CHRISTIAN WIMAN OPENS THE DOOR TO CRAZY

Christian Wiman, editor of Poetry magazine, 2003-2012 and the recent Poetry anthology, The Open Door: 100 Poems, 100 Years of Poetry Magazine

How do you respond to someone who goes on using old terms to describe what they keep insisting is new?

This is the dilemma of those who must listen to the endless drone of the curators and defenders and benefactors of modern poetry, or contemporary poetry, as it’s sometimes called; it’s no surprise this drone would manifest itself most painfully in a celebration of 100 years of Poetry magazine, specifically in Christian Wiman’s introduction to The Open Door: 100 Poems, 100 Years of Poetry Magazine.

Wiman’s The Open Door introduction is ostentatiously entitled, “Mastery and Mystery.”

The mastery is a mystery—this is what we think Mr. Wiman means.

Wiman is one of these—fans—of poetry (in the abstract, of course) who love everything about it, so things like critical faculty, discernment, and judgment, are mere annoyances that get in the way of the joyfully universal hippie consciousness kissing every divine modern word, kissing every divine modern line-break.

Wiman is habituated, like so many of his ilk, to prate on and on about “craft” in a wholesomely earnest manner, in which craft designates not skillful arrangement, but any arrangement, which he, Wiman, for no reason which can be discerned, finds deeply meritorious.  What do you say to the person, who, reclining in some well-made chair, points to a heap of sticks, declaring the pile to be an excellent example of “craft?”

“Craft matters because life matters,” Wiman intones—and of course it does, because a loose pile of sticks matters—as all things matter, and who would deny this?  Certainly not Wiman.

The lovely assertion—“Craft matters because life matters”—is all the critical mountebank needs, but Wiman will not let the windmill get away quite so easily, for he adds,

Craftless poetry is not only as perishable as the daily paper, it’s meretricious, disrespectful (of its subjects as well as its readers) and sometimes, as Pound implies, even unethical.

“Craftless poetry…is unethical,” (!!) and who better to “imply” this than the highly ethical, ‘pile-of-sticks-author’ himself, Ezra Pound?

But what, according to Wiman,  is “craftless poetry,” anyway?

Did you really expect Wiman to tell us?  He mentions Pound, and that’s all he needs to do.  The in-the-know-modernist sagely nods, and Wiman immediately changes the subject, diving into another modernist topic.

The difficulty of modern poetry—that is, poetry written since Modernism—is taken by most people as a given.

Ah, having quickly covered the “craft” issue, we now get the old canard about the “difficulty of modern poetry,” as if Shakespeare, for instance, is not “difficult,” and as if “difficult” (which can easily be translated into ‘poorly written’) means anything substantial at all.

Following his brief and sage observation that Edna Millay is not “difficult,”  Wiman falls down in utter worship of a poet who is, Basil “Crushed Grit” Bunting, in a manner that would make even Shakespeare blush:

Briggflatts is a palimpsest of history, nature, learning, loss. It is the testament and artifact of a man who has lived so thoroughly through the language, that is has become a purely expressive medium. Because of cadence and pacing, and the way sounds echo and intensify sense, the word is restored to a kind of primal relation with the world; language itself takes on the textures and heft of things:

Under sacks on the stone
two children lie,
hear the horse stale,
the mansion whistle,
harness mutter to shaft,
felloe to axle squeak,
rut thud the rim,
crushed grit.

Let’s be placid and factual for a moment: Crossword puzzles are random words that fit into a whole—a rather superficial use of craft—what Bunting does (hyped by the excitable Wiman) is select random words of similar sound and meaning (“horse” and “harness”) and put them into a heap.

We might admire Bunting’s list of words, (requiring a dictionary and a bit of free time,) but we must point out that the craft of making a crossword puzzle involves fitting words into a whole—but the Bunting excerpt is, in fact, “craftless,” since beyond the similarity of the words themselves (in Bunting’s list) no definitive whole is acheived; all we get, if we speak as an honest critic, is a vague depiction of a blurry,  impressionistic scene, which is naturally what we would expect if any such list were presented loosely to us.

The Bunting excerpt is (try it) as good read backwards—just as we can do a crossword puzzle in any order we choose.

The Bunting passage has less craft than what is acheived by the author of the crossword puzzle.

Yet Wiman explicitly states that Bunting of “crushed grit” is a great advance (!!) (“the word is restored,” “language itself takes on…the heft of things”) of a wondrous kind—an interesting thesis.

Next, Wiman completely misses the meaning of a Denise Levertov passage as he purports to give us “a little master class in free verse,” in which

Our bodies, still young under
the engraved anxiety of our
faces

is for Wiman all about the line-break after “under” because

it is one thing to say that a body is “still young,” quite another to say that it is “still young under.” The latter implies a history, a density of feeling and experience, whereas the former is simply a statement of fact.

First, despite the feverish belief in the importance of the line-break, we must point out that Levertov never says, “still young”—she says, “still young under.”  In the split-second it takes to read “still young under,” it is impossible not to read Levertov’s line as “still young under,” line-break or not.

Second, Wiman misreads Levertov’s simple meaning.  Wiman informs us that:

The mind naturally wants to read these lines like this:

Our bodies, still young
under the engraved anxiety
of our faces…

But this completely changes the meaning and effect of the lines. It is one thing to say that a body is “still young” quite another to say that it is “still young under.” The latter implies a history, a density of feeling and experience, whereas the former is simply a statement of fact.

We are not sure what all this “history” and “density of feeling and experience” is that Wiman gratuitously mentions; Levertov is stating an anatomical fact: faces show outward signs of age (wrinkles, and so forth, the “engraved anxiety of our faces”) before bodies do; it’s common knowledge for the body in middle age to remain smooth and young-looking while the face begins to look “engraved.”  The “under” Wiman wants to load with all sorts of significance, merely refers to to one’s body “under” the engraved face. Wiman’s ‘insight’ is nothing but error.

This is where line-break-ism leads: rant.  Wiman, winds up his “triumphant” reading of Levertov’s lines with this:

The point here is not to go through every poem nitpicking technique, trying to find some obvious “reason” for every formal decision. Rather, the point is simply to be aware that what may seem like awkwardness or even randomness (James Schuyler!) can be as formally severe and singular as any Bach fugue.

The folly here is laughable in the extreme: we move, with Wiman, from a silly misreading into the majesty of a Bach fugue.

Wiman, now half-way through his introduction, swells with pride at his own poetry-reading skill, which causes him to embrace the essence of life itself:

One of the qualities to being good at reading poetry is also one of the qualities essential to being good at life…

Wiman continues in this vein: Poetry! Life! 

Poetry…”gives us access to a new world and new experience” and also “enlivens the lives we thought we knew.”

Hyperbole joins hyperbole, as only the advocate of modern poetry can bring it.

“Why write poetry?” asks Wiman, why “keep a journal?”  Because “language is a living thing” and deserves “our fullest and most costly consciousness, only our whole selves honed by emotional extremity.”

Wiman then warns against “vanity” in poetry as we might find it in the “bloviating laueate” or the “open-mike” poet in the “local bar,” saying poetry, even when it’s anti-religious, is the force that invented religion in the first place, and we must feel poetry in our “blood,” in the “marriage of word and world.”

We also need to understand that “the lyric” is not only “inward,” as Wiman points out  for us that Thom Gunn, with “his heroic height” and “his motorcycle boots” had “little patience for Romantic effluvia” as he “wanted to obliterate personality in his poetry.”

Wiman blows us away with another flashing insight: a “writer who grows up in a bookless culture” will “always be torn by conflicting impulses.”

More wisdom: “Every poem in this book is situated somewhere on this spectrum between life and learning, between linguistic powers honed to surgical precisions and the messy living reality out of which all language…”

For all the canons and anthologies, for every rock-solid reputation and critical consensus, poetry is personal or it is nothing.

As far we can tell, Wiman has convinced everyone—but himself—that “it is nothing.”

Precisely because he has declared it to be everything.

Poetry, according to Wiman, brings that “face-off between spiritual integrity and social insecurity.”

If only Wiman were a bit more “insecure” regarding “spiritual integrity”—and everything else.

Finally, Wiman tells us that he and his co-editor, Don Share, feel “humility” and “pride” in the job they’ve done.

At least he’s feeling humble.

Do we expect too much from a perfunctory introduction to a book containing 100 poems in 100 years of Poetry?

Of course we do.

But at that same time, the thought on display in any poetry anthology introduction should not be taken lightly.  Mountain-top pronouncements no longer exist in poetry.  We should be harsh with every whisper, every small notion, every part.  If we find no fault with the brick, we cannot criticize the house.

Criticism today must be micro, as well as honest, and Wiman, who made Poetry better as an editor by adding controversial prose, will no doubt understand Scarriet’s purpose.

It is not our fault that the Modernist is the dullest creature on the face of the earth, both emotionally flat and inane.

Whatever poetry does to us with its awkward spell, it finally does to us in a manner of which we have little or no cognizance; how important, then, is the Maid, Reason, who protects us from ravenous incomprehensibility; Modernism, however, with its notoriously unfriendly prose style (Whitman, Pound, Jarrell) is no nurse speaking with sweetness and clarity at our feverish bedside. Wiman, like all the other Modernists, is excitable, and lacks simple common sense.

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33 Comments

  1. dmanister said,

    February 15, 2013 at 1:56 pm

    Unless you describe the kind of poetry you regard as successful your criticism of Wiman sounds like sour-grape griping. One can only assume that you deplore the displacement of formalist rhymed poetry by less restrained Modernist poems.

    If so, say so. Many serious readers and writers of poetry enjoy poems that suggest meaning without dishing it up on a plate, and find form that avoids tidy rhyme schemes and wholeness tied up in a bow like a Christmas present to be more pertinent to life as we know it in our time.

    • thomasbrady said,

      February 15, 2013 at 5:05 pm

      I don’t follow your logic. How is it “sour grape” to specifically point out how Wiman gets Levertov wrong? I do mention Shakespeare as a “difficult” poet and examples of successful poetry such as Shakespeare’s abound, so there’s really no “sour grape” if Basil Bunting leaves me cold; the burden of proof is on Wiman and his superlatives; this is the thing that so many have trouble understanding when it comes to Criticism: if a poem, or a style of poetry fails to move us, the argument is no less strong because we don’t stack it up against more “successful” poetry (though it would be nice if we did so) because perhaps all poetry fails to move us, and if we give reasons why, well, then only a “sour grape” person would reject the reasons as reasons. No Criticism, if it is genuine Criticism, should ever be forced to be positive, just because we want things to be nice. Nowhere, by the way, do I say poetry must rhyme, and that is not my argument. In examining some of the false claims of line-break-ism, this is all I am obligated to do: this and no more. You are simply reading false assumptions into what I am doing, I’m afraid.

      And if you do want comparison, Scarriet does an awful lot of that sort of thing:

      One example:

      https://scarriet.wordpress.com/2012/08/23/the-three-types-of-poetry/

    • marcusbales said,

      February 21, 2013 at 10:42 pm

      dmanister said: “… Many serious readers and writers of poetry enjoy poems that suggest meaning without dishing it up on a plate, and find form that avoids tidy rhyme schemes and wholeness tied up in a bow like a Christmas present to be more pertinent to life…”

      Perhaps nothing could more thoroughly condemn a freeverser as completely ignorant of the entire tradition of poetry in the western world, this utterance by whoever dmanister is. Poetry is language in meter — and always has been until the Lowel-Ford-Pound coterie threw out the baby of meter with the bathwater of Victorian diction at the turn of the last century. Ever since the lazy and the ignorant such as dmanister obvioiusly is from this opinion, have been exploiting the cultural weight of being known as a poet by simply claiming, with no evidence whatever, that they are. They write prose, relineate it to be ragged right, and slop it down in front of us like the swill it is and give one another awards, prizes, jobs, and money in a cronyist and corrupt cabal that has been outed and outed and outed over and over and over, and still they lie to themselves and the world.

      Poetry is language in meter. What you’re doing is, well, prose. It may very well be elegant, artful, well-written, insightful, even pertinent to life, but it’s prose. You’ve been wrong for 100 years, and you’re wrong now. In 100 years more people will be mocking the 20th century as the century in which English writers completely mistook what they were doing and accepted the dubious in place of the authentic — and they’ll be laughing at you, as I’m laughing at you now.

      Sad Eyes And Low Expectations

      There’s those who like those with the jiggling buns
      and those who like those with the bulging big guns —
      I’m not one of those because I like the ones
      with the sad eyes and low expectations.

      There are those who like those who are long lean and tall,
      and those who like those who are supple and small;
      But size doesn’t matter to me if they’re all
      About sad eyes and low expectations.

      There’s those who like those that are fourteen lines long,
      and those who think both rhyme and meter are wrong —
      Who say it’s postmodern and call it a song
      With their sad eyes and low expectations.

      We really don’t care – we don’t care in the least –
      If your verse forms derive from the west or the east
      Or there’s no form at all in your moveable feast
      Except sad eyes and low expectations.

      You don’t have to read any Frenchified book —
      They’re fakey innumerate gobbledegook –
      We only require that you have the look:
      Give us sad eyes and low expectations —
      Give us sad eyes and low expectations!

      • Mark said,

        February 22, 2013 at 2:48 am

        I actually agree with much of what Marcus says here but he doesn’t do himself any favours by attaching such a wretched poem to the end.

        Poems like this are why people began turning away from metered verse – this is nothing more than rhyming prose. Marcus is so caught up in the formal aspects that he ignores the true spirit of poesy and does a great disservice to the artform.

        Stop writing bad poems and read some good ones, Marcus! This utter fucking dreck halts any progress that could be made… such a shame.

        • noochness said,

          February 22, 2013 at 12:32 pm

          I dunno, man,
          I think it’s a pearl—
          There’s nothing like a
          Sad eyed and low expectationed girl.

  2. Mark said,

    February 20, 2013 at 12:36 pm

    Good points, dmanister!

    • Anonymous said,

      February 20, 2013 at 4:10 pm

      She didn’t make any points. She made a couple of wrong assumptions.

      • Anonymous said,

        February 21, 2013 at 11:31 am

        Good points, Anonymous!

  3. thomasbrady said,

    February 21, 2013 at 1:56 pm

    anonymity tends to speak the truth

  4. thomasbrady said,

    February 22, 2013 at 3:36 pm

    Sad Eyes and Low Expectations immediately reminded me of this:

    With your mercury mouth in the missionary times
    And your eyes like smoke and your prayers like rhymes
    And your silver cross, and your voice like chimes
    Oh, who do they think could bury you ?
    With your pockets well protected at last
    And your streetcar visions which you place on the grass
    And your flesh like silk,
    And your face like glass
    Who among them do they think could carry you ?
    Sad-eyed lady of the lowlands
    Where the sad-eyed prophet says that no man comes,
    My warehouse eyes, my Arabian drums,
    Should I put them by your gate?
    Oh, sad-eyed lady, should I wait?

  5. thomasbrady said,

    February 22, 2013 at 3:45 pm

    If you read the latest Scarriet post, the “Clangings” interview with Steven Cramer, this poet and MFA Director gives the standard answer to this whole question, about half-way through the interview:

    “You can scan prose—but you won’t find a dependably recurrent meter.”

    You can scan prose.

    This is what T.S. Eliot said, and none have really been able to refute him. The only one who probably could, Edgar Allan Poe, has been dead for a long time.

    I agree with both Mark and Nooch. The Bales poem is wonderful. And yet it personifies a certain Gilbert & Sullivan mood which trips up divine poetry.

    • marcusbales said,

      February 22, 2013 at 5:32 pm

      “You can scan prose — but …”

      The ‘but’ is the important part. “… BUT you won’t find a dependably recurrent meter.” That you can ‘scan prose’ is to say you can apply the rules of metrics to a non-metrical medium, and find (wait for it) that it is not metrical because (wait for it) you won’t find a dependably recurrent meter!

      What part of that needs to be challenged? Where in Poe do you find that prose is poetry if you scan it, since that’s what you’re implying by saying Poe would oppose Eliot’s dictum, and Cramer’s, too?

      Meter is regular, repeating, and recognizable. The whole point of meter is to be regular, repeating, and recognizable so that the poet can play with the longer lines of the natural rhythms of the language against the shorter requirements of the chosen meter, and the reader can follow along in, and appreciate, the writer’s method. Writing that hasn’t got a regular, repeating, and recognizable meter is prose.

      Again, it may be well-written, it may be art, it may be joyous or dolorous, it may be anything a poem is except a poem, because a poem requires meter. When you free your writing from meter you free it from poetry — and you may be as free as you please in your writing, but if you’re so free as to call your prose poetry you’ll be mistaken.

      • thomasbrady said,

        February 22, 2013 at 6:34 pm

        Marcus,

        Poe was stricter than all of us: not only did prose not scan for him, but neither did most of his rivals’ verse!

        Tom

  6. thomasbrady said,

    February 22, 2013 at 4:16 pm

    One of the greatest poems ever written is Shelley’s “To A Skylark.”
    Note how it rhymes and chimes like crazy, but no ‘Gilbert & Sullivan” brass band texture is apparent at all. Instead we get beautiful serenity of thought. Can this be scientifically analyzed? Is it the result of Shelley’s genius? Why does Shelley’s armada of rhyme sail on such a profound sea? The hack rhymesters nor the free-versers can say why.

    Hail to thee, blithe spirit!
    Bird thou never wert-
    That from heaven or near it
    Pourest thy full heart
    In profuse strains of unpremeditated art.

    Higher still and higher
    From the earth thou springest,
    Like a cloud of fire;
    The blue deep thou wingest,
    And singing still dost soar, and soaring ever singest.

    In the golden light’ning
    Of the sunken sun,
    O’er which clouds are bright’ning,
    Thou dost float and run,
    Like an unbodied joy whose race is just begun.

    The pale purple even
    Melts around thy flight;
    Like a star of heaven,
    In the broad daylight
    Thou art unseen, but yet I hear thy shrill delight-

    Keen as are the arrows
    Of that silver sphere
    Whose intense lamp narrows
    In the white dawn clear,
    Until we hardly see, we feel that it is there.

    All the earth and air
    With thy voice is loud,
    As when night is bare,
    From one lonely cloud
    The moon rains out her beams, and heaven is overflow’d.

    What thou art we know not;
    What is most like thee?
    From rainbow clouds there flow not
    Drops so bright to see,
    As from thy presence showers a rain of melody:-

    Like a poet hidden
    In the light of thought,
    Singing hymns unbidden,
    Till the world is wrought
    To sympathy with hopes and fears it heeded not:

    Like a high-born maiden
    In a palace tower,
    Soothing her love-laden
    Soul in secret hour
    With music sweet as love, which overflows her bower:

    Like a glow-worm golden
    In a dell of dew,
    Scattering unbeholden
    Its aërial hue
    Among the flowers and grass which screen it from the view:

    Like a rose embower’d
    In its own green leaves,
    By warm winds deflower’d,
    Till the scent it gives
    Makes faint with too much sweet those heavy-wingèd thieves.

    Sound of vernal showers
    On the twinkling grass,
    Rain-awaken’d flowers-
    All that ever was
    Joyous and clear and fresh-thy music doth surpass.

    Teach us, sprite or bird,
    What sweet thoughts are thine:
    I have never heard
    Praise of love or wine
    That panted forth a flood of rapture so divine.

    Chorus hymeneal,
    Or triumphal chant,
    Match’d with thine would be all
    But an empty vaunt-
    A thing wherein we feel there is some hidden want.

    What objects are the fountains
    Of thy happy strain?
    What fields, or waves, or mountains?
    What shapes of sky or plain?
    What love of thine own kind? what ignorance of pain?

    With thy clear keen joyance
    Languor cannot be:
    Shadow of annoyance
    Never came near thee:
    Thou lovest, but ne’er knew love’s sad satiety.

    Waking or asleep,
    Thou of death must deem
    Things more true and deep
    Than we mortals dream,
    Or how could thy notes flow in such a crystal stream?

    We look before and after,
    And pine for what is not:
    Our sincerest laughter
    With some pain is fraught;
    Our sweetest songs are those that tell of saddest thought.

    Yet, if we could scorn
    Hate and pride and fear,
    If we were things born
    Not to shed a tear,
    I know not how thy joy we ever should come near.

    Better than all measures
    Of delightful sound,
    Better than all treasures
    That in books are found,
    Thy skill to poet were, thou scorner of the ground!

    Teach me half the gladness
    That thy brain must know;
    Such harmonious madness
    From my lips would flow,
    The world should listen then, as I am listening now.

  7. Mark said,

    February 22, 2013 at 11:34 pm

    Absolute perfection.

    While we’re on Shelley, what do you guys think of the discussion of metre in “Defence of Poetry”?

    “An observation of the regular mode of the recurrence of harmony in the language of poetical minds, together with its relation to music, produced metre, or a certain system of traditional forms of harmony and language. Yet it is by no means essential that a poet should accommodate his language to this traditional form, so that the harmony, which is its spirit, be observed. The practice is indeed convenient and popular, and to be preferred, especially in such composition as includes much action: but every great poet must inevitably innovate upon the example of his predecessors in the exact structure of his peculiar versification. The distinction between poets and prose writers is a vulgar error.”

    Shelley goes, arguably, a bit too far – seeming to include every writer he admires in the club of poets – but it’s something to be considered…

    How strict are you being with your definition of metre, Marcus? You say: “Meter is regular, repeating, and recognizable.”

    Am I wrong in thinking this excludes many classic works of narrative poetry? Milton writes of his “Samson Agoniste”:

    “The measure of Verse us’d in the Chorus is of all sorts, call’d by the Greeks Monostrophic, or rather Apolelymenon, without regard had to Strophe, Antistrophe or Epod, which were a kind of Stanza’s fram’d only for the Music, then us’d with the Chorus that sung; not essential to the Poem, and therefore not material or being divided into Stanza’s or Pauses, they may be call’d Allæostropha.”

    Shakespeare also used irregular verses for effect (Lear and elsewhere)… Granted these are dramatic works and maybe that disallows them from Bales’ sad attempts at canon-creation (though it shouldn’t)

    The Romantics also played with irregular meters (though always, I think, keeping the iambic when they did so – “To the Evening Star,” Shelley’s own “Queen Mab”)

    All of the works I’ve mentioned strike my ear as more poetic than the sad metered prose you try to pass off as poetry, son.

    I think this is too soon forgotten – free, blank (or even just irregular) verse is an instrument that can be used in the service of something great, but using it exclusively strips it of its power. Irregular verse is a timpani drum – it has a bluntness that can cut things down when they get too flowery (this is how Shakespeare uses it). This is the point of irregular verse. This is why it is seductive and why its purpose has been forgotten.

    It can only function in concert with the other instruments of poetry. We’ve been listening to timpani solos for 100 years and we want to hear an orchestra!

    The pedants and ideologues who publish the poetry magazines would like you to believe free verse is the only kind of poetry worth a damn and, in the face of this kind of opposition, it’s tempting to resort to an equal but opposite form of pedantry. This is what you, Marcus, have done and this is why you fail as a poet. Great poets are never pedants.

    Cheers,
    Mark

  8. Dawn Potter said,

    February 23, 2013 at 1:32 am

    Great poets are never pedants. Thank you, Mark.

  9. thomasbrady said,

    February 23, 2013 at 2:35 pm

    Mark,

    Your quotes are pertinent and your argument sound. Shelley is right and Marcus, as you say, tends to “resort to an equal but opposite form of pedantry.” I’ve debated Marcus and quoted him Shelley’s “Defense” more than once.

    Marcus will say that prose can be extraordinary, but just don’t call it verse (poetry). But as Marcus insists on this metrical distinction—which as far as it goes, is correct—he loses sight of a very large and important forest.

    But— we have to remember that Shakespeare’s irregular verse is the work of a master, and the irregular verse of someone like William Carlos Williams is hack work by a poet unable to write regular verse at all (he tried, and failed at it)—and for generations now reputations and judgments have become so corrupt in this area that the fine distinctions you mention have been erased in the public mind. I’ll take Marcus Bales over WC Williams any day.

    Shelley also wrote that a poet would be cutting off his nose to spite his face if he didn’t use musical tools in his poetry, and when he writes, in the quote you cited, of “traditional forms” he is not being anti-verse, but saying, ‘keep innovating in your verse!’ and Poe said the exact same thing: verse hacks repeat stale forms. “The Raven,” with its complex stanza (Modernists and hacks are obsessed with ‘the line’) was innovative.

    You are right, Mark. There is a third way above the two pedantry types (modern, traditional).

    Tom

  10. marcusbales said,

    February 24, 2013 at 10:37 am

    How strict are you being with your definition of metre, Marcus? You say: “Meter is regular, repeating, and recognizable.” Am I wrong in thinking this excludes many classic works of narrative poetry? Milton writes of his “Samson Agoniste”:

    Song lyrics, of course, can be irregular because the first duty of the lyricist is to follow the beat of the music, and, in addition, the beat of the music can often compel singers and listeners to accept lyrics that don’t scan in the traditional way – that would be prose if they weren’t lyrics sung to the music’s beat.

    But I think you’re using ‘irregular’ here as if it meant ‘meterless’ when really what it means is ‘a mix of meters’, usually to match or coordinate with music. That’s not ‘irregular’ in the sense of ‘opposite of regular’ in which I use ‘regular’, because song lyrics and other irregular verse are indeed regular in my sense: they recognizably repeat in a regular fashion, the regularity is dictated by the music, or by the deliberate use of mixed meters, not by a deliberate attempt to escape using meter.

    I dispute that my definition ‘excludes many classic works of narrative poetry’ since they did in fact use meter, though not meter that many English speakers can scan or even recognize – but they were easily scanned and recognizable at the time. My notion of meter is broad, and includes counting syllables morae, accents, syllables and accents, lengths of syllables, combinations of lengths of syllables, and so on. As far as I know every language has divided language art into prose and poetry by the absence or presence of meter of some kind. Far from a ‘vulgar error’ it is the ordinary way of things.

    “… free, blank (or even just irregular) verse is an instrument that can be used in the service of something great …”

    Free verse is radically different from blank verse, and even from irregular verse, which is irregular only in that every line or stanza is not in the same meter. But blank and irregular verse are in meter; and free verse is not. Free verse may be used to create fine things, but they are prose things. The notion that people who can’t be arsed to learn how to write poetry may be called ‘poets’ just because they want to be, and because they produce texts with ragged right margins, or erase parts of other peoples’ texts, or steal other people’s texts and ‘find’ them as their own, and any number of other bullshit ideas, is the notion that I argue against.

    “… Irregular verse is a timpani drum – it has a bluntness that can cut things down when they get too flowery (this is how Shakespeare uses it). This is the point of irregular verse. This is why it is seductive and why its purpose has been forgotten. It can only function in concert with the other instruments of poetry. We’ve been listening to timpani solos for 100 years and we want to hear an orchestra!”

    I’m happy to have your support for the inclusion of ‘irregular verse’ within the rubric of ‘poetry’ as ‘regular’ within my meaning of it, which seems to accord with this one of yours: that it is ‘irregular’ only in the sense that the arc of recognizable repetition is longer, stanzaic, say, instead of linear, as in Sapphics or odes, and is clearly a deliberate means used by the poet to achieve an effect with metered language, and not just the mistaken lumbering of a freeverser who has no idea what they’re doing.

  11. thomasbrady said,

    February 24, 2013 at 7:59 pm

    The subject is really a simple one (isn’t it?), but we tend to use too many terms and lose our way. (Don’t we?) If you, as a conductor with a baton, observed by someone who cannot hear what you are ‘conducting,’ look to be striking a steady rhythm as you experience each pulsation made by the stresses of the words you are reading, then we can say the poem ‘scans.’ (Yes?) If not, if the baton is not moving steadily, rhythmically, in a definite tempo, then the poem does not ‘scan.’ (Maybe?) This is the simple test.

    Take your batons and read:

    1.

    There’s those who like those with the jiggling buns
    and those who like those with the bulging big guns —
    I’m not one of those because I like the ones
    with the sad eyes and low expectations.

    There are those who like those who are long lean and tall,
    and those who like those who are supple and small;
    But size doesn’t matter to me if they’re all
    About sad eyes and low expectations.

    For this one, you’ll still feel the rhythm, but you have to slow your baton down a lot:

    2.

    Hail to thee, blithe spirit!
    Bird thou never wert-
    That from heaven or near it
    Pourest thy full heart
    In profuse strains of unpremeditated art.

    Higher still and higher
    From the earth thou springest,
    Like a cloud of fire;
    The blue deep thou wingest,
    And singing still dost soar, and soaring ever singest.

    3.

    Once upon a midnight dreary, while I pondered, weak and weary,
    Over many a quaint and curious volume of forgotten lore,
    While I nodded, nearly napping, suddenly there came a tapping,
    As of someone gently rapping, rapping at my chamber door.
    ” ‘Tis some visitor,” I muttered, “tapping at my chamber door;
    Only this, and nothing more.”

    4.

    Bah! I have sung women in three cities,
    But it is all the same;
    And I will sing of the sun.

    Lips, words, and you snare them,
    Dreams, words, and they are as jewels,
    Strange spells of old deity,
    Ravens, nights, allurement:
    And they are not;
    Having become the souls of song.

    Eyes, dreams, lips, and the night goes.
    Being upon the road once more,
    They are not.
    Forgetful in their towers of our tuneing
    Once for wind-runeing
    They dream us-toward and
    Sighing, say, “Would Cino,
    Passionate Cino, of the wrinkling eyes,
    Gay Cino, of quick laughter,
    Cino, of the dare, the jibe.
    Frail Cino, strongest of his tribe
    That tramp old ways beneath the sun-light,
    Would Cino of the Luth were here!”

    5.

    That’s my last Duchess painted on the wall,
    Looking as if she were alive. I call
    That piece a wonder, now: Frà Pandolf’s hands
    Worked busily a day, and there she stands.
    Will ‘t please you sit and look at her? I said
    ‘Frà Pandolf’ by design, for never read
    Strangers like you that pictured countenance,
    The depth and passion of its earnest glance,
    But to myself they turned (since none puts by
    The curtain I have drawn for you, but I)
    And seemed as they would ask me, if they durst,
    How such a glance came there; so, not the first
    Are you to turn and ask thus. Sir, ‘t was not
    Her husband’s presence only, called that spot
    Of joy into the Duchess’ cheek: perhaps
    Frà Pandolf chanced to say, ‘Her mantle laps
    Over my lady’s wrist too much,’ or ‘Paint
    Must never hope to reproduce the faint
    Half-flush that dies along her throat:’ such stuff
    Was courtesy, she thought, and cause enough
    For calling up that spot of joy. She had
    A heart — how shall I say? — too soon made glad,
    Too easily impressed; she liked whate’er
    She looked on, and her looks went everywhere.

    But this doesn’t work. Because you will always make your baton ‘fit’ the flow of whatever you are reading. Poetry’s rhythm comes from itself, not any outside ‘beat.’

    Do this test enough, and you’ll never want to read poetry again!

  12. thomasbrady said,

    February 24, 2013 at 8:47 pm

    One thing I do notice is that only the Pound (no.4) fails to work if one goes at it with a brisk tempo—the other four pieces can ‘surive’ tempo-changes; the Pound, the only piece that is ‘free verse,’ requires a very slow tempo. The Browning, which is the closest of the others to free verse, suffers—but not nearly as much as the Pound—when the tempo picks up. The Shelley sounds better with a slow tempo, but the Shelley can work with a brisker tempo.

    So the test may not be: can the poem march along to a certain steady tempo? For almost any piece of writing can’sing’ to a very slow tempo. But rather the test is how the piece survives elasticity of tempo, how it survives tempo changes, and this is perhaps what characterizes the metrically sophisticated poem.

    But again, this is only a test. One would go mad if one were to attempt to really appreciate poetry this way. But perhaps the test here intimates what our brains, or senses, do experience, but just not in a prominent way.

  13. Mark said,

    February 26, 2013 at 3:14 am

    Marcus,

    What the hell are you talking about? I’m talking about “Samson Agoniste” – a poem that, although inspired by Greek drama, Milton did not wish to see performed in any way – and your response is to say: “Song lyrics, of course, can be irregular.”

    These are not song lyrics – it’s not even lyric poetry, Milton referred to it as a dramatic poem – and your attempts to skew the conversation away from the matter under discussion are cowardly and transparent.

    Secondly, you accept “irregular verse” and do so because it is “irregular only in that every line or stanza is not in the same meter.” This can be said of many (if not all) free verse poems. From Milton to Goethe to Whitman and right up to the present day. Swing and a miss, Marcus.

    Remember that I’m agreeing with Shelley here that traditional forms are “to be preferred.” I’m not being a pedant like you.

    “I dispute that my definition ‘excludes many classic works of narrative poetry’ since they did in fact use meter, though not meter that many English speakers can scan or even recognize”

    Can you give me an example of this? I assume you’re not one of the many English speakers who can’t recognize it… Remember your defintion states: “meter is regular, repeating, and recognizable” – so you have to show where it repeats. (I’m pretty sure Milton states outright that the sections under discussion here don’t repeat in a recognizable way…)

    Maybe it would be a more productive exercise if I chose a couple passages from major poets and you did a quick metrical analysis. Are you game, Marcus?

    As it stands, you have addressed none of my points and merely rambled on about nothing. Let’s have an actual conversation about this.

    Cheers,
    Mark

    • marcusbales said,

      February 26, 2013 at 5:35 am

      Mark said: “I’m talking about “Samson Agoniste” (sic) – a poem that, although inspired by Greek drama, Milton did not wish to see performed in any way …”

      So you’re arguing that a play with varied meter cannot be performed, and it was this rule that Milton was relying on to make sure it wasn’t performed? Really? What do Milton’s putative desires about performance have to do with the meter of the thing?

      But no, I don’t exclude Samson Agonistes from my notion that meter is what makes writing poetry, or its corollary that lack of meter is what makes writing prose. Almost all the lines are iambic pentameter blank verse – though by no means all. In his attempts to imitate the Greek meter Milton, long before Tennyson tried it, attempted to incorporate the Greek notions into English verse, and Samson Agonistes is one of his experiments. Because Greek and English meters are based on such different assumptions about pronunciation, though, an English line attempting to follow the Greek rules won’t necessarily sound much like the meters we’re accustomed to, in a way similar to the way the Japanese count a different auditory thing in Japanese than we count in English syllables. Attempts to wrench other languages’ forms or meters into English are often wracked with what look like mistakes in English meter. But attempting to do something very different as a definition of meter doesn’t mean ‘uses no meter’.

      Admittedly, it might be ‘recognizable’ in my terms only to an expert, and seem like something that wants to be, say, iambic pentameter but is so fraught with apparent errors that it seems to be wandering around searching for the beat from time to time. Still, I think we have to accept that Milton knew what he was about, and was trying something out.

      Further, a single example doesn’t constitute “excludes many works”. There are other examples of irregular meter – little did I know you were going to put such weight on one work by Milton as if it were “many works”.

      Mark said: “Secondly, you accept “irregular verse” and do so because it is “irregular only in that every line or stanza is not in the same meter.” This can be said of many (if not all) free verse poems.”

      True enough; I wasn’t specific enough here in this sentence, but I addressed it later when I referred to the longer line of repetition, such as stanzaic or choral repetition – larger structures in the poem may repeat, and recognizably too, even though within those longer arcs the meter varies deliberately. And when the meter varies because the piece is a song, and we’ve lost the music through the attrition of the years, we simply have to trust that the lyricist’s apparent ‘mistakes’ within a regular meter were not mistakes at all, but were following the beat of the music instead.

  14. thomasbrady said,

    February 26, 2013 at 3:59 pm

    Just a note of explanation:

    Rhythm and meter are not the same.

    Iambic pentameter:

    iambic refers to the rhythm, ta DA.

    pentamter refers to the meter: 5 ta DAs in a line.

    Rhythmic variations within the line (established meter) are commonplace.

    Metrical variations (changing the length of lines) and metrical/rhythmic variations (changing the length and rhythm of lines) involves the use of stanza, which takes more skill.

  15. Anonymous said,

    February 26, 2013 at 4:03 pm

    i guess i’ve read way too much classical poetry in translation to believe that meter is absolutely necessary for good poetry. i also view meter as an iron age invention, in the same realm as organized religion, a bit old, a bit tired.

    • thomasbrady said,

      February 26, 2013 at 4:11 pm

      Rhythm ought to be the heart of the matter, for meter only refers to the length of a line, and yet—since rhythm in poetry can never be too complicated, since this will quickly turn verse into prose, originality in verse depends more on the stanza, and metrical variation within the stanza, than on rhythm.

      • Anonymous said,

        February 26, 2013 at 5:07 pm

        rhythm, when it come to poetry, is not the heart of the matter. i like charles simic. have actually bought all of his work and translations of eastern european poets. not much rhyming, meter, or rhythms happening there.

        • thomasbrady said,

          February 26, 2013 at 9:27 pm

          Simic writes very haunting and beautiful things. Observations. Incomplete sentences. Little stories. With images. No versification to speak of. Right. For me, all free verse we call poetry finally reduces to haiku. Reality filtered non-transparently. All communication partially hiding its source is potentially artful. Narration/imagery/articulated thoughts are certainly evocative enough to be poetic. You will get no argument. From me.

          Versification, rhythm, meter, rhyme when combined with what Simic does, I imagine, would be the highest form of poetry, but I could be wrong.

          • Anonymous said,

            March 1, 2013 at 3:30 pm

            i am not interested in second guessing an artist’s stylistic choices. simic’s art, to me, is high enough. perhaps you should apply your ideas about greatness to your own work.

            • thomasbrady said,

              March 1, 2013 at 3:43 pm

              If you know the worth of Simic, why guess, then? You are absolutely right. Be satisfied with Simic—and everything else.

  16. thomasbrady said,

    February 26, 2013 at 4:04 pm

    Poe, from “Philosophy of Composition:”

    And here I may as well say a few words of the versification. My first object (as usual) was originality. The extent to which this has been neglected, in versification, is one of the most unaccountable things in the world. Admitting that there is little possibility of variety in mere rhythm, it is still clear that the possible varieties of metre and stanza are absolutely infinite — and yet, for centuries, no man, in verse, has ever done, or ever seemed to think of doing, an original thing. The fact is, originality (unless in minds of very unusual force) is by no means a matter, as some suppose, of impulse or intuition. In general, to be found, it must be elaborately sought, and although a positive merit of the highest class, demands in its attainment less of invention than negation.

    Of course, I pretend to no originality in either the rhythm or metre of the “Raven.” The former is trochaic — the latter is octametre acatalectic, alternating with heptameter catalectic repeated in the refrain of the fifth verse, and terminating with tetrameter catalectic. Less pedantically — the feet employed throughout (trochees) consist of a long syllable followed by a short: the first line of the stanza consists of eight of these feet — the second of seven and a half (in effect two-thirds) — the third of eight — the fourth of seven and a half — the fifth the same — the sixth three and a half. Now, each of these lines, taken individually, has been employed before, and what originality the “Raven” has, is in their combination into stanza; nothing even remotely approaching this combination has ever been attempted. The effect of this originality of combination is aided by other unusual, and some altogether novel effects, arising from an extension of the application of the principles of rhyme and alliteration.

  17. LR said,

    February 28, 2013 at 2:56 am

    The worst thing about know-nothings like Brady—& I mean, complete fucking morons like Brady, worthless half-educated imbeciles like Brady—or Graves, sorry—is that they’re just too stupid to learn that they’re not only not smarter than everyone else, but they’re not smarter than anyone else. It’s obvious to non-ideologues that, for instance, Buntings’s lines make sense, which would seem to sort of argue against the assertion (never, ever argue; always assert—assert Poe’s superiority to the modernists; assert the modernists’ misunderstanding of everything; just don’t construct a reasoned argument: thus the know-nothings) that they are just random words. “It has, however, been understood!”

  18. thomasbrady said,

    February 28, 2013 at 2:54 pm

    LR,

    “Hear the horse stale,” my friend! Hear it! Hear it? Do you hear it?

    Wiman chose the worst part of that passage to quote and the issue I chiefly have is with Wiman’s claims of supernatural greatness. The issue isn’t really Bunting and his self-consciously fey, crimped style, which is lucid at times, but Wiman’s silly brag. Is this understood?

    Tom

  19. thomasbrady said,

    February 28, 2013 at 3:16 pm

    More of the passage can be read here:

    http://www.poetryfoundation.org/poetrymagazine/poem/19409

    The bull-theme bullies one into pity and unintended comedy. It is possible to be too sensitive…

    “Dance tiptoe, bull,/Black against May”

    “amputated years ache after/ the bull is beef, love a convenience.”

    One can see where Bunting would not be for everybody. Superlatives don’t do him any good.


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