By Harry Newman
While they may once have seemed musty and a bit passé, over the last few years metrical verse and formal poetic structures poems written to a set rhythmic pattern and rhyme scheme have been making a comeback in the poetry world. Formal poetry is appearing more regularly in established literary journals and journals completely devoted to it have been started. But these are no exercises in style or literary nostalgia. This is poetry with a distinctly contemporary sensibility sometimes humorous, frequently ironic, and always aware of its place in the world.
Yet for all the increased interest and opportunity for publication, there haven’t been many places for metrical poets to read their work and bring their writing directly to an audience. This was the motivation for the creation of Modern Metrics, a monthly reading series that started its second season in January at the Shooting Star Theatre at the South Street Seaport and whose February reading takes place this weekend.
“We provide a rare live venue oriented toward metrical poetry,” wrote Quincy Lehr, one of Modern Metrics’ founders, via email from Dublin, where he currently teaches history at Trinity College. With another poet, R. Nemo Hill, Lehr started Modern Metrics in January 2006. “There was a void that we thought needed filling.” With the success of the readings, they became a small press as well, publishing five chapbooks of poetry in the last year.
The featured poet for this month’s reading is Kate Light. Light is an award-winning writer and a violinist with the New York City Opera. She is the author of three volumes of poetry “The Laws of Falling Bodies” (1997), “Open Slowly” (2003), and “Gravity’s Dream,” which came out last year and two concert works of verse for narrator and chamber ensemble, “Oceanophony” and “Einstein’s Mozart.” Her work, like this excerpt of “Thirty-five” from “Gravity’s Dream,” is characterized by its sly wit, range of subject matter, and metrical grace:
The gasps and gaps in what one tries to say,
the stoppages; the conduits that tore
and healed; the cells that still await repair;
the echoes in the walls as we explore
these selves that are somewhat the worse for wear;
oh though I wish, my love, that I were free
I’m not; you take them all, in taking me.
“I don’t regard myself as a metricist,” Light said in an interview earlier this week. “I can write metrically and have written metrically in the strict sense...but for me it’s a much more mixed meter which, of course, is a musical term. I fall in and out of meter that I can use to write by ear. That’s part of the musical training. If you’ve been playing Bartok and Stravinsky as well as Mozart, your ear is flexible and can handle, actually loves, deviation... It’s all the subtle differences that make it so wonderful.”
Light’s poems have been included in The Penguin Book of the Sonnet and Garrison Keillor’s Good Poems for Hard Times among other anthologies and she regularly gives readings of her work around the country. “I’m a performer at heart... I love reading. I always felt when I was performing as a violinist that I wanted to turn sideways and talk to the audience. Now I get to do that.”