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Poet, translator, and critic Annie Finch is director of the Stonecoast low-residency MFA program at the University of Southern Maine. She is co-editor, with Kathrine Varnes, of An Exaltation of Forms: Contemporary Poets Celebrate the Diversity of Their Art, and author of The Ghost of Meter: Culture and Prosody in American Free Verse, Eve, and Calendars. She is the winner of the eleventh annual Robert Fitzgerald Prosody Award for scholars who have made a lasting contribution to the art and science of versification.
A Horse with Two Wings A Note on Criticism and Poetics
Pegasus, the winged horse of poetic inspiration, was a child of the Gorgon Medusa and the sea-god Poseidon. But Pegasus was not born until Medusa was beheaded by Perseus; the winged horse waited inside his mother until that ruthless sword approached her, Bashing in the open sunlight, slicing off her head with one Bawless and merciless swoop. Freed by the violence of reason (Perseus sometimes being associated with the power of reason), the horse of inspiration emerged out of the wound, scattering drops of his mother's blood with his hooves as he took wing for the first time into the skies of poetry.
When I first learned this story I startled with recognition. I write as often as not out of a self-induced, incantatory dream state, chanting and acting out my poems as I compose. I advise my students not to worry about whether their poems make any sense when they first write; I've been known to remind them to keep a flashlight by the bed so they can catch each gift of the unconscious mind in its first slippery jumpings out of the murk of primary process thought. But still it is my Arm belief that the creative murk teems more urgently and with more fertile passions after a revitalizing encounter with Perseus's brilliantly honed, reflective sword.
I think of Pegasus's two wings as a wing of instinct and a wing of consciousness, both of them necessary for writing individual poems. If the horse stands for the art as a whole, we might think of them as a wing of creativity and a wing of criticism. Over hundreds of years, most of the major texts of criticism about poetry have been written by poets: Horace, Campion, Sidney, Dryden, Johnson, Shelley, Coleridge, Keats, Arnold, Eliot, Blake, Auden, Yeats, Crane, Williams, Bogan, Olson, Creeley, Zukofsky, Miles, Lowell, and on and on, and among contemporary poets Gloria Hull, Alicia Ostriker, Lyn Hejinian, Ron Silliman, Barrett Watten, Rachel Blau DuPlessis, Susan GrifAn, Gary Snyder, Amiri Baraka, Charles Bernstein, Susan Howe, and many more. The work of creating, maintaining, and revising literary tradition has always been carried out largely by creative writers, whether through editing, reviews, translation, literary criticism, letters, conversation, or teaching. This truth has been somewhat obscured in the past several decades, as teaching young creative writers has become the prevalent day job of most creative writers, often to the displacement of these other more traditional day jobs.
I can't imagine poetry without criticism, or criticism without poetry. I've been lucky enough to have been forced, during my education, to train my poetic brain with lots of thinking about other poets, and far from making me dried up or stale, as some writers fear, it has made me stronger and taught me more faith in the uniqueness of my creative process. During the first decades of my own career as a poet, each of the two wings has nurtured the other, inspired the other with newness, kept the other beating forward, kept me finding new approaches to poetry and new angles of both thought and inspiration.
In addition to completing four books of poetry, I've written two books about poetics and edited or coedited another six books on poetics-and in fact, almost every bit of that critical writing and editing has arisen out of my own specific challenges as a poet and has in turn enriched and recontextualized my creative work. Here are two firsthand examples of this kind of fertile interaction. Studying nineteenth-century popular culture in graduate school, I began to notice in myself a fierce attachment to a group of obscure, neglected poets. The challenge of uncovering critical justifications for my attachments led me to a new understanding of poetic subjectivity in my own poetry and eventually to recognizing the importance of ritual and community in my work. Later, while writing my Ph.D. dissertation, I traced out a dactylic rhythmic pattern infusing numerous passages of poetry I loved. Disciplined by the need to finish the book, I listened to this pattern in other poets until I could no longer ignore it. And then-perhaps not surprisingly-I was compelled to write in this rhythm and in other new rhythms myself, leading to a new vein of creativity in my poems.
In the ideal Juilliard School of Poetics where I sometimes fantasize myself teaching, young poets would become fully trained and conversant and literate in four areas: the tools and traditions of our art-classic, traditional, contemporary, and avant-garde; the histories, functions, and special uses of poetry in cultures worldwide, and their social and political implications; other languages, translation, and the possibilities of interdisciplinary collaboration; and last but not least, the tools of criticism, so they would learn how to make and wield the sword with which to behead the Gorgon, to midwife the horse of poetry in their own way, in their own time, and for their own purposes. In that way, I believe, poetry would be most empowered to By, both of Pegasus's wings beating together to carry forward the art.
When I began work on a critical study of the changing connotations of iambic pentameter in American poetry, I didn't expect that I would devote so much attention to dactyls. In free verse from Whitman, Stephen Crane, and Eliot through Anne Sexton and Audre Lorde, I noticed the consistent presence of triple rhythms, usually falling triple rhythms. Studying these poets' prosodic practice, I found that for each of them the triple rhythm presented an aesthetic, emotional, and ideological alternative to the iambic pentameter-the standard meter for centuries by the mid-nineteenth century.
Because I enjoyed the noniambic passages I was analyzing, I began to experiment with noniambic meters in my own poetry. At first I found it extraordinarily difficult to conceive of a poem of indeterminate shape in a noniambic meter (though I had written some sapphics), much less to sustain the rhythm; the poems would transform themselves into iambic pentameter or die on the page. I spent several years in the process of training my poetic ear (which had originally been trained in free verse and then in iambs) in meters other than iambic. Recently, I was asked to produce a series of poems for use in celebrations of the seasons. The project required me to produce eight poems, conveying very different moods, for the same audience at six-week intervals. I wrote each poem in a different noniambic meter: trochees, alternating dactylic and anapestic stanzas, dipodic meter, cretics, and so on. In writing these poems, I found myself challenged and inspired by my rhythmical raw material, and the supposedly arcane meters provided pleasure to the audience as well.
Robert Wallace, who has recently proposed that all meter in English be defined as iambic, might argue that, rather than bringing noniambic meters into the discussion, I could just as easily refer to this series of poems as using a variety of "rhythms" overlaid on the basic iambic meter of English. The use of the single label "iambic" to include lines in other meters, however- long a common practice in the case of trochaic lines within iambic poems-may prove to erase what it assumes to include, just as the generic use of the pronoun "he" said to include females arguably erases female presence.
John Thompson establishes in The Founding of English Meter that the early history of the iambic pentameter in English was characterized by no substitution at all, clumsy substitution, and "forcing" the meter. These phrases may sound familiar to those who have read similar descriptions of the "clumsiness" of anapestic and dactylic meters. As I discuss in The Ghost of Meter, only during the past two centuries have noniambic meters become a barely accepted presence in English-language written poetry. Perhaps the early history of noniambic meters in English is now developing analogously with the early history of the iambic pentameter.
Although all but a tiny portion of poetry in English has been written so far in iambic pentameter, it is important to recognize that the iambic pentameter is not a neutral or essentially "natural" meter. Its connotations are distinct and culturally defined. Each of the noniambic meters, also, has its own character, music, and history, however subtle or intermittent. As I notice throughout The Ghost of Meter, the dactylic rhythm carries connotations of irrationality, violent or beautiful. Trochaic poems, from Macbeth's witches to "The Tyger" to "The Raven" and even "Hiawatha," have a history of supernatural and exotic subject matter. If it is true that, as Martin Halpern posits, the noniambic meters are a more direct legacy of Anglo-Saxon poetic rhythms than the iambic, it will be valuable to see what kind of energy a new connection with that legacy might bring into our metrical poetry and how the connotations of noniambic meters will play out in the imagery, the mood, and the cultural role of future poems.
Though many of our poetic ears have lost touch with the sounds of noniambic meters-and, in many cases, even with the sounds of iambic meter-there is no reason to expect or to wish the noniambic meters to atrophy entirely. When the audience, reading my poems aloud, was able to predict which syllables to stress in spite of variations in the noniambic meter, a "metrical contract," to use John Hollander's term, was certainly in evidence, albeit a noniambic one. The prosodic situation is certainly more complex given a diversity of meters than it would be if all meters were called iambic, but our tools for understanding the rhythm of individual poems are also more complex, and potentially more flexible and sensitive. I use the adjective "potential" here, however, because I And our prosody still unable adequately to acknowledge substitution and modulation in noniambic meters.
Perhaps because of their roots in the rhythms of the oral verse tradition in English, noniambic meters have been restricted to popular poetry for so long that their consignment there has become something of a self-fulfilling prophecy. It is no coincidence that the examples of poems I discuss in this piece are virtually all drawn from "low" poetry. The last time that noniambic meters peered out into the world of high culture, during the late nineteenth century, the declamatory recitation style of such poets as Poe, Longfellow, and Tennyson gave them the reputation of being inherently artificial, particularly in contrast to the emerging free-verse aesthetic. Few if any poets in the twentieth century have written noniambic meters that are subtly modulated and meant to be read aloud with natural speech stress, according to our current preference. That fact, however, does not necessarily mean it cannot be done.
The main source of difficulty with the noniambic meters is the assumption that they are not "natural" to English. This view appears to have originated in nineteenth-century reactions to dactylic verse in English. It has held strong, from Yvor Winters's conviction, as he writes in "The Audible Reading of Poetry," that the "iambic movement ... appears to be natural to the language" through most contemporary accounts. I have of course been taught, repeatedly, in the words of a poet who instructed me in graduate school, that "English falls | naturally | into i|ambics." To my ear, this sentence has a distinct triple rhythm. I would scan it as dactyls, ending in a trochee as many dactylic lines do, with one secondary stress or "cretic" substitution in the first foot: "English falls naturally into iambics." I And this the simplest scansion and the one that embodies the actual music of the line. I am well aware, however, that according to the most common system-whereby a line is accepted as innocent (i.e., iambic) until proven guilty (noniambic)-the line should scan as an iambic pentameter with initial trochaic substitution and a falling ending, a reading I And jerky and decidedly "forced."
Is iambic meter the only natural meter? Though some contemporary poets believe that we no longer speak in iambic pentameter, others enjoy citing everyday examples of the meter to prove how ubiquitous and innate it really is. One of my favorite such examples, Marilyn Hacker's "a glass of California chardonnay," was quoted at a recent conference. On the Bight home, I began idly to wonder if the noniambic meters could also be found easily in everyday speech. Only four or Ave minutes later, a Bight attendant announced, "please return | to your seats | and make sure | that your seat | belts are fast|ened secure|ly." Robert Wallace writes in Meter in English that "the anapest is a good, and frequent, foot in English." Perhaps, along with dactyls and trochees, it forms a "natural" rhythm as well.
Of the many questions that have yet to be answered about the nature of noniambic meters, one of the most essential is the question of their hospitality to metrical substitution. The prosodist Martin Halpern formalized in 1962 the idea, now a truism, that iambic meter is different from all the other meters because it alone can absorb substitutions with varying degrees of stress. As Timothy Steele puts it in his prosody guide, "trochaics and triple meters ... haven't the suppleness and the capacity for fluid modulation that iambic measures have, nor do they tolerate the sorts of variations (e.g., inverted feet at line beginnings or after mid-line pauses) that the texture of iambic verse readily absorbs." Steele gives as an example a line from Longfellow: "The blue heron, the Shuh-shuh-gah," and comments, "it is unlikely that we would emphasize the two definite articles ... but that is what Longfellow wishes us to do, since he is writing in trochaic tetrameter." This line of reasoning constitutes a tautological trap in which to catch noniambic meters; because the meter is trochaic, we assume the pronunciation is meant to be unnatural; then we damn the trochaic meter for forcing unnatural pronunciations. According to this common conception, "substitutions" in a noniambic meter do not substitute at all, but actually demand that we "force" the pronunciation of certain words to At the meter. Noniambic meters are held to be so overbearing that they can't allow word stresses an independent and counterpointing rhythm.
To me, the idea that noniambic meters can't be modulated through substitution is a prejudice analogous to the Renaissance scholar Gascoigne's belief-described by John Thompson in The Founding of English Meter-that the iambic meter in the line, "your meaning I understand by your eye," is faulty because it forces us to stress "der." To cite a well-known example, Clement Moore's line "As dry leaves | that before | the wild hur|ricane fly," in The Night Before Christmas, employs two expressive substitutions of the pattern unstress-stress-stress in the anapestic base. These beautiful changes can be accepted as valid metrical substitutions with a fine name (bacchius), not explained away as clumsy anapests. Similarly, the line "the? moon | on the? breast | of the new- | fallen snow" substitutes an iambic foot and a foot of the pattern stress-unstress-stress (it might be called a cretic) in the anapestic base. Isn't the counterpoint between speech and meter in such lines just as enjoyable as the counterpoint in iambic lines that employ substitution?
Excerpted from The Body of Poetry by Annie Finch Copyright © 2005 by the University of Michigan . Excerpted by permission.
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