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This article is taken from PN Review 77, Volume 17 Number 3, January - February 1991.

Missing Measures and the Matter of Metre Chris McCully

Review of Timothy Steele, Missing Measures: Modern Poetry and the Revolt against Meter (1990). Fayetteville and London: The University of Arkansas Press, $22.95, $12.95 pb.

TIMOTHY STEELE'S survey in Missing Measures is nothing less than a full-fledged scholarly account of the aetiology, the history and the aesthetics of 'free verse'. It is an ambitious project, the project, perhaps, of a poet trying to define his own ambitions (Steele is billed in the blurb as a New Formalist); yet it is also a necessary project. While most University libraries contain shelves full of books on metre, there is a relative dearth of work on free verse. The only other full-length study known to me is Charles O. Hartman's Free Verse (1980; Princeton University Press); there are useful chapters in David Perkins, A History of Modern Poetry (1976; Belknap, of Harvard University Press); and there are also comments on the form in Derek Attridge's The Rhythms of English Poetry (1982; Longmans) and in G.S. Fraser's lucid little monograph, Metre, Rhyme and Free Verse (1970; Methuen, in The Critical Idiom series). Despite this critical attention, what one might call the primary literature of free verse takes the form of essays by American, Anglo-American and French poets (Eliot, Pound, Williams and Mallarmé are the obvious propagandists). Steele does a thorough job on this primary literature, synthesizing its insights and criticizing, sometimes heavily, its aesthetic and linguistic assumptions. He is not altogether sympathetic to the claims of Modernism, but nevertheless he is, ...


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