In reading a collection of 16th Century English poetry (Silver Poets of the 16th Century, edited by Gerald Bullett) I came across this whizbang by Thomas Wyatt:
EACH man me telleth I change most my devise,
And on my faith me think it good reason
To change propose like after the season,
For in every case to keep still one guise
Is meet for them that would be taken wise,
And I am not of such manner condition
But treated after a diverse fashion,
And thereupon my diverseness doth rise,
But you that blame this diverseness most,
Change you no more, but still after one rate
Treat ye me well, and keep ye in the same state,
And while with me doth dwell this wearied ghost
my word nor I shall not be variable,
But always one your own both firm and stable.
What’s that all about? It burbles with twists and stubbed toes. We can cite the language as archaic by our standards. Wyatt shifts word order to appease the sonnet form. The 3rd line had me for a bit, till I realized that Wyatt meant To change propose to mean To propose change. That would be to maintain metre, I guess, except that it seems like metre holds in either case. I dunno.
I like reading this stuff, tho I am no scholar of the age. I like how the Elizabethans had a context for poetry. Poetry nowadays is a localized and puny phenomenon. Take the Boston Poet Tea Party, of which I wrote back in August. Remove the poets in the audience who were also readers and you had basically no audience. A potlatch society for poets.
In Wyatt’s poem, an elevated delivery takes place. Wyatt speaks to the reader yet at the same time, honours the weird necessity of the sonnet form by finagling syntax to the needs of metre and rhyme. That sounds like an awful thing to do to us modern readers, but in doing that he proposes the excitement of following his jolted trail. I still am not sure what Wyatt is saying, but I dig his effort in the process.
An outsider named Emily Dickinson wrote from an elemental point of subversion. She knew maybe too well that the poetic context was not inclusive. She unrolled her disputatious antelopes in a context of impossible solitude. Form was not delivered cleanly to her; what she broke she never saw work fully. Parts were missing, denied.
Today’s poetry is secular crap divided from readership by a plangently coded power base. Wyatt could trust readership to follow his solutions to the matter of form. Can today’s poet believe that a readership even exists outside of a few likeminded practitioners? Do poets nowadays recognize form? I mean, do they recognize form the way we recognize Fox News as a news source?
Despite sounding like I know the answer, I do not. And the problem is old. Ezra Pound wrote ABCs of Reading, still a useful book, because readership was flopping the reading test. A century later, we still got ourselves a problem.
In his introduction, Bullett explains that he uses the term Silver Poets to make clear that these poets (Sydney, Howard, Surrey, Raleigh, and Wyatt) are worthy even if they aren’t named Shakespeare, Marlowe, or Jonson. They belong within a thriving context. That Boston Poet Tea Party ended up way too underground, as if getting by were thriving. The idea that poetry might stray beyond the local bounds of our learned hierarchies seems slightly impossible. Alas.