Standards and Freedom

Last Friday, my wife and I went to a modern dance concert and then, on an airplane enroute to Denver, I read through a poetry magazine that I had received as a thank you for a speaking engagement.

The modern dance concert was actually a fiftieth year retrospective by an established and respected mountain states company that presented a cross-section of dances previously offered over the years and concluded with a new piece that presented a “prospective” dance  just choreographed by the company’s new director/choreographer.  After the concert, we compared notes, and we both agreed – the older the work, in general, the better we liked it, and since my wife the opera singer and director has worked with music and dancers for more than forty years, she does have some expertise.  The newest “piece,” while theoretically presenting windows into life, seemed almost aimless, themeless, and without much truly musical accompaniment, not to mention the fact that much of the “dancing” seemed to occur with the entire body either on the floor, or extremely close to it.

The poetry magazine, from my professional viewpoint, was even worse, although it was a slick, well-designed, and well laid out effort, bound like a small trade paperback. The magazine has been published semi-annually for over five years.  The issue I read included 82 poems by 49 authors.  The first thing that struck me was that there didn’t seem to be any poetry in the “poems.”  Further scrutiny supported that impression, as I could discover neither end-rhymes, internal rhyme, alliteration, nor any discernable meter, merely an attempt at innovative typography… and that was true for every single “verse.”  After reading the short biographies of the contributors, I was even more astounded. Most had published widely, and several had won prizes for their work.

Now… I will admit to having been skeptical of most “modern” verse for years, and I have wondered, not infrequently, whether the verse [I hesitate to call it poetry] I have read in the pages of publications such as The Atlantic Monthly and The New Yorker was really representative of the state of American poetry today.  It appears so, unfortunately.  Well over a half-century ago, and perhaps longer, one of the last great American poets – Robert Frost – made a statement to the effect that writing free verse was akin to playing tennis with the net down.  From what I’ve seen, all too many would-be poets not only don’t know the rules of the game, they don’t even know that there are rules as to what poetry is., or at least, what the rules historically have been.  And, well, if the lack of rules constitutes the “new rules,” then it ought to be called prosedy or something similar.

In both the instances I’ve mentioned here, the “creators” don’t seem to have the faintest idea that greatness or excellence doesn’t come from ignoring the rules, but from knowing them, using them, and transcending them [which occasionally means breaking them, but doing so effectively requires knowing what the rules are, how they should be broken and why… and what the exact effect one is attempting to achieve by doing so].  The point underlying both these examples is that excellence in anything requires structure, not just scaffolding.  Yet this loss of structure seems to occurring everywhere in the U.S., from the decline in courtesy to our crumbling infrastructure, and  everywhere rules are being broken, “just because.”

There’s a line from an old Janis Joplin song that says, “Freedom’s just another word for having nothing left to lose.”  And when structure goes, you don’t indeed have much left.


7 thoughts on “Standards and Freedom”

  1. Tim says:

    Re your penultimate paragraph concerning the need to know the rules before you change or ignore them.

    I have been in IT for some time. Training and experience was taken seriously in the 90s and usually meant having to run the gamut of having code peer-reviewed, all the documentation checked and so on. The same with the analysis and design stages. Then along came a concept termed ‘Agile’ which challenged the so-called ‘slow’ or ‘cumbersome’ waterfall life-cycle methods as there had been – in all honesty – some spectacular failures in the defense industry. Many proponents of this new idea had never been formally trained – they just cut all the corners and generally came from PC rather than mainframe backgrounds.

    Some Agile projects can succeed, but I am afraid it appears to be rare. And the documentation is practically non-existent unless you take a very hands-on approach to management – which is not received at all well!

  2. Steve says:

    Tim – I’ve also been IT for far too long and it seems that many things are cyclical: thin versus fat, Agile versus Waterfall, centralized versus decentralized. Those who fail to learn from the past are doomed to repeat it…

    My daughter’s a dancer and I can see exactly what L.E. is referring to. Oftentimes “modern” dance appears more abrupt and disjointed than the more classic forms such as ballet. Some freedom is a good thing as it allows us to expand boundaries. On the other hand according to multiple studies, adhering to some structure and rules actually enhances creativity as there is less to think about. Would you rather live in a concept house built with no blueprints or rules or one that uses standards? I for one would chose the later.

  3. Dave says:

    Yet another old IT hand (circa 1966) & I’d agree that these things do go in cycles. However, over the last decade or so the cult of entitlement appears to have taken hold of management – delivery dates decreed without consideration of project size & complexity, reviews & testing unnecessary because of “modern development techniques” and a childlike belief that all will be well on opening night.
    However, back to the main thrust… Mr Modesitt, would your wife, as a trained professional singer, like to comment on the increasing number of opera singers who are “miked up” so their voices can carry above an orchestra?? I always thought the ability to fill a theatre with your unamplified voice was fundamental to a singer.

    1. She happens to agree with you. She also thinks the emphasis on looks and youth are having s detrimental effect on the profession, because voices aren’t fully mature, at least usually,in early twenties’bodies.

  4. Jay says:

    A very interesting can of worms you’ve opened there, Mr. Modesitt. I’ve often wondered about these trends in poetry. I’m probably a bit unusual in your fanbase in that I’m both a technologist and an English Lit major. Several years ago, I even took what could be described as an audit courseload of an English graduate degree. Voluntarily. Yes, my wife thinks I’m nuts, too. But this kind of stuff interests me. So, I’ve been thinking about these trends for a while. I have too many thoughts in my head to put it down here, I’ll probably write something on my own blog just to clear it out. But here, I wanted to add a couple of thoughts:
    Dance, painting, poetry, classical music . . . all of the classic high art forms have followed about the same trajectory over the past two centuries. In the early 19th century, they all reach the high Romantic period. Lush. Highly structured. Dense. Emotional. Nature-obsessed. Rachmaninoff. Wordsworth. Keats. The Hudson Valley school. But the speed of change accelerated, right along with the industrial revolution. And the artists are ambitious. Profoundly ambitious. The goal for the great artists for the past two centuries has changed. Previously, it was too produce a masterwork of your profession, to demonstrate within the constrictions of the guild the utmost skill possible. But this is evolutionary excellence. Everything the past two centuries has been about innovation and revolution. So you have artists, as everyone else in culture has done, seeking to ‘reinvent’ the form. Romanticism led to Impressionism in art and music. And the poets; they too wanted to reinvent the form. It started slowly, with Whitman and Yeats playing with free-er forms. Frost did it with tone. And then there were those who were so good at formal poetry they could break it completely and do something new and vibrant . . ee cummings. Wallace Stevens. (I’m not a fan of TS Eliot.) But I think what the 20th century poets didn’t completely understand was the to write fine poetry without structure is actually much, MUCH harder. I’d liken it to baking a cake without cake pans. Only the true masters can figure out how to do it and end up with something valuable and appealing. Randall Jarrell and Robert Lowell occasionally succeeded. Very few others did.

    The truly sad part about 20th century poetry, though, is that the new voices that also rose up at the same time, the poetry of feminism, of African Americans, or the gay community, unfortunately got caught up in the free verse trend of the time. I suspect that the poetry of Sylvia Plath and Gwendolyn Brooks would have been orders of magnitude more powerful if they had been writing in the early 19th century and had been allowed to publish poetry with the same message.

    Sorry for the rambling. It’s a hugely interesting topic to me.

  5. Wine Guy says:

    2 days ago I went to see the Chamber Orchestra Kremlin play. Every single one of them (13) could maximally play their instrument.

    Last night I went to see Wynton Marsalis and his Jazz at Lincoln Center group. All of them (15) could maximally play their instruments (the most of the sax line could play all of the sax voices and a couple added in flute and piccolo).

    As you might guess, the Russians played Classical music: powerful, dramatic. There were a couple gypsy-like pieces in there that definitely played with meter and modality, but the whole thing screamed ‘EXCELLENCE AND NOTHING LESS’ the entire concert.

    The Jazz ensemble played well and it is obvious that the music was intricate and nuanced… and some of it sounded just like a person attempting to put as many notes as possible into a given phrase, especially the parts where things were improvised. What does it tell me when the loudest cheers of the night came from an arrangement of “Favorite Things” by Rogers and Hammerstein and “Happy Birthday” for one of the sax player’s birthday?

    Is jazz important music: absolutely. Is it all underpinned and supported by knowing ‘the rules’ of classical music: absolutely.

    I’m glad that there are people who like jazz. I enjoy jazz riffs when they are melded well into other types of music. Can I listen to a whole night of improvisational jazz down at a local club: absolutely not.

  6. D Archerd says:

    I had the privilege of taking a course on the music of Beethoven in college. One of the things the professor stressed was that while Beethoven was truly revolutionary in his art, he had also thoroughly studied the Baroque and Classical forms (which is why some forms that were dated even in his time show up in his music…think of the great fugue in the middle of the 2nd movement of the 3rd “Eroica” Symphony). This is a perfect illustration of the point that in order to successfully break the rules as an artist, you must first master them. The sad truth behind the “tennis without a net” aphorism is that without structure and rules for the art form, it is impossible to separate inspired genius from random crap.

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