Poetry is a bit like Dungeons & Dragons, scuba diving or gardening in that its adherents love nothing more than geeking out over its rules, necessary gear and best practices. To the uninitiated, these conversations might sound like a cacophony of meaningless jargon. But poets aren’t talking about unearthed arcana, buoyancy compensators or controversies over Roundup. When poets jabber about clerihews, tetrameter and negative capability, they’re exchanging trade secrets about the most definitive and common of human paraphernalia: emotion, thought and, perhaps, the soul itself, things everybody can relate to. Two of our best and most famous poets, Robert Hass and Louise Glück, both former United States poets laureate, have new books of prose that delve deeply into the esoterica of the poetic craft, which, for some, will be as necessary as a diving regulator.
Hass’s “Little Book on Form” is no normal prosody guide. Unlike classic books by Mary Kinzie, John Hollander and Mary Oliver, it will not be of practical use to students hoping to write sonnets, elegies or iambic pentameter (though it’s packed with plenty of examples of each). This is not a handbook or instruction manual. Instead, Hass aims to help readers deeply fathom poetry through considering how a poem’s formal structure, and its interaction with poetic history, enable the poem to embody “the energy of the gesture of its making.” This is the subjective pursuit of a practitioner rather than that of a scholar. It’s also, at more than 400 pages, not a little book. Hass gives innumerable answers to the questions that obsess poets and readers of poetry: What is poetry, and why does it do what it does?
He begins with a primer on stanzas, organized by the number of lines and the uses of those stanza lengths in poetry from various cultures. He stops at stanzas of four lines, though of course poets can use much longer stanzas, too. But, Hass says of four, “this number expresses and stands for evenness and completeness.” Next, Hass moves on to a section on form, beginning with blank verse (think of Shakespeare), followed by a lengthy explanation and history of the sonnet, “the one durable, widely used form in English poetry in the last 500 years.”
Hass is so supremely learned about and so deeply immersed in poetry, he is able to comport himself not just with incredible authority but also with casual humor. Of the Pindaric ode, one of the earliest incarnations of the ode, he writes, “As a strict form, it has not had legs.” He explains, with startling clarity, Gertrude Stein and others’ forays into abstraction, which are at the roots of pretty much all experimental poetry. Stein, he says, worked to “discover by experiment … that syntax was the formal principle that organized language.” Hass concludes with a guide to understanding the workings of stress in poetry, one of the most confusing technical aspects of poetics.
Disguised as a reference book, this is actually a friendly tour of one poet’s mind. Along the way, Hass offers glancing insights like this, on the difference between visual arts and literature: “Form in the visual arts is spatial and in literature it is temporal. A poem has a beginning, a middle and an end. A work of art — whether sculpture or painting — has edges.” In this way, the book isn’t merely a master class on form. It’s a jump-starter for that most necessary of tools for the artist or lover of art, if not for everyone: the sensibility.Photo
Few would debate Louise Glück’s stature as one of America’s most extraordinary poets. Unlike many of her peers, though (Hass among them), Glück has not made a habitual practice of prose writing. She is a writer for whom, one feels, words are always scarce, hard won and not to be wasted. Prose is most likely at least as difficult for her to write as poetry, and she has professed that poetry is very hard for her to write. “American Originality” is only her second slim volume of essays, containing 10 mostly short, starkly titled pieces — “On Realism,” “On Revenge” — as well as 10 introductions to debut volumes by other poets.
Fans of Glück’s own poems will recognize her trademark severity. In her extreme focus and clipped, uncompromising sentences, Glück recalls no one so much as Susan Sontag. Like Sontag, Glück assumes her readers know the texts under consideration — she often omits the customary quotations critics use to illustrate their points. Yet she writes with such mesmerizing authority that her claims feel unimpeachable.Photo
Unlike Sontag, Glück has not cultivated the ability to write about any subject; she confines herself to the practice of poetry in America. Yet her thought accommodates extrapolation in many directions, toward broader aspects of American identity. When she writes that “original work, in our literature, must seem somehow to break trails, to found dynasties … be capable of replication,” it’s hard not to remember that we were, relatively recently, “the new world,” and that mass production was born here.
Glück’s 20th-century America is fallen, equipped with — and diminished by — the tools of modernism, especially psychoanalysis. “Contemporary literature,” she writes, is “a literature of the self examining its responses.” Modernity strove to explain our dreams, always the province of poetry, and so perhaps explained away their magic. Glück’s analyses seem to derive from this grief; she is wary, and sometimes darkly funny about, poetry’s temptation toward grandiosity. “We have made of the infinite a topic,” she notes. “But there isn’t, it turns out, much to say about it.” And yet, one also always feels that, for Glück, poetry is a matter of life or death, the only salvation.
So when Glück writes that “contemporary poetry affords two main types of incomplete sentences: the aborted whole and the sentence with gaps,” one senses a heavy moral choice behind her distinction. This is not just a description of how American poets write; it’s a mandate for rigorous, difficult, even painful reasoning over lazy, incomplete thinking. Specifically, she is differentiating between the fragment in poetry and the non sequitur, which she calls “a more complicated maneuver.” Non sequitur, she writes, “is lively, volatile, skirmishing, suggesting (at its best) simultaneity or multiplicity, loosing a flurry of questions.”
Of course, this could also be said of Twitter “at its best,” while, at their worst, both Twitter and fragmentary poetry can “begin to seem like swimmers competing to see how long they can stay underwater without breathing.” The frenzy of social media doesn’t explicitly enter into Glück’s essays. But, in the guise of a poetry critic, Glück shows herself to be a kind of dark contemporary conscience. “The glory of the lyric,” she claims in a review of recent books by her peers Robert Pinsky and Stephen Dobyns, “is that it does what life cannot do.” Put that way, poetry sounds like something everyone can use.