Rhyme and Reason
The Direction of Poetry: An Anthology of Rhymed and Metered Verse Written in the English Language Since 1975.
by Robert Richman.
Houghton Mifflin. 168 pp. $19.95.
For much of our century, it has seemed that free verse, which became firmly established in English during the heyday of modernism, was for the foreseeable future to be the inevitable form of poetry, and that metrically regular and rhymed verse would be relegated to the occasional technical exercise or atavistic impulse. As far back as the 1920’s, the new formal looseness of poetry and the adoption of many poetic functions by modernist prose led Edmund Wilson to ask in a famous essay whether verse was a dying technique. Against this background, The Direction of Poetry is a startling revelation.
The title Robert Richman has chosen is, of course, a provocation, and I am unqualified to assess how sound it is likely to prove as a prediction of the future. The anthology, however, clearly reflects an extraordinarily wide and careful reading of contemporary English verse, and whether or not rhyme and meter are the current direction of poetry, they have been taken up by a surprising variety of poets, young and old. The volume presents the work of 76 poets, in impartial alphabetical order, one to three poems per poet. Among those included are eminent figures like Stanley Burnshaw, Elizabeth Bishop, Seamus Heaney, Anthony Hecht, John Hollander, Stanley Kunitz, Howard Nemerov, Derek Walcott, and Robert Penn Warren, together with many younger or lesser known poets; the majority are American, but England, Ireland, Wales, New Zealand, and the West Indies are all represented.
What is noteworthy, tending to support the manifesto of the title, is that there is little here that sounds anachronistic. To be sure, a few of the lesser pieces have a tired Edwardian look, and occasionally the use of rhyme encourages a certain patness or contrivance. Most, however, are fresh and lively, speaking from the quick of contemporary experience, and remarkably various in their exploitation of rhyme and meter. They persuasively bear out the pronouncement with which Robert Richman, who is the poetry editor of the New Criterion, begins his introduction. There he writes that the poems he has chosen give new force to a nearly abandoned idea—namely, that the reading of poetry is a source of pleasure. The palpable presence of pleasure and the return to conventions of regular versification are, I think, intimately associated.
Expressively used phonetic regularity, or what in a more innocent age could still be called the music of poetry, is not some time-bound feature to be outgrown, but rather an essential dimension of the poetic experience. In English, for the past several centuries, this regularity has been associated with a recurring sequence of stressed and unstressed syllables and, more optionally, with rhyme. It hardly needs to be said that free verse, while offering a new flexibility of expression, has its own musicality, employing shifting rhythmic patterns, sound-clusters, and even an occasional ad-hoc rhyme. But free verse also renounces the many delights of serendipitous discovery encouraged by the more visible formal patterns that have been indigenous to English verse.
Here, for example, are a few lines from a stanzaic poem called “Angel” by Brad Leithauser (born 1953), which is a kind of painterly-metaphysical meditation on a dragonfly skimming over the surface of a river:
see him, like a sparkler,
tossing lights upon the water,
surplus greens, reds, milky
blues, and violets blended
with ebony. Suspended
like a conductor’s baton,
he hovers. . . .
The poem uses an AABCC rhyme-scheme, with frequent off-rhymes, and a trochaic tetrameter, with abundant substitutions and variations. The first line here, one metrical foot short, sets up the release into tetrameter regularity of “tossing lights upon the water,” which thus has a certain ring of revelation. The enjambed “blended/with ebony” joins in the rhymed surprise of “Suspended,” which then, in nice mimetic fidelity, hovers dragonfly-like over an inter-stanzaic enjambment, the only one in the poem. The choreography of sound needs the grids of rhyme and meter to realize the deftness of its own moves. We delight not only in the imitative fecundity of sound, working through words on a non-verbal object, but in the subtle wit for which sound becomes a vehicle.
There are scores of analogous instances one could cite from The Direction of Poetry, from poems widely different in theme, form, and feeling. Let me quote just the first two stanzas from Katha Pollitt’s “Of the Scythians”:
who came whirling out of the
like a locust swarm, storm-
darkening the sky,
their long hair whipping in the
wind like the manes of horses,
no one remembers anything now
how they screamed to the
slaughter, as the skirl of a
fashioned from enemies’ thigh-
bones shrilled them on.
Naked they rode. We stood by
our huts, stunned mute:
gold flashed from each spear,
gold glittered on each arm.
Here the rhythmic pattern is loose, usually five beats per line with changing sequences of unaccented syllables and the sound constellated in alliterative clusters—a vague reminiscence, perhaps, of the old Anglo-Saxon versification that is apt for the archaic-historic subject. Against the shifting rhythms of the lines, the rhymes, moving from the off-rhymes of the second stanza to a perfect ABAB at the end of the poem, form a strong counterpoint. Rhyme is one of poetry’s most supple resources for strangely coupling disparate images and ideas. What does “I” have to do with the locust-darkened “sky,” or “the skirl of a thousand flutes” with the villagers standing “stunned mute”? The phonetic intercourse between words, together with the phrases in which they are embedded, begets multiple currents of underground correspondence and antithesis. The haunting concert of musical effects, images, and bits of narrative in the poem alchemically transmutes a moment of history into several things at once—a daring glimpse into the terrible beauty of violence, a small homage by way of reminiscence to the epic tradition in literature, an unrestrained reveling in the incantatory power of words.
The return to traditional versification understandably leads many of these poets to reflect on the nature and purpose of poetry, which is in any case a common theme for 20th-century poets. In fact, the self-reflexive poems included here offer some acute explanations for their own recourse to rhyme and meter, like this stanza from Dana Gioia’s “The Next Poem”: “The music that of common speech/but slanted so that each detail/sounds unexpected as a sharp/inserted in a simple scale.” These sundry reflections on the craft and ends of poetry are by no means rhapsodic romantic celebrations. If there is celebration, it is tempered, as befits a poet today, by a varying sense of the ways in which poetry is itself a sham and delusion, or a mere conjuring with words, or a Sisyphean impossibility.
The most remarkable of these poems on poetry is Howard Nemerov’s “The Makers,” which may well be one of the best poems written in English over the past fifteen years. It is made up of three eight-line blank-verse stanzas, though the grand assertive beat of the iambic pentameter is not fully released until the seventh and eighth lines of the poem. The speaker begins with a question: “Who can remember back to the first poets,/The greatest ones, greater even than Orpheus?” Since “No one has remembered that far back,” the speaker moves into a hymn of praise to the legacy left mankind by those nameless first makers of verse. The final stanza at once affirms and evokes through its own example how the meaningful music, the incantatory force, the sheer intoxication of naming (as ordinary speech cannot name) have made poetry one of the supreme vehicles of civilization.
But civilization, on the evidence of its oldest records and certainly on the evidence of our own time, has had much to answer for, and Nemerov’s poem concludes with a climactic counter-turn: one consequence realized through the intrinsic potential of poetry has been the fashioning of new and perhaps private languages, separating man from man in the overweening boldness of the creative drive released by poets themselves:
They were the first great listen-
To interval, relationship, and
The first to say above, beneath,
Conjurors with love, death,
sleep, with bread and wine,
Who having uttered, vanished
from the world
Leaving no memory but the
Magical elements, the breathing
And stops of breath we build our
Every anthology creates certain frustrations because no reader’s sensibility will coincide completely with that of the anthologist, and The Direction of Poetry compounds this difficulty by offering such tantalizing brief samplings of each poet’s work. But the book as a whole vividly reminds us of the rich and various pleasures of the poetic experience, from playful to poignant, and shows how “the breathing shapes/And stops of breath” of meter and rhyme have not lost their power to define the form of those pleasures.