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Guest Essayist: Annie Finch

In Defense of Meter

by Annie Finch (originally published in Hellas

Copyright (c) 1990 by Annie Finch

Reprinted by Special Permission of Annie Finch

With special acknowledgement to Hellas

Not to be distributed in whole or in part for commercial purposes.

It is amazing that meter in poetry should need a defense, yet such a defense is overdue. Meter, on principle, has been subject to direct attack for some time­­perhaps a sign that free verse's stolid entrenchment as the only conceivable form for American poetry has begun to quiver.

I will not bother here to discuss the most numerous and facile condemnations of "new formalism," as the contemporary writing of metrical verse has been dubbed. Such attacks are as impossible to contradict logically as they are to support logically; they consist for the most part of charges that formalism is un­American or politically reactionary. Nor will I consider discussions of the existing body of new formalist poetry; its merits are irrelevant to my present purpose, which is simply to discover whether there is anything inherently problematic for contemporary poets about meter as a general principle.

Most of the more interesting general critiques of contemporary metrical verse try to discredit it on artistic grounds. The commonest claim is that clearly perceptible meter sounds "singsong" and crude in contrast with subtler rhythmic patterns such as breath rhythm or thought or phrasal rhythm. A corollary criticism is that meter is too generic, removing a central area of poetic choice and dominating poets' individual rhythms so that, as one poet warned me, "a poem writes itself if you use meter."

Both of these are, of course, unconvincing arguments against metrical writing as a whole, since even those who dismiss meter on such general grounds inevitably confess admiration for various specific metrical poems from past centuries or even our own. Equally incontrovertible is the fact that a healthy number of prosodically generic and rhythmically crude free­verse poems have been written. Taking these facts into account, it seems that the only logical support for a general opposition to meter on aesthetic grounds is the belief that English itself has changed so much recently that contemporary metrical patterns cannot sound pleasingly subtle to the ear. But in spite of the fact that some contemporary poets do hold this belief, it is a linguistic fact that the regular recurrence of stresses is as integral a part of English as ever.

I will take the testimony of my own ears, supported by J.V. Cunningham's charming chronicle of everyday metrical speech in the essay "How Shall the Poem be Written?," as evidence that these recurring stresses still tend to sound regularly metrical­­a fact which indicates that fundamental prejudice more than arguable 1ogic may underlie the typical aesthetic arguments against meter. The prejudice that I posit is one both more interesting and more centrally important to contemporary aesthetics than the two notions discussed above; it is essential to them, and it probably accounts for their persistence as contemporary commonplaces. It is the conviction that "artificiality" is, on principle, aesthetically suspect.

The distaste for artificialty is, of course, no more a reasonablc matter for argument than are its more specific manifestations, the dislike of obtrusiveness and of codification; like them, it is a matter of personal taste. This particular matter, however, falls conspicuously within the province of the one principle of taste that really can be discussed to some purpose, the principle I will call epochal appropriateness. While it seems senseless to argue, in light of the variety of artistic styles across space and time, that artificiality or anything else in art is simply and always wrong, it is reasonable to find certain fundamental aesthetic qualities more or less appropriate at particular times. In fact, these kinds of determinations are made constantly; before formulating any other kind of aesthetic response, an informed bookstore-browser or journal editor will tend to categorize a work along a range of timeliness ranging from avant­garde through mainstream to naively ignorant. Such categorizations are crucial. Normally they determine the quality and amount of energy that goes into the actual formulation of an aesthetic response. This last fact, more than the arguments usually offered by meter's critics, does much to explain the frequent glibness of their dismissal of new formalist work: like writers who use conspicuously literary diction, poets who write in meter seem to the mainstream simply to be out of step with their time. This is the basic justification­­as well as the only logically supportable justification­­for all the aesthetic criticism of meter as such in contemporary verse.

It is not surprising to find that the hatred of artificiality, like those other legacies of Romanticism, idealization of the unique individual ego and faith in artistic "progress," still underlies our mainstream aesthetic prejudices. It is to be expected that the aesthetic philosophy still used to discredit meter, as well as the corollary desire for organic, natural form, dates from the time when meter itself first began to loosen. The main body of postmodern theory has been determinedly abandoning these very Romantic tenets for some time now, however, so that our archaeology exposes radical contradictions within the informed contemporary arguments against meter.

One important change in the foundation of current aesthetic opinion is that the possibility of pure individual agency, basic to the mainstream Romantic fetishization of a poet's unique and metrically untrammeled voice, appears in the light of postmodern theory as a false and dangerous myth. Another idea that is breaking down everywhere is the belief that communication can (or should) be "natural." Replacing it is the conviction that every piece of human creation is inescapably culturally determined, so that the transparent representation of an idea is impossible and all expression is, in a word, artificial. Far from being by definition ignorant or reactionary, then, the unabashedly stylized use of meter reveals itself as perfectly coherent with both of these postmodern principles, and the crucial assumption of epochal inappropriateness becomes an unconvincing aesthetic argument against meter.

The ideological objections to meter have received fuller and more logical development than the aesthetic objections thanks to one book, Antony Easthope's Poetry as Discourse (Methuen, 1983). Using arguments that, rather oddly, evoke Samuel Johnson's reasons for esteeming meter, Easthope discusses iambic pentameter as a bourgeois invention that functions to regulate the passions, to reinforce the illusion of individual ego, and to pacify a capitalist citizenry. Easthope perceives iambic pentameter as an illusory "natural" speaking voice, a tactic that leads his often fascinating study eventually into debilitating contradictions. Free verse is politically preferable to metered verse, he argues, because free verse is a self­conscious artifact that reveals its own artificiality while metered verse tries hypocritically to sound like normal speech. This notion is such an apparent inversion of common sense that a reader is sorely tempted to apply Easthope's logic to the other side of the question; his eloquent arguments about the insidious dangers of falsely natural literary language almost beg to be turned around into indictments of free verse. And, at a time when the renaissance of blatant meter in rap music that ranges in attitude from the helpfully educational to the violently antisocial has helped to prove that obvious verse form does not align itself clearly with specific political stances, Easthope's essentialist characterization of meter as ideologically repressive loses even more of its logical force.When Samuel Daniel wrote his "Defense of Rhyme" in 1603, he was trying to establish respect for "natural" English rhyming (and metered) poetry in opposition to the abstract, codified system of quantitative prosody in fashion at the time. In the present defense of a similarly integral characteristic of poetry in English, I have tried to establish respect for a human propensity towards cultural artifice in contrast to the dream of the natural. But an even more basic fear than the distrust of artifice may underlie the intriguingly stubborn contemporary resistance to meter. Perhaps the prejudice is fueled by fears of a deep change in psychic structure. If, as Lacan has suggested, language creates the conscious and unconscious minds by constituting chains of logical meaning in contrast to the myriad repressed possibilities of irrational associative and physical verbal play, then meter may have a key role in integrating the two minds. Meter, in the most basic physical way, releases unconscious, illogical energy and brings it into coaction with the rational part of the mind, creating a synergy that might seem badly needed today­­a balance belween unconscious and conscious power that perhaps composes, to put it bluntly, sanity.

A Formal Feeling Comes

(at Amazon Books -- click on title to get there)

Story Line Press


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