and formlessness became a permanent and dominant mode of poetic expression. Furthermore, the formlessness grew more and more formless. The initial experimentalists had not wished to do away with traditional craft altogether. Eliot in particular maintained a kind of dual allegiance to the formal and free throughout his career, and he and Williams were alarmed in their later years by what they perceived as the rapid decay of poetic practice.

For a time there was a vague hope that out of the ruins of the dismantled old metric, a new metric would arise. But, as I point out in Missing Measures, this hope wasn’t practical. Meters reflect patterns of speech that occur naturally in language. Poets do not invent them out of thin air. To construct a new metrical system, one would first have to construct a new language, or the pronunciation or accentuation of the existing language would have to change radically. So once the battle the modernists fought had been won, their followers tended simply to maintain a somewhat meaningless spirit of rebellion, meaningless because the styles and attitudes against which the rebellion had been directed had ceased to exist.

As hopeful as the current interest in traditional form is, it is uncertain whether it will lead to a sustained revival. As others have observed, the opposition to meter is formidable, especially in the creative writing programs and organizational poetry networks around the country. But perhaps the biggest obstacle to a renaissance of metrical art is that, after the upheavals of recent times, few poets and readers understand what meter is or how it works.

Meter is organized rhythm. The adjective in this definition is as important as the noun. Most speech is to some degree rhythmical. Basic devices of sentence structure—for example, antithesis and parallelism—impose a certain rhythm on language. But the rhythm of meter is regularly organized; traditional English meter, for example, entails arranging speech into a pattern of alternating unstressed and stressed syllables. The metrical unit repeats, and the scheme of repetition, once it is recognized, can be felt and anticipated as a kind of pulse in the verse.

Meters are based on or derived from normal speech patterns. People who do not understand traditional versification sometimes say that it is unnatural to write in meters because we don’t speak in them. But as Professor Cunningham was fond of pointing out, we do in fact often speak in meters or fragments of them. For instance, as a teacher myself nowadays, I constantly hear students utter iambic tetrameters:

               I need another syllabus
              My paper isn’t ready yet.
              How many classes have I missed?
              You mean this will affect my grade?
              I feel that I deserve an A.

So, too, with iambic pentameters. Some years ago when I was lunching in a cafeteria, I noticed that a couple at a nearby table were arguing. Though the argument was conducted in hissing whispers, eventually the woman rose angrily to her feet and, before stalking away, said aloud to her companion: “You haven’t kissed me since we got engaged.” My first thought was, What a zinger! My second was that the zinger was an iambic pentameter:

                                       x      /     x     /           x   /          x     /   x      /

                                    You haven't kissed me since we got engaged.

The point is that if meter is artificial, it is related, as all effective artifice is, to nature. That’s why meter works. If the iambic pentameter did not accommodate actual speech rhythms, poets would never have been able to use it to write sonnets or epigrams, much less to write such longer works as “Macbeth” or Paradise Lost.

A final point is that a particular meter is, in one respect, simply a general model of a certain type of line. To say, for example, that a poem is composed in iambic pentameter is merely to note that its lines feature alternate unstressed and stressed syllables and that this unstressed-stressed (iambic) arrangement repeats five (penta-) times. But this does not mean that all the unstressed syllables are equally light and all the stressed syllables equally weighty. Rather, what a poet does is to write lines which conform to the basic pattern, but which at the same time consist of modulations within the pattern.

Perhaps I can best illustrate this point by discussing the opening lines of a sonnet that I wrote several years ago. The lines describe a bee landing and grappling for pollen on a jade plant:

              The worker hovers where the jade plant blooms,
             Then settles on a blossom to her taste;
             Her furred and black-and-yellow form assumes
             A clinging curve by bending from the waist.

According to the traditional system of scansion, one may divide each of these lines into their five “feet” and mark them thus:

                  x     /        x     /        x           /         x    /             x        /

              The work | er hov | ers where | the jade  | plant blooms,

                  x       /     x       /       x      /     x        /          x    /
             Then set | tles on  | a blos | som to |  her taste;

                 x     /            x          /        x        /       x       /          x     /
             Her furred | and black | -and-yel | low form  | assumes

              x     /       x        /            x    /        x          /         x       /
             A cling | ing curve | by bend | ing from | the waist.

Yet this scansion is a simplification of the passage’s actual speech rhythms. These are more complex. Our system of scansion can’t begin to account for them, nor was it ever intended to account for them. The scansion marks are correct and useful: they show us the basic type of the line, and they accurately record the basic rise and fall of syllables across the lines. But though the rise and fall is continuous, it is not really a matter of minimally and maximally stressed syllables, since English speech itself is not a matter of minimally and maximally stressed syllables, but involves instead syllables which exhibit innumerable degrees and shadings of stress. All the feet in the lines above are iambs, in that their second syllable is weightier than their first. But the degree of difference between the syllables in any given foot, and the way that the larger and more fluid phrasal units ride through the feet, are more relative matters. (There are many other aspects of rhythmical variation within meter, but I haven’t space to discuss them here.)

Experienced poets rarely think of these technical issues when they are writing. Once they acquire a sense of a metrical line, and a facility in managing it, they can recognize quickly as they compose whether or not this or that cluster of words fits, or can be adjusted to fit, into the line. And poets with an ear for different kinds of phrasing develop different rhythms within a line. It is for this reason that though Shakespeare, Milton, Wordsworth and Frost all frequently wrote in iambic pentameter, the knowledgeable reader can hear and distinguish almost instantly the pentameters of one poet from those of another.

I stress this point—the co-existence in good traditional verse of fixed meter and individual rhythm—because it is almost completely misunderstood in today’s literary community. This misunderstanding arose partly as a result of the energetic but misguided critical labors of Ezra Pound. In his effort to establish free verse as a replacement or alternative to traditional meter, he suggested that traditional practice was composition by “the metronome.” That is, he confused metrical description (scansion) with actual rhythmical effects and suggested that to write in regular meter was to write ti tum ti tum ti tum ti tum ti tum. As a corollary of this, he implied that to achieve fluid rhythm, one had to “break” meter.

In truth, not only have good traditional poets never ti-tum-ti-tummed; it would be hard for them to do so even if they tried. They would have to write in phrasal units of two-syllables, with the stress always on the second syllable. They would have to write lines like “A pen, a page, a book, a glass, a cat,” or “Serene, composed, content, confined, confused.”

For several generations now, poets have been, in both the prosodic and colloquial sense, shooting themselves in the foot. The renewed interest in meter indicates that some are beginning to question this dubious state of affairs. Yet the current metrical revival is precarious. Free verse is still ascendant, and the hostility to traditional form is stronger than ever. Especially troubling are the recent charges, by certain advocates of free verse, that meter is intrinsically “conservative” or “repressive” or, to use the term of one commentator, “Reaganite.” Aside from the fact that meter is basically just an instrument for making speech clearer and more memorable than it would be otherwise, this criticism is peculiar in that it overlooks the fact that many of the originators and popularizers of free verse were political reactionaries. Pound and Wyndham Lewis are cases in point. I wish to stress that I am not suggesting that free verse is perforce reactionary. By the same token, however, tarring meter with that particular brush seems to betray confusion about the nature and function of artifice, not to mention ignorance of literary history.

Even more alarming are the casual dismissals of meter that one encounters in places where one might reasonably expect a more balanced view. For instance, the entry for “Metre” in The Oxford Companion to English Literature (5th edition, 1985) concludes: “Verse in the 20th cent. has largely escaped the straitjacket of traditional metrics.” Faced with so authoritative a statement, one scarcely knows how to respond. Certainly, meter challenges the poet. But to characterize as a “straitjacket” a medium that made possible the works of Homer, Sappho, Virgil, Li Po, Firdausi, Dante, Shakespeare, and Basho seems terribly simpleminded. Furthermore, it reflects a lack of sensitivity to that dialectic between freedom and restraint that is the basis of art.

Yet whenever I read statements like the one in the Companion, I remember something Primo Levi says in an essay entitled “Rhyming on the Counterattack.” Discussing rhyme and noting how little practiced it is now, he nevertheless asserts, “Its eclipse today in Western poetry seems to me inexplicable, and it is certainly temporary.” And he adds immediately afterwards: “It has too many virtues, it is too beautiful to disappear.”

I believe he is right. While writing this essay, I called my mother long-distance in Vermont to verify my memory about her having read “Locksley Hall” to me. She not only remembered, but immediately began to recite the aviation passage by heart! This experience was comforting. It was as if Tennyson’s verse had created a bond between us, and between us and the past. Is there anything other than poetry—poetry in the sense of its traditional craft—that can bridge such distances, that can make speech and thought dance, and that can make all sorts of different words and ideas chime in one harmonious whole? Is there any other pursuit that so connects us, at the most fundamental levels of rhythm and music, with the whole enterprise of human culture? I think not. So in ending, I should like to echo Levi. Meter, rhyme, and stanza: they are too beautiful to disappear.