What if someone actually said to you that all music was composed of just
2 notes? Or if someone claimed that there were just 2 colors in creation? Now,
ponder if such a thing were true. Imagine the clunkiness & mechanicality of
such music. Think of the visual arts devoid of not just color, but sepia tones,
& even shades of gray. To suggest such things to a musician or painter or
photographer would most likely engender- if not outright laughter- some strange
Yet for millennia a similar seemingly ridiculous dictum has held a grip over the world of poetry. The absurdity is meter. For the uninitiated meter is the theory (claiming origin by several cultures) that spoken language consists of 2 primary vocalizations of a sound- i.e.- stressed & unstressed. A word like meter itself would consist of the stressed me- & the unstressed –ter. So far so good, especially when a word is hoisted out of a phrase, line, sentence, paragraph, story, novel, etc., & diagnosed like a lab rat. However, real life is not so pretty. In the context of spoken words, as well as those internal voicings, an absolute plenitude of stress levels ensnares one. To say that a ‘spoken word’ (whether that speech is aloud or internal) has stress(es) is about as meaningless as saying things have color in light. In fact the dualistic notion of mere stressed & unstressed sounds is- in practice by its many proponents- almost always so loose as to be meaningless anyway, as metrics should really redefine its definitions as greater & lower stress(es) (with a plenum of in-betweens), since (obviously) a truly unstressed syllable would be silent. But even that is far too inadequate, for even if you would read this essay aloud to this point- you would, if to tape it on any recorder, really hear at least a dozen stress levels- if not several dozen, were your ear fine-tuned enough. Ask any reporter- I have- who has taped interviews (& listened to them before editing) to talk about stress, meter, or the music of ‘plain speech’, & you will be greeted with a knowing smile, if not a cringe, as to its utter fallacy. Language simply does not flow so binaurally. That fact accounts for its near-infinite ability to intrigue. So how did such a pernicious idea not only get started, yet perdure & thrive- even decades into the thrall of free verse poetry? Especially when other artistic posits- such as T.S. Eliot’s absurdly hyperpersonal Objective Correlative- have fallen wayside to not just disuse, but disrepute.
While not this essay’s aim my guess- very plainly stated- is that it was Classical Society’s need for reductivist explanations to fit into their simplistic cosmological view. Choros/antichoros, light/dark, good/evil, 4 (or 5) Elements, etc. There was the need to codify all things known. And this simply stuck (again, the many cultural/political/religious reasons are too varied to delve here.). And unlike the Rings of Hell or the Music of the Spheres, there was no overwhelming accumulation of evidence to its contrary to inspire its shucking-off-from. And by the time the King James Bible, Billy Blake, & old Walt Whitman arrived to successively turn metric verse into free verse, the idea of metrics was so entrenched that its fallacy was needed- lest how does one organize the Whitmanian Revolution if there is nothing against which to revolt? In other words, vers librists have actively promoted the metric fallacy in order to have a hegemony to toss! While one might admire the wicked complicity between the 2 ‘supposedly’ warring camps of poetry, one is still left with the fallacy at the root of it all.
As for metrics’ disproof, I recall how painters used to depict swift-running horses before the advent of the film. The ability to use slow motion revealed a horse’s gallop as being far more intricate in its rhythm, & paired motion of sets, of the 4 legs than the previously depicted gait of horses running with both front legs leaping forward, & both back legs stretching backward in mid-gallop- in effect having the horse airbone ½ the time it runs. Film quickly dashed such depictions & artists, within a few years, were depicting horse movements as we now know them to be. Think how silly any of the statues or paintings of a Russell or Remington would seem to a modern eye had film not existed! Similarly, one would think that the ability to record the human voice- a nearly concurrent event in human annals- would similarly swiftly make waste of metrics.
Yet, as noted, there was a politically-motivated artistic need to keep the entrenched fallacy aloft, so it could be overthrown. No visual artists had such an investment in the true nature of the equine gait.
So, now that I’ve briefly limned why metrics developed & stuck, let me briefly define some terms for the tyros amongst us. Then I will rebut with a simple example, & segue into the great poet who shares billing with these metrics, & who stands as the most well-known apostate & disproof of metrics (along with the more contemporaneously well-known but lesser poet- Marianne Moore).
Meter is measured in feet. A foot is a syllabic unit that makes up a line of poetry. Hence pentameter has 5 feet, hexameter 6, trimeter 3, etc. There are many types of metrical feet but the 5 most common are iamb (- ¢ or unstressed-stressed), trochee (¢ - or stressed-unstressed), spondee (¢ ¢ or stressed-stressed), dactyl (¢ - - or stressed-unstressed-unstressed), & anapest (- - ¢ or unstressed-unstressed-stressed). There are others but these are the 5 most Western verse is bedrocked upon. They generally are exclusive, but poets have tried to mix at will. Therefore iambic pentameter- easily the most common meter is 5 iambs- or 10 syllables- although an elided final stressed syllable or unvoiced extra syllable often occur, & are allowed. Yet these oft-recurrent exceptions (& tacit admisions of the theory’s invalidity) have not seemed to vitiate the metric rules its adherents cling to. Similarly anapestic trimeter is 3 anapests or 9 syllables. Yet with the same exceptions allowed as in iambs one might confuse the 2 meters quite often- especially when they often flout their own prerogatives.
For those of you who adhere to the metric fallacy no copious amount of disproof will suffice. You are the Flat Earthers of literature. So I will not do what most pedants would do at this point in an essay- i.e.- bore you with endless examples of diacritically forced pronunciations & bastardized metric scansion. Instead I will offer up a simple word that disproves the theory for those of you willing to listen- sorry for the pun. About a decade ago- perhaps the late 1980s, these similar, & other- thoughts of metrics alighted. Perhaps I was watching the late ‘80s version of the TV show Star Trek at the time, or had it in mind. Anyway, I decide that any 3-or-greater-syllabled word should readily disprove metrics. I picked up my Webster’s & opened it at random- yet landed on the word generations.
A nice 4-syllabled word. The dictionary had it diacritically marked as ge¢ ne ra¢ tions, or (stressed-unstressed-stressed-unstressed). But really listen: if you say the word over & over; just this word, mind you, free of context & naked upon the table- generations, generations, generations….it should become clear that there are 4 distinct stress levels. The hardest stress is on the 3rd syllable ra. The next hardest stress is on 1st syllable ge. 3rd hardest stress is on 4th syllable tions. And the least stressed syllable is the 2nd ne. Numerically put, in descending stress order the 4 syllables queue up as 2413 or ge2 ne4 ra1 tions3 . Go ahead, say it over & again- as naturally as you can & the stress levels I claim should become apparent. Now, the logical argument is that in even a typically lengthed paragraph the actual stress numbering would quickly become unwieldy. True. As well as nearly infinitely complex the longer the piece runs. But here is another truism, long hidden by the Classicist bent- music in language, or poetry, has almost nothing to do with the individual stresses of syllables.
Rather, the music of words rests upon such things as rime (in all its varied form & types), alliteration, assonance, enjambment, & in the overall tropes of lines in accordance with the lines directly before & after it- as well as the sound of the words in concordance with the emotions the words’ definitions convey. The last 2 examples need some explication. Let us say that the 4 lines of a quatrain (free or formally versed) have a lot of sharp sounds bunched in tight packages at the start & end of the lines. If all 4 lines are similarly formed then the stanza will be musical- if even harsh-sounding to the ear. But if line 2 digresses from the rest of the stanza with long richly flowing diphthongs (2 sounds which blend to one- i.e. the o & y in toy) then- no matter how well sounding that line may be alone, it is unmusicked in context to its stanza or poem.
Now the but….But, depending on the content of the stanza- the seemingly unmusicked digression may indeed be musical because the poem’s speaker may be talking of a violent situation in the sharply-sounded lines, & the digression- say, to some warm memory of love- may necessitate or facilitate the abrupt switch in line sound, & therefore enhance the content of the lines’ words with its switch in sound- especially in contrast with the rest of the stanza soundwise & emotionally. Of course, if any of these coherent elements I espouse is not present then the discordant line 2 may indeed be unmusicked!
Simply put, music in verse- or language- depends on the congruence of syllable with syllable, word with word, line with line, stanza with stanza, etc.- as well as each of those congruent units’ emotional/intellectual congress with sound & meaning. The instant you recognize that 3rd level of stress in any word, phrase, or line the whole bulk of the metric fallacy is logically toast. Period! Of course, this formula implies a far more complex relationship than the absurdly simplified metric codes. But only if one anally agonizes over such minutia. After all, a slipped or elided sound will not result in an accidental nuclear detonation. And as we have seen even diehard metricists conveniently ignore the many disproofs of their theory which regularly occur. One need only be willing to live with the joyous felicities of imprecision to see that such an approach is far more simple than 1st blush would indicate- as well as far more accurate a revealer of why poetry works or not. Poems ‘work’ musically when lines form interesting waves & loops of sound & rhythms which arc in near unison.
And the best exemplar of this approach to poetry & language is the criminally neglected California poet Robinson Jeffers. His verse has often been touted as the exemplar of dozens of free-floating stressed models, accentual verse schema, & syllabic counts. But, inevitably, all such schemes fail because each interpreter tries to impose his/her own stresses on words of his/her choosing. This always kiboshes the actual naturally spoken sounds of the lines. And unlike his contemporary, Marianne Moore, Jeffers never willingly embraced a poetic scheme- at least soundwise; whereas Moore championed strict syllabic counts.
Instead, Jeffers is known for his poetry’s philosophic content- what he termed Inhumanism. This poorly chosen label has done more to damn Jeffers over the decades than any other factor. Jeffers did not mean it in the dictionary sense of being cruel & barbaric, rather in the sense of being non- or ahuman. Together with the impersonal stance of his nature-focused lyrics & his id-dominated maelstroms of versic storytelling it is no surprise that he was shunted to the steerage section of American poetry- despite the uniform excellence of his work. I challenge anyone to read 4 or 5 randomly chosen poems of Jeffers vs. a similarly random selection of verse by Pound or Eliot or cummings or Patchen & say that Jeffers’ content has less currency. In fact, his Inhuman stance is what makes his poems all the more timeless vis-à-vis the Chicken Little 1920s cynicism of the former 2 or the little-guy-vs.-the-big-bad-world 1930s posturing of the latter 2.
But Jeffers’ role as philosopher or sibyl is not the issue. Nor is the prescience of his ecologically relevant verse to today’s contemporary concerns. Rather, what I want to emphasize is the supreme music of so much of Jeffers’ work- especially his greatest poems.
Jeffers was originally a mediocre formalist. His earliest published poems & books are forced, clunky, & melodramatic- in the worst sense. As he evolved his (for want of a better term in light of his uniquity) Jeffersian form/style he represents the classic case of an artist learning rules of a craft by the book, to acquire skills, & then breaking or redefining those rules to achieve greatness. I, too, have gone through that process- although every artist of excellence progresses at their own pace, & in their own way. Like Jeffers I too studied hard (he in college, me on my own) syntax, grammar, metrics, etc. to such a degree that I became an incredibly proficient mediocrity. But the rudiments had inculcated well. However, this is the place too many artists never leave. Think of a Thomas Hardy, or even more so, a Walter De La Mare, as an example of a technically proficient (barely & at times in Hardy’s case, & nearly flawlessly perfect in De La Mare’s), yet totally uninspired & uninspiring poet. Some poets do indeed leave that place only to crash & burn- think of classic 20th Century Dead White Males as Richard Wilbur, or James Dickey. These guys tried to ‘expand’ beyond more classical forms & themes only to lose all the technical skills they had acquired previously. Read the rhymed crap Wilbur has churned through & out for years, or the dull, witless verse of Dickey. What they failed to do, in their move away from mastering the workbook approach, was to develop their own voice or style. They failed to unlearn the basics- & thus become unique.
Jeffers, like me, seems to have seen not only the necessity to unlearn the basics- but to unlearn by rejecting one of the fundaments of the basics- in both cases meter. Too much baseless speculation occurs in essays that try to pinpoint ‘the moment’ an artist becomes _______ (fill in the blank of you favorite great artist’s BRAND name). Biographies too often offer little help as they are far more concerned with pinpointable facts, content to let the readers draw conclusions where they will. Put simply, I cannot know, in any sense approaching truth, what prompted Jeffers, or any other artist, toward that 1st step to greatness. As for bios- let’s face it- artists lie to enhance their status. They will upgrade or downgrade their births, childhoods, lovelives, precocity or lack thereof, financial & social status, school grades & job titles, etc. to always put themselves in the best light- be it as preordained prodigy (Orson Welles), Man o’the People (Walt Whitman, Carl Sandburg), heroic provocateur (Amiri Baraka), sibyl (W.B. Yeats), Earth Mother (Georgia O’Keeffe), etc. To avoid that I will simply state what guided me, & see if any similarities emerge when compared with Jeffers.
1st & foremost I noticed the absolute lack of meter in poetry. Even more lacking was any real music in the real ‘spoken word’. That phrase, in fact, has been a sort of holy grail in poetry for the last few centuries, especially. It’s as if heightened language were suddenly gauche, yet in fact the term ‘spoken word’ (& its cousin ‘plain speech’) is almost always, nowadays, a euphemism for ‘bad poetry’, & has more to do with the growing fallacious conflation of art with truth. Poets felt ‘plain speech’ was somehow truer than poetic diction. This idea was & is as bunkrapt a notion as that which states poetry must rime or be metric. And while Whitman, & to a lesser degree, Stephen Crane had different 19th Century takes on this desiderata, it was not until William Carlos Williams ambled into the American poetry scene that this became an obsession. Since his dam burst, ‘plain speech’ is routinely hailed as poetry/truth. It also spawned bastards as surrealism, L*A*N*G*U*A*G*E poetry, found, & abstract poetry, etc. which far more often than not have served as excuses for poets to jerk off on the whiteness of a blank page, all the while donning the cap of revolutionary & doffing said cap to past revolutionary doggerelists. Heaven forfend the poet who dareth wax ‘poetic’. Yet, even amid all this nonsense the notion of meter held firm because, as said before, without poetic/metric speech to conform, how could plain/free verse reform? And for whatever reasons Jeffers presaged my views. A quick scan of any of his poems tells you that we are in ‘poetic’ country, however devoid of metrics. Here are the 11 long lines that comprise the superb lyric Their Beauty Has More Meaning:
morning enormous the moon hung low on the ocean,
Round and yellow-rose in the glow of dawn;
The night-herons flapping home wore dawn on their wings. Today
Black is the ocean, black and sulphur the sky,
And white seas leap. I honestly do not know which day is more beautiful.
I know that tomorrow or next year or in twenty years
I shall not see these things- and it does not matter, it does not hurt;
They will be here. And when the whole human race
Has been like me rubbed out, they will still be here: storms, moon and ocean,
Dawn and the birds. And I say this: their beauty has more meaning
Than the whole human race and the race of birds.
This is a great little poem. Aside from my bias toward its philosophical
stance it is very strongly alliterated & assonanted. Subtly placed rime is
throughout & the repetons (or epistrophe[s] or anaphora) are used to at once
familiarize the reader with a poetic familiarity (sensually as well as
intellectually) & then subvert the use of that word (dawn on heron wings?,
black ocean?, white seas?, race of birds?). All of these things help undermine
& subvert potentially clunky clichés as a hung moon & glowing dawn. But
this poem has been oft-criticized as non-metrical & therefore non-musical.
The 1st criticism is true,
but superfluous. The 2nd criticism is false- read these 11 lines
& honestly say this poem is unmusicked. But the scansionists wail- terrible!
They point out- in their dualistic POV- that the 1st line’s 16
syllables scan thusly: ´ - ´ ´- - ´ - - - - ´ ´ - ´ - This
conforms to no known metric scansion- it cannot even be divided logically into
feet. However, to deny its innate musicality is silly. One of the things or
terms I 1st invented when I dropped the metric fallacy was primal
rhythm, or primalism. The idea
occurred to me while listening to the song by The Doors- The WASP (Texas
Radio & The Big Beat). The line in the song goes something like: it
comes out of the Virginia swamps, cool and slow, with running precision, and a
backbeat narrow and hard to master…. The idea was that most people get on
a sort of free-flowing riff of sounds & ideas which are somewhat musical.
Non-artistic folk rarely & those with an artistic- especially a literary-
bent moreso. It was just a matter, at least in the early genesis of my poetic
maturation, of taking these raw rhythms out of my mind’s smelter &
pounding them into useful shapes. Even now, years later, I still will
occasionally riff & refine. I suspect Jeffers went through a similar
process. More than likely he hit upon some formula(e) which served him well in a
few poems & then expanded its use until it became, for lack of a better
term, his poetic template or standard model for poesizing. He then stuck with this/these as
doggedly as others have clung to the fallacy of metrics. Yet, to those who would
argue that his formula(e) lacks reason I would pose the simple test: Is it
easier or harder to recognize a typical metric line or a typical Jeffers line?
To anyone versed in poetry it is clear that Jeffers’ Jeffersian Model (however you define it) is a rational, &
replicable model- as is my own primal rhythm. Oddly, the model most closely
aligned to Jeffers & my takes on such came from the NeverthoughtofinthesamebreathasJeffers mouth of devout Beatnik Allen
Ginsberg: “1st thought, best thought!”; with my own addenda of
“But refine, & rework till best!”
Other qualities I noticed recurrent in great poetry are strong start lines & end lines. You always wanna hook a reader with that 1st image or phrase, & leave them with a reverberating gong of an image at end. Rare is the poem of any real worth that cannot be judged by the mnemonic quality of it start & end lines. And scattered amid those antipodes will be other memorable words, phrases, metaphors to draw a reader along. Ask yourself- how often will you recall a poem not by its title but its main metaphor, phrase, or image: “That Frost poem- ‘miles to go….’?”, “That poem on a girl in a dentist’s office?”, “That poem on a jar?”…. These are the things that go into greatness, like velcro hooks they cranny into the mind & annoy, delight, puzzle, & soothe. But why?
The answer returns us to the very root of why metrics is such a ballocksed concept. Human beings simply DO NOT think, speak, or even hear things in a rhythmic fashion. There is no innate rhythm to human speech. This is why poetry is poetry- even in the determinedly prosaic leanings of a Williams, Robert Creeley, A.R. Ammons, etc. (at least when their poems succeed). This is also what defines prose as prose & why everyday things & circumstances are called prosaic & those which defy that poetic. Humans speak & even think punctually. Ask yourself why Gertrude Stein, James Joyce, or Virginia Woolf never seemed to be right- even if you could intellectually & aesthetically appreciate their art. Simple- it’s because they were decidedly NOT mimicking the natural flow of human experience- especially as conveyed via language. And most of us feel that offness even if we cannot verbalize it. The very reason the vast majority of written languages developed punctuation (& one might venture words, phrases, sentences, & syntax, too) was because we speak & think punctually- in fits & starts, abruptively & disjunctively; the very things which produce the array of vocal stress levels & damn the idea of scannable meter. The rhythms of ‘natural speech’ are really nonexistent 99.99….% of the time, & the term ‘natural speech’ is left as a mere relict excuse for banality. And it is these very abruptions, deviances from the average- be they aural or intellectual- which allow mnemonics (the velcro hooks from the last paragraph) to work. Banally bad poems are forgotten swiftly, as are mediocrely passable poems. It’s the truly awful or great poems which stick.
And while one should always be wary of the person (critic, artist, theorist) who tosses around superlative qualifications as Art must be______, Poetry is always _______, etc., a successful poem always has some structure (& usually a strong one- lest it be a mere goop of words & ideas) underpinning it, even if the poem’s poet is unaware that it has & declares it doesn’t. And that often happens. Recall how many great poets you’ve read of who declare their prime influence as being some rather poor, if not bad, poet that is nowhere near as good a poet as the great poet, for being a good artist does not necessarily make one a good critic. The reverse we know inherently for why would a Roger Ebert have penned such a filmic disaster as Beyond The Valley Of The Dolls? The truth is great artists rarely have an intellectual clue as to how they achieved their great feats- they rely on instinct. This fact is yet another unspoken verity that the layety is verboten to know, yet is easily proved for when asked to explicate their works’ structural excellence they often descend into pseudo-psychiatric terminology &/or invoke Divine Inspiration, or some other such hokum. One of my early great sonnets, Austin Unbound, ends with the line ‘....greater than transcendence is its recognition’. I.e.- knowing how & why a piece of great art works is more important (to the artist) than the great work itself. 1- it’s rarer. 2- it allows for replication- that the greatness was not just a freakish byproduct or luck, but the positive statistical outcome of a coordinated & logical process. But this also distances the artist from the norm (as much or moreso than the fiery hand of God analogies which abound for logic & science somehow frighten timorous human beings more than things like religion or blind faith)- a no-no in the art world that equates ‘plain speech’ with truth, & propagates the myth that there is no difference between artists & non-artists (i.e.- we are all ‘creative’)- that dissent from this POV is an elitist plot. But because great artists differ they need to (in their bid for acceptance) paper over their betterness. And the fact that most are clueless as to why they are better allows them to (with clear conscience) identify with the ‘lesser lights’- to in effect say “I’m sorry for being better than you.”
Herein the glaring flaw of Jeffers, insofar as his current abysmal standing in the halls of Academia: he knew & stated repeatedly his superiority of artistic skill, intellect & ethos compared to average folks. He knew & explicated in his verse the simple idea that poets are merely people who write poems- no more, no less. That is its sole job description (save, perhaps, for the caveat of trying to do so as well as they can), & any addenda to that description may be nice, but unnecessary. They are but the yearnings of bereft souls hoping to glitter up their plights. Jeffers also knew that Art is unnecessary, & this fact undermines all the pretensions that artists nurture (We’re as vital to society as doctors!) when the truth of art’s non-necessity (We’re more disposable than garbagemen! Quick idea- go a month without your garbageman, or your friendly neighborhood poet/musician/painter & see who you really need!) is so plain to the vast majority of non-artists out there. This (part & parcel of his Inhumanism) is why Jeffers has been discarded. The how was handed to the Poetry Establishment by Jeffers himself- his lack of kowtowwing to the metric fallacy, which enabled the elitists to cloak their disdain for his heresy in the more acceptable censure of his verse being ‘ill-formed wildman rantings’.
But if the manifest denuding of this fallacy (& the others detailed) by this essay is not enough to get the Established doggerelists to finally drop their theoretically based & politically motivated vendetta against him & re-recognize Jeffers’ towering mastery, then surely the greatness of his verse should be allowed to stake that claim. I end, then, with a great poem of his which vitiates both the metric fallacy & the mythos of the Inhumanist Monster. It also is a fine poem for the bastards who damn him to choke on: here’s to your meter, boys! The poem is:
House Dog's Grave I’ve
changed my ways a little; I cannot now So
leave awhile the paw-marks on the front door I
cannot lie by your fire as I used to do But
your kind thought has laid me less than six feet You,
man and woman, live so long, it is hard Under
the ground like me your lives will appear And
never have known the passionate undivided You
were never masters, but friends. I was your friend. Return to S&D
(Haig, an English bulldog)
Run with you in the evenings along the shore,
Except in a kind of dream; and you, if you dream a moment,
You see me there.
Where I used to scratch to go out or in,
And you’d soon open; leave on the kitchen floor
The marks of my drinking-pan.
On the warm stone,
Nor at the foot of your bed; no, all the nights through
I lie alone.
Outside your window where firelight so often plays,
And where you sit to read- and I fear often grieving for me-
Every night your lamplight lies on my place.
To think of you ever dying.
A little dog would get tired, living so long.
I hope that when you are lying
As good and joyful as mine.
No, dears, that’s too much hope: you are not so well cared for
As I have been.
Fidelities that I knew.
Your minds are perhaps too active, too many-sided….
But to me you were true.
I loved you well, and was loved. Deep love endures
To the end and far past the end. If this is my end,
I am not lonely. I am not afraid. I am still yours.
changed my ways a little; I cannot now
leave awhile the paw-marks on the front door
cannot lie by your fire as I used to do
your kind thought has laid me less than six feet
man and woman, live so long, it is hard
the ground like me your lives will appear
never have known the passionate undivided
were never masters, but friends. I was your friend.
Return to S&D