I didn't know, before reading about it at grapez, either that Frazer was going off the air or that on the final episode Dr. Crane would recite lines from Tennyson's "Ulysses." I don't even have a television here at my Maryland bachelor pad (as my wife calls it). I had one, until Buffy the Vampire Slayer was cancelled, and then I gave it away. Even at home in North Carolina, where there are two TVs, for seven years I watched practically nothing but Buffy, an occasional Angel, and the odd movie with my wife. You can see from what I did watch that I don't consider TV beneath me: the truth is, without a strict rule, I'd turn the thing on and watch all night and never do anything else. It's more like cocaine than penny dreadfuls.
Television writers are, in fact, damned good. Once a week, more than 20 weeks a year, they produce half-hour or hour-long scripts that entertain, challenge, and move millions of people. There's never been anything like it, and if they've done nothing to rival Shakespeare, what of it? Has anyone else? Dozens of episodes from many different shows are at least comparable to all but a few of the best works of the best playwrights in English, and it's no surprise: talent goes where the money is.*
Now that I've convinced even the more generous of you I that am just a Philistine in lime polyester slacks, I ask you to consider why Frazer's writers chose to end their show's run with lines from a poem written more than 160 years ago.
Someone remembered those lines.
There's been a lot of talk in the poetic blogosphere, by me and others, about how traditional prosodies and forms affect the poet's choices for good or ill, but that misses the point: they're really tools to help get the poet's words into someone else's mind and keep them there.
Meter and rhyme and set forms are not the only such tools. Of the three, "Ulysses" uses only meter, and depends for some of its power and memorability on classical rhetorical technique. And of course poems can be memorable without using any of them. I'm only mildly surprised to find I remember, word for word, the end of Denise Levertov's "Eros at Temple Stream":
quiet and slow in the midst of
the quick of the
our hands were
stealing upon quickened flesh until
no part of us but was
and almost all (I thought it was "big goddamn car") of Robert Creeley's "I Know a Man" except the title:
As I sd to my
friend, because I am
always talking,—John, I
sd, which was not his
name, the darkness sur-
rounds us, what
can we do against
it, or else, shall we &
why not, buy a goddamn big car,
drive, he sd, for
christ's sake, look
out where yr going.
But those are short, I'd never have reproduced the line breaks except by accident, and the Levertov piece is crammed with various sorts of rhyme. I've quoted Tim Steele on the subject before, from his Missing Measures, p. 290:
… meter is neutral. It is a means by which poets can make what they say more forceful and memorable. … If we care about what we say, if we want to communicate it to others, if we want them to consider it as having more than ephemeral interest, we should aim to make what we say as memorable as possible.
*That's not true for poetry, of course, since there's no money at all in poetry. One day when I feel more ambitious I'll try to explain why that's a problem for the quality of poetry and not just for the quality of the poet's life. Gary Norris on poetry as a gift-economy is a starting place.