Of the three books currently on my night table—a flaking early edition of the poems of Abraham Cowley, a coffee-table book on wooden boats, and a book from 1911 entitled A Study of Versification, by Professor Brander Matthews of Columbia University—most worrisome is the book on versification. What could be more superfluous than a turn-of-the-last-century volume on English prosody? Taking a verse manual as bedtime reading is like nodding off to sleep counting herds of sheep in The Domesday Book of William the Conqueror, a wealth of once useful and now extremely arcane information. This blue palm-sized book—bound in imitation, I suspect, of Oxford’s landmark Clarendon editions—is meant as a primer for students, to acquaint the novice reader of poetry with the fundamentals of verse writing.

The book’s uselessness is manifold. For readers interested in versification, there are a number of excellent recent books on the subject that avoid Matthews’s stylistic wooliness (“The sonnet is the noblest of all fixed forms”).[1] In Matthews’s defense, his book is serious and thoughtful, but in the end little interest in the subject remains, even among contemporary poets. The most cursory survey of new poetry books confirms the predominance of free verse. As Donald Justice put it in his essay “Of the Music of Poetry,” “surely nine-tenths of the poems written last night and every night for decades now in America and doubtless in the world at large must have been written in some kind of free verse—of course there are a thousand kinds.”

The study of prosody still figures in the offerings of a good number of university English departments and creative writing programs, but, aside from class exercises and the odd villanelle, most young poets do not choose to work with traditional forms. Columbia University’s graduate writing division, for example, recently dropped its requirement for the study of versification, and I am told that one can navigate the poetry program there without ever scanning a line.

Well, fair enough. Columbia instructs aspiring professionals. And one can become a successful and even a prominent poet in America today with no grasp of traditional verse forms. Consider this example. Some years ago, in a class I was attending, a well-known, well-published visiting poet gave an assignment to write a poem in blank verse. When the class reconvened and copies of the poems were handed around, one writer read out her exercise. The instructor’s polling of the class for comments on the success of the poem as blank verse was followed by the usual pause as people gathered their thoughts. Then, admitting to a certain confusion, I tentatively offered that it was a fine poem but it was not iambic pentameter. At this point, a low-level panic ran around the seminar table as people returned to the poem to weigh this fact against the text. Relief came when the renowned poet, our instructor, suggested to the group that blank verse needn’t be iambic pentameter. Perhaps it was politeness, but no one contested the assertion, and in fact, I suspect, no one really cared all that much, since blank verse was not likely ever to figure in their work. We went on to the next example.[2]

On one level, it’s not a particularly striking story. I have a friend who writes poetry almost exclusively in received forms, and he, while amused by this anecdote, is not especially concerned by its ramifications. There is free verse and there is formal verse, he says, and no one is stopping anyone from writing how he or she sees fit. Still, not all poets and readers are as magnanimous as my friend. People do like to take sides. Robert Frost, for example, went after free verse with his famous sports simile, but in the end, I think, formal verse has gotten a more severe beating. On the one hand, on artistic grounds, formalism has been deemed reactionary, irrelevant, sleepy, and woefully out of touch with the way people speak and think. (Ratiocination in poems often constitutes an ancillary target in this line of argument.) And on the other hand, on political grounds, formalism has been tarred as a practice of aristocratic white males that is, by its very nature, anti-democratic in its fostering of an elite and its exclusionary use of hieratic rhetoric.

To compound matters, a de-emphasis in the academy in recent years on the formal elements of poetry, in favor of the social, legal, historic, and cultural background to literature, has meant that even doctoral candidates in English need not concern themselves overly with poetic form. Another quick but, I think, telling example: I was serving on a panel of poetry judges, and as the panel proceeded to deliberate, one judge, a university professor and poet, chimed in to say that I and another of our colleagues seemed to be paying a lot of attention to the language in the poems. It was never entirely clear to me what was meant by this statement, but I suspect that the implication was that, in carefully examining a poet’s deployment of words, I had failed to give proper weight to the poet’s biography as it was suggested by the poems.

A number of exceptional poets such as Anthony Hecht, Donald Justice, Mona Van Duyn, and Thom Gunn (all of whom, sadly, passed away last year), as well as Richard Wilbur, Derek Walcott, Geoffrey Hill, and Marilyn Hacker have done much to stave off biases against form. Still, the word “formal” continues to carry a stigma in poetry circles. The headline of Anthony Hecht’s obituary in The New York Times read “A Formalist Poet, Dies.” There is a sense in which such an epitaph is unremarkable, purely descriptive one might say, but it is also telling, I think, about the place of form in contemporary poetry. One feels badly for Harvey Shapiro, whose excellent obituary for Hecht was skewed by some headline writer’s belief that writing in form is in-and-of-itself a distinguishing feature that deserves to follow one in perpetuity almost to the exclusion of other attributes.

With free verse now the common currency in contemporary poetry, it is easy to forget that it took hold only a century ago—that’s 2,500 years of metrical verse since the Iliad and 100 years of free verse in English since Ezra Pound (or 150, if one starts with Whitman). To return to poor Professor Matthews’s prosody manual for a moment, despite its deficits it is a striking historical document from the recent past: published in 1911, it makes no mention of free verse in English, since free verse had yet to establish itself. Matthews’s study could have been assigned to my grandfather in school, yet the book is a document from a completely different era; 1911 is close to us chronologically but worlds away in terms of poetic practice.

For some perspective on that year, here’s Allen Tate:

There was a time when, to many persons on both sides of the Atlantic, 1911 seemed to have witnessed a revolution in poetry: for in that year John Masefield shocked the Anglo-American literary world with The Everlasting Mercy, a poem about plain people in plain language. It prompted, I believe it was Sir William Watson, to remark that the “language of Shakespeare was good enough” for him. But yet another poetic revolution had already begun. Pound’s first book of verse had been published in 1908 (very quietly, in Venice); Eliot’s came out almost a decade later (Prufrock and Other Observations appeared in 1917); Robert Frost’s first book was published in 1913. This poetic revolution, which has dominated poetry in English for almost half a century [or for an entire century we could say now], and which has sharpened our critical scrutiny of poets like Robinson and Frost, who were outside it, was brought about by two young men who were convinced that the language of Shakespeare was not merely good enough for them, but far too good.

Unfortunately, few poets today understand prosody as well as Eliot and Pound. (Take Pound’s Canzoni for example or Eliot’s version of terza rima in Four Quartets). No doubt they were reacting strongly against traditional prosody as practiced by the Victorians and Edwardians, but they were also capable of writing in the very forms that they reviled. Pound wrote a poem, which he withdrew from his Canzoni, entitled “Against Form”:


Whether my Lady will to hear of me
The unrimed speech wherein the heart is heard,
Or whether she prefer to the perfumed word
And powdered cheek of masking irony?
Decorous dance steps are simplicity,
The well-groomed sonnet is to truth preferred;
Let us be all things so we’re not absurd,
Dabble with forms and damn the verity.
Bardlets and bardkins, I do bite my thumb.
Corset the muse and “directoire” her grace,
Marcel the elf-looks of sa chevelure,
Enamel Melpomene’s too sun-kissed face
And then to have your fame forged doubly sure
Let taste rule all and bid the heart be dumb.

Interestingly, Pound’s indictment of form takes the form of a sonnet. Perhaps it’s a question of know thy enemy, or just a slashing ironic gesture. Certainly, it is a kind of light verse, but the sine qua non of light verse is formal precision, and Pound had it to a highly respectable degree.

Today, as I have said, it is not necessary to understand prosody at all in order to write a successful poem in English or to be a successful poet. Still, I can’t help wondering if the art isn’t made poorer by contemporary poets’ self-assured disregard of traditional verse technique. As Brander Matthews himself once famously said: “A gentleman need not know Latin, but he should have at least forgotten it.” Prosody is not far behind Latin in terms of its obsolescence, even within the specialized discipline of poetry. And this goes for readers and critics, as well as for poets.

There has been a perception among poets themselves, since the advent of modernism, that formal verse fails on two counts: first, it doesn’t reflect contemporary speech, and, second, as Pound suggests in his poem “Against Form,” formal verse is too decorous to convey the complex new emotions provoked by modernity. The poet J. V. Cunningham answers the first concern about colloquial English with this line of perfect iambic pentameter: “I’ll have the special and a glass of milk.” In response to the second suggestion, that formal verse cannot contain modern thought and feeling, Allen Tate writes:

The larger lesson taught by Baudelaire … was that the entire range of sensibility from high to low was not intractable to formal versification for was not Baudelaire a master of the classical French Alexandrine as well as other kinds of formal verse? Like everybody else at the time I tried free-verse, but it always turned out to be irregular metrical verse, and I soon gave it up.

Formal versification is the primary structure of poetic order, the assurance to the reader and to the poet himself that the poet is in control of the disorder both outside him and within his own mind.

Certain poets have responded to Tate’s assertions with the argument that it is not the job of the poet to control disorder but to describe it for the reader in a form that reflects the essential disjunctions of contemporary life. But this, as Yvor Winters and other critics have pointed out, is a form of the imitative fallacy that mistakenly holds that one must use disordered forms to convey disordered states. (Richard Wilbur’s fine poem “A Digression,” which describes a moment of bewilderment in elegant and lucid stanzas, is just one example to the contrary.)

Much has been written about form as an age-old and essential aspect of poetic practice. Some critics have suggested a physiological basis for form in the human body and brain: iambs have been compared to heartbeats, lines to the basic exhalation of breath. The poet Frederick Turner has argued persuasively for our cognitive connection to meter, suggesting the ways in which our brains are actually hardwired for pattern recognition, the fulfillment of which brings pleasure to the reader. I do not wish to go into those theories here. I would, however, like to quote a brief passage, again by Donald Justice, from his essay “Meters and Memory,” on one of the important ways that meter does serve both the poet and the reader:

If for an audience the meters function in part to call back the words of the poem, so for the poet they may help to call the words forth, at the same time casting over them the illusion of a necessary or at least not inappropriate fitness and order. There is a kind of accrediting in the process, a warrant that things are being remembered right and set down right, so long as the meters go on working. In this way the meters serve as a neutral and impersonal check on self-indulgence and whimsy; a subjective event gets made over into something more like an object. It becomes accessible to memory, repeatedly accessible, because it exists finally in a form that can be perused at leisure, like a snapshot in an album.

Here’s a quick test for readers of poetry. Of the poems you can recite by heart, how many are in free verse and how many are in meter and rhyme? To revise Donald Justice’s formulation above, surely nine-tenths of the poems committed to memory last night and every night for millennia must have been in some kind of metered verse.

Surely, first-rate poems continue to be written today, in both meter and free verse. Still, in only a hundred years it would appear that both students of poetry and poets themselves are no longer masters of one of the essential elements of the art form. It’s as if our culture gave up study of the violin or artists no longer learned to draw (now too often the case). Recovery of these tools may take much longer than one might think. A poet cannot simply decide one day to write accomplished blank verse, for example, and expect that his unique stamp will appear on the form. The recent masters of blank verse and other traditional verse—Hecht, Wilbur, Edgar Bowers—spent a lifetime composing their signature music, finding within the language a rhythm distinctly their own, unmistakably, indelibly. If anything, poets and readers today have moved even further away from an appreciation of these gifts, and the tide shows no signs of reversing. For how many subsequent generations will the language of Shakespeare continue to be far too good?


This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 23 Number 8, on page 21
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