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Essay

“The Rhapsodic Fallacy” and Maurice Manning’s “Snakedoctor”

(Maurice Manning)

“The ‘free’ in ‘free verse’ was never meant as a free pass, an anything goes, for to succumb to it does, in fact, leave us standing in a well-intentioned mush.”

Is contemporary poetry in a period of renaissance, or is it in crisis? Over the past three years, I have read approximately 150 volumes of new poetry, and from book to book, my answer changes. The easy response is to say that it depends on the individual practitioner, and that conclusion surely bears limited truth. At the same time, one notices tendencies, which then makes the matter aesthetic-cultural-social.

The advent of so-called free verse (for no verse is ultimately free) did poetic practice a mixed favor, carrying out Ezra Pound’s marching orders to “break the pentameter” and “make it new.” His challenge ignited a beautiful quarrel that carried all the way to the 1990s hard-nosed face-off between New Formalism and L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poetry. Both forward-looking camps looked backward, one to Petrarch and the troubadours, the other to those infamous itinerant rhapsodes, the Greek sophists. For no matter how radical the proposition, we can never outrun our forebears. The question then becomes, who and what are we renewing? One side celebrated beauty in measured words, the other immoderately invoked semiotics to unjoin the word from the thing it described. We currently exist in a “post” period, similar to the necessary alliances after a World War, when nation-states drop their categorical allegiances and nervously make new-old friends, without the luxury of clear imperatives and dogma, dreaming of a Third Way not tied to the desire for world dominance.

It is a healthy space in which to create, not having everything so clearly defined by manifestos. Sometimes the fertile lull is, in fact, the renaissance. However, the result is sometimes one winds up ecumenical; others, one gets mush, as was often the case with the genre of “world music,” which frequently managed to turn the exotic into anodyne elevator tunes. Publishers these days seem to privilege specific types of sociocultural content, many poets leading with clear, urgent messages written on the dismayed or angry heart, with predictably resultant didactic obviousness. Yet beneath that momentary trend, acknowledged or not, always lies the burning, and too often neglected, question of form. In the end, whatever your politics, it is ultimately more about how you say it, than what you say. Poeisis.

Without free(r) verse, there is no Eliot, Williams, Auden, Sexton, Bishop, Hughes, Brooks, Wright, Creeley, Olson, Levertov. What a pity it would be if we gave Dryden the last word. Still and all, these named poets knew what a line and a stanza were meant for, motivated by a higher understanding, by a ratiocination no less rigorous for being half-intuitive, even if their lines and stanzas did not fully resemble each other’s or those of their predecessors. They knew the line and the stanza are the necessary instruments one takes onto the field of play and more lyrical science was at stake for them than “whatever comes to mind.” Form casts a shadow sunup to sundown and also at night.

A vital essay was published in 1984, in issue 65 of Salmagundi: Mary Kinzie’s “The Rhapsodic Fallacy.” In it, she laments the decline of poetry, stating that “free verse is the last stop before falling off into the flatlands of prose.” Like all polemicists, she may have overstated her case, yet she has a point. She decries, in her contemporaries’ spontaneous inventions, the lack of reasoning and rhetoric, of higher registers of style, the art of transition, and modulation, all of which is then replaced by an often shallow prosaic-lyrical effusion. The poet’s inferior goal, she says, becomes to “get us into and out of the poem with extraordinary rapidity and no lasting effects.” With this understanding, “the aim of poetry is apotheosis, an ecstatic and unmediated consumption in the moment of perception and feeling.” That is the rhapsody, and that is the fundamental mistake.

That essay could have been written this morning, for the dangers she warns about are all too often in evidence in the 2020s.

Top of the list is Maurice Manning’s 2023 Snakedoctor, published by Copper Canyon Press. One might as well begin with the title poem as any in these pages, for in their shapelessness, they all resemble one another like half-baked biscuits on a tin sheet. Stanza length varies between nine and 20 lines, for no discernible reason except that is where each immediate thought came to its final resting place before the writer launches into the next one. The poem begins ramblingly, in a weak attempt to simulate the kind of ecstasy Samuel Taylor Coleridge offered in Kubla Khan:

“This is a dream, in which the love

residing always in the world

returns to everything that is

or ever was—even to you,

Marvella Hall, so tall and strict,

my teacher in first grade, who kept

a rabbit in the classroom

as I recall, and required I sit

red faced in my little desk

after some mischief of mine was found

and needed punishment. Moving

from shame to shame has been my life,

a lot of it at least. It’s something

to mention, not a complaint.”

Despite its off-and-on iambic pentameter, which somehow manages to feel slow-paced, the “dream,” far from genuine rapture, is a prosy, meandering, anti-climactic anti-trance (“something/to mention, not a complaint”) in which everything says, tediously, exactly what it means.  Each object is writ small for this mostly well-behaved citizen in the making, whose greatest sin as a child was “mischief,” the punishment of which unaccountably has resulted in the speaker “moving/from shame to shame,” his whole life, over a single unnamed peccadillo. The line endings are utterly arbitrary, even the enjambments feeling mechanical, as if Manning were typing on an old Smith-Corona typewriter and came to the end of the platen. The rabbit in the classroom (qualified by the redundant “as I recall”) serves no purpose other than producing instant folklore, assuring us that the “snakedoctor” poet is from a genuine rural place, establishing his bona-fides.

When we reach the “climax” of this long-winded memory, we are treated, not to a Wordsworth-worthy “spot of time” but, rather, to what reads as a prosy footnote on the title.

“I’ve called this poem ‘Snakedoctor’

because I found a dragonfly

elegantly dead on the steps

of a church I was about to enter,

and remembered snakedoctor was

the equally poetic word

some country people used to use

to name this mesmerizing bug.

unmoving now, it resembles a cross,

an awkwardly disfigured cross.”

Where is the art of transition, and the modulation, among this prosaic-lyrical effusion? Traversing from the attention-getting (and misleading) title to this ultimately forgettable bug is the very definition of an involuntary anti-climax. Again, we encounter the mostly even, typewriter prose-equivalent lines, the stanza as prose paragraph. Line and stanza, the poem’s putative building blocks, have been neglected. Any possible drama and resonance that could have resulted from an arresting and unusual image is marred by a lack of rhetorical nuance. Instead, we are given an excruciatingly elementary setup to the discovery of the dragonfly, with “I remembered” and a bit of amateur, local-color etymology: “the equally poetic word/Some country people used to use” (again, do not forget this is a manuscript about rural life). And just in case one does not get it, the bug was “mesmerizing.” So please be mesmerized right now, in the middle of a dictionary explanation of Manning’s personal rhapsody.

Further examples are not necessary in this case. With few exceptions, the poems in this 109-page nostalgic chronicle are single, amorphous stanzas, written in lines that break predictably, emotional swells hitting against the breakers in numbing rhythm. The book is less an account of rhapsodic uplift than one of complacency regarding trees, rain, hay, fish on a stringer, pillows made of real chicken feathers, a genuine Davy Crockett coonskin cap, and above all, constant explanation of what everything in this placid landscape means: honesty, holiness, shame, guilt, sin, freedom, all literally named by their exact names in their respective poems, so as to avoid any misunderstanding.

In an immediate response to Kinzie’s essay, poet-critic Alan Shapiro observes that in such poetry:

“…rhythm and syntax carry little expressive power. The free verse is lineated with no discernible measure but the grammatical clause, and the syntax is invariably simple, declarative and dull. The free verse considered more adaptable to individual expression, more responsive to the uniqueness of the moment, levels distinctions and finally tells us little of the moments it presents.”

Manning’s book would simply be forgettable if it were not emblematic.

In the words of Kinzie, still relevant now, “it’s not as if the myriad composers of poetry in this country had conspired in their own dullness without the considerable tutelage and support of the readers and critics and teachers of poetry. The Rhapsodic Fallacy is committed by writers only with the consent of that cultural environment that includes and excludes material from works according to shared expectations about the good poem’s contours.”

In an ideal world, some might argue, one would only use criticism to champion poetry, as to speak otherwise is impolite. But this argument itself is a fallacy. Although we may debate, it matters that there be rigor in both writing poetry and thinking about it. The “free” in “free verse” was never meant as a free pass, an anything goes, for to succumb to it does, in fact, leave us standing in a well-intentioned mush. Presses choose as they please, but they sometimes participate, wittingly or not, in the miseducation and, therefore, misdirection of poetry’s already narrow public.

Johnny Payne is the arts editor at Merion West. Johnny is a poet, novelist, playwright, and essayist. He has worked extensively in Latin American Studies, especially literature under dictatorship and Quechua oral tradition. He directs the Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing at Mount Saint Mary’s University, Los Angeles. He earned his doctorate from Stanford University.

Johnny Payne is the arts editor at Merion West. Johnny is a poet, novelist, playwright, and essayist. He has worked extensively in Latin American Studies, especially literature under dictatorship and Quechua oral tradition. He directs the Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing at Mount Saint Mary’s University, Los Angeles. He earned his doctorate from Stanford University. Contact Johnny at johnny@merionwest.com.

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