The Inner Meaning of Poetic Form
It is becoming clear at this moment in American literary history that the most dynamic and promising trend in poetry today is the expansive movement, or the new formalism as it is also known. Periodicals, conferences, poetry collections, critical essays and monographs are recognizing and celebrating this turn in poetics; young poets either embrace the new mode or at least accommodate their theory to it.
So this is a good moment to put this fashion to the test–to see whether it is just a fashion, or if it promises something deeper, some transformation in the nature of poetic art that will bring our practice closer to its true function. As one of the founders and spokespersons of the movement, I nevertheless recognize that mere technique in poetic form and narrative, however skillful and admirable, is not enough; great poetry has been written in free verse, and trivial poetry has been written in tight, ingenious meters and cleverly organized narrative structures. The promise of the new trend will be realized only if poets and readers are able to take the formal elements of poetry at their deepest level, as talismans or psychic technologies designed to unlock the gates between the human and the natural, the conscious and the unconscious, the present and the past, the rational and the chaotic, life and death. Or rather, even to invoke these dualisms is to be betrayed by a language that is not truly poetic, not truly capable of the deep science in which the dualisms disappear.
When we respond to the meter or the mythic plot of a poem, we are doing so as a member of the species Homo sapiens, as a primate, a mammal, a vertebrate, a living organism, a marvellously intricate piece of carbon chemistry, a play of physical particles and forces, an involuted knot of spacetime. In other words, we are not confined, as we can be by unmeasured denotative statement, to the most recent level of biological evolution, that brought about the specialization of the linguistic areas of the left temporal cortex, but released into our entire evolutionary history.
In an earlier book, Natural Classicism, I reported at length the research on this neurocharm that the distinguished Munich psychophysicist Ernst Pöppel and I conducted during the last two decades. I shall only summarize it here, but it was the discoveries we made, especially the extraordinary correspondences between the findings of neuroscience, traditional poetic practice, worldwide anthropological evidence, and close literary research and analysis, that really convinced me of the existence and importance of the neurobiological foundations of the arts.
Poetic meter mediates between left-brain linguistic capacities and right-brain musical and gestalt capacities. All over the world human beings compose and recite poetry in poetic meter; all over the world the meter has a line-length of about three seconds, stretching sometimes to about four and a half for solemn poetry, and contracting sometimes to as little as two for comic poetry.
The three-second line, we found to our excitement, was tuned to the three-second information processing cycle in the human brain, which Pöppel was investigating in his laboratory. Our aware mental present is three seconds long–we remember echoically and completely three seconds’ worth of information, before it is passed on to a longer-term memory system, where it is drastically edited, organized for significant content, and pushed down to a less immediate level of consciousness. Thus poetic meter is the most efficient and memorable way of communicating verbal information.
If a natural brain rhythm, like the ten cycle per second alpha rhythm, is “driven” or amplified by an external rhythmic stimulus, the result can be large changes in brain state and brain chemistry; in the case of the alpha rhythm, epileptic-like seizures. The effect of driving the three-second cycle is much more benign, and has been investigated in the study of chant-induced ritual trance. Chanting the same three-second phrase over and over again, or different three-second phrases with identical rhythmic structure, can produce changes in brain chemistry, and consequently in the amount and kind of information that the brain can absorb, and in the kind of higher-level processing it can put to work. A state resembling the relaxed awareness that is the goal of meditative disciplines is attained, but at the same time a powerful channel is opened up between the linguistic left temporal lobe of the brain, normally somewhat isolated, and the emotive and evocative limbic system. New experiences of insight and empathy with nature and with other human beings become possible.
But poetry takes this basic cycle and builds on it (much as our genetically-based rituals must have been transformed by new, culturally-evolved traditions). The poetic line is shaped according to a repeated pattern of feet or other subunits, whose elements are syllables that differ as to length, stress, or, in tonal languages like Chinese, tone. Against this pattern significant and expressive variations can be played. For instance, the English iambic pattern consists of a regular pulse of one unstressed and one stressed syllable, thus: -/ . But consider this sonnet by Shakespeare (18), which is based on the same iambic (-/) pattern of syllables, yet varies freely on it without losing touch with it:
/ – – / – – – / – /
Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?
/ – / / – – / / – –
Thou art more lovely and more temperate.
/ / – / – / – / – /
Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May,
– / – / – / / / – /
And summer’s lease hath all too short a date.
/ / / / – / – / – /
Sometime too hot the eye of heaven shines,
– / – – – / – / – /
And often is his gold complexion dimmed;
– / – / – / / – – /
And every fair from fair sometimes declines,
– / – / – / – / – /
By chance, or nature’s changing course, untrimmed; . . .
The difference between the expected rhythm and the actual rhythm carries information, as a tune does, or as a line does in a drawing; and that information is processed and understood not with the linguistic left brain but with the musical and spatial right brain. Thus unlike ordinary language, poetic language comes to us in a “stereo” neural mode, so to speak, and is capable of conveying feelings and ideas that are usually labeled nonverbal; the genre itself is a biocultural feedback loop that makes us able to use much more of our brain than we normally can. The protean quality of poetic meter allows it to draw in to the same artistic work a variety of other neurocharms, including the metaphysical- speculative, the troping-symbolical, the ideographic-architectonic, the narrative, the power of dramatic mimesis, and of course, through song, the somewhat different aptitudes of musical meter.
Poetic meter, however, carries with it the full shame of our evolutionary roots, in its evocation of nursery rhyme and sacrificial chant, its arousal of the vulnerable old sweetness I have imaged in the girl with her mother’s
dress. Moreover, like several other charms, poetic meter requires considerable training in its mastery, and thus the neophyte is exposed to the shame of incapacity as part of the initiation into full participation. Since shame was for the moderns the worst of all evils, poetic meter came to be abhorred, and associated with a blush of disgust at rhymes and jingles, and with the embarrassing mother figure lampooned in the caricature of the blue-haired trinominate lady poet. “Free verse,” with its antiseptic safety, was substituted. We see this psychological move clearly in the career of William Carlos Williams. There were, indeed, legitimate artistic reasons for profound metrical experiment, which inspired the extraordinary variations on the traditional forms that we find in the work of Pound and Eliot. But a generation of poets grew up who had lost touch with their ancient shamanic brothers and sisters, and did not know what they had missed. Now another generation has come that must seek painfully in the realms of the dead for the beauty and the shame that was lost.
In actual fact, there has been a highly sophisticated tradition of prosodic study for over three thousand years, which I would urge contemporary researchers to consult if they have not already. The archaic Greeks had an extraordinary range of metrical forms, together with a system which assigned particular emotional and social meanings to them; and the classical Greeks developed these empirical techniques into a body of theory. This theory was imitated and developed by the Romans, revived in the Italian Renaissance, spread through northern Europe with neoclassical learning, and has only recently fallen into obscurity. Similar developments can be demonstrated in other old civilizations, such as India, China, Japan, and the Middle East.
With the rise of modernism in the arts and literature, many of the old forms, techniques, and disciplines came into question, as representing traditional social hierarchies and behavioral constraints now considered detrimental to human freedom. Visual representation in painting and sculpture, tonality and melody in music, narrative connectedness in fiction, dramatic identification in the theater, and prosody in poetry, were attacked and often discarded as mere cultural conventions. Free verse reigned supreme.
It thus came as something of a bombshell when the apparently biological and innate character of these old forms and techniques began to be recognized in the arts and humanities. There was an upsurge of interest in oral literature, reviving the work of Milman Parry and Albert Lord on the mnemonic function of prosody in traditional oral epic. In an academic tradition that had heavily invested in the theory that reality is socially constructed, critical theory now had to cope with structures and practices in the arts that were not just arbitrary constructs of cultural elites, but expressions of fundamental biological needs and inclinations, with a presumably genetic basis. A new movement arose in American poetry, which has now begun to spread to other countries, usually called the “New Formalism” or sometimes, when it includes a recognition of basic narrative and dramatic structures, “Expansive Poetry.” Similar trends are occurring in the visual and musical arts. A small revolution is going on in the field of poetic translation, where the normal practice of turning metered originals into free-verse translations is coming into serious doubt. I and my colleague Zsuzsanna Ozsváth have essentially tested the implications of the new research by putting them into practice in a book of translations of the Hungarian poet Miklós Radnóti (Foamy Sky: The Major Poems of Miklós Radnóti: Princeton University Press, 1992); the book recently won the Milan Fust Prize, Hungary’s highest literary honor.
The poets are turning to old treatises on poetic meter, and to the new scientific work represented by the researchers in this book. Poets and readers of poetry may eventually have much to learn from this research. But there may also be a reciprocal contribution from the literary tradition. Scientific researchers on prosody should probably acquaint themselves with the classical ways in which syllables are defined and characterized in different cultures, by their relative stress, length and tone; with the ways in which feet or strophes are formed by combinations of short and long, stressed and unstressed, changing-tone and unchanging-tone syllables; and with the various uses of rhyme and alliteration, and of lines and stanzas of different shape and length. Such issues as the need for a caesura or secondary break in the middle of a line, and the metrically permissible elision of syllables, may serve as valuable clues as to their underlying neural structures and functions. End-rhyme, for instance, may be a formalization of the infant’s tendency to prolong the final syllable of a cluster.
New research by Colwyn Trevarthen and Ellen Dissanayake shows that mothers and newborns conduct their prelinguistic conversations in a three-second antiphon of “motherese,” and that mammals conduct their continuous little dance of movement, attention saccades, and expressive action in a three-second cycle. But meter is important at much deeper levels yet. As the psycholinguists Michael Lynch and Kim Oller have shown, within the three-second short-term memory window there is room for about ten shorter beats, corresponding to syllables, or to the shortest interval in which human action reflexes can still operate; within this 1/3 second period there are nested about ten yet shorter beats, corresponding to the minimum interval at which we can perceive the order of two different sounds; and within this tiny moment there is room for about ten tinier ones, the minimum interval at which we can identify anything at all. The brain uses the meter in which neural firings are exchanged as a carrier of precise information about what is perceived or remembered, and the enzyme and RNA factories that construct the body’s proteins consult their central DNA library in an intricately hierarchical rhythmic pattern. Ilya Prigogine has shown that complex chemical reactions, especially those involving catalysts, have a rhythmic temporal structure, and quantum chemists and physicists have long known that matter can be described as the nodes where the different local periodicities of energy quanta find their harmonic resolution–matter as a kind of rhyme. . . .
So when a poet uses and an audience hears meter, we are taking a first step into an organic recognition of our unity with the physical universe; we are, if you like, celebrating our participation in the being of Gaia herself. We are also affirming our solidarity with the whole past of the world, and making it possible for our creations to be the issue of generative forces that go far beyond the capabilities of our clever little linguistic centers. Poetry becomes an accelerated version of evolution itself, of that miraculous feedback among variation, selection, and heredity which produced the orchid, the sperm whale, the tobacco mosaic virus, the giant panda and the coral reef.
Perhaps indeed this is the meaning of the myth of Orpheus, the first poet in the Greek mythology, who, like Solomon, or like Vyasa, the mythical poet of the Mahabharata, could speak the languages of animals and plants and stones. Orpheus’ journey to the underworld and back (as Virgil says, any fool can go down there, but to return–this is the labor, this is the task) is more than just a search for his lost wife Eurydice. Or rather, the search for his lost wife means the recovery of the organic connection with the rest of the universe. The point is that Orpheus can make his journey only because he possesses and can use his lyre, the instrument by which Greek poets kept the measure of their meter and gave their lines a rhyme. It is the lyre that opens the gates of the underworld; and it is when Orpheus fails to trust its magic, and looks back to see if Eurydice is following, that he tragically loses her forever.
We can follow the mysterious logic of the myth still further; for the lyre of Orpheus (and of his father Apollo) was originally the invention of Hermes, who traded it for the caduceus, the snake-entwined rod by which he conducts mortals between the lands of the living and the dead. It so happens that the double helix of the two snakes is an exact model of the shape of the DNA molecule; and this is not just a coincidence, for the double helix is perhaps the best intuitive diagram of any feedback process, and DNA is the feedback process of feedback processes. If the lyre, then, is in some sense equivalent to the caduceus, we may infer that the meter of poetry is analogous to the meter of biological reproduction and evolution. This is the central insight of Rilke’s Sonnets to Orpheus. Other versions of this talisman are the magic flute of Mozart and da Ponte, the golden bough of Virgil, the metatron of Moses (also a combination of rod and snake), the drum of the Asiatic shamans, the bagpipe of the ancient Magyar bards–even perhaps the “Mcguffin” of Alfred Hitchcock.
But this is perhaps to give too great an emphasis to meter. One could make much the same argument for narrative technique, that marvellous system by which time takes on its strange, unspacelike asymmetry. A story, like a melody, is any sequence of events that are retrodictable, that is, can be shown to have been inevitable once they have happened, but not predictable before they have happened; because the events themselves bring about a new kind of universe in which their antecedents now add up to an irreversible chain of causes. (The most crass example of this is the detective story, whose solution is obvious once the sleuth unveils it, but not before). In this sense we may perhaps take the rod of Hermes’ caduceus to mean the fixed retrodictability of a story, and the snakes to mean its protean unpredictability. The unpredictability of a story is what makes us want to know what happens next–and this is why the Sultan spares the life of the storyteller Sheherezade, and Minos spares the life of Orpheus. In this light the duality of meter takes on a deeper significance still. The fixed pattern of stressed and unstressed syllables (or long and short syllables, or tone-changing and tone-unchanging ones as in Chinese verse) bears the same relation to the varying pattern of spoken cadence that floats above the fixed framework, that the predictable bears to the unpredictable elements of a story. Or one could even say that meter was micro-story, or that story was macro-meter.
Thus if we are to take seriously the return to meter and narrative proclaimed by the new formalists and expansivists, a whole new set of intellectual, imaginative, and social responsibilities open up for the poet. Or perhaps it would be more accurate to say that the old responsibilities will come back in a new form. Essentially, the poets of the coming era must be shamans. A shaman is not just a private person voicing his or her personal angsts or expressing purely personal esthetic, philosophical, or political opinions. A shaman speaks to, and for, a whole culture, as the unifying mouthpiece of its own deepest collective musings, and as its representative when it consults its own dead sages and sibyls. Moreover it is part of the duty of the shaman to be to some extent public, even popular, to sell his or her visions in the marketplace, to hear and respond to the needs and yearnings of the patrons whose conscience they are.
The new shaman must also learn the dialects of the tribe–and that tribe is now global, the human race itself. The most important dialects are the ones that are shared among all peoples, and are taken as legitimate media of exchange and criteria of agreement–trade, law, technology, and above all, science. Science is the way we learn the languages of all of the rest of nature, beyond our human circle, and thus is even more important for a new poet to know than trade and law. Technology connects science with the others–the special technologies of the poet are meter, storytelling, and imagery (which I have not dealt with here because it is so well handled elsewhere).
Once we adopt the responsibilities of the shaman, many wonderful things that as poets we find increasingly difficult to achieve will suddenly become easy. One of them is finding a subject: we are engaged in the work of educating and healing our fellow-citizens, and we need only speak of what they need to know and hear. Another is being funny. The moment we recognize ourselves as the peculiar kind of primate mammalian animal that we are, trapped and incarnate in the material slapstick of physical existence, forced in the theater of human miscommunication to give and receive gifts from others in order to survive at all, laughter is hard to avoid. Shakespeare, perhaps the greatest shaman of all time, who fulfills all the difficult criteria I have tendentiously laid out here, knew all this very well. Another suddenly available resource will be vision. Instead of having to strain our humdrum daily perceptions for some little plankton-like smear of insight, we will have almost the opposite problem: how to make the miracle of existence, with its humming and ringing levels of concentric complexity, local enough to convey in an image or anecdote. Finally, the true shamans will find that rarest of all contemporary resources: a real audience, a public not drawn to the poet in hopes of recognition for its own poetic efforts, nor attracted by the fading glamor of another era’s poetic achievements, nor hoping to share a fellowship of social and cultural failure; but coming together in the deeply pleasurable, ancient, ad hoc ritual of world-construction.