Criticism of Life? Bah. Rhythm! Ode to Joy! One-two-three-four, One-two-three-four, One-two-three-four, One-and-Two!
The essence of rhythm is completely misunderstood by the modern poets.
They falsely posit two things of which there is only one.
It is similar to the error in which a simple quantity, height, for instance, is described as a duality: short and tall. Short is not a quantity in itself, and neither is tall. Short and tall are two ways of saying the same thing: height. Short and tall only have meaning in relation to some other height. Height itself is neither short nor tall—it is simply one measurable quantity between two points.
In the same way: the quantity, rhythm, is not ‘recurring pattern’ on one hand, and ‘variation of that pattern,’ on the other.
Rhythm, for that word to have any meaning, is not two things. It is one thing.
Since variation cannot exist unless there is an established pattern from which to vary, it is ridiculous to speak of variety or variation as a separate quantity—like tall, it begs the question, taller than what? or in this case, varying from what? This second quantity—variation—does not exist, but is contained in the first quantity, which we define as: the established pattern or rhythm which must first exist before any variation can occur, and without which no variation can occur.
T.S. Eliot, the Modernist most respected for first principles, errs, precisely in this manner, when he claims all prose scans and all prose has rhythm.
The Modernist error is defended by the tall and short trick—two quantities conjured out of the one principle: rhythm.
We see the Modernist compare iambic pentameter—which is described as a recurring pattern—to prose, which is described as a variation on a pattern, the Modernist adding that good iambic pentameter breaks the iambic expectation with variation—and prose is a variation on this sort of (good) variation—and thus, naturally, a good.
Good iambic moves away from expectation; good prose moves towards it.
The trick that is being played here is a simple one: the Modernist inserts a quality in a manner that distorts a quantity. The rhythm is the rhythm, not the variation from it—but this “not” magically becomes “the good;” the “variation” (the variation, any variation, variation that cannot exist without the original rhythm) now becomes wholly associated with “the good,” because if iambic does not vary itself, it is bad—and therefore prose, seen as wholly and organically various, and thus always varying itself, becomes in the blindness of the Modernist argument, the good.
The false Modernist argument, in a nutshell, goes like this: If iambic can vary itself as prose does, iambic will be good, and prose, which is already various, is by the same token, also good.
But obviously there can be no variation without the original rhythm—which is the actual good—and to describe variety as good is nothing but a lie, because not only is variety not a separate good, variety does not and cannot exist at all as anything materially separate.
The iambic—even as it varies itself, remains always and forever iambic in the upper part of the reader’s mind—and the more it skillfully varies itself as an iambic rhythm, the more strongly does it assert itself, in its variety, as an iambic rhythm, and this process alone—by which the iambic varies itself and by doing so, remains more strongly iambic—is the good.
Iambic is iambic because it is not prose. The iambic rhythm (ta DA) possesses an identifiable rhythm, and thus an identity in terms of rhythm which prose does not—since prose is not-prose-because-it-is-not-iambic. Prose is also not prose because it is not trochaic—thus not being iambic alone does not define prose. But iambic is defined by not being prose—were iambic, after all, really trochaic, for instance, it would still be very much itself, since the rhythm of trochaic and iambic are almost the same (a short beside a long).
With logical precision, Criticism can prove that prose has no identifiable rhythm.
This, in fact, is what defines prose as prose. It does not differ from iambic, it differs from all rhythm—for it has none.
The Modernist Theory of free verse is not scientific. It is a hopeful dream—though the Modernist would insist the glory of free verse is based on “experience.”
To reject Criticism for experience, thinking the former leads us away frorm the latter, is wrong, for Criticism makes us aware of experience and is therefore vital to it. Criticism is nothing more and nothing less than an experience of experience, and therefore to reject Criticism as effete or unnecessary is foolish: a rejection of experience itself.
To insist that prose scans is to succumb to the worst sin, according to Pope’s Essay on Criticism: pride. It is also to reject what, according to Plato, is the essence of art, humility, and intelligence: measurement.
The Modernist is uncomfortable with measurement, and feels superior to it. The Modernist is a priest without religion, a scientist without science, an artist without art, a lover without love, and indulges in experience without criticism—which is experience without experience.
Life is all the Modernist has.
Life belongs to all of us—and yes, life needs no criticism, no science, no love, no measurement. Life is that place we, as individuals, can safely be ignorant or hyper-aware, as we sit on a train, drowse on our beds, drift sweetly in our minds, dismiss all in a bad mood, or embrace all in moments of intoxication; then, criticism of experience—which is truly what experience is—can go hang. There is no “criticism of life,” the Arnoldian phrase loved by T.S. Eliot; it is truly an empty phrase, if we understand how vast, casual and random life really is.
Life is beyond Criticism. Experience depends on Criticism. Yet the Modernist confuses the two.
Life is subjective, sprawling.
Experience is limited, objective.
The Modernist comprehends neither experience (rejecting criticism of it) nor life (welcoming criticism of it). Of course it is no wonder that Matthew Arnold’s “criticsm of life” was used by Eliot in praising Pound’s poetry [intro to Pound's Selected Poems, Faber]. When you wish to reject experience and criticism of it, you insist, like the Modernists and their heirs, the Post-Modernists do, that your poetry reflects “life,” which of course is impossible.
Life is what finally makes poetry empty and effete. In one of life’s bad moods, all poetry is terrible, and life laughs at our criticism and makes everything true—or not—on a whim.
A poet would be a fool, then, to think his poetry is a ‘criticism of life.’
No, life is always a criticism of poetry, and didactic pride prevents us from admitting this is always the case, and it never goes the other way; poetry is never a ‘criticism of life.’ Only a fool who believes prose scans would make such an assertion.