“Uncontainability Pours Forth”: Rhyme, Meter, and Form in Best American Poetry 2007

The 2007 volume of the Best American Poetry series came out this past September, edited by Heather McHugh. Again this year I find myself asking how many poems there are in form, or rhyme, or meter. How has formal or metrical poetry fared in the scramble to be called best? Readers of The Barefoot Muse already know why I ask that, but here is the background, as summed up by William Logan: “The efforts of 'New Formalists' notwithstanding, American poetry genially abhors meter and rhyme....” (The Undiscovered Country, 8) Since I write in rhyme and meter, I want to know whether there is any hope for change.

As it turns out, a quick look at McHugh's work online reveals a bent in favor of rhyme and meter. She signals it in her introduction when she says of words, “From their arrangement in measures, uncontainability pours forth.” Her selections for 2007 make things look comparatively good for formal poetry, or at least for certain kinds. By “comparatively” I mean in comparison with the previous year. The 2007 volume contains seventeen poems (out of the standard seventy-five each year) that I can classify as metrical or formal. That is, they either use meter, strict or loose, or use rhyme, or use form, even if unmetered (a ghazal by Amit Majmudar). In the 2006 volume there are nine poems I can scan in some formal or semi-formal system, and only three with end rhyme, all humorous, more or less.

Rhyme and meter are allied with humor, or at least with play, in 2007 also. The most absolutely rhyming poem of the set is “Etudes,” by Elaine Equi (from the tiny). Its four stanzas are all set up like this one—

Autumn is a solitude.
Winter is a fortitude.
Spring is an altitude.
Summer is an attitude.

Summer is a multitude...

In her author's note Equi tells us she rarely writes in rhyme and so is proud of the monorhyme device here. The poem certainly rhymes, and most of its lines are in this tight metrical pattern. In beginning each stanza with the same season that ended the last, it emphasizes the seasonal cycles. Still, it more resembles a word-matching game than a creation that will, to paraphrase Dickinson, take the tops of our heads off. Its entire emotional content is in the fitness of the final noun to the named season.

There are five selections that use full rhyme, tight meter, and regular rhyme schemes in a more conventional way, but only one of the five is completely straightforward about it. For example, Richard Wilbur's poems in this collection are three shorts entitled “from 'Opposites' and 'More Opposites’” (from American Poet). Here's one:

The opposite of kite, I'd say,
Is yo-yo. On a breezy day
You take your kite and let it rise
Upon its string into the skies,
And then you pull it down with ease
(Unless it crashes in the trees).
A yo-yo, though, drops down, and then
You quickly bring it up again
By deftly pulling on its string
(If you can work the blasted thing).

The sly cynicism about the kites and yo-yos seems designed to appeal to adults. The half-hidden smirk, the typeface antics, and the precise tetrameter and couplets all remind me of eighteenth-century poetry, and of Pope in particular. The desire for ordered pairings in the world—opposites for everything—is both childlike and adult. The subjects, though—toys—and the slow pace, and the carefully parallel explanation all declare that this is a poem for children. And of course a poem for children is allowed to be in rhyme and meter.

Another fully metrical choice, from Alan Shapiro, similarly adopts a pose that excuses ballad meter and abab rhyme. Titled “Country Western Singer” (and originally published in Virginia Quarterly Review), it offers itself as a song lyric on the classic country topic of booze:

I used to feel like a new man
After the day's first brew
But then the new man I became
Would need a tall one too.

As would the new man he became
And the new one after him
And so on and so forth till the new men made
The dizzy room to dim.

The downward spiral continues in acid observations that very soon go beyond what would be acceptable sung over the radio—

Like going from bed to barroom stool
From stool to bathroom stall
From stall to sink, from sink to stool
From stool to hospital.

—absolutely transgressing the bounds of the popular song lyric, and of the poem's own meter, by ending with death and hinting at damnation:

and the blood I taste, the blood I swallow
is as far away from wine
as 5:10 is to the one who dies
at 5:09.

So in the end the poem drops the mask. It's a poem, not a song, and one that exerts a good poetic tug. But this is the point: To be a “best American poem” in full rhyme and meter, a poem apparently has a better chance if it pretends to be something else, something like a work for children, or a song. Brad Leithauser's “A Good List” (from The New Criterion) is another example of a fully rhyming work, humorous this time, in a bouncy rough accentual rhythm, that goes incognito in song get-up:

Some nights, can't sleep, I draw up a list
Of everything I've never done wrong.
To look at me now you might insist
My list could hardly be long,
But I've stolen no gnomes from my neighbor's yard,
Or struck his dog, backing out my car,
Never ate my way up and down the Loire
On a stranger's credit card.

It even sports the epigraph “hommage to Lorenz Hart.” This is a little discouraging, all this rhyming in jest and in pretense. The implication here is that full rhyme in a regular scheme and strict meter, done without irony, is not to be taken seriously. Only one fully rhyming and metered poem, Helen Ransom Forman's “Daily,” treats a sober theme with the head-on intent of moving us; here is its second stanza:

Our faces dangle, tags of man and wife
Tied to an apron, to a coat and hat,
Telling the cost of daily habits that
Tick tock the ticky tacky daytime life.

One other poem, Sharon Dolin's “Tea Lay” (from New American Writing) is nearly in full rhyme, but it's eccentric too—or, if you prefer, innovative: it's homophonic verse, written to sound like the poems of John Clare, without aspiring to mean anything but only, in Dolin's words, to “teeter on the brink of sense.” A few lines will give you the idea:

A missed tea, that piece of, to say Off, grief.
We all come, by turns meretricious, to someone's wry relief.
Tangled wit, the ought of risible Tea Lay,
Aspiring to forswear, regretful knees sway....

Again it seems like a breaking of rules: poetry as a sound game only, not a marriage of sound and sense. This is a pattern we might expect in McHugh's choices: to maximize the clever, the playful.

Poems that are willing to veil rhyme in some way are more numerous in BAP 2007. Here things look up; these poems are allowed to be wholly serious and to feel. They range from irregular patterns and slant rhymes with fairly even meter to the unspecifiable point where meter erodes and rhyme scatters itself in assorted sonics throughout the lines. At the more regular end is Geoffrey Brock's “Flesh of John Brown's Flesh: Dec. 2, 1859” (from Subtropics), an elegy on Brown's hanging, in the voice of his son. Here are the first four strophes, enough to show the irregularity and broken pattern of the rhyming:

We knew the rules and punishments:
three lashes for lack of diligence,
eight for disobeying mother

or telling lies....No blood, he'd say,
and no remission. Came a day
he started keeping my account.

as at a store. And came another
he called me to the tannery,
a Sunday, day of settlement.

I'd paid one-third the owed amount
when he, to my astonishment,
handed the blue-beech switch to me.

The story builds on history we probably know, with details we probably do not, in natural diction and musical rhythms, and in its resonant conclusion it makes Brown, who is one of American history's great enigmas, understandable. This is my favorite poem in the collection, the one in which uncontainability really does burst out of measure. (Required disclosure: I am a Brock fan. This poem uses more true rhyme than I think of as typical for him; see if you agree by looking at more poems on his web site.)

Marilyn Nelson's “Etymology” (from Literary Imagination) uses rhymes that are slant rather than irregular but is also serious and tightly metered:

The filth hissed at us when we venture out—
always in twos and threes, never alone—
seems less a language spoken than one spat
in savage plosives, primitive, obscene.....

A reader might happen on the full rhyme in lines 5 and 6, be alerted, read back to find the slants, and then read forward again to discover that this is a nonce-form sonnet: ababccddeffegg. It's difficult to tell at first whether the scene is contemporary or historical. Going out in twos and threes could be Victorian propriety or modern safety consciousness. The expression “a cavemob nya-nya” sounds modern, but then one arrives at “Yesterday/a mill girl spat a phrase I'd never heard...” which turns it into a scene from another century. Is the narrator an upper-class woman reacting to the ugliness of poverty only by being “stumped by the etymology of one word”? Or is she a slave, a common subject of Nelson's poems? The effect is like the monologues of Robert Browning, but more oblique.

More sonnet forms: Richard Kenney's “Auguries” (from Southwest Review) is a pair of fourteen-line poems that stretch the definition of the sonnet. They use rough meter and “rhymes” that are beyond slant, like neurology/logic and nonsense/xenon. Some pairings are no more than sound reversals or etymological relationships, but they're clear once one catches on, and the divisions into tercets, quatrains, and couplets make the sonnet intention clear. Still, if you were hoping for music rather than mind games, these will probably not satisfy you.

Beyond these nine, the poems start to make their own rules. A few make some use of end rhyme or some use of meter but with great liberties, refusing to take form's side fully: Robert Creeley's “Valentine for You,” Meghan O'Rourke's “Peep Show,” George Witte's “At Dusk, the Catbird.” A final few poems without rhyme seem to me to be metrical in a ghost-of-meter way: Robert Hass's “Bush's War,” a section of Gregory Orr's “Concerning the Book that is the Body of the Beloved,” Susan Parr's “Swooping Actuarial Fauna,” Peter Pereira's “Nursemaid's Elbow.” Perhaps it is wishful thinking on my part to classify them so.

Final verdict: more rhyme and meter than I expected, much of it with a comic, ironic, or experimental approach. The straightforward rhymes and meters were mostly published in the places where I would expect them.

My chief discovery in this exercise, though, was this: Of the three BAP volumes I own, the one that best showcases formal poetry is the 2005 collection. It features rhymed iambic pentameter from Marilyn Hacker, rhymed trimeter from Anthony Hecht, unrhymed rough dimeter from Donald Justice, unrhymed tet of iambs and anapests from Samuel Hazo, more rhymed IP from Maura Stanton, and a poem “for children and others” from Richard Wilbur. Most of this is sober, honest, no-pretending formal verse. That year's guest editor, by the way, was Paul Muldoon, newly appointed poetry editor of The New Yorker. May this mean something, I pray to whatever muse is around.

Works cited:

Logan, William. The Undiscovered Country: Poetry in the Age of Tin. New York: Columbia University Press, 2005.

McHugh, Heather, ed. The Best American Poetry 2007. Best American Poetry series, edited by David Lehman. New York: Scribner Poetry, 2007.

Maryann Corbett's poetry has appeared or is forthcoming in Measure, The Lyric, Alabama Literary Review, Mezzo Cammin, and other journals in print and online, and her work has been nominated for the Pushcart and Best of the Net anthologies. Her chapbook Gardening in a Time of War was published in 2007 by Pudding House. She lives in St. Paul, Minnesota, and works as a legal-writing adviser, editor, and indexer for the Minnesota Legislature."

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