The peculiarity of modern formalist poetry is that the poetry's effect is frequently that of free verse, as though the poets were either embarrassed to be writing formally or unable to shake its ghost from their ears.
Old habits die hard.
John Dryden's play "All for Love or, The World Well Lost", was printed in 1692. This play, another dramatization of Anthony and Cleopatra, was expressly "Written in Imitation of Shakespeare's Stile". By the time Dryden published his play, bank verse had been long dominated by heroic couplets. Many of his younger contemporaries seldom, if ever wrote in the idiom of Shakespeare. Blank verse, in its most common form, the form of Milton and Shakespeare, Keats and Wordsworth, Frost and Stevens, is a line of ten alternating unstressed & stressed syllables (the iambic pentameter line). Most importantly, blank verse does not rhyme or does not do so in any formal or predictable pattern.
The Restoration Poets found blank verse to be too licentious for their uses. Even anapests could be considered politically subversive and immoral. Instead, the restoration poets adopted heroic couplets as the only form up to their rigorous & civilized standards. Every two lines rhymed. The following are from prologues written by Dryden - the latter is from “The Conquest of Granada”. For all the propriety of his age, Dryden had a healthy sense of humor when it came to sex.
They who write Ill, and they who ne’r durst write,
Turn Critiques, out of meer Revenge and Spight...
...Some wiser Poet now would leave Fame first:
But elder wits are like old Lovers, curst;
Who, when the vigor of their youth is spent,
Still grow more fond as they grow impotent.
This, some years hence, our Poets case may prove;
But, yet, he hopes, he’s young enough to love.
In return for greater propriety, the restoration poets gave up much of the flexibility and malleability of the blank verse. Generally speaking, it takes an exceptional tailor to make formal clothes that are exceptionally comfortable and a genius if an excess of formality is to be overcome by an excess of comfort. There were no towering geniuses during the restoration. Milton, in writing Paradise Lost, dispensed with heroic couplets. At it is, the typical restoration poet’s lines are frequently end stopped simply because the demands of heroic couplets may more easily be met by end-stopped lines. In the brief excerpts above there is not a single example of enjambment. All of Dryden’s lines fall neatly into syntactical units which end, elegantly, with each line.
When it came time for Dryden to imitate Shakespeare, the force of compositional habit imprinted itself, ghostlike, in every passage of “All for Love”.
I pity Dollabella; but she’s dangerous:
Her eyes have pow’r beyond Thessalian Charms
To draw the Moon from Heav’n; for Eloquence,
The Sea-green Syrens taught her Voice their flatt’ry;
And, while she speaks, Night steals upon the Day,
Unmark’d of those that hear; Then she’s so charming,
Age buds at sight of her, and swells to youth:
The holy Priests gaze on her when she smiles;
And with heav’d hands forgetting Gravity,
They bless her wanton Eyes: Even I who hate her,
With a malignant joy behold such Beauty...
Compared with Shakespeare’s equivalent passage:
I saw her once
Hop forty paces through the public street;
And having lost her breath, she spoke, and panted
That she did make defect perfection,
And, breathless, power breath forth.
....Age cannot wither her, nor custom stale
Her infinite variety; other women cloy
The appetites they feed, but she makes hungry
Where most she satisfies; for vilest things
Become themselves in her, that the holy preists
Bless her when she is riggish.
II, ii, 239
In Dryden’s passage, though he is writing blank verse, his meaning falls into the ghostly pattern of heroic couplets:
A- Her eyes have pow’r beyond Thessalian Charms
A- To draw the Moon from Heav’n; for Eloquence,
B - The Sea-green Syrens taught her Voice their flatt’ry;
B - And, while she speaks, Night steals upon the Day...
C - ...Then she’s so charming,
C- Age buds at sight of her, and swells to youth:
The line endings still mostly break with their syntactical units. In Dryden’s passage there is only one example of enjambment, and weak at that. In Shakespeare’s passage there are seven instances of enjambment.
And now we return to the twenty-first century.
Instead of Restoration propriety, free verse dominates. If Dryden and his ilk were to step into our modern colleges, he might think he had stepped into a sort of “mirror-mirror” world. He would learn that some modern poets have out and out stated that iambic pentameter is politically corrupt, so much so that formalism is seen as subversive (patriarchal). He would struggle to find employment in any college writing program. Dryden – a strict formalist, intellectual, white and distinctly British – might find employment as a plumber.
Even so, one is increasingly finding blank verse and some formality. In the January 2006 issue of POETRY magazine, we find some beautiful poems by Megan Grumbling. But remember, this is mirror mirror world. Just as Dryden’s heroic couplets showed up, ghostlike, in his blank verse, free verse asserts itself, ghostlike, in modern formal verse.
“Their strident hold upon the back roads pulls
our morning drive, out to where Oak Woods Road
crosses the river that they call Great Woks.
The nearby fields so rich it’s hard to breathe–
the hay treacly with auburn, grasses bronzed–
we stop before a red farmhouse, just shy
of where the river runs, where maple trees
have laid the front lawns ravished with their loss.”
The enjambment of the first three lines has all the flavor of free-verse. There are no auditory clues (in the way of syntactical units) that might hint to a listener that these are lines of blank verse. One might as easily write the first sentence as follows:
Their strident hold upon the back roads pulls our morning drive, out to where Oak Woods Road crosses the river that they call Great Woks.
The average reader would never suspect that this was blank verse. He or she might, in a moment of preternatural attentiveness, notice that the line is entirely iambic. That said, there is no indication that this sentence is iambic “pentameter”. Given Grumbling’s approach, one might as easily print her poem as follows:
Their strident hold upon the back
roads pulls our morning drive, out to
where Oak Woods Road crosses the river
they call Great Woks. The nearby fields
so rich it’s hard to breathe– the hay
treacly with auburn, grasses bronzed–
we stop before a red farmhouse,
just shy of where the river runs,
where maple trees have laid the front
lawns ravished with their loss.
This is perfectly acceptable iambic tetrameter, but for the short last line. I only had to remove the purely metric “that”. It might be argued that one could submit any iambic pentameter poem to the same exercise, but such an argument would only be partially true. Once would find it exceedingly difficult to apply the same exercise to Shakespeare’s passage from Antony and Cleopatra. Or, more fairly, consider Frost’s “An Encounter”. (More fairly because Grumbling’s poetry is clearly inspired by Frost.)
Once on the kind of day called “weather breeder,”
When the heat slowly hazes and the sun
By its own power seems to be undone,
I was half boring through, half climbing through
A swamp of cedar. Choked with oil of cedar
And scurf of plants, and weary and over-heated,
And sorry I ever left the road I knew,
I paused and rested on a sort of hook
That had me by the coat as good as seated...
And now for the tetrameter version:
Once on the kind of day called “weather
breeder,” When the heat slowly hazes
and the sun by its own power seems
to be undone, I was half boring
through, half climbing through a swamp
of cedar. Choked with oil of cedar
And scurf of plants, and weary and
over-heated, And sorry I
ever left the road I knew, I
paused and rested on a sort of hook
That had me by the coat as good
The latter isn’t a very passable version of iambic tatrameter. The third line is entirely trochaic and can only be “rescued” if we elide power to read pow’r. The fifth line fails altogether. I picked Frost’s poem at random, lest the reader think I picked one poem especially antithetical to such a treatment. What the poem illustrates is Frost’s skillful wedding of sense, grammatical & otherwise, to blank verse. The same commitment is not sensed in Grumbling’s poem, skillful though it is. One might assert that Grumbling’s poem is primarily iambic and only secondarily pentameter. The ghostly influence of free-verse pervades her poem, just as the ghost of heroic couplets pervaded Dryden’s blank verse. One might say that she only grasps the surface of blank verse, but her choices might also be deliberate.
More to the point, while she is not the worst offender, her verse is harmed by metrical expediency. One of the first words that need to be banished from the Formalist’s dictionary is “upon”. This is a bad, bad word. It’s only appearance in the modern English language is through the fault of poets and formalist poets particularly. They use it because it is a ready made iamb. Grumbling wastes no time falling upon its tempting iamb.
“we skim as much brimmed crimson as these few
stout bags will hold within, enough to lay
four inches of the fall upon this fields.”
The word “within” is metrical padding. How else does a bag hold anything but “within”? The word “upon” appears again,
More metrical padding appears with “out to where the Oak Woods Road...” Using modern English, we say: “out where the Oak Woods Road...” The unnecessary “to” reminds me of “for to”, as in, “I picked my roses for to kiss my love...” Happily, this archaism died from sheer embarrassment at the end of the 16th century. Who knows, its ghost might live on in some Amish communities...
However, in fairness to Grumbling, the promise of her poetry far outweighs the learning pangs.
As autumn and the Great Works trickle by,
we skim as much brimmed crimson as these few
stout bags will hold within, enough to lay
four inches of the fall upon this fields.
October’s task has raked the colors high.
These are beautiful lines of poetry. They show a willingness to learn from the old masters (an especially subversive and ridiculed practice in some modern circles). She has a sense for the music of language, like Frost, and is richly visual (perhaps at the expense of her other senses).
“The aging oaks have puckered, mollusk-like,
to clutch and hold the sun-blanched, rain-run board,
and all its ancient measurements, in place...”
From “Measures” – Poetry Magazine January 2006.
I can’t wait to see more from her. I can’t wait to see how she develops and how her mastery of metrical verse progresses.