Expansive Poetry & Music Online Review

Timothy Steele's
Missing Measures
from University of Arkansas Press, 1990, 349 pp.
review by Jan Schreiber 
A great deal of foolishness has been written over a wide swath of history
regarding the composition of poetry. Much of the critical legacy is
judiciously reviewed in Timothy Steele's book Missing Measures, which was
published several years ago but never given adequate critical notice. With
the advent of our own century the foolishness rises to a crescendo that may
seem louder because of proximity. Perhaps we are being deafened by the
hullabaloo,  but it is more than sound and fury. The last hundred years have
witnessed a striking transformation in the notion of what constitutes a
respectable poem, and the result has been a radically changed practice.

In Missing Measures Steele traces ideas about the writing of poetry - in
fact about the definition of poetry - from the early Greeks to the present.
He shows how closely entwined the notions of poetry and metrical composition
are, and he offers thoughtful and convincing explanations for this intimate
relation. The book could be a treatise on English prosody, but it is not.
Such treatises have been written by others. Instead it is an intellectual
history, covering changing philosophies of literature that sometimes stray
far from questions of metrics but always come back to that central issue.

Briefly and simplistically, there was a time when the writing of prestige
was metrical writing, whether the matter was imaginative literature or more
prosaic stuff. Although both dramatic and lyric poetry were always written
in meter, mere metrical composition was not automatically accorded the
status of poetry. Verse, that is, was seen as a necessary but not sufficient
condition of poetry. Over the centuries, the province of metrical writing
became progressively narrower. The first territory to be claimed by prose
was factual narrative, i.e. history. Then came fictional narrative (with the
rise of the novel) and drama. Near the end of the nineteenth century, the
notion that verse was necessary to poetry began to dissolve, and in the
early years of the twentieth century several writers, the self-styled
revolutionaries, propounded the heresy that verse was not only unnecessary
to poetry but inimical to it.

Verse today thrives, curiously, only in popular culture. Songs, whether folk
songs, rock songs, country and western, rap music, or the artful pop songs
of the thirties and forties, are written in meter and rime, though the
riming style is largely disdained by literary purists. But in the academy,
and among serious writers, yesterday's heresy has become today's orthodoxy:
In the majority of journals publishing poems today, and among the majority
of editors and reviewers, metrical composition is simply not taken
seriously. A few of the more tolerant regard it as quaint.

Steele examines many of the reasons for this state of affairs, among them
the influence of aesthetics as a discipline (which worked to homogenize
thinking about poetry, music, and painting), the prestige acquired by
science in modern times, tending to validate anything seen as experimental,
and the evident despair of many writers that they could ever achieve the
power of their forebears by using the same methods. He is particularly acute
in describing the efforts of twentieth-century writers like Pound and
Williams to re-conceive the structures of poetry in musical terms of phrasing
and breath. He might have observed further that these writers seem limited
in their understanding of underlying musical principles. First, music
depends deeply upon a fundamental beat, analogous to the metric pulse the
revolutionaries were trying to discard. Phrasing in music works in relation
to the beat, not as a substitute for it. Second, although it lacks the
denotative elements of poetry (elements the revolutionaries were doing their
best to obliterate), music has unavoidable melodic and harmonic qualities
inherent in the scale, qualities that can be reduced in importance by
adopting certain compositional strategies but never abandoned altogether
unless one gives up all instruments except the drum - and then we are back
to a fundamental beat. So the yearning for music as a model for a new
structural principle of poetry is a wistful and romantic yearning founded on
ignorance of music and a rather surprising lack of insight into the
resources of one's own medium.

Given the tendentious nature of the modern verse-adverse manifestos, it
would have been easy for Steele to adopt a polemical stance in this
treatise. To his credit he does not. In fact his book is scholarly and
judicious as it makes its way across a very broad landscape ranging from
Plotinus to Pound and from Kant to Kandinsky. There are times when the
specific issue of metrical writing seems momentarily forgotten amid broader
philological questions such as the publication history of Aristotle's
Poetics or the ranking of the arts implied by the medieval trivium and
quadrivium, but however far he ranges intellectually, Steele always returns
to the central theme with further illumination of our present curious plight.

It is only in the book's conclusion that Steele allows himself to be more
the pamphleteer than the scholar, and by this point he can do so with an
impressive weight of scholarship behind him. His last pages are an eloquent
defense of the traditional craft of poetry and a muscular attack on the
spokesmen (such as Robert Bly) for the current formless norm: "[I]f one
reads the poems in current literary journals and in the collections of verse
being published, one may well feel that the hopes for a fresher diction and
subject matter have been disappointed, too. In fact, in the absence of
meter, many poets seem to have adopted a highly mannered diction to
distinguish their work from prose. In this sense, the effect of free verse
has been contrary to its intentions."

One might wish for a few more concrete examples of the sort of verse Steele
refers to. I suspect one would find, in a judicious survey, that the matter
is a little more complicated than it is portrayed. Certain poets avoid
regular meter but also flirt with metrical writing. As has been remarked in
the past, the ghost of iambic meter can be perceived floating through the
lines of numerous poems, but when one whirls and fixes one's gaze on the
spot, the ghost vanishes. Eliot, in particular, was masterful at almost
writing metrical lines, but continually defeating expectation. ("Too penty!"
Pound scolded him on a draft page of "The Waste Land" when the despised form
seemed momentarily in danger of taking hold.)

But are there degrees of metrical writing? Can some forms be looser than
others? Assuredly there are appreciable differences between the casual
measure of late Stevens and the insistent beat of Robinson. I would have
welcomed some investigation of these differences, and of the ways in which
meter can sometimes infiltrate the avant garde, as when Robert Mezey
includes a slyly rimed metrical effort in his own anthology called Naked
Poetry: Recent American Poetry in Open Forms (1969). Surely metrical
practice can admit wide variation.

The problem, as J.V. Cunningham has pointed out ("The Problem of Form,"
Collected Essays of J.V. Cunningham, Swallow, 1976), is that a form that
refuses to stay put is not a form. Arbitrary departures from form are
meaningless because, with the underlying rules suspended,  reader and writer
cannot share an expectation of what will happen next. On the other hand,
within a set of shared expectations, that is, within a form, all variations,
transpositions, or changes of emphasis carry meaning and emotional nuance.
Understandably, illustration of these and related points (such as the
shocking spread of tone deafness) from the works of living writers could
have put Steele in the middle of a hornet's nest, but it would nevertheless
clarify the complexity and pervasiveness of the problem and heighten the
appreciation of what has been lost.

And what are the gains? Certainly the breaking down of stilted and inflated
diction, including the diction forced by a strain for rime, is a gain.
Poetry gained the ability to say "Now Albert's coming back, make yourself a
bit smart. / He'll want to know what you done with that money he gave you /
To get yourself some teeth." ("The Waste Land") That is an achievement we
should not discount. But it is perhaps not so great an achievement as we
were led to think, and it did not require the forfeiture of rime and meter,
for it is  not the case that rime and meter stand in opposition to the
colloquial. They in fact permit the colloquial and the eloquent to coexist,
as in Frost: "From what I've tasted of desire / I hold with those who favor
fire." Eliot's lines conjure up a London pub; for diction alone the second
line in the Frost quotation might well conjure up a New England town
meeting. And, as Steele observes,  it is not the case that formlessness at
least ensures natural and unaffected diction. As evidence I cite these lines
chosen almost at random from a poem in the New Yorker (July 14, 1997) by
Jorie Graham: "Even the plenitude is tired of the magnanimous, disciplined,
beached eye in / its thrall. Even the accuracy / is tired - the assimilation
tired - / of entering the mind."

In abandoning meter and indeed all formal principles in the construction of
poems, we have in effect invented a new genre. In form it is prose with
perhaps something analogous to the phrase- marks of music (i.e. line ends
and sometimes extra spaces between words), though these phrase- marks do not
work against any other principle of measure. This new entity is
distinguished by the negative principles that it must not rime and it should
have no noticeable meter. In content it avoids factual narration but prizes
figurative writing, tangential association, allusiveness, ambiguity. Its
diction purports to be modeled on common speech, though it would rarely be
mistaken for such. It is short - usually less than a page, It claims as its
province private insight and in pursuit of this object it often invites
readers to share in a momentary madness. Its effect depends on the happy
coincidence that the reader shares an insight and a sensibility with the
writer. Poetry has always depended on this, but it traditionally has also
rewarded the reader with an almost hypnotic sensuousness of sound and rhythm
and with the subliminal pleasure of seeing technical problems moment by
moment faced and solved. These rewards are now withheld. Small wonder, then,
that the readers of poetry are a steadily shrinking breed and that, as the
editors of literary journals can attest, more people today write poetry than
read it.

And why not? The writing of poetry has been made laughably easy. There are
no technical constraints. Knowledge of the tradition is not necessary, nor
is a desire to communicate, this having been supplanted in many
practitioners by the more urgent desire to express themselves. Even
sophistication in the manipulation of syntax is not sought. Poetry, it
seems, need no longer be at least as well written as prose.

Steele cites many reasons for the current state of affairs, ranging from the
heightened prestige of science and technology to the unlooked-for success of
the revolt against romantic excess. But one reason, perhaps more legitimate
than all the others, has been with us as long as poetry and rhetoric have
been, yet it receives little attention. In discussing the ancient orator's
reluctance to let his rhetorical devices become too obvious, Steele writes,
"If his rhythms are too readily recognizable and predictable, his audience
may consider his composition excessively contrived. Conspicuous refinements
of style could prove especially deleterious in forensic oratory, where they
might well indicate an absence of conviction on the part of the pleader."
(p. 74) This passage was written many years before the O.J. Simpson trial,
but it is uncannily prescient. Exactly this reaction occurred in some
Americans when Johnnie Cochrane uttered his celebrated admonition to the
jury: "If it doesn't fit, you must acquit!"

An encounter between a reader and a text has many of the qualities of a
seduction. The reader is perhaps not unwilling to be seduced, but she (the
reader takes the traditionally feminine role in this drama) does not want to
yield too easily and does not appreciate an approach in which the intent is
obvious. She likes the encounter to take place on apparently neutral ground
and to feel that, unmanipulated, she is falling in love on her own. The
presence of meter is like romantic music in the background. It sets up an event.

In the face of this resistance, the writer may adopt any of a number of
countermeasures. That word is least appropriate for Williams and his legions
of followers, who dispensed with meter altogether and attempted the
seduction in a poem indistinguishable by the ear from prose. Since at his
best Williams wrote uncommonly well, he succeeded in creating a body of
prosy poems that can still be read with pleasure, albeit a perhaps muted
pleasure. Most of his followers were not so fortunate, or so talented. Other
writers have tried other stratagems. Here is Stevens in a late poem ("An
Ordinary Evening in New Haven"), allowing extra syllables into the
pentameter line, but not so many as to destroy the form:

Like an evening evoking the spectrum of violet,
A philosopher practicing scales on his piano,
A woman writing a note and tearing it up.

It is not in the premise that reality
Is a solid. It may be a shade that traverses
A dusk, a force that traverses a shade.

Here the last line has just four feet, unless one perversely considers the
word "that" to be a monosyllabic foot unto itself.

Or one can emulate Milton's verse line without his grandiloquence, to
produce heavily enjambed lines that the unwary can construe as prose (or
prose-like) even though they are not:

                              Who never once forgot
A name or a face, nor looked down suddenly
As the plane was reaching cruising altitude
To realize that the house they'd just passed over -
Too far back now to see - was the same house
They'd left an hour before, still kissing, kissing,
As the taxi driver loaded up the cases.

(Seamus Heaney, "The Flight Path" from The Spirit Level, 1996)

That these alternative strategies have persisted through the revolution
against meter indicates that plurality still survives in the house of
poetry. And indeed, the artful dance between writer and reader will go on,
with writers contriving perennially to make their lines appear uncontrived,
and readers nervously scrutinizing each dark and handsome text that appears
to have designs on them. But it is evident that the serious game of approach
and avoidance does not require the abandonment of meter altogether. It is
also evident that, suitably chastened, verse is being allowed here and there
into the drawing room again, perhaps even into the boudoir. Heaney, after
all, like Walcott before him, was awarded the Nobel Prize for a body of work
that is predominantly metrical.

Should we then read Steele's engrossing book as a document marking the
moment just before the tide began to turn in favor of metrical writing? I
would not be so sanguine. The battle rages still, and the outcome will
always be in doubt. Those who want to understand the cultural forces that
culminated in the peculiar revolution we have been witness to can have no
better guide than Steele's book. Those who want to understand why meter is
worth arguing over should also read it, though they might also read a work
on prosody, such as James McAuley's Versification: A Short Introduction,
cited by Steele. And then, of course, one should read many poems in many
different kinds of meter, preferably aloud, until one can hear the
underlying pulse.

For the situation at the moment is that no clear directions or standards
prevail. A Russian visitor to America several years ago was astonished to
find that two purportedly comprehensive anthologies of American poetry could
be published without a single poet in common between them. We have lost
consensus, and to a large degree we have lost our ear. The most distressing
consequence is that poets have lost a large portion of their audience and
readers have lost contact with something of inestimable value. Timothy
Steele's Missing Measures is a landmark attempt to regain what was lost, but it can,
at best, be one influence among many. Writers need to cultivate poetry in verse.
Magazines need to publish it, not just as a kind of affirmative action (to
show that they are really broad-minded), but because they recognize that it
is powerful and indispensable. Universities need to teach it as a strong
modern stream, not merely as an artifact of a bygone literary culture. It
needs to become once again the standard by which poetry in general should be
judged. It needs to be recognized as not only timeless but modern and (dare
we say) trendy.

When that happens, the counter revolution will be upon us.

                    Jan Schreiber

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