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Sunday, November 2, 2003

Kasey Mohammad wrote a good and interesting comment on my last post, pointing out places where we agree and places where discussion might be useful. I agree with a great deal of what he said, and, not surprisingly, disagree from time to time. Kasey's remarks also appear on his own blog, slightly edited to provide context to his readers there, and when I quote Kasey here, it will be from that second, more public response.

My original post, more than anything, was an just exasperated attempt to explain something I've often noticed, most recently on a particular mailing list: unless the writer has asked for critique, even poets don't ordinarily have much specific to say about how some particular free verse poem goes wrong, but the same people, both metricists and others, will jump all over a metrical glitch in an otherwise pretty good poem. I didn't intend to make a general statement about the relative difficulty or value of free verse vs. metrical verse. But I'll take the opportunity to try to clarify my attempted explanation and, perhaps, to push it a little farther than its original scope.

I'll start off by agreeing with Kasey's first caveat: "… the competence which is easier to recognize and discuss is nothing more than competence in writing metrically, which is not necessarily the same thing as competence in writing good poetry." In fact, as Kasey himself notes, I said the same thing a little later on in my own post. But when he goes on to say the "obverse would be to say 'It's harder to recognize and discuss basic [metrical] competence in free [non-metrical] verse,' which is true, but only absurdly so," I see that I failed to make myself clear.

A metrical poem necessarily embodies an implied contract between the poet and the reader: the poem will not significantly deviate from a certain rhythmic structure without some compelling reason to do so. We can argue till the cows come home (and there ain't no cows here) about just what constitutes a significant deviation or a compelling reason, but the point is that there is not, of necessity, such an implied contract in a free verse poem. Even when there is one, its terms are looser and easier to evade without calling attention to the evasion; it's more like what used to called a gentleman's agreement. Nevertheless, many free verse poets do honor that agreement, and it's probably harder for them than for metricists because free verse poets have to be more scrupulously honest with themselves and the poem. They have to supply their own jots and tittles.

That is why meter is a better filter against self-indulgence, at least for ordinary mortals like me. Kasey says the only vice meter guards against is "that of pretending one is able to compose metrically when one isn't," but just what is the equivalent external constraint in free verse? It's certainly not the reader. Readers of metrical poems can consult the same metrical principles the poet used; readers of free verse have to be much more sensitive to the poet's structural intentions for the lines of a poem.

That's not necessarily a bad thing. We all want sensitive readers! But what happens when different readers perceive different intentions? How do they go about reconciling the differences without seeming to call one other insensitive? Of course it can be done, but mailing lists—the original context for my argument—are notorious for emotional explosions resulting from misapprehended intentions. It's safer, in such an environment, just to let it go. In contrast, nearly everyone on a poetry mailing list can recognize a broken meter.

I wasn't writing about mailing lists when I wrote, in a second post Kasey references, "a critic who cannot sensitively scan a line of verse—and I don't mean just name the meter—is unlikely to be a very good critic of any kind of poetry … and won't understand what has been traded away when reading free verse." He says I imply "that such a 'trade' has always taken place, that all poetry justifies its existence either directly through meter or through a negative relation to it," and he's half right. I do believe that choosing not to write in meter trades away one tool set in favor of some different one (there's not a single "free verse tool set"), but Kasey is right to say that there are fine free verse poets who never made that choice. Meter was never an option for them, never a consideration in their development as artists. I think that's a pity, and it's equally a pity when a (contemporary) metrical poet has never considered or worked in any of the many ways available in free verse.

However, I wasn't really thinking about individual poets, or poets at all, when I wrote that. Free verse, of one kind or another, so dominates US literary markets and writing programs that it sometimes appears our entire intellectual culture has turned away from meter as a serious possibility. And what have we chosen instead? I'm being monstrously unfair, and his blog is excellent evidence of just how unfair, but here's Kasey's quick list: "arresting imagery, unusual syntax, funny-looking fonts, lots of dirty words, never using the letters L or R or S, etc."

What in that list has particular application to poetry, in the way that meter does? What in that list, even "arresting imagery," wouldn't quickly become annoying if used structurally in any but the shortest poems?

Just to clear away one red herring, I don't believe it should always be hard work to write a poem. Some are gifts, and I'm always grateful. However, I do believe that no one can consistently produce good poems without having done a lot of hard work at making poems.

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