June 4, 2010

T. S. Davis


Freedom is only truly freedom when it appears against
the background of an artificial limitation.
          —T. S. Eliot

Rhythm and rhyme. Rhythm and rhyme. Rhythm and
muthafucking rhyme.
          —George Clinton

I went through graduate school in poetry under the workshop paradigm that came to dominance in the 1960s as a result of professors who had rejected formal verse for free verse in their own writing. The thinking was that there was no need to teach the outdated metrical rules, forms, and techniques of traditional poetry because rhyme and meter had been replaced universally by free verse. In many cases, this resulted in an abdication of teaching altogether and the professor became simply a workshop facilitator for the many student voices who critiqued each other’s work. This was a qualitative change in the study of prosody which is the study of rhythm, rhyme, meter, stress, and language in poetry. For the first time, poets were being trained to be poets without being taught the traditional techniques of writing poetry. I could understand the teaching of the techniques of free verse in place of rhyme and meter, but free verse prosody itself seemed to be in its exuberant infancy, and still not well defined, despite 100 years of Whitman’s progeny. So no system of versification, whether traditional or modern, was taught. The only prosody I learned was that of my fellow graduate students as we sat around and talked about our poems and how to write them. For two decades afterwards, by default, I wrote free verse poetry pretty much exclusively.

Except that I also wrote songs and was the singer for several rock bands. As I brought my poetry skills to bear on my lyrics, the use of meter and rhyme in my songs began to influence my poetry. Soon, even without music, I found myself counting measures and stresses and enjoying a newfound strength in the implosive power of a more formal prosodic structure. The line between my poems and songs began to blur as more frequently I took poems and adapted them to rhyming lyrics.

I remember looking at one of my older poems one day. It had been written back in the graduate school workshop almost twenty years before. Out of habit, I scanned the unrhymed lines to determine the rhythm pattern. To my surprise and revelation, I had written a perfect iambic pentameter blank verse poem at a time when I prided myself as a rebel against convention. Iambic pentameter is a line of ten syllables with the rhythmic stress on every other syllable, for a total of five stresses or beats per line.

Although there are many other rhythm patterns, iambic pentameter poetry constitutes the overwhelming majority of all English poetry written prior to the twentieth century. The fact that I could unconsciously but flawlessly write an entire poem using that rhythm made me think that somehow it was not just an artificial construction but one of the natural and fundamental rhythms of the English language, maybe even its heartbeat. Yet as a poet, I was ignorant of how to consciously manipulate it, or any of the other accoutrements of traditional prosody, to my own ends. At that moment, I knew this had to change if I were to grow as a poet. I could not afford to ignore what had been so painstakingly learned and perfected by generations of poets before me. To figure out where poetry was going, I felt I had to know where it was coming from. Or as Eliot put it, “There is no escape from metre; there is only mastery.”

That was the day I started teaching myself the prosody that had its antecedents in old Anglo-Saxon—the language modern English grew out of—the prosody that was born in Chaucer, and then refined through Shakespeare, Pope, Keats, and countless others. I realized I had accepted the benefits of the new without bothering to learn the lessons of the old.

At the same time, in the late 1980s, I was also beginning to listen to hip hop under the influence of my young nephew, who was still in high school, and had made it his goal to open his old rocker uncle’s ears to the new sound by sending tape after tape of his favorite groups. I was often amazed. Present were many of the elements of free verse prosody wedded to heavily cadenced rhyme: vocal presence or persona, wordplay, the specificity of vocabulary first engineered by Whitman, speed and breath control, the most personal of details jumbled with broad political swipes, braggadocio and humor, repetition and litany, all tied together with heavy meter and rhyme.

I started scanning the lyric sheets from Public Enemy and other groups. There were lots of metrically irregular lines, but iambic pentameter and tetrameter (four beats per line) tended to predominate. The traditional metrical “rules” were broken wide open, such as the prohibition against rhyming unstressed or weak syllables. In fact, what was considered frivolous and even clownish in traditional rhyming was the mark of highest skill in hip hop—the rhyming of words with multiple syllables or all the syllables of a multi-syllabic word being rhymed with a run of shorter words. Several slant or off rhymes could be used to “evolve” a rhyme into a completely different rhyming sound in the course of several lines. Enunciation could be exaggerated to make assonant and consonant rhymes prominent. These last two skills are what make Eminem such an amazing rapper, for instance. Traditional prosody tries to hide end rhyme with enjambment, making sure the sentence does not end with a rhyming word at the end of a line, but instead wraps into the next line. This hides the sound of the end rhyme in the middle of the sentence. But in hip hop prosody, the rhyme is proudly emphasized. In fact, overwhelming the listener with a plethora of rhyming sounds is much of the point in hip hop.

How ironic that as free verse prevailed from mid-century onward, it took a group of artists from outside the academy, way outside, from America’s black ghettoes, to revolutionize poetic prosody irrevocably, despite their lack of acknowledgement from the academy even today. I think the academy preferred to set up the more pedantic of the New Formalists as a less dangerous paper tiger to argue against. At least the New Formalists flattered the academy by desiring recognition from it. But doctrinaire fascination with traditional technique, combined with contempt for Modernism, made the New Formalists an easier target to be labeled reactionary, thus discrediting their return to form.

So the true innovators in the resurgence of formalism were the rappers who embraced the power of rhythm and rhyme but radically transformed both to meet the needs of their content, breaking and making rules as they went. Being outside the academy, the full impact of their influence has yet to be felt. But it eventually will be, in the same way, for instance, that Bob Dylan and John Lennon tangentially influenced an earlier generation of poets. The impact has already been fully felt among younger poets, slam poets, and performance poets in general who eagerly use the full toolbox of techniques available to them including meter and rhyme. One prominent example of this new type of poet who commands respect in hip hop and academic circles is Saul Williams.

Ironically, some in the academy complain that this formalism among rappers and young performance poets has occurred without conscious awareness or appreciation of traditional English prosody. They may have a point. But they can’t have it both ways. As guardians of the canon, they hid the keys to the toolbox and then complained that the keys were stolen.

T. S. Eliot himself had predicted that the free verse experiments of Modernism would eventually lead poets back to formalism. He saw the deviation from traditional prosody as a necessary corrective, as a “contrast between fixity and flux, this unperceived evasion of monotony, which is the very life of verse.” Presumably, the same fate of monotony would eventually befall free verse itself without an infusion of formalism for contrast. Eliot explains himself best in his essay “Reflections on Vers Libre” from which the quotes above are taken. But he demonstrates his concept of contrasting fixity with flux most demonstrably in “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.”

A couple of years ago, I was asked back to my undergraduate alma mater for a poetry reading and to sit in on a class taught by my old mentor, the poet Ron Bayes. Ron is an excellent teacher. He is a Modernist, an Imagist, a Pound scholar, and completely eclectic in his aesthetic tastes. What little I knew about formalism before graduate school I had learned from him as an undergraduate when he had made me write in all the major forms, much to my grumbling and dislike at the time.

The class was discussing “Prufrock” that day and I was expected to provide them with some insight into the master. I had dusted off my slim volume of Eliot in preparation and reread the poem for the hundredth time. But since the last time I had read it, I had written about 75 Shakespearian sonnets. A sonnet is typically a fourteen line poem of iambic pentameter meter with a strict end rhyming pattern. The type of sonnet written by Shakespeare always ends with a rhyming couplet. So my eye was trained to take in fourteen lines at a gulp. My mouth dropped open as I read the first stanza, composed of twelve lines, followed by a space, and then the famous rhyming couplet, “In the room the women come and go/ Talking of Michelangelo,” for a total of fourteen lines.

This was something I had read many times, but never really recognized for what it is. Eliot opened “Prufrock” with an embedded sonnet! Can this really be, I thought? I scanned ahead. The next time the famous couplet appears in the poem, it’s also preceded by a discrete stanza of twelve lines. Quickly I looked back to the beginning sequence to scan the meter. Four beats, five beats, six beats, three beats per line, and so on, irregular regularity, the way some heartbeats are classified. Taking into account slant rhyme and off rhyme, I scanned the sonnets this way. The first I artificially broke into lines of three, tercets, to make the rhyme structure more obvious: AAB CCB BDD EFF GG. For the second I used the traditional quatrain, lines of four, to the same purpose: ABCA BDCD EFFE GG. From these scansions, it was clear to me that Eliot fully knew what he was doing. Continuing to read through, I found other remnants of form, pieces of potential sonnets, but never again complete fourteen line poems.

I pointed all this out to the class, using a chalk board to demonstrate, letting them sound out the beats and rhymes. It seemed to be a revelation to them as well. I suggested that this poem was the object lesson of the place Eliot occupied in poetry. He relied heavily on forms, but shattered them for contrast, for fluidity, for the sake of the poem rising out of the ruins of what had gone before. I suggested the class look at the poem structurally as a tightly controlled explosion of form to counter the prevailing view that Eliot wrote outside of form, or formlessly. I suggested his work echoed the cubism of Picasso, built upon and growing out of the representation that preceded it, but deconstructing it, taking it apart and exposing its architecture to suggest that what we take for granted as natural is really just the bias of familiarity. The poem demonstrated Eliot’s point in its transmogrification of the old into the new. Eliot knew the old rules. But he had the street cred and the balls to break them.

Eliot’s concept is not that far from Robert Frost’s notion: “Work easy in harness.”

When I started my self-study of traditional English prosody, I set myself the task of learning the old rules, the old forms, with the clear intention of using what I learned to push my own poetry into the future, to build on the prosody of the canon, including the prosody of free verse incidentally, but to “Make it new,” in the words of Ezra Pound. What I did not anticipate, but probably should have, was that the form would also make me new.

In my own writing, primarily Shakespearian sonnets now, I often deviate from the traditional metrical rules of accentual syllabic poetry by using a looser and freer scansion that conforms to my own idiosyncratic modern ear. Instead of parsing each arcane type of metrical unit (and practically every rhythmic deviation from iambic pentameter has a name), I count the overall beats in the line in much the same way it was done in Old English or Anglo-Saxon, the predecessor to Modern English. In my prosody, any number of unstressed syllables can be glossed over because what really matters is that strong thumping beat, similar to the sprung rhythm of Gerard Manley Hopkins. And like Geoffrey Chaucer, who basically “invented” iambic pentameter by combining the heavily stressed beats of Anglo Saxon with the syllabic poetry of his day, I have no prohibition on using a four beat or six beat line as needed. In fact, I often use the hexameter or Alexandrine couplet (six beats per line) for the final rhyming couplet of a sonnet. If the Alexandrine line divides naturally into two tercets, I find that the rhythm signals a distinctive counterpoint to the preceding pentameter. It slows down the reading and creates a visceral change in emotional content.

My cobbled aesthetic creates its own acceptance problems when I submit my poems for publication. On the one hand, I’ve received letters from editors who heartily objected to my formalism. On the other hand, I’ve received letters from editors who heartily objected to my cavalier notions of scansion when all my lines were not perfect iambic pentameter. I’ve found my work is often considered too formal for the free verse mags, too ragged for the formal mags. But what I find particularly comical are some of the descriptions of what an editor is looking for in Poet’s Market. Often an editor will say that if a submission is rhymed, it must be of the “highest quality,” whereas no such demand is enjoined on free verse. Apparently mediocre free verse submissions are less suspect and welcomed. Editors also ask that no “greeting card verse” be submitted, but apparently no restrictions apply to unrhymed free verse doggerel.

When I was a young man, I was much more confident about my ideas of the world and the impact I intended to have on the world. I had no doubt that my art, obscure as it was at the time, would one day take its place in the great canon of literature. I had all the time in the world to make it so. But now, at the age of sixty, I no longer have that time, and I certainly haven’t received the level of accolade that as a young man I had anticipated would automatically follow the recognition of what I naively thought was my undeniable talent. It has not helped me, of course, to buck the dominant academic paradigm of free verse with my turn to an invented formalism in late career. I look back wistfully, not so much with regrets, as with the desire to be able to talk to that young man, to tell him some things I have learned about the nature of life, and of poetry.

But looking back, I also realize I didn’t have much to say then in my poetry that wasn’t just an extension of my fairly rigid ideology. The older I got the less confident I was and the more I understood how little I knew about the world and how little my work is likely to influence the world. Paradoxically, now I seem to have more to say and I’m a better writer than I’ve ever been, though less well known than I once was. Somehow one needs to know less to know more.

I often think about the story of Antonin Artaud. He sent some poems to an editor who basically told him they sucked. Artaud struck up a correspondence with him, vehemently defending and explaining in prose pieces his rejected poems. The editor replied that the poems still sucked but that his defense of them—full of angst and passion and paradox—was brilliant, and he wanted permission to publish it. Those pieces became the prose poetry for which Artaud is most revered today. And his rejected poems still suck!

What this says to me is that beneath the assertion, is the real question.

I toyed with rhyme and meter for years, working it into my poems, creating new forms of my own fancy. And then one day in 2002, under the influence of a cobalt blue Arizona sky, alcohol, and John Keats, I took a leap and started writing Shakespearian sonnets, one after the other, exclusively. The first ones were like a child’s finger-painting, full of spirit, but naïve, as I was somewhat ignorant of what I had undertaken. But the sonnets came one after another, usually one a week, for months, and I was exhilarated. After a couple dozen, I thought if Shakespeare could write 154 of these suckers, then I can write 155! And so I set myself the juvenile task of doing just that. As stupid as that may sound, it has often been a motivator for me when nothing else was. I just recently broke through 100 sonnets, some good, some bad, but I continue to write them. But the better I get at writing sonnets, which is another way of saying the better I become at understanding the form of the sonnet, the harder they become to write, and the longer they take.

From the beginning what really surprised me was this: I didn’t know where they were coming from.

When I started writing poetry over 40 years ago, I wrote all free verse. I was making up all the rules then under the influence of the Modernists, deciding the shape or shapelessness of each poem according to what I needed to express myself, yet much of what I wrote then tended to sound the same. My content determined my form. And there is a point of view that says that is as it should be, that form should serve content.

But now, 40 years later, I come to the same template for each poem—fourteen lines of iambic pentameter with a rigid rhyme scheme—yet I am continually amazed at how different each sonnet can end up sounding, at how this form can put the poetry under such intense pressure and yield such different results.

I’m also amazed at what I end up saying because usually I’m six to eight lines into the sonnet before I know what the poem is actually about, such are the hidden alleyways that rhyme and form lead you through. Toi Derricotte, in an interview in Rattle, once said, “I think a lot of times poems know things that we’re not ready to know yet, and we write the poem and then we figure it out.”

And even when I do know, I never know how it will end until it just does, because the rhyme controls where it goes. And that’s really odd because there is no stronger nor assertive couplet in English prosody than lines thirteen and fourteen of a Shakespearian sonnet. How could one start a sonnet not knowing where it’s going but knowing that twelve lines later a lyrical certainty, an epigram of unimpeachable elegance, would be required?

What this says to me is that beneath the question, is the real assertion.

It also says that my form determines my content.

Or maybe something else does, masquerading as form.

At the risk of waxing mystical, I must admit that writing sonnets has rejuvenated my belief in what the ancients called the Muse. Sonnets can be incredibly labor intensive and agonizing to write. So “finding” my way through the maze that the form creates, eliminating one rhyming dead end after another yet eventually coming out the other end, all gives me the strong intuitive feeling that I have been guided, led, coaxed into places I would not normally go by the “form” and made to discover what seems to have already and always existed. The more well wrought the sonnet, the more organic it feels, the harder it is to imagine a time when it did not exist.

This is a shock for a long time materialist such as myself. I do not pretend to understand it. I often feel like a translator of an ancient language no one else speaks with an incumbency to ensure the received wisdom is meticulously transcribed and correct. I never really felt that way writing free verse. Writing free verse, I often felt the exhilaration of what Kerouac called “spontaneous composition” when a free verse piece seemed to burst forth from nowhere completed on first writing with little or no editing needed. But I never felt the deep laborious ache that resolves so beautifully at the end of writing a good sonnet.

I have learned a few things about Shakespearian sonnets, commensurate with my modest chops. I usually start with a line I really like. Since I usually don’t know what I’m doing, I might as well start with something I like. There is absolute freedom in that first line, in fact, in the first two lines. But after that, the direction is dictated by the rhyme. If you’re used to writing free verse, this will come as a shock to you. You will need to learn to follow, not lead, or you will quickly find yourself down a rhymeless dead end, a babbling cul de sac, and have to hit the backspace key over and over until you’ve eaten that first line or two you loved and you’re staring at blank paper again. That’s when what you thought this sonnet was about crumbles and you realize George Clinton nailed it: “Rhythm and rhyme. Rhythm and rhyme. Rhythm and muthafucking rhyme.” At that point you have a choice to make: quit, or trust the form to show you where to go.

Years ago, when I told a poet friend I was writing sonnets, he said that he assumed I was writing a free verse poem first and then manipulating it to make the shoe fit. I just laughed at the fanciful notion that I could impose the sonnet onto a poem. No, instead, the sonnet allows entrance—what you do inside determines whether you’re worthy of the form. It doesn’t conform to you; you conform to it.

But even with the form pulling you in the direction of a particular rhyming sound, the choices of where you can go in the labyrinth of the sonnet are still pretty much inexhaustible. Yet like the I Ching, the wisdom a sonnet can reveal as you write it is often serendipitous.

You may choose to bleed a sentence from the first quatrain into the second quatrain at line five in a Shakespearian sonnet, and that’s okay, but unless you wish to drive yourself crazy, truly crazy, trust me, put a period at the end of line eight. The first eight lines set up the problem. Line nine is “the turn,” and like “the river” in poker, fortunes should change, possibilities appear, or more in keeping with the extended metaphor, you should feel the centrifugal force of going too fast around a hairpin curve. So like Shakespeare himself, start line nine with a nice qualifier, such as but, or yet, or at least start a new sentence to signal your reader that change is coming.

You’ve now only got four lines to solve your dilemma. By now, the sonnet should have revealed to you what it’s about, what problem you are trying to resolve. Only four lines are left to basically end the poem, the first time, that is. Most sonnets have an organicity, a degree of resolution, by the end of line twelve. But it ain’t over yet: the biggest challenge of any Shakespearian sonnet is the final rhyming couplet.

The word sonnet in Italian means “little song.” And it is that, but “little” is also deceptive. A sonnet is little in the way a firecracker is little or in the way a toddler squalling his heart out on the floor is little. I think of the sonnet as a pattern of energy tightly pressurized and shaped by the tight constraints of the form. Eliot’s injunction of an “artificial limitation” is relevant again. At the risk of sounding ludicrous, I compare a sonnet to the internal combustion engine. Gasoline will always burn, but if you add a spark to a mixture of gasoline and air inside a cylinder, the resulting explosion is shaped by the cylinder and directed toward the end where a piston moves. It is the constraint of energy that creates the power. In a sonnet, that constrained energy is directed toward the final rhyming couplet, and the power, the tension, is released there. The couplet is no denouement. It is a full on climax, in every nuance of the word.

The final rhyming couplet is why I write Shakespearian sonnets instead of Petrarchan sonnets. Those two lines can be some of the most powerful and elegant lines in English poetry. They definitively end the sonnet on a much higher level of meaning than line twelve, while often standing alone at the same time as though a rarefied form of English haiku: “In the room the women come and go/ Talking of Michelangelo.”

A sonnet needs its couplet, but a couplet can often lead its own life. Any of us would be proud to be included in the canon for a body of work, for a book, or for a single poem. I would settle for a single rhyming couplet, cut off from its sonnet and author, anonymous and unattributed, quoted by unknown speakers at funerals, weddings, toasts, in bars, or in moments of triumph or despair. Is there any higher calling than to put your words on the tongue of the world? That is what the couplet should strive for, that is what anyone as a writer of sonnets should live for.

Unless of course…the couplet is crap. My best critic is Sue, my partner of twenty-five years. I cannot tell you the number of times I’ve thought I was done with a new sonnet, exhilarated that I had stumbled through it gracefully somehow without it all falling apart, and allowing myself to rise after hours of rearranging approximately 125 odd words to read it aloud to her, only to have her say something like: “You know I really like it—up until the last two lines. Somehow they feel a little weak to me. You need to rework them.”

Dejected, intoxicated with rhyme, I’d return to my desk and try once more to fashion two elegant lines, for hours if need be. I try not to stop until I’m done—I don’t dare risk the loss of momentum because I already have too many twelve line sonnets in want of one good couplet sitting stranded and helpless in a digital doc. And if I feel the Muse is listening, real or imagined, you can bet I will continue to quietly sing my “little song,” to whisper my rhymes into the ear of the Muse. I also know that if it comes too easily, somehow it’s not earned. When a breakthrough finally arrives, from somewhere, nowhere, often simple, or obvious, or understated, no matter how tired I am, and sonnets are exceedingly laborious, I feel elated, relieved, awed, overwhelmed, and most interestingly, grateful, not for something I’ve done, but for something I’ve discovered. Any pride I may feel is on behalf of the beauty of the sonnet itself.

As a young man I tried to show the world something that I thought was coming from me. Now I try to show the world something I have found. It can be argued that literary vision is different for the young than for the old. The young choose their ideas and try to change the world with them. And that is good. The old allow the world to change their ideas. And that is good.

Yet I would argue that the path one takes is continuous. The choices you make today are the basis for whom you will become tomorrow. Just as the person you were as a child is still within you, so the person you have not yet become exists within you as well. Just as the person you are today has answers to the questions you asked when you were young, the person you have not yet become has answers to the questions you are asking today. So a conversation with your past and your future is entirely appropriate, necessary, and for poets, that conversation occurs in poetry.

But I do not mean to suggest the way to Nirvana is to ensconce yourself in traditional forms like the sonnet. After all, you are who you are, so “Come as you are,” in the words of Kurt Cobain. In fact, your view of the world and your character may lead you to destroy old forms and invent new ones in the same way Whitman used free verse as an axe to splinter nineteenth century prosody. If the Muse is poetry idealized, then as times change, so must the ideal—the Muse always demands the new. As poets we all need to be cognizant that the new tradition Whitman founded is still the dominant paradigm today and retains the faint aura of insurrection though it is now over 150 years old. No longer the revolution, free verse is now the status quo. And the Muse?—the Muse is bored, has been for a long time.

New art, whatever form it takes, can be brutal when it finally breaks free, suppressing what came before in order to gain dominance. But it also builds on top of what it obliterates. The Modernists ransacked the past for their influences, and they chose well: Greek literature, Japanese and Chinese poetry, the troubadours, Dante, the English Metaphysical poets, among others. What’s important now is not whom they chose, but that they chose. Because that is the task that faces us. All poets before us have stood precisely at the crossroads we now face. We would be stupid to ignore their counsel. Without their work, however antiquated by current popular tastes, our own prosody would not exist. Any true formal revolution in poetry will be a step into the future, not the past. But it is the fixity of the past that distinguishes the flux of the future.

What transcends time and form is the ancient heartbeat of our Mother Tongue, old Anglo Saxon. It beats now strong, now faint, now regular, now irregular, but it beats still today in line after line of your poetry and mine. We can choose to palpate it, or not. But as Chaucer put it, “The lyfe so short, the craft so long to lerne.”


T. S. DAVIS is the author of two books of poetry, Sun + Moon Rendezvous and Criminal Thawts. He lives in Asheville, NC.