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The Death of Today’s Sequoia

Flecte ramos, arbor alta, tensa laxa viscera:
Et rigor lentescat ille, quem dedit nativitas,
Ut superni membra regis miti tendas stipite.

—Venantius Fortunatus (c. 530-609 A.D.), lines from his hymn
Pange Lingua Gloriosi translated at the end of this poem.

The ring-counting post mortem clearly shows
The seedling sprouted springtime of 550,
And so today’s felled tree was well within
The cutting years—consider that fact settled.
This was not one of our protected elders:
Augustine had already closed his eyes
And Rome with him. Within the cutting years—
Collapsing civitas, Alemannic tribes,
A welter of barbarity and war;
Gregorius half-learned his Latin while
We all buzzed in a rustic, rude Romance
About the Emperor, Goths, and our misfortunes.
All this the tedium of scribbled footnotes
From an obscure and unremembered age.
So much better to leave long-past tumult
Tongueless in the fine-grained, reddish wood
Cut into planks, veneers, and paneling.
But Venantius listened while the chain-saws whined—
He watched red dust of fifteen hundred years
Spurt like hot blood from the tree’s notched side
And sang its requiem in these plaintive words:

Bend your branches, ancient tree,
Relax your inward pith and rigor.
Make soft that native hardihood
And stretch gently on your wood
The limbs of the celestial King.

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The Song of the Diamond Cutter

Splenetic mountains blazed
And coughed up molten stone;

Some anger was choked back
And swallowed down again

To press like nightmare on
A raw, embittered heart

Until hate’s blackest knots
Congealed to hidden ice.

And now my mordant saw
Utters its bitchy whine

To lay bare, plane by plane,
This little mirrored house,

A multi-windowed jail
Where drooling madmen glare

In silent menace from
Behind asylum glass.

Who knows if they can break
This drum-taut crystal veil

And stretch forth clay-cold hands
To wrench asunder limbs?

I see their ragged nails
Unpared and caked with gore;

Their eyes are bloody pools
Where malice sits and stares.

I cut and grind and buff
And wear the carats down;

My whirring wheel spits dust;
The gem is slowly turned.

Such vigilance and care
Keep lunacy in chains.

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A Brief Note on Poetic “Conceits”

In poetry a “conceit” is a strange idea, a fanciful notion, an imagined situation, or an extended metaphor. It is something unusual and arresting that forms the skeletal armature of the poem, and which the poet employs to arouse interest and to demonstrate his ingenuity. John Donne’s poem “The Relic” makes use of a striking conceit concerning the opening up of the speaker’s grave, and the discovery of “a bracelet of bright hair” around one of his bones, and how this bracelet (a love token made from the hair of his mistress) might then come to be venerated as a “relic” of the love that existed between him and her. An even more famous conceit is the basis of his poem “The Flea,” where Donne uses the situation of a flea biting both the speaker and a lady he is addressing as the basis of a complex and facetious argument for sexual seduction.

Conceits in poetry are based on some sort of hypothesis (“suppose this,” or “imagine that,” or “what if”). The hypothesis is then developed in an utterly unexpected way, to conjure up an intricate thought, or a surprising flight of imagery. An excellent example is Shakespeare’s Sonnet 20, wherein he comments on the womanly beauty of the male addressee, while distinguishing that same beauty from any feminine failings. Here is the octet:

A woman’s face, with Nature’s own hand painted,
Hast thou, the master-mistress of my passion;
A woman’s gentle heart, but not acquainted
With shifting change, as is false women’s fashion;
An eye more bright than theirs, less false in rolling;
Gilding the object whereupon it gazeth;
A man in hue all hues in his controlling,
Which steals men’s eyes and women’s souls amazeth.

The sonnet concludes with an even stranger conceit—the notion that Mother Nature originally intended the addressee to be a woman, but at the last minute, for her own personal pleasure, added a phallus to her creation so as to make it masculine. The entire sonnet is a tour de force of the extended conceit.

In the two poems of mine that I have presented above, I have attempted to give lengthy “conceits” that carry each poem for its entire length. “The Death of Today’s Sequoia” imagines the felling of a giant redwood, while imaginatively connecting it with the year in which the tree first germinated (550 A.D.), and the situation in Europe at that time. The conceit is supported by the epigraph from the Latin hymn of Venantius Fortunatus (who was living in 550), whose hymn Pange Lingua mentions a “tree” (the cross) softening itself to bear the crucified Christ. The felled redwood, barbarian Europe, and the sacrifice of Christ are all tied together in a complex symbiosis.

In the second poem (“The Song of the Diamond Cutter”) the speaker—a lapidary—is cutting faceted diamonds that he fancies to be jails in which dangerous lunatics are imprisoned. This “conceit” is dependent upon his earlier comments on how diamonds are created by the violence and anger of volcanoes. Diamonds are just choked-back knots of hate that have congealed into hard stones, which are then fashioned by the careful gem-cutter into beautiful jewels. The dangerous lunatics themselves are metaphorical suggestions of the unbalanced mind of the lapidary, who thinks of himself as a kind of jailer or watchman whose gem-cutting keeps the world safe from irrationality and madness. Volcanoes, diamonds, gem-cutting, violence, lunacy, and imprisonment are all tied together in an extended conceit.

I present these two poems because I believe that the “conceit” is the heart of real poetry. It is the living proof that poetry is a licensed zone of hyper-reality where the poet can create anything at all that is imaginatively compelling and intriguing. Poems can make direct statement, of course. But a poetry that depends solely on the straightforward expression of non-metaphorical language is ultimately boring. Anyone can pretty much tell you what he is thinking or feeling. But only a genuine poet can conjure up a new and unheard-of reality made up of professionally polished language and the flight of imaginative wonder. This is what the conceit is. It is hard to pull off, especially if you are the sort of poet who thinks that poems are just telegrams that contain nice child-friendly messages for folks.

As I mentioned, the conceit usually begins with a hypothetical statement. For this reason a poem making use of a conceit will often employ the irrealist tenses (subjunctives, optatives, future perfects, and compound tenses with auxiliaries such as should, would, could, might, may, must, or ought). But this doesn’t have to be the case always. In my two poems, I do not use any irrealist tenses, but instead endeavor to suggest possibilities and imagine scenarios, or explore the mind of a speaker. The crucial element in a conceit is its ability to be arresting, striking, unusual, shocking, curious, or delightfully bizarre. The conceit is the POLAR OPPOSITE of poetry that is deliberately “edifying,” or “moralistic,” or “inspirational,” or “informative.”

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Joseph S. Salemi has published five books of poetry, and his poems, translations and scholarly articles have appeared in over one hundred publications world-wide.  He is the editor of the literary magazine Trinacria and writes for Expansive Poetry On-line. He teaches in the Department of Humanities at New York University and in the Department of Classical Languages at Hunter College.


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26 Responses

  1. Yael

    Interesting! I had never heard of a Conceit before. Thank you for this edifying lesson; I very much appreciate learning new things.

    Reply
  2. benjamen grinberg

    I recently began to explore the middle ages history of my native Russia. There were small collections of people’s who were roughly related. Eventually a prince united the tribes and they fought off the Tartars. Looking at things through this lens, I can see how Rome was civilizing the world through it’s conquests.

    Reply
  3. Joe Tessitore

    I believe that I’m inspired, for the most part, by current events and that it’s more than enough of a challenge for me to write about them in rhyme and meter. I think I get how you could add conceit to the mix, but it seems like a monumental challenge.

    The closest I think I ever came was from a long time ago, and I’m not really sure that it qualifies:

    What am I but a piece of wood?
    I am not bad, I am not good.
    How is it then that God chose me
    For Bethlehem and Calvary?

    A manger first and then a cross,
    The greatest gain, the greatest loss
    My uncle was a true disgrace
    And wound up in the fireplace.

    Reply
  4. Christopher Flint

    The collage of thoughts in each verse is cleverly layered. To my eye, the rhythm of the first verse is far more free than metered though certain lines are striking by exception.

    Seeming far less belabored, the second verse to me is more the gem. The intents are clearer, the brevity and precision more inviting, each line seeming as a facet that both reflects intrigue and draws the eye deeper in to it.

    I detect only one smallish flaw. In this latter half of line five, “Utters its bitchy whine”, I think “Bespeaks” would be more attuned to the meter than the mildly disruptive “Utters” and the alliteration with “bitchy” would be a bonus. A well crafted work in any case.

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    Reply
    • Joseph S. Salemi

      Thank you for your comments. “Utters” is a normal trochaic substitution in the start of an iambic line, and “bespeak” means “to order in advance” or “to arrange for something,” so it would make no sense here.

      Reply
      • Christopher Flint

        I intended “bespeaks” as in this first definition from Merriam Webster’s:

        “(of an appearance or action) suggest; be evidence of.
        ‘the attractive tree-lined road bespoke money'”

        You seem to be thinking only of the second definition appearing in the Oxfotd dictionary.

        The saw is indeed biting, and it is that action that suggests the malicious whine one might expect of the mordant nature you ascribe.

        I think the use of bespeaks, in the sense of Webster’s first definition, is indeed valid here, but I didn’t mean to suggest it was mandated. It was merely a thought for whatever it might have been worth. The verse is so strong I hated to see the perfect, straightforward iambic meter disrupted by a sudden reversal that could be plausibly avoided. But I recognize, as Mr. Anderson is fond of saying, “It’s dealer’s choice.”

        The work is worthy nevertheless, and I did not intend to suggest otherwise.

        To me, perfecting the meter by some means would be worth the effort at this level of quality. Perhaps “emits” would have been a better suggestion.

      • Joseph S. Salemi

        I understand what you are saying, Mr. Flint, but meter is not “imperfect” if it fails to follow a metronomic pattern. Shakespeare uses the trochaic beginning for many of the lines in his plays, sonnets, and narrative poems. It’s not an imperfection — it is an accepted and traditional substitution.

        Consider also the false idea that an iambic pentameter line can only have ten syllables, which seems to be held by a number of persons here at the SCP. The plain fact is that an iambic pentameter line can sometimes have eleven or nine syllables, as long as the line’s five beats are easily recognizable. Several of the iambic pentameter lines in “The Death of Today’s Sequoia” have eleven syllables, and perhaps this is why you say that the verse in that poem “is far more free than metered.”

  5. Joseph S. Salemi

    I was about to thank Ms. Crow for her very kind words, but I see that they are now gone. In any case, I deeply appreciate them, Ms. Crow.

    I too miss Leo Yankevich. When he died, I nearly gave up the ghost myself.

    Reply
  6. James A. Tweedie

    Joseph, As always, I thank you for your instruction and example. As I read your poems and notes this evening, I considered writing a conceit of my own, but abandoned the idea in favor of weaving a different thought into the form of your second poem. I do not believe it is the exact opposite of a Conceit, but it is what it is and I thank you for inspiring my muse to attempt something new.

    Tears

    Now fallen from your grace
    I drift in loneliness

    An iceberg in the sea
    Awaiting my demise

    Dissolving into tears
    For only tears remain

    Swept off to far-off lands
    By currents running deep.

    Perhaps some distant shore
    Soft-kissed by whispered waves

    Will gather all my tears
    And lift them to the sky

    Where golden shadowed clouds
    A-blush with sunset’s kiss

    Will send a gentle rain
    And weep my tears again.

    Reply
    • Joseph S. Salemi

      Yes, your poem is rooted in a conceit, James. The saddened speaker imagines himself as a melting iceberg, the waters of which wash up on a distant coast, where eventually they evaporate up into clouds, and fall again as metaphorical “tears” (rain). It is well done.

      Reply
  7. Kathleen M Farrell

    Mr. Salemi,

    The Man of La Mancha leaped into my mind as I
    read your wonderful piece on conceit in poetry.
    Thank you. Long live imagination!

    Reply
  8. Susan Jarvis Bryant

    Joe, I thoroughly appreciate your piece on conceits. I love conceits and when they’re well done, there’s no better example of the power of poetry. Today, I learned something – the “hypothetical statement”.

    This is one of my poems that I always considered a conceit. It was written some fifteen years ago, and I hadn’t studied conceits at the time. This is how I feel about words… and hopefully always will.

    My Wicked Way with Words

    Beguiling words excite me,
    Ignite me like a kiss on virgin skin.
    I swirl within their vortex;
    A hex of sensual rhythm draws me in

    With the thrust and pulse of passion;
    A fusion of symbolic vim and verve.
    Deep meanings send a shiver,
    A quiver of delight through every nerve.

    As they spurt their pen-nib pleasure,
    Treasure spills in inky metaphor
    And I revel in the glory
    Of their story ‘til I crave to write some more.

    This affair is never ending,
    I’m spending pregnant nights within their hook;
    Each slick linguistic frisson –
    Intrinsic to the birth of every book.

    Reply
  9. Joseph S. Salemi

    In the above poem I think the conceit can be located in the third quatrain, where the word “pen-nib” suggests some device or organ that spurts “inky” pleasure into the speaker — perhaps the pen as a metaphor for the addict’s needle, or as a quasi-sexual experience. Since the last quatrain ends with mentions of an “affair,” “pregnant nights,” a “frisson,” and a “birth” (all of which have erotic undertones), the sexual conceit completes itself admirably.

    Reply
  10. C.B. Anderson

    Conceits are the lifeblood of much of the verse written by the metaphysical poets, as you well know. But in your hands, directed by a mind steeped in history, and particularly in classical literature, the contemporary reader is confronted by a new (yet not new) way of expressing ideas without using end rhyme. So I would like to ask: Were these poems written to justify the essay, or was the essay written to justify the poems? “Neither” would be an acceptable answer, but I’m sure you have a better answer in the front of your mind.

    Reply
    • Joseph S. Salemi

      Kip, both poems were written around 1975, and have lain unpublished in my old notebook all that time. I revised and touched them up for use here, and decided that it might also be a good opportunity to talk a little bit about the “conceit.”

      Reply
  11. Margaret Coats

    As others have asked about conceits in their own work, let me ask about some well known poems. In these, I would not have called the artistic technique a “conceit,” but you seem to define the term rather broadly, even saying that it could be an extended metaphor with which the poet structures or unifies a poem–given that the conceit must be striking or unusual in some way. I am particularly interested by your saying that in your two examples of poems using conceits, the conceits are lengthy, extending through the entire poem. You imply, then, that conceits usually do not pervade an entire poem, and perhaps cannot, if the poem is longer than your 20 to 30 line examples. This would preclude conceits serving as overarching devices in a longer poem, although they might function by bringing welcome surprise to a small portion of a narrative, for example.

    And is there a practical minimum length for conceit use?

    I am his Highness’ dog at Kew;
    Pray tell me, sir, whose dog are you?

    Alexander Pope’s dog-collar epigram exhibits a very brief conceit–if it is one, and not some other figure of wit. Here I’m reflecting that short plays on words may be too slight to fit the category of conceit.

    For a long poem, I’m thinking of Ben Jonson’s “To Penshurst” (about 100 lines). In distinguishing the Sidney family home from other “piles” or “heaps,” the poet seems to ask an imaginative question about what gives the building life. This leads him to quasi-personify it in direct address, while he is describing its inhabitants, tenants, flora, fauna. Almost immediately, he brings in some dryads, fauns, and satyrs, showing that he is not merely offering a catalogue of simple reality. Therefore, when he does proceed to the simple pleasures of Penshurst, he’s already speaking from a perspective of heightened reality. And from there, he can make the final effective contrast between a lord who builds and a lord who dwells. Is Jonson’s overall procedure striking enough to qualify as a conceit?

    Another poem I must ask about is the Fortunatus hymn you quote in your sequoia poem above. You find the conceit in the next to last stanza (lines 23-25). But the tree metaphor extends through the entire poem. The poet alludes to the tree in the garden of Eden, and God’s determination to remedy the harm done there with another tree. Like Joe Tessitore, the poet goes on to use the cross and crib association. In the final stanza, after the “softening” conceit to which you draw attention, the cross becomes the altar where the Lamb is sacrificed, and then the Ark of salvation anointed with the blood of that sacrifice, but alluding as well to Noah. Do we therefore see not only the striking conceit you mention, but a conceit in this extended set of references to the cross-tree and its wood? Or are these usages already so well established in Christian iconography that they are not unusual enough to sustain interest? Does Fortunatus put them all in because any listener to a hymn about the Cross will expect them?

    Reply
    • Joseph S. Salemi

      Margaret, your questions are very pertinent. In some sense it is difficult to separate the “conceit” from any other trope or figure that helps create a heightened reality in a poem. I think, however, that the conceit can be understood best as 1) an unusual or unexpected metaphor or thought; 2) one that is maintained for a sustained length; and 3) one to which other comparisons or fanciful digressions are be attached by the poet’s ingenuity.

      My wife Helen reminds me that the locus classicus of the conceit is Donne’s poem “The Compass,” wherein the speaker compares himself and his beloved to the two arms of a drawing compass — one of which remains fixed in place, while the other moves and circles it. The woman is the fixed arm, and the speaker is the circling arm, which sometimes moves closer to the fixed arm if the distance between them is shortened, and sometimes moves farther away if the distance is lengthened. In either case, the two arms are connected at their hinge, and either stretch out or draw close as the compass is used. Distance does not separate them, and nearness makes them rise up taller. And this strange “conceit” is an extended metaphor for their love and loyalty.

      The “conceit” can’t really be extended for a very long length (more than thirty lines, let’s say), because by its very nature it is witty, and brevity is the soul of wit. On the other hand, its nature also requires that it be laid out clearly in its details for the reader. I can’t see Pope’s couplet about the dog at Kew as a conceit, because it is too short, and the couplet is better understood as simply a quick metaphoric zinger using “dog” to mean “slavish servant,” or “sycophantic toady.”

      On the other hand, Ben Johnson’s “To Penshurst” (as I read it) is simply a laudatory address to the house and the estate of the Sidney family. It describes how wonderful and attractive the entire place is — the pleasant setting, the generous hospitality, the kindness of the folk living in the vicinity, the sylvan beauty, the abundance of good food. There isn’t that much figurative language at all in the poem, just overflowing praise for Penshurst. Simply bringing in the dryads, fauns, and satyrs isn’t enough. That to me is just typical window-dressing of the time. The poem as a whole has no “conceit,” in the sense of a striking and unthought-of metaphor or strange simile, or complex train of thought. In addition, one hundred lines is a bit too long for a conceit.

      Dr. Samuel Johnson complained about Donne and the other Metaphysical poets that they tried to “yoke together” too many incompatible and ill-fitting things in their poetry. I’m pretty sure he was talking about “conceits,” which to the neat and tidy eighteenth-century mind would have appeared rather jarring and unnatural. But as T.S. Eliot commented, the Metaphysicals didn’t “yoke’ things together. They FUSED them together into strange synthetic imagery. That’s the “conceit.”

      I don’t find any “conceit” at all in the hymn of Fortunatus, other than (perhaps) the call to the cross to “soften its hard wood.” As you say, thinking of Christ’s cross as a “tree” is a well-known Christian figurative usage, as can be seen in Joe Tessitore’s poem, where a personified “wood” speaks of being used for the cradle at Bethlehem, and later as the cross. A “conceit” has to be unexpected and striking. I merely used the quote from Fortunatus as an element in my larger “conceit” of imagining Fortunatus being present when the redwood was felled, watching the red dust fly from the chain-saws as they cut into the tree’s “notched side”, and singing the words of his hymn as a purely fortuitous link with the death of Christ on the cross (Who also had something red coming out of His side).

      Fortunatus certainly made use of traditional scriptural typology in his hymn, with the references to the altar of sacrifice and Noah’s ark, but all of these things would have been very familiar to Christians in his day, and therefore not unusual or striking. The thing about typology is that it is always predictable: something in the Old Testament prefigures something in the New Testament, usually by simple parallelism. The “conceit” (if it well done) is never predictable.

      Reply
    • BDW

      I really have little to add to Mr. Salemi’s discussion of conceit. But Ms. Coats’ comment on Pope’s couplet was behind a poem of just last week published at another site:

      A Delaware Dog-Collar Inscription
      by Bud “Weasel” Rice

      I am a poodle of the CCP; my pup is too.
      We both are biding at Xi’s beck and call. Whose pooch are you?

      Reply
  12. David Watt

    Thank you Joe S. for your detailed and informative essay, along with two striking examples of conceits. You demonstrate that compelling flights of fancy may bring to life subjects which may otherwise remain as plain old tree felling or diamond cutting in lesser hands.

    Reply
  13. Christopher Flint

    I also understand what you are saying, Mr. Salemi. In a very particular sense, I very respectfully disagree. I think you are downgrading “perfect” to “perfevtly acceptable”. Perfect iambic meter can only be successive iambs. Perfect iambic pentameter can only have five successive iambs in each line.

    To your point, though, I certainly agree that perfectly acceptable poetry — distinguished poetry even — can have acceptably imperfect meter. And conversely, absolutely terrible poetry can have perfect meter.

    I just think that when the opportunity for perfect meter is there, one ought to take it, especially with the quality of the unrhymed verse in question. If it really seemed like there were a significant advantage to be achieved by altering perfect meter, I would agree that one should put the effect of the verse first. I don’t think that’s the case here. I think perfect meter sets this work apart far more than the trochaic.

    That said, however, I would agree with you that the poet has to make that call.

    I think the view of meter has changed over the years. In my long ago formal learning day, meter was a consistently repeated identical line pattern of feet — each having one stressed syllable preceded or followed by a specific number of unstressed syllables. Today, that describes only “perfect meter”.

    Any line pattern back then less consistent could be discerned as having “rhythm” (typically as you suggest, by lines having a consistent number of stresses) but was not regarded as having meter.per se.

    Line sets lacking the regularity of meter or rhythm but having stress patterns typical of speech or that embodied the time, event, condition, etc. being described and that incorporated devices were said to be poetic but to have only “cadence” or to be “free” (a term now rendered meaningless it would seem).

    i described your “sequoia” verse as seeming more free than metered because my natural read did not infer the regularity required of meter but rather a pattern going in and out of meter that seemed to embody the back and forth cadence of sawimg. But I was describing only my perception. Others might read the same words with very different stress patterns. I don’t regard it as any less poetic. I was simply trying to sontrast it with the approah in the second verse that appealed more to me personally.

    Reply
  14. Joseph S. Salemi

    Mr. Flint, I know what you mean by perfect meter, and yes, in schools it was often taught in the way that you describe. But the historical fact is that the great writers of poetry in traditional meter (whether we call them “classical” or anything else) did NOT write that way most of the time. They used trochaic substitutions at the beginning of many lines, they had feminine endings that gave some lines eleven syllables, and they varied their rhythm with elisions and internal substitutions. Only the forgotten amateurs used “perfect meter” exclusively.

    The poet Charles Martin once said the following about iambic pentameter verse:

    “There are two rules:

    RULE NUMBER ONE: It goes like this — da DUM, da DUM, da DUM, da DUM, da DUM.

    RULE NUMBER TWO: It only does that sporadically.”

    In other words, “perfect meter” is only a guideline or helpful template, which was frequently varied by great poets to prevent their lines from being metronomically boring. Even in rigorous Latin verse, the dactylic hexameter pattern could be varied by spondees and elisions, so much so that it is rare to find a dactylic hexameter line in Latin that follows the six-dactyl pattern exactly. And yet we would hardly say that Vergil or Horace or Ovid were only writing “rhythmic” verses, or that their work was not metrical.

    Reply
    • Christophet Flint

      I certainly agree in general, Mr. Salemi, with your historic assessment of conferred greatness, as I tried to imply in my last comment.

      But I also think that greatness is measured in many scales, meter being one — and only one. Regarding a poem as great does not necessarily confer greatness on the degree of its meter. And as I said previously, perfection of meter certainly does not by itself confer greatness on a poem.

      One taking Mr. Martin at his word, however, would have to conclude that he was content at the time with cadence, a position to which he is entitled and in which he is joined by many great poets. His approach indeed might well lead many to great poetry, but to me, it is a discipline very different from writing in meter.

      Poetry done in meter, to my mind, does not employ it sporadically and occasionally. That said, to your broader point, I agree that slight variation in meter does not render verse merely rhythmic. And I do not discount the possibility that slight variation can actually strengthen expression in ways unavailable otherwise for a variety of reasons.

      But where such gain and circumstance are not clearly in evidence, I believe conformance should prevail — not to satisfy a pointless exercise but because the anticipation of stress inherent in meter can make great expression even more memorable.

      Because that anticipation helps create tone and diction, it tends to make natural reading consistent with intent and form. And if meter is only near perfect, its overwhelming consistency is what empowers purposeful variation.

      Attempting to write in perfect meter, where doing so is a diligent search for extraordinary expression, I believe serves the poet well whether ultimately adopted or not. Like any approach, however, if not perceived as useful, it is futile.

      I do also, however, believe that great works have been done in perfect meter. If they hadn’t been, the perfect meter templates for classical forms wouldn’t exist. I therefore prefer to think of those templates as standards rather than guidelines, and in that sense proximity to them is one of many greatness measures.

      That said, I also agree that the effect the poetry intends to achieve is paramount in design. Meter must be suited to that effect, and any variation of it should be defended by its contribution to that effect. Indeed, eloquent such defenses have recently been presented here at SCP.

      I believe only an author, though, can decide how well design choice is apt to achieve effect. And only the sum of the resulting beholder opinions will determine the degree to which the author was right.

      My point was simply that in your particular verse of remarkable quality, I thought — as one beholder — that avoiding the isolated trochaic would do more for perception of the work than including it. I was not trying to defend a mandate for perfect meter. Nor was I trying to suggest that the trochaic was a severely damaging defect. Nor was I trying to insist you defend your design. I was simply trying to suggest that you weigh the value of perfect meter as an attribute of the work. I did so knowing that if you don’t value perfect meter, or if like Mr. Martin you feel obvious disdain for it is a hallmark more apt to be celebrated, or if in this particular case, you simply believed the trochaic were of more value, then my suggestion would have no merit.

      In retrospect, my use of the word “flaw”, even as modified and put in context of praise, unduly risked unintentionally sounding disingenuous. I regret that, and I apologize for it. That was not at all my intent. I am somewhat comforted by the fact that at least one SCP contributor has found our exchange useful.

      Reply
  15. Joseph S. Salemi

    Well, Mr. Flint, we’ll have to agree to disagree. Part of the problem here is your use of the word “perfect,” which is actually a loaded term that partially begs the question at issue. When one says that something is “perfect,” it inevitably implies that something else is “imperfect,” and that in itself is surreptitiously judgmental.

    Suppose that, in place of “perfect” meter, I had used the phrase “rigorously regular” meter, or “metronomically rigid” meter. Would you think that fair? Denominating some poems as being in “perfect meter” is very much like calling some poems “classical” and others “unclassical,” the way David Gosselin does, deliberately granting or withholding his approbation in each case. It’s a trick designed to win an argument, or to push a non-poetic agenda.

    You admit that a poem can be great if it has variations and substitutions, but you refuse to call such a poem “perfect” or “metrical” — instead you insist that such a poem only has “rhythm” or “cadence.” But the terms “rhythm” and “cadence” are normally reserved for prose style, and not for poetry. We can speak of the “cadence” of a Latin clausula, which ends a sentence with a fixed pattern; or we can speak of the “rhythmic” structure of John Milton’s prose; or the equally magisterial flow of Dr. Johnson’s sentences. But it is illegitimate to use those words to describe the metrical poetry of Shakespeare, or any other great poet who uses the normal variations and substitutions that are absolutely traditional.

    Look at the vast majority of poems published here at the SCP, by poets who are totally loyal to the traditions of English verse. Practically no one writes iambic pentameter in an exclusive “da DUM, da DUM, da DUM, da DUM, da DUM” pattern! And almost no one here is a slavish syllable-counter, making sure that every single line has a fixed and invariable number of syllables.

    Variations in metrical poetry serve a simple purpose — they stop the reader from falling asleep from the sheer boredom of imposed regularity, of reading cookie-cutter lines that go on like an endless series of equidistant telephone poles along a stretch of highway. You mention “anticipation of stress.” Yes, such anticipation is part of the unspoken contract that exists between the metrical poet and his readers. But it ceases to be anticipation, and becomes mind-numbing ennui, when it never varies in the slightest degree. The same is true for poems that are exclusively end-stopped, without a single enjambment, or that always end masculine. Such poems can be OK when they are fairly short, but any sustained poem of that type is intolerable.

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