The HyperTexts

The Rotary Dial Interview

The following interview with Alexandra Oliver and P. C., the co-editors of The Rotary Dial, includes a discussion of what makes formal poetry "tick" ... is it meter, patterns of sound, or something more difficult to identify? The Rotary Dial is a formal-poet-friendly journal, with a very generous "poet friendly" submission policy that is discussed during the interview.

Alexandra Oliver's work has received nominations for the Pushcart Prize and a CBC Literary Award in Poetry. Her most recent collection, Meeting the Tormentors in Safeway, was published by Bibilioasis in September 2013. Oliver is a co-editor and co-founder of The Rotary Dial. A faculty member in the Stonecoast M.F.A. Program at the University of Southern Maine, she divides her time between Glasgow, Scotland and Toronto.

P. C. prefers to go by his initials online. His poems have appeared in two anthologies and a smattering of journals. His debut collection, First Comes Love, was published in 2005. He co-edits The Rotary Dial, which he also co-founded. He lives in Toronto, Canada.

Michael R. Burch, the conductor of the interview, is the editor of The HyperTexts.

MB: Alexandra and P. C., thanks so much for taking the time to do this interview. My first question is: why The Rotary Dial? I like the name and find it intriguing. Also please tell us about your vision and goals for the journal, and for formal poetry in general.

AO: It was P. C. who came up with the name, so all glory should go to him in that department. But we were both agreed that it was the perfect name for what we were trying to achieve. For one thing, rotary dial phones are, well, old. Most of the poets that P. C. and I love were active during the time of their widespread use. Secondly, there's the issue of craft. The mechanism of a dial is more complex; it's the sum of many carefully assembled working parts. Phillip Larkin once said that poems are verbal contraptions for reproducing emotion. Once you start to work in form, the assembly of the contraption becomes more of a self-conscious discipline. For all their complexity, rotary dial telephones have a solidness about them that is appealing. Formal work, in its best incarnation, has this quality as well. And finally, a dial is round. It evokes the cycle of life, things coming full circle. We believe that people, Canadians or otherwise, are returning to the idea that it's okay to relish formally-crafted work, enjoy its music. It's not a question of imposing fuddy-duddy artificiality upon the general public, it's the idea of embracing the rhythms that are naturally present in the workings of the world, that were there all along.  

There's one more thing we agree on and it's that poetry is a means of communication, not exclusion. So there's that similarity as well.

MB: I like the idea behind the name. One might suggest that the music of words and superior craftsmanship are what separate the great poems from the less-great ones. But one problem for formal poetry journals is defining what "formal" means. I noted recently that some formalists seem to be intent on burning T. S. Eliot at the stake as a heretic, while others want to adopt him as a fellow formalist. How do you define formal poetry? If Eliot submitted a poem like "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock," would you accept it or turn it down?

AO: I would categorically say that "Prufrock," for all its musicality and its use of elements (like the refrain and snatches of rhyme) is moving against the formal aesthetic. I don't think he deserves a good beating or a burning, but I think his intention is to present—in a fragmented manner—a fragmented variation of the dramatic monologue. His intent is shake up, even atomize. I think I'd turn Eliot down for the Dial, in the nicest way of course. Possibly, we'd send him a signed photo. P. C., what do you say?

MB: I would like to hear P. C.'s thoughts. One school of thought (mine, at least) is that Prufock's "overwhelming question" is whether to abandon the iamb, with the women talking about Michelangelo representing the classicists. The image of a patient etherized on a table might be an ironic comment on what overly regular meter can do to audiences in long poems. The bit about measuring out one's life with coffee spoons sounds suspiciously like what metrical poets do. Prufrock wants to be daring, but in the end it seems he's chosen to roll up his trousers like an old man and "go with the flow" by splashing around in the rising and receding tides, which could symbolize iambic meter. While it's true that "Prufrock" (the poem) seems to swing away from regular meter and rhyme at times, it seems to keep returning again and again to the original source. Perhaps Eliot agreed with Robert Frost that all English poetry is either iambic or loose iambic. If so, he couldn't trust the alluring mermaids of more exotic meters, because in English poetry they don't really exist. Of course mine is only one of many possible interpretations of the poem. I love good formal poetry, and I would publish "Prufrock" in a heartbeat, although I do understand why other editors might question its "formality," since Eliot was a bit mischievous here and there. Let's see what P. C. has to say ...

PC: I think the best way to characterize form in poetry is "patterns of sound". These patterns can be stress-based: no stress, stress, no stress, stress (meter). They can make use of rhyme: ABAB CDCD. And lots more besides (syllabics, etc). The fixed forms are patterns at the syllable-, line- and stanza-level arranged into bigger patterns. Now there is a visual element to all of this, since metrical lines are visibly more uniform in length than free verse ones, and you can of course see the pattern formed by rhymes on the printed page. But this for us is secondary. Poems look formal because they sound formal, not the other way around. Form for us does not mean anything primarily visual / typographical.

We'd also like to point out that "formal" for us is a gradable adjective, with the hard formalism of a Wilbur at one end of the spectrum, and the softer formalism of say a Heaney or a Samuel Menashe at the other, whom one is tempted to call formish rather than formal. We are open to all degrees of form on this hard-to-soft continuum. Once there's no longer even a glimmer of pattern however, we lose interest.

On this definition Prufrock is at best an example of extremely soft formalism: i.e. it sets up patterns of sound, mostly rhyme-based, but only in snatches here and there, kind of spasmodically.

Would we take it for the Dial? Only as a last resort on a very slow month, after much debate. But I wouldn't reject it primarily on formal grounds. That's because in our pleasure reading certainly, and to a large extent for the Dial too, in addition to form A and I prize clarity / intelligibility, narrative, discursiveness, humour, depth and emotion, as well as mystery, slant, and Blake's visionary quality (considerations not tied to form properly speaking, defined as patterns of sound). And that's where Eliot really falls short for us: not all that clear or intelligible. Somewhat more gratuitously obscure and deliberately cryptic than purely mysterious, slant or visionary.

Overall the poets we admire most, both for our own pleasure and for the Dial, are those who produce amazing patterns of sound, but without torturing sense on the one hand, or idiom and the natural rhythms of spoken English on the other. Some obvious examples: Yeats, Frost and Larkin. More recently: M. J. Salter, Deborah Warren, A. E. Stallings and Bill Coyle.

MB: That seems like a reasonable approach, although I see things from a slightly different perspective. For me "Prufrock" is an accessible poem that I largely understood when I read it the first time as a teenager. In fact, in a number of ways I felt as if I was looking in the mirror. But I do understand that if editors are going to publish a formal poetry journal, they have to draw a line somewhere. Would you say the process of distinguishing formal poetry from free verse is more intuitive than deductive? Do you just know a formal poem by reading it, without scanning or otherwise analyzing it? I'm reminded of airplane spotting during WWII. Some English plane spotters were able to determine whether planes were English or German at great distances, but no one knew how they could tell, since the details of the planes weren't visible to the human eye. However, they could train someone else to spot planes, and pretty soon the other person would be able to duplicate the feat. To my knowledge, no one has ever been able to explain how they knew what they knew. Do you think something similar is true for spotting formal poems?

PC: I admit "Prufrock" is one of Eliot's less cryptic poems—I think even Larkin included it in his Oxford anthology, and we all know what he thought of Eliot. But while it's immediately accessible to some readers, and perhaps to many more after some effort, it's not exactly clear in the way "Bleaney" or "Dockery and Son" are, which almost anyone can get in a single read, and without a smorgasbord of sometimes incompatible interpretations, and not just get but respond to emotionally.

I think poems should be easy to read and hard to write, not easy to write and hard to read.

But turning to your question, spotting form is neither intuitive nor deductive, it's empirical—either a pattern exists to some degree or it doesn't. When it does, it's pretty hard to miss (more regular line lengths, rhyming end words, etc). What's tricky of course is judging how well the form is handled, and whether the poem has anything to recommend it besides form.

And sometimes of course a poem is good but you still don't like it, for reasons of affinity—maybe you just don't like the tone or subject matter.

Anything I'm leaving out A?

MB: I find it interesting that formalists can't agree on what makes formal poems formal. I have heard well-regarded formalists like Sam Gwynn say that "Prufrock" is a formal poem because of its meter. And some poets and critics seem to admire more difficult poetry. Harold Bloom, for instance. What would you do with "Hamlet," which contains some of the most acclaimed poetry in the English language, but is famously difficult to understand? And what about utterly mysterious poems like Hart Crane's "The Broken Tower" and Robert Frost's magnificent "Directive"? I wouldn't want to give them up, although I can't claim to be sure I know what the poets meant at all times.

PC: Actually no real disagreement with R. S. Gwynn, Michael. I see "Prufrock" as formal, but place it at the extreme soft end of the spectrum, since its formal elements are somewhat irregular. I have non-formal grounds for rejecting it (although I did mention we might take it on a slow month). To me it's cryptic / deliberately obscure. I don't think clarity or directness are qualities Eliot and Pound usually strove for.

I also cited mystery as a quality A and I prize. To me there's a difference between mystery and obscurity. Mystery is vaguely sensing a meaning beyond the literal. Obscurity is not even fully grasping the literal.

Also, remember, clarity and mystery like form are highly gradable. "Directive" and Hamlet (which, as a verse drama, seems a bit out of place in a discussion that has mostly centred on lyrics) aren't as clear as say "Acquainted with the Night," but at least in my view they're clearer than "The Waste Land." And notice that "Acquainted with the Night" though clear is nevertheless mysterious, more so than say "This Be The Verse." These concepts aren't absolutes.

Incidentally it might be worth pointing out that R. S. Gwynn in his own work is probably closer to Larkin and Frost and even Wilfred Owen and E. A. Robinson (and Shakespeare for that matter) than he is to Eliot or Pound.

I don't think formalists are as schismatic as you're sort of suggesting. I think we'd all agree form is some degree of pattern of sound. A lot of what's come up so far in this interview—clarity, obscurity, mystery, difficulty, etc.—isn't directly tied to form.

Geoffrey Hill is highly formal, but notoriously difficult and somewhat obscure (more so than say "Richard Cory" by E. A. Robinson). So does he work in form? Yes. Do I read him for pleasure? No. Would I accept him for the Dial? As long as A agreed, quite possibly (depending on the poem of course).

You don't have to be clear to be formal but clarity (among other things—mystery, humour etc), in addition to form appeal to me in my pleasure reading and to an extent for the Dial as well. Other formalists may have a higher degree of tolerance for difficulty than I do, but here we diverge on difficulty, not on form.

MB: I'm not being argumentative to be "difficult" (please pardon the pun), but because I find the discussion so interesting.

I think Frost's "Directive" is more obscure, difficult and challenging than Eliot's "Prufrock." In fact, I think most of the literary criticism I've read about "Directive" misses Frost's main point, as I understand it. He was probably taking a hike up Panther mountain with a not-so-wonderful guide, and paused while lost to reflect on the mountain's past. Its abandoned mines and houses made him think of his abandoned childhood faith, Puritanism, and the Cold Christ of Mark chapter four. The pangs of remembering his childhood despair, which resulted in shattered faith represented by broken dishes, produced one of the most wonderful lines in English poetry: "Weep for what little things could make them glad." Frost composed poems on his walks, and was able to remember them without writing them down, so it's quite possible that the poem was composed during the hike. It's a wonderful poem, but a very challenging one, in my opinion.

I understood "Prufrock" pretty well the first time I read it. It took me much longer to really understand where Frost was going in "Directive," and I still can't be sure that my interpretation is what he intended. But I loved the poem the first time I read it, even when I only understood snatches here and there. And while it's only my opinion, having read and been published in many formal poetry journals over the years, I suspect that most of them would snap up "Directive" in a heartbeat, because it's a great poem despite its difficulty/obscurity/mystery. So it seems to me that, quite possibly, poems that seem "more formal" are held to one standard, while poems that seem "less formal" are held to another. Frost is more formal than Eliot, so his difficulty in one of his greatest poems is more acceptable. But if the gold standard of formal poetry is meter, Eliot's meter is superb. So it seems to me that there is a schism, because poems like "Prufrock" are seldom if ever published in formal poetry journals, and yet a number of well-regarded formalists are arguing that Eliot wrote formal poetry. If one of the greatest poets in the English language was writing formal poetry, but none of the formal poetry journals would publish one of his best formal poems, that seems very odd to me. The two just don't add up ... at least not to me. I own a computer software company and have specialized in logic for more than 30 years. But I feel like the Lost in Space robot, waving my arms in confusion, saying "That does not compute!"

PC: Very interesting Michael. So in your view both are formal, both are difficult, one gets published, the other doesn't, and that's the inconsistency / contradiction you were driving at.

I gave non-formal grounds for rejecting "Prufrock," citing its obscurity, but you rightly pointed out that "Directive" is just as obscure if not more so. And while I never said I'd publish "Directive," I suspect you're right, most formalists would.

So you raise some very interesting points.

But the seeming contradiction does compute I think and I'll try to explain why.

It's important to bear in mind that form is gradable. A poem isn't formal the way someone is married. Someone either is or isn't married but a poem is formal to a degree. It falls somewhere on a very long continuum, with super formal at one end and just barely formal at the other.

So is "Prufrock" formal to a degree? Absolutely, no doubt about it. But not to the same degree as "Directive."

I wouldn't say meter is the gold standard of form, I'd say it's pattern. Meter is just one type of pattern. And "Directive" is more patterned than "Prufrock"—iambic pentameter vs. Prufrock's less regular lines. "Directive" is uniformly unrhymed, "Prufrock" rhymes but somewhat randomly.

So on formal grounds it computes that a formalist editor might reject "Prufrock" and not "Directive" (depending on the degree of form he's looking for).

On the same formal grounds he might take "Prufrock" if presented with an even less formal alternative.

When it comes to qualities like clarity, humour, mystery, etc, formalist editors are allowed to disagree without any contradiction / failure to compute. There can be formalist editors who prefer really challenging poems, and those who like easier ones, those with a greater tolerance for obscurity and those who insist on clarity, those who seek out humour, those who crave mystery, and so on. A formalist is not committed to any of these qualities, only to pattern.

So if one formalist rejects "Prufrock" citing its obscurity (me), and another accepts it, no contradiction—they just have different policies on obscurity. Or perhaps the same policy, but they disagree on how obscure "Prufrock" is, as you and I do. (Obscurity is after all highly subjective.)

If two editors found "Prufrock" and "Directive" to be equally formal and equally obscure, and both equally insisted on clarity, and if both editors rejected "Prufrock" and accepted "Directive," that would indeed fail to compute! But that's not the case. We're dealing with poems that are formal to at least slightly different degrees. One can be rejected and the other accepted on those grounds alone, regardless of perceptions of and attitudes towards obscurity.

Call me a low-brow Philistine reactionary but in my case I'd probably reject both, not on formal grounds, but for reasons of clarity. But! It's important to point out that as an editor you reject and accept poems based on the submissions you have in front of you at any given time. If one month A and I received "Directive" + 11 less formal and / or even more obscure poems, we'd probably take "Directive." If on the other hand we received Directive + "Mr. Bleaney," "The Average" by Auden, "Richard Cory," "To a Poet a Thousand Years Hence" and eight other really formal, really clear submissions, I suspect we'd either reject "Directive" or hold on to it for a slow month (same with "Prufrock"), but I should let A speak for herself.

So I don't think I've been too inconsistent in anything I've said so far, and hopefully I've helped clear up that it does in fact compute for a formalist to take "Directive" and not "Prufrock," regardless of questions of clarity, since they're formal to different degrees.

MB: I think we may agree to some degree, because of the way you define formal poetry. If one defines formal poetry as patterns of meter that resolve into recognizable forms that go beyond meter alone, for instance into recognizable shapes on a page, then "Directive" does seem more formal than "Prufrock." But if formalists claim that all metrical poetry is "formal," it seems very odd that poems with wonderful meter are being discriminated against by formal poetry journals. What you have said here makes more sense to me, if there are such things as formal and free verse, based on what I see being published in formal poetry journals.

I certainly have no problem with editors who prefer more traditional poetry to less traditional poetry, more accessible poetry to less accessible poetry, etc. And I truly appreciate your patience and equanimity!

On a different note, I believe The Rotary Dial has a very generous submission policy. If I understand it correctly, you allow poets to submit up to ten poems per month. Is that correct?

PC: Again it just comes down to degree. Writing in iambs makes you formal. Writing in the same number of iambs per line, a little more so. The same number of iambs per line + ABAB rhymes, even more so.

Prufrock may be iambic (or at times trochaic—LET us GO then YOU and I), but its lines do vary somewhat randomly in their number of feet. So formally I don't think Eliot pulls off as much in "Prufrock" as Larkin does in say "The Old Fools," and journals with a slant towards the "super formal" end of the spectrum are justified in rejecting it.

Anyhow, we're a monthly so we need to take in a high volume of submissions, hence the seemingly generous guidelines.

Also just to clarify, to me form is patterns or sound, not patterns of meter as you put it below. Meter is one way of patterning sound, but other ways include rhyme, repetition, refrain, the fixed forms, etc.

MB: Those are generous guidelines, and ones I believe poets who write formal poetry will appreciate. I may even take advantage of them myself!

Again, I don't want to seem argumentative, but I think most formalists clearly consider blank verse to be formal poetry. Blank verse does not require patterns of rhyme, refrains, specific fixed forms, etc. As far as I can tell, the only required formal element of blank verse is meter, since lines of iambic pentameter can contain up to fifteen syllables and may vary considerably in length, appearance-wise. Also, one might suggest that when Milton employed so much enjambment in his blank verse, he was only honoring the syllable counts on the printed pages, not in the actual readings of the poems. If we printed such poems as they are actually read, in terms of stops, some of the lines would be longer, while others would be shorter, and Milton's poems would look more like Whitman's and Eliot's. Conversely, if we took all the line breaks out of the most musical poems of both genres, the music would still be there. I did that in a college creative writing class once, converting a metrical poem into a short story. It still read quite melodiously. So I suspect that line breaks, line lengths and stanzaic forms have very little to do with what makes poetry poetry. I believe the magic is in the music, which exists in the words independent of forms, although forms may sometimes be derived from the words.

Thus, if blank verse is formal poetry, it seems to me that music must be what separates formal verse from free verse, if there is a separation. But then because the poetry of Whitman, Eliot, Stevens and Crane was so wonderfully musical, I must come back to my belief that the best formal verse and the best free verse are essentially the same thing, in the most important regard. Bad free verse poets write prose. Bad metrical poets write over-regular (metronomic) marching band fare. But Robert Frost and T. S. Eliot in their best poems were superior musicians. They both did essentially the same thing. They kept their music from becoming overly regular and from disappearing, by modulating it. If we got rid of all the line and stanza breaks, the music would still be there. And in terms of quality the music is hard to tell apart, both poets being such superb musicians.

PC: Good point A. The line in question sounds trochaic (same as "Tyger, tyger burning bright"), but since the rest of "Prufrock" scans more naturally as iambs, headless iambic makes more sense.
And yep, blank verse is definitely formal. (Though less formal than verse that both rhymes and scans.)
And a lot of free verse is definitely musical. Internal rhyme, end rhymes at irregular intervals, assonance, alliteration, refrains placed irregularly and short metrical stretches can all create music without pattern. My favourite example of this is Leopardi in the original Italian. Because of all these tricks up a free versifier's sleeve, his verse isn't really free in an absolute sense, just freer than more formal work.
For that matter even prose can be quite musical at times. Political speeches are often hypnotically musical—the "Gettysburg Address."
When we use "musical" in this way I assume we just mean "pleasant sounding" right?
Just keep in mind there's a difference between pleasant sounding and patterned. Not all pleasant sounds are patterned and not all patterned sounds are pleasant. Good formal poetry is a subset of pleasant sounding or musical poetry, characterized by varying degrees of pattern. Unlike good free verse which is pleasant sounding or musical poetry not characterized by pattern.
Anyhow Eliot is definitely formal and musical, no argument from me. (Not a hard formalist but still formal.)
And good formal work can be arranged typographically as free verse or prose and still sound musical. Agreed! (I said very early on that form for us wasn't primarily visual or typographical.) I wouldn't recommend typesetting formal work "prosaically" but it can be done.
I'm not sure it's easy to arrive at good blank verse by arranging free verse—even the somewhat metrical, highly musical variety—on the page into regular line lengths however. That's like saying you can shuffle pentameter around on the page and invariably arrive at good trimeter. You might get lucky but it's certainly not a given. My guess is trimeter—blank or otherwise—to be good must be composed as trimeter and pentameter as pentameter. That's because line breaks play an active if overlooked role in shaping the sound and sense of a poem. They don't alter a poem's form per se, since form is patterns of sound. But they do help the poet implement a given pattern during composition, and help readers hear the pattern afterwards. They also give words and punctuation (and therefore meaning and feeling) emphasis, sometimes emphasizing phrases that come after them too.
These lines by Larkin...
Weeds are not supposed to grow,
But by degrees
Some achieve a flower, although
No one sees.
Are not rendered as effectively laid out this way...
Weeds are not supposed to grow, but by degrees Some achieve a flower, although no one sees.
They're still effective because their main impact is a function of form and form is a function of sound not typography. But Larkin's original line breaks help us hear the form as he intended it. They also reinforce the contrastive "but" in line two and emphasize the phrase, "No one sees," that makes up line four—gosh, the break there makes "No one sees" devastating!
In other words, for a poem to have a certain pattern (trimeter, pentameter, blank or otherwise) in any effective, meaningful way, that pattern has to be implemented at the time of composition, except for the occasional fluke.
You can go from more pattern to less after the fact (rearrange pentameter typographically as prose)—though much in the way of emphasis and help hearing the form is lost. But not from less pattern to more or from one pattern to another—unless you get lucky.
Well we've pretty much established that Eliot and Prufrock and blank verse are excellent examples of formal poetry (albeit softer formalism), and that a lot of free verse is musical or pleasant sounding (though less or not at all patterned). Was there anything else you wanted to ask us or is that a wrap?

MB: Alexandra and P. C., I believe that's a wrap, and I thank you so very much for your time, patience and temperance. While we didn't always agree, we were able to disagree agreeably, and I have a feeling that many poets and readers will find The Rotary Dial more than agreeable, thanks to your stewardship. But I am still struggling with the concept of rejecting masterpieces like "Prufrock" and "Directive" in order to publish "Mr. Bleaney" and "Richard Cory." We seem to be at opposite ends of the poetic universe!

The HyperTexts