Fussell explains in this book the effects achieved with meter both with forms and with free verse. He wants to help us understand how the poetry that we return to works upon us. The sentence, he reminds us, forms the basis of prose; the sentence and the line form the basis of poetry, and he explains how meter is the way the line’s length is determined. This determination is not arbitrary, but has to do with how modern English sounds—how our words are emphasized and the possibilities the language itself provides. What he does is very sensible and very clear.
Fussell neither dismisses free verse nor denigrates formal verse. What he does is understand. He understands how both work, why both work and then explores some of the limitations and possibilities of each. Obviously he spends more time explaining formal verse because free verse is, in a way, one of the forms—perhaps the most casual of them. He sums up: “Poetry is form, and permanent poetry is permanent form. And by ‘form’ here we mean that pattern which works on the reader and is recognized by him, no matter how unconsciously or irrationally to constitute a significant abstract repetitive frame.”
He has made, by this point in the book, an investigation of the historical development of forms which is informed by more than just the bare knowledge of which poet succeeds each other. It is also informed by a broader understanding of history and the history of ideas. What he achieves (besides heightening the attentive reader’s capacity to read and appreciate English poetry) is a clear picture of the state of our poetry around 1976; and it is a state from which I do not think it can be said we have yet emerged, if we ever shall. But it is interesting for dealing with the contemporary milieu.
Here is how he puts it:
The challenge to contemporary poetry would seem to be a pair of unhappy alternatives; either to contrive new schemes of empirically meaningful repetition that reflect and—more importantly—transmit the color of contemporary experience; or to recover schemes that have reflected the experience of the past. To do the first would be to imply that contemporary experience has a pattern, a point that most post-Christian thinkers would deny. To do the second would be to suggest that the past can be recaptured, to suggest the intolerable fractures and dislocations of modern history have not really occurred at all, or, what is worse, to suggest that they may have occurred but that poetry should act as if they have not.
That paragraph is one of the more culminating conclusions he draws. These are things one has read in other places, but he puts it in terms which cannot just be shrugged off. He has led the reader to the point at which the observation soaks in thoroughly by explaining in this case, for example, how forms have been patterns of experience in our language and during our civilization.
Here is another refreshing and illuminating (both about Fussell and about the world; and yes, I do seem to be overindulging in quotation, but the guy knows how to word things) statement:
It should neither surprise nor distress us that most poetry in English ranges from the mediocre to the very bad and that most poets are technically incompetent. So are most waiters, physicians, carpenters, layers, gardeners and teachers. The genuinely successful poems to which we return again and again constitute a tiny selection from the vast and almost measureless rubbish heap of the centuries.
It is greatly to the credit of Fussell that by the time you read that sentence at the beginning of the penultimate chapter you understand exactly why what he is saying about poetry is so. He has imparted discernment, in this book: true criticism.
And we need it. Emily Dickinson’s experience, so intelligently put, the stanzas divided by the logic of effect and cause distinguished (as Fussell points out) needs to be ours.
It Dropped So Low in My Regard
It dropped so low — in my Regard —
I heard it hit the Ground —
And go to pieces on the Stones
At bottom of my Mind —
Yet blamed the Fate that flung it — less
Than I denounced Myself,
For entertaining Plated Wares
Upon My Silver Shelf —
I think this book is better than Understanding Poetry. Not as thorough, not as big, never so basic or full of all the stuff you already got in High School. Just full of all the stuff you didn’t.