BLURRED LINES, SOME THOUGHTS ON HYBRID, LIMINAL, AND PROSE POETRY
In his poem “In the Evening Air,” Theodor Roethke declares, “I’ll make a broken music or I’ll die.” In this one line of blank verse, Roethke testifies memorably to the inherent lyricism of his mortal awareness, what he calls his “dark theme.” The “broken music” Roethke makes resounds in his line breaks which emanate breath catching and then resuming in organic interstices that echo the time and space in which his lungs breathe and his heart beats. In which his “dark theme” cascades at the precipices of his line breaks as rhythmic yet “broken” responses to the void that lies beyond each of his lines. The evocative delusion that cries out in Roethke’s credo is the phrase “or die,” since, as W.H. Auden also pointed out after making a similar claim about the mortal implications of failing to love in his poem “September 1, 1939,” “we are going to die anyway.” And yet this claim of eternal life that we see in both Roethke and Auden’s poems, seems true enough in the lyric poet’s timeless business of writing.
In a time when poets are experimenting with poetic forms in boldly unprecedented ways, often drawing a thin line, if any line at all, between verse and prose, one could be forgiven for wondering if poetry’s river has flooded its banks. Poetry is boundless as a genre, and unlike prose, open to far more than just written expression. Anything that inspires or thrills—a beautiful dive, balletic leap, a brilliant chess move—is poetic, defying categorization. Some of the best poetic lines have in fact appeared as prose, as evidenced by passages in such novels, memoirs, and essays as Herman Melville’s Moby Dick, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, Vladimir Nabokov’s Speak Memory, Albert Camus’ Lyrical Essays, James Joyce’s Ulysses, Ralph Waldo Emerson’s “The Poet” and “Nature,” Eduardo Galeno’s Genesis, Jorge Luis Borges Selected Prose, the first chapters of Genesis, the Gospel of John, Franz Kafka’s Parables and Paradoxes, William Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury, and Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye, to mention only a very few that come immediately to mind.
With regard to the poetic line specifically, its integrity as a “memorable unit of expression” (Cid Corman) relies more on the poet’s bewitching expression than any specific definition, whether it’s formal or not. A line of free verse can be just as memorable for its restraint and truth-telling as a formal line’s aural music, eliciting silence as much as sound between its words, as well as in its words; what Philip Levine called the unsayable in his poem “The Simple Truth”— truth that stays “unspoken” in “the back of your throat…made of that dirt we call earth, the metal we call salt,/ in a form we have no words for.”
If poets wish to continue employing the line as “a memorable unit of expression,” then his or her task becomes far more difficult in writing freely without the mnemonic help of prosody and rhyme. She must write powerfully enough to allow her content alone to etch itself in her reader’s memory, no matter what shape or form it takes on the page. Lyrical truth-telling has resonated as powerfully in free verse as in formal verse throughout the centuries, and continues to do so, often appearing to poets as gift-like and even divine in its arrival from “elsewhere.” The poet Ruth Stone maintained that her poems came to her from across the universe. Samuel Taylor Coleridge credited a dream for “Kubla Khan” and Rumi Allah for their unslaked spontaneous inspiration. These two poets’ poems are formal but there are just as many examples of poetry stripped bare of meter and rhyme whose expression pierces memory with vatic economy. Here, for instance, is Herbert Mason’s powerful translation of 18 lines about grief from Gilgamesh, which was written over 3800 years ago, as just one powerful example:
It is the that inner atmosphere that has
an unfamiliar gravity or none at all
where words are flung out in the air but stay
motionless without an answer,
Hovering about one’s lips
Or arguing back to haunt
The memory with what one failed to say
Until one learns acceptance of the silence
Amidst the new debris
Or turns again to grief as the only source
Of privacy, alone with someone loved.
It could go on this way for years and years
And has for centuries,
For being human holds the special grief
Of privacy within the universe
That yearns and waits to be retouched
By someone who can take away.
The memory of death.
Or this poem by Ruth Stone, who wrote as powerfully in formal verse as she did in free verse:
The shock comes slowly
as an afterthought.
First you hear the words
and they are like all other words,
ordinary, breathing out of lips,
moving toward you in a straight line.
Later they shatter
and rearrange themselves. They spell
something else hidden in the muscles
of the face, something the throat wanted to say.
Decoded, the message etches itself in acid
so every syllable becomes a sore.
The shock blooms into a carbuncle.
The body bends to accommodate it.
A special scarf has to be worn to conceal it.
It is now the size of a head.
The next time you look,
it has grown two eyes and a mouth.
It is difficult to know which to use.
Now you are seeing everything twice.
After a while it becomes an old friend.
It reminds you every day of how it came to be.
Robert Bly described this unteachable quality of resonant verbal compression in his description of James Wright’s poetry: “His gift has something to do with interstices between words,” he opined in an interview about his old friend, ”the mysterious events that happen when simple words are placed next to one another.” By “interstices” Bly meant the silence that inheres in Wight’s language that conjures “deep images” and feeling in such a way that breath, imagery, truth, meaning, and pathos combine to form an extraordinary verbal matrix of evocative expression that’s memorable, in the way the best classical Chinese poets Wright admired do, especially Po Chui. The fact that James Wright started out as a formal poet, as did so many of his peers and teachers should come as no surprise as his mastery at composing evocative “ interstices between [his] words” evolved, no doubt, from his uncanny ear for the deep silences between the metrical feet of formal verse. In his poem, “Ars Poetica, Some Recent Criticism,” which appeared in his book Two Citizens in 1972, Wright addresses the loss of what he calls the country’s “beautiful language”: “Reader,/ We had a lovely language./ We would not listen.” But as sardonic on the one hand as these lines appear in their criticism of formal verse he left behind, they also testify to the profound influence formal verse had on Wright’s free verse, specifically the well-place interstices between his words.
Since MFA programs have proliferated so profusely around the country (there are now more than 200), the emphasis on teaching prosody, starting with the iambic line, has become almost passé. But it is clear just how influential early formal training was in instilling a verbal music in the above poets from one and two generations ago, even after they turned to free verse as their primary form. By contrast, the line in so much free verse poetry today seems merely token and even moot—so much chopped up prose begging the question: how many free verse poems over the last half century would have worked better as prose and hybrid poems? How does the increasing dearth of verbal music-making redound on the praxis of line-making? If budding poets in MFA programs aren’t memorizing enduring poems from the past by such poets as Gerard Manley Hopkins, John Donne, Shakespeare, Walt Whitman, Emily Dickinson, Thomas Wyatt, John Keats, Wallace Stevens, Elizabeth Bishop, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, George Herbert, Robert Lowell, William Wordsworth, Chaucer, John Berryman, William Carlos Williams, Thomas Traherne, Galway Kinnell, William Blake, James Wright, John Clare, Langston Hughes, Sylvia Plath, Marianne Moore, Gwendolyn Brooks, Allen Ginsberg, Ruth Stone, Lucille Clifton, then what poetic foundation undergirds their own new music, whether formal or not?
It is nearly impossible to predict the fate of a particular poem or style within its particular epoch. Libraries are full of forgotten poems that were once considered important and even classic, so why make any aesthetic argument for one kind of poetry over another? For the purpose of this essay, I’m primarily interested in examining the historical function of the poetic line in the throes of free verse’s current evolution on the ever sharper cutting edge of “the new.” Just what prosodic feature does poetry possess inherently that distinguishes it from prose? I think of the following quote by Sam Hamill as a cogent starting point in at least addressing the question of poetry’s verbal legacy in light the current rage to blur the poetic line, that is, to call into question the literary precepts that have defined poetry throughout the ages.
Poetry transcends the nation-state. Poetry transcends government. It brings the traditional concept of power to its knees. I have always believed poetry to be an eternal conversation in which the ancient poets remain contemporary, a conversation inviting us into other languages and cultures even as poetry transcends language and culture, returning us again and again to primal rhythms and sounds.
In the irrepressible, ever-evolving, experimental process of “making new” many poets today are finding the traditional line inadequate for expressing and/or accommodating their urge for adopting liminal and hybrid forms that obviate the line. Which raises the question: how can a poet write poetry without lines? Ride his or her bike without not only his hands but his feet as well? Open almost any new book of poetry by a young poet today and observe the vast range of forms and shapes of the poems. The line between prose and poetry has blurred in poetry’s current marketplace to the point where what used to be called lyrical essays are now appearing on the shelf as poetry, of which Claudia Rankine’s Citizen is perhaps the most famous example. But there are many other examples, and not just from the present day, as poet and critic Matthew Hittinger’s attests to in this passage from his essay, “On The Transformative Power of Hybrid Forms” that appeared in the journal Memorious:
As Virginia Woolf writes, “English is a mixed language, a rich language; a language unmatched for its sound and color, for its power of imagery and suggestion….” And if the very words with which we work, our basic tools “of imagery and suggestion” are of a hybrid nature, and the “sound and color” of those words can and often do dictate form, then the forms themselves can and often times must go hybrid. But what do I mean when I refer to hybrids, to hybrid forms, and to whom do we look for such forms? Where will we find such writing? In her book Art Objects, Jeanette Winterson writes: “…[W]e can only look for writers who know what tradition is, who understand Modernism within that tradition, and who are committed to a fresh development of language and to new forms of writing.
Reginald Shepherd, the brilliant poet and essayist who died too soon at the age of 45 inn 2008, addressed the profound “richness” of the English language in a trenchant credo not long before he passed away. The literary agon he describes so eloquently here redounds prophetically on today’s genre fluidity:
My relationship to the Western literary canon (as if there were such a single and singular thing) has always been paradoxical: there is both no place already assigned to me and more of a possibility of creating a place for me than the world at large has offered. I have been oppressed by many things in my life, but not by literature, which for me has always represented potential and not closure. I would like to develop a poetic language capacious enough to accommodate all the things my previous books have tried to do, to span the multiple gaps between traditional and experimental poetry, personal poetry and political poetry: a poetic language, based in the lyric which I refuse to surrender or repudiate, which, holding in balance critique and creation, can be all of these poetries by turns or even all at once. This is undoubtedly an impossible ambition, but Allen Grossman has reminded us that all poems are attempts at poetry which remains an asymptote, never attained but always to be striven for. For me, there is no point in writing if not to attempt what one has not done and perhaps cannot do.
Shepherd’s thoughts on his “relationship to the Western Canon” provides a refreshingly poignant corrective to the increasingly tendentious craze to balkanize American poetics, especially with regard to the “capacious” nature of literature and its tradition that echoes Whitman’s opening paragraph in his 1855 preface to Leaves of Grass:
America does not repel the past or what it has produced under its forms or amid other politics or the idea of castes or the old religions . . . accepts the lesson with calmness . . . is not so impatient as has been supposed that the slough still sticks to opinions and manners and literature while the life which served its requirements has passed into the new life of the new forms perceives that the corpse is slowly borne from the eating and sleeping rooms of the house . . . perceives that it waits a little while in the door . . . that it was fittest for its days . . . that its action has descended to the stalwart and well-shaped heir who approaches . . . and that he shall be fittest for his days.
T.S. Eliot echoed Whitman’s belief in tradition as an invaluable literary underpinning for any writer in his famous essay “Tradition and the Individual Talent” seventy years after Whitman’s published his first edition of Leaves of Grass in 1855:
The existing order is complete before the new work arrives; for order to persist after the supervention of novelty, the whole existing order must be, if ever so slightly, altered; and so the relations, proportions, values of each work of art toward the whole are readjusted; and this is conformity between the old and the new. Whoever has approved this idea of order, of the form of European, of English literature will not find it preposterous that the past should be altered by the present as much as the present is directed by the past. And the poet who is aware of this will be aware of great difficulties and responsibilities.
Whitman’s phrase “with calmness” presents perhaps the greatest challenge for today’s poets in their collective struggle to discover “the life of the new forms” in the profusion of today’s poetry publications. In a literary culture that neither Whitman nor Eliot could have predicted, in which so many volumes of poetry are published in hard copy and online every week that not even the Library of Congress can accommodate the surfeit. Such an unwieldy volume of new volumes, some of which are brilliant and deserving of wider attention, go unread. The blessing of so much “daily” new poetry is therefore also a curse, for who can possibly keep up with all the “ground-breaking new work”? Is it not surprising then that hybrid and liminal poetry have become an au courant “form” in a cultural zeitgeist that requires prodigious speed reading, a kind of reading that poetry by its very lapidary nature resists? We now live in an unprecedented epoch in which any “responsible” reviewer, critic, pundit, or cognoscente must confess to his or her ignorance of the hidden gems in the literary market’s glut of too many books. If poets and critics felt acutely “aware of great difficulties and responsibilities” during Eliot’s age, then they must feel the impossibility of reading responsibly now.
How blurry can the blurred line become between verse and hybrid poetry before it disappears altogether? In a Webdelsol roundtable discussion hosted by the poet Joan Houlihan in 2003 titled “Avant, Post Avant and Beyond” (http://www.webdelsol.com/Perihelion/p-roundtable3.htm), Kent Johnson attempted to answer this question with these trenchant observations:
Poetry is not so much about the two-dimensional issues of whether your unit of measure is feet or sentences, whether on the page you are thematically narrative or abstract, lyrical or non-syllogistic; it’s about the four-dimensional challenges of how your self and non-self relate to poetry’s total space, to how you are going to negotiate those ritualized modes of production and branding that are regarded– by Language, Post-Language, Pittsburgh UP, New Formalist, Cowboy, and Performance poets alike– as more or less natural and happily ancillary to the nature of the “poem proper.”
To move poetic indeterminacy into the “practice of life” it is not enough to “torque” the linguistic sign, as the Language poets have believed; one must begin to torque the key cultural sign that fixes poetic practice in institutional frames of classification and control—the sign of Authorship proper, to which traditional and avant-garde wings in our poetry are identically beholden. The theater of poetry is still confined to its set stage; but there are certainly dimensions of poetic performance and possibility waiting to be unleashed beyond it. When that happens, one might predict poetry will derive its mystery and force not so much from what it is “on the page,” as from what it is in the world.
Since free verse has been the dominant form in American poetry over the past seventy years, beginning with the publication of Allen Ginsberg’s Howl in 1955, and then the appearance of James Wright’s The Branch Will Not Break in 1961, a majority of American poets have engaged in devising their own “meter-making arguments,” leaving behind the prosody of received forms with an abandon that James Wright claimed in a letter to his friend Robert Bly was necessary for him to continue writing. “There is blood in it,” he confessed. But now nearly six decades later in 2019, poets are asking, what lies beyond the line? The innocuous phrase “poetic prose” fails to capture the vibrancy of the “new,” as does also the phrase “lyrical essay.” If the next line no longer serves as the primary answer to this question as the verbal “partner” that catches the meaning and music of its previous line in the drama of midair—verse poetry’s stage— then what does? Perhaps free verse in today’s mercurial literary zeitgeist has grown too token in its arbitrary line breaks—too much like the continuous line of prose whose periods disregard the physiological punctuation of breath or heartbeat to answer this question. But then what does? Just as Whitman stressed the importance of literary tradition as integral to America’s new poetry in his self-acclaimed role as America’s literary hierophant and visionary, he also gazed prophetically into the future, abjuring “POETS to come” to compose “the main things” in a poem that reads as freshly today as it did in the late 19th century.
POETS to come! orators, singers, musicians to come!
Not to-day is to justify me, and answer what I am for;
But you, a new brood, native, athletic, continental, greater than
Arouse! Arouse–for you must justify me–you must answer.
I myself but write one or two indicative words for the future,
I but advance a moment, only to wheel and hurry back in the darkness.
I am a man who, sauntering along, without fully stopping, turns a
casual look upon you, and then averts his face,
Leaving it to you to prove and define it,
Expecting the main things from you.
A century and a half after Whitman wrote this prophetic challenge, not only has the line between lines become obscured, but the line between genres. In this present age of gender fluidity, environmental eschatology, and unprecedented connectivity, poets and critics are risking new definitions as never before in their wildly heterodox attempts “to prove and define it”— “the main things.” But can the “main things” in any age include an almost complete rejection or obfuscation of the definitions of forms themselves, and by proxy, the tradition in which these forms were codified? Whitman himself blurred the poetic line radically in his age as the prophetic American harbinger that Emerson prophesied as that genius who would introduce ground-breaking “meter making arguments.” But one can only wonder what Whitman would have thought of Matthew Zapruder’s blurb for James Tate’s new and final book, The Government Lake, in which he praises Tate for avoiding distinguishing features of poetry altogether: “In his late narrative poetry, [Tate] was stripping away any of the accepted signifiers of free verse poetry, in order to see what remains when all things that usually tell us we are reading poetry are gone.” But Tate is not the only poet finding new radical, lineless “forms” that vacillate between hybrid and liminal expression. Others include Maggie Nelson (The Argonauts), Anne Carson (Autobiography of Red, Glass Irony and God, Float, Nox), Brenda Miller (Tell It Slant, An Earlier Life), John D’Agata, (Halls of Fame,) Mattea Harvery (If the Tabloids Are True What Are You), Elizabeth Powell (Willy Lowman’s Reckless Daughter), Eileen Myles (Evolution) Mary Ruefle, My Private Property, Bruce Smith’s long poem “Lewisburg” in his new book Spill, Claudia Rankine, Citizen, Ilya Kaminsky (Deaf Republic), GennaRose Nethercott (The Lumberjack’s Dove), again, to mention only a few.
If poets have viewed the line and poetic forms over time as inexhaustible vessels for poetry, what exactly is compelling poets in the first half of the twenty first century to forsake the line for liminal and hybrid expression? A proverbial adherence to poetry’s inherent compulsion to renew itself in radical ways, even its most distinguishing features? An outright rejection of patriarchal forms and rules? A bold obedience to the muse’s wild dialectic culminating in a contradictory synthesis? Poetry’s ultimate, predictable embrace of breaking even its own most established laws? A prevalent but undeveloped belief among hybrid and prose poets that poetry conforms inherently to Heisenberg’s universal principle of uncertainty, namely, that like subatomic particles, poetry can exist in two places at once in form and content? An accommodating unstructured form for those poets who are disinclined to compose “broken music”?
As for the prose poem, hybrid poetry’s antecedent, it has been reinvented, although not that significantly, as flash and micro fiction. Baudelaire would, I imagine, disparage the labels hybrid and liminal as overly academic alternatives to his paradoxical phrase. In an essay about the prose poem that appeared in this journal a few months ago, Peter Johnson, the founder and editor of the journal The Prose Poem, opined:
When it comes to deciding on whether a work of short prose is a prose poem, a flash fiction, a micro-essay, or any other short genre you can think up, no one seems to care anymore. “Forget about genre,” people say, “All that matters, is if the piece is any good.” Well, of course, but these same people forget to mention that what’s “good” is very subjective… What makes a discussion of the prose poem-as-genre even more confusing is that it has a long history of borrowing from other genres, and it often does this playfully…The best we can do is to argue that the prose poem exhibits certain characteristics, and even those characteristics are determined by the literary background and tastes of the person reading the prose poem. Any approach to it as a genre must necessarily be eclectic. When pressed, my go-to description of prose poetry is Michael’s Benedikt’s. He writes that prose poetry “is a genre of poetry, self-consciously written in prose, and characterized by the intense use of virtually all the devices of poetry, which includes the intense use of devices of verse,” except for the line break.
Two anecdotes about two senior poets who have recently passed away help illustrate the line’s mercurial state and the extent to just how open open forms became in the last half of the last century with little or no adherence to traditional forms or prosody. The first involves Russell Edson who at a gathering of MFA students at New England College during an MFA residency in 2006 made the claim that prose poetry was more poetry than prose. A well-known verse poet in the audience took issue with Edson, arguing that only verse poetry, “by definition,” was poetry and that prose poetry was essentially a misnomer. After several minutes of listening to the verse poet’s vehement defense of poetry as a genre whose distinguishing feature was the line, Edson replied deferentially with a wry smile, “As long as a poem, no matter its form, contains ‘poetry mind’ I think it’s a poem.”
The second anecdote involves Philip Levine who was asked by a man in the audience at the Brattleboro Literary Festival following Levine’s well-attended reading, “Could you please tell me why you call your poems poems because they seem more like prose to me?” Levine responded curtly, “I have me tricks” and left it at that. However, In an 2008 interview with Sally Dawidoff in Poets and Writers he explained his “tricks” in the context of his poem “A Theory of Prosody”, commenting that “that poem, “A Theory of Prosody”, was about the cat line, that narrow line. And people would say, ‘Why do you write in that line?’ And I would say, ‘Well, The New Yorker pays by the line!’ But that had nothing to do with it. What it had to do with was my total entrancement with Yeats’s trimeter line and an effort to convert some of that energy that he could get in long passages into free verse. I wanted to write something that moved with the beauty and force of ‘Easter 1916’: I thought, ‘You can’t write a form more beautiful than this. This is so gorgeous.’ And when you want it to be epigrammatic, you can hold the lines up and make the rhymes consistent, when you want it narrative you can let it overflow—it’s just such a supple, wonderful form. I had tried to do it in rhyme, in metrical poems, earlier, but now I was trying to do it in free verse. I just loved doing it, when I could do it right. You know, which certainly wasn’t always.’” Levine’s ambivalence toward form and prose, which he confesses to in the same interview is typical of a lot of poets who, for one reason or another, can’t always explain why they prefer poetic prose over formal verse:
So I started writing something, and I wrote a little piece about a Dutch doctor that I knew and loved. And it was the first good prose poem I ever wrote. And then I wrote a couple more, and they weren’t any good (I published them, but they stunk). And then about six or seven years ago, I wrote a bunch, and I didn’t do anything with them. And then one day a friend asked me if I had any prose poems—he wanted to publish them—and I went back and looked at those poems, and I could see that each one had a kind of germ in it, and so I began rewriting them, and then I got the idea for more, still more… And they were great fun to write, but I’m going go back to verse now.
Despite the freedom many poets like Phil Levine feel to switch back and forth between the prose poem and verse poetry, they also find themselves embroiled in the perennial argument about whether prose poetry is a legitimate poetic form. The poet Charles Coe captures both the humor and rancor in this endless academic debate in a risible observation he posted on Facebook about the poetic validity of the prose poem: “How many butter knife fights over the years in faculty lounges between guys in jackets with elbow patches arguing about what makes a prose poem?”
In the innovative American tradition of eschewing tradition, American poets, for better or worse, continue to experiment with forms and the line, as if they both contained endless malleable possibilities within the ever-elastic entity of poetry itself, supplanting keener formal sounds, as well as memorable free verse, with language that’s increasingly amorphous, erased, theoretical, obscure, elusive, synchronic, and prosaic.
The lure of blurred lines in today’s poetic climate reflects not only an iconoclastic urge to find new forms beyond the traditional ones—the line beyond the lines in poetry—but a form that also reflects the blend between genders—new hybrid and liminal forms following discontent with the old order. A form that accurately reflects the blur and ambiguity of trans as both verbal and physical reifications of natural but heretofore verboten human expression. But how far can such iconoclasm go without challenging the tenets of language itself and risking vagueness to the point of irreconcilable contradiction? This seems a moot question for many experimental poets like the hybrid poets mentioned above so bold is their exploration. The question of breaking the broken line by making it continuous and still calling it poetry seems hardly violative at all since for many hybrid poets hybrid and liminal expression weds poetry with prose in such a way that makes overdue sense as less of a question of form and rules than an effective if iconoclastic way of writing. The weight of tradition weighs hardly at all on more and more poets. Yet the question remains, if for no other reasons than organic and mnemonic ones, does poetry lose its salt without the line? As the most restless genre, poetry has thrived from generation to generation since its earliest days by virtue of reinventing itself. Experimentation sustains its restive spirit.
In the midst of the rage over blurred lines, what formal poets are offering a persuasive defense of the line as an essential component of poetry, and do they even need to do this. Roethke’s personal defense of “broken music” makes powerful enough sense, although it’s a bit dated.
In a more recent defense of the formal line, Marilyn Nelson, who writes in both formal and free verse, announced unabashedly at her reading this past October during the Brattleboro Literary Festival, that she had written her poem “A Wreath for Emmitt Till”, which is an ambitious crown of sonnets, because she wanted to fix the tragic legacy of Emmitt Till “to memory”, her implication being that carefully wrought metrical lines that rhymed served her purpose best in memorializing Till. She joins other such accomplished contemporary new formalists as Marilyn Hacker, Richard Kenney, Stanley Plumly, Richard Wilbur, Dana Gioia, Stephen Sandy, Gjertrud Schnakenberg, Mark Jarman, Rodney Jones, Carol Frost, Andrew Hudgins, James Merrill, Carl Phillips, Maxine Kumin, Natasha Trethewey, J. Allen Rosser, T.R. Hummer, Wyatt Prunty, James Kimbrel, David Bottoms, Jay Wright, Sydney Lea, and Alfred Corn in feeling this way about the ancient lure of the metrical line.
As poetry enters unprecedented territory in its radical quest for new vital forms and expression in the twenty first century, while at the same time continuing its tradition as that genre “that sounds better and means more” (Charles Wright), poetry’s new hybrid voices must face the refining heat of critical inquiry “with calmness” as they pursue their near impossible task of making new paradoxical sense, not just for the usual iconoclastic reasons, but for musical reasons as well—the kind that Theodor Roethke aspired to in his either/or credo in “In the Evening Air.”
Nearly twenty years ago the expatriate Syrian poet Adonis charged all poets prophetically with this caveat he expressed with Wislawa Szymborska in an interview that appeared in The Los Angeles Times in 1996:
To save itself, poetry will need to progressively espouse the unknown eternal truths and refuse again and again to be regimented from the outside by any kind of ideology, system, or institution….Poetry will have to advance by exploring regions the invader cannot reach….[T]he traditional view of the poem cannot survive, it will have to be transformed in its very structure. Just as the traditional concept of poetry has already broadened to exceed the limits of traditional forms of speech, so, in order to resist the utilitarian goals which nearly strangled it this century, in order to escape ideology, the structure of poetic language will have to open itself to more movement, and move always toward a concept of the total poem.
More than two decades after Adonis wrote this eloquent call to his fellow poets to “espouse eternal truths” anew, American poets have taken up his challenge with startling boldness in ways that harken back to Modernist poets’ receptivity to Ezra Pound’s exhortation to “break the back of the goddamn iamb.” But now, in light of hybrid poets’ willingness to break the line altogether into a new malleable, lineless form, one wonders what’s left to break, and if breaking forms continually is consistent with the goal of moving toward “a concept of the total poem.” If not, then one must have faith that poetry itself will conjure its own new music and meaning in poets who will no doubt refuse credit for their poetry that approaches the “total poem” in a form that’s as ingenious and eternal as their language.