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.

Not the Rubric Itself, but Ideas about the Rubric

HTMLGIANT recently posted an interesting poetry rubric, evaluative criteria for students writing poems. One would think forcing a student to write a poem would be punishment enough, but grading the effort seems a bit excessive. In fairness to the teacher, maybe the rubric made more sense to the students in the class, or it might have been some sort of administrative mandate.

I was reminded of an old grading illustration. Here’s the scenario: art class – draw a picture of your house. Little Mary, who loves art, digs in with the crayons, drawing a tiny house below an enormous, blistering red-orange sun in a pink sky. The teacher walks by and asks “What’s that?,” pointing to the sun. “The sun,” Mary replies hopefully. “Oh, but is the sun really that big?” teacher asks, and slaps a C minus bigger than Mary’s house onto her work of art. The scenario is repeated the following art class when Mary downsizes her sun and upgrades her house. Teacher’s response: “Much better, Mary, but that sun is still too big.” The teacher draws a small B minus in the center of Mary’s sun. Mary’s next effort conforms to the teacher’s expectations: a tiny yellow dot in the sky just above the roof of a house that reaches to the top edge of the paper. Grade: A minus.

Thus Mary learns not art, but that to succeed in school means conforming to the teacher’s notion of reality, a notion that is at odds with Mary’s empirical knowledge, for the sun is, of course, bigger than any house. But in fairness to this teacher, maybe the lesson was perspective. But must every perspective be a fixed point of view?

Buckminster Fuller describes the effects of the art class scenario in “Education Automation: Freeing the Scholar to Return to His Studies”: “I am quite confident that humanity is born with its total intellectual capability already on inventory and that human beings do not add anything to any other human being in the way of faculties and capacities. What usually happens in the educational process is that the faculties are dulled, overloaded, stuffed and paralyzed, so that by the time that most people are mature they have lost use of many of their innate capabilities. My long-time hope is that we may soon begin to realize what we are doing and may alter the ‘education’ process in such a way as only to help the new life to demonstrate some of its very powerful innate capabilities.”

Here’s the “Period 9 Poetry Rubric”: “Title, 2 points; Stanza Breaks, 1 point; Line Breaks, 1 point; Concluding Lines, 3 points; So What? 3 points; Imagery, 3 points; Things not Ideas, 2 points.”

I was inspired to try my hand at a poem in response to the rubric. I made a few changes to the one I posted in comments at HTMLGIANT, so it’s a work in progress. Not sure that’s allowed under the rubric:

After the Title

After the title,

there’s not much more.

The stanzas break,

and lines fall apart

to the concluding

so what?

(“…the white chickens…

a red wheel barrow…”;

Not Ideas about the Thing

but the Thing Itself”)

The poem total

never enough.

Postscript, from Chaucer’s Wife of Bath’s Prologue. “I’ll pay as much attention to your text / And rubric in such things as would a gnat.”