Friday, April 22, 2005

History? Kill it, before it kills you

If you put me on the rack, I'll confess to a posse of very strange hobbies indeed. One of them is being shocked. Easily done, you may say, with the world being what it is. The machinistas in Honduras, 5 million jobless in a country of 80 million people. Children dying because they don't have access to clean water. Why, anyone can be shocked by an endless number of horrors and so am I. But I like to take it a little further. Today it is the stench of prosody decomposing that hurts my sensibilities. This is what David Yezzi has to say about it in his essay "The fortunes of formalism"
Some years ago, in a class I was attending, a well-known, well-published visiting poet gave an assignment to write a poem in blank verse. When the class reconvened and copies of the poems were handed around, one writer read out her exercise. The instructor’s polling of the class for comments on the success of the poem as blank verse was followed by the usual pause as people gathered their thoughts. Then, admitting to a certain confusion, I tentatively offered that it was a fine poem but it was not iambic pentameter. At this point, a low-level panic ran around the seminar table as people returned to the poem to weigh this fact against the text. Relief came when the renowned poet, our instructor, suggested to the group that blank verse needn’t be iambic pentameter.
The New Criterion (via Art & Letters Daily)

Let me refresh your memory with a quick definition:
Blank Verse: Verse in iambic pentameter without rhyme scheme, often used in verse drama in the sixteenth century (Marlowe and Shakespeare) and later used for poetry (Milton, Wordsworth's The Prelude, Browning).
The Literary Encyclopedia
Claiming to produce blank verse without writing it in iambic pentameter is like saying: 'Look at this neat triangle I've constructed; it has six angles that add up to precisely 370 degrees.' Does that tell us anything about the well-known poet and the student of Yezzi's anecdote - are they stupid? Shockingly enough, the answer is no. They merely live in mortal terror of the Total Perspective Vortex, history division.

In The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy the wife of the dreamer and inventor Trin Tragula constantly tells him to get a sense of perspective. So Trin invents a device that extrapolates the fundamental connexion of everthing with everything (from a piece of fruitcake). When you are strapped in you get to feel your insignificance in respect to the rest of the universe. His wife is the first person to be strapped in.
To Trin Tragula’s horror, the shock completely annihilated her brain; but to his satisfaction he realized that he had proved conclusively that if life is going to exist in a Universe of this size, then the one thing it cannot have is a sense of proportion. (Douglas Adams, HHGG)
These days history tends to induce a similar kind of horror. If you sit in a poetry class and stumble over a literary brontosaurus like 'blank verse', you cannot afford to check it out. It will lead you to the iambic pentameter and from there to Shakespeare, or, goddess forbid, Chaucer. And you just cannot deal with such people. For crying out loud, they didn't even have typewriters! It is bad enough that you can't get your Father/Grandfather to use his mobile phone, but you can also foresee a future (5?, 10? 15? years hence) in which new technologies and new fads have become too much for you to keep up.

This is nonsense, of course. We may not have normality, but we have life-long-learning now. We will keep up, because we have grown up with More's law. But all the same, having to keep up puts us in the position of Alice Through the Looking Glass, when she and the red queen suddenly have to run as fast as they can - just to stay where they are. Running as fast as you can is no time to look back. It may only slow you down, but there is always the danger of tripping up...

None of this would be a problem, if (fledgling) poets were the only people afflicted with history horror. Unfortunately, it is an epidemic. But please let me off the rack now. Otherwise I might confess more of my deviant pastimes. Such as going on the odd tour de force or something.

Edit: Louis kindly reminded me, that it should be 'Moore's law'

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