I thought about this yesterday after I had biked to Ontario, to deliver my latest book to a poet I had never met before. He had agreed by email to consider the book for a possible review, and biking saved me three dollars in postage. (My last girlfriend once told me that I was the type of man who could walk fifty miles to save fifty cents; she knew me all too well.)
Michael turned out to be a short middle-aged man with bushy eyebrows and a small triangular beard. In his early years, he had been a basketball player, and in overcompensating for his height, had broken his ankles many times. (His long list of fractures and sprains would make a physiotherapist wince. My father had told me that a broken nose was painful beyond belief; Michael told me that it only hurt when broken the first time, then, to show me the result of repeated fractures, he pressed his nose, as if it were putty, sideways against his face.)
He asked what sort of verse I loved to read and write. When I told him that I was influenced by Elizabethan and Jacobean playwrights, that I wrote iambic pentameter blank verse and sonnets, he warned me that few people still did this, and that I risked losing readers because of it.
He compared the use of traditional forms to a concert that advertised modern music, but then played baroque. "How would people respond to that?"
(Oddly enough, Prokofiev pulled a stunt like this with his first symphony, which sounded more like something by Haydn than like anything by one of the bad boys of Russian music. To this day, people love it.)
Michael elaborated on this. "Imagine a concert of modern music that ended up playing polkas." For him, this was how modern readers would see traditional forms, as quaint or even ridiculous.
(And yet, I wondered, if the polkas were screamingly dissonant, distorted and sardonic like something from a scherzo by Shostakovich, I would have nothing to complain about.)
The truth is that many modern composers have turned to the past for instruction. Sibelius forged a modern sound by studying the counterpoint of Palestrina. Vaughan Williams and Bartok studied the folk music of their countries. Neoclassicism has been a force in modern music since the earliest years of the 20th Century, and remains a force in the concert halls of today.
I told Michael of my belief that writers of the past have something to teach us. John Ciardi's advice to work beyond cliches was well illustrated, for me, in the work of George Sterling, whose adjectives and images (sun-sincere, star-souled geode, unkempt fact, auroral mind) went far beyond anything that I could dream up. I mentioned Louise Bogan, Elinor Wylie, the story poems of Robert Frost. Perhaps too often, I mentioned Mervyn Peake. When I told him that I had learned a thing or two from John Keats, he laughed in a good-natured way and changed the subject.
From beginning to end of our long discussion, Michael was a friendly, welcoming man, never dismissive, yet clearly thinking by different assumptions and standards. We had a great conversation, but we agreed on almost nothing. He loved the work of Charles Bukowski and David Lee, of countless contemporary poets I had never heard of; he saw my exemplars (many unfamiliar to him) as outmoded.
What do we dismiss, when we call something outmoded?
Consider Beddoes. Many of the terms and conventions of his plays were out of date in his own time, but the zest, the energy, the imagery, the wit, the force of his language are timeless. If we turn our backs on such work because we consider it "old," what do we lose, and how much the less are we for losing it?
Why hast thou no more genius in thy villany?
Wilt thou catch kings in cobwebs? Lead him hence:
Chain him to-night in prison, and to-morrow
Put a cord round his neck and hang him up,
In the society of the old dog
That killed my neighbour's sheep.
I do thank thee.
In faith, I hoped to have seen grass grow o'er you,
And should have much rejoiced. But, as it is,
I'll willingly die upright in the sun:
And I can better spare my life than you.
Good-night then, Fool and Duke: you have my curse;
And Hell will have you some day down for hers:
So let us part like friends. My lords, good sleep
This night, the next I hope you'll be as well
As I shall. Should there be a lack of rope,
I recommend my bowstring as a strong one.
Once more, farewell: I wish you all, believe me,
Happily old, mad, sick, and dead, and cursed.
That gentleman should have applied his talent
To writing new-year's wishes.
[From "Death's Jest-Book," in The Poetical Works of Thomas Lovell Beddoes, Vol II. J. M. Dent and Co. London, 1890.]
As I see it, a sonnet is nothing but a form, and iambic pentameter blank verse is nothing but a technique. Any modern poet who writes with sincerity about personal experience and current events will create modern work in a modern voice, inescapably, because we live in modern times with modern assumptions. We are the products of history, and so the products of our minds will reflect this. What we can learn from the past is how to express our own ideas, our own metaphors and images, with energy, economy, conviction, and the full range of musicality in verse.
The more I think about this, the more I have to wonder: why should modern verse be a break with the past, and not a culmination?
Writers today have access to every technique and form devised since the age of Gilgamesh. With our modern freedom, why not follow threads of yesterday to new conclusions? Nothing is old fashioned, nothing is outmoded, if it can still energize, and still fascinate. Given the richness and variety of this heritage, anything lively should be acceptable, not as pastiche, but as a medium for obsessions and creations of our own.
As I said to Michael, "People of our century could write odes in ancient Greek, and the odes would still be modern, because the writers are modern."
Still, I have to wonder about our conversation. What if our differences had less to do with old fashioned methods versus modern, and more to do with differences of temperament and taste? Metrical regularity, rhyme, imagery, metaphor, the clash and harmony of vowels and consonants, all of these are sources of pleasure for me, and (I would like to hope) for many others.
Yes, we should be aware of what others are writing, and we should try to see such work (if we can) through the lens of their aesthetic preferences; variety in life is not only inevitable and necessary, but invigorating. At the same time, we should focus on the work that feels to us like the touch of a live wire, like fireworks within the skull; we should love and study the poems that bring us to life, and we should write according to our own obsessions, our own fascinations. We have to be ourselves.