Horrible, Horrible Free Verse


This is what a poet laureate looks like!

If you're looking for Sunday reading and you are in the mood for a good jeremiad, try Nicholson Baker's The Anthologist, a novel/polemic that argues for the supremacy not only of rhyming poetry, but for the four-beat line (not the French-import five-beat or six-beat line) as the essential unit of English language song.

I've slagged Baker in the past, and off the top of my head I'd put up the all-hexameter "Paint It Black" as evidence against the dogma of the tetrameter (which I think speaks mostly to the circumstances of late-20th century childhood, when Dr. Seuss was the only popular writer regularly producing rhymed verse).

But Baker (for whom I rediscover my fondness as he becomes more of a full-service crank getting equally exercised over World War II, presidential assassination, and card catalogues) unleashes his genius for micron-level description, anthropomorphism, and faux-innocent revisionist narrative. Here Baker describes his first experience of the national catastrophe of haiku, in fourth grade:

So the teacher said: we're going to learn something new today. A new way of writing poetry. It's called haiku. And it's going to allow you—to make art.

And it has a couple of different lines, three lines, and one line has some arbitrary number of syllables, and another line has another arbitrary number of syllables, et cetera. And I heard her describing this, and I knew, even then. I knew even then that it was bogus.

This, children, is a kind of poetry that makes perfect, thrilling sense in Japanese, and makes no sense whatsoever in English. That's what she should have told us. This form is completely out of step with the English language. And the person who foisted it on us—that person was a demon.

Although the novel part of the book consists of some disposable scaffolding about a not-quite-Bakeresque hero and his relationships, the structure is an argument that poetry has been under a rhyme-hating hipster dictatorship for nearly 100 years. Baker traces all "evil" to Ezra Pound (I'd have said Ezra Klein), the regrettably prolific author, modernist and gadfly, and he traces the solidification of Pound's doctrine to the post-war period, when Pound was institutionalized after having made ecstatically pro-Mussolini broadcasts from Fascist Italy: "Pound, who was by nature a blustering bigot—a humorless jokester—a talentless pasticheur—a confidence man—was now supported by the American state."

I think Baker is even more right here than he knows. A persistent theme of the cultural cold war—evident in Encounter magazine and the promotion of Jackson Pollock as a cultural ambassador—was the U.S. government's belief that high modernism was the right language to use against the Soviet project. Baker traces the evolution through public and private intitutions, in stories such as the see-saw anthologizing and de-anthologizing of ace rhymester and one-time laureate Karl Shapiro.

That is, the consensus for poetry as nothing more than "prose in slow motion" was supported by all officialdom, from the Poets Laureate to The New Yorker, whose page-warmer poems get a vivid depiction:

Let's have a look at this poem. Here it is, going down. You can tell it's a poem because it's swimming in a little gel pack of white space. That shows it's a poem. All the typography on all sides has drawn back. The words are making room, they're saying, Rumble, rumble, stand back now, this is going to be good. Here's the magician will do his thing. Here's the guy who's going to eat razor blades… The prose will have been pulled back, and the poem will be there, cavorting, saying, I'm a poem, I'm a poem. No, you're not! You're an imposter, you're a toy train of pretend stanzas of chopped garbage.

I would say Baker is clearly right in asserting that the consensus for prosaic poetry was once so strong that to be in favor of rhyming was to be a wild-eyed hippie, or Richard Wilbur. Disrespect for rhyme was actually taught in school. Baker's fourth grade scenes again:

What did she really mean by "It doesn't have to rhyme?" Did she mean it could rhyme but it didn't have to? No. She meant Don't rhyme. She meant: I am going to manacle your poor pliable brains with freedom. I'm going to insist that you must be free. She wrote "FREE VERSE" on the board.

And I…thought, What does she mean it doesn't have to rhyme? It does have to rhyme! It's got to rhyme, because rhyme is poetry. Where did Little Miss Muffet sit? Did she sit on a cushion? Did she sit on a love seat? No, she sat on a tuffet.

The prosing conspiracy, in Baker's telling, is Pynchonian in its sweep. It dates back as far as a 1602 Thomas Campion essay in favor of blank verse. It encompasses metaphysical questions like Thomas Babington 1st Baron Macaulay's guess that the really popular songs of the Greeks and Romans were never written down, because everybody had them memorized.

I think Baker may miss the degree to which the regime of free verse has weakened. Five years ago, future poet laureate Kay Ryan wrote this riveting first-person piece acknowledging that sessions on sonnets and sestinas were the biggest seat-fillers at a conference of self-identified poets. The New Yorker does occasionally publish rhymed verse under current poetry editor Paul Muldoon (with whom Baker conducts one of those imaginary friendships he does well).

I would say this transition has been something forced on the Fellowship of the Fellowships by popular demand. You can only ignore for so long that there is a vast audience willing to pay 99 cents at a time for rhymed verses—often rhymed verses that are spoken with accompaniment rather than sung. Somebody's filling up those poetry slams. Baker even flirts with the idea that market forces improve art:

At some point you have to set aside snobbery and what you think is culture and recognize that any random episode of Friends is probably better, more uplifting for the human spirit, than ninety-nine percent of the poetry or drama or fiction or history ever published. Think of that…. [S]ome of the most inventive people get no recognition at all. They get tons of money but no recognition as artists. Which is probably much healthier for them and better for their art.

Baker could have been a sport and mentioned that The Rembrandts' "I'll Be There For You" is composed in a combination of hexameters and pentameters. Or he might have updated his TV references to include Legend of the Seeker, which here exposes Baker's favored ballad stanza as the last province of male chauvinism: