Mike Snider's Formal Blog and Sonnetarium :
Poems, mostly metrical, and rants and raves on poetry and the po-biz.
Updated: 1/24/06; 10:09:25 PM.



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Tuesday, March 16, 2004

I've had an interesting correspondence with another blogger whose opinions I respect despite how seldom we agree on anything to do with poetry. My correspondent had two complaints about modern formalism: one, that when reading metrical verse, it was difficult to avoid the feeling of being in the poet's mind, looking for a way to make the line scan and just settling for something far from the best option, and two, that the poems treated the reader as a "blithering idiot," particularly when compared to poems from the avant garde. What follows is an edited version of my reply:

My experience is that metrical poets, once past the first hundred or so poems (almost all failures for most of us) stop thinking much about meter until after a first draft is done, and that that first draft is usually too regular. I certainly don't (anymore) look for ways to make a line scan—usually there's an embarrassingly large number of ways to do that and my job is to pick the best from a number of alternatives, and then, in revision, to rough it up. So that mind you're within is the mind of an inexperienced formalist—which isn't surprising unless you've written a hundred sonnets yourself. Note that I'm not claiming that I or anyone else, however experienced, always makes the right choices. It's just that searching for an way out of a line is a desperate kind of activity, very different from looking over the choices and trying to distinguish the best one.

(Rhyme's a little harder. I aspire to the skill of Richard Wilbur, who says he never uses a rhyming dictionary, and I've noticed that these days I seldom use the rhymes I find that way—they just remind me there are riches available.)

I suspect your second complaint exposes a more fundamental difference between us. I doubt you'd endorse Pope's "what oft' was thought but ne'er so well expressed"—but I also doubt even Pope would have been happy with that as a sufficient definition of poetry. Still, it's no small achievement to express a common experience in such a way as to make that way the one people remember. It can be better, though it isn't necessarily, when a poet can expose some usually neglected part of experience to consciousness. But poets are not economists or philosophers or scientists or theologians or linguists. Poets don't, as a rule, have the training or think rigorously enough to do anything original on those lines, and when they try, it's usually embarrassing: Goethe and perhaps Milton are the only exceptions I can think of, and not in their poetry. The only thing about which poets have privileged information is making poems, and, in common with all artists, paying attention to the feeling of being human.

So I don't expect poems, even great poems, to surprise me intellectually—the Stevens Gould, Hawking, and Pinker can do that. I do expect great poems to help me pay attention in ways I hadn't before, to help me recognize and feel and empathize with the humanity of others—including of, course, the humanity of their intellect and wit.

Here are a couple of poems from The Formalist I think do just that: Howard Nemerov's "At the Airport" and Rhina Espaillat's "The Story-Teller's Hour: VI."

If you're looking for someplace to go now, you could do much worse than Kasey Mohammad's "Morning Thoughts."

Update: I forgot Coleridge, of course, probably the most important of the English language poets who made a significant contribution to philosophy.

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