Of Rhyme and Reason: Books to celebrate National Poetry Month
Besides being what T.S. Eliot called “the cruelest month/Breeding lilacs out of the dead land,” April is also National Poetry Month. To do honor to poetry, let’s look at two books that have much to do with the poem and with the poet.
First up is A.S. Byatt's 15-year-old novel, Possession. Still in print, which in our day of whirl and ephemera bodes well for any book, Possession tells the story of two Victorian poets, both products of Byatt’s exquisite imagination, whose lives and love for each other are set alongside those of their 20th century researchers and literary scholars.
Possession is remarkable not only for the depth of its characters, its intriguing contrasts between the Victorians and the people of our own age, and its mediations on love and the many meanings of love, but also for its thoughts on poetry, on the place and importance of poets and poems in life. Besides creating a good deal of poetry for her fictional poets Randolph Henry Ash and Christabel LaMotte, Byatt shows us how esteemed a place the poet held in Victorian society. Wordsworth, Tennyson, the Rossettis, and a platoon of others were extremely influential both in English letters and in English political circles during this time. In those days, people of influence listened to poets as people of influence have listened to poets since primitive hunters first began making verse around fires.
Poets today seem to have lost not only the ear of the influential, but the attention of the public as well. Perhaps in some way replaced by the lyrics of contemporary music of all stripes, poetry today exerts less influence on people than at any time in the last thousand years. I would wager that 99 percent of Americans, including many voracious readers, would be hard-pressed to name more than two living poets.
Why has poetry fallen into such sad state? Why are so many contemporary poets read only by their fellow poets? Doubtless there are many possible explanations, many of them with some validity, but in Timothy Steele's Missing Measures: Modern Poetry and the Revolt Against Meter (a book which was, coincidentally, published in 1990, the same year as Possession), we find possibly the strongest answer.
Steele argues, much more gently than I would argue, that poetry began moving away from its general public in the late 19th century when, with the contagious enthusiasm of the French for vers libre and a sense of competition with the changes wrought by science, poets felt the need for constant innovation and experimentation (note, indeed, that both words smack more of the scientific than of the literary). Steele devotes nearly 300 pages of prose examining the origins of free verse, why it was so assiduously adopted by poets, and why today it has become a principle among many poets and their students that metered verse is no longer poetry.
At the end of Missing Measures, Steele writes that “if a young poet wishes to write something that has a chance of distinguishing itself from the great mass of short poems currently being published, if the young poet wishes to write something that may not only be glanced at but read and remembered with affection and enthusiasm, he or she would be well-advised to consider the possibility of writing in meter.”
Doubtless many contemporary poets who lay such importance on diction and imagery, but who scoff at rhyme or iambic pentameter, might be angered by Steele’s words. What they might wish to bear in mind, however, is that in another hundred years people will still be reciting Shakespeare or Donne or even the doggerel verse of Robert Service’s “The Cremation of Sam McGee,” while their own poems lie moldering and forgotten in the stacks of the university library to which they were consigned at birth.
I myself am not young but felt inspired by Timothy Steele’s defense of meter to write to any poet who espouses free verse while condemning measure, beat, and rhyme. Here is a verse for any who hide their lack of talent behind their lack of form:
Most poets now eschew — how that chew fits!
The waltz and formal sway of metered lines;
Their neoteric noses twitch at rhymes;
Their guts may churn when brushed by lyric tits.
Sestinas, sonnets, villanelles galore
Beget from modem pens frenetic raves;
“Shall I compare thee to a summer's day?”
Brings shrieks of pain — O pentametric gore!
By blight, by blast, by slug and cankered mold
The ancient garden, lilac, lily, rose,
The measured bed, the beaten path, the flow
Were all laid waste as false (or too damned old).
A plague on modernists whom no one reads
On all who made this garden rank with weeds.
Possession by A.S. Byatt. Vintage, 1991. 576 pages
Missing Measures: Modern Poetry and the Revolt Against Meter by Timothy Steele. University of Arkansas Press, 1990. 350 pages.