1/Paul Fussell’s Poetic Meter & Poetic Form (1965, 1979):
Fussell takes a topic that makes most of us (even poets!) yawn, ie. poetic scansion/form, and turns it fascinating, contextualizing the writing of poetry through why it’s important to know how to read a poem. Drawing from John Hollander, Fussell speaks of the poet’s “metrical contract” with the reader and how, if the poet follows some essential rules of structure then the poem can yield more lasting pleasures & intensities for both writer & audience. He talks about being in charge of one’s rhythm, and about how a knowledge of enjambments, caesuras and metrical stresses increase enjoyment and the ability to appraise. In a tone some will feel is old-fashioned, Fussell rails passionately against the “illusion” of free verse, proceeding to show how the strongest free verse continues to be metrically pattered. “For the texture of a poem must be dense,” he proclaims; & somewhat later: “The art of poetry is the art of knowing language and people equally well. It is an art whose focus is in two directions at once: toward the inert technical arcana of syllables and sounds and syntax and metaphor as well as toward the animated actualities of human nature and human expectation.” Ooooh, the “technical arcana of syllables” – isn’t that just so delectable? I love Fussell for such lines and also for how he reminds us at the end of the book that our dearth of readers for poetry today comes mainly from the fact that we are not taught the conventions of poems that enable us to actually read a poem. And if we don’t know how to open a poem we aren’t likely to be able to enjoy it, memorize it, re-enter it in times of need. This text should be a mini-bible for all poets.
2/ James Longenbach’s The Resistance to Poetry (2004)
The question of accessibility and apparently trying to make more people like and want poetry (along with other art forms) seems to be a continual concern of sorts in North American cultural realms. Well this book reminds us that opacity, dense texture, elusiveness and atypical rhythms are all part of the deliciousness of the poem and that reductionism for the sake of “appealing to the masses” is simply not necessary. Longenbach describes poems made from the language of “self-questioning” and “self-resistance” and revels in the disjunctions and multiplicities of poetry itself. He explores the paradox of desiring both to communicate and to elude and how, at its best, such a tension can produce poems that don’t shy away from strangeness but accept “true wildness”. Using poets like Ashbery, Graham & Bidart as examples, Longenbach shows us how we need to read poems “more for their manner than their matter.” He calls the sound of a poem its invitation; the aim of a poem to not be immediately useful, or cost effective, or rational but to be liberated, mysterious, transcendent. To let a poem exist in its own land is a sign of respect. No matter how troubling, how anxious it makes us. What we want from a poem, he raves beautifully, is sononorous wonder, not comprehensible disposability. “Poems reawaken us to the pleasure of the unintelligibility of the world.” And thus poetry is not marketable, readily sold. It will be found by those few who are willing to suspend themselves between sound and meaning. This book is consolation for the poet who has been writing a long time and who, as is inevitable, can sink despairingly in certain dark hours.