Sunday, February 15, 2009


And what, you ask in all innocence, is a "prosody"? Is it some minor technique, like flower arranging? Need one wear an apron, perhaps a bit of makeup . . . ? No, Grasshopper! It is the anatomy of poetry, the body politic of epiphany and theophany [but, you ask, aren't those the same?], the arms and legs and fingers and phallus of poetry! If you ask what is poetry . . . "Oh, do not ask, 'What is it?'/Let us go and make our visit." [Eliot.] It is the body of technique that makes verse into poems. It encompasses meter and rhythm, line and stanza, figures of speech and sound coloration, types and forms. If you think that poetry is made by breaking up prose into indiscriminate line lengths and random stanzas, then read no further. If you think poetry is an irritation that ought to be smacked with a flyswatter, then go back to reading your refrigeration manual or the latest Clive Cussler (though Clive is a hell of a storyteller--he just seems to be poorly translated from German) from the bestseller list.

There is an esthetic conundrum that needs to be dealt with at this point. I will use painting (visual art) as an example (my wife is a painter and sculptor). Traditionalists (and I am one) think that one ought to be able to master the basic tools of a medium, before experimenting. A painter must be able to represent what he sees in a way that someone else can recognize it. He must know how to use the tools and methods of his trade: brush, paper, canvas, easel, pigment, color, line, perspective, composition, and so forth. Only by knowing and reacting against what has gone before can he create something new and fresh. As Uncle Ezra said, "Make it new!" In the case of "modern art", much of what I have seen strikes me as the equivalent of what Woody Allen (in Love and Death) called "practicing in my room". I am no painter, as my wife often reminds me, but when I don't understand what I'm looking at, even when the artist explains it, I am suspicious and have an impulse to ask the artist if he can paint a portrait of his cat. The poet e. e. cummings produced what looked like word salad sometimes, but he knew exactly what he was doing (I think). You have only to read "Epithalamion" or one of his other early poems to see his complete control. Gerard M. Hopkins, who was way ahead (or outside) of his time, did things to English poetry that we're still trying to figure out--but he had mastered available technique (in English and Latin!). One of my favorite influences, W. S. Merwin, has strained syntax, punished punctuation, and done extraordinary things with line and stanza, but his early work is more traditional and magnificently controled.

I was fortunate to have several good poet-teachers in my formative years. The first, Robert Watson, made us buy Prosody Handbook, by Shapiro and Beaume. We hated the book! We felt our teacher was conspiring with Masters S. & B. to torment us and prevent us from expressing ourselves freely. But, by S&B, we knew what a villanelle and both sonnet forms were--and could write acceptable examples of them. Later, Dan Langton, Mark Linenthal, and Stan Rice (late husband of Anne Rice) put the polish on my poetic education. If you don't know your past, you may be condemned to repeat it.

I am not going to go into the mechanics of prosody. There are, as noted above, a number of good books available. Instead, I will offer a small poem, a little reminiscence:

What Has Been Planted

I started reading the unabridged
dictionary when I was twelve
it was the best novel I had seen
I took the words
singly and in groups
and planted them in the yard
not knowing what meanings
what shapes what colors
would sprout
and a different crop
would come up every year
casting their connotations to the wind
and flowering with new sounds
before the syllables went to seed
What has been sown
will be reaped long after I have
gone to rest

Daniel Moore

1 comment:

Jon said...

You said, "Traditionalists (and I am one) think that one ought to be able to master the basic tools of a medium, before experimenting."

Dan, I sort of agree. Long ago, in a now defunct "punk" art magazine, someone said, "The difference between art and self indulgent crap is discipline."

That, for me, sums it up. The trouble with the business of mastering the formal tools of the trade was summed up by LeRoi Jones.

He was just out of the Army, reading poetry from the New Yorker while sitting on a park bench. He burst into tears because he wanted, more than anything, to be a poet and he knew that he could never write the sort of formal technically perfect poetry that the New Yorker used to be famous for.

I think the ticket is to grasp firmly whatever tools one has to hand and write with all of the sincerity and integrity you can muster. You might not produce a perfect technical exercise, but you will produce a poem.

Then again, I think Bo Diddley was a more important poet than Ezra Pound.

Great to see you writing poetry and writing about poetry. I look forward to more.

PS, When I was a kid, I heard Allen Ginsberg, the experimenter discussing poetry with his father, Louie, the formalist. I expected them to argue about the content of Allen's poems- Should one or should one not write about the pastimes of the lonely sailors?

Instead they had a heated discussion on the importance of structure. I tended and still tend, to side with Allen, but damn, that was an illuminating discussion.