Good responses to that last post from Jordan Davis, Henry Gould, Kasey Mohammad, and my dearest friend Sam.
Jordan answered my first question, about whether Clark Coolidge's distortions of syntax were any less bad those of incompetent metrical poets, in two ways:
- by suggesting that what I'm really after is "whether it's imperative that a piece of writing be instantly interpretable, or whether some suggestive confusion might not only be acceptable but desirable," and
more directly, by acknowledging that while "rewiring of parts of speech" was problematic, "in light of his [Coolidge's] persistent curiosity about the relation of (to borrow Lawrence Perrine's terms) sound and sense," not "a major flaw."
They're good answers, and intimately related. I'm convinced by the second that, regardless of the quality of the poetry produced, something different is going on in Coolidge's distortions than in doggerel. Hey, I'm easy. But for most people, and most of the time, even for those of us who have studied or taught Perrine or even Wittgenstein and Quine, the relation of sound to sense is just not problematic. That doesn't mean it's not a real issue or that it's not worthy of serious thought or that it has no place in poetry. We'd lose most of Shakespeare if that were the case.
But does a poet who consistently and systematically thwarts an educated reader's attempts just to get to the end of a sentence or to make a connection between consecutive phrases have any cause to complain if most such readers choose to ignore that poet? There's no getting around the fact that some matter is just hard, even between people with intimate knowledge of each other and largely shared assumptions about the world, and it's true that sometimes direct statement is more misleading than tentative exploration, but isn't it the responsibility of all writers, not just poets, to write as clearly as possible while being faithful to their understanding of their material?
It's possible for various people to answer "yes" to that question in good faith and to still have very different opinions about poems from Clark Coolidge, or Jorie Graham, or Ron Silliman, or Rhina Espaillat. Some of that variance may stem from their response to my second question. Jordan suggests that, in fact, human consciousness did change because of "the automobile, the airplane, and the world war." I think that anti-biotics and modern sanitation are even more important in changing Western culture, but changes in culture are not changes in human character: it's pretty clear that that hasn't changed for about a hundred thousand years.
Henry, seconded by Kasey, instead suggests that metrical practice in English hasn't been as invariant as I may have seemed to claim, thus obviating the need for special explanations of what happened as free verse and other prosodies became prominent in the last century. It's interesting that both adduce 14th century practice, the last time there was a significant change in the structure of English. Old English is a Germanic language, highly inflected, and its poetry was primarily in the same four-beat alliterative line used in other early Germanic poetry, such as the Norse sagas. But during the first 300 years of the Norman occupation Old English disappeared as a literary language, and when it resurfaced its character had so radically changed that we call it Middle English.
Most inflections were gone and there was an enormous influx of French and latinate vocabulary. Many poems still used the old meter: Piers Plowman, most of the Pearl poet's work, many of the Scots makyrs. But Chaucer was writing something new, and by the time Middle English had become Early Modern English, most poetry was written in accentual syllabic meters. There were still changes to come (the Great Vowel Shift), but there have been no significant structural changes in English, and accentual-syllabic prosodies have remained dominant in most people's experience in the six hundred years from that time to now. There have, of course, been times when various specific forms (notably the sonnet) have been in and out of fashion, and there has been, from time to time, more or less acceptance of various variations from the nominal meter of a poem. Of course there has been a great deal of argument over the terminologies and principles of scansion. But not until around 1900, not even in the great shift from accentual-alliterative to accentual-syllabic verse, did poets in any number question the centrality of meter in their practice.
What motivated that change? I know of no better explanations than the several offered in Tim Steele's Missing Measures. (Before you finish groaning, Kasey, read this short statement.)
This post is already too long, but it's interesting to note that English may be now on the verge of a change as significant as that from the 11th to the 14th centuries. What will happen to English prosodies as, in the US, UK, Australia, India, Pakistan, and South Africa, English evolves with Spanish, Arabic, Chinese, and with the astonishing linguistic variety of Africa and of the Indian sub-continent? I don't doubt that meter will be central, but I would be astonished if iambic pentameter remained the central meter for another six hundred years.