A while back (when I was still posting under the name Varius Contrarius) I was getting tired of my own posts, and wanted to try something new. I dashed out a critique of a critique quoted on a website, and even though at the time I was hesitant to post it, I followed through to break up the monotony of political polemic. Sometimes in conversation Eric will say, ‘you should post about that!,’ but here I am still poking Kerry with my little stick.
I stumbled across a response to that post that never made it’s way to the comments or as a trackback here at Classical Values, but apparently some folks over at Fresh Bilge decided to let me have it. Who knew? Not I.
I tried to leave a comment, but they’ve long since closed. The critique of my critique of Perloff’s fragment of a critique begins:

I’ve been meaning for some time to riff off a poetry post by Varius Contrarius, one of Eric Scheie’s two new co-bloggers at Classical Values, but I’ve been so busy with FB redesign that I never got round to it. Instead I solicited a comment from the skipper, who is a poet and metrist of some repute. He’s also a technophobe, and unwilling to blog, even though I’ve offered him guest-posting status. He responded the old-fashioned way, via email. The skipper agrees with Varius that Marjorie Perloff is, shall we say, over-rated in her expertise, but he finds Varius himself no wiser.

Fair enough. I have no doubts that last part is true, but let’s take a look at the argument:

Tim and I believe Perloff and Contrarius deserve one another, being equally muddle-headed about matters metrical and poetical. WCW was not a metrical poet. In fact I would argue that only the line breaks cause such a mundane utterance to be called a poem. It became the besetting vice of poetry, during its Twentieth Century decline, that it could only be distinguished as poetry by an author’s carriage return. Here’s the skipper’s riposte:

Varius is shooting at a pretty fat, slow target. Observe. In “Janus-Faced Blockbuster”, a review of Cary Nelson’s Anthology of Modern American Poetry on her website, Marjorie Perloff, who styles herself an authority on prosody, quotes these lines by the African-American poet Georgia Douglas Johnson (written in 1918) :

The heart of a woman goes forth with the dawn
As a lone bird, soft winging, so restlessly on;
Afar o’er life’s turrets and vales does it roam
In the wake of those echoes the heart calls home.
The heart of a woman falls back with the night,
And enters some alien cage in its plight,
And tries to forget it has dreamed of the stars
While it breaks, breaks, breaks, on the sheltering bars.

Tuts Madge, “These chug-chug iambic pentameter stanzas rhyming aabb remind one of a Hallmark card.” [At least her sister critic, Helen] Vendler admits she has a tin ear; but Perloff can’t even discriminate between iambic pentameter and anapestic tetrameter! What did Sondheim write? “These indiscriminate/ women it/ pains me more/ than I can say!” But if Varius thinks Williams’ free verse is metrical, he knows less than they. His apparent scorn for accentual syllabic verse in English, which the great prosodic thinker Robert Mezey ranks with the wheel as one of man’s two great inventions, bespeaks a classical snobbery which would have appalled Housman, the greatest classicist of his day. Indeed it would torture into fits Dudley Fitts and Robert Fitzgerald. I’ve memorized enough syllabic verse in French and quantitative verse in Greek to be inclined to agree with Mezey. Accentual syllabic was good enough for Shakespeare, and he was no robot.

The skipper has spoken. I can only add that the “blockbuster” Georgia Douglas Johnson was doing a stilted, sentimental-feminist takeoff of Tennyson, and that (at least on evidence of the quoted lines) she has been elevated for critical acclaim only because of her race and gender.

Now if you’ve ingested all of that I hope you’ve seen the error. The Skipper, in all his wisdom, ignores my definition of meter and argues that I know less about meter than Perloff (who ‘can’t even discriminate between iambic pentameter and anapestic tetrameter!’) and WCW (who wrote ‘free verse’ which is decidedly unmetrical). However, I was careful in my post to define meter openly as anything by which poetry is measured. This allows for poetry in any language (not just the classical poetry of Western literary dialects) and allows for meter beyond that recognized by pedants.
To do so, according to the Skipper, ‘bespeaks a classical snobbery which would have appalled Housman, the greatest classicist of his day.’
Of course the real issue here is that he misinterprets my emphasis upon sentence stress in favor of word stress. My argument was that sentence stress is more natural than word stress ‘unless you’re a robot’, not that word stress is to be scorned.
This may be defended in part by an example which I believe appears in W.S. Allen’s Accent and Rhythm (which I don’t have handy) wherein a poet is derided by a critic for misunderstanding his own meter, when in fact the poet sang his verse with quite a different rhythm than that with which the critic read it.
Admittedly the robot line was rhetorical and I knew when I wrote it that some people might take offense, but I’m not worried about offending those who hold faithfully to metrical schemes as canonical and reject all that does not fit their rules. And so it is curious that the Skipper and his mate would accuse me of classical snobbery when it is they who have limited the scope of what is metrical and poetical. And is it classical snobbery to admit of a wider concept of meter, or rather to declare that ‘only the line breaks cause such a mundane utterance to be called a poem?’
That the Skipper’s mate speaks of the decline of poetry as conventions change is a most damning counter to their shared thesis of my so-called classical snobbery.
It would surprise them that Housman is dear to me, and that I believe Shakespeare will never be surpassed. I wonder if it would surprise them too that the mature Shakespeare’s blank verse is quite like the meters employed by Greek and Roman playwrights in that it often gives one the illusion of natural speech. In this work Shakespeare differs from his earlier, more formal period.
I’m wondering why the Skipper is silent on sentence stress. Perhaps when strict rules of sentence stress have been defined and technical names applied to them, once poets acknowledge and employ those rules, we’ll recognize it as meter.
And once we’ve memorized enough French and Greek poetry we can take shots at slow moving targets from a safe distance, viz. third-party puffery from unknown quarters.