From before the time of Homer until the middle of the 19th century, almost all poets in the Western literary tradition wrote measured verse—that is, poems with a regular repeated rhythmical pattern.  Then, in a little over a hundred years, from Walt Whitman through the 1960’s, a new form of writing (free verse) fully emerged that not only challenged metrical verse but almost replaced it.  Thus, an art form that, for three millennia or more, had accommodated and helped bring into being the poetic works of Homer, Vergil, Dante, Shakespeare, Milton, Wordsworth, Tennyson, and Yeats was in danger of being lost.  Still, even during the heyday of the modernist revolt against traditional verse, a number of first-rate poets kept measured verse alive—W.B. Yeats (considered by many as the greatest poet of the modern period), Robert Bridges (poet laureate of England), Robert Frost (who famously compared writing free verse with playing tennis with the net down), and California-based poet Yvor Winters, whose shift from free to metrical verse in the late 1920’s attracted such poets as Donald Stanford, J.V. Cunningham, and Edgar Bowers, many of whose own students played a major role in what is now called the New Formalist Revival.  This new measured verse came into view in the late 1970’s with the publication of the first collections by such poets as Timothy Steele, who studied with J.V. Cunningham at Brandeis University.  Moreover, as Baer notes, during later decades of the free-verse ascendancy, other excellent poets such as America’s Richard Wilbur, Anthony Hecht, and X.J. Kennedy, as well as England’s W.H. Auden and Philip Larkin, continued to write metrical verse against the grain of the times.  (So, incidentally, did many of the Southern Fugitive poets, such as John Crowe Ransom, Allen Tate, and Donald Davidson.)

William Baer, poet, translator, professor of creative writing at Evansville University in Evansville, Indiana, and editor of the Formalist (1990-2004), a poetry journal that published exclusively metrical verse, has now written a comprehensive handbook that begins with a concise history of measured verse in the Western tradition (especially verse in English) and then provides a complete guide to the technicalities of the craft—or, in medieval terms, the “mystery”—of writing metrical verse.  Baer’s book includes a brief history and an analysis of the limitations of free verse and a recounting of the development of the New Formalist Revival from the 1970’s to the present.

Each chapter in Writing Metrical Poetry takes up one or another element of writing poems in which both syllables and accents are counted (i.e., traditional accentual-syllabic poetry).  These components include various metrical feet (iambs, trochees, spondees), line lengths (monometer through octometer), poetic forms and stanzas (quatrains, couplets, blank verse, sonnets, epigrams, limericks, and nonsense verse such as Lewis Carroll’s “The Jabberwocky”), imported forms such as the French villanelle, and lesser-known forms, including ones invented by a single poet, such as Gerard Manley Hopkins’s 11-line curtal (i.e., “curtailed”) sonnet.  Brief attention is also given to other metrical systems—purely accentual verse (as in Beowulf), syllabic verse (such as the haiku), and the duration-based classical verse in which length, not stress, governs.

Baer writes in a lively, conversational, and humorous style that will make the book appealing to anyone who wants to write measured verse or who, as a general reader, just wants to understand better the nature of traditional poetry.  Every chapter contains a generous sampling of passages and whole poems that illustrate Baer’s points.  Each of these samples is followed immediately by a comment from Baer explaining the significance of the sample.  Exercises are also included.  Most importantly, the book is filled with short “Notes on . . . ” passages that address issues likely to confront any poet trying to master this craft.  Such notes include ones on why poets must learn the technical language of metrical poetry, on the necessity of deep and wide reading, on the kind of freedom provided only by following the rules of verse writing, on the usefulness of constructive criticism, on the need for strict self-editing, on why consideration must be shown to the reader (not too many arcane allusions, please!), on the protocols of submitting verse for publication, and on a number of other subjects.

If all of this seems to make the composition of measured verse a daunting prospect, Baer reminds us that, as the poet Derek Walcott has stated, in writing such verse “the difficulty is the joy.”  What we naturally expect of an athlete or a musician or a dancer—constant practice and a disciplined attention to technique—we too often fail to demand of our contemporary poets.  The joy of applying heart and mind to learning the mysteries of this craft is summed up well by Robert Frost: “All the fun’s in how you say a thing.”  The subtle modulation of rhythm, rhyme, and other sound effects to highlight meaning makes accentual-syllabic patterning (combining Saxon and French linguistic traits) an unsurpassable mode of poetic discourse.

As Baer rightly states, the mastery of such a skill requires patience and diligence, but the result—that classical combination of teaching and delight memorably presented—is of profound cultural significance.  The great themes of poetry remain pretty much the same through history—love, war, nature, religion, death, adventure, philosophical speculation.  What changes is the need for each new generation of poets to express these themes by generally employing the idiom of the times (an idiom sometimes rightly elevated and enhanced) and by mainly using what Coleridge called the communis linguis—words found and understood in all regions of a country and at all levels of human society.  Such language allows the poet to filter the great universal themes through the familiar, sharable particulars of his own life, time, and place—Hardy’s Wessex, for example.  And who among us is not moved by the simple yet powerful common language of Yvor Winters’ “A Leave-Taking,” in which he offers this poignant epigram on a stillborn son: “I, who never kissed your head, / Lay these ashes in their bed, / That which I could do have done. / Now farewell, my newborn son”?

In his discussion of the couplet and of that short pointed poem called the epigram, Baer reminds us that poetry can also be humorous.  Much of this humor comes from wit sharpened by rhyme, rhyme being a device that most free verse avoids.  Thus, we have Lord Jeffrey’s epigram-as-epitaph on Peter Robinson: “Here lies the preacher, judge, and poet, Peter, / Who broke the laws of God, and man, and metre.”  Equally amusing is J.V. Cunningham’s jab at a modern relativist: “This Humanist whom no belief constrained / Grew so broad-minded he was scatter-brained.”  Many readers of Chronicles may also appreciate a recent epigram (not included here) by Timothy Steele: “Words don’t match things, and authors are erased; / Reality reflects the theorist’s taste. / Yet, to the grief of all, the texts fight back, / Whether it’s Hamlet, Emma, or Iraq” (“A Short History of Post-structuralism” in Toward the Winter Solstice, Swallow Press, 2006).

Baer closes his book with an Appendix on the New Formalist Revival and with a compendium of quotations from poets ancient and modern on the nature and importance of measured verse.  One center of this revival, Baer notes, was Baton Rouge, where, in the 1970’s, a group of graduate-student poets gathered around Donald Stanford, editor of the Southern Review, formalist poet, former student of Yvor Winters, and admirer of the poems of Allen Tate.  Among those “LSU Formalists” well known today are Wyatt Prunty of the University of the South at Sewanee, Tennessee, and the late Alabama poet John Finlay.  Here, and in similar circumstances, in small, informal groups or one by one, poets—like a scattered Gideon’s band—began to recover a greatly threatened 3,000-year tradition.

Poetry is the rightful possession of all human beings.  It begins in the womb with a prenatal awareness of our mother’s rhythmical heartbeat and continues in our perception of the great rhythmic patterns of breath and sex, the comings and goings of the tides, and the coursings of the stars.  (It is fascinating to note that Christ died, according to Matthew, crying out in the verse of a psalm, and that Socrates turned Aesop into verse as he awaited execution.)  Poetry fills our lives from nursery rhymes, hymns, and ballads to the lyrics of popular music, Bible verses, and even proverbial sayings such as Ben Franklin’s “Early to bed, early to rise / Makes a man healthy, wealthy, and wise”—or a modern wag’s retort: “Early to bed, early to rise / And your girl goes out with other guys.”

Such humorous poems as those quoted above are reminders that rhyming poetry is well suited to satire.  Thus, metrical poetry—though certainly practiced by poets of all cultural and political persuasions—should be quite natural to the traditional conservative poet committed to defending what T.S. Eliot called “the permanent things.”  As William Baer has stated elsewhere,

it’s . . . logical to expect that individuals who value tradition and order would tend to write their poems in the time-tested metric that has dominated English-language poetry from Geoffrey Chaucer to Richard Wilbur.  Some, myself included, would even tend to see the underlying structure of meter as a poetic representation of the provident order of God’s universe.

Or, as Robert Frost once quipped about God telling Moses how to make verse, “Tell them Iamb, Jehovah said, and meant it.”


[Writing Metrical Poetry: Contemporary Lessons for Mastering Traditional Forms, by William Baer (Cincinnati: Writer’s Digest Books) 264 pp., $16.99]