On Poetic Form and its Uses

(a bit of a rant but bear with me)

Why? It is about time I placed a comment here (considering recent events that no longer matter) and while I agree that we should not slavishly follow form for its own sake, we must at least acknowledge how critical it is for a poem to maintain a coherent form.

There is no such thing as a formless poetry. For poetry to work the poet must impose an order into the poem for Idea to prosper. Poetic language is not ‘ordinary’ language. Prose mimics this much more closely (but even prose may be formal when necessary) and so to simply assume that a depth of feeling or idea that is not tamed should be sufficient for the poet is akin to baking a cake where the chef is free to use as many eggs as he feels like on any particular occasion.

Therefore, though fair enough that readers of poetry need not recognize the difference between an iambic pentameter and an alexandrine in order to enjoy a poem, it is a matter of critical importance to the poet and the critic, and formalism becomes a part of the process of criticism. These are part of a jargon that prosody uses to study form and it need not concern the reader to know that Shakespeare wrote in iambic pentameters almost exclusively, but rather intentionally chose alexandrine meter for the Pyramus and Thysbe play at the end of A Midsummer Nights Dream, as a joke which the poetically sophisticated among his audience would get. (Alexandrine is just fancy talk for iambic hexameter by the way, which is more fancy talk for six beat two syllable line. Yes it matters.)

So while this matters not to casual readers, why do poets bother with meter and rhyming (or the lack thereof) at all? Why should it matter that a sonnet has fourteen lines of any of three (some say four) possible rhyming schemes? Why should it matter that a Villanelle repeat the first and third lines of the first stanza in an alternating refrain to be repeated as a couplet on the last stanza? Quite simply: because it works. Poets have played and twisted various forms and this produces great results when they are comfortable with and understand the form to begin with. But Pound’s conceit that “No good poetry is written in a fashion 20 years old” has been proven false time after time.

Not that free verse is a waste of time. It was the dominant poetic method of the late 19th through the 20th centuries and it was used very effectively by some of the greatest poets. But almost all of those poets also used meter and rhyme where they felt it was appropriate and I may be bold enough to declare that only a poet who is comfortable with writing a sonnet or or a sapphic ode should attempt (ironically) the extreme difficulty of free verse. Even as famous a modernist as T.S. Eliot could say:

The conscience of a blackened street
Impatient to assume the world

I am moved by fancies that are curled
Around these images and cling:
The notion of some infinitely gentle
Infinitely suffering thing.

And there we have a perfect partly rhymed iambic lines as good (or better) than much of Coleridge and it must be so because iambic lines are so eminently suitable to the rhythms of English we cannot avoid using them except for good reason. And equally so we must know when not to use it:

Half a league, half a league
Half a league onward
All in the Valley of Death
Rode the Six Hundred

By which Tennyson told us about the nature of a cavalry charge using dactyls to mimic the feeling of horses galloping, and while iambic lines could possibly have served the idea just as well, we might no longer remember this hoary old favorite if he had used those instead. (Dactyls are a three syllable foot with the beat on the first syllable. Iambs, as you may already know are a two syllable foot with the beat on the 2nd.)

Now back to the reason for this to begin with, that admonishment by one who pretends to know better, that prosodic devices like rhyme and repetition fall into a category of “cheap tricks.”

Tell that to Dylan Thomas:

Do not go gentle into that good night
Old age should burn and rave at close of day
Rage, rage against the dying of the light[…]

And you, my father, there on the sad height
Curse, bless me with your fierce tears, I pray.
Do not go gentle into that good night
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

I mean really now, we should all whore ourselves for lines like that. I did not include the rest of that villanelle because it’s easy enough to find (I have it down there somewhere) And so why does Thomas resort to a 16th century form to talk to readers in the 20th Century (and beyond)? Because it works. It’s easy to bastardize a form for cleverness sake, but much more difficult to work with it because it imposes a sense of order. But when the order works it works wonders. The form has its own internal logic that creates something more of the Idea than is normally possible. Of course Thomas had to think hard about how those two lines would work both as a refrain and as the closing couplet that states the theme of the poem. More critically, the repetition builds the thought through another repeated device throughout the poem by characterizing “men” as “wise”, “good”, “wild” and “grave” and relating this to a point about old age that he makes to the listener (his father.) It’s marvelous because the poet understood not only the idea he wanted to express, but also the nature of the medium he chose to express this with. And that is what poetic language is all about. We have a wealth of technique and literary devices to make use of. To attempt a sui generis form of expression is very brave and very foolish and very unnecessary to produce great poetry.

So let’s admonish the poor critic once more. Walt Whitman was at his worst when he strayed from free verse, and as perhaps the most narcissistic poet of them all, he is a poor model. We can still enjoy bits of him at times, but I find him largely unreadable at his best, and atrocious at his worst (see Oh Captain My Captain) And so if our critic chose to juxtapose him as an example of ‘great poetry’ because he doesn’t resort to ‘cheap tricks’ and bares his narcissistic soul for us to pick at well, enjoying poetry, like any other expression, is a matter of taste after all.