I've held almost as a sacred truth that academics make the worst poets, and generally they do. Examples are too numerous to mention. Convinced as I've been for the longest time that 'creative writing' professors, with the mainstream publishing industry at their beck and call, have literally dictated to the rest of us the terms of poetic style and suitability. And if there's anything we should have learnt from this debacle it's that teaching verse does not a Poet nor student of poetry make!
The only thing worse than academic-bards with their flatlined verses is the 'imitator'-poet, of which there are many in creative writing classes, who slavishly work primarily to conform to prevailing 'aesthetic tastes. The result, in Canada at least, has been a proliferation not only of middling (state-sponsored) literary magazines catering for academic and imitative writing (Arc, Fiddlehead, Malahat Review, etc) but a flood of dull, insipid verses anthologized and served up as models of good writing by the poet-teachers who perpetuate a vicious cycle of teaching, writing and publishing: the result of which is a product whose cultural hold on the general public is almost non-existent.
But there are exceptions and Timothy Steele, a poet writing in an emerging new Formalist tradition and a first-rate literary scholar, is among the few who admirably practice what they preach since in their writings there isn't the glaring disconnect between theory and writing proficiency (James Wright, John Berryman, Robin Blaser and perhaps today Louis Dudek, Rosemarie Waldrop and Annie Finch are other examples of skilful practitioners). In Missing Measures Steele outlines a history of a very basic verse/poetry misunderstanding (or perhaps misreading) to which can be attributed, in his view, the almost vehement hatred of anything in contemporary poetry that smacks of metrics, rhyme and traditional poetrywriting in general. And because deep, sensible scholarship is everywhere wedded to appreciation of the effect of literary tradition on contemporary practice, Steele's own case for a sensible second look at the "anti meter revolt" is a very convincing one. There's a lot at stake. I don't think there's anyone at present who seems more qualified, in both theory and practice, to revive interest in traditional poetics.
I don't think Steele's intention is polemics but his handling of literary history and specifically his interpretation of the most important texts, modern and classical, tend to point to a vital reappraisal of the role of prosody in contemporary writing (or those elements such as rhyme, rhythm, and other figurative devices most serviceable to poets). Steele is (and always will be) not a little antithetical to the modernist revolution in poetry (as his disparaging comments on Marjorie Perloff's reading of Aristotle's Poetics attest (168-170)) but he does answer the call to base the antimodernist(-postmodernist) case on pretty sound scholarship:
As will become evident in this study, certain confusions in modern discussions of verse have resulted from the fact that the legacy of the Greeks has not been adequately recognized and that the difference between their situation and ours has not been sufficiently appreciated. We cannot ask of others or ourselves absolute precision when we speak of "poetry," and we should not damn such terminological imprecisions as must inevitably attend any general discussion of the art. Yet we should be aware of something of the history of the word and should bear this history in mind when we use the word. (Missing Measures 21)
Not just citing sources ( from Aristotle, Quintilian, Plutarch to Pound, Eliot and Williams) but drawing vital connections between theory and poetic practice everywhere is Steele's métier. I get the feeling as I read him that this may have been the way the Victorian defenders of traditional prosody felt when confronted with the modernists: always a little overawed by the attractiveness of novelty conjoined to sound literary understanding and, as a result, even a little disoriented.
The modernist contention (as expounded in varying forms by Eliot, Pound, Ford Madox Ford and Williams) is, simply put, that meter is stultifying, a gross distortion of the looser, more natural 'rhythms' of poetic language. In Eliot's and Pound's formulations it amounts to saying that instead of meter and syllables crammed into place (Pound's famous "ti-tumming" parody of iambic lines) the poet's primary concern should be with the natural 'rhythms' of language itself, subordinating form to subject matter at hand. Metrics came to be disassociated from the modern world in which they lived. Poetry as a vehicle of real life and language, unfettered by Victorian diction and mannered sensibilities. Always something approximating well-written prose. In Ford's words,
I wish I could take for granted the Reader's acceptance of the doctrine that Poetry is a matter of the writer's attitude towards life, and has nothing in the world to do—nothing whatever in the world to do—with whether the lines in which this attitude is put before him be long or short; rhymed or unrhymed; cadenced or interrupted by alliterations or assonances. One cannot expect to dictate the use of words to a race; but it would be of immense service to humanity if the Anglo-Saxon world could agree that all creative literature is Poetry; that prose is a form as well adapted for the utterance of poetry as verse (cited in Missing Measures 160)But it's that crucial substitution of meter for 'rhythm' Steele finds problematical and worthy of the detailed historical study that forms most of Missing Measures. Problematical because all too many interested readers and writers of poetry take for granted a distinction that's had to endure many flights, reformulations and digressions throughout literary history to arrive at its present form. To trace that anti meter rhetoric to a verse/Poetry dichotomy is the book's primary task: beginning with the Poetics and chronicling the myriad ways in which the primary Aristotelian verse/imitation dichotomy gets reappropriated (and at times reinvented) by scores of writers, theorists and literary exegetes. So that by the time we get to the age of vers libre it's hard to pin down what exactly is in 'prose' that's preferable to verse, Eliot referring to it in his celebrated essay on Kipling as "the musical impression upon the sensibility" (cited in Missing Measures 162), Williams as a "variable foot" & Ford as the "intimate ear.
Scholar Timothy Steele is an invaluable resource for a correct understanding of the scope and nature of the verse/Poetry distinction on which his work hinges: so many misdirected notions of the nature of poetry, as he rightly claims, have resulted from not acquainting ourselves properly enough with the classical sources.
But as poet he's also faced with elucidating a predominant free verse milieu to which traditional metrics is almost considered anathema. As practitioner of a new Formalism in America there's a lot at stake here for him. How do history and literary theory resolve the tension in the poet's soul? How does the academic keep a cool enough distance from the subjectivities of his craft to write in a form that, as Eliot says, reconfigures and revolutionizes the very paradigms he eschews? To lose that crucial arm's-length separation from self-promoting theory is to produce a highly compromised poetry, such as characterizes the literary output of many academic poets & their students today.
So in a remarkable way Steele's book is directed as much against a shoddy understanding of 'free verse' as against the shoddy writing that results from it: a silent condemnation, after all is said and done, of the writing institutions to which he belongs. The greater the critique, the greater the demands placed on the teacher to offer a markedly superior poetry. And, of course, it follows only the very best teachers can combine the advancements made by their own exemplary researches with the creation of greater writing standards. Ironically our greatest modern poet-teachers (Pound, Eliot, Williams and Yeats) weren't academics at all.