Mike Snider's Formal Blog and Sonnetarium :
Poems, mostly metrical, and rants and raves on poetry and the po-biz.
Updated: 1/24/06; 10:07:52 PM.



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Sunday, February 22, 2004

I am quite aware that much of what is called "free verse" is actually written using ferociously difficult formal constraints. But basing a poem's structure on the Fibonacci series is not something a reader will ordinarily perceive as form. Poetry, and all art, depends first on sensual apprehension.

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Much of every kind of poetry is just bad, which tells you already that I'm ignoring poetry as honorific: "It's like poetry in motion!" means nothing more than "ooh!" There's also a lot of stuff called "poetry" which isn't poetry, not even bad poetry, no matter what the author or some readers may call it and no matter how good the stuff is. I love and would be very sorry to be without a great number of what are called prose poems—for instance Eileen Tabios' extraordinary Reproductions of the Empty Flagpole—but I don't think it's useful to call them poetry.

There can be verse which isn't poetry, but without verse—lines broken to create rhythmic units—there ain't no poetry. Free verse is certainly poetry and there are truly great free verse poems, but I'd argue that poets who write only free verse, whether deliberately or through unthinking imitation of the dominant style, have abandoned valuable tools. Except for the line break, they have no opportunities or structural devices not also available to the writer of prose. Well, maybe one thing—they don't have to make sense since many readers have stopped expecting clarity (which is not the opposite of difficulty) from anything formatted with a ragged right margin. I'm not sure what value there is in that, since it too often means a reader will see that margin and put the book back on the shelf.

The line break, because it's almost all there is, is much more important in free verse than in traditional poetry, and free verse poets who don't think hard about how and why they break their lines are in trouble. Those who mistake whim for thought are in worse trouble, and that's the case with William Watkins, whom I first noticed in a comment on a discussion Kasey Mohammad started the last time I wrote about lines. Watkins later posted his comment as an entry on his own blog and followed it with this post, which Greg Perry noticed, appropriately remarking "Now I know what the theory of the line is in free verse: MAGIC." Greg noted his apologies to Watkins, but I won't. I will say Watkins understands the problem, as he writes "[t]he fact that on the whole it is innovative poetry that foregrounds lineation is naturally because it dispenses, on the whole, with metre and rhyme." (That adjective "innovative," applied to forgoing meter and rhyme, does look pretty silly at this late date.) But when he writes that the "duration/reach of the line was developed over time to reach a point beyond which the line could easily be spoken out loud, easily kept in the mind as one single cognitive unit or phrase, and which could not be accommodated easily in material forms as a single line" he is just being incoherent.

Consciously abandoning the tools of meter, rhyme, and traditional forms is not so different from consciously choosing them: both choices are an acceptance of constraint. The first choice, because it's like playing table tennis on one's knees (Frost was wrong about that), can increase a reader's admiration and respect when it is done superlatively well, though it's no excuse for less than superlative performance. Good free verse is harder.

Denis Dutton recenty reviewed Charles Murray's Human Accomplishment : The Pursuit of Excellence in the Arts and Sciences, 800 B.C. to 19, noting that Murray didn't adequately acknowledge that the "academic mindset of such scholars concentrates on historical importance in the arts, but it is also prone to confuse historical importance with aesthetic achievement." As a result, Picasso was ranked above Rembrandt and Schoenberg above Brahms. It is telling that, in poetry, nothing similar happens, and Shakespeare and Goethe are not threatened by Eliot, much less by Zukofsky. Deliberate poverty of technique may be admirable, but it has restricted poetic achievement.

I originally posted the wrong version of this, with the paragraphs in a different order.

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My apologies to Michael Helsem, who suggested a sonnet on New Orleans as the New Atlantis (my term), since "in a matter of decades, New Orleans will become a sunken city, due to global warming." I spent yesterday morning and most of today struggling to make a sonnet out of this but, as he suggested might be his own problem with the subject, I just don't know enough to make the poem. I've learned a lot: for instance, New Orleans is actually in greater danger from the Mississippi River dams that prevent the Big Muddy from being as muddy as it ought to be (see "Drowning New Orleans" in the October 2001 Scientific American). But it's just too big a theme for 14 lines unless there's some personal way to approach the poem, and my only personal relation with the city is that, despite many plans, I've never managed to get there. I don't think I'll ever write this sonnet.

That's as good a setup as I'll ever get for saying that these near-daily sonnets have come to an end. You can see them all (some slightly revised) here until the end of March, when I'll take the page down so that I can send out the sonnets I can salvage. I've written 28 since January 5th, and I've learned a lot and grown some new metrical muscles, I think. But it's caused a lot of nights with too-little sleep, and I haven't been able to do the other things I want to do on this blog, especially promoting the use of meter, narrative, and rhyme by writing about excellent work by contemporary formalists and by replying to the misinformed and sometimes incoherent notions used to justify the abandonment of traditional poetic structure.

I still plan to write and post the sonnets suggested by Chris Murray, Ivy, and Jilly Dybka, but it will be more like one a week than one a day.

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New links on the left, in order of appearance: The New Formalist, Verse Daily, CUP OF CHICHA, Neil Gaiman, The Brutal Kittens, geneva convention, g r a p e z, the Ingredient, venepoetics, and We Write To Taste Things Twice.

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2006 Michael Snider.

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