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Traditional Metres and Form

I know now what it is that must be done.
Mind must delve deep to what lies below words,
Wed it to words, and let its wealth well out...  (“There Is So Much...” 42)


Of fundamental importance to Cogswell was his sense of a deep order in the universe, an order that governed both biological life and imaginative creation. For most of his adult life this belief was akin to a formal religion. He believed, as Beethoven did, that creation followed the pulse of that order, which was everywhere visible as a generative force. One merely had to look at the universe to see its patterns. Correspondingly, he believed that artists had to find ways to inhabit that pulse to create both lasting and relevant work – to do otherwise, he felt, would atrophy the tongue (“In a World Ruled . . .” 70). His adoption of traditional metres and forms reflects this belief, and is manifest in a poetic oeuvre that can be divided into distinct formal phases. He began with the sonnet form, advanced to the sestina, the villanelle, and then the ballade, moving through periods in which he experimented with the potentials of each. Each enabled a unique entrance to a particular pulse, each summoned a different vocabulary, and each lent itself to the expression of distinct emotions and experiences. It was the job of the poet, he believed, to select and master the form best suited to carry the reader to the universal experience.

Numerous critics and reviewers have commented on Cogswell’s forms, many clearly troubled by what they consider to be his unsophisticated embrace of anachronistic structures. In a review of two of Cogswell’s later volumes, Christopher Levenson comments that “in the poems themselves nothing comes across as hard-won, but relapses into homely wisdom presented in a variety of traditional lyric forms” (125). Levenson concludes, as have others (see Dudek, Mandel, Lucas, and Bowering), that much of Cogswell’s verse “could have been written in the late 19th century” (125), affirming Cogswell’s own belief that to write outside the “peculiar rhythm or tempo” of one’s age is a formula for anonymity: “in a certain sense, not to have lived” (qtd. in Forsythe, Vision 141).

Though Levenson’s review is astute, generous, and judicious – poets are custodians of the language, after all, and are tasked with keeping it fresh – it misses what he and reviewers steeped in the “peculiar rhythms” of a discordant modernity could not have known, which is the extent to which Cogswell used traditional forms to gain access to the deep order that preoccupied him. As he grew older he sought to know this order more fully and to experience it more deeply. He explained this need as a felt somatic surrogacy in the poem “The Heart of Form”:

When music comes
The dancers leap to time and tune, but here
Music’s in the mind, limbs but words I write. (77)

It was thus to both entrance and obeisance that Cogswell’s forms were directed. Of the sestina, for example, he writes: “The spell is simple. Light shines in order / To lead us right. We are blind in black. Six / Light words can guide us as they are set down” (“The Black Swan” 47). The deepest grammar of the poem, then, is its form. It is likewise with the poem as the thing made. Not only does form admit the poet to the duende, that ineffable governing order, but the poem itself (as techne, craft, or matériel) should manifest that order, for “[o]nly a strong and well-wrought glass,” he explained, “should hold / creation’s finest wine” (“Form” 17). Likewise, as avatar of order, the poet becomes God-like in “draw[ing] from / Chaotic things to form a new creation” (“Joy” 26). And so it is the form of the poem that carries its immortality: “[w]hat’s left after time’s devouring worm” is “the stark skeleton of form / [p]reserving art’s symmetry” (“What Can?” 43). Rather than constricting freedom, then, Cogswell believed that “there is no freedom without form” (“Epigram” 26).

Critic Wanda Campbell believes that this preoccupation with form is integral to the Maritime writer’s preoccupation with liminality, particularly a spatial liminality borne of being situated on the margins of land and sea (and, more importantly, on the periphery of power). “[O]ccupied not with authentic essence but with liminal uncertainty” (Campbell 160), poets on the periphery such as Cogswell therefore seek permanencies in speaking through the controls of form. To jettison form as disciplining order would align the artist on the margins with forces at the centre – namely “the literary dictatorship of leading poets, professors, and critics” (qtd. in Forsythe, Vision 142) – who are experimenting with formlessness to create that uncertainty, and thus endorse inequities of power while also reproducing those in the work of art.

While Cogswell tended to mute his theoretical inclinations he was always conscious of the centre/margin discrepancies in Canada, particularly in how those played out aesthetically. No less a critic than George Woodcock noted this awareness in Cogswell when he lauded him for “display[ing] a most admirable strain of radical Toryism which has enabled him to understand and recognize poets who find they can best express themselves in traditional ways” (qtd. in Cogswell, Later in Chicago ix). Cogswell did indeed express this radical Toryism in oppositional language, stating that the “true poem . . . offers its readers an alternative universe to that in which they normally dwell.” Moreover, if that poem is “well done, it will offer a universe that coheres sufficiently for them to accept it imaginatively even though their own innate prejudices might have normally led them to reject it” (qtd. in Forsythe, Vision 150). This view fits exactly with what Campbell observes as the poet’s political use of liminality to “actively oppose contemporary consumer culture” (152), that culture, in this case, being one that eschews traditional metres.

Cogswell’s career-long preoccupation with form, then, must be understood in two ways: first it emerges from a belief in (and an attempt to gain entrance to) the higher order and cadence of the universe; and, second, it develops as an oppositional poetics to the practices of George Bowering (see The Best Notes Merge 59) and other experimental poets whose innovations in a TISH-infused Canadian context were carrying the day. Form, by contrast, was Cogswell’s différance, the means by which, “in a world of pressures toward conformity [to the experimental],” the poet expresses “his personal reaction to experience” (qtd. in Forsythe, Vision 146). By virtue of the unpopularity of his arcane forms and metres, Cogswell clearly thought of himself as the more engaged radical, yet another reason for his refusal to give up on old forms of poetic expression.


Next: "Behind the veil of things"