an ode to blank verse
the meter used by by poets in the tongue
of england is of iambs five. each line
is made of ten expulsions of the breath,
with accents on the even numbered sounds.
this gives the feel of steady pulse, and not
too fast or slow but rhythm like a man
who's on the way to see his death—a death
expected, taken with a peaceful view.
a death, perhaps, that is the sentence owed
because of some tremendous sin. and this,
i say, is what the verse of england is.
it's said that every language has its own
technique of putting sounds into a scheme
to make a poem—a method that will suit
the sounds and structures of the words that one
will use to make the verse. and so we see
that greece has lines of feet uneven. six
ascending tones are there, but one does not
have quite the same unending feel of doom
that english verse's steady death-knell pulse
will give to every text that's set to it.
the freedom of the style used by him
who wrote of troy, and later he who told
of proud aeneas and his race—this tone
permits the poet freedom matching all
the unashamed assumption of the greeks,
to make themselves the masters of the world.
it is a rhythm that i find to be
well suited to naivete. but not
a rhythm dark, a pulsing tone of death.
suppose you asked a poet living when
the bard wrote verse. in such an age so full
(of death, of wars) the studied mastery
of verse would be a way to 'scape the strife
but still remain engaged—to comprehend
the changing times, how one fits into all
the larger scheme of things. suppose you asked
this poet if—by some weird quirk of fate—
the practice of blank verse should cease to be
the favored way a poet writes his lines.
what answer would you hear? well i submit
that, like the buggy-whip itself, the blank
would always needed be, for sonnets need
the verse in question. even rhymed it still
partakes of hades. yet the sonnet form
has vanished. writing sonnets is a joke.
i read in Webster that a sonneteer
is minor. insignificant. and who
would want to be insulted thus! the form
is dead. it is a joke, or worse, a mock.
but is it blank verse rather that has died?
the steady drumming of the poet's words
is harsh to hear, it's harsh to write the lines
in which so little variation is
allowed. the modern style does extend
the right to break the line without too much
attention to the syntax or the sense.
but still the droning of the lines goes on
although such liberty is taken up.
we need not rhyme (that's why it's blank) but still
one cannot ever leave. a trial like
the story Kafka gave, this meter goes
around, around, like water to its grave.
the tell-tale heart is what i mean, this pull
of inner doom. this story writ by Poe
is of this sort; the raven too. (i know,
it's trochee, yes, but still it has the feel
of every-other pushing on to death.)
there is no mystic in this tongue who used
the style of poem to give a glimpse of bliss
of wonder and of awe. they wrote in prose.
the lady Julian, Marg'ry Kempe did not
use meter to express their thoughts. unlike
saint John of mount carmel, whose only prose
was commentary on his verse, these saints
of england's shores did not write thus. and why?
i say, of course, because the only way
is writing in the bumping thumping glow
of earthy verse, iambic flow—a tone
which stands in opposition to the thoughts
of revelation, mystic transport, joy.
i want to speak of one whom you have met--
a man of words who needs no introduce.
he wrote in poem and in play; had all
the land of england in his grasp. and still
he's one of only very few of ours
who's read in countries far and near, who's giv'n
each accolade a man can hear. 'tis good
he's dead, or his would be a hubris huge.
this blessed William S., of course, is him
whom i am slow to name. and blessed Will—
he used the form of verse of which i speak.
he wrote a set of sonnets, and his plays,
as well, were in the verse of death. but note,
that even he could not sustain the tone
of deathly zeal that must entrance the words
once they are set to meter such as this.
he took his freedom well, and used to bend
the rules a bit, for sometimes nine, or more
than ten—eleven!—pulses did exhale.
the lines might start with throchee—even end
with downbeat weak, and not the proper shape.
one thinks, perhaps, that he was not so grand
but really he's just not so bland—he pushed
the limits of the form, until it was
a bit less deadly, bit more full of life
and not so stale and pulsing on and on.
but famous others, Chaucer, Milton—they
came first, so they did not permit the change
of meter line to line, but kept the form
unchanging like the beating of a bell
that wakes one up at five am until
one calls the cops to have the foul tone
eliminated from the neighborhood.
but still the verse went on—although it was
so filled with all that one should not admire.
at least not in an age like ours, that loves
the wonder of new things, the hope that we
will leave a better world than we were giv'n.
this form of writing does not lend itself
to frame the heady character we have.
it is, then, little to amaze that we
have stopped the use of this, our ancient form.
and after briefly trying other sorts
of ways of pulsing words, not quite so full
of deadly beats, of fear and dread, of pain,
we've turned our head on all such sorts of verse,
no formal patterns left, not even simply blank.
i do feel sad, when i recall, the great
ascending works of verse we once could hear
without a tone of shame for writing rhyme,
or rhythmic beat of an accustomed style.
for in this latter day of ours, you look
in vain for such a form as this. no blank,
no sonnet, ballades none, but free, they say,
the verse is free! as if the verse had rights!
perhaps the poets have a fear that they
might be held to account for all the pow'r
they wield through use of words. as if, in fear,
perhaps, the poets stand afraid of all
the awesome power they possess. and so,
they say the verse is free—and deprecate
the use of meters, rhymes, and schemes, at least,
the ones that have been handed down. alas!
the meters and the rhythms all are left
forgotten like a dead man out of mind.
oh how ironic this, that drumming pulse,
the dreadful iamb pumping firmly on,
should thus foresignify its own demise.
i hope, of course, as prob'ly you could guess,
that someday hence it will arise. we wait
like fallow earth for words to spring again
from richness born of form, and rhyme, and pulse.
no longer scared of death, but once again,
we take up pen and write the fun'ral dirge.