Kevin Durkin (KD): Tim, let's start with the new book. What prompted you to write All the Fun's In How You Say a Thing?
Timothy Steele (TS): There are several answers to that. One is that I've always loved metered verse and wanted to explain the advantages meter offers poets and the pleasures it gives readers.
KD: What sort of advantages do you mean?
TS: Against the bass line of the meter, a poet can register shades of rhythm and tone with special sensitivity. Also, poets can play the meter off against grammar. They can run sentence structure through the end of the metrical unit or, conversely, achieve extra emphasis by endstopping—by making metrical units and syntactical ones coincide. What's more, working in meter--and with the related devices of rhyme and stanza—you find the form forcing you to think of all sorts of alternative ways of phrasing thoughts and feelings. As you try to secure this or that cadence or rhyme, you start thinking of things that otherwise would not have occurred to you. In this sense, meter can be mentally and emotionally enlarging.
KD: Could you give an example of an experience of this sort that you had while writing one of your own poems?
TS: This happened with one of the first poems I wrote—"History of a Friendship in Mattapoisett." The poem's about how relationships work and don't work. When I was first trying to write the poem, I hadn't grasped its theme sufficiently. But at one point I needed an iambic tetrameter whose final syllable would rhyme with "unsaid"; and playing with phrases that fit the meter and words that met the rhyme, I came up with "Tact is at once acquired and shed." And it dawned on me that, yes, this was the point of the poem: as we get to know people better, we put aside conventional politesse, but at the same time we need to cultivate deeper forms of tact, remembering that other people are just that—other than we are—and we have to respect the difference, no matter how close we grow to them. Anyway, I don't think I'd have been able to clarify the poem, or have been able to understand the relationship that occasioned it, had it not been for the form. The meter and rhyme made me think harder and feel along different lines than I might have done normally.
KD: What other advantages are there to writing in meter?
TS: Well, metrical poetry is also just plain fun. Though it has rules, once you start working within their boundaries, you find all sorts of interesting challenges.
KD: You also mentioned the pleasure metrical poetry gives readers.
TS: Rhythmically organized verse is catchier—it's easier to remember—than free verse. Meter offers a sensuous appeal to the ear and mind. And poetic form can in general create all sorts of pleasurable symmetries and surprises. A poem with formal structure can achieve a beauty and fullness that a poem without such structure can't. Structure gives a poem resistant grace and power. A fine metrical poem by Richard Wilbur, Janet Lewis, Louise Bogan, Philip Larkin, X. J. Kennedy, Edgar Bowers, Thom Gunn, or Anthony Hecht or—to go back a little further—a good sonnet by Robert Frost or Countee Cullen feels like it's built to last. And I think many readers are grateful for the poet's having taken the time to create something that has focus and comeliness.
KD: Do you think poets and critics have lost sight of these qualities?
TS: They have been, I fear, largely forgotten in the wake of modernism and the triumph of free verse. And in All The Fun's in How You Say a Thing I wanted to make available, for those who might be interested, a book that was accurate and helpful and that might stand as an alternative to the false things that are often said today about meter and its history.
KD: Could you give some examples of the sort of false things you mean?
TS: One very destructive notion—Pound and Eliot were responsible for it, though they didn't mean to harm poetry—is that regular meter and individual rhythm are mutually exclusive and that to write rhythmically interesting verse you have to break or violate the meter. A more general fallacy, it seems to me, is that form is a straightjacket and that regularity is inevitably inhibiting. In fact, form can be enabling in the same way that any structure can be. We couldn't move as well or as variously as we do if we didn't have a skeleton, and the metric frame, to use Frost's term, gives you all sorts of different possibilities for organizing speech. Another common fallacy is that meter is somehow elitist. Anyone who's listened to pop songs, which are almost always heavily metered, knows this isn't true. But a number of poets and critics, including one of our recent poet laureates, still regularly repeat this notion.
KD: It has always struck me as odd that something as neutral as meter has been so often criticized in this way. Some practitioners of free verse, such as Eliot and Pound, certainly had elitist tendencies. And some metrical poets—Robert Burns leaps to mind—clearly did not.
TS: It's strange how the history of free verse is lost on so many vers-libristes, especially those in the United States. The pioneers of free verse saw themselves as Nietzschean überpoets, revolting against petty bourgeois literary convention. And as you say, leading experimentalists like Pound and Eliot had views about politics and society that were pretty right-wing. Today, however, the ideas Pound and Eliot developed are often propounded by those who see free verse as egalitarian, on the dubious grounds that anybody can write it. I say "dubious" because there are all sorts of activities, including using firearms or driving recklessly, which pretty much anybody can engage in, but which are hardly egalitarian. If Pound and Eliot knew how their ideas are currently being employed, they'd probably be spinning in their graves. By the same token, many contemporary anti-metrists would likely be horrified if they knew where their arguments came from.
KD: Was there anything else that motivated you to write All the Fun's in How You Say a Thing? Surely your experience as a teacher of literature and poetry at Cal State Los Angeles must have played some role.
TS: As the late Henri Coulette once observed, meter seems to have become almost a lost language. And if you care about poetry and go into a college classroom and discover that no one knows what a sonnet or heroic couplet is, you start to wonder if you should try to do something about the situation. At least that's what eventually happened with me. There were some useful prosody books on the market—one being James McAuley's Versification: A Short Introduction. But even it seemed to suffer from the problem from which most of the standard digests or manuals suffer. In the interests of compression, the subject is presented in a clinically abrupt manner, with very few examples, and many interesting or important issues must be oversimplified or ignored. I didn't want to do this. I wanted to write a book that attempted to cover pretty much the full field. I hoped to write a book that would be thorough and fun to read, filled with lots of examples from good poets and shaped by the concerns of a practicing poet.