To say it well
Most poets or aspiring poets are good conversationalists. Assuming you're already acquainted, you'll find them eager to tell you about their latest work, or the early morning light in Golden Gate Park, or a story their grandmothers told them when they were children which they've just remembered. If you're lucky , a few details of these stories will stay with you through the day. But unless a story is remarkably told - a sustained interweaving of arresting words and rhythms, metaphors, and emotions - chances are that only a few details, or a rough outline of the story, will remain in mind.
The reason for this is easy to find: most people, poets included, are flabby conversationalists. This is not really a criticism at all. Of all the arts, conversation is the most imprecise: we get away with lots of ''and thens,'' or boring adjective-noun combinations - ''big tree,'' ''dark sea,'' because we assume that the listener will more or less understand what we mean. We can also draw on facial or hand expressions to add punch to our talk, so the words themselves attract less attention. Besides, if we devoted ourselves to making each spoken sentence a glorious example of Homeric art, we might never get a chance to say anything. Our listeners would have already caught their buses or trains by the time we blurted out a perfectly crafted comment on the day. We put up with flabby conversation because it gets the job done, because every now and then it's brilliant, and because if we want to say something more precisely we can always write it down.
It may be time, though, to point out that even when we write things down nowadays we tend to veer toward this conversational flab. Poetry is the form of writing that should be a guiding light to our written expression - a succinct, compelling expression of complex or powerful experiences. The language is beautiful, moving, even electrifying: we remember certain phrases, or even whole poems, and run them through our minds for the pleasure of the sound and the careful, eloquent thought.
The problem now is that we have, perhaps, taken too much to heart the superficial meanings of Wordsworth's view of poetry as a ''man speaking to men, '' and the Imagists' early twentieth-century declaration of freedom from restrictive forms and meters. A glance at any magazine of contemporary poetry is likely to reveal a body of work written almost entirely in free verse - and while this is not necessarily a problem, a closer look at the poems themselves often reveals a drabness in the language, a lack of economy, and a substitution of harsh or attention-grabbing phrases for real eloquence or musical refinement. For poetry, these are real problems: they represent a conversational flabbiness that needs to be countered.
A great deal of the free-verse poetry in our language is excellent, lucid, attractive to the ear, emotionally or intellectually exciting. But it is sometimes difficult to locate precisely these qualities in a free-verse poem - more difficult than to locate the same qualities in a poem in rhyme and meter. A reader can look at a finely rhymed poem, for example, and appreciate the fluidity, the forcefulness of the langauge; he can look at a badly rhymed poem and recognize instantly that the rhymes are stiff or forced, the language stilted, and the subject thus mangled or trivialized. But because free verse relies on more subjective criteria, on the notion that a certain line ''sounds just right,'' or packs a particularly potent imagistic punch, it is trickier to judge. It also allows for flab to creep in - a few boring words here and there, a line that doesn't really add much. Such would destroy a rhymed poem. But in free verse, it's like undergrowth. It works its way into the poem almost unnoticed for a while, until suddenly it has choked it.
The reason, then, that I'm reinvoking the possibility of rhyme and meter is simple: it's good practice, no matter what kind of poetry you want to write. Ezra Pound, intermittently one of the best American free-verse writers, spent his early years (in part) practicing strict forms both English and foreign; so did T.S. Eliot, author of the highly compressed, allusive, largely free-verse ''Waste Land.'' Metrical, rhymed poetry is good practice precisely because it's so demanding. It permits no padding, no ''fillers.'' A careful writer will notice instantly when he has forced a rhyme, or added an unnecessary word, and so damaged his work. He is thus confronted with his art at its most demanding - requiring the exact word because of the tight structure of the poem. A word that merely fills out the rhyme or line rings as false as a plastic goblet among fine crystal.
To be sure, such poets as Pound and the Imagists broke away from metrical, rhymed forms in the early twentieth century, because those forms had grown pretentious and inarticulate. They were the common coin of the genteel cultural realm, finally growing dessicated and silly. A perverse norm had developed, allowing the form to rob the language of ideas and excitement. Louise Bogan, in her excellent introduction to modern American poetry, Achievement in American Poetry, states:
Formal poetry in America in the year 1900 seemed benighted in every sense: it was imitative, sentimental, and ''genteel'' . . . The weight of British Victorian tradition lay heavily upon American poets in general; and the strong native moralizing bent of the American poets of the school readers - Bryant, Whittier, and Longfellow - still operated.
Yet, curiously, we are now surrounded with reams of free-verse poems, supposedly liberated from the debilitating constraints of rhyme and meter, which suffer the same problem as those deadly rhymed poems of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. These free-verse poems are the victims of their conversational form, just as the earlier poems were the victims of their strict form.
It seems, now, that it might be wise to look again at rhyme and meter as a challenge - a form that demands of us precision and eloquence, so long as we demand of ourselves freedom from the stereotyped subjects and phrases that doomed poems such as those Bogan cites. As Pound, Eliot, Bogan herself, and others have shown, a firm grounding in a demanding form gives the aspiring writer a heightened sense of the range and power of language. With this keener sense, the writer can move into other forms - such as free verse - knowing that he brings with him a crucial economy, precision, and eloquence.
The second half of this essay will appear in tomorrow's Home Forum.