The art and practice of it (4)

A little more about how we got to free verse.  Ezra Pound’s early version of free verse is at work in his most famous poem (published, like “The Return,” in 1913; Pound was 28):

The apparition of these faces in the crowd:

Petals on a wet black bough.

Let’s scan this:

………/……. /……… /…………../………../…………/

The ap |pari | tion of | these fac | es in | the crowd;

…/………../………../………….. /

pet | als on | a wet | black bough.

The first line is six iambic feet and has a light, swift tread because it has only three speech stresses.  The second line is a “headless” line of four iambic feet.  “Headless” is a metrical convention—it means that the poet leaves out the expected unaccented first syllable of the first foot.  Which we can guess at, as Pound meant us to: it would have been “like.”  But he didn’t want a simile, a comparison; he wanted a transformation.  So the faces are the petals, and the gloom behind them is the bough, and both petals and human faces are fragile and temporary.  And beautiful against the darkness of change and time.  And all of that he says in perfectly iambic lines, which we tend to read as free verse simply because the swift first line is followed by the very emphatic rhythm of the second line, with its speech stress in the first syllable and then the three in a row at the end, and what we hear is the contrast between the swift and the emphatically slow rhythms.

And by the time Pound wrote his Canto II, he was, in parallel with the work of other “imagists” and T. S. Eliot during the war and post-war years, writing a more truly free verse, with speech stresses packed close together, and by Canto IX he was extending the rhythms of the Cantos all the way to documentary prose.  His was the first documentary poem, I believe.  (His A Draft of XVI Cantos was published in 1925—Pound was forty.  The next great documentary poem in the U. S. was Muriel Rukeyser’s Book of the Dead, published in 1938).

From Canto II:

Soshu churned in the sea.

Seal sports in the spraywhited circles of cliffwash.

Sleek head, daughter of Lir,

eyes of Picasso

Under black furhood […]

In these five lines, there are three sequences of three consecutive speech stresses, then a sequence of five, then another of three at the end.  I mean speech stresses, not metrical accents.  Speech stresses are apparent in any text or utterance; metrical accents are only apparent in metrical verse, and as I mentioned in the last post, it’s the interplay between them that makes for the rhythmic energy of metrical verse.  In fact, even these lines can be scanned as metrical!—but the feeling of meter is gone.  Pound is still thinking in meter—as how could he not, after all the ear-training he had done before creating a new way of writing—but he has broken it loose from the pattern of alternating syllables that have a considerable difference in emphasis, which is the basis of iambic meter.  So not only is his line broken up into short chunks, as in “The Return,” but now it also has really been packed with consecutive speech stresses that somehow, because of their emphatic rhythm, heighten the visual clarity of the description, give the visual images more vividness.  It’s a kind of high-def rhythm, you might say.

By 1923, William Carlos Williams, who turned forty that year, had been writing in truly free verse for a while and his themes were maturing; he published the book that broke the freedom of poetic rhythm open for him and for just about anybody else who wanted to be open, Spring and All.  After the opening sections in prose, the first piece in that book that is in lines (well-known as one of his best poems) begins this way:

By the road to the contagious hospital

under the surge of the blue

mottled clouds driven from the

waste of broad, muddy fields

brown with dried weeds, standing and fallen […]

Then he keeps going in that modest, beautiful way–deferring the subject and the verb, continuing to “break” the lines just where the syntax absolute requires the next word (such as “the / waste”) , and letting these truly free rhythms of English go at a more relaxed pace (but without losing any of the visual vividness that Pound, too, wanted).  Williams uses the enjambment and the syntax to differentiate his lines from both prose, on the one hand, and from metrical verse, on the other.  (In contrast, and effective in a different way at creating a new kind of poetic writing, Pound avoided such strong enjambments and used other means to mark his free verse as being poetry—mythological and other allusions to evoke a vast context of poetry and history and language, speech stresses packed close together, elliptical narratives and trains of thought, and a diction that is not at all the everyday language that Williams preferred.)

Most of the poets—that is to say, almost all of us—in all the succeeding generations after Pound and Williams, T. S. Eliot, Mina Loy, and Marianne Moore, have tended to follow Williams rather than Pound.  It’s not that Williams couldn’t produce an emphatic rhythm, though. Here are lines 9-13 of that same poem:

All along the road the reddish

purplish, forked, upstanding, twiggy

stuff of bushes and small trees

with dead, brown leaves under them

[and] leafless vines

But Williams doesn’t let that “ghost” of iambic meter show—no, I’m only testing you; he does show it.  Here’s how: “All | along | the road | the red | dish purp| lish, forked, | upstand |ing, twig | gy stuff | of bush | es and | small trees | with dead, | brown leaves“— all of that, if it were disposed properly in a metrical poem, would be heard as iambic meter without a single substitution (except for the “headless” first foot).  But Williams, unlike Pound, takes his lines out of any metrical context, and simply uses the iambic rhythms that English gives him.  Well, perhaps he makes them somewhat more regular, but his lines feel free to us, nevertheless.  And in this same amazing book, he has the wonderful poem that begins this way (it’s part XVIII):

The pure products of America

go crazy—

mountain folk from Kentucky

or the ribbed north end of


with its isolate lakes and

valleys, its deafmutes, thieves

old names

and promiscuity between […]

He too can set up a sequence of five consecutive speech stresses, or let the rhythms run quickly, in a way that we hear as very free and yet very expressive.

I had intended to stick with meter, but I got distracted by the way meter is re-mixed, if that’s the right word, as the first free verse.  There are some good sources on this, especially Charles O. Hartmann’s Free Verse: An Essay on Prosody, which is still probably the best such, although I have not read it for so long that for all I know I got these very examples from it.  (And if so, then thank you, Charles.)

Next time I will get back to meter, and luxuriate in its more traditional modern practitioners, although I am also eventually going to go back to Gerard Manley Hopkins.

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