Crooked Roads Without Improvement:
Some Thoughts on Formal Verse

by A. E. Stallings

“Improvement makes straight roads, but the crooked roads, without Improvement, are roads of Genius.” —William Blake

In talking about poetry, I find it useful first to do away with the word poetry. Poetry is both a loaded and a meaningless word. Poetry is promiscuously used to describe anything of beauty, fluidity, or skill: painting, movement, music (poetry on canvas, poetry in motion, poetry without words, etc.). It is about as useful a word as Art. For instance, one might look at a painting in the medium of elephant dung and say, but is it art. What one means by this is, though, is, but is it any good. One is not likely to look at a painting and say, but is it a painting. Likewise, when one looks at a poem and says, but is it poetry, what one means is, but is it any good. The word poetry is used as a subjective judgement of quality. There are many definitions of poetry, and very few of them useful. Take “the best words in the best order.” Could not this also be applied to fine prose, a great passage of Hemingway or Austen? So I prefer to talk about verse. And the definition of verse is a simple one: writing whose unit is the line. By this definition, a prose poem might well be “poetry” with a capital P, but it ain’t verse. And verse can be divided into either free (unrhymed, metrically ad hoc by line) or formal (patterned in rhythm, sometimes rhymed).

I am not against free verse. Indeed, I admire those who can do it well; I cannot. For me, however, to rule out meter or rhyme as tools available to the poet is far more limiting than the playful, silk-ribbon bondage of the sonnet. Free verse, at least in its contemporary guise, has only three major tools at its disposal (though many do wonders with them): the line break, the image (metaphor or simile), and, possibly, diction. Many free-verse poets dispense even with the last, by adopting a severe form of the “plain style.” The plain style reminds me a bit of newspaper ads, when I was in Atlanta, offering classes to “lose your accent.” Such a curious thing, to lose an accent! Because, of course, one doesn’t lose an accent, one just trades it for another (mid-western, middle-American—which, of course, to a Brit or an Australian, is still an accent.) Not many years ago, a certain poet, a practitioner of the plain style, wrote a book detailing his ordeal with a plagiarist, who was copying his poems, with only a few modest changes, and passing them off as his own. I am sure this was traumatic, and I am appalled that it happened, but some mischievous part of me did wonder, if he were not a free-verse poet writing in the plainest of plain styles, how easy would he have been to plagiarize?

Of course, despite some noises from the neo-formalist camp, formal verse does not possess any innate superiority either; it is only a tool. Pound put forth the common-sense caveat that poetry should be at least as well written as prose. I would add to that, that formal verse should be at least as well written as free verse. In other words, there is no more excuse for sloppy imagery, diction, fuzzy thinking, or sentimentality in a poem that scans and rhymes than there is for one that does not. (The term “neo formalism,” by the way, is absurd. There is nothing new about form, nor has it ever ceased from being written, making a break between old and new.)

A lot of misconceptions persist around formal verse, sometimes held not only by those with a bias against it, but by the practitioners themselves. These include, but are not limited to, that formal verse is artificial (and therefore bad; not able to express naturally), regressive, conservative not only aesthetically but politically, socially and academically elitist (and even sexist), and delivers a false sense of closure in an uncertain world. I’ll try to answer some of these.

1) Artifice is an advantage, not a hindrance, to expression

Is form artificial? Of course it is. I am all for the artificial. I am reminded of an anecdote. A lovely girl, with natural blonde hair, but of a rather dark, rather dingy shade, complains to a friend. She has wanted for a long time to get it highlighted, which she thinks will brighten her appearance, but with the qualms and vanity of a natural blonde, scruples about the artificiality of having her hair colored. At which point her friend laughs and declares, “Honey, the point is to look natural. Not to be natural.”

It seems an obvious point for art. Art is effective and direct because of its use of artifice, not simply because the artist has something sincere or important to communicate. Anyone who has written a letter of condolence should be able to sympathize. When a close friend has lost a loved one, what can one say? “I cannot imagine your loss” “words cannot begin to” “our thoughts and prayers are with you” etc. That these phrases are threadbare, does not make them less sincere. Phrases become threadbare because they are sincere.

I had several revelations about the nature of poetry in a college Latin class on Catullus. I was shocked by how modern, how contemporary the poems seemed. And it was a revelation to see how a poet could be at one and the same time a supreme formal architect of verse, and write poems that seemed utterly spontaneous, candid, and confessional, with room for the sublime, the learned, the colloquial, and the frankly obscene (requiring a “special” Latin dictionary).

I suppose at some point I had somehow imbibed the opposite notion, a notion still held by many, that formal verse could not be contemporary, lacked spontaneity, had no room for the intimate. At that time I did not see much formal work getting published: I wanted to publish, and therefore struggled in free verse. I did not have much luck. Eventually I gave up, wrote what I really wanted to write, which rhymed and scanned, and, oddly, then I had some success in publishing. Which leads to yet another little adage of mine, which is, don’t write what you know (I think this is better fitted for prose writers), write what you like, the sort of stuff you actually enjoy reading, fashionable or not.

2) There is no progress in literature

Formal verse has served poets without regard to race, gender, nationality, or religion for millennia. Each generation, each nation, each individual, was still able to employ the tool of form in his or her own tongue, to his or her own ends, despite vast changes: the rise and fall of empires, of languages, of religions, revolutions of politics, philosophy and of science. Why, suddenly, should this cease to be true? Has human nature changed in some way in the last eighty-odd years? I do not believe so. (We still have the major theme, Mortality. And its variations. Whatever does not kill us makes material.)

The way most literature survey classes are taught, however, with developments in a chronology, does imply that there is some sort of progress in literature. (I suppose because we moderns do associate evolution with progress, with “improvement.”) But this is an illusion. That there is change, yes. Progress, no. Western literature starts with the Iliad & the Odyssey. Do later generations write greater poetry? Quite simply, no. Later poets write great poetry (just because there is an Iliad and an Odyssey, does not mean there is not also room for an Aeneid and a Metamorphoses, a Paradise Lost, a Tempest, the lyrics of Emily Dickinson), and beautiful poetry, and interesting poetry, but never surpass these first poems. Languages may rise and fall, may die, become obsolete, but poetry does not. People learn to read a whole dead language in order to read a single poem. (I majored in Latin to read Virgil.) Every generation must find a way to write. There is change, and cycles of change, but no progress. A Golden Age in literature is always followed by a Silver Age, not a Platinum one. If inspiration is a fount or a well, then the well can become muddied and polluted with use. New wells must be found and dug. But the ultimate goal in digging one new well, or a thousand, is the same: water.

3) Form is democratic, not elitist

The absurd accusation that formal verse is elitist is easily put to rest. Take almost anyone off the street and show them a poem by A. E. Housman and a poem by Jorie Graham. Which do they prefer, which will be more popular? The Housman. Why? They like it because it rhymes, it has a “beat,” they understand it. (Nor is even this last quality necessary, if one would argue that I have paired a difficult poet with an easy one. Take the nonsense verse of Lewis Carroll. These will still elicit more popular responses, and not because they are more understandable.) This does not mean that Jorie Graham is not a fine poet. Or that Housman is a simplistic one. Popularity is certainly not a measure of quality, or lack thereof. But if charges of elitism must be leveled, it is easier to do so at free verse, which originates from a High Modernism that was deliberately elitist (if not Fascist), and is often written for a limited, academic audience, and which does not contain those elements (meter, rhyme) which originate from the people, for the pleasure of the people. And, again, formal verse arises in all pre-literate societies, as naturally, and anonymously, as language itself. Are forms elitist? The rules of formal verse are out there for anyone to learn and follow. Anyone can sit down and write a sonnet. It might not be a good sonnet, but it can be a sonnet beyond all reasonable doubt.

What makes a free verse poem a poem and not just chopped-up prose? On this there is less agreement. The rules are mysterious, arcane, subjective, perhaps even entangled, as some suggest, in an academic culture of workshops.

In short, formal verse originates with the people, it is pleasurable to the people, and it is open to everyone. What, pray, could be less elitist than that?

Why, by the way, is the sense of pleasure in the arts so little valued by our intellectuals? Sure, it is easy to poke fun at the (perhaps disingenuous) “I don’t know about art, but I know what I like.” But how much sadder the phrase, “I know volumes about art, but I don’t know what I like.” Any criticism not based, at some level, on “This work pleases me because . . .” or “I find this work distasteful on account of . . .” should be viewed with suspicion. It is of no practical value, and possibly dishonest.

Actually, as a sort of corollary to this section, I should also point out another misconception about verse in general. Perhaps because poetry has become such a loaded word, implying, when applied to prose, great skill or style, it is easy to assume poetry is more sophisticated than prose. It is not. It is the opposite. That is not to say that verse cannot be profound, sublime, skilled, obscure, or intellectual. But verse springs from prehistory, a time before reading or writing, using as many rhetorical devices and patterns as possible to make it affect the brain viscerally as well as mentally, to plug directly into the memory, unlike plain speech, which is easily forgotten. But prose does not represent plain speech either. People do not, as a whole, speak in sentences and paragraphs, they speak in lines (which is why a script or a transcript more often resembles a poem at a glance than a novel). Prose is a product of literacy, of cultural sophistication. It occurs relatively late in the history of literature. At first, all writing besides simple lists was in verse, even science and philosophy. Prose, being more or less impossible to memorize in great quantities, relies on a literate public, and a means, an infrastructure, to publish, preserve, and hand down written documents. In this sense, free verse, which also eschews memorability and relies on literacy, can be viewed as much as a descendent of prose as of formal verse, and as more sophisticated than form.

Form is not “patriarchal”

This seems so self-evident to me that I hardly know how to refute it. As a woman, I find the idea that form has some sort of gender bias (is a tool of oppression), particularly offensive, and bizarre. Yet I have seen this put forth even by female poets. What is the logic behind it? That formal poetry has largely been written by men? Poetry has been largely written by men. This does not mean that poetry is a patriarchal genre, or that I as a woman cannot write poetry. I view myself as the rightful heir of all that is human. It is interesting to note, however, in returning to the example of Catullus, that one of his principle influences was the poet Sappho, esteemed by the ancients as one of the greatest poets, without regard to gender. (Also interesting, is that in ancient times, oracles and sibyls, women, delivered all their prophesies in verse.) Sappho is a tired example, perhaps, but I could name no ancient female prose writer with that distinction, or any at all. Another obvious example: of the two greatest nineteenth-century American poets, the male, Walt Whitman, is working in free verse. The woman, Emily Dickinson, is working in an idiolect of form based on the hymn, itself ultimately based on the folk-form of the ballade. (A contemporary anthology of women working in form is named after one of her lines, “A formal feeling comes.”) Does form belong to women? Of course. It belongs to everyone. As mentioned earlier, formal verse springs as naturally from humanity as language itself, from prehistory. Indeed, if “anonymous was a woman,” then a woman invented formal verse. Or to close the question on a quotation of Dorothy Parker: “. . . say my verses do not scan/ And I get me another man!”

4) Aesthetic closure does not rule out spiritual uncertainty

This has been dealt with at length by others, so I shall only touch on it. Does the aesthetic closure of rhyme and meter imply an easy certainty on the part of the poet (a certainty with which we moderns are deeply ill-at-ease?). Of course not; if anything, aesthetic closure points up contrasting uncertainty of meaning. (Is Hamlet’s “To be or not to be” speech somehow compromised by being in iambic pentameter?) One of my favorite examples of this is “The Darkling Thrush.” Written almost exactly 99 years ago, on the eve of our bloody 20th century (that is, if one believes, as many do, that a century—or millennium—begins at year one rather than year nought), it remains as current as when it was written (“news that stays news”). In a frame of beautiful aesthetic closure (perfect meter, perfect end rhymes), it juxtaposes hope with ominous dread, and leaves them in delicate ambivalence forever. Here are the last two stanzas:

At once a voice arose among
-----The bleak twigs overhead
In a full-hearted evensong
-----Of joy illimited;
An aged thrush, frail, gaunt, and small,
-----In blast-beruffled plume,
Had chosen thus to fling his soul
-----Upon the growing gloom.

So little cause for carolings
-----Of such ecstatic sound
Was written on terrestial things
-----Afar or nigh around,
That I could think there trembled through
-----His happy good-night air
Some blessed Hope, whereof he knew
-----And I was unaware.

The whole poem is kept in a state of doubt by the line, “That I could think there trembled through”. Not “and I thought,” or “And there was.” The mood of the thrush’s song allows him to consider the possibility of hope, but the hope could still be merely an illusion. The rhyme scheme and form (interestingly derived from hymn form, adding yet another layer to the meditation on faith and doubt), positions the confident “whereof he knew” next to “And I was unaware,” forever undermining it. Only the coming centuries could know whether the hope was a false one. On the eve of a new millennium, we are still in suspense.


© A. E. Stallings

“Crooked Roads Without Improvement: Some Thoughts on Formal Verse” was first published in The Alsop Review (November 2000). It is reprinted here with the author's permission.

 

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