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The Rules of Poetry
Bruce Price : The Rules of Poetry

The Rules of Poetry

What are the rules of poetry? Bruce Deitrick Price finally settles the age-old question.

By Bruce Price

1. First rule. There are no rules. Do you believe there are? Let's talk about this. Sure, the sonnet and the limerick have rules; haiku has rules; these forms are defined by their rules. But poetry in general? At the end of the day, I'd argue that poetry has but one rule, that it not be prose, that it be one notch more distilled and exciting than prose.

2. Wrangling about rules can take you down dead-end roads. The history of the arts is littered with the corpses of creative projects that started off with some theoretical soul declaring, "A painting should be X...A novel must be C." Says who??? Sometimes these declarations and manifestos — these rules — serve to keep you focused. Probably more often they seal you off from life and the endless possibilities of life. Often the rule-making is part of a self-serving circuitous process. If you state that a poem (novel, painting, etc.) should be Z, and you then create art that has lots of Z, you can sit back and say, "I'm great! Look, my art is sooo Z."

3. I've been thinking about rules a great deal, ever since I wrote an essay titled The Plight of Poetry arguing that Poetry is in bad shape because academics moved aggressively into the field. The results, according to my uppity essay, was that "a torrent of boring poetry gave Poetry a bad name." But I didn't zoom in what made this development possible. Namely, the academic poets imposed a new set of rules on Poetry...and then pretended these rules were fixed and immutable. The more I look at this little trick, the more amazed I am that they could get away with it. Ultimately it's hard to see any difference between these rules and social customs. If all the people in your Club agree to wear white to tennis matches, then it's a rule, and quite a compelling rule. But I don't suppose any intelligent person imagines that this rule is anything but a trivial convention. How could anyone suppose that "rules for poetry" devised by academics have some greater foundation in the cosmos?

4. Here's one way you know that meter and rhyme schemes — all the things that many people have in mind when mentioning rules — are not primary. We can enjoy translations just as much (or more sometimes) as we enjoy poems in our own language. Those poems, in their original form, may have followed many rules that we can no longer experience. We are experiencing everything else — the story, the insight, figures of speech, observations, and vision. Let me make this point from the other direction. Wallace Stevens starts his marvelous "Thirteen Ways To Look At A Blackbird" like this: "Among twenty snowy mountains, the only moving thing was the eye of the blackbird." (I left out the line breaks and caps; even with them included, this is almost prose.) So where are the rules? But I tell you, this bit of magic could be translated into every language on the planet, and readers everywhere would fall silent before it. The picture is so vivid, so memorable. This for me is poetry — by virtue of its leap into unexpected truth. Oh, if only I'd thought of that! Make a list of the poems you really love and you'll find, I bet, a similar degree of originality, even oddness. Rules may have been followed but that's not what brings you back. What captivates are vistas new and lucky, feelings sharp and unanticipated.

5. Still want rules? Well, let me suggest you find your own set. Make sure these rules are ways to liberate, not inhibit, the best in you. The great sin of the McPoets, as academics have been called, is that they all got on the same boat, and crafted a similar product. There's a pretty irony in this story. The people making the rules for McPoetry were often the same people, as members of the counterculture, who told us: drop out, go crazy, get stoned, steal this book, in short, break all the rules! Remember the anarchy of it all. And yet, and yet. In Poetry's higher reaches suddenly everybody was as conformist as fifty peas in a pod; and these conformists were content with McPoems.

6. Here's a time capsule that is revealing, I still recall in vivid detail a phone conversation I had around 1985. Excited about something I had written, I told my friend (a lady intellectual, let us say) with some excitement, "I've written a poem that starts—

So long, dear dead crazy Ezra,
you're not missing a thing...
"

And she broke in, "Well, that's very nice but it's not poetry. We decided all that. In meetings at the Cedar Tavern..." I'm as amazed thinking this today as I was then hearing it. They decided?! Meanwhile, there I was, the young poet, chatting familiarly with the dead Ezra Pound! Dramatic and arresting, right? If she had said I didn't develop the idea very well...oh, any number of criticisms are acceptable. But to say it's not poetry, on the basis of two lines? Well, I think that's just nuts (and a good clue about why intellectuals and academics making rules can be so dangerous).

7. Perhaps the Moses of McPoetry was Archibald MacLeish. In his Ars Poetica, written in 1925, he said a poem should be mute and dumb. His poem, for many decades, was presented to possibly a million students (I was one of them) as holy writ; some still think it is. In my essay I called MacLeish's dictate "gloriously goofy". Mute and dumb? A poem? It's like saying a bird should not sing. If a poet feels this rule (or any rule) as a personal truth, fine. But for MacLeish to lay these strictures down as some final verdict was nonsense. A poem, he announced, "should not mean but be." And so's your Mama! But a generation of professors pretended that MacLeish had settled forever what poetry must be. And note that the professors weren't talking about form (rhyme, meter, etc.) but about the sensibility of the poem. They wanted to lock in how poetry should feel. Not surprisingly, all those poems ended up feeling much the same.

8. What happened, in American literature, was that people embracing MacLeish's Rules mainstreamed mediocrity. What got marginalized was highly original poetry, even though the great poems have usually had an offbeat, surprising, not-experienced-before quality. We don't read poetry for the same-old, same-old; but McPoety was, by common agreement, exactly that. Perhaps, to some degree, this was not a group of people with a lot of high spirits. But I tend to focus on the careerist or guild aspects. If everyone agrees that a poem is a highly confected, artificial sort of thing that few people can do....then you limit the competition. Like wearing white to tennis, some rules have the effect of keeping out the riffraff. In practice, these rules also function as a self-imposed straightjacket or gag order. Think about rich Romans agreeing that good dinner plates, proper plates, were made from lead. Later, much later, scientists figured out why so many Romans went insane. Lead poisoning.

9. Here's another perspective: A lot of the great English poetry was created by people who were supremely gifted at following rules. I'm thinking of writers such as Pope, Dryden, Shelley, Byron. We read this work and know, in an abstract way, that it's great. Simultaneously, we are vaguely bored and annoyed — all that de-de-dum, de-de-dum, lake, sake, break. These giants are not real popular today. The very skill that made them so highly esteemed — they could nail a perfect 10 on these tightly defined genres — now strikes us as too predictable, too tight. These great talents, to some degree, imprisoned themselves within their rules, and their gift for following those rules. We want more surprise before our eyes. I can't read Chaucer in the original but my sense is that he worked loosely within tight rules and somehow kept his lines feeling fresh. I believe this is the rule that trumps all other so-called rules, even for those of you who dote on rules. Be wild within the structure you inhabit. Stay steps ahead of the reader. In sum, accepting rules, if that's your inclination, is not the end of your problems, but the beginning, because you have to invent and reinvent within those rules to be a real poet.

10. I was looking at one of those American classics that most of us studied in elementary school, The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere. How wonderful this is — a meter that captures a horse's gallop. Longfellow was a great writer, telling a great story in a magical way, and he pulled this off. I bet most people assume it's a standard poetic form of some kind. However, when I looked at it closely and counted syllables, I realized Longfellow mixed up his lines and endlessly created variations on his metrical scheme. A lesser talent, following the same rules more tightly, might make us bonkers by the 20th line. Longfellow managed to achieve a kind of beautiful roughness that is a metaphor for this country. Another poem that is tight but loose is Whitman's Oh Captain My Captain. They taught this when I was in the fifth grade. Most people probably assume it's safe or normal, that it follows some familiar rules. I think not. You have to look without preconception to see how rough, weird and attacking it is. So, sure, there's rules if you want to embrace them, but you had better make sure you boss those rules and not the other way around.

11. I've been having a somewhat tongue-in-cheek joust with Archibald MacLeish. I've invented a new form — with very tight rules! — that I call the Archibald. You have to mimic the start of his Ars Poetica but create a poem exactly opposite of what he wanted you to do--something raw and rambunctious, something to make McPoets squirm. See if you can beat this one:

a poem should electrocute
and be hairy like a kiwi fruit

12. Yes, at the end of the day, I want my poetry to be clearly poetry, not prose. And not something I've seen before. I want to be pleasantly surprised, or even jolted. Amaze me! As Ezra Pound said so succinctly: "Make it new." Or as I in my rude way have opined on the same subject:

TOES in a bottle
dreams in a purse
only fools make rules
for verse

© 2007 Bruce Deitrick Price

Bruce Deitrick Price is an author, artist, poet, and education activist. His fifth book is "THE EDUCATION ENIGMA—What Happened To American Education." More »

3/13/07