The Sheaves by Edwin Arlington Robinson

Edwin Arlington Robinson

  • I have only one objection to free verse and that is that it seems to me to be a makeshift. About the best I can say is that the best free verse that I have seen contains subject matter for good poems. ~ EA Robinson

Before Frost brought a vernacular gait to Iambic Pentameter, Robinson was the first poet to bring a modern American diction to meter and form. Some readers might argue for Emily Dickinson, but Dickinson never ventured beyond the common meter of the hymn and ballad.  I also don’t feel a uniquely modern American diction in her poetry (as opposed to British). If we heard Emily Dickinson speak today, she would probably sound more British than American. (In the environs of Boston and Amherst the British accent was still studiously cultivated.)

  • I know that many of the new writers insist that it is harder to write good vers libre than to write good rhymed poetry. And judging from some of their results, I am inclined to agree with them. ~ EA Robinson

But where Robinson’s voice may sound modern, his heart remains with the classicists. Where modern poets write as though the poem were just another species of prose, poetry to Robinson is more than content. A poem is also an excursion into the felicities of language. The two go together. A good subject is heightened by the language’s expressiveness, and vice versa. I know I like to get my licks in when it comes to free verse (it’s like skeet shooting), but appreciation of Robinson’s poetry is heightened when a reader understands a little about his life.

  • Nine-tenths of poetry is how it’s done…. Ideas are, of course, inseparable from the medium, but much memorable poetry is not important for what is said. ~ EA Robinson

Until the very end of his life, Robinson was ignored. Times and poetic tastes were changing, and for good reason. As Robert Mezey points out in his introduction to The Poetry of E.A. Robinson, the luminaries of the times were writing chestnuts like the following:

What is a sonnet? ‘T is the tear that fell
From a great poet’s hidden ecstacy;
A two-edged sword, a star, a song–ah me!
Sometimes a heavy-tolling funeral bell.

And that little morsel was by Watson Gilder, the John Ashbery of his day, famous in his age and held in high esteem by his contemporaries. Every heard of him? Mezey provides another example:

Alone it stands in Poesy’s fair land,
A temple by the muses set apart;
A perfect structure of consummate art,
By artists builded and by genius planned.

The subject matter of these two extracts by no means typify every poem written at the end of the 19th century, but they do reflect what was popular and esteemed. Poetry by this point was so pleased with itself that poets could write swooning poems about poetry.

The only poet to survive the 1890’s was E.A. Robinson. When every other poet of his generation was writing forgettable metrical and rhyming poetry in a decidedly British tradition, Robinson’s survived by doing something none of the other poets did – appealing to readers in their own language.

  • I had no idea of establishing any new movement in poetry. As I look back I see that I wrote as I did without considering how much of the old poetical machinery I left behind. I see now that I have always disliked inversions as well as many other conventional solemnities which seem to have had their day. I could never, even as a child, see any good reason why the language of verse should be distorted almost out of recognition in order to be poetical.  ~ EA Robinson

Just as Robinson rejected the burgeoning age of free verse, he also rejected the excesses of traditional poetry. He represented the first among America’s rarest poets – those who could infuse traditional poetry with a the modern voice – something that a poet like the much younger Edna Saint Vincent Millay, for example, never really managed to do. Even in the 21rst century, the number of poets who can skillfully infuse traditional poetry with a modern, vernacular voice are few and far between.

  • My poetry is rat poison to editors, but here and there a Philistine seems to like it. ~ EA Robinson

Despite Robinson’s unique genius, he was ignored until the last decade of his life. He lived in boarding houses, with generous admirers and friends and skirted homelessness. He lived, at times, in abject poverty, drank whiskey to excess, depended on free lunches at saloons, and haunted taverns. He was the Charles Bukowski of his age and, in truth, his clear-eyed observation of fellow men put him in the same league as Bukowski. The two poets could have been friends in another era.

  • I’ve always rather liked the queer, odd sticks of men, that’s all. ~ EA Robinson

It’s hard to exaggerate the degree to which Robinson was ignored. Mezey, in his introduction, suggests that Robinson was a poor self-promoter. He kept to himself. He didn’t tour or give lectures. He preferred solitude. But luck and critical reception plays a part. Frost’s sudden success, for example, was more luck than design. Frost met Ezra Pound and was championed by the famous poet. As a result, American publishers, who had previously ignored Frost, took notice. Robinson, it seems, never enjoyed that kind of breakthrough until the very last decade of his life, when Tristram won the Pulitzer prize. A healthy income and fame finally caught up with him. That was in 1927. He died April 6th, 1935.

  • I think we must leave my contemporaries out of it. I don’t mind your saying, though, that I think a lot of Robert Frost’s work. ~ EA Robinson

Robinson continues to be overlooked. My own opinion is this: Robinson possessed a masterful ear for the colors of language, its rhythm and poetic form. What he lacked, perhaps, is a great poet’s gift for imagery. One will rarely find the ravishing sensuality of a Keats— sensitivity to touch, taste, smell and texture— or the arresting metaphor (or extended metaphor) of a Robert Frost or T.S. Eliot. Robinson’s plain style equally characterizes his poetic abilities. He seems, sometimes, almost embarrassed by the poetic image. He limits himself to only the most necessary description. In what some consider to be one of his greatest poems, Eros Turannos, the reader will be hard put to find anything that might be called simile, metaphor or imagery. A face is an “engaging mask”. We read of the “foamless weirs of age”, but the image is more like a still-life. Robinson frequently prefers the abstract to the concrete. We find collocations like “blurred sagacity” or “dirge of her illusions”, or “kindly veil”. These evoke nothing and range from the inventive to the mundane. They are intellectual abstractions. In his great poem For A Dead Lady, the reader will find abstractions like “overflowing light”, “eyes that now are faded”, “flowing wonder”, and the slightly more inventive “woman-hidden world”, but all these collocations are of the still-life variety, and some are just mundane, like “flowing wonder”. When Robinson does describe, his sense of imagery is mostly prosaic. We find “pounding waves” or “A sense of ocean and old trees”. Such descriptions are as typical of the novelist as of the poet. You will never find anything like Frost’s extended metaphor in Birches:

They click upon themselves
As the breeze rises, and turn many-colored
As the stir cracks and crazes their enamel.
Soon the sun’s warmth makes them shed crystal shells
Shattering and avalanching on the snow-crust–
Such heaps of broken glass to sweep away
You’d think the inner dome of heaven had fallen.

You will only find, every now and then, the seeds and hints of something that might have more fully flourished in the hands of a poet with a more metaphorical bent. What Robinson excels at is the pithy line. There’s a tight, powerfully succinct, terse and epigrammatic feel to his lines that, to a reader who revels concision and eloquence, is a joy to read. Robinson’s style is compressed and elliptical – talents that naturally made him a master of the short poem. In truth, most modern poets (some of whom are widely read) have no more talent for simile or metaphor than Robinson, but lack Robinson’s powerful feel for language. The wonder is that Robinson isn’t more widely read. To some, probably, he reads like a watered-down Frost, to others, more used to the transparently straight forward voice of free verse, Robinson’s powerfully compressed lines can feel archly intellectual. Robinson ends up neither here nor there. But read him for the concision of his lines. Read Robinson for his ability to compress a whole story into the space of a few lines.

  • I am essentially a classicist in poetic composition, and I believe that the accepted media for the masters of the past will continue to be used in the future. There is, of course, room for infinite variety, manipulation and invention within the limits of traditional forms and meters, but any violent deviation from the classic mean may be a confession of inability to do the real thing, poetically speaking. ~ EA Robinson

What makes Robinson’s poem, The Sheaves, so unique among his poems is that it offers the reader both powerful concision and  an almost Keatsian (or Frostian) beauty of imagery and metaphor – the latter being more of a rarity. To me, who values both these elements, The Sheaves is his greatest, most perfect and most moving poem. Others, for other reasons, might choose other poems.

Here it is:

Where long the shadows of the wind had rolled
Green wheat was yielding to the change assigned;
And as my some vast magic undivined
The world was turning slowly to gold.
Like nothing that was ever bought or sold
It waited there, the body and the mind;
And with a mighty meaning of a kind
That tells the more the more it is not told.

So in a land where all days are not fair,
Fair days went on till on another day
A thousand golden sheaves were lying there,
Shining and still, but not for long to stay —
As if a thousand girls with golden hair
Might rise from where they slept and go away.

And here, for those who enjoy such things, is how I’ve scanned the poem:

What does it mean?

My first answer would be to say that it means what it says. Robinson called himself a classicist. What that means aesthetically, and from a poet’s perspective, is that the beauty of the great poem is both in what is said and how it’s said. Robinson’s quote: “Nine-tenths of poetry is how it’s done…. Ideas are, of course, inseparable from the medium, but much memorable poetry is not important for what is said.” To a classicist, a poem is a linguistic performance. (In that respect, rap has more in common with traditional poetry than with free verse.) Perhaps an apt analogy is to compare the classicist’s ideal oem to a statue by Michelangelo. We might ask how to interpret the Pietà: Why, for instance, did Michelangelo choose to omit signs of the passion when sculpting Christ? But no one would care if the sheer skill of its conception, in and of itself, weren’t a masterpiece of genius. In other words, we can appreciate the beauty of the statue without needing to interpret it or give it meaning. It’s meaning is, emphatically, not what makes the Pietà a masterpiece. Likewise, Robinson’s sonnet, The Sheaves, isn’t memorable for what it says (which is fairly mundane) but for how it’s said – the sheer skill of its conception. Robinson’s sonnet is, in a sense, like a sculpture. It’s an aesthetic, by the way, a way of writing poetry that is almost entirely absent in modern poetry. As I have writtene elsewhere, modern poets write at the alter of content. If we were to rewrite Robinson’s sonnet as  free verse, it would loose much of a power and beauty, and this isn’t necessarily to diminish free verse, in and of itself, but to distinguish between the different aesthetic approaches of a poet like Robinson and most modern poets.

  • Many causes prevent poetry from being correctly appraised in its own time. Any poetry that is marked by violence, that is conspicuous in color, that is sensationally odd, makes an immediate appeal. On the other hand, poetry that is not noticeably eccentric sometimes fails for years to attract any attention… More than ever before, oddity and violence are bringing into prominence poets who have little besides these two qualities to offer the world… ~ EA Robinson

The sonnet is a beautiful example of a Petrarchan Sonnet written in Iambic Pentameter. As far as metrical innovation goes, the sonnet has nothing out of the ordinary to offer. There is one interesting spondaic foot: |vast mag|ic. The spondee, I think, reinforces the sense of vastness. The effect probably wasn’t cultivated by Robinson but, in a metrical poem, the accentual nature of the language takes on a little added emphasis.

What is beautiful about the poem is an opening quatrain like the following:

Where long the shadows of the wind had rolled
Green wheat was yielding to the change assigned;
And as my some vast magic undivined
The world was turning slowly to gold.

Robinson’s sonnet begins in a kind of darkness – the beautiful image ‘shadows of the wind’. From there, the sonnet’s world begins to grow into a beautiful golden brilliance: green wheat, as though by some vast magic, is turning “slowly into gold”. After the first quatrain, the second gives to an impersonal landscape, something like thought, shape and intent.

Like nothing that was ever bought or sold
It waited there, the body and the mind;
And with a mighty meaning of a kind
That tells the more the more it is not told.

What is the It that begins the second line of the quatrain? – body and mind. Robinson begins to shape the landscape into something human or divine (though the magic is undivined).  The reader is in a world of ambiguity, but Robinson has introduced all the elements of a metaphor that, like the landscape, will coalesce and beautifully take shape in the sonnet’s closing sestet (last six lines). What is the body? What is the mind? Does the mind of meaning or intent? He doesn’t yet tell us, only that it is like nothing that was ever bought or sold. It is without price or estimation. It cannot be constrained by any limitation but is free. And it’s meaning? Robinson is content with ambiguity. The read will ask, but Robinson will only answer that it is a “mighty meaning of a kind, That tells the more the more it is not told.” There is a power in these lines that is comparable to a zen koan. Lao Tse might have written such lines in his Tao Te Ching. To me, the simple, plain spoken mystery and truth in these two lines is equal to anything written by any other poet in any other language or  time. Such is the mystery of life that tells the more the more it is not told. The reader, the novitiate, seeking answers, must be silent. True knowledge does not come through the telling, and yet tells the more it is not told.

And now all the pieces of the metaphor will come together in one of the most beautiful images of all of poetry.

So in a land where all days are not fair,
Fair days went on till on another day
A thousand golden sheaves were lying there,
Shining and still, but not for long to stay —

Robinson begins the patrarchan sestet with an almost off-handed tone, anticipating and equal to anything Robert Frost was to write in later years. We are back to the impersonal landscape of wind and shadow. Robinson writes, simply and matter-of-factly, that though all days are not fair, fair days went on until a thousand golden sheaves “were lying there”. The first three lines are all but a restatement of the sonnet’s opening octave. But Robinson has placed the elements of a greater “meaning”, a “meaning of a kind that tells the more it is not told” the will take life with “body and mind”. The leaves will lie there, shining and still, but not for long. They will wait there like nothing that was ever bought or sold, until one day, they will be embodied,

As if a thousand girls with golden hair
Might rise from where they slept and go away.

Body and mind coalesce. In these last two lines, with a power akin to the closing couplet of a Shakespearean Sonnet, body, mind and meaning take shape, become metaphor, embodied in the inexpressible will and beauty of a thousand girls, whose meaning is greatest if left, perhaps, “untold”.  They have slept but will arise out of the impersonal shadow of the wind, suddenly alive, willful, free, golden haired, light, and inexpressibly lovely. Their meaning is in a beauty that defies definition. Beauty is truth and truth is beauty, Robinson almost seems to say. But their beauty is fleeting. The arise. They do not come to us, speak to us, or explain. They will go way and that is all ye know and all ye need to know.

So will we all.

Can there be a more beautiful or profound way to express something so simple? I find this poem to be one of the greatest poems of the English language.

Other readers of Robinson:

Vernacular, Colloquial, Common, Dialectal

[This is a relatively old post and there has been a lot of interest in it (given the number of hits it receives per day). The article has undergone a drastic revision but even now I think one could dedicate a book to the subject. This post is thin gruel, all considered. I give just a few paragraphs to each poet but at least this may serve as a starting point. My apologies to those looking for a far more detailed and thorough treatment. Maybe on some upcoming posts I’ll go into more detail with specific poets.  Last revision Jan 1, 2009]

Wikipedia, as of my writing this, defines Colloquial as language “considered to be characteristic of or only appropriate for casual, ordinary, familiar, or informal conversation rather than formal speech or writing.”

The Challenge

A number of modern poets have said that they consider the proper voice for poetry to be ordinary speech. Some phrase this as the responsibility of the poet, others equate this choice as a political statement and for others it is a gender issue.

The reasons poets give, however, is not so interesting to me as the practical exercise, especially when it comes to the fusion of colloquial rhythms with metrical poetry. So my focus is on poets who write metrical (or formal) poetry with the hope that what I write can be applied to free verse poets as well.

The question is why, over a stretch of four centuries, there have been so few poets who write colloquially in metered verse. The answer, in part, is that it takes a special confluence of talents – the ability to work within meter with ease and mastery along with the talent to hear and reproduce the tone and inflection of ordinary speech. The two abilities don’t always go together. Add to this the circumstance of time and place, and it’s no wonder such a poet is so rare.

Back in the Day

william-shakespeareWhat makes writing colloquially in metered verse so difficult is that the rhythm of colloquial speech frequently runs counter to the regular patterns of accentual syllabic verse. It didn’t always used to be so difficult. When Shakespeare needed to write colloquially or dialectally, and needed to do it in Blank Verse, he could use all sorts of metrical cheats and did – elevating such devices to an art form. Here are just some of those tricks, drawn from Shakepeare’s Use of the Arts of Language, by Sister Miriam Joseph.

If Shakespeare needed an extra syllable, he used prosthesis to change rattle to berattle.

If he needed to change a trochaic word to a dactyl, he used epenthesis, changing meetly to meeterly.

If he needed to omit a syllable he could use aphaeresis, changing against to gainst.

If he needed to omit a syllable from the middle of the word he used syncope, changing prosperous to prosp’rous.

In short, Shakespeare could freely omit or add syllables as necessary. It was the norm and was prized in Elizabethan times when done skillfully. It was through the use of prosthesis and proparalepsis (adding a syllable to the end of a word), that many of our modern words were coined by Shakespeare. The bottom line is that using these techniques made writing colloquially and dialectally, in meter (Iambic Pentameter), much, much easier. Consider the Nurse in Romeo & Juliet, one of the most memorably colloquial characters in all of Shakespeare:

Lord, how my head aches! what a head have I!
It beats as it would fall in twenty pieces.
My back o’ t’ other side,–O, my back, my back!
Beshrew your heart for sending me about,
To catch my death with jaunting up and down!

In the second line Shakespeare uses the figure elipsis or eclipsis to eliminate the word if and the figure apocope to eliminate the last syllable of the preposition into. In other words, the line should read: It beats as if it would fall into twenty pieces. However, this would introduce two anapests (in the third & fourth foot) into the Iambic line, an embarrassing disaster in Shakespeare’s day.

scansion-romeo-juliet

I’m not sure a modern poet would dare to use the same techniques. Then, in the third line, the nurse’s colloquial speech once again threatens to rupture the Iambic Pentameter pattern.

scansion-romeo-juliet-2

This could probably be scanned differently, but this is my stab it. I’ve chosen to treat the third foot as a heavy feminine ending before a midline break (the comma after O). One could argue, perhaps, that the midline break really comes after side. In which case it would read:

scansion-romeo-juliet-3

In this case, the fourth foot would be a kind of double-onset after the midline break (after the word side). In both cases, the scansions are easily within the realm of acceptable iambic pentameter variants. In fact, the lines are mostly iambic. Shakespeare, of course, pulls this off by using the figure syncope, removal of a letter or syllable from the midle of a word – o’t’other side. If he hadn’t used this figure, the second foot would have been an anapest. In Shakespeare’s day, this anapest, along with the heavy feminine ending or the double onset (however you choose to scan it) would have exceeded the bounds of a tolerable variant.

A brief note on Shakespeare’s use of Proverbs. Of all the poets who put pen to paper, Shakespeare is the most conversant in the proverbial lore of this day. His mind was filled with proverbs and their use is like a multi-colored thread through the entirety of his output. At some point I may write a post on his use of proverbs. They give to his verse and to the voice of his characters an earthiness and familiarity that we hear as colloquial  and vernacular. But Shakespeare wasn’t unique in his love of proverbs. The Elizabethans were avid collectors of proverbs and they were taught them from their childhood schooldays. All the great Elizabethan playwrights sprinkled their writing with proverbial lore – if not so skillfully as Shakespeare.

Robert Burns

robert-burns-2One of the most dialectal, as opposed to colloquial, of English poets is Robert Burns, so much so that some of his poems are almost incomprehensible without annotation.

The night was still, and o’er the hill
The moon shone on the castle wa’;
The mavis sang, while dew-drops hang
Around her on the castle wa’.

Sae merrily they danc’d the ring,
Frae e’enin till the cocks did craw,
And aye the owerword o’ the spring
Was Irvine’s bairns are bonie a’.

This wonderful little tetrameter poem was written in rhyming couplets. Burns uses several metrical “cheats” to fit the dialect within the feet – all the same as those in Shakespeare’s day. He uses syncope to change over to o’er and evening to e’ening. In both cases he avoided an anapest. Notice that he doesn’t elide the word merrily. Even though we might, ourselves, be tempted to pronounce it with two syllable – merr’ly – Burns clearly wants it pronounced as a three syllable word – mer-ri-lyotherwise the solidly iambic patter breaks down.

Now, there’s one line that is especially tricky. How do you read: And aye the owerword o’the spring? One might be tempted to read the line as follows:

scansion-robert-burns

However, this would give us a dactyl in the third foot – something which, up to now, Burns has studiously avoided. The elipsis o’the, reducing two syllables to one, gives us a clue as to how Burns would like us to read the line.

scansion-robert-burns-2

With this reading the perfectly iambic pattern of the lyric is preserved. In fact, Burns (for all his dialect) is far, far more conservative than Shakespeare ever was and even Milton! His poems are all, by in large, strictly iambic.  And he accomplishes this feat using a variety of metrical “cheats”. Burns, it seems, valued metrical regularity over the irregular pull of dialectal diction. Another interesting facet of Burns’ poems is that, for all the dialectal vocabulary, his use of colloquialism or the vernacular voice is relatively normal. He may use colloquial or proverbial phrases, but not in any way that truly sets him apart from other poets. From A Dedication:

Be to the poor like ony whunstane,
And haud their noses to the grunstane;

The phrase the poor like ony whunstane has a proverbial ring to it. The colloquial expression hold their noses to the grindstone is typical of Burns’ use. Unlike Shakespeare, who poetically enriches his proverbs, Burns writes them out as he’s heard them. Having said all that, his use of these effects, when added to the rich dialectal voice of his poetry, unquestionably lends his poetry (despite their strict metrical devices) an air of the commonplace and the common voice.

But my point, in all this, is to demonstrate just how many metrical cheats poets were able to employ when writing colloquially or otherwise.

john-clareJohn Clare

John Clare’s career began as Burns’ ended. Like Burns he wrote about common things, but did so without  Burns’ virtuosity.When other poets were writing (or attempting to write) with a more elevated and heightened style, in a High Mimetic Mode, Clare was writing about common things in a common voice.

From The Nightingale’s Nest:

Hush! let the wood-gate softly clap for fear
The noise might drive her from her home of love,
From here I’ve heard her many a merry year
At morn, at eve, nay, all the livelong day,
As though she lived on song.

The phrase many a merry year is colloquial, as well as all the livelong day – an idiomatic & vernacular English (as opposed to uniquely American) expression. Like Burns, though, Clare is very careful to stay within the metrical foot – archly conservative in his use of variants. The only variants I could find were trochaic first feet (blank verse).  In the lines above, one might be tempted to read the third line as a variant.

scansion-clare

This reading would create an anapestic fourth foot. In the entirety of the poem, no line veers from ten syllables and hardly veers from Iambic. Although Clare hasn’t used syncope or elipsis to slur the syllables, the correct reading is almost certainly as follows:

scansion-clare-21

This reading retains the strong Iambic Pentameter pattern of the poem. It again shows how poets, writing in meter, expected to fuse colloquial diction with the demands of meter. Clare’s omission of elipsis was a sign of the future – when more modern poets, writing in meter, would omit the visible indication of slurred syllables on the presumption that a knowledgeable reader of metered verse would slur the syllables without prompting – other modern poets – not aware of this tradition – simply read their lines as anapests and see up to two or three anapests as an acceptable variant. My own feeling is that more than two anapests in a line tends to be a departure from Iambic Pantameter rather than a variant.

At other times, there was no need for Clare to use such figures of grammar. His colloquial speech fit effortlessly into the pattern of whatever meter he was writing:

Hark! there she is as usual- let’s be hush –
For in this blackthorn-clump, if rightly guessed,
Her curious house is hidden. Part aside
Those hazel branches in a gentle way
And stoop right cautious ‘neath the rustling boughs…

Such colloquial phrases as if rightly guessed and stoop right cautious fit neatly in the iambic pattern. Clare’s only concession was use aphaeresis when changing beneath to ‘neath – the only such figure in the entirety of the blank verse poem.

Most of John Clare’s poetry follows this similar pattern. An attentive reader can deduce that he wrote quickly, his verse frequently filled with words that do little more than fill out the meter, but his voice is always at ease and filled with the sort of speech and rhythms that seldom found their way into the more rarefied poeticizing of his contemporaries.

That said, and like Burns, Clare’s meter always remains rigid and archly conservative.

In fact, after the Elizabethans, the history of meter is one of ever increasing rigidity. The plasticity of a developing language hardened. By the end of the 17th Century words and their usages were all but standardized in comparison to the free-wheeling heydey of Shakespeare’s period. What this meant was that these techniques, rather than being an outgrowth of (and contributing to) a developing language, were becoming tools of poetry rather than of language. The coinage of new words declined rapidly and was even frowned on. Concomitant to this reining in of loose canons was an increasingly formal tone in poetry. Erudition, refinement and dignity were the bywords of Restoration Poetry – the stuff of Pope, Dryden , Davenant, Milton – not colloquialism. The malleable freedom of blank verse gave way to the strict accounting of heroic couplets. So, even though poets had the tools available to them, the times weren’t right. Colloquialism no longer found its way into the poetry of the leading poets.

After the restoration, even as the tyranny of heroic couplets finally began to give way, the rigidity of the restoration left its stamp of the following generations. The extravagant adventurousness of the Elizabethans were all but forgotten and seldom imitated, even as the nineteenth century fell under the sway of Keats, Shelley, Wordsworth and the great Victorains – Browning and Tennyson.

By the end of the nineteenth century many of the techniques used to fulfill the demands of meter and rhyme had become no more than mannerisms. It was to this that Pound was reacting when he rejected the sing-song meter of the Victorians. He believed that the only way to liberate poetry from the stale exigencies of meter and rhyme was to liberate it from meter and rhyme. Free verse was born and the exigencies were thrown out the window. They were no longer needed.

To some poets, though, Pound was taking the easy way out.

A few Poets looked for a new way to fuse the colloquial voice with metrical poetry.

Colloquialism without the Cheats

ea-robinsonE.A. Robinson was already meeting the demands of meter without recourse to the tired devices of his contemporaries — the tired metrical cheats, the flowery language and expostulations. Robinson’s poetry, for the first time in English language poetry,  reunited the common, colloquial voice with the demands of formal poetry.

The Blank Verse poem Aunt Imogen is a fine example of Robinson’s more vernacular and supple style. There are no thees or thous, no syncope, no elipsis, no aphaerisis.

The verse begins with an informality that was, up to this point, unheard of .

Aunt Imogen was coming, and therefore
The children—Jane, Sylvester, and Young George—
Were eyes and ears; for there was only one
Aunt Imogen to them in the whole world,
And she was in it only for four weeks
In fifty-two.

Knowing that the verse is iambic pentameter blank verse, we know a few things about the first line:

aunt-imogen

The first is that the first & last syllable of Imogen receives the strong stress, not the second syllable. The second thing we know is that therefore is pronounced differently than nowadays, with the second syllable receiving the stress – there-fore’. A quick search in Webster’s (not the dinky collegiate version but the old one the size of a cinder block) confirms that the older pronunciation of therefore was more prevalent in Robinson’s day. (Trochaic feet, in the fifth foot of an Iambic Pentameter line, is extremely rare before the middle of the 20th Century.) Robinson doesn’t mind the Pyrrhic fourth foot, willing to exchange metrical rigidity for phrasal flexibility.

After the informality of the first line Robinson offers up some American vernacular. “Were eyes and ears” comes from the expression all ears, a uniquely American Idiomatic expression. Then the next lines seek to echo the voice of the children saying that  “there was only one/Aunt Imogen to them in the whole world. It is the kind of exaggerated expression children are prone to but which, up to now, rarely found its way into serious poetry. Robinson ends this first sentence with the following: “And she was in it only for four weeks
In fifty-two”.
The closing words have the feeling of a conversational aside, adding to the air of informality and colloquial speech – something which Frost was to develop even further. There is, deliberately, no rhetorical heightening in any  of these lines.

In terms of the meter, Robinson relaxes his strict accounting, allowing the colloquialism to disrupt the iambic pattern.

robinson-in-the-whole-world

I read the first of the two lines as containing what’s called a double foot – a Pyrrhic-Spondee. (The double foot is an Iambic Pentameter variant which Sidney, an early pioneer of Iambic Pentameter, made frequent use of.)  The next line mirrors the first, though this time I read the line as having five feet. Though it probably was not deliberate on Robinson’s part, the second line helps re-affirm the Iambic Pentameter pattern without sacrificing Robinson’s colloquial effects. The effect is supple and flexible. It is a new voice in the poetry of blank verse.

There’s more to say about this poem but I think another poem will better demonstrate the other salient feature of Robinson’s verse – his magnificent Sonnet “The Sheaves”. He generally resists altering the natural grammar of spoken English for the sake of rhyme or metrical rhythm. He finds ways to preserve normal speech patterns while preserving the integrity of the Iambic Pentameter pattern. This is significant. Up until Robinson, poets regularly reversed grammatical units depending on what Iamb or Rhyme they needed.

For example, consider Wordsworth’s Scorn not the Sonnet:

“the melody
Of this small lute gave ease to Petrarch’s wound;
A thousand times this pipe did Tasso sound”

The last line reverses the normal grammatical order for the sake of the rhyme wound/sound. Allowing that we don’t use the auxillary verb do as an expletive, one would normall say: Tasso did sound this pipe a thousand times or Tasso sounded this pipe a thousand times.

Robinson tries to dispense with such devices, rhetorical heightening, the use of the antiquated pronouns thee or thou for a much more familiar and “low American”  colloquial voice or or “low mimetic style” (See my post on the Oratorical Style for a discussion of high and low mimetic styles – the discussion is in reference to Fantasy Writers but applies to poetry as well. Apart from the poets mentioned in this post, and up until the 20th Century, most poets writing in meter chose to write in a high mimetic style, including Emily Dickinson.)

Where long the shadows of the wind had rolled,
Green wheat was yielding to the change assigned;
And as by some vast magic undivined
The world was turning slowly into gold.
Like nothing that was ever bought or sold
It waited there, the body and the mind;
And with a mighty meaning of a kind
That tells the more the more it is not told.

So in a land where all days are not fair,
Fair days went on till on another day
A thousand golden sheaves were lying there,
Shining and still, but not for long to stay —
As if a thousand girls with golden hair
Might rise from where they slept and go away.

Robinson’s concessions are change assigned, magic undivined and long to stay (where one would normally expect assigned change, undivined magic and to stay long. Other than that, the poem sounds thoroughly modern to an American ear. Whitman can sound modern to an American ear, but Whitman set aside meter to do it. Robinson didn’t and that, and if only in this respect, is all the more impressive.

Robert Frost: A Master of Colloquialism in Poetry

robert-frost-youngAfter Robinson, Robert Frost became the unrivaled twentieth century master of the colloquial. Frost, through skill, genius or sheer determination, dispensed with any metrical concessions. His verse is free of grammatical inversions, syncope, elision or any of the other metrical concessions. And there are no wasted words – words merely to pad the meter. His colloquial phrases strain the meter (and he was criticized for it even by his students – Robert Francis). But nonetheless, he mastered both the demands of formal poetry and colloquial sense and discursiveness – the halting, digressive, deliberative and informal pattern of our daily talk.

We don’t speak in five paragraph essays, but feel our away forward, our thoughts shaped by what we build on. This is the tone that Frost mastered.  His uniqueness, in this respect, and the difficulty of his art is attested to by the fact that, so far, few poets and fewer poems have achieved anything comparable.

‘The wonder is I didn’t see at once.
I never noticed it from here before.
I must be wonted to it – that’s the reason.
The little graveyard where my people are!
So small the window frames the whole of it.
Not so much larger than a bedroom, is it?
There are three stones of slate and one of marble,
Broad-shouldered little slabs there in the sunlight
On the sidehill. We haven’t to mind those.
But I understand: it is not the stones,
But the child’s mound’

~ Home Burial: Robert Frost

Notice how Frost imitates the deliberative pattern of colloquial speech. The husband says: “I never noticed it from here before.” Then, colloquially, he reflects: “I must be wonted to it“. The poem is written in Blank Verse and the phrase fits neatly within the meter.  Outside the sphere of Dramatic Verse, no other poet before Frost ever introduced the everyday pattern of speech into verse.  This was Frost’s innovation. Notice the dialectal effect of “We haven’t to mind those.”

Dictionary.com defines Dialect “as a variety of a language that is distinguished from other varieties of the same language by features of phonology, grammar, and vocabulary, and by its use by a group of speakers who are set off from others geographically or socially.”

The pithiness of “We haven’t to mind those” is characteristic of the New England dialect still alive and well, up in Vermont – a tight, clipped and northerly accent. However, the dialectal language strains against the meter.

scansion-home-burial

This is a hard line to scan and don’t hold me to it. “We have” is iambic but from there, the dialect of the voice plays against the meter – the sort of liberty that Frost was criticized for by more traditional poets.  Nevertheless, Frost just manages to fuse the colloquial tone with the overall Iambic Pentameter pattern (the variant feet are an allowable variant).

That’s hard to do, especially for modern poets. One has to have an ear for colloquial language, for meter, and how to fit the two together. My own poetry shows the learning process. In my poem Come Out!, the first of my poems where I was able to fuse colloquial speech and meter, there are still some poetic turns of phrases that, if I were to write it now, I might avoid.

But I might be taught,
I should supposeI can’t say I see how.
A man must partly give up being a man
With womenfolk.  We could have some arrangement
By which I’d bind myself to keep hands off
Anything special you’re a-mind to name.

The phrase I should suppose is a Frostian touch followed by the colloquial asseveration  I can’t say I see how. It’s worth noting that he could have written I can’t see how but he needed the extra iamb |say I| to fill the meter. Because the phrase is speech-like and feels natural, the filling out of the line feels natural. But there’s another Frostian feature of the line, and that is the tension between natural speech pattern and the Iambic Pentameter pattern. A colloquial reading might go something like this:

robert-frost-i-should-suppose-colloquial-reading

This, at least, is how I would expect a local to say it. But something Frost is renowned for, and probably because of the tension between phrase and meter, is his tendency to put the expected metrical stress on words that normally might not receive stress. Here’s how the phrase reads if one takes the meter into account:

robert-frost-i-should-suppose

With this second reading, should takes empasis. The husband knows he should be more cognizant of his wife’s experience. And we know that this is how Frost meant the line to be read because the husband immediately avers, reconsiders, saying I can’t say I see how. In this phrase the iambic stress is on can’t and I. The husband has already determined that he can’t see through his wife’s experience and probably won’t. Not I he says.

The effect finds parallels in A Swinger of Birches, among other poems. The speaker seems to turn back, aver, reconsider what he’s spoken just as we do in everyday speech.

You may see their trunks arching in the woods
Years afterwards, trailing their leaves on the ground,
Like girls on hands and knees that throw their hair
Before them over their heads to dry in the sun.
But I was going to say when Truth broke in
With all her matter-of-fact about the ice-storm
,
I should prefer to have some boy bend them

The colloquialism of the italicized lines, like many of the lines, plays hard against the meter. In this sample, there is only one line that is indisputable Iambic Pentamter: Like girl on hands and knees that throw their hair. Taken at face value, the iambic pattern is lost, breaks down in these lines, but there is the echo of an older reading in these lines (and it is with this knowledge that Frost allowed himself some variance).

For instance, in Shakespeare’s day a little syncope and elipsis would have regularized the line :

Before them over their heads to dry in the sun
Before them o’er   their heads to dry i’th’sun

But he was going to to say when Truth broke in

[Where going is slurred via elision to read as one syllable.]

matter-of-fact-elision

On the other hand, Frost allows himself a more flexibility, willing to end a final foot with a trochee: bend them; willing to vary the Pentameter with a Tetrameter line having two anapests.

frost-anapestic-lines

In short, Frost was skilled at matching colloquial phrase to the metrical line, but he was also willing to deviate from the pattern when the phrasing mattered more than the meter. It was a flexibility that served him beautifully, and which he seemed to beautifully balance (never completely losing the iambic pentameter feel) – a flexibility which, as we will see, no modern poets writing in meter seem to have absorbed from Frost – despite their study and admiration of the poet. As for myself, my own poem All Hallows’ Eve works toward that ideal, along with some newer poems I have’t posted yet.

[For a look at meter and colloquialism in another Frost poem, check out my post on A Road Not Taken.]

After Frost

richard-wilburRichard Wilbur , probably considered the natural heir to Frost, seldom touches on the colloquial voice the way Robert Frost does. His voice and technique harken back to an older poetry – to Robinson mor than to Frost. Not only are Wilbur’s poems frequently formal in structure, but they mostly sound formal, even his free verse. The are spoken with an air of formality or literariness that works against the colloquial voice. Consider “Seed Leaves”, dedicated to R.F. (Robert Frost?). The poem begins:

Dislodging the earth crumbs
Here something stubborn comes,
It comes up bending double,
And looks like a green staple.
And making crusty rubble.

The inverted grammar of the first line, for the sake of the rhyming “comes/crumbs” firmly undercuts the feeling of a colloquial voice. The subject/verb inversion as much as announces the presence of Poet, much as one clears his throat before he speaks. In his latest collection, “Mayflies”, perhaps the most masterful , none of the poems are written in a voice other than his own — always the poet speaking. “The Crow’s Nest” begins:

That lofty stand of trees beyond the field,
Which in the storm of summer stood revealed…

Once again, this time in the second line, the normal order of subject, object and verb gives way to the exigencies of rhyme. And this is the trap of formal poetry, which only Frost seems to have overcome– how to write a metrical and rhyming poem while preserving the vernacular, colloquial voice.

Timothy Steele

timothy-steeleTimothy Steele, a contemporary poet well-liked for his skill in formal poetry, succeeds in areas where Wilbur does not. In one of his most Frostian poems, he largely succeeds, but Steele pays a dear price. It is excessively derivative both in voice and subject matter, as though Steele couldn’t write a colloquial poem without adopting not just Frost’s voice, but also his subject matter. Consider “Timothy“:

Although the field lay cut in swaths,
Grass at the edge survived the crop:
Stiff stems. with lateral blades of leaf,
Dense cattail flower-spikes at the top.
If there was breeze and open sky,
We raked each swath into a row;
If not , we took the hay to dry
To the barn’s golden-showering mow.

Compare this to extracts from Frost’s poems “Mowing” and “Tuft of Flowers”, written, probably, a hundred years earlier:

[Notice the echo of gold in the poem above and below…]

It was no dream of the gift of idle hours,

Or easy gold…

[Or the echo of “row” and Frost’s “swale” with Steel’s “swaths”…]

To the earnest love that laid the swale in rows…

[Or compare how flowers and spikes show up in both poems…]

Not without feeble-pointed spokes of flowers…

Or compare Steele’s “we took the hay to dry” with Frost’s “to toss the grass to dry“…

Steel’s poem is rife with Frostian parallels, so much so that one suspects that Steele either deliberately imitated Frost in style and subject as a way to learn , or that Steele is altogether too pickled in his admiration. His reverence borders outright theft. Thankfully, Steel’s other poems are not as pickled, but he does not, to my knowledge, ever write in another’s voice – something which lends itself to colloquial or dialectal diction. It were as though none of the formal poets had ever read anything beyond Frost’s very first book?

[Current revision ends here – Dec 21 2008]

Rebel Angels

[My intention is to provide some fuller examples from Lea’s poem – Dec 21 2008].

Sydney Lea

Sydney Lea

I paged through “Rebel Angels” a compendium of 25 poets: “Poets of the New Formalism”; and I could not firmly identify any poem as being written in a voice other than the “poet’s”, as opposed to say, Frost’s The Housekeeper, or The Witch of Coos or The Pauper Witch of Grafton. The only poet who might count is Sydney Lea and the poem The Feud. Lea comes the closest to a distinct (which is to say not Frostian) colloquial voice. His poems begins:

I don’t know your stories. This one here
is the meanest one I’ve got or ever hope to.
Less than a year ago. Last of November,
but hot by God! I saw the Walker gang…

In an earlier version of the post, I remarked that Lea’s meter was too variable to be true blank verse.

No longer. In fact, I find Lea’s meter to be somewhat conservative; and reading it now, I sometimes wish the colloquial phrasing conformed a little less to the Iambic pattern! That said, I wish the same for some of my poems. Lea’s poem is an admirable  effort – more so now that I’ve given it a second consideration.

My only disappointment remains the use of Italics (in the second line) – and something Sydney uses elsewhere in the poem.

One of the great advantages of meter, which free verse is incapable of, is in the ability to stress words that otherwise might not be stressed, according to their place in the metrical line. Consider Shakespeare’s most famous sonnet that begins “Let me not to the marriage of true minds/Admit impediments…” The temptation is to read it as follows: “Let me not to the marriage of true minds” However, Shakespeare’s sonnets rarely, some say never, deviate from the iambic norm. A safer bet is to assume that Shakespeare is playing against the meter, expecting us to read it as follows: “Let me not to the marriage of true minds” Admittedly, the prepositions [to] and [of] should not receive much stress.

The meaning of Shakespeare’s poem is very different when the meter is kept in mind. Lea, on the other hand, fails to use the meter to advantage. The italics, in fact, vary from the meter and act as a sort of cheat. In Lea’s poem we’ve come full circle. Only now, the effect is not to preserve the meter but to ignore it!

Coda

There’s more to write on this  subject, and I will.

It would be interesting to consider how colloquialism has been used in differing forms. For now, I still hope to find the formal poet who can re-unite the colloquial, common and vernacular with meter, verse and rhyme.