The external life is quiet and (quite literally) homely these days: If, on any given day at the bake shop, you happened to ask me what I did on my days off, you would learn that once again I watered and weeded the garden, baked a loaf of bread, baked a pie, bicycled over to see my friend Adam perform in a Shakespeare play, wrote in my journal, knitted, hung the laundry outside, watched a BBC documentary, and worked my way through a novel, some math, a few more pre-emptive pages of honours thesis research. I am not complaining. And I have to tear myself away every time I go to work, because meanwhile the internal life has been fascinating and deep and rewarding.
Back in May, finishing up Le Ton beau de Marot, Douglas Hofstadter's book on poetry translation (you may remember the exercise I posted here), I was flabbergasted to find myself helpless in the face of Hofstadter's arguments for the primary importance of formalism, particularly rhyme and metre, in poetry:
"Thus the act of looking at a poem in print or reading it aloud should be directly tangible to a reader engaged with the poem, as opposed to being merely a covert intellectual fact."
- Douglas Hoftstadter, Le Ton beau de Marot, 524
"The need for sensuality of sound in poetry, as well as its analogue in music, was taken for granted until not all that long ago. But around the turn of the twentieth century, a wave of change started rippling throughout the arts. In poetry, free verse starting taking over, and in the world of classical or "serious" music, tonality was dropped, at least in some quarters, and replaced by a severe, austere, unhearable cerebrality; thus did poetry and music together start down the sad slide from being sensuous and visceral to being solely intellectual. And in the course of that slide, they lost more and more of their mass appeal, in the end becoming esoterica appealing only to tiny coteries and cliques of people who listened with humorless scholasticism and pretension."
- Douglas Hofstadter, Le Ton beau de Marot, 526
Though I haven't written explicitly about it here, my poetry-loving career has been almost exclusively devoted to British, American, and Eastern European modernists--not the most rhymey company. Up until my first year of university, I actively shunned formal poetry, though I began to come around to it during our class study of Beowulf (and by the time we'd gotten to John Donne, I was won). But I remained unwilling to declare formal poetry anything special.
Reading Le Ton beau, I was bombarded with memories of poems that had struck me hard and slain me. These poems were not prose-with-line-breaks, nor were they poems based on complex, but invisible, math. They were kissing cousins to every one of human history's ceremonies, rites and traditions. They were not only beautiful messages, but beautiful mediums. And sometimes--oh infidel!--function followed form.
My scattered reading in philosophy, psychology, neuroscience, and evolutionary biology has been enough to convince me of the existence of a universal (though not Platonic) human nature. Isn't this what I have always held that great poetry speaks to? To ignore the innate appeal of rhythm, rhyme, and repetition would be to ignore a major aspect of beauty in poetry--and, in fact, to ignore the nature of beauty and the human desire for it in the first place.
I am surprised at this swing-around in my own opinion; I have always thought that I loved only the intellectual in poetry. All of this is not to say that I am abandoning blank- and free-verse, that Milosz and Hughes are dead to me. It is only to say that I think there is an unmysterious reason why Dylan Thomas's "Do Not Go Gentle" cuts as close as it does. How on earth will I incorporate it into my own work? Where much of contemporary poetry demands only unfettered feelings or salty descriptions, formal poetry demands technical skill.
And I must continue later in a second post, because I am also recently enamored with technical skill, and from there a host of other issues open up. Bear with me.