Matthew Zapruder is the guest. He is a poet, editor, translator, and the author of a new book called Why Poetry, available now from Ecco.
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Matthew Zapruder is the guest. He is a poet, editor, translator, and the author of a new book called Why Poetry, available now from Ecco.
Get the free Otherppl app.
Listen via iTunes.
Get Brad Listi’s sporadic email newsletter.
Who are you? And also, why do you write? Actually, why don’t you just write me a poem right now?
Poetry is: an artifact of the shining me, the radiant, the torn: the execution of that self: the contending with who do I think I am to live so freely here: walking this riverbed: kneeling in dirt: putting my lips to cemetery stone: loving the glow of metacarpal bones under me, in my stumbling: decay: in my children: their spines: their flows: their jaws: my God, where are you blinking?: because I am among the abandoned: scattered: fragmented: a broken word: do you know what I mean by broken?: because even swallowing: even: broken: witness: heard: any song: any move into slow: the dead hold out their palms: I approach as lamb: for food: for daisies: for slaughter: for an end to thirst: for white blooms on my tongue: for being in a body: disembodied: embodied: an embodied spirit: the intersection: revenant against my teeth: a rosary for sorrow: a litany to see the dead in mirrors: joy in finger bones: if I lay me down: if I lay me down: because I have wished for death: but now I would go fighting: the poem is: my voice: my clawing for light: my internal song/scream/cry: it’s the part of me that will endure: here: can I believe that there is a skyward: that my bones float in it: unsheltered: here.
Why do I write poetry? It’s the part of me that will endure: here.
This week on the Otherppl with Brad Listi podcast, a conversation with TNB Poetry editor Rich Ferguson , whose debut novel, New Jersey Me, is available now from Rare Bird Books / A Barnacle Book. Big congrats to Rich! Go buy his book!
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Dwight Garner of the The New York Times says
Mr. Robbins’s heart is not lovely but beating a bit arrhythmically; not dark but lighted by a dangling disco ball; not deep but as shallow and alert as a tidal buoy facing down a tsunami. Yet it’s a heart crammed full, like a goose’s liver, with pagan grace. This man can write.
Monologue topics: Patrick Swayze, tweets, drones.
Photo credit: Clayton Hauck | Chicago Reader
I think I felt the urge many people my age experience – to set down (as honestly as I knew how) what it was like to live most of my adult life in the last half of the 20th C. in the USA. I meant it to be a kind of witness to my times.
How would you describe your experience at The New Yorker?
I often describe it as the story of the longest lateral career in journalistic history.
For a brief period in 1960 when he was in New York on academic vacation, the poet John Berryman was of the opinion that I would make him a good wife. He proposed this to me regularly. It seems he was, in the years between his second and third marriages, proposing to every halfway decent-looking woman he met. It was perhaps his way of acknowledging guilt at the failure of his previous marriages and an indication of his good intention to do better next time. Late in the sixties, at a women’s group, he came up when the issue of male commitment arose — as an example of overcorrection. Among the seven women in the room, it turned out that he had proposed to three of us. And that was only in New York, in his spare time. The campuses where he taught in those bachelor years, 1959 – 61, were checkered with other potential Mrs. Berrymans. So it was perhaps not the mark of distinction it seemed in the moment.
From an obituary in the New York Times:
For all her verbal prowess, for all her prolific output, Ms. Rich retained a dexterous command of the plain, pithy utterance. In a 1984 speech she summed up her reason for writing — and, by loud unspoken implication, her reason for being — in just seven words.
What she and her sisters-in-arms were fighting to achieve, she said, was simply this: “the creation of a society without domination.”
March 19, 2012
“Hey Snooze,” I said, putting on my headset so that when the dog tried to murder a squirrel, I’d have both hands free.
“Hey.” There was an ocean of melancholy in that “Hey.” Susie can say a lot in one syllable. I guess it’s not surprising that she’s a poet.
“Well, I went to look at my book sales on Amazon, and I got all excited because I sold five copies.”
Birth, nature and nurture or lack thereof. Is there any other answer?
Yeah, that seems to be the default setting for many a writer. What specifically about your childhood most influences your writing?
My relationship with my father.
What about him?
He was a shrink, then a neurologist. A true narcissist in its most virulent form. Unfortunately, I knew no better and worshipped him as a little boy. By the time I had reached my early teens, I was running away from a home that should have been the American Dream, but was just a hell-hole in disguise. I dropped out of high school and went to work.
What did you do for a release from that?
I stayed at friends’ houses as much as possible and abused whatever intoxicants I could wrap my mitts around.
You started writing in earnest later in life. What was the genesis of the move to ink?
My father’s influence was strong inside me and I had no idea how much it was eating me alive and destroying my marriage. Eventually, even though it takes two to tango, my wife decided she couldn’t take it anymore and we split. It was devastating and served as the impetus to begin the journey to find self and maybe a bit of childhood wonder that I didn’t have when I should’ve. I was going to explode. In a way, I did. I just did so on paper.
What else propels your word?
Ah, the usual. Everything from angels to demons. I’m often conflicted. I’ve learned I need to let the good and bad fight it out to find equilibrium. I don’t try and change how I’m feeling, especially for the purpose of satisfying, the “Don’t worry, be happy,” crowd. They annoy me the most. I feel how I feel until I no longer feel that way. I boxed up my human emotions for too long, hiding them so only the hunter would be seen. He collapsed in upon himself forcing acknowledgement of deep voids.
Frankly, I didn’t know how fucked up I actually was. I had been working on Wall Street, with skin that took years to thicken as I always was an outcast with a big mouth that for a time wrote checks my ass couldn’t cash. Eventually, I learned how to make good on my drafts. I cash all checks nowadays, but the reason goes back to the home thing. Bullied by a nasty old man, I would never again back down from confrontation unless it served a specific purpose. I’d rather get my ass kicked.
I just at some point refused to allow fear of physical damage to stop me from doing what I had to after realizing emotional pain becomes a physical malady at the drop of a hat and no purely physical pain I’ve ever felt could compare to that which is born of a heart ripping apart at the seams. I felt like that for much of the first 42 years of my 42-year life. So, pain of a poor childhood, a destroyed marriage, a dissonant mental dynamic and a mind that never quits solving equations which all add up to zero anyway, all contribute to that which I write. Oh, all that and a seizure syndrome which drives me crazy and makes everything twice as hard as it should be. The medical issues show up too.
The human condition, old buildings and history truly get me off as well. Wherever I am, I find myself wandering the streets at night, sucking in the essence of life. It’s something L.A. offers in such abundance and I do miss that. At heart I’m city kid and clearly that factors in occasionally as a backdrop or subject of my work.
Health topics aside, that sounds fairly normal for artistic types, but ‘artistic’ isn’t a word most people in your earlier life would use to describe you, is it? What’s the story?
It’s actually the root of much of the dissonance to which I refer above. I was always into the punk scene, yet I was going to work in a suit. I am not ashamed of the work I’ve done, despite the modern, monotheistic anti-capitalist sentiment that is pervasive in much of the underground segments of society. I feel far more comfortable on the margins, I’ve discovered, but I’m slave to nobody else’s agenda. I thought that was what punk was all about in the first place; doing what you decide is right for you. I didn’t realize that there was some sort of list of appropriate positions. So fuck ‘em all. I won’t be any scene’s hostage. That said, I do feel some of that sell-out cliché in my own veins. I’m being hard on myself, but that’s like saying I woke up this morning.
I just wish I never put that suit on in the first place. I shut down the right side of my mind except for those spots my left side could hijack whatever creativity might be available to help with the its nefarious linear plans. I realized when the world started collapsing around me, I had an angry creative side that finally declared war and started writing far more regularly. I’m having fun with it. Not really, but I need it.
On to the obligatory “Who are your major influences?” question.
That’s actually one I like to answer. I love so many writers—Vonnegut, Orwell, Heinlein, Buk (yeah), Chandler, Ellroy, Rand, (no, I don’t drink her kool-aid), all the ‘Beats’, Leonard, Heller and Pirsig (just for Catch-22 and Zen & The Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, respectively—don’t think anything else really caught me, but there’s a couple that can make up for lots of marginal product, no?). I really enjoy Ferlinghetti lots. D.A. Levy, Hunter and Burroughs of course. I could go on forever on them. Hemingway is another…P.J. O’Rourke and Clancy…there’s no end to what I enjoy reading, though unfortunately my work schedule and lingering neurological issues often make it quite difficult to sit and read for extended periods and what’s likely far more important is what I haven’t read yet, but want to. One day…
As far as other writers are concerned, there are just too many to list, but I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the influence of Iris Berry, whom I’ve known for years via a mutual friend. Iris really put me on track with my writing and I wouldn’t be having this interview with me (ha) if not for her. Besides, she’s a fucking stellar writer. A. Razor has similarly been a huge influence on me and is becoming just a great friend.
While we have had somewhat more limited interaction, I’d have to say that Mark Hartenbach and Mike Taylor are also up there. It’s not to say that there aren’t dozens I’m missing (there are) whose word I read daily, it’s just that I know I’m leaving many out and I should just stop here and thank everybody who has shared theirs with me and add a special bit of gratitude for those out there (you know who you are, if we’ve had interaction) that have really done much to encourage and open their vaults of knowledge and understanding to me over the lest several years.
I am very grateful for the relationships that have grown since I began sharing with the larger community. It’s a bit difficult sometimes as I live in my own head and tend to feel more alone in crowds than in a small room alone. There’s no doubt, however, that I’ve grown through many of these relationships.
Well, there’s enough to choke a donkey in all that. Is there anybody else you’d like to thank? Any new projects?
Oh yes…I have to thank Dire McCain and Dave Mitchell of Paraphilia, Apryl Skies and Alicia Winski of Edgar Allan Poet and Yvonne de La Vega of The Examiner for believing in me and publishing some of my word and Cricket Corleone for my inclusion in the forthcoming Into the Valley of Hinnom: A Dark Poetry Anthology, Volume 1, to be published by Heliocentric Press, which will include some of my work as well as that of ten other poets. Finally, I have to thank Rafael and Melissa Alvarado, Iris and Razor (seems to be a recurring theme) for going out of their way to make an upcoming reading at Beyond Baroque on Dec. 3rd come to life. They really put a full court press on for this and I’m eternally grateful. With hope, a chapbook will be ready in time for the reading. I know Raf is busting his ass to make that a reality. Oh, and let’s not forget Rich Ferguson and his partners at The Nervous Breakdown for this opportunity.
Thanks for your time, Danny. Good luck with your new projects.
You’re welcome Danny, and thank you for listening to me ramble. Good luck with your health.
I grew up in Ohio, which is where Jack Lemmon and Sandy Duncan were from in the 60s movie, “The Out Towners,” well, that pretty much sums up what people from the coasts think of Midwesterners. I have a brother and three sisters, including a twin sister. My mother never wanted us to have a dog when we were young, thinking that she would be the one who would have to do all the walking and feeding (she was probably right). So we had lots of rodents. Gerbils, hamsters, guinea pigs, rats, a rabbit (is a rabbit a rodent?). I was in charge of naming all of these pets. The gerbil, who did quite a bit of running on his hamster wheel, was named Runner. The hamster was named Hammy for obvious reasons. The guinea pig was Squeaky, the rat was Rattix and the rabbit Thumper. It was because of the precocious creativity that I displayed in naming these animals that I decided to become a writer.
Short stories, non-fiction essays, screenplays, poems, saucy little reviews of Rod Stewart concerts at the Hollywood Bowl, and scripts for reality TV shows.
Yes people say that all the time. But you’d be surprised how much a good sense of story is needed to shape these shows.
I didn’t really start thinking about writing poems until I took a course my junior year in college. My professor, a frumpy mustachioed poet who looked like a younger and more diminutive Kurt Vonnegut, asked the entire class to submit a poem so he could evaluate our style and what level we were working at. At the time my twin sister had just been accepted into Veterinary school, so I wrote a poem for her to celebrate this milestone. It was purple, sentimental, effusive and very precious. After the next class my professor called me in and said, “I don’t think this class is right for you.” I was furious. For the rest of the semester I shot him deadly looks from the back row, but it was this brutal assessment that made me start to seriously examine poetry and the way it was written.
I’ve come to realize that the vast majority of people in this country (it may be less so in other countries) are hostile to poetry. They feel it is an affront to their intelligence, that poems are an “inside game” designed to make people outside of the game feel like idiots. I know that I shared some of these beliefs before I started reading and writing a great deal more poetry. And the truth is, some poetry is opaque and requires a great deal of careful reading to glean meaning, and these are the poems I’m less interested in.
I prefer poems that gravitate toward the emotional rather than the strictly intellectual. I like poems that use rhythm and pace and meter and show the poet really crafting his or her work. I like clarity in poems. I like stories. I like to feel something when I read a great poem. Richard Hugo, James Wright, Stuart Dybek, Lucia Perillo, Ted Kooser, Bukowski, Billy Collins, Denise Levertov, Sherman Alexie, Anne Sexton, Tony Hoagland. All of these poets, to some extent, accomplish this. That being said, I know I have a great deal more to learn about poetry and many, many more poems to read.
I once beat the Poet Laureate of the United States in a game of horseshoes.
It was kind of a poem, TNB’s Rich Ferguson cursing about ten times in a row, rattling off “Fucks!” in spoken-word, submachine-gun fashion while at CSU Bakersfield. He knew he wasn’t going to get to cuss at the family-friendly Russo’s Books. So he had to let go.
None of us get to cuss much at Russo’s. And that’s OK. I get it. Bakersfield is a conservative city 110-miles north of Hollywood. The local Barnes & Noble and the now-dead Borders Books are the same way. Rich still wowed a crowd of CSU Bakersfield poets and guests, mashing together a few of his ditties into a twenty-minute performance as his body swayed beneath shadows cast by his dirty straw hat.
The week before, poet Michael Medrano of Fresno wowed the same class while at Russo’s with selections from his 2009 book “Born in the Cavity of Sunsets” (Arizona State University’s Bilingual Press). Michael rode into town on the Amtrak. It’s a nice ride from Fresno. I’ve taken the route. It swings through Central Valley farmland and cuts through little towns like Hanford and Wasco, places where gangs are out of control and mom-and-pop restaurants are still as tasty as ever.
When he stepped off the train he pulled along a black bag filled with his books, notes, an unpublished manuscript for “When You Left to Burn at Sea,” and some pages from a young adult fiction novel.
I pointed at him and we hugged like brothers.
After a Thai food lunch we grabbed some coffee in the sweltering heat and headed to class at the CSUB OLLI Program poetry course I was teaching. He took the reigns and taught about community. In fact, all weekend we spoke about working together, how poetry scenes in towns and across the nation are dead without writers and poets linking arms and digging in.
I was careful to mostly teach from Medrano’s book as well as Bakersfield poet Gary Hill’s works (including “From a Savage City”) and T.Z. Hernandez book, “Skin Tax.” All three poets, I believe, are part of a poetry brotherhood that needs to further help connect the Central Valley to itself, to Hollywood-L.A. (that would be Rich Ferguson and others I know) and even to Colorado. In fact, T.Z. Hernandez is a Central Valley writer now living in Boulder, Colorado. I’m really looking forward to an Oct. 12 gig at Innisfree Poetry Bookstore & Cafe with both Medrano and Hernandez. Hernandez mentioned calling it the “Vagos Locos Tour: Poetry, Stories y Mas.” Fitting for a bunch of crazy wandering Latino poets from California’s Central Valley.
After our gig at Russo’s we all ended up at an old mortuary converted into a mansion home with two basements and enough Chinese artifacts to fill all the secret tunnels supposedly beneath Bakersfield. Poets Philip Derouchie and Terry Telford showed up as I was whipping up some salsa and drinking too much Moscato. Derouchie brought beer. So did Medrano.
Poet-literary writer Jane Hawley was there talking up a storm, telling stories about the house. Melinda Carroll, who is the quietest poet on the planet, hung out (actually a tie with Veronica Madrigal, who brought some carne asada and helped me make some rather forgetful Spanish rice. Medrano later said, “Maybe it’s the mortuary that took your rice mojo”). Poet Sofia Reyes had to be talked into showing up.
I cooked the carne asada and talked poetry under the stars with Medrano. “An epic night of Central Valley poets connecting between cities,” I said. It was about then I dropped a tortilla, picked up and flung over the fence into an alley.
“Looks like a spaceship!” a voice from the darkness said.
Soon enough, everyone was eating, even my terrible rice, and talked it up about mortuary ghosts, including one in the house of a cat named Blackbeard. Don’t believe me? There’s even a painting of the cat hanging in a dark room above a bed. Another animal from the mansion dropped dead of a heart attack just days after our shindig. “Cardiac arrest,” Hawley said. “The trainer tried animal CPR.” Apparently you do that for show dogs named Rudy. You rip their little doggy chests open if you have to. But as I mentioned, the little guy didn’t make it. His owner was in Berlin.
Maybe there was forewarning at our party, because in the middle of dinner, Hawley, whose gramps owns the mortuary mansion, suddenly ran in an odd sort of gait, away from the rest of the poets and launched herself into the pool fully clothed. I can’t think of any other reason than she was possessed by either Blackbeard the cat, who may have wanted her or Rudy dead, or the spirit of poetry infusing her with vibrant energy for a symbolic journey of renewal.
When she emerged there was a june bug in her hair and she screamed.
The next day I got Medrano to the train station barely five minutes before the Amtrak was scheduled to leave. I watched as he ran and boarded one of the big silver passenger cars.
I met Emma Trelles more than twenty years ago, a fact that simultaneously amazes and depresses me. We were both members of an informal workshop run by the wonderful writer John DuFresne. Every Friday afternoon, Emma and I would ditch our day jobs and drive up to Florida International University and sit on a patio with a bunch of other wannabes and try to figure out how to make our bad decisions go away.
Emma must have been writing prose back then. But she was clearly another species -– an observer of the hidden signs, impractical and heartbroken, prone to brief bouts of song. A poet, I mean.
I had no idea how good a poet she was, though, until a few weeks ago, when her debut, Tropicalia arrived in my life. I’m on record as a bad poet, but I happen to be a good judge of the stuff, by which I mean that I recognize its essential mission, which is to reintroduce us to ourselves by reintroducing us to the English language.
Emma does this over and over in Tropicalia.
I spent about a happy week trying to figure out which lines to quote. I finally settled on these three, for no other reason than their devastating simplicity:
I keep asking if he’ll try and find me
after we leave this world, in the next place
whatever shining white nothing that entails
I’m sorry, but no one who’s ever been in love hasn’t hankered after this same mystery.
Emma generally works double shifts during National Poetry Month, but she was kind enough to answer a few questions for an old friend, on behalf of The Nervous Breakdown.
I definitely felt like it was taking too long. Writing poetry, by its very amalgamating nature, is an art that requires as much dreaming as doing. But I went to work as a journalist right out of grad school. And that’s a devouring job. The only time you’re not working is when you’re sleeping. But I never considered giving up on writing poems. When I wasn’t, I was reading or thinking about them. I made little random notes, sometimes in the margins of my reporter’s notebook, which was the idea behind one of the poems in the book. Even just one beautiful word or a lyrical phrase reminded me that I was also a creative writer, that I was once an artist and that I would be again.
I wrote that around the time the health care debates were raging, and all that incredible bullshit about death panels was playing on right-wing television as if it was actually real. Alleged news outlets and commentators just pimping their lies with no remorse. It made me sick. I literally couldn’t sleep. One morning I got up feeling helpless and I remembered that I could always write a poem and that act might be my only weapon against demagoguery. Except for a word choice or line break, the poem pretty much appears as I first wrote it. I think I had been collecting some of its images in my mind for quite a while.
My family rules. My husband is a musician and a bookstore manager and my brother is an art director. Both of them support me in myriad ways, from reading my work to designing event flyers to simply cheering me on at my readings. And my mother is my crazy number one fan. She has a file stashed somewhere with newspaper cuttings, or even printouts, of everything I’ve ever written. I hope she’s not passing that thing around at parties.
Steve, that makes me laugh because I have no doubt you brought all kinds of little surprises to your own editors over the years. There is a part of that poem that was indeed the lede to a feature story I wrote when I was the art critic at a newspaper. My editor at that time, the blessedly cultured Robin Berkowitz, emailed me saying the beginning reminded her of a Tennyson poem. Can you imagine that? At a daily! Of course, it stayed with me, and a few years later when I wrote the poem, I worked in some of his lines from “Now Sleeps the Crimson Petal.”
Does anyone listen to John Mayer? I have been a big music fan (and snob) for many years now and I used to write a lot about local music. Eventually I wrote about Ed Artigas, a guy who ran an indie label down here and played music in great bands like Bling Bling and Map of the Universe. Ed convinced me to start a band with two other women. Even though I didn’t know how to play, I thought, why not? So I played a rather shitty bass, sang, and wrote songs. We performed at all the music holes in town, at a few festivals, and even in Austin. When our guitar player left the band, we asked another musician we adored to play with us. I wound up marrying him.
Noise music may be defined as a collaboration of instruments and players without any rehearsal, predetermined composition, or any inclination at blending sound or melody. A driving principle might include chaotic assaults on the inner ear, which, in turn, can cause auditory kinds of hallucination. Noise music is freaking loud and it hurts and the only people that can abide listening are the ones playing it.
Lorca is one of the poets who keeps me writing and learning my craft. I read “Poem of the Deep Song” at least once a year. There’s always someone I come across at just the right time who rescues me from my own thinning language or subject matter; when I first started writing seriously, I was bowled over by Denis Johnson, Toni Morrison, James Wright, and Lorna Dee Cervantes. But there are a lot of factors that went into me wanting to be a poet: my friendships with musicians and artists, my evergrowing obsession with birds and the natural world. I grew up in South Florida, and as a girl, I drafted poems in my head whenever we visited the beach. I wanted to describe the ocean, the light, the sound of gulls and water slapping the bow of our boat. It was my way of remembering.
I forgot about that. I had a lot of dispiriting business jobs before I started writing. It literally changed my life. I pretty much make a living the same way I have for years now: writing articles, features, and reviews, editing, teaching, really whatever is tied to language. Juggling all these jobs takes effort and a sort of patchwork, faith-based approach to money, which is not an easy thing for a daughter of immigrants, or for anyone. But if you want the freedom to make art, you have to give up some security. And, I might add, that this kind of toil all goes back into the same well from which my creative work comes. I’m pretty much living and breathing letters.
Another book of poems, a book of non-fiction. More writing and reading. As I type this I see it sounds monotonous, but it so isn’t. Writing is all about discovery, and in this way, it reminds me of hiking, especially through unfamiliar trails and woods. I love wondering what comes next.
Emma Trelles is the author of Tropicalia, winner of the 2010 Andres Montoya Poetry Prize (University of Notre Dame Press, February 2011). She is also the author of the chapbook Little Spells (GOSS183) and the editor of OCHO: The Travel Issue and MiPOesias Magazine’s American Cuban Issue. She has been a featured author at the Palabra Pura reading series at the Guild Literary Complex in Chicago and at the Miami Book Fair International. Her work has appeared in publications such as Verse Daily, Gulf Stream, 3 AM Magazine, Poets and Artists, Newsday, the Miami Herald, the Sun-Sentinel, and Organica. She is a regular contributor to the Best American Poetry blog; read her rambles here.
The most important is having an interesting subject that we care about. The subject can be large or small, weighty or light, and can involve any number of things, from an emotionally charged personal experience to an idea that arrests us in a more or less purely cerebral fashion. We should, however, feel genuinely compelled to write about it. It’s fine to noodle around—to write exercises exploring, say, different kinds of sonnets. And occasionally such exercises may lead to a poem worth sharing with others. But for the most part, we should leave such efforts in our notebooks (or our computer files). Unless we have vital material and focus it in an engaging way, it isn’t fair to readers to ask them to devote time and attention to our work.
Probably the next most important factor is patience. Even when we feel or think something strongly, it often takes us a while to understand and illuminate its significance. To be sure, it is possible to be overly conscientious and to wind up like those perfectionistic artists whom Balzac and Henry James write about and who never can finish anything because of an insane scrupulosity. Yet, generally speaking, there’s a natural and necessary gap between the inspiration for a poem and the realization of it in words. As we work our way across or through this gap, it usually benefits us to look at our material from different angles and to try different ways of expressing it to see which works the best. And if, after finishing a poem, we think we could have done significantly better, we should set it aside, give our thoughts about it time to mature, and then have another go at it to see whether we can improve on our initial attempt.
When I began writing, I hoped that I might someday produce something that would enchant someone in the same way the poems I loved had enchanted me. Much of the pleasure I derived from my favorite poets resulted from their skillful management of meter and (in many cases) rhyme. I realized I’d have to learn about those devices and use them effectively myself if my work was to have any chance of engaging readers as I hoped to.
To speak more broadly, excellent metrical verse makes a singular appeal to the ear and to memory. The human brain is the original and most efficiently portable version of the Kindle and the iPad; and nothing is more accessibly and freely downloadable than poems that feature recurrent rhythm. We can take a metrical work into mind and heart more readily than any other kind of literary composition. In addition, fine metrical writing captivatingly fuses order and flexibility. We experience, on the one hand, the constant metrical pattern and, on the other hand, the continual and varying rhythmical modulations the poet strikes within that basic pattern. Even if we can’t articulate (because of youth or lack of training) the formal principles of poems we enjoy, we still instinctively appreciate, when we read or hear them, the pleasurable interplay between the impersonal symmetry of the form and the personal quirks and asymmetries of the poet’s living voice.
There are quite a few, two of which can be mentioned briefly. First, against the bass line of meter, we can register shades of feeling and meaning more sensitively and acutely than we could otherwise. For instance, by grouping together short phrases and strong monosyllabic words, we can slow things down or create an impeded or hesitant effect, whereas we can secure a greater flow and ease with longer words and clauses. We can rein argument in by making metrical units coincide with grammatical ones; we can extend and complicate it setting them at variance. (This is not to say that poets always do these things in a conscious manner. They don’t, any more than fine basketball players minutely calculate, as the clock ticks down toward the end of a close game, that they’re twenty-three feet from the hoop on the right side of the court, that a teammate in the high post has attracted two defenders, and that they should therefore drive toward the base line and pull up for an eleven-and-a-half-foot jump shot. Engaged in an actual game or poem, players or poets mostly just go with the flow. But as with any art, we learn by conscious practice, and that conscious practice informs everything we subsequently do unconsciously when the chips are down and we’re playing for keeps.)
Second, meter can serve us as the beloved Other—as the supportively resistant Muse. She won’t let us get away with facile inspiration and easy emotion but insists that if our passions are sincere, we should take pains to communicate them in a manner that gives others aesthetic pleasure. She refuses to join that posse of enablers (Vanity, Impatience, Laziness, Desire for Praise, Lust for Recognition, etc.) that is always encouraging us to indulge in some literary spree or other. Even as we’re ready to roar off to the next disco or poem, she says, “Excuse me, but you’ve misplaced a beat in this line, you have an extra syllable here, and this rhyme is laughably trite. And please don’t try to justify these clumsy enjambments by saying they reflect your broken spirit because Sheila dumped you, or tell me that the rhythmical muddle of the concluding couplet poignantly expresses your anxiety that you’ll never date again. If you think I’m going anywhere with a writer in your condition, think again. Fix this poem: I’ll wait in the lobby with the car keys.”
And however much we grumble about such unsympathetic treatment, most of us find that it ultimately enriches us. Obliged to cast our feelings into a medium that is completely indifferent to them, we find ourselves considering different and often better ways of saying things. To meet the exigencies of strict form, we find ourselves going more deeply into our subjects, and speaking more intelligently and comprehensively about them than we would have done if we’d been left to our own unmediated impulses.
Metrical composition is one of the fundamental genres of expression developed by our species. Meter is a means—not the only means, but a crucial and incredibly useful one—by which we’ve articulated our experiences as human beings. It has served all sorts of people, in all sorts of cultures, for millennia. It has served both Art with a capital “A” and the traditions of folk chant, hymn, and popular song. The decorous and high-minded have employed it; so have the naughty and subversive. Its instrumental value is timeless. Accusing people of backwardness because they’re interested in meter makes about as much sense as accusing them of backwardness for being interested in prose.
As a card-carrying Aristotelian, I consider all imaginative literature to be poetry: verse, free verse, prose poetry, plays in verse or prose, prose novels, short stories—the whole shebang. All these genres deserve our respect, and we should always honor individual works that exemplify them. So free verse has my critical seal of approval, for whatever that is worth.
I do, however, object to the notion that free verse has supplanted or superseded metrical verse and made it obsolete. Free verse is fine on its own terms, but it can’t replace verse. Whatever its distinctive and unique virtues, free verse can’t entirely do the same kinds of things, or achieve the same kinds of effects, that we find in an art that organizes the rhythms of speech according a palpable, discernible principle or principles.
Some of my contemporaries have been very angry with me for taking this line. They seem to believe that free verse is, in its freedom from meter, a better and hipper kind of meter than meter is. But surely this is a case of wanting to have one’s cake and eat it, too. The sooner we can move beyond such illogicalities, the better things will be for all verse, free and metrical.
Meter will almost certainly survive in popular song. Even while meter has been in the doghouse as far as serious poetry is concerned, it has continued to flourish in folk music, rock, musical theater, rap, country, and related forms.
And meter may reclaim a significant place in mainstream poetry if we refresh and enrich the ways we think about modern and contemporary verse. Many discussions of 20th- (and now 21st-) century verse introduce the terms “modern” and “contemporary” as if they are historically descriptive; but on examination, you find that the terms are being used in an aesthetically proscriptive manner and that only verse which is in some obvious fashion “experimental” counts as modern or contemporary. If we can just break away from habitual confusions like these, we’ll be okay. Our literary culture will flourish to the extent that all genres are given fair treatment and all voices have an equal opportunity to be heard.
July 21, 2010
This creative celebration of prose readings, poetry performance, stand-up comedy, music, panels and more will star some of the literary, entertainment, and music world’s best and brightest. There are a few spots still open, so if you’d like to perform please email [email protected]
Jose Rivera, Academy Award nominated screenwriter for The Motorcycle Diaries, will premiere an excerpt from his debut novel and Jillian Lauren, New York Times Best-Selling author of Some Girls: My Life in a Harem will read from her work.