{Wed 14 March 2007}   “Meter, rhyme, and stanza: they are too beautiful to disappear.”

This essay by Timothy Steele has been around awhile, but it’s so well-written and its defense of the value of “meter, rhyme and stanza” is so well-supported with resonant examples that it still bears reading.

The Forms of Poetry by Timothy Steele, from The Brandeis Review, 12 (Summer 1992), 28-33

Today, I am particularly taken with these two passages:

“The original revolutionaries perceived more acutely what they wished to challenge or undermine—meter and rhyme in poetry, representation in painting and sculpture, conventional melodic arrangement in music—than what they wished to establish. As a result, the revolution had considerable destructive vitality, but it did not have comparable constructive powers to create alternatives to replace the conventions it swept away.”

“Meters reflect patterns of speech that occur naturally in language. Poets do not invent them out of thin air. To construct a new metrical system, one would first have to construct a new language, or the pronunciation or accentuation of the existing language would have to change radically. So once the battle the modernists fought had been won, their followers tended simply to maintain a somewhat meaningless spirit of rebellion, meaningless because the styles and attitudes against which the rebellion had been directed had ceased to exist.”

It seems an inevitable part of human experience that “the revolution”, after a heady period of free-spirited innovation, always acquires its own orthodoxy and becomes a vicious enforcer of “rules” of freedom. The insistence on the new way of seeing things as the only way of seeing things invalidates the experience, wisdom and creative productions of whole generations, and robs current generations of access to beauties and insights that have empowered and developed human consciousness for thousands of years.

This has always been the pattern with “renewals” in church history. At first they ride on a tide of openness, soul-searching, risk-taking and energetic action as people strive to “live out” their refreshed understanding of the meaning of their faith, sometimes taking great steps of love and courage and martyrdom which change lives and invigorate communities. But after a while, the actions become forms in themselves, nothing more than repeated, futile attempts to recreate the mysterious energy of spirit (Spirit?) that impulsed them so naturally before. The challenge to the status quo becomes the status quo, and the s/Spirit flees.

Why, oh why, is it so difficult for us to maintain “negative capability” (Keats) and realise that any form may contain or even generate mystery, that form does not preclude mystery and that neither form nor lack of form guarantee mystery?

Nic Paton says:

There are classic elements of art which, despite the compulsion towards the new and novel, endure … melody and meter are two cases in point. I think the reason has to do with their closeness to nature. The more artifical artistic endeavor is, the less chance the art will survive.

I think that true creativity is more about rooting in tradition than inventing the new. By doing so, by rooting, and by simply being alive and aware, newness will be the by-product.

Tia says:

…because of the interaction between the individual’s uniqueness and the forms of tradition… possibly?

nic paton says:

Yes, I’d like to think that. I do think that. Yes.

My favourite line in his article is:

“I suspect that there is a broad-based anxiety, as we approach the twenty-first century, that the great revolution in the arts that took place at the dawn of the twentieth may have been misguided. The original revolutionaries perceived more acutely what they wished to challenge or undermine—meter and rhyme in poetry, representation in painting and sculpture, conventional melodic arrangement in music—than what they wished to establish.”

Although we as creatives are by definition involved in the never ceasing dialectic between extremes, if all we do is “perceive what we wish to undermine”, our work will never achieve the depth and longevity of great art.

Somehow we need to grasp a transcendant vision, that which we “wish to establish”, which will ensure that our swervings are properly moored.

But, and “zis iz a big butt”, what IS that vision?

nic paton says:

I now realise that this is how you started this thread, (small) doh!

I also see that you have discussed it from the view of Church history. Thats a good solid way to see things – correlate the Creative principles both aesthetically and the communally.

Two 20th century masters might guide us here; Picasso and Miles Davis. Both innovated tirelessly their entire carreer. And both, it would seem, were complete selfish bastards.

The question here is the relationship between the aesthetic dimension and the spiritual. If we separate these, we ar free to create but all those qualities of selflesness and love might suffer as a result. If on the other hand we get down with the things of the heart, this often has a negative impact on our creativity, I can vouch for this.

And one more point – I was struck by this contrast:
Matthew 9:17 – “Neither do men pour new wine into old wineskins. If they do, the skins will burst, the wine will run out and the wineskins will be ruined. No, they pour new wine into new wineskins, and both are preserved.”
Gospel Of Thomas 47 – “Nobody drinks aged wine and immediately wants to drink young wine. Young wine is not poured into old wineskins, or they might break, and aged wine is not poured into a new wineskin, or it might spoil.”

In the cannonical account, which has informed my thinking for decades, the real concern is for the new wine. In the gnostic account, however, there is more concern for the old, both wineskin and wine.

ruZL says:

maybe the traditions of meter, rhyme & stanza have become archetypal over the ages, which is why we rarely hear someone walking down the road with a smile on their face, whistling a prog rock tune.

(30 years earlier at band practise: “okay guys, this one’s in 15/16 for the first 13 bars, and then switches to 13/8 for 7 and then into the chorus, which is in 9/8! got that?”

one, two, three, ROCK!

Tia says:

Nic, following your thought re creativity vs spirituality, do you think G-d created when he was out of touch with his spirituality in some way – in a state of longing or need or perceived deficiency? We usually see his creativity as synonymous with his love. Why should ours be any different?

Thanks for the Thomas new/old wine reference and your observations – really interesting perspective!

ruZL, maybe that’s just because prog rock is complex and requires more memory. It still incorporates meter, rhyme and stanza, just more versions of it in a single piece, and when elements within it challenge strict forms, they rely for their impact on the pre-existence of those forms.

Tony Harrison is another poet (there are few today) who insist on composing formal verse in meter. The poetry (in the hands of a skilled craftsperson) will not suffer. He writes in one of his poems that ‘the rhythm in my heart’s, at least, not free.’

Tia says:

Sounds fascinating… any links?

Harrison speaks about it all over the place. In an interview with Maya Jaggi (The Guardian, Saturday 31 March 2007) celebrating his seventieth birthday he said ‘The heart beats iambically; the form keeps the connection to the heartbeat.’


Tia says:

Wow, that is a really fascinating article, thank you, Rehan. Right at the end, I found a new definition of poetry to add to my list: Poetry is a “way of contemplating destructive forces in a secular, meditative way”.

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