This is just to say / nice try

A while back (when I was still posting under the name Varius Contrarius) I was getting tired of my own posts, and wanted to try something new. I dashed out a critique of a critique quoted on a website, and even though at the time I was hesitant to post it, I followed through to break up the monotony of political polemic. Sometimes in conversation Eric will say, 'you should post about that!,' but here I am still poking Kerry with my little stick.

I stumbled across a response to that post that never made it's way to the comments or as a trackback here at Classical Values, but apparently some folks over at Fresh Bilge decided to let me have it. Who knew? Not I.

I tried to leave a comment, but they've long since closed. The critique of my critique of Perloff's fragment of a critique begins:

I've been meaning for some time to riff off a poetry post by Varius Contrarius, one of Eric Scheie's two new co-bloggers at Classical Values, but I've been so busy with FB redesign that I never got round to it. Instead I solicited a comment from the skipper, who is a poet and metrist of some repute. He's also a technophobe, and unwilling to blog, even though I've offered him guest-posting status. He responded the old-fashioned way, via email. The skipper agrees with Varius that Marjorie Perloff is, shall we say, over-rated in her expertise, but he finds Varius himself no wiser.

Fair enough. I have no doubts that last part is true, but let's take a look at the argument:

Tim and I believe Perloff and Contrarius deserve one another, being equally muddle-headed about matters metrical and poetical. WCW was not a metrical poet. In fact I would argue that only the line breaks cause such a mundane utterance to be called a poem. It became the besetting vice of poetry, during its Twentieth Century decline, that it could only be distinguished as poetry by an author's carriage return. Here's the skipper's riposte:
Varius is shooting at a pretty fat, slow target. Observe. In "Janus-Faced Blockbuster", a review of Cary Nelson's Anthology of Modern American Poetry on her website, Marjorie Perloff, who styles herself an authority on prosody, quotes these lines by the African-American poet Georgia Douglas Johnson (written in 1918) :
The heart of a woman goes forth with the dawn As a lone bird, soft winging, so restlessly on; Afar o'er life's turrets and vales does it roam In the wake of those echoes the heart calls home. The heart of a woman falls back with the night, And enters some alien cage in its plight, And tries to forget it has dreamed of the stars While it breaks, breaks, breaks, on the sheltering bars.

Tuts Madge, "These chug-chug iambic pentameter stanzas rhyming aabb remind one of a Hallmark card." [At least her sister critic, Helen] Vendler admits she has a tin ear; but Perloff can't even discriminate between iambic pentameter and anapestic tetrameter! What did Sondheim write? "These indiscriminate/ women it/ pains me more/ than I can say!" But if Varius thinks Williams' free verse is metrical, he knows less than they. His apparent scorn for accentual syllabic verse in English, which the great prosodic thinker Robert Mezey ranks with the wheel as one of man's two great inventions, bespeaks a classical snobbery which would have appalled Housman, the greatest classicist of his day. Indeed it would torture into fits Dudley Fitts and Robert Fitzgerald. I've memorized enough syllabic verse in French and quantitative verse in Greek to be inclined to agree with Mezey. Accentual syllabic was good enough for Shakespeare, and he was no robot.

The skipper has spoken. I can only add that the "blockbuster" Georgia Douglas Johnson was doing a stilted, sentimental-feminist takeoff of Tennyson, and that (at least on evidence of the quoted lines) she has been elevated for critical acclaim only because of her race and gender.

Now if you've ingested all of that I hope you've seen the error. The Skipper, in all his wisdom, ignores my definition of meter and argues that I know less about meter than Perloff (who 'can't even discriminate between iambic pentameter and anapestic tetrameter!') and WCW (who wrote 'free verse' which is decidedly unmetrical). However, I was careful in my post to define meter openly as anything by which poetry is measured. This allows for poetry in any language (not just the classical poetry of Western literary dialects) and allows for meter beyond that recognized by pedants.

To do so, according to the Skipper, 'bespeaks a classical snobbery which would have appalled Housman, the greatest classicist of his day.'

Of course the real issue here is that he misinterprets my emphasis upon sentence stress in favor of word stress. My argument was that sentence stress is more natural than word stress 'unless you're a robot', not that word stress is to be scorned.

This may be defended in part by an example which I believe appears in W.S. Allen's Accent and Rhythm (which I don't have handy) wherein a poet is derided by a critic for misunderstanding his own meter, when in fact the poet sang his verse with quite a different rhythm than that with which the critic read it.

Admittedly the robot line was rhetorical and I knew when I wrote it that some people might take offense, but I'm not worried about offending those who hold faithfully to metrical schemes as canonical and reject all that does not fit their rules. And so it is curious that the Skipper and his mate would accuse me of classical snobbery when it is they who have limited the scope of what is metrical and poetical. And is it classical snobbery to admit of a wider concept of meter, or rather to declare that 'only the line breaks cause such a mundane utterance to be called a poem?'

That the Skipper's mate speaks of the decline of poetry as conventions change is a most damning counter to their shared thesis of my so-called classical snobbery.

It would surprise them that Housman is dear to me, and that I believe Shakespeare will never be surpassed. I wonder if it would surprise them too that the mature Shakespeare's blank verse is quite like the meters employed by Greek and Roman playwrights in that it often gives one the illusion of natural speech. In this work Shakespeare differs from his earlier, more formal period.

I'm wondering why the Skipper is silent on sentence stress. Perhaps when strict rules of sentence stress have been defined and technical names applied to them, once poets acknowledge and employ those rules, we'll recognize it as meter.

And once we've memorized enough French and Greek poetry we can take shots at slow moving targets from a safe distance, viz. third-party puffery from unknown quarters.

posted by Dennis on 08.30.04 at 11:02 AM


Listed below are links to weblogs that reference This is just to say / nice try:

» No scoop left unpuffed! from Classical Values
That last remark (by Dennis) about "puffery" reminded me of a few pictures taken over the weekend. Especially this first one; a candid shot of live puffballs in action. It's tough to take an action macro shot of these mushrooms... [Read More]
Tracked on August 30, 2004 3:46 PM


'But if Varius thinks Williams' free verse is metrical, he knows less than they.'

if this is true, then he evidently knows less than the poet himself, who, as quoted in V's original post, claimed that the poem was 'metrically absolutely regular'. now, doing the poet the favor of taking him at his word, if he says that the poem is 'metrical', we would do well to figure out why he might say so, which is what varius has done in his original post. flinging such terms of scorn at him as 'that poet (insert scoffing laugh here) of free verse' may give us our rhetorical jollies, but it also might close us off to the possibility that he really is up to something interesting.

E   ·  August 30, 2004 12:32 PM

If you watched Technorati, you might have spotted this post sooner! Sorry about the comment closure, but it's necessary to minimize comment spam. For some reason, I find trackback pings have only worked irregularly for my MT installation. It may be some technical problem I ought to check, but it hasn't been a high priority. Anyway I'll pass your post on to Tim, who might do a better job of defining his terms this time.

WCW, like Hopkins, had odd personal ideas about meter. Such ideas have proven to be blind alleys where quite a few imitators have gotten lost. Though scholars may enjoy the study of failed metrical systems, they offer little to benefit the practicing poet.

Meanwhile the main street of English-language mertical practice continues to be well-trafficked. For all his classical scholarship, Dennis does not appear to be familiar with the termimology or uses of meter in contemporary verse.

If I were to analyze the WCW poem in generally-accepted terms, I would call it accentual monometer. Each line has one principal stress, though you have talk like a New Jerseyite to make this measure work, sort of. Anyway, it is a very crude meter, and a very simple-minded bit of versification. WCW is hugely overrated. He was a man of limited poetic skill and even more limited imagination. (Maybe he was a good doctor.)

Alan Sullivan   ·  August 31, 2004 11:56 AM

Sorry about the typo. 'Metrical.' I should preview before I post. It works so much better.

Alan Sullivan   ·  August 31, 2004 11:58 AM

And 'terminology' too. Sheesh!

Well, while I'm here, let me invite Dennis and Eric to Eratosphere, where there is plenty of discussion about arcane matters like the interplay of 'sentence stress' and meter, though I prefer to say 'rhetorical stress' and some others say 'speech stress.'

Whatever term one prefers, I would add that a reader finds no conflict between the two when one reads the work of a highly competent metrist like Richard Wilbur. But this phony issue is often raised by unskilled or lazy poets who try to excuse their infelicities on grounds of 'sentence stress.' So it is a bit of a sore point with those of us who must make counter arguments.

Alan Sullivan   ·  August 31, 2004 12:08 PM

One last PS. I didn't accuse anyone of 'classical snobbery.' That's pure, Tim, who's quite a snob in his own right, as you fairly perceived.

Alan Sullivan   ·  August 31, 2004 12:11 PM


I appreciate your comments and am glad to exchange ideas. I still consider myself a student of meter and I'm sure I have years of study ahead of me.

There's certainly a difference between being a highly competent metrist and being a poet. There's also quite a difference between a thing being metrical in a broad sense and being metrical in a highly technical sense.

Your position is predicated not only on accepting what's traditional in English meter, but in degrading what does not fit. You seem to deny the name poetry to anything that can not be analyzed by formal rules of scansion, but all such rules are at the late end of literary development. In Greek Meter M.L. West shows that early ideas of what constitute poetry rarely involve more than obsession with a single idea, repition of phrases, or a simple cadence at line end.

If you want to put the 'cultivated' meters of tradition on a pedestal, that's fine, and it's an issue of taste. But you can not flatly deny meter and poetry to the rest of the world.

Formalism is not the heart of poetry. There's a world between a march and a field hollar, and I'll take the blues.

Dennis   ·  August 31, 2004 2:27 PM

4 points:
1)whatever imitators may or may not have done with whatever system WCW may or may not have employed is not relevant as a criticism of WCW's own poetry. by analogy: one's dislike for catullus does not a valid criticism of callimachus make. if an epigone of a poet incorrectly understands and/or implements a poetic scheme, that is no fault of or detriment to the poet being imitated.

2)no one has proven that the metrical system is 'failed'. there is obviously much debate regarding what type of scheme he is even employing, and until that is solved more conclusively, it is premature to relegate WCW's poetry to the dustbin of hackery.

3)whether or not the study of a metrical system benefits a practicing poet is also not relevant. the purpose of scholarship is understanding, regardless of whether a practioner is able or inclined to implement the findings of the scholar. however, as a corollary to greater understanding, the serious practicing poet cannot help but be benefited.

4)'generally accepted terms' are only applicable if it has been established that the scheme of a poem fits under a pre-ordained paradigm. thus, the poem must first be analyzed on its own terms, and if we cannot pigeon-hole the poem by means of customary nomenclature, then we must develop new terms that fit the observed evidence.

eric (not scheie)   ·  August 31, 2004 7:53 PM

First, for Dennis, I have replied to your comment at my own blog. Here I would only observe that by your lights, the system of Ptolemaic spheres should be as useful for understanding the universe as post-Copernican astronomy. You're positively pomo!

Now, let me respond to not-Scheie's four points:

1. I'm far more concerned with poetic practice than scholarship per se. I write the stuff myself, though blogging has gotten seriously in the way for the last few years. Why not critique an idea based on its consequences? Right-wing bloggers do that with socialism all the time.

2. We could get into an endless subjective debate on the merits or demerits of WCW's influence for poets. One thing is certain. The audience for poetry collapsed in the second half of the Twentieth Century. When I ask why, I can't help suspecting WCW and his ilk had something to do with it.

3. I would send you to Yeats, 'The Scholars.'

4. A poem "must be analysed on its own terms?" Taken to its logical conclusion, this notion means a new metrical theory must be derived for each and every poem. This is nonsense.

Surely the purpose of scholarship, at least in part, is to discern and describe recurring patterns. Poets and scholars have been doing this for centuries. Your use of the word 'paradigm' implies that theories have been devised from thin air and forcibly imposed on hapless poems. This is not the case. Rather, theory and practice exist in rough symbiosis, each advancing the other. Sometimes, however, progress is counterproductive to art.

Alan Sullivan   ·  September 1, 2004 2:04 PM

For anyone interested, the other half of this mind-numbing non-debate can be found here:


Your last comment is completely illogical. Metrical schemes and scientific theories are far from correlative. Does this kind of sloppy rhetoric ever work for you? The charge of post-modernism doesn't even deserve a response.

You're treading in treacherous waters, Gilligan. I would advise you to take this nonsense back to the chat rooms where you can dazzle the uncritical pedestrians.

Dennis   ·  September 1, 2004 2:48 PM

Perhaps in your eagerness for dispute, you misconstrued my last remark above. Or perhaps you misunderstood my use of the word 'progress' by which I meant only forward motion in time. Some times are plainly more fruitful than others in the arts. Or would you argue with that also?

I will admit, since I'm a mere poet and not a denizen of the empyrean like yourself, that I don't know what the hell you're talking about when you say "metrical schemes and scientific theories are from correlative." How does that statement contradict what I said? You seem only to answer arguments with insults.

Alan Sullivan   ·  September 1, 2004 3:29 PM


I'm sorry that you have such a hard time with the English language, but I'm busy with Callimachus (who would have a few words for Telchines like yourself) and don't care to explain what's plainly written.

I'm also sorry that you tried to attack me, then tried to back off putting the blame on 'the Skipper,' then got angry because I put you in your place, then made nonsensical arguments about my supposed politics that are neither true nor relevant, all the while failing to see that nothing you've said from the beginning is remotely logical or objective.

I insult you in the hope that humiliation will breed humility.

I wish you luck in all your future rhyming and scheming. With a bit more practice you'll surely put the doggerel of lesser poets in the dust bin where it belongs, beside Whitman and his post-modernist ilk.

Housman would be shocked had I not treated you so.

Dennis   ·  September 1, 2004 4:22 PM

Calling something illogical does not prove it illogical. You are long on rhetoric and very short on substance.

I guess Tim was right after all.

Alan Sullivan   ·  September 1, 2004 4:30 PM

April 2011
Sun Mon Tue Wed Thu Fri Sat
          1 2
3 4 5 6 7 8 9
10 11 12 13 14 15 16
17 18 19 20 21 22 23
24 25 26 27 28 29 30


Search the Site


Classics To Go

Classical Values PDA Link


Recent Entries


Site Credits