George Woodcock said that Robin Skelton belongs to "the whole of the English poetic tradition". With the publication of this new book we can drop the qualifier, for here Skelton employs, not only English, but classical Greek, Indian, and Welsh poetic forms as well. Each is labelled beneath the title of the poem, with the result that reading through The Edge of Time is like walking through a botanical garden: one comes across the Sextilla, the Pantoum, the incredible Iambelegus. This stroll is both fascinating and frustrating. A reader of poetry may be curious about the tradition of the art and interested in seeing how these forms are worked. Classifying them, however, removes them from the wilds, from the region of spontaneity where we believe poetry thrives. Amid the present deluge of "poetry" books, many of them collections of tepid prose fragments, Skelton has brazenly provided us with this compendium of poetic form.
Through this century there has been a debate about the usefulness of traditional prosody. We can take rhyme as an example. Some believe that in searching for a rhyme to fit a regular metred pattern, a poet will be led to uncharted linguistic and intellectual regions. After all, most of us think in a predetermined manner and would choose a predictable word or phrase to express an idea, experience, or emotion. Rhyme can lead us away from our banality, and the stress of rhymes, the confluence of certain unexpected words, may suggest unusual comparisons and connections in the reader's mind. There is a playfulness to rhyme, a calling back to childhood. And there is something magical about the repetition of sounds; one can suddenly hear significant echoes in the dull forest of common verbiage. Rhyme also re-establishes the ancient kinship between poetry and music. In an essay called "Rhyming on the Counterattack", Primo Levi praised rhyme because it assists memory so that "poems can be transported." One understands the significance of this for one who endured Auschwitz, in part, by recalling cantos from the Inferno.
The modern argument against rhyme is that it forces us to find a word different from the one we want to use and therefore carries us away from the reality we wish to express. Never before in our culture has there been such an injunction to poets to give voice to the Real. Confronted by Western civilization's destructiveness and hypocrisy, poets early in this century began to challenge the authority of established prosody in an honest attempt to confront the horrors of the age. Tradition can impede that attempt: a poet working with the sonnet form has the entire history of well-known sonnets speaking to him and is liable to sound a chord already heard, one that gave voice to the reality of a different time, a different place.
There is no doubt that this turning away from the old prosody has done good. One thinks of the best poets of this century who have broken with their cultures' traditional poetic forms: Cavafy, Montale, William Carlos Williams, Paz. And yet this exploding of form has reached a point where anyone writing a sonnet is in danger of being considered naive, or a parodist. In addition, the open form of poetry is now so pervasive that it has become predictable. And the chatty, brother-in-the-street voices of many contemporary poets are indistinguishable from one another.
In some sense the entire debate about traditional form is somewhat off the mark, for the truth of the matter is that a genuine poet can work effectively with or without it. So long as a poem arises from a dynamic response to reality, it will be fresh and convincing, regardless of whether the poet uses established patterns; otherwise, it will be as stuffed and stale as the work of a taxidermist. Furthermore, all successful poems achieve form. The question is what process is used to get there.
Allen Ginsberg, speaking of his poem Howl, claims that certain passages have rhythms that "might correspond to classical Greek or Sanskrit prosody." But he emphasizes that he got there "organically rather than synthetically." As he puts it, "The difference is between someone sitting down to write a poem in a definite preconceived metrical pattern and filling in that pattern, and someone working with his physiological movements and arriving at a pattern... Nobody's got any objection to iambic pentameter if it comes from the breathing and the belly and the lungs."
Ginsberg here is alluding to Whitman's claim that the poet writes with his body, as most poets would agree. But the poetic process is somewhat different for poets who choose from the outset to work with old patterns. Their task-and it is an extremely difficult one-is not to surrender to form, but to take it over. Poets who go this route can achieve a formidable tension between the historical baggage carried by form and the contemporary sensibility that speaks through it. Berryman (in The Dream Songs ) and Lowell (in History) spoke convincingly of the here-and-now through their sonnet sequences. As Louise Bogan remarked of Baudelaire (a revolutionary who made extensive use of traditional forms): "When poets put new wines in old bottles, the bottles become new, too."
So we arrive at the critical question whether the forms in Skelton's book have been made anew. Are we being presented with acrostics and parlour tricks, or with poems that emit a voice of life?
It is hard to give a simple answer. Certainly there are a number of authentic poems here. Most of these are convincing because they issue from a poet nearing the end of his journey, standing, as the book's title suggests, at the edge of time. For Skelton, time is cyclical. In many of the book's better poems ("The Road Ahead", "Night Blossom In April", "Verse on a Birthday"), the poet predicts his transformation and return, a more romantic view than that of another formalist, Philip Larkin, who approaching his end called death "the anaesthetic from which none come round". Skelton's title also carries a hint of fin de siècle; there is an attempt in the structure of the book to link the end of the poet's time with the century's. The second last sequence in the book, "A Torn House", contains political poems, most of which seem divorced from Skelton's deeper spiritual concerns. For the most part they are comprised of stock phrases ("hearts gentle and at peace") and worn metaphors ("deaths of children choke the air").
Such weaker poems (and there are, unfortunately several, due partly to the length of the book) remind us that formal structures and traditional echoes can often drown out the individual voice of a poet. In the poem "Her Beauty", for instance, we read:
she is as beautiful as time
when lovers murmur
under the trees by the river
where white swans gather.
Is it possible to write about love and swans and not be overpowered by Yeats?
At his best, Skelton is able to use the poetic pattern
as an incantation that leads to metaphysical speculations. We see this in such poems as "Speaking of Grass", "Downfall", and "The Return", and in "Night Blossom In April", where a flowering cherry tree at night
...has renamed night
has redefined the light
made black more black and white
more white than white can be;
its presence urges me
to burn bright as the tree
My feeling is that today we demand more than mystical incantation or shamanism from our poets. We demand that they help to define man in these perplexing times when horizons are shifting and the spiritual is suspect. Skelton attempts this in the short sequence entitled "Indian Interlude" and in the poem "In The Museum", where garish city streets are compared to the static, compassionate figures found behind glass. But often his language is transparent and does not fold back upon itself; there is a lack of contradictoriness, and hence a lack of tension. The lyricism is too pleased with itself and the poet's mystical conclusions, too easily won.
Yet his craftsmanship serves him well in the last section of the book, "Translations". He is certainly one of our finest translators of poetry (as in his justly acclaimed renderings of George Faludy's work). Here we have superlative versions of Baudelaire, Apollinaire, and the Russian poet Yuli Daniel. Skelton is to be praised for bringing these various voices into our lives.
Kenneth Sherman's most recent book is Open To Currents (Wolsak & Wynn). He is now completing a book of essays, Void and Voice.