Metrical poetry is about: breath. Breath as an intake and a flow. Breath as a pattern. Breath as an indicator, perhaps the most vital one, of mood. Breath as our own personal tie with all the rhythms of the natural world, of which we are a part, from which we can never break apart while we live. Breath as our first language.The first paragraph from Mary Oliver's Rules for the Dance: A Handbook for Writing and Reading Metrical Verse. I didn't read those words until recently, but I think I've known all along something about what Oliver is saying. My mother was a great fan of metrical verse. She was inclined to recite by heart long snatches of poetry, mostly from schoolbook American poets like Whittier, Riley, Longfellow, Holmes, Dickinson, and Millay. Rhyme for her was as natural as breath. Even as her final breaths were rationed, at age 92, she could be counted on to remember a line of verse.
So I suppose it was natural that when I discovered modern poetry in my thirties, I would be drawn to metrical verse, to poets like Sylvia Plath, Ted Hughes, Anthony Hecht and Marianne Moore, and especially to poems like Plath's Pheasant or Moore's The Fish that set themselves exact patterns of rhythm, rhyme, alliteration and syllablization that chimed with the rhythms of the natural world. I knew nothing of iambs, trochees, dactyls and anapests, but I was learning to be a naturalist, learning to match my breath to the cadences and pulse of the planet, and was astonished to discover that poets had been doing it all along.
In imitation, for a few years I tried my own hand at it:
First FrostNever got past the imitative stage, but, now, many decades on, I continue to learn from poets about breath as "our personal tie with all the rhythms of the natural world." Maxine Kumin, Amy Clampitt, Howard Nemerov, Pattiann Rogers … oh, forget it, there are too many to thank. For every natural science book on my shelves there is a poet.
This morning the radio said to expect
the first frost. Today we will set out
teepees of newspaper to protect
the last tomatoes and the one stout
watermelon still on the vine;
we have no reason to doubt
the weatherman. On the clothesline
a pair of starlings shiver
in white-flecked winter skin,
with scarves of yellow pinfeathers
flared at their necks. The sun,
trailing a dustcloud of grey weather,
rolls south, stuck to the horizon;
we have finished our second cup of tea
and have the breakfast dishes done
by the time it bounces free.
The starlings follow the sun up
to their midday perch in the big tree
on Harlow's hill, each in a wrap
of fall weather, like a melon
rolled up in a cone of newspaper.
Tomorrow there will be frost on the lawn.
We will drink our tea in a slant
of winter light. The starlings will be gone.