Friday, November 11, 2011


Lovers of poetry may wonder what happened to meter and rhyme. If one looks at modern poetry, one finds little meter and even less rhyme. Which raises the troubling question “What is poetry?” to which centuries have not provided a compelling answer.

Most famous among English attempts is Coleridge’s “the best words in the best order.” But what are the best words, what is the best order? That could be debated till the cows come home. So let’s take T.S. Eliot’s almost equally famous, “Poetry is not a turning loose of emotion, but an escape from emotion; it is not the expression of personality, but an escape from personality. But, of course, only those who have personality and emotion know what it means to want to escape from them.” This raises more questions than it answers. Can there be a human being devoid of personality? Devoid of emotions? And why would one want to escape from them? Are they bad things? And if escape is needed, are there no better ways than through poetry?

Let’s try another famous poet, Pablo Neruda. “Poetry is a deep inner calling in man; from it came liturgy, the psalms, and also the content of religions.” In other words, poetry is the need for religion in its basic, verbalized form. But what if you are an atheist and can still write poetry? And is a comic poet really a seeker of God?

Famous, too, is Wordsworth’s definition: “Spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings; it takes its origin from emotion recollected in tranquillity.” This is patently self-contradictory: where powerful feelings are in overflow there is no tranquil recollection; where tranquil recollection prevails, feelings are no longer powerfully overflowing.

Then there is Poe: “I would define, in brief, the poetry of words as the rhythmical creation of Beauty.” Is there poetry other than in words, except as a metaphor? And is satirical verse, for example, a creation of Beauty—with a capital B yet?

Or consider that notorious mystifier Wallace Stevens: “Poetry is a search for the inexplicable,” he writes; and “Poetry is the supreme fiction.”  What makes a fiction supreme? Is, for instance, a congratulatory birthday poem a fiction, let alone a supreme one? “Search for the inexplicable” is not bad, but it describes the why of poetry, not the what.

There is also A. E. Housman’s famous warning that poetry is what makes the skin bristle and should not be thought of while shaving because that incapacitates the razor. Charming, but surely a very personal, hardly universal, reaction to poetry; besides, does a bristly skin, whatever that exactly is, present that much of an impediment to a razor? And if it did, would we, to test whether something is poetry, have to promptly start shaving?

Well, let us forget about what is poetry and return to rhyme and meter. These, I assert without being startlingly original, are very useful poetic tools. They serve to make poetry musical and memorable. The musical aspect makes it enjoyable as music does; the memorable aspect makes it portable. It also enables us to recite it more easily for the delectation of others and ourselves. And for all our modern hostility to didacticism, we do learn something from poetry that is useful: that others have felt like us and how they dealt with it.

In the days before portable radios, the Walkman, and the more recent inventions like the Blackberry and all those things with a prefix in “i,” remembered poetry was our most comforting companion, and profited from any mnemonic devices. Which, as noted, were pre-eminently meter and rhyme. Blank verse—iambic pentameter—was particularly ingrained in our minds thanks to Shakespeare and the verse drama and is thus more easily recalled. And if there are such things as i-pods and i-phones and the rest, does it mean that memorization is passé?

Does the motorcar eliminate the horse-drawn carriage? No; we still enjoy such things as a romantic carriage ride through Central Park. Does the electric shaver doom the unmotorized razor? The Sweeney Todd kind, perhaps. But not the good old Gillette, which costs much less and requires no elaborate upkeep. Not even the bow and arrow have fallen completely prey to the gun. We still have archery as a not unpopular sport.

We still like rhythm. And isn’t meter a well-defined rhythm? It needs a bit of  variation to avoid becoming doggerel, but it is one of the things that make verse easier to memorize than prose. Many people can recite speeches from Shakespeare from memory; but can anyone recite paragraphs of Faulkner or Fitzgerald? I don’t think most people remember the line “To be or not to be, that is the question” merely for what it says and not as much for how it rolls off the tongue. Those three lovely iambs in the first hemistich, then the neatly bisecting caesura, and then a switch to the two balancing trochees, plus that extra syllable of the so-called feminine ending.

Or take the almost as well-known “Music has charms to soothe the savage breast.” Again, iambic pentameter, with the popular variation in the first foot to a trochee, good in beginnings where we like an accented syllable to start us off with a bang. But then we have the docile progression of four iambs, with that repetition aurally replicating the soothing in question.

As for rhyme; it even helps the poet to create. Suppose he writes a line that ends in “night.” Now he looks for a rhyme that is not the obvious “might” or “right” or “white.” (Rhyming dictionaries exist to help in the search,) And he comes up with things like “dynamite,” “plebiscite” and “troglodyte.” Each one of these can propel him in an original, unusual direction.

Beyond that, rhyme means symmetry and closure, and aren’t those good, desirable things? Doesn’t the saying “makes no rhyme or reason” entwine rhyme with the great good of reason? “Cela ne rime a rien” say the French, equating rhyme in its absence with the lack of good sense. Rhyme betokens order, harmony, fulfillment of expectation—all good things. So, poets, how about a return to rhyme and meter?


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  4. Poetry was sung, then spoken, now mostly read. When it is still sung (Sondheim), when it is still spoken (Shakespeare), meter and rhyme still figure in the prosodic result. When it is read, what poets say trumps how they say it, and we are reduced (or elevated) to Miss Moore's view, severely abridged and criminally mangled by me:

    I, too, dislike it.
    There are things that are important beyond all this fiddle.
    Reading it, however, with a perfect contempt for it,
    One discovers that there is in it after all a place for the genuine.
    Nor till the poets among us can be "literalists of the imagination"
    Above insolence and triviality and can present, for inspection,
    Imaginary gardens with real toads in them,
    Shall we have it.
    In the meantime, if you demand on one hand,
    The raw material of poetry in all its rawness and
    That which is on the other hand genuine,
    Then you are interested in poetry.

  5. Is this poetry?

    “Today's students can put dope in their veins or hope in their brains. If they can conceive it and believe it, they can achieve it. They must know it is not their aptitude but their attitude that will determine their altitude.”

    --Jesse Jackson

  6. How about alliteration? Andrew Sarris would be the pope of poetry.

  7. There's no need to defend rhyme and meter. Today's poets don't reject them per se but rather reject the notion that poetry MUST rhyme and follow certain meters.
    Similarly, there are all kinds of music. Much of modern music would not be considered music if some iron law demanded all music to conform to traditional melody/harmony rules.
    Consider the difference between modern jazz and traditional jazz.
    So, long live the difference.

  8. I think one way to make poetry more interesting is by incorporating foreign words. The sound of a word is the fragrance, and different words for the same thing emanate with different colors, shades, and nuances.
    Take the Japanese word for 'heart': kokoro
    Take the Russian word for 'dog': sabaka
    Take the Spanish word for 'donkey': caballo
    Take the German word for 'to fail': flunken

    Now, suppose I compose a poem with words above.

    Oh, so broken it is, my kokoro
    Indeed, like there's no tomorrow
    But near me is my dear sabaka
    That likes to read Franz Kafka
    And next week I will ride my caballo
    It beats sitcom reruns with Scott Baio
    I no longer care that I have flunken
    Because I can dance like Isadora Duncan


    If I had used english words, the poem would have sounded stupid and retarded. But with those foreign words, it sounds wise and exotic.

  9. While I'm a big fan of T.S. Eliot's Four Quartets from a philosophical perspective, I have to admit it just sounds and reads like a bunch of prose -- with a few vivid images that sear here and there, to be sure -- dressed up as poetry.

    My father, an inveterate atheist who thought dimly of Eliot's post-conversion poetry whether as poetry or as philosophy, long ago turned me on to a wicked satire of the Quartets by Henry Reed, titled "Chard Whitlow":

    Chard Whitlow

    (Mr. Eliot's Sunday Evening Postscript)

    As we get older we do not get any younger.
    Seasons return, and today I am fifty-five,
    And this time last year I was fifty-four,
    And this time next year I shall be sixty-two.
    And I cannot say I should like (to speak for myself)
    To see my time over again—if you can call it time:
    Fidgeting uneasily under a draughty stair,
    Or counting sleepless nights in the crowded Tube.

    There are certain precautions—though none of them very reliable—
    Against the blast from bombs and the flying splinter,
    But not against the blast from heaven, vento dei venti,
    The wind within a wind unable to speak for wind;
    And the frigid burnings of purgatory will not be touched
    By any emollient.
    I think you will find this put,
    Better than I could ever hope to express it,
    In the words of Kharma: "It is, we believe,
    Idle to hope that the simple stirrup-pump
    Will extinguish hell."
    Oh, listeners,
    And you especially who have turned off the wireless,
    And sit in Stoke or Basingstoke listening appreciatively to the silence,
    (Which is also the silence of hell) pray not for your selves but your souls.
    And pray for me also under the draughty stair.
    As we get older we do not get any younger.

    And pray for Kharma under the holy mountain.

  10. There is an untitled 7C Old Irish text attributed to the mythical Milesian bard Amergin (one of only three or four texts ascribed to him) that which runs to around 100 lines and deals with the very question you ask. What is poetry?

    The other two of his I know of; Amergin's Invocation and Song of Amergin, are twenty and twenty-five lines respectively.

    There are numerous interesting things about the untitled - what I call - prose-poem, not least the fact that it was only first translated in 1979, having lain unknown to the English speaker for 1300 years, written by one of the earliest bards, who evolved out from the druids pretty much smoothly and without interuption, giving hteir 7C druidic take on what poetry exactly is.

    The text gathered a name around it, The Cauldron of Poesy, due to the cauldrom imagary in it. It is a poem for life, on a par, at elast, with Horace's Ars Poetica.

    It appears in Auraicept na n-Éces (the scholar's primer), a compilation of various poetic and grammatical rules and regulatiopns the bardic student of the middle ages used as their core textbook, during the 12 year training period studying the seven poetic grades in the filidh (poet) tradition that ran in Ireland since the first writing appeared (in the vernacular) with the bards, who transitioned into the filidh at the turn of the last millenia, and whose tradition, when it ended around the time of Cromwell, was 1000 years in print. The oldest contuinual poetic tradition in Europe, and one pretty much uunknown about by the majority of poets.

    It had no title, I suspect, because it didn't need one because it was one of the founding bardic texts every grade one foclo (word-weaving beginner) turning up on the first day of term at bard-school on Samhain (hallowen), would have been introduced to immediately.

    Desmond Swords


    My true Cauldron of Incubation
    It has been taken by the Gods 15 from the mysteries of the elemental abyss
    A fitting decision that ennobles one from one's center
    that pours forth a terrifying stream of speech from the mouth.

    I am Amirgen White-knee
    pale of substance, gray of hair,
    accomplishing my incubation
    in proper poetic forms
    in diverse color.

    The Gods do not apportion the same to everyone --
    tipped, inverted, right-side-up;
    no knowledge, half-knowledge, full-knowledge --
    for Eber and Donn,
    the making of fearful poetry,
    vast, mighty draughts of death-spells
    in active voice, in passive silence, in the neutral balance between,
    in the proper construction of rhyme,
    in this way it narrates the path and function of my cauldron.

    I sing of the Cauldron of Wisdom
    which bestows the merit of every art,
    through which treasure increases,
    which magnifies every common artisan,
    which builds up a person through their gift.

    Where is the root of poetry in a person; in the body or in the soul? They say it is in the soul, for the body does nothing without the soul. Others say it is in the body where the arts are learned, passed through the bodies of our ancestors. It is said this is the seat of what remains over the root of poetry; and the good knowledge in every person's ancestry comes not into everyone, but comes into every other person.

    continue reading here

  11. I realized only recently, the date of Mr. Simon's posting, when enunciatively enumerated, has a rather clippity-cloppity meter to it, and for some reason reminds me of the line "For he's a jolly good fellow....!"

  12. To the poster above my last comment, I find it hard that 7th century Druids would write with such a modern tonality, with such modern ease. Excluding certain exceptions (e.g., "I am Amirgen White-knee
    pale of substance, gray of hair..." a line that seems to have stepped vividly over 23 centuries), I suspect considerable liberties were taken with the translation (perhaps with an eye to recreating a fantasized past), and perhaps a good deal of ancient, uncouth must must, from the mists, have been lost.