The Rubrish of Poetry: Taming the Beast; or, Crossing the Rubric-con

There were reasons the rubicund-faced nuns ruddled our papers with red ink, for the rubric is all over red, and poetry full of rubricalities. Consider the Shakespearean sonnet: the rubric calls for 14 lines of iambic pentameter divided into three quatrains with a rhyming scheme of abab, cdcd, and efef, ending in a couplet rhymed gg. Poetry is rubric, and rubric tames the beast of language.

If language is a beast to be tamed, the poetry rubric is the whip and chair, and rubrics go deeper under the skin of poetry than the rules of any sonnet. In his 1961 introduction to Contemporary American Poetry, Donald Hall said, “For thirty years an orthodoxy ruled American poetry. It derived from the authority of T. S. Eliot and the new critics; it exerted itself through the literary quarterlies and the universities. It asked for a poetry of symmetry, intellect, irony, and wit. The last few years have broken the control of this orthodoxy.” But Hall makes it clear that he does not want to line up the old poets and blindfold them in front of a firing squad: “We do not want merely to substitute one orthodoxy for another.” Is it quaint now to read the avant-garde of the early sixties? Is poetry ruled by reigns reduced to rubrics, as Marxist thought is reduced to slogans?

Hall said that “the colloquial side of American literature – the side which valued ‘experience’ more than ‘civilization’ – was neglected by the younger poets. Melville said that the whaleboats of the Pacific had been his Harvard and his Yale College.” In the sixties, the state colleges, commuter schools filled with students who plumbed, waited, and painted moonlighting were the whaleboats of the Pacific – well, dinghies, anyway. But the 60’s overcame the fears of the 50’s. Hall drops the F bomb, suggesting a rubric of fear and secrecy: “Sometimes it seems that the influence of Senator McCarthy was stronger than that of Jung.” Then, toward a new rubric, written by William Carlos Williams: vernacular, empirical, physical. But then Hall disses the Beats. One wonders what the fear and secrecy is now, for the rubric often still seems to call for poems that Hall said “existed to prevent meaning.”

We cross the rubric to, as Wallace Stevens says in “The Man with the Blue Guitar,” “Throw away the lights, the definitions, / And say of what you see in the dark…Throw the lights away. Nothing must stand / Between you and the shapes you take / When the crust of shape has been destroyed.” The crust of shape is rubric, and the rubric stands between the writer and an untamed language, between the writer and what might be discovered without rubric: “You as you are? You are yourself. / The blue guitar surprises you.” The rubric fades away, sheds its skin for a “new skin for the old ceremony,” as Leonard Cohen said, a new rubric for the old ideas, for the rubric is to tame the beast, written, of course, in red. The rubric is a con; the beast gets the tamer in the end, every time. But at least the tamer got into the ring with it. And that is poetry, the rubric of the ring.