In 1989, the University of Southern California Library’s Department of Special Collections acquired the archive of the Robert L. Barth Press, started by Bob Barth from his home in Kentucky in 1981. In his first eight years, Bob had published seventy-five books of poetry in meter – an act of bravery, defiance and dedication. Even before the eighties, free verse was the default mode of people who wished to advertise themselves as poets. In her introduction, Victoria Steele, then head of the USC Library’s Special Collection, writes:
“It is this last quality [`excellent poetry in meter’] that gives the press its greatest significance. A popular country-western song features the refrain, `I was country when country wasn’t cool.’ The Robert L. Barth Press was publishing metrical verse when meter wasn’t cool.”
It still isn’t, of course. The training and discipline formal verse demands is simply too much work. In contrast, most free verse requires no work at all, and it shows. Poets tend to be followers of fashion, subservient to the herd-mind. Bob Barth is dangerously independent. To commemorate USC’s acquisition of his archive, he edited and published Nine Years Later: A Retrospective Anthology, with work by thirty of the poets he had published, including most of the best then at work in the U.S.: Helen Pinkerton, Janet Lewis, Thom Gunn, Turner Cassity, David Middleton, X.J. Kennedy, Dick Davis and Timothy Steele. Here is Raymond Oliver’s “Private Stock,” subtitled “on finding an old book of good verse in the stacks”:
“Verse closed in staves
Like casks of wine,
Aging in books
In rooms like caves,
Should be decanted
Line by line;
For elegance brooks
No modern haste
Whereby all taste
That poetry “Should be decanted / Line by line” ought to be self-evident, assuming it’s any good. The indifferent stuff you can guzzle like Mad Dog 20/20. X.J. Kennedy also describes and prescribes the better sort of verse, in “Pure Poetry”:
“Like a gold coin, a poem may be so pure
That it will prove too spongy to endure.
Lest it collapse, or blur from Time’s eraser,
Mingled in with it must be something baser.”
Barth includes “A Riddle” by Dick Davis. Without peeking, see if you can figure out who is speaking:
“I have a friend who, when I am alone,
Sits with me — and how intimate we’ve grown!
He talks, but what he says he never hears,
He is unfeeling, but he dries my tears.
He has one back, he has a hundred faces
As lovely as the spring in desert places.
(Sometimes I thump him on the back — I must,
He gets half-smothered in thick, choking dust).
He talks, but soundlessly; he has to find
A clever man before he'll speak his mind.
Whenever I encounter him, his eyes
Recall the precepts of the good and wise,
And yet he’s quiet till I look his way
Unlike some fools, who blather on all day.
In darkness he falls silent — which is right,
He is a Prince who glories in the Light.”
The answer is a book. Davis translated the poem from the Persian of Naser Khosrow (1003-1088). The riddle is witty and suggests the companionship some of us find in certain books: “he [the book] has to find / A clever man before he’ll speak his mind.” In the right company a good book will “never blather on all day.” Anecdotal Evidence started on this date twelve years ago -- Feb. 5, 2006 -- and has been updated daily ever since.