Timothy Steele's Missing Measures: Modern Poetry and the Revolt against Meter: the case for a new Formalism

Part 2

Steele's thesis is valid: vers libre is a more hybrid, complex and structurally vital element of poetry than even its most conservative practitioners have realized, with even Pound and Eliot having to word their own formulations of it in as exact a language as possible. Eliot is even said to have favoured the elusive ("musically indefinite") meanings of poetry, the effect of conveying poetic meanings only piecemeal and indirectly, to the dull straightforward senses of metered verse. The result for us of this shift away from meter is not its displacement by anything that equals it in poetic strength: rather metrics and imaginative freedom become vital components of poetry that won't be torn out of each other's arms without the loss of something vital in the creative processes. We seem to have inherited a bifurcated notion of poetry that won't ever be restored  to anything like its more classical Aristotelian sense.

Steeles cites even Coleridge as saying that without meter the genius of poet (and poetry) would remain hidden (Missing Measures 190) There have been those, too, like Emerson, Blake and Whitman who've openly espoused abandoning the rules, making the poet both writer and technician after his own heart. Which is not to abandon meter but to rework it in an entirely individualistic mode. And in the case of Eliot and Pound there's the call to write not with the accentual-syllabic line but as if the poem were rather sheet music and words musical notations likes staves and bars. In Steele's estimation, the die's been cast for a persistent verse/Poetry opposition conditioning our understanding of the nature of verse in general:

To say that poetry exists in a realm of its own is not necessarily to say that meter should be abandoned. Yet meter's rules are not individual but comprehensive: they ask the same obedience and offer the same rewards to all poets. This quality brings meter into conflict with views which stress the self-sufficiency of the individual poet and poem and with views like Williams' which hold that even private legislation is not to interfere with the poet. (192)

Even if the act of writing poetry is spontaneous, inspired by the world or emotions & ideas, there's a lingering sense that without rules or acknowledgement of writing 'technique' poetry would be too rambling and disconnected to work. It's interesting that by eliminating categorically a division of poetic composition called meter, a whole host of competing 'rhythmical structures' always hurry in to fill the void. Traces of a classical literary 'influence' that won't go away: the invisible void lying hidden beneath the fragments and revealing itself primarily as prose poetry.

And if the leap from metrics to music could work on aesthetic grounds only, innovators wonder if a similar kind of artistic foray into experimental science weren't feasible. Since poets seemed to despair, as Steele argues in his most interesting chapter "Sciences of Sentiment", of ever matching the classical authors for literary freshness & vitality—poetic models, materials and techniques all but already taken— they looked to improving on the process rather than product of their writing. The desire for a more scientific attitude to writing stems, once again, from the association of meter with an antiquated literary past and non-metrical verse with the progressive bent of modern scientific method (240).

Metrics was envisaged as the terrible link to the past that had to be broken for new art to emerge. Whether in the form of Pound's "Make It New" slogan or Marinetti's notion of the " revolutionary" overthrow of the traditional means of literary production or Whitman's equating true poetry with the spirit of science and democracy in his own day—a kind of 'ageism' crept into the literary consciousness whereby novelty and experimentalism always now came to be more highly esteemed than the old classical models. A bewildering array of "isms" also made their way into literary parlance: the zeal (present still today!) with which bands of poets always strive in literary competition for the newest name, newest manifesto is testimony to this emerging 'scientism' in letters. As Steele wryly puts it,

This imperative [to adopt science as model of artistic composition] contributes to the "isms" characteristic of the poetry and art of the early decades of this century; the champions of each "ism" pronouncing themselves the embodiment of the newest New and the rightful successor to the next-to-the-newest-New-but-nonetheless-now-old New. These isms reflect not only a concern with making art novel, but also with securing scientific validation for it (246)

The need to return to tradition is more necessary than ever, the author concludes, especially as contemporary poets seem to have made a Faustian pact with radical novelty, their artistic spirits compromised by this incessant idolization of experimentalism for its own sake, and led to embrace, among other things, qualities of "superstition" and "irrationality" in artistic work (274-276). And to replace isosyllabic measures with a new metrics (however that was envisaged by Pound, Williams, etc.) is something that never really happened either. Leaving poets (and the academic-poets who had a direct stake in vers libre milieu) with just vaguely defined notions of personal intention and subject-matter as the only compositional principles to guide them. Metrics seen as an accessory to the predominantly anti-meter culture: a related but largely irrelevant subspecies of poetry writing.

I'd like to end with a plumbliner's estimation of the anti-meter debate and  may offer an opinion of my own. If just to add a little clarity to the discussion. As someone who's been pulled in two very distinct traditions and literary styles (British and American), I've always tried to resolve inner-tensions through a typically Canadian syncretism (as Atwood would say): namely, by taking the best from both, and trying to align my own personal sympathies along a sort of sensible middle ground, not too rigidly 'formalistic' nor too wildly experimental, a good style always the result of sound familiarity with the great literary canons of the past and their historical developments, as well as the odd tampering with tradition and the established tools of the trade (like meter, diction).

Canada has experienced its fair share of poetry innovation. The radical Tish poets of 60s Simon Fraser University in Vancouver (Canada), a movement very much inspired by the active presence of Americans Olson, Creeley, Duncan and Blaser, probably represented the most significant era in Canadian experimentalism. Poets Frank Davey, bpNichol, bill bissett, & Daphne Marlatt for a time turned the Canadian literary establishment on its head, rearranging elements of visual, aural and First Nations iconography to create distinctively (very unCanadian) dissonant, 'otherstream' styles. News of bpNichol's winning the Governor-General's Award for best poetry even caused a stir in the House of Commons.

Not that Canada hadn't seen poetic innovations before Tish but just not to that radical degree. In 20s and 30s Montreal, for example, writers like Robert Finch, F.R. Scott and John Glassco, working out of McGill University, were at the forefront of a distinctively tamer 'modernist' movement in which Canadian innovators found elements of a European Aesthetic/Decadent movement more congenial to a distinctively Canadian poetics, for which reason (among others) they never really took to what they considered the inhospitable Imagist poetry of their contemporaries Pound and Williams. Even if the young McGill writers chose to emulate authors who opted for unbridled 'subjectivities', the result was a loosely 'formal' or lyrically self-defining Canadian style.

I suppose I'm a product of both these versions of literary iconoclasticism. By nature and educational upbringing tied conservatively (and perhaps a little sentimentally) to my Dryden, Browning, Tennyson and Swineburne, taking notes mostly from the standard Oxford Anthology of English Verse, I regarded literary individuality as a little alarming & chose, in my daring moments, to be conversant with a sort of wild-eyed Romanticism instead. In typical early Canadian modernist fashion, I followed the poetic impulses of Page, Layton, Pratt and Souster.But with exposure to more radical European and American poetries came, of course, intellectual maturity and a more settled appreciation of literary différance so that I can recall even now the exhilaration at discovering the heterodoxies of Tzara, Mayakovsky, Verlaine, and the postructuralist theorists ( Deleuze, Kristeva) who seemed to justify radical 'otherstream' poetics. It's been my own writing goal to infuse a Canadian-style modernism that shied away from Pound and Williams with the more personally satisfying 'fragmentariness' of postmodern verse ushered in (and made popular) by the radical Tish experiments. And to believe that the synthesis still makes for a meaningful poetic expression.

The question, therefore, of whether to restore meter to its former prominence in contemporary verse (in some new Formalist style), if only in outline, to me really amounts to something like what Ron Silliman's perhaps proposing for prose poetry: a New Sentence configuration of the verse line "altered for torque, or increased polysemy/ambiguity" ; or perhaps what visual poet Geof Huth's thinks of as a poem's most essential stand-alone constituents— the 'pwoermd'— that's given him, as he says in his most recent blog post, the very flexibility to write "thaumatrope poems, planned zoetrope poems, and...various visual poems meant to take advantage of various optical illusions"; or perhaps what "polyartists" Richard Kostelanetz, Aram Saroyan, Gary Barwin and Ed Baker regard in their practices as primary multimedia sources of art (ranging from computer graphics to pictograms to the barest minimalist typography).

Or what any number of poets will say is significant poetic 'form' or a verse line's key rhythmical nature if asked just what is worth preserving in their work. Steele stresses that legacy-making power of metrics throughout his book, even enjoining young poets to follow the examples of poets like Larkin who may have produced relatively little in their lifetime but whose great popularity and legacy will be keyed directly to their metrics. But I'm inclined to think that Huth's 'pwoermds' or Silliman's New Sentence or Baker's exquisitely spare visual poetry may make them just as memorable. I do believe, in fact, that something will always take the place of traditional 'meter' (and anything else regarded as enduring and worth preserving)and make any departure from it not so much a rupture as a kind of released "intensity" of the original metrical paradigm. I believe 'meter' is a property of language that is destined to spring, as by a natural l evolutionary process, into differentiated uses: a spontaneous tendency of artist and their materials to 'deterritorialize' poetic practice.

I guess in this way I've tried, in typically Canadian fashion, to bring together what's to me seemed to be the best tendencies in two poetic traditions.


Henry Gould said...

Just an off-the-cuff response, for the moment - hope to find time to respond more fully later : it's interesting to get a Canadian perspective on what often in the past has seemed like some kind of special U.S. impasse or cul-de-sac. & perhaps Steele - whose book I have not read - has performed a service by emphasizing the dimension of metrics & metrical form, which for a long time (say 1960s-80s) was downplayed, int he US anyway.

But in general I have a lot of difficulty with his thesis. I have problems with the polemic, which proposes an extreme falling-away from "the [metrical] tradition" in the early 20th century, which, through the machinations of the Academy, led to the decay & decline of contemporary poetry...

There are so many problems with this that I'm not sure where to begin. Both Pound & Eliot were extremely proficient & knowledgeable in formal metrics; Pound's own polemical binary, between metronome/musical phrase, only makes sense in the context of a subtle understanding of verbal rhythm (which grounds his "musical phrasing"). The New Critics, who evolved from Eliot's precepts, were more dutifully "formalist" than their master - such formalism reached an apogee in mid-century USA, and some of those who rebelled most strongly against the NC's - like John Berryman - wrote highly metrical verse.

Free verse in the US enjoyed a vogue for about 20 years, from the mid-60s to mid-80s. For about 10 years after that, the polemic raged between neo-traditionalists (the NF's) and the "experimental formalism" centered around the Language School and related postmodernist movements. Since then, various attempts at "hybridity" have come to the fore, & a more eclectic approach to received and "nonce" formalities.

I guess my own view is that the terms of this polemic operate on a level both too abstract and too rudimentary. Every good poet should be familiar with (& practiced in) these received notions of external form, as well as some of the "avant-garde" explorations & phenomena. But such familiarity with some of the general trends, it seems to me, is only the beginning of wisdom, so to speak. Form & style in poetry involve areas of technique and aesthetics which extend far beyond this narrow & superficial focus on metrics. In fact style is such a profound & multivalent & challenging problem, that the "solutions" discovered by the best poets show themselves to be distinctly individual, original, and inimitable. & that's one of the reasons I conceptualize this "plumbline" project as an exploration of a middle path : that is, a kind of balance which proves polemical, abstract terminology & nostrums to be insufficient as explanations for what poets are doing...

Conrad DiDiodato said...


my own position on 'metrics' is very nicely summarized here. I applaud Steele for fine scholarship and reasoned presentation of his Formalist position on meter but my own preferences lie in poststructuralism: in fact, without the discovery of Deleuze in 90s I don't think I would have dared to write poetry.

One thing I didn't mention about my 70s literary apprenticeship was the terrible snobbery and elitism most of my English profs brought with them to Canada. Europeans and Americans in a very real sense freed me from that.