R.I.P. JOHN SKELTON
c. 1460 – 21 June 1529
Here lies John Skelton
Worn to a skeleton
By tumbling in verse,
For he loved to curse
Or, even worse,
And dub himself “Laureate.”
Curtis Favile in his blog The Compass Rose is a tenacious latter-day disciple of the anti-intellectual West Coast Beattitudes of the 1950s. He often says such things as this: “Alas, no good poem was ever written out of a versification manual, and no dictionary, thesaurus, or ‘rhyming dictionary’ [he was talking about Clement Wood] ever provided a shortcut to the ultimate enigma of the blank page.” This remark was preceded by this paragraph:
“The towering figures of the Victorian Age — Tennyson, Browning and Arnold — glowered down over the 20th Century, whilst modest — and modestly ambitious — versifiers [sic] like Robert Frost, Edwin Arlington Robinson, and John Crowe Ransom preserved the fragile velleities of polite rhyme. For those too unsophisticated to understand — or too isolated from — what might be happening along the advance guard of experimentation and risk, all literature remained a mostly unattainable condition, a precinct beyond touching and knowing. For such as these, the Clement Woods and Louis Untermeyers and the Lewis Turcos [sic] of the world have provided a technical guidance to the outward lineaments of poetic formulae and structures. Their knowledge is encyclopedic, their facility impressive, and their diligent devotion to sensible and rational advice is admirable.”
If we examine this paragraph, we can infer certain things: First, that Tennyson, Browning, and Arnold were much greater writers than the “modestly ambitious” “versifiers” (not “poets”) Frost, Robinson and Ransom who followed in their wake. However, the Victorians were not necessarily poets themselves, although they were “towering figures” of literature who “glowered down over” their obviously inferior followers who were outside what was happening “along the advance guard of experimentation and risk” such as, no doubt, Allen Ginsberg, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, and their gang of intrepid daredevils who forsook the mode of metered language — that is, “verse,” to return to the original mode of writing, unmetered language — that is, “prose” as the vehicle for their towering literary achievements.
Second, these proselers are much more “experimental” than prosodists like Frost and his ilk — clearly (?), there is something far more ambitious, laudatory and adventurous in prose “experiment” than in the crafty “formulae” of versifiers who take the road more traveled by over the centuries since Geoffrey Chaucer and John Gower invented accentual-syllabic prosody in the fourteenth century. But is that so? Who risks more, the writer who sets him-or-herself few language boundaries, or the craftsman who is so ambitious as to attempt to achieve, or even exceed the work of “the towering figures of the Victorian Age” and of the ages that preceded them?
And is it true that “…no good poem was ever written out of a versification manual, and no dictionary, thesaurus, or ‘rhyming dictionary’ ever provided a shortcut to the ultimate enigma of the blank page”? How does Curtis Favile know this? What research has he done to prove it? Has he asked himself how Shakespeare managed to write iambic pentameter blank (unrhymed) verse or those English sonnets he “invented”? Or where Edmund Spenser got the idea for those “Spenserian sonnets” named after him? Or where the Victorian Algernon Charles Swinburne got the notion to invent the roundel, and where he and his contemporary Edmund Gosse got the idea to write sestinas that managed somehow to make their way across the English Channel from France and Italy?
Does Favile maintain, and can he explain in what way Robert Frost’s “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening” is not a “good” (let alone “great”) poem or how Frost managed to get the idea of how to “experimentally” transform an interlocking rubaiyat, an Arabic verse form, into one of the iconic poems of the twentieth century by breaking the “rule” of how to end a rubaiyat? Does Favile stand by his (by now obviously ridiculous) statement when anyone can plainly see that Robinson got the “poetic formula” for “The House on the Hill” and Dylan Thomas got it for his “Do Not Go Gentle into That Good Night,” and Theodore Roethke got it for his “The Waking” — all three of them great, not just “good” villanelles — from somewhere, not out of thin air?
Sir Phillip Sidney’s An Apology for Poetry, the first book in English literature to discuss poetic practice, was published posthumously the year after his death in the fall of 1586. For a century after the death of Chaucer in 1400, nobody except “the Scottish Chaucerians” wrote in the verse system he and Gower had invented, and then only one or two other people, especially John Skelton who died in 1529, invented “tumbling verse,” which we now call “Skeltonics,” but also wrote in Chaucer’s accentual-syllabic system until Sidney, his sister the Countess of Pembroke, and a few other courtiers resurrected and publicized it.
Sidney’s Astrophel and Stella introduced the European sonnet to the British Isles in 1591, also posthumously, after long samizdat circulation in manuscript, which was the ordinary manner of “publication” among the sophisticated classes. It was from this book that Shakespeare, Spenser and the other Renaissance poets learned the fourteen-line form and subsequently experimented with it. Nobody thought of it as being in any way a rigid construct.
The first volume that could be called a “versification manual” in the sense that Favile uses the term was The Arte of English Poesy, also published posthumously and anonymously, in 1591, a year after the death of its putative author, George Puttenam who was born the year Skelton died. The Arte included in its pages descriptions of many verse forms including Alexandrines, distichs (couplets), sonnets, quatrains, and so forth and so on, and he explained how Greek prosody could be adapted and transformed into stress-based English (the term had not yet been invented) “accentual-syllabic prosody” using the Greek names for “verse feet” including the iamb, trochee, anapest, dactyl, et cetera almost ad infinitum — it was a truly stupendous compilation of information, especially for the period in which it was written, and everypoet who was anypoet owned a copy and read it to tatters. You can bet that Shakespeare read it because he was 27 years old when it appeared, and Shakespeare appears to have read everything in sight. His sonnets were published in 1609, seven years before his own death, but they too had long circulated in manuscript among his friends and peers.
Since when do people who actually do experiments, such as scientists, eschew the premise that “the more one knows how to do, the more one can do?” Curtis Favile is both ignorant and obtuse; he is obtuse because he is unable to perceive the depth of his ignorance and apparently thinks that his observations on poetry are intelligent. I don’t think I need to continue to refute his arrogant remarks on this subject and others, such as rhyme, by going on through the seventeenth, eighteenth, nineteenth and early twentieth centuries to that point where the Beats and other know-nothing schools arrived and attempted to toss out the window all of the poetry that had evolved before they arrived on the scene to “experiment” with their cutting-edge prosaicisms. To do so would be overkill. Who reads them anymore anyway?