Sunday, December 8, 2013

another wrong turn

I seem to be the only English-language poet who has written syllabic verse recently, over the last decade or two, or at least I'm the only one who's produced enough of it to put out a book-length selection . . . maybe I'm wrong about this, maybe there are other contemporary poets writing oodles of this particular type of poem, but if there are, I'm not aware of them—

this is on my mind because I've just published my "Selected Syllabic Verse" in a new edition. . . .

When I began writing in this mode at some point in the early 1990s, there were two anthologies, "Strong Measures" and "A Formal Feeling Comes," both of which featured syllabic verse by living USA poets, so I certainly didn't consider it as an eccentric or marginal option, or not any more so than the sestina or the villanelle,

but I was obviously wrong in my estimation, because the latter forms seem to have flourished since then, to the point that anthologies devoted to both have appeared very recently: Annie Finch edited a villanelle collection published last year; Daniel Nester's "Incredible Sestina Anthology" came out only a month ago—and another sestina olio edited by Carolyn Beard Whitlow and Marilyn Krysl is scheduled for publication in March 2014.

But to my knowledge no anthology of syllabic verse by poets writing in English, has ever been published . . .

Why I started writing syllabic verse and why I have continued to do it, is another question.  As I said, at the time I began, it didn't seem to be a conspicuously weird choice: the syllabic form was being presented as a viable mode in those two above-mentioned anthologies, which offered a couple dozen examples from living poets—

so it didn't seem odd for me to try it out.  I wasn't being contrarian, choosing to write in some outre archaic style, deliberately odd and anti-establishment.  I've never aspired to be an "outsider" and am offended if labeled so.  I refused to be in "The Outlaw Bible of American Poetry" when its editors solicited me, and I felt insulted that they would think I'd want to be in such a farrago.

But my continuing to write syllabic verse has turned out to be unfortunate in terms of career. There's no "market" for it.  Magazines or online journals don't publish special issues featuring it.  Nobody's interested in it.  Nobody's writing it (or only nobodies like me)—

Contemporary poets are writing sestinas and villanelles, as evidenced in those current anthologies (none of whose editors thought any of my villanelles and sestinas were good enough to include in their contents, but that's another whiffle),

but none of them are writing syllabic verse.  Or maybe there are a few I'm not aware of, but not enough for an anthology like.  And of course, if such an anthology were ever to be done, none of my work would be considered worthy of inclusion, would it.

Ron Silliman called me "Bill Knott, the Crown Prince of bad judgment." (Silliman's Blog, June 26, 2007)—

My decision to write syllabic verse is just another example of the countless wrong choices I made as a poet.  One more reason my career has ended in utter failure.

My fault in writing this bizarre-by-current-standards mode is manifest.  I'm appending below the intro notes, afterthoughts and an afternote, from this latest edition of the book:

This is a selection from the syllabic verse I've written over the years.

Many if not all of these are rhymed—as Elizabeth Daryush in her 'Note on Syllabic Metres' advises:
"Rhyme is almost indispensable, but since it can be unaccented need be neither over-obvious nor monotonous."

Of course some poets have written fine syllabic poems without rhyme. 

Is it odd that there has never been (to my knowledge) an anthology of syllabic verse by poets writing in English.
I think my interest in syllabics began when I started writing sonnets—they seemed to demand a rigor I was not used to, and in my need for a work-method of composition, I found that restricting each line to ten syllables often helped the process.  This became a deliberate strategy at times. 

So probably most of the syllabic poems I've written are sonnets, some of which are included in this selection.

Where there are variant lines, I note them.

The order is meant to be random, neither chronological or thematic.

Some of the titles include a syllabic designation, which are meant to be an intrinsic part of the title.


At some point in the past I must have realized how incompetent I was and still am at writing lines, and by lines I mean of course linebreaks—
One writes lines, but are linebreaks also written?—
I can only envy poets prior to the 20th century who were not faced with this problem of writing linebreaks,
since the necessity of writing linebreaks only started with the advent of vers libre, free verse—
With the exception I guess of Whitman and a few others, earlier poets never had this headache of where to break the line, it was a given based on the standard precepts of meter stanzaic pattern and blank verse—
Whether like George Chapman you believed that "[W]orthiest poets / shun common and plebeian forms of speech,"
or whether on the other hand you agreed with Wordsworth that "a large portion of the language of every good poem can in no respect differ from that of Prose,"
when it came to the form of your poem such opposing esthetic positions were moot, they made no difference—
your line was the same: if unrhymed, it was in most instances the Shakespearian Miltonian blank verse line; if rhymed, it followed the conventional schemes and arrangements of measure—
you never had to think about linebreaks: they were built into the engine, they were a de facto factor—
It's only with the birth of free verse (or Modern Poetry) that poets had to suddenly gear up and start dealing with this devilish task of the linebreak—
the onerous job of devising and delivering those awkward pauses at the end of lines, those damned enjambments—
And most poets since 1900 aren't very good at doing it.  I'm hardly alone in my failures at writing them—
Eliot was a master at it, and WC Williams.  Robert Creeley was impeccable.  Plath was good, Bishop wasn't bad.  Larkin was very good.  Some poets most of us consider great were only competent at the linebreak.  Frost elided the problem.  Of contemporary poets I would mention Thomas Lux as being awfully adept at it . . . I'm trying to think of poets of my generation who have shown expertise in this specific discipline if it is a discipline, and I can't think of any off the top of my head— Of the younger poets I've read, Matthew Dickman and Dorothea Lasky seem to have a feel for effective use of the linebreak —
And by saying "feel" I'm wondering if being able to write linebreaks is an innate talent, the equivalent of having perfect pitch for a composer/musician . . . either you have a gift for it or you don't—
Is it something that can be learned?— Robert Lowell struggled in the 1950s to gain or increase this skill (if it is a skill—if it can be acquired) by studying WC Williams—but did he really succeed? (I think he evinced more prowess at it with some of his Imitations than in the composition of his own work which only intermittently straggled free of traditional pre-20C norms—)
The 20th Century poet who was perhaps the greatest, the best at writing linebreaks (in my estimation at least): Frank O'Hara.  And I don't know if it was something he worked particularly hard at, if it was something he consciously and conscientiously labored over, or whether it was just an incredibly muse-given grace and flair right there at his fingertips, an inborn Picasso-profligate proficiency, a careless-confident artistry that was less won than endowed— He was the Mozart of it, and almost everybody else is barely a Salieri.
Keats, Shelley, Browning et al weren't any good at writing linebreaks, but they didn't have to be, because they didn't have to write linebreaks.  Nobody did before 1900.
When it comes to the virtuosity demanded by the linebreak, almost everyone—or is it just me, me alone, and these paragraphs are nonsense?—is like a kitten-on-the-keys.
I must have realized at some point how lacking I was at the skill or knack or forte of writing linebreaks, because (and I can't remember just when it was) I started writing syllabic verse—which I must have found helpful in alleviating my difficulties in writing lines—
and by writing lines I mean writing linebreaks (if linebreaks can be written, or are written in the sense that words are written),
because for post-1900 poets writing in English the line means something different than it meant to pre-1900 poets,
the line is no longer a line in the sense that earlier poets thought of the line as being a given ingredient, a default mechanism—
indeed maybe the line is no longer a line in any sense,
the line no longer exists, there are no lines in poetry any more, there are only linebreaks—
the linebreak has replaced the line—
In any case, as I said, at some point (1990?) I tried to elude my inability to write linebreaks by moving (not always, but often) to syllabic verse—

Hence the verse in this book.

My next to last theoretically-real book (as opposed to my vanity volumes) was reviewed

or rather reviled in the Washington Post by MacArthur Genius Fellow Edward Hirsch . . .

he drubbed me top to bottom:

of his many condescending scorns and insults,

one in particular sticks in my mind:—

as if to declare that my heinous habit/pathetic practice of writing in syllabics

was indeed an ultimate folly, the worst sin of all,

Hirsch sneeringly noted that

"Knott likes to count syllables."

(Poets schooled in the tried-and-trite verities of Romanticism are of course suspicious of any form which is not "organic.")


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