The Chronicle Review

The Missing Music in Today's Poetry

Joyce Hesselberth for The Chronicle Review

October 07, 2013

Complaining about poetry is a mug's game, as Mark Edmundson recently learned after publishing his "Poetry Slam" in the July issue of Harper's. Like Jeremy Bentham and Thomas Love Peacock in the 19th century, and Edmund Wilson and Joseph Epstein in the 20th, Edmundson's lament about the current state of the art met with scorn and condescension. It would have to—wouldn't it? I mean, the man openly condemns today's poets for a lack of ambition. Apparently their voices, however assured, rarely address those grand human and existential questions encountered in poems by Eliot, Yeats, Lowell, Frost, Auden, Stevens, et al. Is Edmundson right? Well, that depends on what you think poetry ought to do, which naturally leads to a lot of Sturm und Drang and little hope for fair weather.

I, too, am of Edmundson's party, but my discontent is more site-specific, tonal rather than dispositive. Simply put: I miss what I used to enjoy. I miss the poetry I used to hear in my head after reading it on the page. I miss the sound it used to make. Very little of what I read now seems truly memorable in the sense that it lends itself to memorization. Edmundson might say that's partially because it's not worth committing to memory. Me, I just think poets don't care enough about a poem's music, which means they don't expect us to recite their poems 10 minutes or 10 years after we've read them.

Three years ago, in The New Yorker, Dan Chiasson delivered a thoughtful paean to the work of Rae Armantrout, the 2010 recipient of the Pulitzer Prize. After duly noting Armantrout's sure touch with language, the finesse of her method, and the delicacy with which she handles the vagaries of experience, he fastens on her strong suit. Her poems are about consciousness, the awareness of being aware, which makes them reflexively chart the course of their own difficulty: "It's the mind as problem-solving device, almost as calculator," Chiasson writes, "though it is, of course, most drawn to problems that cannot be solved." The insouciant assurance of that "of course" made me realize—not for the first time—that I am not interested in a poet's mind; it's not what draws me to poetry.

If I wanted to know what interesting minds think, I would pick up Hume, Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, Wilde, or the letters of Eliot and Keats as opposed to their poems. Yes, of course, Shakespeare, Donne, Keats, Eliot, Lowell, and Dickinson had interesting minds. That's not the point. Readers didn't read those poets just for the contents of their minds; they read them for the sound of their words. Even when poets were nominally "the unacknowledged legislators of the world," poetry consisted of lines that rhythmically fixed themselves in the mind. Do poets today still take this as an article of faith? Admittedly, I may be ignorant of many English-speaking poets whose compositions reverberate by rhythmic design—so far, however, I have not encountered them.

Instead I run into Rae Armantrout. I don't mean to single out Ms. Armantrout; I could just as easily have chosen Kay Ryan or Stephen Dunn or Jean Valentine or a dozen other poets—proficient practitioners, one and all. When I read these poets, I discern intelligence, shrewdness, irony, and humor. I often admire the elliptical shorthand of their phrasing and the precision of their lines, and I'm tickled by the concentration of appellative nouns and their dispersal in lines that seem to have no give to them. In short, I believe I can appreciate their poetry. Yet, in the end, I remain unmoved by it.

Because there is no music.

Historically, English verse, depending on which authority you consult, falls into categories of syllabic or accentual stresses. Deliberate patterns of alternation between stronger and weaker stresses or between shorter or longer syllables establish a regular meter based on the distance between accented syllables. Does that mean that lines must be read with equal emphasis by everyone? Not quite. Metrical invention sometimes follows and sometimes vies with natural speech. Nonetheless, accent and duration have accounted for the ascending or descending rhythms of English poetry since the early 16th century.

Generally speaking, poets manipulate natural prose rhythms, creating a base line whose recurrence in the poem gets us tapping our minds and feet. The pattern established, poets can then exercise some discretion. Although formal verse may smack of orthodoxy, a poet who has gone to school with Milton, Donne, Spenser, Browning, and Tennyson can perform rewarding variations on familiar meters and fixed rhyme schemes. You need a good ear to write verse, but only an average ear to appreciate it. And if you want to know the difference between a well-crafted poem and a mediocre one, Ezra Pounds's gentle reminder still serves: "LISTEN to the sound it makes."

Writing to the critic Cleanth Brooks, Eliot observed: "Reading your essay made me feel, for instance, that I had been much more ingenious than I had been aware of, because the conscious problems with which one is concerned in the actual writing are more those of a quasi musical nature, in the arrangement of metric and pattern, than of a conscious exposition of ideas." The "quasi musical" nature of poetry that Eliot and Pound were after was different from the plangent rhythms of Longfellow and Swinburne. And just as Wordsworth and Coleridge had repudiated Augustan stateliness, so the projective poets of the 1950s discarded the formalistic elements of Eliot and Pound. Art, after all, progresses both by borrowing from and by rejecting the past. And this, if I may hazard another sweeping generalization, is where contemporary poets run aground. What, one may ask, are they rejecting? What currents are they valiantly swimming against?

Although poets will tell you that the paradigm has shifted, that the musicality whose absence I deplore is less important than the focus of their poems, it's hard to be truly original when there are no immediate precursors to spurn or deviate from. Without something to counter, the poet's "originality" is destined to resonate only within its creator. "The poem which is absolutely original is absolutely bad," Eliot pronounced, "it is, in the bad sense, 'subjective' with no relation to the world to which it appeals."

Paradigms notwithstanding, music matters. It always has, it always will. Yet apart from a few formalist poets here and there, poets have stopped writing in meter, and readers no longer expect the iambs and anapests that formerly arrived in two- and three-beat measures. Most poets have simply shrugged off the burden of influence, rejecting meter without first learning how to compose in it. Meaning trumps rhythm; connotation finesses sound.

Yes, of course, there are exceptions. James Fenton wrote a nifty poem about God that practically tap-dances off the page: "A serious mistake in a nightie, / A grave disappointment all round / Is all that you'll get from th'Almighty, / Is all that you'll get underground." And Donald Justice, Richard Wilbur, and John Hollander have all written lines that scan without difficulty. Yet even the estimable Seamus Heaney, who was unsurpassed in joining the singularity of objects with the poignancy of moods and memories, sometimes stopped in his melodic tracks to make a point rather than let the music play on. Those poets, of course, are from a generation that took seriously Yeats's admonition to "sing whatever is well made."

But song is not a word we associate with John Ashbery and his progeny. As a result, their work doesn't lend itself to memorization. Whereas Auden and Larkin hum and whistle in the mind, contemporary "verse" usually dribbles off into nothingness. It's presumptuous of me to say it, but I don't think our poets live for poetry as much as for the act of sharing their thoughts and feelings in the guise of poems. They're forgetting that poetry is a craft and a discipline before it is a reason to write about oneself.

Poets everywhere will argue this point—vehemently. Let them. Anyone who drops in on poetry readings or who clicks on YouTube can attest to the atonal quality of contemporary verse. Some poets make no bones about this. Kay Ryan acknowledged that her poems do not start with images or sound, but develop "the way an oyster does, with an aggravation." That's a nice conceit, and more power to her. Poets should write how and what they want; but let them also be aware that their work is not, as Dylan Thomas incanted, "for the lovers, their arms / Round the griefs of the ages, Who pay no praise or wages / Nor heed my craft or art."

Ultimately, of course, it boils down to the personal, so let me say straight-out that the exquisite spareness of poets like Ryan and Armantrout, or the roll call of colloquial references favored by Ashbery, makes me work too hard. Yes, T.S. Eliot and Wallace Stevens also made me work, but at least I could hear their lines playing in my head. So what I'm asking is: Do I really want to spend time figuring out the associations among words on a page and the experiences they're meant to distill if the sound of the poem doesn't please me?

By "sound" I mean more than just the auditory experience of poetry. After all, some metered poems bear only the faintest resemblance to music. It is, finally, the poet's voice that calls to us: "What underlies all success in poetry," Lionel Trilling wrote, "what is even more important than the shape of the poem or its wit or its metaphor, is the poet's voice. It either gives us confidence in what is being said or it tells us that we do not need to listen; and it causes both the modulation and the living form of what is being said." The paradoxical thing about this voice is that it does not actually exist outside of our own heads. When we hear a poet's voice speaking from the page, we hear it internally: The tempo, the emphasis, the feelings are synthesized in us—which is why I prefer to read a poem rather than hear it read aloud (unless the reader happens to be Dylan Thomas, but even then it's a tossup). A poem speaking to me from the page is private and makes itself felt as no stranger's voice possibly could. In short, I have a relation with those words, which disappears when I hear them spoken.

The poems I go back to were written mostly before 1977, the year Larkin's "Aubade" appeared in the TLS. Obviously, I have read some worthwhile poems written since then, but damned if I can remember them. I'm also painfully aware that if people are still reading this, some may actually go to the trouble of calling my attention to all the wonderful, amazing, moving poems that I seem to have missed. To which I say, bring them on. But let me suggest that proficiency is not the yardstick here. Ask yourself whether these poems live up to the best of Auden, Yeats, Thomas, Stevens, Bishop, and Lowell. Do they reflect the essence of their time and place in language vibrant enough and in measures clear enough to be heard five dec­ades from now?

Perhaps I'm a dinosaur who can't make the shift from Palgrave to Pinsky—but I take no pride in it. I'm perfectly happy to be shown for a fool. But just as people can tell a good musician from a bad one, or a competent athlete from an extraordinary one, I believe I can distinguish among poets. I have a prejudice, however. While I think there are shadings or levels of skill among accomplished musicians and athletes, I feel that a poem without music is almost oxymoronic. Either you can write metrical verse or you can't, no matter how well you express yourself. The problem is that too many people who cannot write in musical form champion others who are likewise unskilled.

Consequently the fairly large and disparate community of poets continues to generate, as if by academic fiat, poems of such odd atonal quality that most readers cannot be bothered to listen. Again, there are exceptions: poems by Galway Kinnell, W.S. Merwin, and Mark Strand are metrically intact and easy on the ears. Those poets compose works which, I believe, nullify the accusation that the emperor isn't wearing any clothes. The emperor or empress most certainly is, but the cloth is of such fine-spun thread that the garment seems unpractical—"unpractical" in the Coleridgean sense that a poem must first be a house before it can be a palace. Forgive me for pitching my tent in the stately dwellings whose music follows me wherever I go.

Arthur Krystal's latest book is Except When I Write: Reflections of a Recovering Critic (Oxford University Press, 2011).