What Makes Poetry 'Poetic'?

WHAT ever happened to poetry's reading public? Almost everyone with a stake in the matter seems to agree that serious cultural interest in poetry isn't what it used to be. The traditional idea that having at least an acquaintance with major poetry, both classical and modern, constitutes a necessary part of any respectable intellectual portfolio appears to have given way to the attitude that an affinity for poetry qualifies one for membership in an insular subculture, if not something closer to a secret society.

Robert Pinsky, who is currently serving his second term as perhaps the most visible U.S. poet laureate to date, has written a short book that should go a long way toward reuniting poetry and the public. It is a manual of proposals on how to read poems -- or, more accurately, how to "hear more of what is going on in poems." That distinction, in Pinsky's view, is vital, and it forms the premise for his succinct and lucid guide to enhancing one's understanding of poetry through a greater awareness of the "vocal nature of the art." The upshot is an achievement for which there is surprisingly little precedent: an authoritative yet accessible introduction to the tools of the poet's trade that can be read with profit by the serious student and the amateur alike.

Over the past thirty years Pinsky has earned distinction as a trenchant critic (The Situation of Poetry), an enterprising translator (Dante's Inferno), and, most notably, a prolific poet of broad scope and many-sided gifts (his volume of collected poems, The Figured Wheel, was published to wide acclaim in 1996). Not incidental to the work at hand, he also had what some would consider the mixed blessing of studying at Stanford University under the late poet and critic Yvor Winters, a brilliant but fabulously truculent figure now best remembered for fiercely attacking poets who in his judgment displayed an imperfect command of traditional verse techniques. An unreconstructed formalist, Winters patrolled the precinct of contemporary poetry like a cop walking a beat; Pinsky, who has written impressive poems in both "received" and "open" forms, is in contrast tolerably liberal-minded regarding issues of aesthetic law and order. That his book owes a certain debt to Winters's severe discipline but is in no way an act of discipleship is a credit to the stoutness of his critical temperament: he has absorbed the soundest aspects of Winters's conservatism without inheriting the least trace of his mentor's punitive disposition.

What Pinsky has produced is in essence a handbook on prosody -- though, significantly, he nowhere alludes to that technical term for the study of versification and its expressive effects. Yet in saving his readers from what another scholar has called "the beast of terminology," Pinsky is not simply making an egalitarian concession to accessibility but taking a stand on principle. Pinsky insists that all of us already have "finely developed powers" for discerning the shades and nuances of language: that "hearing-knowledge" is part of the standard cognitive equipment we acquire from infancy and employ instinctively in routine banter and chitchat. "It is almost as if we sing to one another all day," Pinsky submits on the first page with typically sly charm.

Are we all unwitting prosodists, then? Well, no; and therein hangs the gist of Pinsky's engaging approach to shedding light on the mastery of poetic craft. On the one hand, his point is that the rhythmic patterns of accent and pitch that form the basis of English metric occur naturally in the modulation of the speaking voice; without them we could hardly make ourselves understood. On the other hand, when Robert Frost composes lines such as

I had the swirl and ache
From sprays of honeysuckle
That when they're gathered shake
Dew on the knuckle.

those familiar verbal tones and inflections take on a charged resonance missing from workaday locutions. What makes the difference is the versification: the casting of phrases into distinct vocal cadences that enable a listener, Pinsky writes, to "detect their presence without a printed version of the poem." Taken by itself, this may sound suspiciously like a truism -- and indeed, there is nothing especially startling about the touchstone concepts that inform Pinsky's account of poetry's inner workings. The great virtue of his treatment lies in his demonstration that paying closer attention to how poems like Frost's work -- how the flow of language is measured, how the length of a line builds expectation and tension, how the interplay within patterns of sounds produces audible dynamics that are pleasing and stirring -- is a technical concern of the most profound kind, instrumental in appreciating the full import of what Pinsky likes to call the "technology of poetry."

On the face of it, that turn of phrase may seem faintly heretical. In the event, however, it is indicative of Pinsky's finely developed powers as a demystifier that his analogy turns out to be uplifting instead of unsettling, emblematic of poetry's "special intimacy" as an ancient oral medium conceived for the purpose of committing ideas and feelings to memory. It also proves to be the rationale for his focus on the acoustics of poems and his emphasis on recitation. "When I say to myself a poem by Emily Dickinson or George Herbert," he writes, "the artist's medium is my breath. The reader's breath and hearing embody the poet's words. This makes the art physical, intimate, vocal, and individual."

This is about as close as The Sounds of Poetry comes to advancing a theory of poetics, and it is only by way of brisk introduction to what emerges as an invigorating session of talking shop. Why are poems written in lines, and why do the lines break where they do? How do the mechanics of English meter operate, and why is it that artful verse measure is seldom strictly regular? How can a reader acquire a reliable feel for the qualities of rhythm, tempo, and cadence that give a memorable poem its visceral appeal and expressive resonance? Is "free verse" really free -- and if so, what has it been liberated from? Pinsky's sensible answers to these questions -- for instance, that lines of poetry need to be understood as notations for the voice, and that rhythm is the "sound of an actual line" while meter is the "abstract pattern" that stands behind it -- are never doctrinaire, nor do they appeal to abstruse expertise. The prevailing atmosphere is less that of a solemn classroom lecture than that of a spirited audio tour, with Pinsky offering up various devices and motifs for inspection and providing a lively running commentary on how to fine-tune the ear to respond to the distinctive verbal energies that make poetry "poetic."

PINSKY'S idea that sound dictates sense can be seen in this example -- the first five lines of a lyric poem by William Shakespeare's contemporary Ben Jonson:

I now think, Love is rather
    deaf than blind,
For else it could not be
That she
Whom I adore so much
    should so slight me,
And cast my love behind.

And here is part of what Pinsky has to say about the "appealing show-off quality" of the poem's sense of line:

The run-over lines and pauses, the varying line lengths, the varying way the unit of syntax (that is, the grammatical phrases) coincides with the unit of rhythm (that is, the lines) or does not coincide -- all of these create an expressive, flamboyant whole. The poem speeds up and slows down many different ways in the course of these five lines. Though the lines are all made of iambic feet, the variation in pace and emphasis is great -- greater than could be easily attained in a comparable thirty-one words of prose.

Pinsky is equally attentive to poems with no fixed meter or rhyme scheme. Thus, shortly after sizing up the "flamboyant" Jonson snippet, he turns to poems by Robert Frost and William Carlos Williams, American contemporaries with polar aesthetic sensibilities, making a persuasive case for how the sinuous structure of Frost's "To Earthward" (quoted above) and of the following stanza from a decidedly unadorned poem by Williams ("To a Poor Old Woman") have much in common.

They taste good to her
They taste good
to her. They taste
good to her

Both poems dramatize the relation of "vocal alertness to sensory alertness" by "the angling of syntax into line and stanza at interesting tilts." For Pinsky any diligent reading of poetry must take account of the structural elements of sound that are inherent in the language itself.

Considered as a contribution to the line of edifying essays on metrics and poetics, a genre with a history nearly as long as English poetry itself, Pinsky's slim primer can hardly be said to break new ground. But that is not its ambition. With any luck the book will find its way into the hands not only of apprentice poets in graduate creative-writing programs but also of lapsed poetry lovers and prodigal English majors -- so many of whom, hearsay evidence strongly suggests, have been conditioned to question their instinctual belief that poems should be sources of delight rather than calls to duty. For them, The Sounds of Poetry contains an implicit message -- even, one might go so far as to say, a moral: hearing is believing.

David Barber is the assistant poetry editor of The Atlantic. He is the author of (1995), which won the Terrence Des Pres prize for poetry.

The Atlantic Monthly; March 1999; What Makes Poetry "Poetic"?; Volume 283, No. 3; pages 114-116.