Probing the Lines: Breaking Through into the Poem

The title of this posting is taken from the military — perhaps appropriately so on this Memorial Day weekend. When two armies face one another, especially if they are both entrenched, reconnoiterers and skirmishers may advance to try to determine the enemy’s strength, exact position, and the make-up as well as the specific nature and number of its units and arms.

Something similar to this can happen when a poet faces the blank page and tries to “enter” the poem by “probing” to discover the nature of its opening lines. Perhaps this approach suggests that there is an ideal form of the poem already in existence in some Platonic realm (The World of Ideas or Forms) and that the poet’s task is to embody this form in the flesh of words (Incarnation). When a poet thinks that he or she has “gotten it right” — “it” being a line, a stanza, a rhyme, or the whole poem — that poet seems to be affirming that there is an ideal form of the poem to attain (At-one-ment) as the words are marshaled into ranks, like troops.

Sometimes I set myself the goal of writing a poem in a particular “form” — the abab quatrain, blank verse, the epigram, or the sonnet, for example. In these cases, I am probing fixed positions as defined by the nature of these forms — the Army of the Epic on the Field, the Squad of the Sonnet or Villanelle behind a Parapet, or the Single Soldier of the Epigram in a Foxhole.

When the form is not chosen in advance, then full probing begins with the opening line. If the poem draws the poet toward the rhyming couplet (aabbcc, etc.) or blank verse (which, of course, has no end rhymes), then a choice of forms must normally be made before the end of line 2. If the poem seems destined for rhyming quatrains, the sonnet, or villanelle, the selection of the form can be delayed until line 3 or 4 — but usually no longer. If the poem is to be in a line other than the standard iambic pentameter, that choice must almost always be made before the end of line 1 unless it is to be a poem with lines of varying lengths — such as a mix of pentameter, tetrameter, and trimeter lines.

Sometimes an opening line that has to be written to “breach the breastworks” or open the door to the poem is later discarded. That line served its necessary purpose, like a color-bearer cut down in the front rank of a charge — or, to change metaphors, was more like a booster rocket than the spacecraft thereby propelled into orbit.

One of the mysteries of such probing is how end-rhyme words sometimes suggest themselves before the words preceding them in a line have been formulated and set down. Shelley used to have such rhymes come to him. This mystery of the poet’s craft suggests, to me at least, that there is indeed a pre-existing ideal form of the poem toward which actual words — and the drafts and revisions and the editing — are pressing, like skirmishers probing the lines, even if the ideal form is never reached.

Most strangely of all, if this military probing metaphor holds, then in some way the pressing on toward a poem’s perfect form means that this form is, in a sense, the “Enemy” that must be known and overcome — or which will otherwise triumph over the poet if the form is not fully attained and the poet thus be “defeated” and his or her “mission” fail.

That all of the reflections above leads me to think of Jacob wrestling with the Angel and receiving both a wound and a blessing may be a story for another post.

Below is a poem that I wrote some years ago in honor of fellow measured-verse poet and Vietnam War Marine Corps veteran R.L. Barth. Bob Barth published chapbooks by poets who wrote in traditional forms during a time (the early 1980s to around 2000) when such poets felt, to use the military metaphor, part a “rear guard action” of an army that had been driven from the field. Today, I think, traditional verse has to some degree reestablished itself and the old debate between free-verse poets and metrical poets has reached a truce, if not a peace accord. Some poets write both kinds of  poems.

My poem below was written closer to the years when that “war” was still raging and the passing on from one generation of poets to another of the skills and techniques of writing traditional verse seemed imperiled.

The Rear Guard’s Report

‘What I am engaged in is a rear-guard action’

R.L. Barth, 1983

We made them pay for every inch of ground

Battling in the capital street by street,

Their officers picked off as round by round

Our sniper fire postponed that last retreat

Where swarming in elation’s disarray

They pressed but could not break our old formation

Or counter classic tactics of delay

Directed by that vet whose terse oration

Rallied us in these mountains where we lie

Waiting like fate while one by one they file

Through passes strait as at Thermopylae

Toward bayonets fixed, no quarter, final trial.

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