A commenter, reasonably disappointed by what strikes him as pointless snarkiness, challenges me to find something “worth printing on those millions of sacrificed trees.”
Unfortunately, I am no Hercules. And not even he was asked to dive for pearls in the Augean morass. He just outsourced the river and sent it all down to the sea, and if one of Augeus’ steeds had guzzled some great golden ring it awaits its salty Sméagol to this day.
But I can do better—I can link to some sacrificed pixels. I don’t think anyone has offered him a Stegner fellowship, but Edward Williams, aka Mortimer Shy, has been posting his verse, which is excellent if not brief, on the net for almost a year. They are basically all good, but here’s a chunk from one I like:
The game is gobbled up by the video cameras, And spewed out in segments for all eternity. That’s the way we get, in our living room, Everything that is vicarious. Leaving us free. Where all the chairs are placed askew in View of this richly colored medium square.
I especially am fascinated by what repeats. On Election Day we get these same volunteers Who go around and remind people that… Their vote counts. This is one of those hopeless Maxims, but you can get somebody to look Right into the camera and say it bluntly. But
Suddenly the local newscaster turns on the Gentleman in the red parka and says, "Do you Realize there is a person just like you doing And saying exactly what you are doing, saying In probably fifty cities across the country?" The Gentleman in the red parka is abashed. “What?” He says, stammering. The newscaster keeps it up. "You are a complete duplication of an identical Person in every mid-sized city in the country." He sticks the microphone at the guy. To tell Him: “Now how do you feel about this?” The gentleman in the red parka defends himself. He says “No two people are exactly alike.” Which used to be true. Before the televisions.
Besides the fact that it has both wit and content, one interesting aspect of Williams’ free verse is that it seems to use a technique that I’ve found myself falling into myself—a sort of typographical meter. As far as I can tell, the regularity of line length in this and other poems is neither metric (in the traditional sense) nor syllabic. It is not auditory at all. It is visual.
It’s easy to overlook the fact that until the last twenty years or so, no poet ever could know what his verse would look like on the printed page. Did a Robinson Jeffers or Marianne Moore, both of whom produced some vast Ouroborean lines, which some editions of Jeffers actually have to break twice, actually handwrite in a right margin with an indented break? Or did they just have really wide notebooks and cramped little handwriting? I’d bet on the latter. I can’t stand these typesetter-introduced breaks, and I was overjoyed to find Grace Schulman’s new edition of Moore which has a reasonably wide page and avoids most, though not all, of them. (Jeffers is simply unsalvageable on this score, and I’ve actually found it an enjoyable exercise to type a few of his poems into the computer simply so I can read them with the lines intact.)
Now, with word processors and blogs, the writer is author, publisher and book designer in one. And it makes no sense for poetry to disdain this technical advance.
Traditional meters, as well as more flexible rhythmic approaches, fulfill many, many functions. Verse will always be first and foremost about sound. A while ago I saw a functional-MRI study of what happens in your brain when you read—silently, to yourself. Nonetheless, one bit that lit up was the part of the motor cortex that controls the vocal cords. Historians tell us that until the Middle Ages reading without reciting was very much the exception, a kind of weird party trick. And Modern Science, apparently, confirms this prejudice.
But—one of the auditory roles of meter is to provide timing. Meter is quite literally a metronome. However fast you read, you know that any X metric feet (for example, the “iambic foot” dah-DAH, which is the natural rhythm of English) should go by as fast as any other X feet. Good poets play with this device, jamming an unnaturally large amount of content auditory or semantic into an unnaturally small metric space to produce a kind of meth-head effect, or slowing it down to release tension.
It strikes me that there’s no reason at all that visual consistency in line length, arbitrary though it is (especially in a proportional font, though I myself will never be weaned off vi, which is monospaced by definition), can’t serve exactly the same function. The convention of the poem—certainly of Williams’ poems—is that lines of equal length should read in equal time. But their auditory structure varies arbitrarily—which is a source of tension. And a good poet, like Williams, can control and master this tension.
Somehow this seems like cheating. Poetry is an art, typesetting is a craft, the two should never meet. But this is Romantic nonsense and I won’t allow it. Poetry, in fact, is entertainment—or at least it should be entertainment—and the entertainer is responsible for every aspect of the customer’s experience, like it or not.