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Jeanne Gang, an architect for the Plumbline School...

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

Part 1

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.


The almost perfect poem: Robin Blaser's "Image-Nation 2 (roaming"

we are journeying in company with the messenger

     but there, it was
there     'you' saw
the head of a horse burn,
its red eye flame    'you' stepped
to the fireplace where the meta-
morphosed log lay without a body
and put 'your' hand over the seeing

turned by that privacy
from such public peril as words
are, we travel in company with the messenger

the name of the bird who fell
from the hands of O-moon
is Naught     if following
angels, shaped tears, nourished by
Sodom apples, we draw darkness,
a kind of mud     (in the moonlight
white blossoms hastening to fall
are cut free)

then we, the apparatus, burned by a night
light, are travelling in company with the messenger

To continue the Deleuzian reflections on poetry and poetics.

If a poet draws a line between two points, any beginnings tied to ends, or readable coordinates we gather along a horizontal plane, won't really amount to much. Even the conquering vertical that is a poem's title, standing stanchion-like over the text and reader, leaves us cold in its shadow. Best not to erect it like a cross. And because Blaser's poem won't connect the dots in this way nor obey straight linear impulses—primary cause of weak poetry!—nor even give an unbroken title it leaves us "roaming" instead. Perfect and impervious to the punctuality of mediocre writing.

Better to be nomadically errant in Blaser's perfecting sense than predictable. After all, if you follow the footsteps, laid fresh in the morning snow, do we find the poet or "Naught"? No, the poem. Flawlessly knit, with no single "flight" here (or messenger) that doesn't at the same time open up one of a myriad sites, such as that ranging from invocatory 'you' to the "O-moon". The first of many but it's always best to work somewhere between that 'you' and the moon to find the true poem.

What counts as "flight" anyways? It's the turn toward the initial view of a flaming red-eyed horse or the transforming fire itself. Marvelous epic origins but resulting in the death of origins. The fire, for instance, is not a cause of real horses, imaged or not in the sacred flames: any more than to pass your hands over Blaser's embers is to feel the heat of divination, "kindling the heat of the father" as he says in his translation-poem "Pindar's Seventh Olympic Hymn". The impulse is divinatory but nothing rises through the smoke, not even "the name of the bird".

What doesn't exist can emit only shifting particles or make meaning out of "metamorphosed logs", fading to the point of becoming imperceptible, as already a new assemblage is about to be released over the poem's plane of immanence. Now fake birds of paradise appear in the moonlight: hearth embers dimmed into a late day of transgressed hope, "Sodom apples" and fields turned to mud. White embers are a becoming-blossom hurrying to their fall.

The reader, intuiting the poem's own machinic assemblage, or because it takes one to know one, is also an "apparatus" of sorts, every bit the molecular (never a 'molar') text that is the measure of the poem's speed and significance. So that we end with an apparently ironic inverse of heatless fire: a night light that actually burns. Unopposed by daunting titles (verticals) or sweeping localizable events (horizontals), Blaser's "Image-Nation 2" cares only to run diagonally between (& through) the most disparate languages, myths and cosmologies.

A perfect block. Without beginning or end, always at work in the middle, the poem that roams is perfect. Initial mythic pulsions become "nonpulsed", memories fade since travelling with the messenger dispenses with permanent sites and opts for a regime of molecular becomings: as how else is it possible to move from the red-eyed horse to metamorphosed logs to dying blossoms.

In fact, the log lying without a body may be a quasi-true symbol of the unorganized, disarticulated body the poem is: in fact, Blaser's poem may be in the most generalized sense possible the only body it has, a body without organs (logs, heat, names), destined only for pure abstract movement. And the poem that roams completely unhindered by bodily trappings of time, memory and sense (the broken, curvy and ruptured poem) is perhaps the most perfect of all.


Reading Stevens's "Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird: I"


Among twenty snowy mountains,
The only moving thing
Was the eye of the blackbird.

Some procedural principles of my own:

(a) a reading shouldn't exceed 500 words;
(b) I randomly chose the following passage from Deleuze-Guattari's A Thousand Plateaus to serve as a general 'paratext' for my reading of Stevens's opening verse:

"But to break the becoming-animal all that is needed is to extract a segment from it, to abstract one of its moments, to fail to take into account its internal speeds and slownesses, to arrest the circulation of affects. (p. 260 from Chapter 10. 1730: "Becoming-Intense, Becoming-Animal, Becoming-Imperceptible...");

(c) I don't like to talk about linguistic units but rather about more interesting lines of flight or deterritorialization;
(d) I view the poem (and its first verse) as a map "with multiple entryways and exits";
(e) I regard the critic's language as always "acentered, nonhierarchical, nonsignifying"; and
(f)  I offer my first reading of Stevens's "Thirteen Ways: I" as a general description only.


Twenty mountains and thirteen ways. Snowy habitat and a solitary blackbird distinguishable not by wing, tail but eye only. The poet's first verse is a bird's moving eye. The significant question is whether the poem's a "program" for transformative viewing or a lyricist's plain and simple address.

To me it's clear. We don't ever dare to take from the bird's true motion a single identifiable (read codifiable) moment and treat it as Stevens's true poem (haecceity): we continue the rêve, transported by the object's physicality and potential to move freely over the white plane of true flight. It's potential to mix flight and feeling at the same time is something which will be eventually regarded as its primary "becoming-animal" experience.

Snowy mountains don't form a backdrop for flying blackbirds as much as simple speeds do, & rates of descent and slow-moving flight formations across the sky. An interiorized type of flight, in particular, that can't be expressed initially as anything but a synecdoche. But more than that. Landscapes over which the eye of flight roams can't (as in aerial photography) really be plotted as points, depressions or peaks for a bird's eye in flight is a total of "speeds and affects". Stevens's first way is then an assemblage and not a set of decipherable coordinates.

Furthermore, it's a question of eye for eye: the slowing, transformative power of bird-vision in place of an authoritative (which in the case of humans may even become voyeuristic) viewing that's always centered, always full of meanings. Eye does not co-opt eye. Slowing with the blackbird in mid-flight over snowy valleys is not a type of arrested activity, tracked on the viewer's sensory radar And since this type of moving has been interiorized, the only way to distinguish the "moving thing" from its environment is to see the bird's body as a smooth planar surface over which the viewer and viewed pass as flights towards a new deterritorialized 'site' .

Stevens's bodiless eye is permissible only because of a truer body of which it is part. The moving eye can be said to belong to a much more general Body, organless, smooth and always tied to flows, a site for traces of flights rather than a knowledge grid. Lines in Stevens's opening verse are striations ("schizzes"). The flying eye is where one among many entryways into (and exits out of) the essentially heterogeneous Body of flight can be envisaged: with space always for one more ( n+1) Viewing the blackbird's flying eye is a becoming-animal, a radically liberatory sense of engaged reading.

What does "the eye of the blackbird" signify? Nothing that frees us this easily from the rooted strictures of 'text' need fear stoppage of bird flight (poem's primary flow) or the threat of lexical units supplanting  flights and entryways altogether. Or even twenty mountains and thirteen ways.


Some reflections on the Bachelard quotation:

"If meanings become too profuse, it can fall into word play. If it restricts itself to a single meaning, it can fall into didacticism. The true poet avoids both dangers. He plays and he teaches. In him, the word reflects and reflows; in him time begins to wait. The true poem awakens an unconquerable desire to be reread."

Avoiding profuseness and a too clean, too neatly compressed language use is a poet's mandate. True. The danger is in not allowing language to skirt middle options since the middle is always the poem's true origin (in medias res).. But I'd like to make distinctions—though none exist really— preferring to see the poem as a "body without organs (BwO)" (after Deleuze) and the desires a poem awakens as flights and intensities skimming lightly over its smooth planar surface. Intentions and works always intersect transversely. Even if thoughts cause unseemly striations, the effect is too free us from stultifying "totalizing" designs and delight in the almost infinite multiplicities the text can now reveal to us.

Wherever you begin in a poem both a beginning and potential for infinite flows and "reflows" can be assured. In Deleuzian theory (as in my acceptation of that term) the BwO is not a metaphor: it's rather an 'abstract' machine universally applicable to any concrete writing project or, more properly speaking, a radical text-becoming that unleashes creative vectors (after Charles Olson) or can, if necessary, disclose the turning or twisting force of prosodic language (after Ron Silliman). I believe Bachelard may have anticipated this postructuralist rethinking of the primacy of "flows" in poetrywriting, pointing the way to a true radical heterogeneity of meaning.


A warm thank you to Henry for approving my request to join 'Plumbline School'!

The idea of a "mean between extremes" to me says that the potential orneriness of poststructuralism needs to be tempered by a respect for traditional form and content (and unfortunately what's been sacrificed in much contemporary poetry, especially in Canada, is the lyric voice).

I've recently written (at my blog) a poetic 'paratext' on Canadian poet bpNichol's The Martyrology: Books 1 & 2. Using a single page from Gilles Deleuze-Felix Guattari's A Thousand Plateaus as a palimpsest, I've composed a series of poetic reflections on a single line from Book 2: "saint of no-names" against both the text and illustration found on Deleuze-Guattari's page. It is, of course, a work in progress. I'm a poet driven by theory (whether I acknowledge it or not), and deleuzian theory articulates wonderfully the essentially liberatory nature of language and of the creative "flights" it offers the poet.

I invite everyone to take a look at the last five blog posts in my http://didiodatoc.blogspot.com/. I also manage (with another poet/visual artist) a blog ( http://deleuzecanada.wordpress.com/) devoted to a strictly deleuzian reading/critique of all things Canadian.

We're now a Poet's Dozen

Happy to welcome Conrad DiDiodato to the Plumbline School.

& Happy New Year, too!