Last month we talked at fair length about some of the ways that the writing business can serve as a microcosm of life in the declining years of industrial civilization. That same comparison can be taken quite a bit further, and I propose to do exactly that this week. As we discussed in those earlier posts, among the things that make modern life so miserable for so many of its inmates are pervasive propaganda campaigns, pushed heavily by the corporate media and the talking heads of the status quo, that are meant to trick people into doing things that support the current state of affairs at their own expense. We’re going to talk about another aspect of that.
The clearest view of the tangled mess I want to discuss this week can be glimpsed by taking a look at poetry. A century ago, people could make a decent living writing poems. William Butler Yeats, whose occult activities were the center of last week’s post, was only one of scores of poets who turned out volumes of verse so popular, and so widely purchased, that their royalties paid the rent. Not every poet achieved that goal, of course; Robert Graves, one of the influential English poets of the generation that came of age in the First World War, noted in one of his forewords that poetry had always been his passion but his novels paid his bills. Even among common or garden variety poets of the time, however, it was quite common to place volumes of verse with large to midsized publishers and sell plenty of copies to the general public.
That doesn’t happen any more. There’s no shortage of poets, to be sure, and universities keep on churning out more of them every year, equipped with diplomas and certificates to match; there are also hordes of amateurs, unhelped or unhindered by fancy scraps of paper, pumping out verse by the cubic yard. Outside of the rap scene—a phenomenon all its own, which I’ll discuss a little later on—next to nobody is interested. Go to a hip café that hosts a poetry night sometime and you might see somebody there who just wants to listen and isn’t planning on reading some of their own verse, but they’re the exception. The poetry aisle, in those few bookstores that still retain such an anachronism, is about as lively as a small-town morgue on a slow night.
There’s a good reason for this, and it’s not the same as the excuses that most of today’s poets like to bring out when somebody’s rude enough to mention the public’s total indifference to poetry in their earshot. No, it’s not because nobody appreciates genius any more, or because the public has lost whatever semblance of literary taste it once had, or because today’s poets are so far in advance of everyone else that the public has been left behind, or whatever other bit of self-serving drivel the literary set has come up with this week. Nor, to be fair, is it because today’s poets are less able than their predecessors; literary ability seems to be more or less constant from generation to generation.
No, the problem here is that the literary mainstream—again, outside of the rap scene—has adopted a set of notions about poetry that make it nearly impossible for those who embrace those notions to write good poems. That didn’t happen by accident. It was part of the general movement in the arts to make credentials more important than ability. Where the writers and artists of an earlier age earned their status by the quality of their work, writers and artists today are supposed to earn their status by going to college and getting a degree in the right program. Since getting a degree from the right program doesn’t make you a capable poet, and can very easily do the opposite—as the saying goes, those who can, do; those who can’t, teach—the debasement of poetry and the other arts was an essential step in the triumph of credentialism in our time.
The specific gimmick that was used to make sure that nobody would be able to excel at poetry in our time is the worship of spontaneity. That crept into American verse right after the First World War and finished its takeover of the field with the Beat movement, alongside a lot of ignorant misunderstandings of Zen. Away with rhyme and meter! Away with revision and reflection! Your first thought is your best thought!
No, it isn’t.
The spontaneity trap, as we may as well call it, has become one of the standard tricks used by today’s corporate system to neutralize potential challenges. If you just do what comes naturally, and never stop to think about it, you’ll never notice that “what comes naturally” is the set of clichés and unthinking habits you absorbed in childhood. There’s nothing new in that. A few centuries ago, “what came naturally” were the prejudices people picked up from their parents and their church; now, the prejudices in question mostly come from schools and the mass media, but the principle is the same. That’s why the phrase “Just Do It” is a sleazy corporate slogan deployed to sell products. As long as you’re convinced that you should just follow your childhood programming—which is what “spontaneity” amounts to in practice, under most circumstances—you’ll be utterly predictable, and thus utterly unthreatening.
Mind you, there’s another kind of spontaneity, but it’s found on the other end of the process of learning and using forms. An example from the martial arts may be helpful here. A skilled martial artist can respond to an attack with perfect spontaneity, in a flurry of fluid and effective movements that do exactly what needs to be done. A beginner can’t do that. Why? Because the beginner’s body is hampered by habitual patterns of movement absorbed in childhood, and these get in the way of effective combat. Those have to be overcome. A good bar fighter has to do the same thing, of course—playground brawls and more serious fights in teen gangs and the like serve the same function as hours spent in the dojo, getting past the habitual movement patterns instilled in childhood so that punches and kicks can do what they need to do.
The slightly more refined kicks that readers get from a good poem follow the same rule. If you write down what comes to mind first and leave it unedited thereafter, you can pretty much count on writing drivel, because what comes out of your mind first is the result of automatic habits of thought, feeling, and language you picked up starting in infancy and finished absorbing by the time you hit puberty. You have to get past those to write anything worth reading. No, it doesn’t matter that you think that you’re marvelously unique and special, and so all you have to do is spew your thoughts onto paper and everyone will gather around in awe. They won’t, because—well, I’m sorry to have to break it to you, snookums, but you’re no more marvelously unique and special than anybody else. Neither am I, and neither is your favorite writer. Most writers are fairly dull—I certainly am. Their (and my) writing is a substitute for an interesting life.
The insistence that you should express yourself is another trap. This self you’re eager to express—what is it? Why, another set of habits you picked up between infancy and puberty, habits of thought, feeling, perception, and action. That’s what a personality is, and that’s all it is. Everyone else has one too, and the chance that yours will catch the interest of anybody but a few of your friends and family members is pretty small. Forget about yourself, and express the world as you see it, or imagine it, or wish that it could be—that’s where you get interesting. That’s why stories where the main character is too obviously the author are so dreary, and stories where the main character is someone that author can only dream of being are much more lively.
That’s also why most of the items in the poet’s traditional toolkit are ways to stop yourself from getting stuck your own unthinking automatisms. Let’s look at a poem to see how this is done. The one I have in mind here is by H.P. Lovecraft. Lovecraft was a skilled poet and essayist, as well as the man who wrote some of the twentieth century’s most iconic fantasy and horror stories. A traditionalist to the last degree in his literary tastes—he wrote a blistering and very funny parody of T.S. Eliot’s poem The Waste Land, titling it Waste Paper—he made skillful use of the traditional forms in his own verse, so he’s useful in this discussion.
Yes, I know that Lovecraft has been declared a nonperson in official circles due to some of his writings—notably, a few nastily bigoted poems he wrote in his teen years, when he was reeling emotionally after both his parents died in an insane asylum. Later in life he became a New Deal Democrat, but you won’t find that referenced by those who like to score virtue-signaling points by denouncing him. It’s a source of bleak amusement to me that the same people who insist that people under the age of 25 shouldn’t be blamed for their actions, when they’re talking about criminal law, are at the head of the line flinging blame when they think it’s to their political advantage.
Be that as it may, the verse of his I have in mind is a sonnet in his sonnet-cycle Fungi From Yuggoth, titled “Mirage.” Here it is:
I do not know if ever it existed—
That lost world floating dimly on Time’s stream—
And yet I see it often, violet-misted,
And shimmering at the back of some vague dream.
There were strange towers and curious lapping rivers,
Labyrinths of wonder, and low vaults of light,
And bough-crossed skies of flame, like that which quivers
Wistfully just before a winter’s night.
Great moors led off to sedgy shores unpeopled,
Where vast birds wheeled, while on a windswept hill
There was a village, ancient and white-steepled,
With evening chimes for which I listen still.
I do not know what land it is—or dare
Ask when or why I was, or will be, there.
Once upon a time anybody who finished eighth grade in an American school knew what a sonnet is and how it works, but one can’t assume such basic knowledge these days. A sonnet, then, is a poem of fourteen lines in iambic pentameter. Iambic pentameter? “Iambic” means that it’s set to a rhythm of iambs, which are paired syllables, the first unstressed, the second stressed. The words “awake,” “forgive,” “collapse” are iambs: a-WAKE, for-GIVE, col-LAPSE. “Pentameter” means you have five of these in a row. Try Lovecraft’s last line on for size: “ask WHEN or WHY i WAS or WILL be THERE.” That’s iambic pentameter.
There are plenty of other meters in English poetry, but iambic pentameter is the most widely used. Like all poetic meters, it has some wiggle room built in. The poem just cited makes good use of one of the standard variations, putting an extra unstressed syllable at the end of odd-numbered lines: “exISTed,” “MISTed,” and so on. How much stress you put on each of the stressed syllables varies also, and provides much of the music of the form: compare the rhythm of “and YET i see it OF-ten, VIO-let MIS-ted” to “where VAST birds WHEELED, while on a WIND-swept HILL.” All this is part of the form, and is learned by experiment and by reading plenty of good verse by other poets.
Let’s move on. A sonnet is divided into two sections, an octave of eight lines and a sestet of six. The octave may be rhymed ABBA CDDC—that’s poet’s shorthand for “the first line rhymes with the fourth, the second with the third, the fifth with the eighth, and the sixth with the seventh”—or it may be ABAB CDCD, as in our example (you can work this out for yourself.) The sestet also varies in its rhyme scheme, but it’s always got three pairs of rhymed lines. In this example they’re EFEFGG; you can find others that run EFGEFG, or EEFGFG, or any number of other variations. Choosing a pattern for the sestet that lets you emphasize what you want to emphasize is an important element in sonnet writing.
Now comes the thing that makes the sonnet unique: there’s a distinct arrangement of thought in the form. The octave states an idea. The sestet picks it up and does something with it. In the poem we’re considering, the octave tells of Lovecraft’s vivid sense of distant, eldritch places and times, the sense that gave so much power to his fiction, while the sestet takes that up and then redefines it vertiginously as his own memory of past or future, someplace Lovecraft senses he himself has been or will be. Every well-written sonnet does something like this with its theme: connects it, comments on it, contradicts it, you name it, but the sestet always picks up where the octave leaves off, and does something different and interesting with the core idea of the poem.
By this point, dear reader, if you’re used to what passes for poetry these days, you’re doubtless thinking, “Okay, but what’s the point of all this faradiddle? Why wrestle the language into iambs and rhyme schemes? Why chop your idea up into an octave’s worth of statement and a sestet’s worth of commentary? You can’t be spontaneous if you do that!”
That’s right. You can’t be spontaneous if you do that, and that’s the whole point. You have to think about it, reflect on it, try words that don’t come immediately to mind, explore different ways of phrasing and thinking, different patterns and rhythms of language. That’s why iambic pentameter is so powerful a tool in English poetry—it’s not how we naturally speak or think. SF and fantasy author Poul Anderson wrote a lively romp of a novel, A Midsummer Tempest, set in a parallel world where every word Shakespeare wrote was literally true and everyone does speak in iambic pentameter; he must have sweated blood over the manuscript to get the dialogue to flow as naturally and spontaneously as it does.
Good poetry is like that. It flows naturally and spontaneously to the reader, but it took the poet many hours of hard work to get it to do that. The process of creating a poem is like any other kind of writing, but more intense than most. With me, at least, the basic idea and a few lines show up spontaneously and I write them down. Then I wait, and listen, and mutter the lines to myself while doing chores or what have you, seeing if I can coax more lines or line-fragments or imagery to the surface. Once I have a rough skeleton of a poem, I write it down. Then the really hard work begins—trying different words and phrases, discarding many possible choices while I hunt for the one that works.
In the process, I come to a much clearer understanding of the idea itself. That’s what usually happens when you think hard about how you’re saying something. Most of us, most of the time, use words casually, without thinking much about them; that’s why so much shoddy thinking and sloppy communication slides past. Wrestle with the language so that you can say what you want to say, and you have to notice what you’re actually saying; keep at it, and you may even figure out what you actually mean.
Traditional poetic forms are tools to help you do that. In English-language poetry we have a very good selection of those; the same is true of the poetic traditions of other languages, of course. In the English language these days we also have another phenomenon at work, however. Poetry seems to be hardwired into the human nervous system; deprive people of it by way of a wretchedly bad public school system, or in any other way, and they’ll reinvent it all by themselves, without help from experts. That’s what happened in this country’s impoverished urban neighborhoods over the last half century or so, and the result is rap.
I’m not personally fond of rap, as it happens, but I can recognize a vibrant cultural upsurge when I see one. It’s a little dizzying to have a seat on the sidelines while a new tradition of bardic poetry is being born—for that’s what we’re talking about, of course. More than five thousand years ago, performers with a single string instrument for backup created rap numbers celebrating the events of their time; one of those, passed down from performer to performer, eventually got copied down on clay tablets by industrious scribes and titled Shutur Eli Sharri. We know it today as the Epic of Gilgamesh. The same process in other ages, with slightly different backup instruments pounding away to give emphasis to chanted words, gave us the Iliad, the Odyssey, the Song of Roland, Beowulf, and the beat goes on.
The sonnet isn’t a rap form. Rap is still in the early phases of its history, using simple rhyme and rhythm schemes and musical backup while it explores its own creative possibilities; if it follows the usual trajectory, the true masterpieces of rap won’t come until much later in the decline of industrial civilization, when other forms of entertainment become scarce and chanted, rhyming tales told to the beat of a single instrument become the standard way to pass a cold winter night around a blazing hearth. Sonnets and the other classic English verse forms are at a much later point in their historical arc; they are part of the heritage of a dying age. That doesn’t make them useless, and it doesn’t mean they’re going away. Latin verse stayed lively in such educated circles as there were during the Middle Ages, and helped spark the Renaissance in due time; if it survives, classic English language verse might do the same thing through the Middle Ages and Renaissance to come.
So while the rappers among us are gathering strength and skill for the mighty epics of the deindustrial dark ages, there’s still a point to keeping the sonnet and other classic verse forms alive. Even right here and now, they’re tools that can be used to teach clear thought and reflective awareness, and not accidentally, produce vivid, thought-provoking poems. If that appeals to you, dear reader, consider slipping out of the jaws of the spontaneity trap and giving the old strong magic of poetic forms a good solid try.