Towards a Definition of Poetry: Part II

Part II: Lifeless Meter

1. The Misunderstood Rules of Bygone Eras

It was a young college professor, and widely-published poet, who once set my mind on the the problem of poetry’s recent failure. Upon sharing some of my, admittedly youthful, poetry with this woman, she at once commented, “I wish I could kill the old dead white guys in your head.” From this I discerned that she believed my work to be stale and lifeless. When I inquired into particulars, her first mention was of meter. Meter, she claimed, sapped poetry of its energy, and, furthermore, was a relic of an aristocratic monopoly of art, when barriers, in her thinking, were set to preclude the artistic presumptions of the downtrodden.

I offered no argument and thanked the woman for looking into my attempts, yet a dozen questions raced through my mind. How is it one may read such poets as those of our literary canon—so many of whom made use of Iambic Pentameter with such immediacy, experimentation, and passion—and yet believe those works of art to be lifeless? I felt rather indignant on this matter, as the guiding voices of my youth, far from seeming “dated,” appeared to me as men of unsurpassed wisdom and intensity. Furthermore, I would say in my many inner debates, what precisely is poetry if it has no discernible meter? Must not there exist a definitive separation between this art-form and that of prose? When should one conclude his lines if he makes no use of meter? May have this absence of guidelines and rules contributed greatly to the unrefined voice and imprecise wording of the Post-moderns? On and on I went, yet I did not set myself to the task of dealing properly with these and other concerns.

Some years later, I shared a more mature series of poems with a Poet Laureate. I did not particularly admire his work, but he seemed talented and, considering his advanced years, I was eager for his reflections. For weeks I waited, scrutinizing with longing the title and address of each e-mail I received. It is with no shame I say that I hoped for a response akin to that famous letter a great American poet once received in quite similar circumstances.

After some months, the Poet Laureate finally offered his thoughts, for which I will be forever grateful. Having extended some encouraging words regarding my artistic potential, he began, inevitably, to discuss meter. Meter, he claimed, would forever prohibit the proliferation of my work. After all, he said, such devices have not been in popular usage since the middle of the 19th century. The e-mail was concluded with further kindness and a grave reminder: I must learn to write in the contemporary fashion if I am ever to be read.

This evaluation, along with its mistaken timeline, was indeed frustrating, yet it did not sway my resolve; in fact, the many pertinent questions of my college days returned with a greater clarity—and it is from this my gratitude toward the Laureate persists.

At about the time of my correspondence with the Laureate, I discovered—in my search for poets and critics possessing the adequate taste and education to offer a proper response to my work—an online subculture centered around the writing and publishing of traditional poetry: specifically, the Society of Classical Poets. Based out of New York, the Society’s stated mission is to “reestablish poetry as one of the most widely appreciated forms of literature . . . [and] to support poets who apply classical techniques in modern poetry through publication and[sic] performance opportunities and awards . . .” One can imagine the thrill I experienced in reading such a statement. I at once set myself to submitting my blank verse—un-rhymed Iambic Pentameter—translation of the prologue to Gottfried von Strassburg’s epic, Tristan.

The piece was accepted for publication and may now be read on the Society’s website. Yet, the publication’s editors did offer some fascinating criticism—not of the quality of my words or translation, but, again, of meter. It seems the Society’s editors believed my work to lack a proper meter.

The Iamb:X /(duh DUM)
The Spyrrhus:X X(duh duh)
The Trochee:/ X(DUM duh)
The Spondee:/ /(DUM DUM)
The Minor Ionic (or Double Iamb):X X / /(DUM DUM duh duh)
The Choriamb:/ X X / (duh DUM DUM duh)
The Third Epitrite: / / X /(duh duh DUM duh)
The various sorts of Metrical Feet

In my wide reading of that English verse composed since the invention of Iambic Pentameter, the beauty of our versification has seemed to exist not merely in the rigid adherence to the iambic foot, but in the appropriately timed and rule-based substitution of iambic feet with some few agreed upon unconventional units. No great poet, of whom I am aware, failed to make use of the choriamb, third epitrite, minor ionic, or feminine ending. In fact, the father and very center of English poetry experimented even further, often including anapests, a short feminine ending, epic caesuras, and, as in the sixth line of the excerpt below, the occasioned dismissal of an opening un-stressed syllable, often referred to as a “headless iamb.”

                                     x   x   /     x   /      x     /     x    /   x  /    
Prospero. [Aside]         I had forgot that foul conspiracy
                                        x   x     /        / x  /     x    /     x    /   x  / 
                                     Of the beast Caliban and his confederates
                                      x   /        x    /      x      /    x   /     x     /
                                     Against my life: the minute of their plot
                                      x   /    x     /   
                                      Is almost come. 

                                       /       /       x  /   x      / 
[To the Spirits]             Well done! Avoid no more!

                                (x)   /   x      /          x       /    x     /    x        /     x 
Ferdinand.                    This is strange. Your father’s in some passion.
                                      x       /       x        /      x
                                     That works him strongly.  

Shakespeare, from The Tempest

His experimentation then echoed, at times brilliantly and at times poorly, through the work of Milton and others. In this vein, the creators of free verse—whose methodology we will discuss in a later installment—justified their often-brilliant experiments in prosody, as seen in Whitman and Crane; their work was far from the free-for-all that we know free verse as today:

A noiseless patient spider,
I mark’d where on a little promontory it stood isolated,
Mark’d how to explore the vacant vast surrounding,
It launch’d forth filament, filament, filament, out of itself,
Ever unreeling them, ever tirelessly speeding them.

And you O my soul where you stand,
Surrounded, detached, in measureless oceans of space,
Ceaselessly musing, venturing, throwing, seeking the spheres to connect them,
Till the bridge you will need be form’d, till the ductile anchor hold,
Till the gossamer thread you fling catch somewhere, O my soul.

-Walt Whitman, A Noiseless Patient Spider

—And yet this great wink of eternity,
Of rimless floods, unfettered lewardings,
Samite sheeted and processioned where
Her undinal vast belly moonward bends,
Laughing the wrapt inflections of our love;

Take this Sea, whose diapason knells
On scrolls of silver snowy sentences,
The sceptred terror of whose sessions rends
As her demeanors motion well or ill,
All but the pieties of lovers’ hands.

-Hart Crane, from Voyages

Despite our literary canon’s abundance of substitution, the editors of the Society of Classical Poets were discontent with my failure to conform to their apparent philosophy of Five Iambs Per Line. Once again, it seemed my search had been disappointed, despite the publishing of my translation. In my initial wonderment over this issue, I began researching work produced and published by the Society. With some rare exceptions—which often read as simple mistakes or falterings—I discovered that very same stale and infertile poetry the professor and the Laureate seemed to crusade against: pastiche, in rigid and thoughtless adherence to the misunderstood rules of bygone eras, as though some well-intentioned and curious seeker had, of his own accord, discovered the ruins of an ancient temple and, within, found there the scraps of some forgotten holy text; who then, in his awe, imagined himself an adherent to the once-revered customs of a lapsed people.

2. A Matter of Definition

The writing of a novel and the composition of a poem—whether in a short lyric or a book-spanning epic—are clearly separate arts, and the definition of this separation is the subject of my entire series of essays, rather than the goal of a single entry, yet it is precisely this matter of definition which swims the inner waters of my mind when I consider the value of writing in meter.

Robert Frost famously claimed, “writing free verse is like playing tennis with the net down.” What the great poet’s statement alludes to is the presence of meter in the very concept of poetry: poetry is, at least partially, defined by the presence of meter and such predetermined structures—structures which aid the poet in elevating the written word from the mundanities of daily usage which, through familiarity, have been sapped of their potential vitality. The application of a meter is one of the central methods which allows for this elevation of words into something novel, yet timeless, to then draw the focus of a reader’s mind into concerns beyond those of his daily bread, in a language which begs the tongue to speak aloud with a tone and rhythm which seem to emanate from the holy rather than the ego.

The art of the novel, and of all prose writing, contrary to poetry, is the exposure of the day-to-day by the setting of our experiences in plain language before our eyes, for us to then evaluate with an appropriate distance—a distance from which we may view the beauty, sublimity, folly, and heroism of our lived experience. The novel is intended to mirror the language of man’s daily life, whereas poetry is intended to elevate language into a beauty or sublimity of its own power.

Meter is far from the only tool a poet must use to achieve this effect, yet it is central to the poetic endeavor: a focused, rule-based, expressive meter begs the poet to consider the musical and syllabic value of each word, rendering the language new, even for the poet. When we rid the poet of meter, we rid poetry of an essential boundary which keeps the words from slipping into the day-to-day usage of prose, where the power and beauty of poetry will inevitably falter. For proof of this, examine the tradition-less “poetry” written and published since the middle of the 20th century. Those poems which do not falter into non-sense and faux-mysticism, falter instead into the mundane.

They have carried the mahogany
chair and the cane rocker
out under the lilac bush,
and my father and mother darkly sit
there, in black clothes.
Our clapboard house stands fast on its hill,
my doll lies in her wicker pram
gazing at western Massachusetts.
This was our world.
I could remake each shaft of grass
feeling its rasp on my fingers,
draw out the map of every lilac leaf
or the net of veins on my father’s
grief-tranced hand.

– Adrienne Rich, Morning Picture

Rich’s writing is lovely. Her reflections inspire with such clarity in the reader’s mind the soft comfort of childhood, that it seems as though the day-to-day of our own lost years of youth were bared before us, for us to cherish and to then use as a guide in our adult search for peace—just as in prose. Whatever Rich’s abilities—which I value, at least in this piece, highly—the only possible separation between poetry and prose in the above excerpt is the division of the work into lines. If I had set these sentences as a short paragraph, would any reader doubt their existence in a vivid novel or short story? This is the language of the mundane, and yet Rich’s work is accepted as verse; once having discarded meter, why not simply divide everyday language—prose—into an arbitrary series of lines, as Rich seems to have done.

Meter once existed as a core aspect of poetry, not merely since the Reformation or since the invention of Iambic Pentameter, but across Europe, the Middle East, and the Far East, over the course of millennia. From the Finnish Kalevala, to the Old Norse Eddas, to Homer, and all the way back to Sanskrit—poetry simply was written in meter, and meter was accepted as a defining mark of poetry as such. Without meter’s influence, the boundary marks of the form quickly deteriorate—as we have seen—to the extent that what is today called poetry contains nearly no definitive characteristics which separate the work from prose writing. Despite this, writers of poetry—whether it be those attempting to erode the characteristics of poetry’s past or those who believe themselves to be torch-bearers of poetic tradition—have failed to properly educate themselves on this essential aspect of their own chosen field of work.

Next week we will continue discussing meter by delving into the history, evolution, and specific characteristics of the English meter—Iambic Pentameter.


Published by Matt Wildermuth

Matthew Wildermuth is a father and poet living near the banks of the Missouri in North Dakota. His work may be read at

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