Although 1 percent, perhaps, of Americans read poetry outside the schoolhouse, and the vast majority would tell you that they do not understand it, we all know more about it than we let on. We know that love poems talk in rhyme about roses; we know that short, spare poems that sound faintly oriental talk about red wheelbarrows and chickens; and we know that most modern poems gush forth adjectives and metaphors in order to express what we take to be the most important (because irrational) parts of ourselves. We know, in other words, that the proper way to speak poetically is to speak in a manner of interest and intelligibility to no one besides the poet himself.
It was to redress—to correct and redeem—this awful knowledge that the poet Timothy Steele began writing more than 40 years ago. In his books, Steele has cultivated an elevated but colloquial style, refined by the precise measurement of meter and rhyme, but recognizable as the plain voice of a modern American speaking about the realities his fellow Americans know and care about.
These were the hallmarks not only of Steele’s work, but of the New Formalism, a movement in poetry that sought to renew rhyme and meter, as well as good storytelling, in our age. The New Formalism crystallized in the 1980s—and we are now beginning to see the fruits of its influence appearing in a generation of poets new to the literary scene.
Steele provided advance praise for this, Charles Hughes’s first collection of poems, and with good reason: Hughes has found a way to speak the language of verse that catches the stutters, interruptions, and parentheses of everyday speech within the net of rhymed and blank verse stanzas.
“Bumpy Air,” a poem set on a transatlantic flight during a bout of turbulence, displays this talent well:
Outside, the air’s alive up here
(Six miles above the North Atlantic),
And none too pleased we’re passing through.
The almost party atmosphere
Inside has vanished. Now a frantic,
More natural calm grips us like glue.
These six lines, in some way, echo Steele’s more classical, mellifluous six-line stanzas in his poem “Take Off.” But whereas Steele’s poetry tends to use the poetic line as a unit of syntax and to affirm the balanced reason with which he surveys the world, Hughes’s lines often break up into short units, or overflow the line, so that casual speech almost entirely conceals the structure of the verse. In consequence, he is at once familiar in sound but elusive in measure, and the poems themselves explore the tensions that arise in everyday life between what we may safely know and the subterranean order that we require to live well, but which often escapes us.
“Bumpy Air” concludes with reflections on the cries of an infant on the flight as a kind of liturgy/lament about the contingency not only of air travel but of creation as a whole. This tension appears most clearly, and to greatest effect, in Hughes’s blank verse poems, such as “The River’s Gift,” which begins:
Think back. Think back to when your eyes were stronger.
Remember seeing deeply into things?
Not magically, of course; unconsciously,
As children sometimes effortlessly do.
Being so young yourself, you’d come, back then,
To know—without a word from anyone—
The slowly flowing goodness in the river
Where summer days you knelt and fished, entirely
Riveted on the rod tip that at any
Second might jerk to life . . .
In Hughes’s best poems, the “flowing goodness” of meter guides his speech, but in such an unconscious way that the reader may notice nothing but a familiar, commanding voice. And yet, deep in these metrical and unconscious recesses of things, Hughes reveals his perceptivity and power as a poet. In “The River’s Gift,” he recalls seeing a drowned boy with “streaming hair” reclaimed from the river at his usual childhood fishing spot. After this, the goodness and orderliness of things can no longer simply be received as a gift. Reality as a whole comes to appear more ambivalent, darker, overcast with futility.