The following opinions are frequently put forward regarding “form” in poetry:
1 Traditional forms are marks of conservatism embodying reactionary values, whereas what is truly valuable in art is what is forward-looking, cutting-edge, challenging;
2 Rhyme, form, and all other such devices are agents of closure, and closure is the mark of repressive, authoritarian societies;
3 Versification is a form of decoration, bourgeois obfuscation, a pretty way of saying something that could be muscular, authentic, straight;
4 Versification is a form of male intellectual abstraction, and antithetical to the play of ecriture feminine;
5 There are few rhymes in English, so re-using the narrow range of the same ones is predictable. Rhyme is therefore the essence of cliché;
6 Versification, particularly metre and rhyme, hampers the free play of the imagination.
The first four objections are essentially political from a left point of view (anarchist rather, though those who support them profess to be of the left) and may be considered as a group. The fifth and sixth are more aesthetic or technical in nature and might be adopted by the right.
An easy reply to the first might be that versification was common to all societies at all times, and that the word “traditional” as used here has little meaning, except as some kind of antithesis to another blanket term: “modernist.” Modernism, as used now, comprises a wide range of practices. If employed in a stricter historical sense, one might ask why a movement that began a hundred or so years ago should be thought to be the last word on anything. Repeating tired “modernist” gestures is perhaps the easiest, most conservative option.
One might go on to argue that closure is not the easy option it is thought to be. A bad closure is not a closure but someone waving goodbye when they haven’t in fact gone anywhere. A good closure might simply mean the sense that an object has become distinct from the person regarding or holding it. The closure in this sense is not an authoritarian gesture: on the contrary it is letting the object go.
Poetry is never a pretty way of saying anything that might be said straight. It is unparaphrasable, or, insofar as it may be paraphrased, it is sold short. Is someone seriously going to contend that all the great verse of the centuries which employs meter and rhyme would be far better paraphrased and digested? I don’t think so. Verse is not decoration: it is structural. It is a forming principle and works at depth.
As to notions of versification being an arid male intellectual pursuit, I wonder what we make of Akhmatova, Dickinson, Elizabeth Bishop, Marilyn Hacker? Does the female mind, if we can isolate such a thing, abhor patterns? What of all those quilts, flower schemes, and fancy dances?
Sure, rhyme can be predictable. The good poet’s job is to make it less so. On the other hand rhyme is also a mnemonic and an early pleasure. Rhyme is an extraordinary and surprising coincidence.
On the last point, I would contend that the constraints of form are spurs to the imagination: that they are in fact the chief producers of imagination.
* * *
Having set out six brief objections and six possible counter-arguments, I want to exercise my poetic right and talk a little more figuratively now. Perhaps I might begin with language itself.
My personal sense of language probably has its roots in my family’s transplantation to England and our complete, abrupt switchover to English in 1956. I cannot help feeling that what language theorists tell us must be true, that language is a very thin integument or skin stretched over a mass of inchoate impressions, desires, and anxieties. I cannot help feeling that the gap between signifier and signified is potentially enormous, and that the whole structure of grammar and syntax is a kind of illusion that hides this unpleasant fact from us.
Thin as it may be, however, language is a wonderful catcher and refractor of light, and has, in fact, all the psychological, intellectual, emotional, and sensory qualities one could wish for or imagine, for it is essentially a product of the imagination. Of imagination and memory, I should say, because of course language has a history of usage without which it would be almost useless. Imagination and memory are the central driving forces of poetry: poetry, one might say, is imagination and memory concentrated in language.
A tight skin over chaos: a skim of meaning over meaninglessness. There is an image in Edmund Blunden’s poem, “The Midnight Skaters,” of people wheeling and gliding over the thin ice of a village pond, under which lurks the figure of death who “With but a crystal parapet/Between, he has his engines set.” In response to which the poet exhorts the skaters to “... reel and pass,/And let him hate you through the glass.”
Blunden is a poet of the First World War and the years after, but the power of the ice image in his poem remains, for me, associated not only with the triumph of grace and courage over danger, but with the triumph of meaning and structure over chaos and meaninglessness, and also with the triumph of civilized values over barbarity. I think here of the barbarity that overtook my parents’ generation, that is never as far from us as we believe or hope.
I should say at this point that, instinctively, I have little faith in the benignity of nature, that great good green thing that gives us earthquakes and tsunamis as readily as it gives us daisies and nightingales. I don’t believe man is a bad blight on good nature: I believe he/she is part of nature and shares nature’s qualities. Between Versailles and the rainforest is a vast range of human interventions that move and delight me because I can identify with the instincts that created them.
What I would like to propose here is the notion of poetic form as an act of courage and grace, the wheeling of the skater on the ice, the tightrope walker juggling over Niagara, the builder of frail bridges across dark spaces who is not so very different from the spider spinning a web (a structured web, mind you) from his own body.
* * *
Those images of balance and grace over chasms of various sorts must correspond with elements of my understanding of the world: that the raw material we are given is magnificent but not necessarily well disposed to us, and that, to persist with the Levi-Strauss terms, one has somehow to cook it. This isn’t because we are epicures or restaurant critics, but because cooking is as magnificent as the material it works on.
You could argue that the desire for form or pattern springs out of fear, though I would prefer to say apprehension. Apprehension, desire, and love form a triad—the third term being the cooked version of the first two. The spider’s web is the cooked version of spider spit, the bee’s hive is the cooked version of the bee’s secretions, the sentences I am writing right now are deeply cooked versions of instincts that struggle towards thought. Nor have they been cooked by me alone out of nothing, since, as an inquirer into this area of experience, I have been joined by all other formers of instinct into language.
Not by me alone, then. One of the other attractions of form is community. If I write a sonnet, it has communion with other sonnets littering the sonnet landscape. It calls to them and they call to it. They do not necessarily huddle together or wear uniforms but they are aware of each other’s presence. They are not alone in the world. Nor have I had entirely to reconstruct or reinvent them. That which is given in them is available to me, and my task is to feed them fresh life. There is a complex range of sonnets out there, and while I may note the clear division between the Petrarchan and the Shakespearean, I do not forget Donne or Keats or Wordsworth or Elizabeth Barrett Browning, or John Berryman or Robert Lowell or Seamus Heaney or Tony Harrison, for that matter. And having translated a number of the Hungarian Ottó Orbán’s Lowellian sonnets, they have established themselves as important features in the same terrain.
And so it is with other historical forms, such as terza rima, with its narrative ABA BCB CDC chains and Dantesque smell of sulphur and sadness.
The community is, by its nature, a community of ghosts. One of my favourite images of the artistic act is from Emily Dickinson, who said that art was a house that tried to be haunted. Each artist—but since we are talking of poetry here, let us say each poet—builds some kind of house, the point of the house being to entice the ghost in. My own house is what I am inclined by history and instinct to build, but the ghost it is trying to attract is related to those of other writers of similar predicaments and temperaments. I think I can vaguely see my house as a series of rooms arranged in the form of a tenement block of the kind that seems almost to sing to me in Budapest. I do very much suspect that I am, in some sense, erecting the buildings my own lost selves might have inhabited.
The point then is to get that ghost in, for your house is nothing but a hollow shell without it. I know these are analogies, for they convey something of the power and gravity of poetry. Form, too, is a house that tries to be haunted, and form-with-history is the house that longs for more than just the zeitgeist, the spirit of the age.
But there are delights and games as well as ghosts.
* * *
The first rhymes we hear are in the cot or at our mother’s knee. They are a mixture of the lulling and the playful. The lulling approximates to the predictable heartbeat, the playful to the leap of surprise. These are the earliest physical maps of poetry: the even road, the running stream, the tumbling of pebbles through the blood. Reassurance, progress, delight.
Rhyme can be delight in much the same way as any delicious accident can. How strange that “particle” should rhyme with “article”; how outrageous that “intellectual” should rhyme with “hen pecked you all” (both examples from Byron’s “Don Juan”). The delight of finding unlikely couplings reminds us of the delight of fitting any one thing to any other in childhood, or of the simple pleasures of playing Snap. The pleasure resides in the odds being stacked against the desired coincidence. The first such against-the-odds coincidence might be the matching of a word to its referent. Make that sound, says mother, and you will get the object. So the strange sound meets the desired object much like the surrealist sewing machine meets the umbrella on the operating table.
Somewhere at the heart of language is an initial dislocation that is stitched up (I use the term advisedly) by an apparently arbitrary suture that makes for laughter and disquiet, the laughter of relief that things are not doomed to be dislocated, the laughter of surprise that the dislocation is healed in such remarkable fashion, the laughter of triumph that healing has been achieved, and the laughter of irony that such healing is a clever, disquieting, but hardly permanent device.
Rhyme and pattern as play are part of the spontaneous overflow of pleasure at the sheer existence of anything. They are aspects of the comedy of the human situation. Discovering a pattern or a coincidence can be the beginnings of religious vision or, once revealed to be artificial, simply the occasion of laughter.
The Victorians loved language games: acrostics, double sonnets, puns, nonsense verse, parody, shaped poems, echoes, puzzles. They worked so hard at it that some of their productions seem rather labored now. We prefer our laughter less dutiful. We are more aware of the spaciness, airiness, weightlessness of existence than they were, but patterns still beguile us. Cole Porter and Irving Berlin may be too sophisticated, but a decent hip-hop lyric still aims at some pretty tall rhymes. What is cool but significant lightness?
Rhyme can be unexpected salvation, the paper nurse that somehow, against all the odds, helps us stick the world together while all the time drawing attention to its own fabricated nature. Knowing that rhyme might become part of the field of poetic expectation, we strive to make its arrival as unexpected and therefore as angelic as possible, and, in so doing, we discover more than we knew. Rhyme can be an aid to invention rather than a bar to it. It is an aid because it forces us into corners where we have to act and take the best available course out. In the process of seeking it, we bump up against possibilities we would not have chosen were we in control of the process.
Another analogy: the dance. Imagine a formal dance. Your partner is language. You are not the leading partner in this dance, in which there is no clear leader—if there were, it would be language—but you have to respond to each other’s movements with as much grace as you can muster. You may have chosen to perform a waltz, a fox-trot, a tango, or any other set dance. There are certain determined moves here, and the clumsy dancer will have all his or her time cut out just trying to follow them according to those black and white feet depicted in the diagrams. The pattern must be kept in mind but may be varied, and still leaves room to invent, out of necessity, that whole vocabulary of complementary gestures and moves that soon stop being complementary and become essence, so that the black and white foot diagrams are simply the condition that brings the essence about. That essence may well be art. That invention is the requirement of pattern.
So why do we insist on believing that our solemn faces and grand intentions are all that matter? That the arbitrary gaiety of language has nothing useful to offer us?
None of this is to decry so-called “free verse,” which is, as has been pointed out, never “free” to those who use it well. I don’t want to fight yesterday’s battles all over again. I would prefer to offer some arguments that may be attractive in today’s conditions, not in 1912. Milton thought rhyme a pain, and so, occasionally, did Blake, not to forget Whitman, Williams, Sandburg, the Beats, etc., all of which shows that one needn’t be carrying a metronome or a rhyme-testing device at all times. But rhyme and pattern work, and they work because of where we are, not somewhere else. And I have not forgotten disquiet. How indeed could I? Nor do I think the implications of these technicalities stop at poetry, if only because poetry does not stop at poetry. As the late Bill Shankly said: football isn’t a game of life and death. It’s more important than that.
* * *
“The music of what happens”: counterpoint, sonority.
The phrase is used by James Stephens and also by Seamus Heaney, (“And that moment when the bird sings very close/To the music of what happens”). It is the title of an anthology of poems from the Listener magazine, edited by Derwent May and of a book of criticism by Helen Vendler.
The phrase “the music of what happens” might refer to a hidden and mystical system of high order, as in Heaney, or to the “music” of the arbitrary, as in John Cage. Its roots are certainly Celtic. For me, the music of poetry lies in what I think of as counterpoint: the counterpoint between the line and the sentence. It was Frost in one of his letters who suggested that the basic unit of the poem was the sentence rather than the line or the word, a typically robust piece of Frostian doctrine. After all, the poem on the page is recognized as such by its arrangement into lines, and Frost himself was a pretty regular user of metrical forms and rhymes, features that follow from the line unit.
The rhythm of the line is directed by mood and movement, the length of the line by breath. It is in the line and that regular collection of lines, the stanza, that poetry is closest to song—and often is song: “Spring, the sweet spring, is the year’s pleasant king” (Nashe), “Follow your saint, follow with accents sweet” (Campion), “Gather ye rosebuds while ye may” (Herrick), to take a few early examples; but moving on to Tennyson, Housman, Brecht, Auden, James Simmonds, whoever. The line will make its own music too, with or without instruments: “The woods decay, the woods decay and fall” is deep sonorous music, as is much of Tennyson, despite what Tom Paulin says to the contrary. In fact, one must make an argument for any line of any poem to possess a certain sonority in its pace, its consonant and vowel music, in its caesurae and alliterations.
I sometimes think of a good line as a mouth dance, requiring the mouth to undertake a variety of movements that might well imitate expressions of human emotions. Certainly the mouth can sound cello, violin, flute, trumpet or indeed most string or wind instruments.
The roundness, the fullness, the statement of a sonorous end-stopped line provides a certain security and satisfaction. It also makes life easier for the popular musician and singer for whom time signatures are the stuff/staff/stave of life. The full end-stopped line is therefore well adapted to the usual concerns of song: narrative, mood, address. Song doesn’t do ideas or objects particularly well though, so its idea-content tends towards cliché—towards, at best, the strengths of cliché, which are trust, communality, and proverbialness. You might just as easily be singing the “Horst Wessel Song” as “Carrickfergus,” but that’s the chance you take. I would not willingly forego the delights of “Carrickfergus” because there’s an outside chance of it becoming a Nazi theme song, but a certain distrust tells me that the devil is likely to have some if not all the good tunes. The distrust of closure in an end-stopped line of poetry may well be linked to such suspicion.
A suspicion I share, as I have already said. Once you introduce enjambment, you complicate matters by resisting the natural fullness, or, as it may sometimes seem, the plumpness of the line. But you have to be careful since enjambments are noticeable. They draw attention to themselves and a particularly violent one is not unlike breaking a limb (or jambe) or even, at times, your neck. The best enjambments spice things up; they put, if you like, a snap in the poetic journey, keep you on your toes. Spectacular effects can be achieved in this way; separate the word “steep” at the end of the last line of a stanza from the word “fall” at the beginning of the first line of the next stanza and you really have enacted a falling, though you still have to gather that effect back into the body of the poem as a whole.
But Frost’s notion is not about effects as such. For him it is about naturalness, the assurance that no damned quack-doctor of pretty phrases is going to put one over on him. Out of the naturalness springs the music of counterpoint, which is not an arbitrary meeting of differences but the accommodation of two different expectations that act, literally, in concert.
This counterpoint produces a flexible poetics. If your mind is as liable to lurch and skip as mine is, a flexible poetics can be very useful, for it accommodates the lurches in its sentence structure while keeping a reasonably rigorous set of expectations in its linear structure. It is, to return to the very top of my argument, not a tyranny (no one accuses free verse of being a version of rampant individualist capitalism) but a society with a constitution. It is capable of surprising through its narrative sequence via the sentence, while offering reassurance through rhyme, meter, and stanza—which can, of course, supply their own surprises by way of wit.
Counterpoint, flexibility, and freedom with a constitution don’t seem dated ideals to me. Of course they are not the only available model in this line, but they are not secondhand goods. To mount a defense of them on what seem to me still-valid grounds is not to launch an attack on any other kind of verse. There may be a certain ritual quality in the manner of formal verse, but I observe the formalities in martial arts movies and note how the audience responds to them.
Personal form, of course, is a personal solution, insofar as it is a solution, for solutions sooner or later produce their own resistance. That’s the nature of the poetic enterprise.
You don’t have to dance like this, there are plenty of other dances; you don’t have to jive, you don’t have to tango, and it may take a little time of stumbling over your feet to learn, but it’s exciting once you’ve got it. It’s not going to go away.