Why am I going over rhythm and meter? Do I need to prove that there’s one way to look at it, better than all others? No, I don’t; and in fact, I can’t—prosody is not a science but an art, and it’s something on which poets and scholars tend to take strong positions, so I don’t expect to convert anyone who already has a way of thinking about it that can produce poems and readings of poems that deftly use or respond to the rhythms of English. I’m one of the ones who does have a way of thinking about it, and who likes to think about it. And so I do this for my own pleasure, as well as with the hope of clarifying something that to another reader or poet has not been clear, and most of all, simply for the lucky privilege—a privilege one can seize for oneself out of the air and the language, without taking it away from anyone, and without having expected anyone to give it away—of participating, as I write these little parts of my discussion, in the life of poetry.
I begin to feel impatient, and wasteful of my own hours, when I do not participate in the life of poetry. That participation is a practice that sometimes includes working on a poem or a translation, but isn’t at all limited to this. The practice has been a long process, for me, of thinking about language, about poems, about the artistic resources in language, about what people make of poetry at different times, about how some (good and bad) poems become admired, and for what reasons, and others do not, about what “good” and “bad” mean, in such a statement as the one I just made, about the kinds of roles poets have had in their communities and cultures since as far back as we can guess (about five millennia? or, with guessing that’s entirely vague, about ten?— or twenty?).
I know that such participation in the life of poetry is not very widely seen as a very useful thing, except in its being a part of remembering the myriad elements and aspects of being human that have marked us as a species—inherently, and in comparison to other animals, and in light of what the effect of human beings has been on each other and on our planet. Only bad poetry, perhaps, minimizes the human, makes it more acceptable to a polite modern society; but also, bad behavior doesn’t necessarily make for good poetry, although it’s something that a lot of readers like to read about; nor does bad bahavior, at least in some poets, keep good poems from being written.
Our human being is a confusing and contradictory object of contemplation. But to spend time thinking about how what we have been, in all its horror and beauty, has been represented, grasped, turned, troped (and has not been) in poems, is the worthy practice I cherish. Perhaps it’s only in a country as shot through (I do not choose the metaphor at random) as ours is with the crude and desperate utilitarianism of those who have been economically excluded and even crushed, and—despite our worthy, inscribed ideals—with pretty brutal antisocial, inhumane, greedy, unethical, violent stances, in far too many with political and financial power, would what I’m arguing for have to be justified.
So that’s it. I can’t pretend I’m interested in all poetry, from the earliest to what was published in the latest issues of any half dozen literary journals. I’m not. You have (as do I, as does everyone), a right to claim and hold onto your own personal history as a reader, and work from that. (I first encountered that idea in an overheard conversation in a library in California, when I was a student; it stayed with me.) So I hold onto my history as a reader, and I keep opening up new chapters in it as I go.
With the blessing of some time in which to do so, I have been reading Gerard Manley Hopkins from beginning to end, over the last week—poems, some diary entries, some letters, a little commentary by those who have studied his work. I expect to look at him in one of these posts, although I’m not ready to do so yet. And to use him in another essay I’m writing, about poetry and etymology (not for this blog). I haven’t felt much more for his work, over the years, than admiration of a few of his great poems, as poems, and more generally for his intense seriousness in trying to re-conceive how to use the rhythms of English, in the second part of his career, beginning with “The Wreck of the Deutschland.” I don’t think I myself will ever write anything that is indebted to his poems; I never have, yet; and I don’t think I can admire the wreck of his psyche that submerged him in depression, but even earlier, in what seems to me an intransigent impulse, after a certain point, to be subjected, to be controlled, restricted, denied (and in this way sustained, held steady). His self-abnegation as a poet and a person is striking; his self-condemnation sad. I want to state emphatically that my immersion in his work for several days has been exhilarating for me not because his poetry is a “triumph” over all that, nor of course because his poetry succumbed to all that. His sheer stamina is inspiring. He seems to have believed that if only he could write the poems he wanted to write, he would have accomplished something that was worthy of himself and of the God in whom he believed. Yet what he did accomplish in his strange, utterly individual way was remarkable in the handful of poems that seem to me likely to be remembered for as long as there are readers. All of that, from beginning to end, was his (fitful) participation in the life of poetry; and because poetry is an art, in the modern world, of the page that preserves poems and more, I am able to go with him a little of his way. I’m sure I fail to understand as much as I should about him and about his poems and even (or especially) about his poetic technique. My trying to understand has been over the last week my participation in the life of poetry.
Amidst the continually unfolding catastrophes and suffering in all the world, I try to take heart—as one of my most inspiring friends did, when he was alive—in holding a little of the whole history of us in mind, and choosing from the riches and devastations of that history some poems and poets worth remembering and sustaining in our collective memory.
Back to rhythm and meter next time.