THE TRUTH ABOUT METRICAL POETRY

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The truth about beautiful and accomplished metrical poetry is lost and hidden because the most important truth of it has nothing to do with its form: the secret lies with its content.

Of course we should talk of iambs and rhyme and all that is formal, but the entire discussion always trails off into impotent, hollow rhetoric that leaves even the most enthusiastic and diehard formalist deeply unsatisfied—like one of those New Formalist poems one thinks one ought to perhaps like as one dully admires it.

And why?

Because the formalist element of a poem—and it is accurate to say element, not elements—should always be that poem’s effect, not its cause. And if the cause is ignored, what kind of effect do we have? A meaningless one.

It takes a certain amount of genius to foreground a cause which seems wholly unrelated to its effect, but this is what has to happen if we are to have any meaningful understanding of formalist poetry.

The whole problem with free verse (the choice now in sophisticated and influential circles) is that we have a cause without an effect; we have the sun sans heat and light; we have a picture of the sun, but not the sun; we have a picture of poetry, but not poetry. We read a picture, but we do not hear a picture, and poetry should be heard.

Reading a picture is a highly complex act, just as writing and reading free verse is a highly complex act.

This highly complex act, however, this highly complex set of circumstances—interpreting a complex set of visual signs—is not poetry, because absent from the act of interpreting a complex set of visual signs is the crucial “cause and effect” reality mentioned above—a mysterious one, in which “what the poem says” is the poem’s cause and “the formalist element” of the poem, its effect.

For too long this simple truth has fallen on deaf ears.

All “saying” has formalist qualities, and free verse, as well as poetry, exploits this fact. Agreed.

But real poetry exploits the formalist aspect of “saying” in a more radical manner—by turning these complex elements into one element—the singular and unified effect which exists only because of the poem’s cause—what the poem “says.”

The strait-jacket aspect of a limerick unsettles the scholarly and serious poet; it does so because of the strictly burlesque and humorous illustration of—not the limerick itself—but the all-too-obvious truth we are attempting—right now–to convey. The limerick’s formalist achievement is singularly successful, and its success is based on the very principle turned on its head: the formalist template of the limerick is the cause—and what it “says” (bawdy humor), the effect.

For there is a relationship, and the more inevitable that relationship, and the more the effect is the formalist aspect, rather than the content of the poem, the closer we are to true poetry.

Poetry that is obviously bad, we say, is when formalist properties force the poet to say something in a certain way. The lady is from Spain because Spain is going to rhyme with something, we think, as we experience the limerick (the non-serious poem).

But something else is going on: what really matters to the limerick reader is not whether the lady is from Spain, or where she is from; what matters is that we are going to find out very quickly something highly embarrassing about this lady, and that is the true delight, the true reason for the popularity of, the limerick. What the limerick “says” about the Spanish lady is the primary fact: the “saying” is the effect, not the cause.

But in the poetry that we truly admire, poetry without outrageous humor, the “saying” is properly the cause, and the singular, unified, accomplished aspect of the poem’s formal existence, its effect.

And the truly accomplished poem will never be about Spain—only a limerick would be that bold; the truly accomplished poem will convey an idea expressed (and experienced) as nearly as possible by a unified formal effect (like the limerick, singular and formally self-contained, but far more original and unique).

The key here is idea—and now we hit at the crucial point; the “saying” should be a passionate idea, and not facts about Spain, or the king of France, or crossing a busy street on a snowy Sunday with one’s sweetheart, or any of those subjects the New Formalists express with misguided confidence regarding formalist elements, in which what they “say” gets draped in the fabric of various formalities.

If one is not careful with what one “says” in a poem, formalist or not—the poem will fail.

The New Formalist poet understands the error of making the form the cause—which is the degrading aspect of the humorous limerick—but does not understand how to transform what is properly the cause—the “saying”—into the formalist effect.

And here is where Poe in his “Philosophy of Composition” was correct (and sorely misunderstood). The content of the poem should not be factual, should not be what we might “say” about something: Spain, or the lady from Spain—the content should be an idea, or what Poe called “an effect,” in other words, a design on the reader, which, for our present purposes, we can call an idea. The idea of the death of a beautiful woman is just that, an idea, and how this idea is conveyed by the poem’s formalist element (not elements, but a unified element) is all we expect of the poet, once the idea (the cause) is chosen.

Importantly, the idea should already contain, in itself, the feelings which the dry, clinical workings of the formalist element shall embody.

And to return to the limerick once more, for here is the crucial thing we are trying to say: it is commonly thought that the limerick is all about its form—its rhyme scheme—but, in truth, the chief character of the limerick is “what it says,” because the form causes “what it says” to jump out at us.

This is what all burlesque, or poorly realized, or prosaic attempts at poetry do: “what is said” jumps out at us—its content is its effect. But in real poetry, the content should only be its (hidden!) cause.

The poem which meets the criterion of fine art does the opposite of the limerick, and other types of failed poetry: what it “says” does not “jump out at us,” as the poem’s effect; what the truly beautiful poem “says” is hidden—the cause behind the poem’s formalist effect. The great poem “says” something, but in an entirely different manner from the limerick—and the free verse poem.

The public, which knows very well what a limerick is, also instinctively knows what this other kind of formalist poem is, hungers for it, unconsciously, but does not get it—since free verse has become the sophisticated choice of “real poets.”

A poem, with the highest possible achievement of its poetic formalist effect, demands for this effect a proper cause—which is an idea fitting this “highest possible achievement” in terms which the greatest poets implicitly and imaginatively understand. The idea is nearly everything. And the idea’s transformation into a singular formalist effect demands not just formalist skill, but a radical idea—which is sufficiently august for a poet’s all-important skill at things like meter, rhyme, stanza, and refrain.

 

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1 Comment

  1. September 11, 2015 at 12:27 pm

    I love composing my long epic poem
    in the coiled dynamic flow of blank verse.


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