Wednesday, April 26, 2006

A Cliché about Formal Verse

In his brief New York Times review (April 23, 2006) of Hapax, by A. E. Stallings, Eric McHenry writes:

"Strict fidelity to traditional forms is brave — not only because these forms are unfashionable but because they're unforgiving. Readers know what rhymed pentameter sounds like, and what language sounds like, and when one has been sacrificed for the sake of the other. Stallings deserves high marks not only for the performances in 'Hapax' but for their degree of difficulty. She may wobble from time to time, but she always stays on the beam and usually sticks her dismounts."

As McHenry suggests, traditional forms are challenging, but his own approach to discussing a "formal" poet is not very brave: he goes right for the cliché that formal verse leads poets to constantly distort what they are saying in order to fit the form. There is, of course, a corresponding cliché for non-formal verse: the reviewer calls the poet's language "slack." But every review of "formal" poetry seems to harp on supposedly problematic passages where the form has distorted the writing, and it is rare that anyone reviewing "free" verse says that a poet might have done better to use form.

There's a paradox in McHenry's comments, too: on the one hand, traditional forms are unfashionable; on the other hand, readers of poetry still manage to be sophisticated enough to hear when language has been sacrificed to "rhymed pentameter" or any other form. Considering how often one reads that students in MFA programs are supposedly unable to identify pentameter (and in some cases, even teachers apparently fail to do so), either McHenry is wrong about the sophistication of readers of poetry today, or traditional forms are actually more popular than he thinks. I'll go for the latter.

I should stress that McHenry agrees with me that Hapax is a wonderful book. I agree: it is full of memorable poems, and "The Village in the Lake" (the poem McHenry criticizes for its "noisy end-rhymes") is one of them.


Anonymous said...

Cliches - generally attain their status because they are true.

Using that label makes no assertion about truth-value, easy or not.

If from free verse we could get closer to what we want to say what rational poet would want to risk that for a formal form that brings no benefits?

Andrew Shields said...

Your comment may be true, but you have missed my point: reviewers of formal verse always say the things McHenry says in his review of Stallings (even in a review as short as his), while reviewers of free verse rarely make the corresponding point for free verse. If it's the word "cliche" that you are reacting to, then let me try to put it a little differently: what I find tiresome is the reviewer's reflex that McHenry succumbs to here.

Reviews of jazz concerts have a tiresome reflex, too: the first third or even half of the review tells you about all the people the band leader has worked with (or who have worked with him or her) but not about the concert. McHenry's reflex also provides little information about the book: precisely because it is a type of comment that comes up in any review of a book of formal verse.