Paul Lake
February 2005


Paul Lake was born in Baltimore and grew up there and in Harford County, Maryland. He graduated from Towson University and received his M. A. in creative writing and English from Stanford University, where he held a Mirrielees Fellowship in poetry. He has taught at the University of Santa Clara and currently teach English and creative writing at Arkansas Tech. He lives in Russellville, Arkansas with his wife, artist Tina Selanders Lake, and their two children. His first poetry collection, Another Kind of Travel, was published by the University of Chicago Press and won the Porter Fund Award for Literary Excellence. Story Line Press published his second poetry collection, Walking Backward, and a novel, Among the Immortals, a satirical thriller about poets and vampires. His poems and essays have appeared in numerous journals, books, and anthologies, including The New Republic, Poetry, The American Scholar, Southern Review, Paris Review, and Sewanee Review.

Paul Lake interview in Perihelion:

Statement on Poetics

Metrical poetry evolved over vast stretches of time in what Marshall McLuhan calls the "acoustic space" of ancient, preliterate societies—a space he describes in The Medium Is the Message as "boundless, directionless, horizonless." Such verse was composed and learned by ear, stored in memory, modified in performance, and passed down from bard to bard. Evolving with the languages and cultures in which they were composed, these songs and epics were communal works and belonged as much to a kind of collective mind as to singular poets.

This origin has deep implications for metrical verse. As I have argued before, there are structural similarities between formal poetry, organic natural forms such as leaves and trees, and the computer-generated shapes of fractal geometry. Unlike simple equations and Euclidean geometry, which produce and measure predictable and static results, these self-organizing forms are nonlinear and dynamic, changing over time. Given rise to by an unforeseeable combination of rules, feedback, and chance, they occupy a boundary region between pure randomness and deterministic order. Scientists now call such systems "chaotic" or "complex."

Like other nonlinear, dynamic systems, a formal poem is rule-governed, holistic, sensitive to initial conditions, recursive, and self-similar at different scales. It uses feedback to organize itself in a topdown, bottom-up fashion as the poet tinkers, letting rhythms form as imagination interacts with verbal patterns sounding in the ear. Small-scale elements like phonemes help determine larger aspects of the poem such as words, lines, and so on. These scaled similarities are arranged in a hierarchy of levels that reflect and influence one another, from the level of phoneme, word, metrical foot, metaphor, symbol, syntax, stanza, up to logic, theme, overall form, and the ethics and metaphysics implied by the poem's meaning. Offsetting the self-similarity of alliterative patterns and metrical feet are the "broken symmetries" of metrical substitutions and, in some poems, the varying consonants of assonance and rhyme. The poem's final shape is drawn into being partly by a "strange attractor," which tradition calls sonnet, blank-verse monologue, rhyming quatrain. Finally, metrical poetry possesses another characteristic of self-organizing systems: flow.

Free verse is much more recent in origin. Though it has precedents in the Hebrew poetry of the Bible (which may owe its looser structure to the patterning conventions of musical accompaniment), in Western literature it becomes prominent only in the nineteenth century, with Blake, the French Symbolists, and Whitman. These differences of derivation have had enormous ramifications for the practice of modern poetry. The invention of writing marked a paradigmatic shift in human consciousness, as McLuhan has explained: "The alphabet is a construct of fragmented bits and parts which have no semantic meaning in themselves, and which must be strung together in a line, bead-like, and in a prescribed order. Its use fostered and encouraged the habit of perceiving all environment in visual and spatial terms." As the eye replaced the ear in the hierarchy of perception, the "boundless, directionless, horizonless" universe in which metrical poetry was composed was eclipsed by the linear, visual world of the written word.

A second, and perhaps deeper, shift occurred with the advent of printing. Mass-produced books accelerated linear habits of thought and cognition. Though poetry in forms continued to be written--shaped by tradition; readers' expectations; poetry's on-again, off-again association with music; and the tendency of words to self-organize into repeating metrical patterns--the omnidirectional "aural space" of old became, as the Gutenberg era wore on, the linear "visual space" of the modern industrial world.

From "Disorderly Orders: Free Verse, Chaos, and the Tradition," in The Southern Review.

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