(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

Over the last few decades, there have been several attempts to explain the diminishing status of poetry and its shrinking audience. Timothy Steele’s exploration contributes to this discussion and raises it to a new level of sophistication. One precursor is Paul Fussell’s influential text on prosodic analysis, Poetic Meter and Poetic Form (1965), designed to teach a liberated generation raised on free verse how to be responsive to the expressive values of meter, fixed forms, and stanzaic composition. Central to Fussell’s demonstrations is the conservative argument that great monuments of poetry were founded in mastery of prosodic craft, though craft was never sufficient in itself Fussell seems to hope that if readers’ ears can be awakened, poets will be obliged to make fruitful accommodations to tradition. Fussell’s first edition contains no material on free verse. His 1979 revised edition adds such a chapter, but it reads like a concession to the marketplace: Fussell’s heart is not in it.

In The Place of Poetry: Two Centuries of an Art in Crisis (1981), Christopher Clausen argues that aesthetic formalism had much to do with the alienation of audiences. He calls for a “recovery of the balance between thought, feeling, and form, and for a more fruitful sense of subjects and purposes.” Clausen worries about such notions as “the autonomous poem,” which divorced the artwork from the surrounding world. Although Clausen does not focus his arguments upon the abandonment of meter, he feels that the insistent rejection of the past has done more harm than good.

Another precursor is Stephen Fredman’s Poet’s Prose: The Crisis in American Verse (1983), a study that acquiesces to and even celebrates the changes it describes. Fredman observes “how deeply the impulse toward prose is embedded in the larger issues of the character of American poetry and the crisis of modernity” while striving to discover the causes and outcomes of this impulse.

Timothy Steele’s Missing Measures places “the revolt against meter” in both its immediate cultural setting and in the larger context of poetic revolutions across Western history. His patient, scholarly discussion clarifies the elements in this latest revolution, tracks down causes, and exposes some of the hollow arguments and fraudulent, or at least misguided, appeals to authority that have been used to justify the abandonment of meter. It is a bold book, perhaps the most significant offering to date in the gradual emergence of a conservative force in contemporary poetic thought. Not for the casual reader, Steele’s arguments might stir up enough poets and academics (since both groups live uneasily together on our nation’s campuses) to make a difference in the teaching and in the writing of poetry.

Steele is concerned with what makes the modern revolution in poetry unique. He observes that earlier revolts against tradition were motivated by the desire to rid poetry of what, for any “contemporary” period, was considered artificial or archaic diction in favor of a colloquial idiom. Steele presents relevant passages from John Dryden, William Wordsworth, and other premodern reformers that attest this common thread. The revolution spearheaded by Ford Madox Ford, Ezra Pound, and T. S. Eliot, however, was simultaneously a revolt against meter. For these men, Victorian diction and traditional meter were inseparably linked. The overthrow of the former demanded the overthrow of the latter.

Steele argues that this revolution was detrimental to the further development of poetry, and in fact that the literature that has emerged under the rubric of “free verse” may not be poetry at all. He agrees with earlier reformers who believed that shifts in diction (as well as other elements of poetry) could and should be accomplished without undermining the metrical basis of poetic art. Steele reviews and documents the history of attitudes toward the relationship between poetry and meter. He considers the theory and practice of writers from classical antiquity, the Middle Ages, the Renaissance, and the more recent periods. Throughout his study, the findings are illuminating and puzzling. He notes, for example, that the prose writers of the past looked to poetry for the formal means to enhance their art, while the modern situation has turned that relationship around.

Moreover, through the faulty transmission of classical theory and the conflation into a uniform view of the diverse views of ancient writers, fundamental distortions of emphasis occurred on key issues. While Aristotle considered imitation fundamental to the character of poetry, he nowhere discredited verse. Later commentators found ways of asserting a secondary status to measure, and still others managed to divorce the categories...

(The entire section is 1967 words.)