Another poet’s method

Marianne Boruch on writing:

Which techniques might you use that tend to best elicit your meaning or illuminate your thoughts best?

Well, I’m addicted to what I call my “begging bowl theory” of writing poems – and essays, for that matter, though those require a little more willful engineering. With poems, intention doesn’t mean much. I try to empty my mind completely, and see what turns up – an image seen or imagined, a phrase, something that I feel stirring and I have no idea at all where it might go. Then I let it lead me; I follow it. The whole business can get scary; then I know I’m on the right track. And for months, I go over and over my drafts very early each morning, tweaking and redreaming, slashing and burning. It gets pretty wild, the revision process. I call that my “hospital rounds” and in a way, that’s where the real writing takes place.


How Poems Think


In September 2015, the University of Chicago Press will publish my book about poetry, How Poems Think.  


In it, I present a gallery of texts and examples of poetic devices, strategies, and techniques, as well as thoughts about the poet’s stance toward language and toward his or her own temperament.  I explore rhyme, metonymy, etymology, and other elements of poetry not simply as part of the rhetoric and technique of poetry but as modes of thinking and feeling. Of course, to write or read a poem is often to think in distinctively poetic ways—guided by metaphors, sound, rhythms, associative movement, and more.  And poetry’s own stance toward language creates a particular intelligence of thought and feeling, a compressed articulation that expands inner experience, imagining with words what cannot always be imagined without them. Through translation, particularly, poetry has diversified poetic traditions.  I also show how some of poetry’s ways of thinking that we might think are essentially modern in fact begin in the ancient world and simply remain potent across the centuries even into our own time.  


In my gallery I use poetic texts by Sappho, Pindar, Shakespeare, Keats, William Carlos Williams, Marina Tsvetaeva, Odysseus Elytis, Gwendolyn Brooks, Mahmoud Darwish, and many others. 

Alfonso Reyes

Alfonso Reyes: “The purpose of literary creation is not to give rise to exegesis, but to illuminate the hearts of men, of all men insofar as they

are simply human, and not as specialists in this or that discipline,” and says also–wryly–that “between criticism and life there is not

some metaphorical mediation called poetry.”


Hard-wired poetic/rhetorical “devices” … in nahuatl



Cacamatzin (1494-1520), an aristocratic but illegitimate son of an illustrious father known for his learning in doctrine, poetry, and astronomy, was intensively trained—like all boys of the Mexica (Aztec) nobility—in both warfare and song.  An extraordinary essay by Inga Clendinnen, “The Cost of Courage in Aztec Society” (Past and Present No. 107, pp. 44-89, 1985, available online in JSTOR) very persuasively explores the links between the Aztecs’ highly aestheticized poetry on the one hand, and their warfare and human sacrifice on the other; she provides lots of compelling detail about Mexica ritual, lifeworld, and belief.  But Aztec poetry and death are not opposite poles of a schizophrenic society, she argues.  Rather, they are  two consonant, interrelated aspects of the same Aztec religious understanding (a stance that I think we cannot possibly inhabit): life is unremittingly cyclical, shockingly fragile and ephemeral, deeply ceremonial and heirarchical, and has been unremittingly established thus by gods who require the spilling of great quantities of human blood as an analogy to the rain that they themselves provide for human crops.)

Motecuhzoma (called mistakenly in English Montezuma), the ruler of the Aztecs, was Cacamatzin’s uncle.  Cacamatzin ended up being one of Motecuhzoma’s ambassadors to meet the advancing Hernán Cortés in 1519.  After much discussion among the Aztec nobility, Cortés and his men were allowed to enter Tenochtitlan, the capital city of the Mexica.  But there at the heart of the city, the Spaniards then took Motecuhzoma prisoner, along with others of his court—an act for which the Mexica, the brutally dominant power of the Valley of Mexico, were completely unprepared, because such behavior was unknown in their society; they could not have imagined this possibility.

Then, however, Cortés, interrupting his own dealings with Motecuhzoma and his improvization of a conquest in the face of a vastly more numerous Mexica nation, had to leave Cacamatzin, Motecuhzoma and others in the custody of his subordinate Pedro de Alvarado while Cortés himself went to meet Spanish enemies who had come, just at this crucial moment, with the intent of removing him from power.  Under Alvarado’s temporary power, Motecuhzoma was suddenly killed, many of the other Mexica leaders were killed, and others, like Cacamatzin, were tortured to reveal the location of their gold, and killed.  In the resulting chaos, Alvarado had to flee the city with his men.  Later, in a long siege and conclusive battle, Tenochtitlan would be conquered and effectively destroyed, along with many of its inhabitants.

This familiar story is summarized by Miguel León-Portilla in Quince poetas del mundo nahuatl (1994, Fifteen Poets of the Nahuatl World—nahuatl was the language of the peoples in the Valley of Mexico),  and in translations of León-Portilla’s work into English.

What I notice, without knowing even one word of nahuatl, when I look at the bilingual Mexican edition, is the use by Cacamatzin of anaphora and phonetic figures.  Evidently these—as gestures of linguistic authority and also of the pleasures of language—are hard-wired among our human linguistic capacities.  Which again confirms for me that at its heart, poetry is first of all (not not only) a certain stance toward language.

Even without knowing a word of nahuatl, we can see the poetic figures in the opening lines (and in all the more than 50 lines of this song):

In antocnihuané,
tla oc xoconcaquican:
ma ac azo ayac in tecunenemi.
Cualanyotl, cocolotl,
ma zo ilcahui,
ma zo pupulihui,
yeccan tlalticpac.

The hard “c” is very frequent in all transcriptions of nahuatl that I have seen, so perhaps it is so common a sound (like our English “schwa,” the sound of “uh”) that it wasn’t even noticed as a repeated sound by the nahuatl ear.  But the anaphoric figure in lines 5-6 is evident, as is the repetition of the final vowel sound of lines 5-6, and the doubling of “pupu” in line 6.  Translating loosely from Leon-Portilla’s Spanish, I would phrase the meaning of these lines as: “My friends, / listen to this: / let no one live with the presumption of royalty. / Let rage, disputes, / be forgotten, / let them disappear / when on this earth the time is right for that.”  (This is a song of resignation to death–reflective, melancholy, expressing as much awe as it does sadness, and it was apparently regarded by the Aztecs as a great composition, in after years, when it was still sung.)



Evgeny Baratynsky in FULCRUM; rhyme, again




Fulcrum: An Annual of Poetry and Aesthetics, is a tremendously capacious literary journal published in Cambridge, England, and edited by Philip Nikolayev and Katia Kapovich. The newest issue, no. 7, includes (among many other very interesting things) “Evgeny Baratynsky: Poems from Twilight,” with poems introduced and translated from Russian by Peter France, and a second introductory essay and extensive commentaries by Ilya Kutik (also translated by France).  Kutik describes Baratynsky (1800-1844) as a poet who was submerged after his death by the literary fashions of the Russian nineteenth century and whose work was resuscitated by much later poets, especially Osip Mandelshtam, who saw Baratynsky’s work as a valuable un-Romantic or even anti-Romantic poetic precedent, in the midst of Russian Romanticism, for Russian poetry in the twentieth.  Of course Peter France and Ilya Kutik see in Baratynsky far more than that—but I mention this one aspect of Baratynsky’s achievement simply to situate him among twentieth-century poets, and to suggest why a twentieth- and twenty-first century Russian poet, Kutik, is interested in bringing into English at least a sampling of Baratynsky’s poems and an account of Baratynsky’s importance.  Kutik’s commentary runs to more than 30 pages, and along with more than a dozen poems and the substantial introductory essays, this is in effect an impressive small book.  Kutik’s commentaries are especially valuable.  Returning to one of France’s deftly worded translations after reading Kutik’s commentary on the poem enriches the English version wonderfully.

Now I will copy here a few comments Kutik makes on rhyme, which readers of this series of my small essays on poetry will know is of great interest to me.  (Not because I use it in my own poems very often—although I do highly prize rich sound-textures—but because of how Kutik explains rhyme as a mode of thought, which I very much think it is, even though its potential as such is not realized by very many poets in English, and in all phonetic repetitions, not only in full rhyme.  It’s not realized because English-language poets can’t do so, but because our literary history has carried us through times, and into times, where for other reasons poets don’t choose to do so.  This has been true for centuries, even when poetry was at the height of its use of rhyme.)

Twilight was Baratynsky’s last book, was written over about ten years’ time, and he organized his book very carefully.  The final poem in the collection is “Rhyme.”  Baratynsky’s figure for rhyme is the dove that returns to Noah’s ark with an olive leaf or leafy twig in its beak.  That is, from a new world elsewhere, as yet unknown, the dove brings an answer to Noah’s question: does any land yet exist that stands above the flood?  Neither the question nor the answer is expressed in words.  The question is the releasing of the dove, and the answer is the twig brought back by the dove–a human gesture, a living bird; then a material object, presumably still silver-green with life.  And, as I mentioned, from a place not yet known.  Kutik writes that rhyming for Baratynsky (and for himself and so many others) is “as if the Russian poet was throwing a word into the linguistic abyss and waiting to see what other word it will return with.”

That is not a figure that I can imagine being used by any poet writing in English of French (the two languages that Kutik mentions as comparisons) or for that matter in Spanish or Italian or Portuguese (a few more languages that I can add to the list), in any century.  What would the figure for rhyme be for a poet writing in English, formed by English-language poetic traditions?  If it had come in that dove’s beak, it would have had to be something of a kind already preserved on the boat–but on the ark there are no leafing plants, only pairs of animals.  What other figures might we imagine for rhyme in English?

In just a few paragraphs, Kutik’s succinct account of rhyme as a part of the poetic process is revelatory of it as a poetic mode of thought.  He speaks of the remarkable flexibility of Russian syntax and the richness of rhyme sounds in a poetic tradition in which what we call half-rhymes are considered true rhymes— these aspects account for the acrobatic Russian line; he also speaks of the effect on thought of producing the rhyme-word in the context of a stanza, which I have not before seen discussed; and he writes that one “can see why free verse finally triumphed in French and English poetry, since it offers a liberation from the limitations and set patterns of the language, which in Russian do not exist.”

“[R]hyme is for the poet above all a searching device that animates the language.”  And it is, he writes, a kind of companion of the poet even where there are no others.

Here’s something apropos of the poet’s sense (which Baratynsky clearly felt, in that last poem of his last book) of writing with the poetry itself, the language itself, as the needed companion.  In an interview of the Russian poet Victor Sosnora (b. 1938) by Darra Goldstein, published in 1988 in the New York Review of Books, Sosnora says, amidst other responses equally extreme and yet persuasive in showing us a man of intense, sometimes unlikely, and sometimes almost repellantly truthful opinions: “I don’t write for the present.  I don’t write for the future, either. […]  I write because that’s what it takes for me to live.  If I’m not published, that doesn’t mean that I don’t exist. […] An ideal reader has a talent equal to that of the writer.  I’ve had three such readers who understood poetry in the absolute sense: Nikolai Aseev, Lilya Brik, and Nikolai Gritsiuk.  I want to stress that I’m fifty-one, I’ve published nine books, and I have had only three readers.”  About Sosnora’s diction, Goldstein says that his “words seem to arise from a dream or a state of intoxication.  His images are startling, even hallucinatory.”  But I don’t mean to imply that these qualities are typical of Russian poetry in general; as far as I can tell, they are merely qualities that the Russian language makes possible by the poet’s use of what Kutik calls the “justification” of sound.  I.e., of phonetic figures, including rhyme.

Norman Manea

Again I’ve been absent a while in the unreal yet inconceivably populous virtual spaces of the web.

I was in NYC for the first day of the July 27-28 celebration of the 75th birthday of the great Romanian fiction writer and essayist Norman Manea.  (I had been mispronouncing his last name for years, and he was too polite to correct me, and now finally I’ve learned how to do it—when Romanians say “Manea,” it sounds like “monya”; the “e” is very fleeting.)  The announcement for this can be found at:

This tribute seemed to me to have required the emergence of two generations of Romanian writers and readers younger than Manea.  Literary culture in Romania, after so long under Nazi and then Communist dictatorship, is still fraught with nationalist rigidities of attitude, extremism, and a history that even now can scarcely be discussed fully.  Manea kicked a hornets’ nest when he published his essay “Felix Culpa,” an unmasking of Mircea Eliade’s fascist years in Romania and of others connected with him whose mentality and program remains fascist to this day.  The vitriolic response was anti-Semitic, nationalistic, and dangerous.  (The essay first appeared in The New Republic, and Manea included a fuller version in his 1992 American collection On Clowns: The Dictator and the Artist.)

At the tribute, among the first of these two younger Romanian generations who are trying to open Romanian culture were Silviu Lupescu, the director of the Romanian publisher Polirom, which is now issuing all of Manea’s work in a uniform edition; Corina Suteu, the director of the Romanian Cultural Institute in New York; Carmen Musat, the editor of Observator Cultural, a weekly publication in Romania; and Bogdan-Alexander Sta Nescu, the editorial director of Polirom.  (On the occasion of this tribune to Manea, Polirom published a bilingual Romanian-English book in his honor, edited by Cella Manea and George Onofrei, Obsesia Incertitudinii / The Obsession of Uncertainty.)  Among these and also among several Romanians in their twenties with whom I spoke, there was great reverence for Manea, not only because of his writings, but also because of his having refused to make an existential trade-off with the twenty-four-year-long Ceaucescu regime: he would not go along with the regime in order to avoid pressures, threats of imprisonment or worse, and very effective censorship.  He somehow held his own, having to accept the limited publication for which he was eligible in that society deliberately distorted by its government.  (In the title essay of On Clowns, Manea’s description of submitting his typewriter for its annual required inspection at a government office—absurd ritual of an absurd state—is funny, creepy, and all too meaningful.)

Among the Americans speaking on the first day of the tribute was the president of Bard College, Leon Botstein, whose work as an orchestral conductor took him to Romania in 1997 and provided the occasion for Manea’s first return visit to the nation he had been forced to flee.  His meditation on that trip, his parents, Romania, and the course of his own life, took the form of The Hooligan’s Return: A Memoir (Farrar Straus, 2003).  Also speaking were Robert Boyers, who has often published Manea’s writing in his invaluable and (happily) long-lived literary journal, Salmagundi, and the novelist Francine Prose, among others.

In English translation there are several works by Manea.  October, Eight O’Clock (1992) contains the first (and unforgettable) story he published in the USA (in TriQuarterly), “The Sweater.”  Manea and his wife Cella arrived here in 1987 via Germany, bringing with them only what they could carry, after Manea was told by the Securitate of Romania that he had permission to accept a fellowship offered to him in Germany, and that he should take it, and that he should not come back.  October, Eight O’Clock and On Clowns are both in print, published by Grove Press.  Published very recently by Trinity University Press is the collection Manea has edited of Romanian Writers on Writing (2011), one of those books that opens up a whole world that overflows the banks of the present nation of Romania.  It’s a world previously unavailable to all who must wait for translations into English.  We have had bright flashes of that world in the amazing work of those who left Romania during the twentieth century and found readers and audiences elsewhere—driven out or voluntarily withdrawing from that oppressed place—including Paul Celan, E. M. Cioran, Eugene Ionesco, Mircea Eliade, Andrei Codrescu, and Manea himself (to say nothing of the artists Constantin Brancusi and Saul Steinberg, the pianists Dinu Lupati and Radu Lupu, the composer Georges Enescu).  Only a few Romanian poets have been translated into English, among them Tudor Arghezi, Ion Caraion, and Benjamin Fondane (who wrote in French).   Now Manea’s edited collection of Romanian writings on writing give us a fuller sense of how much we are missing.  Also, two other, earlier, books by Manea have been published in English—the collection of stories Compulsory Happiness and the novel The Black Envelope (both by Northwestern University Press).  And earlier this year, Sheep Meadow Press published The Correspondence of Paul Celan and Ilana Shmueli, which includes a brief essay by Manea and his lengthy interview with Shmueli; she too was from Romania, and has much to say about the world that formed Celan and herself, and the somewhat younger Manea, too, and about Celan himself, to whom she remained close until the end of his life.

Manea’s stature, as a fiction writer and a thinker about human destiny, is that of a world artist.  I wish more of us would read his work!

The art and practice of it (8)


Pink confused with white

I used to think (for good reasons, I believed) that it was mistaken to see metrical feet in free-verse lines. Picking them out was irrelevant as a way of describing the rhythms of free-verse lines, simply because free verse isn’t metrical, and how it works rhythmically has to be described differently because what we feel when reading its rhythms, when feeling them with our own individual readerly rhythmic awareness, is different. Free verse isn’t a bunch of metrical feel amidst other syllables that we don’t feel, rhythmically. It is a number of different, distinctly non-metrical (and in fact anti-metrical) varieties of rhythmic expressiveness.

But now I have come to think that at least in some poets—the ones who invented some of the possibilities of free verse—what we see is rhythmic figures that originated in metrical verse but continued to be used in free verse. These figures not only have expressive value—that is, not only do they emphasize feelings, ideas, movement of events, contrasts of images, etc. (which randomly conspicuous metrical feet in free verse don’t do). They’re also echoes or allusions to metrical verse—that is, they relate the free-verse poem in which they are present to earlier poems and poetics.

I’m going to illustrate the free-verse use of rhythmic figures inherited from metrical verse with a canonical poem by William Carlos Williams (b. 1883). Of course, Williams, Ezra Pound (b. 1885), and T. S. Eliot (b. 1888) were perhaps the three most prominent inventors of modern free verse (of three or more different sorts). (See my earlier post on Pound’s “The Return,” March 6, 2011.) Contemporaneously with the unprecedented free-verse inventiveness of these three poets, others were doing more of the same, even though their work was less influential later, in this regard: Mina Loy (b. 1882), H.D. (b. 1886), Marianne Moore (b. 1887), and others. (The amazing little free-verse poems of Stephen Crane [b. 1871] don’t seem to have echoed in anyone else’s work, while the amazing eccentrically measured lines of Gerard Manley Hopkins [b. 1844!], weren’t published until 1918, long after his death, and richly complicated the modernist-era poetics of rhythm.) As later generations developed, in terms of poetics—ifor example Hart Crane (b. 1899), Langston Hughes (b. 1902), Stanley Kunitz (b. 1905), Theodore Roethke (b. 1908), Elizabeth Bishop (b. 1911), Muriel Rukeyser (b. 1913), Robert Lowell (b. 1917), Gwendolyn Brooks (b. 1917), Allen Ginsburg (b. 1926), James Wright (b. 1927), Adrienne Rich (b. 1929), Gary Snyder (b. 1930), Jay Wright (b. 1934) and others—they made the transition from metrical verse to free verse all over again, but in even more various ways, for they had to invent, discover, and extend the poetics of rhythm beyond where the earlier poets had taken it. That is, they moved from metrical to free verse and at the same time had to discover ways of writing free verse that Williams, Pound and Eliot did not, in their way, almost wholly own.

Looking again at that list of the names of poets, I see how massive were the social and political cataclysms around them in their lives.  Through the twentieth century which—despite heroic efforts against the politics of hatred, greed, military power, dictatorship, and ideology—was so violent and rancid, politically, there were always some men and women, including poets, among other artists, who found ways not simply to mimic in their art the shattered circumstances in which they lived, the tragic and murderous fragmentation of life, but also to think and feel for a countergesture, in their search for something restorative, or consoling, or compassionate, or simply honest.  Yet while the political, social and military horrors of the first World War made Pound and Eliot reject the supposed value of European civilization as it stood in their own time, which had had no power against the irrational and stupid ideas that had killed off so many soldiers and civilians, they also sought out the “fragments” of its now shattered achievement (as they saw it) for the sake of building ideals anew.  Even their approach to poetic rhythm was part of this process.  And meanwhile Williams took the position of renouncing all the traditional poetics of English in favor of a new sort of poetry that would depict the everyday reality of ordinary American life.  For him too, creating a new poetic language was extraordinarily important, but instead of basing it on a kind of homage to, or at times parody of, earlier poetic language (including meter and the rhythmic figures within it), he argued for, and exemplified, the use of the rhythms of ordinary, everyday speech (and in Paterson, even newspaper clippings).

How interesting, then, that what he does in practice—in 1923—is to move completely away, in this poem, from “high” subjects and settings, actions and events, to simple description of something inconsequential, while continuing to find his way toward the kind of free verse he left as a legacy to most of American poetry afterward.  

While truly there is a remarkable amount to think about, regarding poetics, in the following straightforwardly descriptive poem by William Carlos Williams, what’s interesting to me for present purposes is the rhythms of his lines. The poem is in the free verse of 1923, but it makes use of many easily heard metrical figures. By this term I mean rhythmic figures that were invented by metrical poets, but which were then carried over (most audibly by Pound, as I mentioned above), into what was developing as free, i.e., non-metrical, verse. First there’s simply the unmistakably sequence of emphatically, not accidentally, iambic feet; and there’s also the chiasmic metrical figure of the trochee followed by an iamb that metrical verse uses at the beginning of a line or after a caesura, but not elsewhere; the packing of speech stresses into consecutive syllables (perceivable in English beginning with the basic two, a “spondee” in metrical verse, but extending to sequences of more syllables than two while remaining metrical, as in the lines from Shakespeare’s King Lear, “No, no, no, no!” or “Howl, howl, howl, howl! O you…” (Act 5, scene 3).

In what follows, I am not “scanning” the poem as if it were metrical, but on the contrary, noticing where the use of speech stress in English, which is not iambic meter but rather the basis of it, echoes or enacts or alludes to metrical figures as free-verse rhythmic figures. That is to say, perhaps, that Williams’s poem is not a free verse isolated from other poetry, but rather a free verse in play with and against the rhythmic basis of iambic meter in English. Williams’s use of the line, which appears to be improvised, in fact echoes metrical verse (Eliot would have said that the “ghost” of meter was behind it), and defines itself rhythmically in that way.

First the poem, then line-by-line a brief commentary:

Spring and All, Chapter XIX, part II.

Pink confused with white
flowers and flowers reversed
take and spill the shaded flame
darting it back
into the lamp’s horn

petals aslant darkened with mauve

red where in whorls
petal lays its glow upon petal
round flamegreen throats

petals radiant with transpiercing light

the leaves
reaching up their modest green
from the pot’s rim

and there, wholly dark, the pot
gay with rough moss


Pink confused with white (a “headless” iambic line of three clear feet)

flowers and flowers reversed (strongly rhythmic, but dactyllic, not iambic)

take and spill the shaded flame (another “headline” iambic line, four feet)

darting it back (chiasmic metrical/rhythmic figure, i.e. our line-initial trochee + iamb)

into the lamp’s horn (rhythmic figure, two adjacent stressed syllables, i.e. a “spondee”)

petals aslant darkened with mauve (two consecutive trochee + iamb)

red where in whorls (another of the same)

petal lays its glow upon petal (a line with an iambic “ghost”)

round flamegreen throats (four consecutive stressed syllables)

petals radiant with transpiercing light (a “headless” iambic pentameter line)



the leaves

reaching up their modest green (a “headless” iambic tetrameter line)

from the pot’s rim (familiar metrical figure of pyhrric + spondee)

and there, wholly dark, the pot

gay with rough moss (to conclude, the most emphatic rhythmic figures of the whole poem, the presentation of 9 stressed syllables in the last 13)

All of these rhythmic elements are expressive. Williams isolates what the metrical echoes in distinct lines. There’s no need to piece together a string of iambic feet or a rhythmic figure by joining, say, the last words of one line to the first words of the next. For example, the clearly iambic fourth line from the end, “reaching up their modest green” reminds the reader that the apparent casualness of the description of which the poem entirely consists (presenting merely a sequence of literal images which happens to suggest broader meaning in the words that appear ordinary but have metaphorical or metonymical meaning also, such as “confused,” “modest,” “gay”) is in fact highly deliberated. This is a poem, not a newspaper clipping.

The art and practice of it (7)

The eagle cam (Decorah, Iowa) is showing lots of sleeping time (the chicks) and patient sheltering (adults); the parent birds fly in or off by turns and feed their chicks with gobbets torn from fresh or rotting carcasses of rabbits, fish, small woodchucks, birds. For warmth (or comfort), the big chicks can’t get much more than their big noggins underneath a parent’s breast. The site has fifty million hits. (See, then click on “bird cams”)

I wonder if there is a prosody of bird sounds—regarding calls, it doesn’t seem at all possible, but perhaps for songs (only “songbirds” have these) there is something.  Whether there are universals of prosody in human language is a question, too, with strong opinions on both sides.  Some of the oldest traces of poetry in the huge family of Indo-European languages suggest that in the mother-language itself, Indo-European, there was already an established poetic line of about 11 syllables.  It can’t be a coincidence that the longstanding lines of similar length in European languages, for example, are about the same length; that’s simply the history.

What’s interesting to the poet and the reader now is what the rhythms of lines are.  There’s no question that spoken English roughly alternates syllables with some speech stress and syllables with little or none.  The whole description of the eagle cam, above, is entirely in iambic feet, with only a couple of substituted feet (pyrrhic followed by spondee, as some call it; “that other thing,” as I have been, perhaps too flippantly, calling it in this series of posts), and it isn’t very hard to create perfectly iambic rhythms in English that sound like everyday speech, since the pattern arises from the language and is not forced onto it.

But once you hear what I’ve done in the paragraph about eagles, above, it will certainly sound monotonous—because I have forced the language a little by making every single pair of syllables fit the pattern of iambic rhythm that verse makes use of for structure, tone, and the subtle play of surprise against expectation (which is the way English poets have described the effects of meter).  The living language that we speak is not verse, so the rhythms of it are never that finely, that deliberately, managed, even though it is roughly iambic all the time.

Yesterday I attended a group discussion led by Derek Attridge, who is visiting Northwestern University this quarter, on prosody, and he proposed that a four-line, four-beat form known in Russian and called the dol’nik might be analogous to something that exists in English without as yet having a name (so it goes unrecognized as a verse form).  He showed us ways of hearing the rhythms in W. H. Auden’s “As I Walked Out One Evening” and Thomas Hardy’s “Neutral Tones,” and suggested that these rhythms are dolnikish (my word, not his).  He listens to (and counts) beats and offbeats of a line as a whole, rather than scanning feet.  And our discussion quickly showed that many of us are skeptical of everyone’s else’s way of analyzing the rhythm of a poetic line.  All of which made for a very absorbing discussion that arrived at no conclusions, of course, for the pleasure of it was in entertaining alternative views.

Today the eagle cam has added annoying video ads, as if TV itself had to barge in and conquer the quiet, slow, continuous passage of time at the eagle nest—where only a few things happen, all day long, and yet where the show of incremental change in life, as the chicks perceptibly grow and the adults imperceptibly age, is (evidently for lots of people) very absorbing.  (I know—it’s not some abstract creature called “TV” that does this; it’s the eternally corrosive pressure of profit.)  I find the “raw” (like the fish, etc., the eagles eat) video of the nest more absorbing than the continuous fast sequence of “technical events” of edited video or film, whether in ads or programs, which artificially create a sense of movement far faster than that of ordinary time.  I’m sure many people have theorized all this in many ways.

Like the slow rhythm of the nest (arrival and departure of parents; feeding and sleep) and also like the fast-flying and completely continuous speed of the parental hunt for prey or carrion, rhythms of language are a very old pattern indeed.  In terms of the human life span, the patterns are far older than we are capable of imagining.  (For poetry, 250 generations? 500 generations? 1000 generations?  For human language itself, 5000 generations?  Eagles have no imagination, but we might call their knowing how to do eagle things a kind of memory, and if so, then it goes back millions of generations.)

So the rhythmic argument for free verse is that there are more expressive possibilities in using that only roughly iambic rhythm of English.  And all poetry, metrical or free, can push expressively against the iambic rhythm of English as well as using it, along a continuum that includes taking words out of syntax entirely, as in some of Robert Duncan’s “Passages”; or creating intense “free” rhythms that are very deliberately not iambic (rather than falling without realizing it into iambic rhythms, which I think is an awful thing to do); or by using a different kind of linguistic rhythm, like that of Auden’s poem or Hardy’s, which can’t be scanned in the usual metrical way, and which nevertheless offers (in Auden’s poem) a very satisfying, sensuously pleasurable rhythm (familiar from the ballad tradition), or (in Hardy’s poem) a perplexing rhythm that underlines the agitation of feeling expressed in the poem.  All poets feed on past poetry as prey or carrion.  I suppose it’s their poems that receive the gobbets of flesh and grow big on them.

I send my thanks to Derek Attridge and to the unwitting eagles…  (and to those eagles Auden and Hardy, too…)


Two useful books:

John Thompson, The Founding of English Meter

Derek Attridge, Poetic Rhythm: An Introduction

“Poetry, whose material is language…”

In the midst of my description of my installments on how poetry uses the rhythms of English to create meter and also free-verse rhythmic emphasis, I can’t resist offering this sidelight.  I encountered it thanks to the poet Maureen McLane, who was visiting Northwestern last week, and who included this quotation among the others in the handout that accompanied her lecture.  It is from Hannah Arendt’s The Human Condition (University of Chicago Press, 1958, 1998, pp. 169-70).  Below the quotation, I will offer a few responses to Arendt’s ideas.

Poetry, whose material is language, is perhaps the most human and least worldly of the arts, the one in which the end product remains closest to the thought that inspired it.  The durability of a poem is produced through condensation, so that it is as though language spoken in utmost density and concentration were poetic in itself.  Here, remembrance, Mnemosyne, the mother of the muses, is directly transformed into memory, and the poet’s means to achieve the transformation is rhythm, through which the poem becomes fixed in the recollection almost by itself….  Of all things of thought, poetry is closest to thought, and a poem is less a thing than any other work of art; yet even a poem, no matter how long it existed as a living spoken word in the recollection of the bard and those who listened to him, will eventually be “made,” that is, written down and transformed into a tangible thing among things, because remembrance and the gift of recollection, from which all desire for imperishability springs, need tangible things to remind them, lest they perish themselves.

1. “Poetry, whose material is language, is perhaps the most human and least worldly of the arts, the one in which the end product remains closest to the thought that inspired it.”  I do very much agree with Arendt’s assessment of poetry as “the least worldly of the arts,” simply because unlike visual art and reproductions of such art, sculptures (and copies or photos of them), installations, graphic designs, musical compositions, recordings, buildings with architectural dimensions of originality and beauty and thought like those of art works, dramatic scripts and productions, with all their attendant design of different kinds, choreography and dance performance, etc.—unlike all this, poetry actually needs no materiality at all.  Something that can be recalled in its full presence in one’s mind or heard when someone recites it from memory can’t be sold or bought, can’t be “worldly,” belonging to the world both materially and transactionally.  So poetry does not become a commodity in the same way that the other arts do, but instead is sold in small editions (with few exceptions), and is presented in readings and preserved in memory.  One of the trends of activist visual art, too, has been to produce work that can’t be sold—murals, some kinds of installations, art made of quickly perishable materials.  (Yet someone is always thinking of ways to sell these kinds of things, too; and artists need to buy shelter and food and materials and clothing….

I think Arendt is at least partially mistaken, though, in thinking that there is on the one hand poetry, and on the other, “the thought that inspired it.”  “Inspired” is the tricky word, here.  And maybe I can come back to it, at some point, in one of these little essays.  For now, I will simply say that the process by which a poet composes a poem (whether in one’s mind or on on a wax writing tablet 2,500 years ago or on paper) is a process of  interweaving some initial thought (or phrase or single word or even rhythm—as Paul Valéry said of his own way of working—for these are the “materials” of poetry) with the discoveries one makes along the way (discoveries of a word or phrase, rhythm or rhyme, or discoveries of whole stages of feeling or the shape of the whole poem).  And the initial thought, if there was one, is not necessarily the opening of a poem, but can easily become the ending.  We can’t say that there is a thought, or even “thought” as an abstraction, here, that inspires a poem, over there.

2. “The durability of a poem is produced through condensation, so that it is as though language spoken in utmost density and concentration were poetic in itself.”  Attempts to settle the question of what “poetic language” might be have accompanied poems perhaps continually since the ancient Greeks, and maybe before, and probably since the beginnings of poetic traditions in cultures outside the west, too.  I would guess that such attempts are a part of all poetic traditions, at least from time to time.  And I think that “density and concentration” have probably been a consideration in the history of  most poetic traditions, from prehistoric times till now, everywhere.  Not that the concept of “density and concentration” itself isn’t a point of disagreement; but even when it is, it remains as an idea about poetry that perhaps always guides some poets, however they may define it.

3. “Here, remembrance, Mnemosyne, the mother of the muses, is directly transformed into memory, and the poet’s means to achieve the transformation is rhythm, through which the poem becomes fixed in the recollection almost by itself.”  But rhythm is not only an aid to memorization; it is an expressive resource, a meaning-making element of poetry—when particular poets choose not to use it they can take nothing away from its value as a resource; they are simply making their own aesthetic choice to avoid it, whether their motive is personal or ideological.  (As poets know, any element of poetry can be, and has been, condemned, or praised, for reasons that are supposedly philosophical or political—whether that gesture makes any sense or not.)  And meter of various kinds, on various principles, which my “art and practice” essays are looking at, is the first, and most sustained, and perhaps universally utilized, version of poetic rhythm.  What Arendt leaves out is that whatever it is about poems that does make it possible for us to remember them, it isn’t rhythm alone.  Sound and structure, paradox and metaphor—all sorts of things contribute to memorability.

4. “Of all things of thought, poetry is closest to thought, and a poem is less a thing than any other work of art; yet even a poem, no matter how long it existed as a living spoken word in the recollection of the bard and those who listened to him, will eventually be ‘made,’ that is, written down and transformed into a tangible thing among things, because remembrance and the gift of recollection, from which all desire for imperishability springs, need tangible things to remind them, lest they perish themselves.”  Here is the oldest motive or (if the oldest motive was prayer or propitiation of the supernatural) then the second-oldest motive for poetry, and is well documented: the memorability of poetic lines preserves the fame of a king, warrior, chieftain, sometimes a woman.  For this the best poets of the earliest times of poetry were rewarded.  And my final qualifier: the best poetry is thought, is a mode of thought, a way of thinking (and of feeling).  And as Arendt implies both here and at the beginning of the quotation, the pleasures of poetry don’t consist primarily in owning a material object but in the experience, I would even say the sensation, of thinking along with a poem as it moves from beginning to end.  We reread a poem in order to think and feel with it, and to have again a particular sensation of thought and feeling, with the aid of the particular sequence of the “material” or at least sensuous properties of language itself: the forms and histories of words, the rhythms, sounds, images, figures, of the poem.

The art and practice of it (6)

Back to rhythm and meter.

There is a deservedly admired short poem by Gwendolyn Brooks that is worth listening to, “The Last Quatrain of the Ballad of Emmett Till” (from The Bean Eaters, 1960, and included in Blacks, 1987).  I’m sure there are many readings available of this poem, but looking at it mostly rhythmically and phonetically, I will add another brief one.

Announcing in the title that the poem is the last stanza of a ballad, Brooks signals that we should imagine a narrative of which this is the final moment.  And she does not follow traditional ballad meter; instead she writes in response to it.  The traditional meter can be seen in many old poems, especially the beautiful Scottish ballads, such as “Sir Patrick Spens” (on line at a number of web sites), which compresses a tragic narrative into a few stanzas, making use of vivid metonyms, such as the cork-heeled shoes that stand for the warriors themselves not wanting to sail, and later, vindicating their apprehension, and signifying their having placed loyalty over safety (pointlessly, in this case), the hats that float on the sea after the ship and the men have gone down.  In this poem a vindictive, cowardly king is chastised forever afterward for the loss of strong young men.

In her one stanza, Brooks has plenty of narrative power, too–implying a narrative she does not need to provide, but to supplement.  Her images are oblique.  She asks us to imagine what we do not see—unlike Emmett Till’s mother, who required that people see what no one would want to see.

“After the Murder, After the Burial,” Brooks writes, as a kind of narrative epigraph.  And she moves us from the imagined ballad of what happened to Emmett Till to a scene in which he is absent, in which his mother is present as the last figure in Till’s own narrative.  The poem begins, “Emmett’s mother is a pretty-faced thing; / the tint of pulled taffy.”  If we listen to the speech stresses, we hear not the balladic four plus three but five plus three (although we could scan the line as four loose metrical feet; but if Brooks had wanted the meter to be close to ballad meter, she could easily have written it that way, given her virtuosity): “Emmett’s mother is a pretty-faced thing; / the tint of pulled taffy.”  The intensity of feeling is concentrated at the end of the utterance: six speech stresses in nine syllables.  The double speech stresses at the end of the first line and at the end of the second are that Ezra-Poundian device I have mentioned in earlier posts in this series: a twentieth-century choice, for roughly metrical or roughly free verse, whichever way one wishes to read it, of a rhythmic figure formerly used in metrical verse.

“She sits in a red room, / drinking black coffee.”  And there it is again, used in the same way.

And again: “She kisses her killed boy. / And she is sorry.”  Now this is “after the burial,” so her son is not in the red room with her.  Brooks runs two moments in time together, perhaps to represent the time-wrenching experience of grief.  By rhythmic stress and by the phonetic figure on the sound of the repeated ki-, Brooks forcefully links the opposites of “kiss” and “kill.”  That is, the love and the horror are brought into the same space by the repeated sounds of those two juxtaposed words, but this is stated and danced, so to speak, simply, and with restraint.  Meanwhile “taffy” and “coffee” rhyme—both are something one ingests, edibles that are not nourishment but rather a self-soothing: candy and caffeine.  (And of course, Emmett’s mother too has been “pulled” into a distorting pain by grief, the absence of retributive justice, and the extinguishing of a life for mere reason of race.)  And then with “taffy” and “coffee” Brooks rhymes “sorry.”  We can sense the phantom utterance of these three rhyme words together; they almost say it, but do not, because they are separated from each other syntactically, and the poem leaves it to us to formulate that utterance by associating the three words with each other.

Chaos in windy grays / through a red prairie.”  The last rhyme shows us the whole pattern of a repeated sound, a phonetic figure used over and over—two syllables, the first one stressed, the second one a long “e” sound.  So we hear not only “prairie,” which goes with “taffy,” “coffee,” and “sorry,” but also “windy” and, in line one, “pretty.”  (I can’t help hearing, also, inside “prairie” another word that is not given: “prayer.”  Not given.  That is, significant by its absence.)

Meanwhile the rhythm has been speeding up.  (Every line except the first two can be scanned as metrical, but the feel of the poem is of rhythmical free verse.)  Four speech stresses in the first line, then three, three, three, three, two, three, two.   If we read what the poem would be if it were restricted to something like four-line (unrhymed) ballad meter—that is, without reading the even-numbered lines of what appear to be eight but which are in fact half-lines completing the four lines that begin at the left margin—then we have: “Emmett’s mother is a pretty-faced thing… She sits in a red room… She kisses her killed boy… Chaos in windy grays…” (in this case, 4 speech stresses, then 3 and 3 and 3.)  That’s an even more compressed version of the whole story, with a final image as commentary.

Interpreting the poem means not only imagining one’s way into what is only implied, but also listening to how the rhythms and repeated sounds emphasize what is stated.  “Emmett’s mother is a pretty-faced thing”—but those who know the history know that the boy himself was not pretty-faced, after what had been done to him, and his mother insisted that his coffin remain open at his funeral so that people could see what had happened to him.  She did not allow them to think that the brutality of what had happened to a young boy might perhaps be less horrifying than in fact it was.

The loneliness of Till’s mother; the emptiness of an abstract landscape of “windy grays” moving “through a red prairie”—these are the absence of a humane presence anywhere or everywhere.  The “red room” and the “red prairie” are equated by color: blood, a social and political chaos, an absence of right, a chaotic presence of inhumanity.   “Red prairie”: Brooks was a great satirist, a great social observer; here she ends with an emphatically rhythmic image that is not human, not social, not even literally real.  What can one say?