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The Politics of Meter: on Traditional Forms

Written by

Catherine Wagner
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meter is a movingmeter is powered by the radiation going into your head
meter is running on psychic solutionmeter is running on budget choices
meter is enough?meter is steamed up
meter is first to measuremeter is underground in a rectangular box with a plastic
meter is runningmeter is small enough to fit in your shirt pocket
meter is a costmeter is a shortened term for electropsychometer
meter is a device that measures how well air movesmeter is built to take the abuse of everyday use and accidental mishaps
meter is dead but will it be mourned?meter is broken by Jessica
meter is music?meter is simple
meter is an accelerometermeter is easier than you think
meter is riggedmeter is held up to the patch
meter is brokenmeter is part of our premier portable range
meter is now defined in terms of the speed of lightmeter is a measuring device
meter is more robust than other designsfrom www.googlism.com

You can pick up any magazine that sets out to publish "experimental" or "innovative" poetry—the rags I like to read—and you might scan until your eyes bleed before you find anyone using regular meter. There's not much in more mainstream magazines, either. Regular meter, and other kinds of traditional patterned language, have been scoffworthy for decades for a broad array of poets across the mainstream and avant-garde, for almost everybody except those associated with the New Formalist movement and mavericks like Kenward Elmslie. In the last decade, though, I’ve found myself writing in traditional patterns now and again, and I’m noticing such patterns in others’ work much more often than I used to—recently, for instance, in books by Devin Johnston (who’s a contemporary master), Lee Ann Brown, Jennifer Moxley, Lisa Jarnot, and many more. Somewhere along the line, at least among a good number of my peers, the objections to traditional form died away. I’d certainly stopped thinking about them myself. But I wondered why I hadn’t heard a louder death-rattle.

For decades, traditional patterns have been distrusted by, for instance, the "organic form"/"projective verse" avant-garde, as well as by writers working with nontraditional word-patterns—the Language poets, Jackson Mac Low, Susan Howe, and others. The distrust of verse is widespread. Even my dad tells me he knows that poetry shouldn’t rhyme or be in regular meter anymore. And poets of all stripes still get suddenly bored or nervous when they detect traditional forms. Not very many years ago, some members of the Buffalo Poetics listserv were provoked to anger when Annie Finch joined the list to ask for input on the anthology of forms she was putting together. And after a reading I gave recently in England, a poet (a committed political activist and self-declared member of the avant-garde) congratulated me on my "anti-prosody." She was certain that what she’d heard meant I was working in ironic opposition to traditional meter. Not so.

I wondered why the objections to traditionally patterned forms no longer held sway for me or for some among my peers. What were those objections, anyway? Are any of them still valid?

One objection is simply that traditional form’s been done and it’s boring to do it again. Its rejection is associated with a desire to "make it new." Others object to a perceived attempt to impose coherence—a code word for oppression, for a grid of control superimposed on an indeterminate reality. Apologists for traditional meter such as Timothy Steele (whose historical analysis of the decline of traditional verse forms is worth reading) do, in fact, list coherence among the things that make meter appealing. Says Steele: "whether we write or read them, verse measures can help us to a vision of existence more coherent and comprehensive than our own lives provide, and can fortify us and encourage us to fuller and truer ways of acting and being." That is, by constructing an idealized version of our existence, verse measures can instruct us how to live. In contrast, both organic form and the experimental formalism of the Language poets attempt to open a poem to the world’s contingencies, in one case through close attention to phenomena, and in the other through using linguistic innovation in order to evade oppressive convention.

The most influential recent poetic avant-garde—the Language poets—emphasized the political aspect of form, its manifestation of ideology. Traditional forms were seen as overdetermining, totalizing; such forms insist upon closure, closing down possibility, perhaps even lulling the reader into passivity. If we use traditional language patterns, we risk replicating history’s oppressive structures, enforcing a formal agenda that is not emergent from or attentive to the now of the making of the poem, and, further, does not encourage the reader to take an active role in the construction of the piece. These arguments are bound up with familiar arguments against identity-based and narrative poetry.

The poets now using meter—especially those associated with an avant-garde tradition—certainly know these arguments. Does their use of meter mean that they deny a connection between form and politics? Are they abandoning political aims when they use meter? Are these poets following the general trend in the population at large and getting more conservative? Or could it be that traditional forms aren’t in themselves coercive and closed?


Form is political and manifests ideology—I believe this. But any form’s politics are contingent and contextual. In certain contexts, a given pattern need not be seen as totalizing, and traditionally patterned forms can carry radical intent, just as the ballad form did for the Romantic poets. I’m not claiming that recent avant-gardes such as the Language poets weren’t aware that the politics of a given form are contingent on its context—but in the aftermath of the Language poets, a rigidifying of style did firmly associate a particular style (or anti-style) with oppositional politics. Arguing against fixed assumptions about the politics of form, the Moscow Conceptualist poet Lev Rubinstein insists that "[t]he problematic of the avant-garde is not resolved on the level of text . . . Literally one and the same text can be either [avant-garde or not] depending on the motives of its creation, on the context of its cultural existence, and, in the end, on its author’s intent." Rubinstein reminds me that my whole life is a political action and that my poems have meaning in the context of my life and world. Seeing form contextually—understanding, for instance, that, as some have pointed out, "indeterminacy" is our era’s dominant style and can no longer be seen as radical—may encourage more poets to experiment with measure.


I’d like to add another reason meter interests me. Rhythm can induce trance states. Anyone who’s recited a rosary or been to a rave or drum circle knows this. In trance, your brain is in theta rhythm, dream rhythm, but you are not dreaming; you are conscious and acting, not simply being taken over. Poetic rhythm has been shown to change heart rate, and it’s not impossible that simply thinking in rhythm could induce changes in brainwaves. So I’ve been experimenting with using traditional poetic rhythms as a way to alter my consciousness while writing. The experimental English poet Tom Raworth, inventor of dozens of ingenious and provocative forms, has asked whether "form is a kind of quotation?" When I "quote" traditional forms, something outside and prior (a formal version of Jack Spicer’s Martians?) comes into me, something I can transform as it alters me.


Unlike Steele, I’m not interested in measuring messy reality against perfected verse in an effort to set a good example for the former; I’m interested in poetry as action, and I believe that a thoughtfully activist poetry can use verse measures. I don’t want to versify all the time, and I don’t want anyone to do it that doesn’t have the itch for it. But I hope more young poets will work with measure now and again. For one thing, without knowledge of it, we’re hamstrung when we read older poetries and much foreign poetry. Many students of poetry can’t hear or interpret the oscillations of meter in John Milton or Emily Dickinson.

In The Opening of the Field and elsewhere, Robert Duncan moved between song and irregular meters to marvelous effect. I’m enjoying the possibilities of moving in and out of measure and of becoming better at using it, whether I borrow it from sixteenth century poetry or twentieth century blues. It’s like coming across a formal garden, not fenced-off, somewhere in a wildflower prairie: a complication of the field.

Works Cited

Bettermann, Henrik et al. "Effects of speech therapy with poetry on heart rate rhythmicity and cardiorespiratory coordination." International Journal of Cardiology. 84.1 (2002): 77-88. 17 January 2004.

Rubinstein, Lev. Catalogue of Comedic Novelties: Selected Poems. Translated by Philip Metres and Tatiana Tulchinsky. Brooklyn, NY: Ugly Duckling Presse, 2004.

Steele, Timothy. Missing Measures: Modern Poetry and the Revolt Against Meter. Fayetteville, AK: The University of Arkansas Press, 1990.