Against the Rules: Poetry, Form, and Play

Glenn Arbery, Ph.D.

In this series of lectures, we have heard a number of versions of the dialogue or dialectic or tension between work and play in the city. Virginia Arbery emphasized the importance of leisure, the high sabbath sense of the free place outside work; Louise Cowan, using Eudora Welty’s “A Wide Net,” reminded us of the essentially comic dimension of William Wallace’s ritual in dragging the river for his supposedly drowned wife; Larry Allums analyzed the dangers of corporatism and as opposed to a whole work (I remember the butter) that gathers a life and a world instead of compartmentalizing and scattering the soul’s essential powers; Dr. Chadwick-Joshua explored the Harlem Renaissance and particularly its riffs on classic American texts, a way of honoring, altering, and creating all at the same time; and last week Gail Thomas gave us an image of the city and the flow of ch’i in her lecture on Feng Shui. What has been becoming clearer to me from these lectures is an imagining of the space where necessity, duty, repetition, and blockage undergo a realignment, a kind of righting by the imagination: the arteries unclog, the traffic smoothly unjams, the ice-bound stream of time (as Melville calls it) begins to break up, everything flows again, and the merry mayday gods draw near. If I could put it this way, all work aspires to the condition of blessing; everyone who works wants that sense, and everybody seems to envy it in somebody else. For example, the poet Donald Hall, in his wonderful little book called Life Work, says that “Writers envy visual artists their muscular activity. Writers sit at desks and die early. Painters and sculptors work all day moving about, tapping, chiseling, modeling, mixing paints, and live to be ninety-seven praising work. Visual artists say the best things about work: Georgia O’Keefe said, ‘The days you work are the best days.’ ‘Work is paradise,’ said Matisse. ‘To work,’ said Rodin, ‘is to live without dying.'” (58)

Tonight I want to think about the work of writing and reading poetry, and what has changed about that work, if anything, over the past century–whether it even is work, or whether poetry ought always to be considered as play. Robert Frost, in one of his famous digs at his contemporaries, said that writing free verse was like playing tennis without a net. Any good writing, he meant, but especially poetry, had to have technical obstacles to overcome, but he also meant that it was a game; it was play, and with play, there had to be rules–Frost meant the rules of metrical composition. Robert Pinsky writes at the beginning of his new book, The Sounds of Poetry, “There are no rules.” He says that there are principles, but not rules: I suspect that Frost would not find that distinction helpful. In thinking about poetry and form, especially about the rules of metrical composition, I want to admit at the outset that this subject has some of the same powers as the witch in Sleeping Beauty. Whole classes, in my experience, have fallen suddenly under its powerful spell and slumped over in their desks. To stave off this drowsy numbness, I want to take Frost’s hint and talk about sports. First, what does he mean about tennis? In other words, without the net–what would it be? Not tennis. This sounds like a kind of curmudgeonly comment: whatever that is, it isn’t poetry. But I think he means it a little more seriously. Without a net, without the lines of the court, there would be no way to reveal the difference between controlled and uncontrolled power, force and finesse. The player steps onto the court as a space of measure, and the more he controls his shots and uses the limits of that space, the more intensely the form of the game emerges. At its upper limits, at Wimbledon or the U.S. Open, excellence ultimately has to involve not just athletic prowess but an extraordinary amount of preparatory hard work, a beauty of performance and a certain greatness of soul that not only withstands the measure but actually shines because it has a form that can reveal it.

Or think about the batter facing the pitcher in baseball. Over home plate, what is called the strike zone, a supple volume of air that differs with any given batter, makes it possible to see the artistry and courage of the duel. Think of what happens, say, between Greg Maddux and Mark McGwire or between Orlando “El Duque” Hernandez still fresh from Cuba and Tony Gwynn, returning to the World Series with the same Padres team after 14 years. Power and control and character and personal history and city pride and cultural expectation are revealed in their pathos or glory because of that agreed-upon, heavily focused space. It brings together two acute acts of attention, two men in the mastery of two different physical acts that converge in the one space of their opposition. I don’t want to make extravagant claims for sports. Donald Hall writes in Life Work that, when he isn’t working on his poems, he cannot read mysteries (as T.S. Eliot did) or watch movies with any pleasure, but that “for sports, intellectually equivalent to The Price is Right or Judith Krantz, I sit with my mouth open, witlessly enraptured.” The point I want to stress is that games like tennis and baseball create intense spaces and become capable of revealing engaging things about human excellence or failure within the boundaries of established and agreed-upon rules. Hall’s rapture isn’t entirely witless, in other words, and it relates directly to poetry. Part of the pleasure of reading a sonnet is knowing, not so much the rules, but what the rules make it possible to see. The pleasure of watching sports is very similar. For someone who doesn’t understand the rules of baseball–what constitutes an “out” or what “bases” are–it’s meaningless when, in the last inning of the World Series, Jeter smoothly fields a grounder and flips it underhanded to Knoblauch on second base, who turns in one motion and jumps over the sliding runner to make the throw to Martinez at first for the double play. The play’s over in perhaps three seconds: beautiful, fluid and exact, from a scoring threat to two outs (even if it is the Yankees). But suppose that you have to explain to your Russian guest who doesn’t know the game. You are plunged into abstraction: a runner coming from first base (wait, you have to explain first base and the idea of bases), a runner coming from first base is “out”–that is, he must involuntarily leave the field of play without having completed a circuit of the bases–if someone in possession of the ball touches second base before he does, but only if a batter has hit the ball and is therefore forcing the runner to leave first.

The rules are obviously not what anyone enjoys in watching good baseball. Nobody ever enjoyed the fact of there being ten syllables in a line of iambic pentameter, either, or fourteen lines consisting of three quatrains and a couplet in a Shakespearean sonnet. The rules are work. Even to understand them is work, because they usually suggest a difficult and initially artificial level of consciousness. For example, there is a first level of difficulty simply in getting someone to hear a pattern of sounds that apparently has nothing to do with the meaning of the words. A sentence, “I can’t believe he hit the ball to Jeter,” when you scan it, becomes a pattern of unstressed and stressed syllables, analyzable into feet. At first, with this awareness comes a kind of uneasiness, a sense of intrusion on natural language. The act of deliberately writing fourteen lines that make sense in this kind of self-conscious pattern–and then getting the end words to rhyme–seems absurdly artificial. I still remember how taken aback I was when a teacher in my freshman year of college casually mentioned that Shakespeare had varied the stresses and used words hard to enunciate together in order to underscore the sense of his lines in Sonnet 73. It was a revelation about dimensions of language new to me:

That time of year thou mayst in me behold

When yellow leaves, or none, or few, do hang

Upon those boughs which shake against the cold,

Bare ruin’d choirs where late the sweet birds sang.

Nothing particularly remarkable, it would seem. A note on the poem, as I recall, mentioned that Henry the Eighth had despoiled the English monasteries and that many were roofless and empty, a fact which explained the reference to “Bare ruin’d choirs.” But what impressed me was the teacher’s point that the poem leads its reader to expect an unstressed syllable at the beginning of the fourth line, but instead he uses a stressed one. No, that’s too abstractly said. What I mean is that I suddenly felt the word “bare,” because it cuts across an expectation that has been established, the way a good tennis player catches his opponent leaning the wrong way, or a pitcher throws only fastballs, then gets the batter to swing at a change-up (new camera technology allows them to show a succession of pitches from the same angle, so you can get the whole pattern almost at once). Thinking about this play with expectation, I understood what a “line” was, or again, better to say I felt it, the way a child playing baseball first feels the significance and exact location of second base when someone is on first; I felt the way one line influences and plays off the previous one and the next one. With games as with art, understanding precedes the capacity to feel accurately, and accurate feeling includes understanding. In its current usage, “feeling” usually means something vague and not susceptible to much scrutiny, but I’m talking about an extremely acute mode of intelligence, the “quick” of the whole intellect, Pascal’s “spirit of finesse” from the Pensees– the source from which most of our insights are unfolded. When I understood that Shakespeare was not expected to make every line a succession of unstressed and stressed syllables, but that he was allowed and expected to make all kinds of variations–to substitute spondees, trochees, pyrrhics, even anapests, for iambs, or in other words, to vary his pitches–I felt it, and formal poetry immediately became interesting to me.

But again, that’s too abstract. What interested me was a much more complicated feeling. This was the first male English teacher I’d ever had, a man who always held an unlit cigar, who always wore cardigan sweaters and work boots, and who spoke with sardonic, impatient intelligence in a slow middle-Georgia accent. This man knew and cared deeply about the arts of language and wrote both poetry and novels himself, I discovered later. He was middle-aged, and strange to say, his physical presence made it plausible that Shakespeare could write three lines of more or less regular iambic pentameter about getting old, that he could be deliberately indecisive about those leaves and get the word “hang,” after all those changing-his-mind commas, to hang there, that he could emphasize “cold” with the rhyme, and that he could suddenly, at the beginning of the fourth line, write on purpose, “Bare ruin’d choirs, where,” a glutinous sound clump, a gobbet of near-rhymes full of r’s that have to be pulled apart. I didn’t know, and I still don’t, how the visual metaphor–the stripped boughs of a tree as the roofless choir–can be so clear and airy while the sound is thickly dissonant yet perfectly appropriate for what a “ruined choir,” having lost its art, might sound like. This sound, “Bare ruin’d choirs where,” then this one overlapping it, “where late the sweet birds sang”: how can the end of the line call up so effectively the way that choirs ought to sound, as though breaking free and ascending, a bird-flock of words?

To the extent that poetry is a serious game, a form of high play, it has rules that focus attention, set up expectations, allow surprising meanings to emerge in the revelatory space of its structure, and enable its readers to feel with the greatest range and accuracy. It can involve an extraordinary amount of work. How long this sonnet took to write, we don’t know. But W. B. Yeats complains to Maud Gonne about the amount of work poets have to do in a poem called “Adam’s Curse”:

I said, “A line will take us hours maybe;

Yet if it does not seem a moment’s thought,

Our stitching and unstitching has been naught.

Better go down upon your marrow-bones

And scrub a kitchen pavement, or break stones

Like an old pauper, in all kinds of weather;

For to articulate sweet sounds together

Is to work harder than all these, and yet

Be thought an idler by the noisy set

Of bankers, schoolmasters, and clergymen

The martyrs call the world.”

Donald Hall says that he worked on his poem “Another Elegy,” from 1982 to 1988, accumulating over 500 drafts before he put it away unsatisfied, then picked it up again in 1992 and worked on it for another ten weeks, through another 30 drafts, before finally publishing it. And the end is to make this enormous labor disappear, as Yeats says, to make the poem seem “a moment’s thought,” a pure play of language. Even then, after the poet’s labor, this high play requires the kind of cultural understanding that has long ago assimilated the rules, so that the most serious things can be addressed and felt because the game itself has become entirely transparent. In other words, it requires readers who have worked hard to learn to hear. Any time that the rules as rules come to the foreground (as with the Russian and the World Series), this immediate address to feeling becomes difficult or impossible.

For various reasons, the assumptions and conventions of metrical composition in English verse are no longer culturally transparent, in the way that, say, narrative techniques in film are. What was different in 1593 is not that the sonnet had different rules, but that it had an entirely different cultural salience. 200 years earlier Chaucer had already read and imitated Petrarch, but the sonnet form did not really become fashionable in London until the aristocratic Elizabethans, especially Sir Philip Sidney, began to dramatize the sonnet sequence. Like the vogue of other Italian things, such as the political thought of Machiavelli, the English sonnet was part of a cultural reinterpretation. National pride required making the sonnet English as the fashionable medium of courtship and in the meantime outdoing the Catholic Italians insprezzatura. The form was the focus of passionate rivalry and serious play among the best English poets. Elizabethans thought in sonnets; the more talented ones could probably compose them extemporaneously, as Romeo and Juliet do in their first dialogue. Some poets can write good sonnets without that kind of context–I think immediately of Keats, Wordsworth, and Heaney (and a fair number of the poems chosen for this year’s anthology of the best American poetry are sonnets)–but the element of close-up cultural attention to the sonnet as the game, the high play whose rules are completely transparent, is long gone.

Part of the problem is the idea that “there are no rules.” True, the intrusive, even overbearing, sense of artificial sets of unfamiliar rules thwarts the natural movement of intelligence and feeling, but that sense can be overcome, and the movement of thought and feeling immeasurably enhanced, by a complete mastery of the rules. Versions of this insight obviously run through every discipline, from ballet to martial arts, and certainly through the very heart of religions: think of Zen; think of Christ saying that he comes not to overcome the law, but to fulfill it, and St. Paul writing that anyone living in the spirit is dead to the law. The letter kills, the rules kill, yes, but their strict measure not only helps to bring about a kind of death to the little rule-bound or rebellious self, but they also allow the free play of the spirit a place to be seen and understood in its gracefulness. When Pinsky writes that there are no rules, but there are principles, he is probably thinking more about free verse, which has difficulty defining its inner rules, its necessity to be what it is and no other way. Pretty clearly, free verse began in a profound impulse to get around necessity, duty, repetition, and blockage in the forms of poetry. Something had frozen, jammed up, and this liberation helped get things moving again. But after a century, it is still difficult to achieve a general accuracy of judgment about what constitutes excellence, difficult to feel it unmistakeably, because it has become difficult to tell what the game is. Not having rules can lead to the intrusive question of what is going on. I have heard students get in violent arguments over William Carlos Williams’ “The Red Wheelbarrow” because something in them wants to cry out, like the little boy in the story, that the emperor has no clothes.

So much depends


a red wheel


glazed with rain


beside the white


Simple as this is, its rules are elusive. Why, students want to know, is this a poem? Why do I have to sit here and think about it? Is it a trick on freshmen? Is it some kind of Zen exercise? How much work did it take? What discipline did Williams have to master in order to write it? Any soliloquy in Shakespeare, for all its verbal complexity, has a more immediate accessibility than this little poem, whose assumptions remain strangely elusive. “No ideas but in things” doesn’t help much.

At its best, I think, free verse tends to evoke the orders of convention against which it works, so that it strains against the rules and outside the frame. In a poem called “Descending Figure,” for example, Louise Gluck writes about a sister who died as a child. The distanced central section, “The Sick Child,” is set in a famous Amsterdam museum:

A small child

is ill, has wakened.

It is winter, past midnight

in Antwerp. Above a wooden chest,

the stars shine.

And the child

relaxes in her mother’s arms.

The mother does not sleep;

she stares

fixedly into the bright museum.

By spring the child will die.

Then it is wrong, wrong

to hold her–

Let her be alone,

without memory, as the others wake

terrified, scraping the dark

paint from their faces.

The poem repeats the practice of ecphrasis, or writing about a work of art, that is at least as old as Homer’s description of the shield of Achilles. The poetry is spare, prosaic, wholly “unpoetic” until its speaker suddenly begins to make judgments about the depicted scene, judgments that seem entirely at odds with the scene itself: a mother holding a sick child on a cold night. The turn comes when the mother is described as staring “fixedly into the bright museum.”

What is a museum? A place where things are kept and looked at, taken out of time, foregrounded as objects. What is being framed and foregrounded here? Care for sick child who “relaxes in her mother’s arms”–a line of iambic tetrameter that might have come from a Victorian poem– a care that becomes an heirloom to display, a museum piece. Since the mother stares “fixedly into the bright museum,” she seems to consent to or even to seek her own objectification, to call for it, and to do so in a kind of defiance of the one looking at the painting, the speaker of the poem. In response, the speaker comments, “By spring the child will die.” But how can seh know that? Apparently, because her own sister died, and what she resents is the way that her own mother’s emotional life after the death of her sister always turned back toward the intensity of caring for the child who died, on loss and absence rather the presence of her living child. “Then it is wrong, wrong / to hold her–” says the living one. It is wrong, it seems, because for the mother, time has stopped and the moment has become eternal, like art, except that preserving it is a bid for a certain kind of praise. “Let her be alone, / without memory,” the speaker says with seeming cruelty, like the Greeks who said that it was best never to be born, but she means that it is best to be without memory, unlike herself. She is one of the others who “wake / terrified,” in the absence that seems to rule her childhood. The final image exactly conveys the feeling of her terror, as though she had been painted into the dark, one of the sleeping children in the background who was not ill and did not wake. “Scraping the dark / paint from their faces” are the others like herself whose presence can never match the glamour of the dead.

In order to make her poem effective, Gluck has to break the frame between art and life in a bitter, unexpected way. It is difficult to imagine this poem being as effective in any metrical form, and Gluck’s rejection of ordinary meter seems analogous to her rejection of the sentiment of the painting. Her verse works from the kind of emotion that psychoanalysis takes awhile to uncover. Its very plainness of language rejects in advance all the empty, self-serving gestures of poetry, all the things that take an emotion and hold it up and “stare fixedly into the bright museum” with it. This verse prefers to be sullen and marginal, rather than central and false. One comes away with a sense of rigorously self-imposed rules, a nakedness of language that requires intense work. The poet’s choices do not allow her the possibilities of doing things in meter, or even of beauty ordinarily understood, but on the other hand, they give her a brittle, painful effect that it would be difficult to achieve in a traditional form. Still, unsparing as it is, there is strong play here, especially in the last lines, with their rapid, intuitive shifts between being the audience and being in the work.

The question is whether, without traditional forms to evoke and deny, this poetry loses its point; in effect, I am asking whether free verse for the past century is an extended riff on everything that had preceded it. Riffs have to be riffs on something, they have to assume the cultural transparency of the rules that they bend and break, the alphabets, to use a phrase of Seamus Heaney’s, that they extend. One of the things often said about free verse is that its lines, as in Gluck’s poem, tend not to be memorable, or perhaps I should say “memorizable.” Emily Dickinson seems to me to offer an particularly apt contrast, in part because these two women have what seems to me a close spiritual affinity. Dickinson was certainly no admirer of self-serving emotion (“How dreary to be–Somebody”). Her poetry has a radical character that poor Thomas Wentworth Higginson, who read and edited some of it, never quite managed to discern. Even in this century, she has had a hard time getting away from her early image as “Shirley Temple struck by genius”(Camille Paglia). But consider this poem from 1862:

After great pain, a formal feeling comes–

The Nerves sit ceremonious, like Tombs–

The stiff Heart questions was it He, that bore,

And Yesterday, or Centuries before?

The Feet, mechanical, go round–

Of Ground, or Air, or Ought–

A Wooden way

Regardless grown,

A Quartz contentment, like a stone–

This is the hour of Lead–

Remembered, if outlived,

As Freezing persons, recollect the Snow–

First–Chill–then Stupor–then the letting go–

To ask what Dickinson is doing with traditional forms is to ask what the poem is about. The first stanza evokes a “formal feeling” by using iambic pentameter lines, and heroic couplets. The quatrain form suggests a Shakespearean sonnet. Is this supposed to be a sonnet? (13 lines) Is it supposed to suggest that it set out to be a sonnet and got derailed? What is it that might derail it? The funereal imagery of Nerves (first the sitting in the parlor, then the startling transformation of formal mourners into Tombs) suggests a death, a loss, the “Persephone experience” that James Hillman writes about in The Dream and the Underworld–the psyche suddenly raped downward by radical insult, rejection or loss: great pain. The stiffness of the “formal feeling” is conveyed in a series of spondees, all in the same position in the second foot of each of the first three lines. (Wake up out there.) But in the second stanza comes the real brilliance: she seems so much in shock that she apparently forgets the iambic pentameter altogether and reverts to her usual ballad or hymn meter (eight syllables, then six). She seems to be slipping back into what she does, almost mechanically, as people do, except that she is punning on the metrical feet, mechanically walking off dazed into a kind of zero of “Air, or Ought” (with a suggestion of self-reproach–what she ought to have done); then comes a woodenness so “regardless grown” she forgets to rhyme on “ought” (as she ought to) and with the stanza form wrecked, she settles for a “quartz contentment” and an unequal couplet. In the last stanza comes the feel of someone trying to recover the forms ironically shattered by the “formal feeling”:

This is the hour of Lead–

Remembered, if outlived,

As Freezing persons, recollect the Snow–

First–Chill–then Stupor–then the letting go–

The last two lines brilliantly recapitulate the form of the whole poem: the chill of the formal quatrain, the stupor and disorientation of the second stanza, and finally the recollection in the last two lines of the iambic pentameter of the beginning, and the last line punctuated with Dickinson’s rhythmically significant, idiosyncratic dashes. Dickinson’s poem is about an experience of such devastation that it can hardly be recalled, and her poem violates just about every rule. But because the rules are there, because the patterns of expectation can be set up and violated and recovered, the poem achieves what seems to me an extraordinary formal success, full of the whole play of Dickinson’s imagination. What leads Pinsky to say that “There are no rules” is probably a sense that poetry has lost its audience and should not seem too forbidding at the outset. But to me this sounds like trying to lure people back to baseball by saying, “There are no rules.” Precisely the existence of rules allows excellence an impartial, de-politicized, ungendered measure.

In an essay called “The Figure a Poem Makes,” Frost says of a good poem, “It begins in delight, it inclines to the impulse, it assumes direction with the first line laid down, it runs a course of lucky events and ends in a clarification of life–not necessarily a great clarification, such as sects and cults are founded on, but in a momentary stay against confusion.” What Frost does not say, but perhaps we should continue to think about, is what the relation might be between the possibilities of high play in poetry and the transparencies of our cultural forms. Seamus Heaney, after citing this passage, seems to me to take it one step further, and I will close with this: “the order of art becomes an achievement intimating a possible order beyond itself, although its relation to that further order remains promissory rather than obligatory. Art is not an inferior reflection of some ordained heavenly system but a rehearsal of it in earthly terms.” A rehearsal: in other words, the hard work that both produces the sense of divine ease and precedes the actual performance of it, the work that gets the culture of the city ready for the play of the returning gods.

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