Reading Richard Wilbur’s “Mind”

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The Mechanics of Wilbur’s “Mind”

I’ve noticed several searches for this poem (off and on again) so I thought I’d take a look at it. The meter is Iambic Pentameter and the poem itself consists of three quatrains with an interlocking rhyme scheme. The first rhyme of the first quatrain is a slant rhyme – bat/wit. Other than that, everything else about the poem is conventional. There is nothing remarkable about Wilbur’s use of the meter. If I were to criticize the poem, I might call Wilbur’s use of meter perfunctory. Unlike Shakespeare or Donne’s inventive use of Iambic Pentameter, Wilbur’s meter only informs the poem in the most conventional ways. The poem’s three trochees are apt, putting the emphasis on Mind, Not, and Darkly, but the effect is hardly novel.

But metrical expressiveness is not Wilbur’s strong suit.

Rather, Wilbur’s use of meter adds elegance to his language – heightening and elevating his rhetoric. Whether one interprets that as a plus or minus depends on what one expects from metrical poetry. I’m content to accept Wilbur on his own terms, rather than criticize him for what he doesn’t attempt. His use of meter is elegant and accomplished. The “rhythm”, as Wilbur calls it, makes his poems memorable where other poems are less so.

Richard Wilbur: Mind - Annotated

Interpreting the Poem

In the third quatrain, Wilbur refers to his poem as a simile, and it surely is, but it is also a conceit. Wikipedia offers up the following definition of a conceit:

The term is generally associated with the 17th century metaphysical poets in contemporary usage. In the metaphysical conceit, metaphors have a much more purely conceptual, and thus tenuous, relationship between the things being compared. Helen Gardner[2] observed that “a conceit is a comparison whose ingenuity is more striking than its justness” and that “a comparison becomes a conceit when we are made to concede likeness while being strongly conscious of unlikeness.”

So… Wilbur is being a little disingenuous in referring to his poem as a simile. That said, the whole of the poem is really no more than the working out of Wilbur’s initial simile, The Mind is like a bat – a genuine tour-de-force. Wilbur’s skillful use of the extended metaphor is the mark of his uniqueness (his particular gift) among nearly all other 20th and 21rst century poets.

Mind in its purest play is like some bat
That beats about in caverns all alone,
Contriving by a kind of senseless wit
Not to conclude against a wall of stone.

RiddleThe first quatrain is, on the surface, very straight forward.  However, the only element of the simile that is spelled out is the bat. The bat is like the mind. The mind is like the bat. After that, the more one tries to discern the different elements of Wilbur’s  “simile”, the more one wonders exactly what each element is like. Besides having a predilection for simile, metaphor and analogy, Wilbur is also unique among modern poets for his delight in riddles.  If memory serves, the oldest surviving poem in the English language is a riddle. I doubt anyone would claim that all English poetry is descended from a riddle, but there is an element to the riddle in all poetry – and I’ve always noticed that strains prevalence in Wilbur’s poetry. What are the caverns?

  • Is the cavern like consciousness? – If so, then the mind is like the bat and the bat is like the cavern. The whole of it becomes an insoluble hall of mirrors.
  • Does the cavern represent uncertainty? – spiritual uncertainty? – Wilbur dispels this possibility in the next quatrain by writing: “[The bat] has no need to falter or explore”. Whatever else the cavern is, the bat is not uncertain about its contours.
  • Are the caverns “life”? – Possibly, but would anyone really accept Wilbur’s assertion that the mind has no need to falter or explore?

All that Wilbur gives us, by way of a hint, is “senseless wit”. In this quatrain, at least, Wilbur appears to be describing instinct. Or… there’s another possibility, but let’s see what he writes in the next quatrain.

It has no need to falter or explore;
Darkly it knows what obstacles are there,
And so may weave and flitter, dip and soar
In perfect courses through the blackest air.

Again, the poem has more and more the feel of a riddle. There are apt words, but one gets the feeling that there’s a double meaning at work – Darkly, obstacles, weave, flitter, perfect courses, blackest air.

In the final quatrain, Wilbur will ask: “has this simile a like perfection?” I can’t help but notice a teasing, impish tone to this question. There’s something sly about it. In fact, the simile isn’t perfect at all. Bats don’t “know” where obstacles are. Their  “wit” isn’t “senseless”. They echo-locate, constantly…


If a bat becomes lost in your house, don’t cringe in a corner. Here’s something you might not know. If a bat can’t escape from a room after a certain period of time, it will indeed assume that it knows all the obstacles. It has memorized your room. It will stop echo-locating and fly and fly and fly – no matter what windows you open. A memory is like an opinion. In a sense, the bat becomes trapped by its own opinion. The bat won’t falter. The bat/mind assumes that it has no need to explore. The most inflexible opinions are the loneliest ones and, as Wilbur tells us at the outset, the mind is like the bat that beats in its cavern all alone. The bat or the mind’s  wit seems more senseless than wit.

Darkly it knows.

That is, the mind remains in the dark of ignorance. Obstacles are perceived through ignorance. And yet, in the ruff of its opinion, the mind weaves its “perfect courses” through the blackest air. How does one interpret blackest air? I can’t help but read irony in these lines. We all know that the mind isn’t perfect.  It is subject to any variety of ailments, the worst of them being self-delusion – the blackest air. (After all, the double meaning of air is when one puts on airs.)

And has this simile a like perfection?
The mind is like a bat.

The word perfect shows up again. What is Wilbur really asking? If one reads a certain impishness in this question, then the word perfection takes on a very different tone. In case the reader missed it the first time, it mocks the perfection of the bat or the mind’s perfect courses.

If, having read this far, I’ve spoiled the poem for you, consider this: The most famous analogy  in all of Western Literature is that of Plato’s Allegory of the Cave. Given Wilbur’s erudition, I find it hard to believe he didn’t have this in the back of his mind.  The Allegory of the Cave is all about the human mind so confined within the cave of its opinion that it ceases to consider other possibilities or realities. The denizens of Plato’s cave never faltered in their beliefs and never felt the need to explore.  The denizens darkly understand what they perceive to be reality. Their wits are senseless in that they lack the one sense only appreciated by leaving the cave.

Consider the double meaning hidden in the word conclude – line 4 of the 1rst Quatrain. It was precisely by looking against a wall of stone that the denizens of Plato’s gave drew their conclusions. And they were wrong. They contrive with a “senseless” wit not to “conclude” against a wall of stone, and yet this is precisely what the human mind does in the act of contrivance.

Precisely. Save
That in the very happiest intellection
A graceful error may correct the cave.

The simile is “perfect”, except for the happiest (which also means fortunate) intellection (or perception). A graceful error “may correct the cave.” Though Plato, speaking through Socrates, doesn’t reveal how one of the trapped men came to be released from his cave, the moment might be described as fortunate and a moment of grace – perhaps, even, a grace-full error.  Whatever the reason, the moment of happy intellection, of grace, of graceful error, “corrects the cave”.

Note: I just recently reviewed a collection of poetry by Robert Bagg, his book Horsegod. As it turns out, Bagg knows Wilbur and is presently writing a critical biography on the poet. I was pleased that he approved of my interpretation and also pleased by his suggesting a facet I had missed. The “graceful error”, he suggested, refers to Adam and Eve’s fall from grace in the Garden of Eden. And it is through this error that “we are offered an even better garden than Eden”. This is a convincing interpretation. To paraphrase Bagg, Wilbur has “fused” the concerns of Plato and Paradise Lost.

I think it’s no accident that Wilbur closes with the word cave, rather than cavern.

If my interpretation is correct, then the final word is also our final hint as to the true meaning of the poem – the poem itself is like the cave, waiting to be corrected by the happiest intellection of the reader. The graceful error of the perfect simile will be corrected.

Or, in the case of the bat, if you open the window, the bat will be freed to correct its false conclusions.

Then again, Richard Wilbur is still alive, migrating seasonally between Massachusetts and Florida. Send him a letter and ask him what he meant!

If you enjoyed this post, let me know!

IMHO: Critiquing the Critic

I was googling the net for “new formalists” and came across a good article by John Holcombe called The New Formalism. I found the article brief but insightful – neatly summing up the pros and cons of the New Formalist poetic- most of it analysis and some review. There was one passage that tweaked me though. This was criticism of Richard Wilbur’s poem, The Things of This World, referencing a critique by Marjorie Perloff.

Criticism can generally be broken into three kinds – Analysis, Review & Literary Criticism.  There is a place for all three, but I usually prefer analysis because, in the case of poetry, it analyzes the poem on its own terms and teaches me how the poet accomplishes the art of poetry. Literary Criticism all too easily seems to veer into ideological or dogmatic criticism.

Holcombe summed Perloff up this way:

But misgivings had been voiced much earlier by Marjorie Perloff {33} who said of the title poem of The Things of This World (1956) collection, which begins:

The eyes open to a cry of pulleys,
And spirited from sleep, the astounded soul
Hangs for a moment bodiless and simple.
As false dawn. Outside the open window
The morning air is all awash with angels.

that, for all the New Criticism values of depersonalization, ambiguity, tension, and paradox so brilliantly displayed, the aloof conceit of washing viewed as disembodied angels took some swallowing. Could we forget what laundry actually involved and looked like from a New York apartment? Wasn’t the St. Augustine-derived title, “Love Calls us to the Things of This World” more a studious, male-orientated avoidance of things as they were in the world?”

I found Perloff’s original criticism linked in the footnotes.

Perloff wastes no time laying her cards on the table. Here is how she  begins: “This much anthologized poem provides us with an interesting index to Establishment poetics in the mid-fifties.”

This is no analysis. Perloff  appears only tangentially interested in the poem. From the outset, we know she wants to talk about: “Establishment poetics in the mid-fifties”. This is her world, the world of critical schools and theories, not poetry.  Such criticism can be its own art form  – using literature to create its own literature – but it exists in a sort of parallel universe. (Nowadays one must expend considerable effort to be truly conversant in the various critical paradigms.)

Literary Criticism, as I use the term, may be Feminists, Marxists, Postcolonial, Semiotic, Freudian; and while critics of the various schools may have many interesting and illuminating things to say about how they read poetry (and ultimately about themselves and their opinions), they sometimes have little or nothing to say about how the poet intended the poem. They don’t care and have said so. In most cases, their observations, while relevant from the perspective of a modern reader or performer, are entirely anachronistic in terms of the work being discussed.

Perloff’s analysis amounts to about one sentence: ” Its thirty lines are divided into six five-line stanzas, the meter being predominantly iambic pentameter (“Sóme are in smócks: but trúly thére they áre”), with some elegant variation, as when a line is divided into steps (see lines 4, 15, 18, 30), presumably to create a more natural look. A similar effect is gained by the absence of end rhyme, although there is a good deal of alliteration and assonance…”

That’s it.

And now that she has, almost flippantly, tipped her hat to the poem, she gets on with her feminist axe-grinding, telling us nothing about the poem but a great deal about Ms. Perloff. Here is one of her more pointed passages:

richard-wilbur-2“But if, as Wilbur himself explains it, the scene is outside the upper-story window of an apartment building, in front of which “the first laundry of the day is being yanked across the sky,” the reality is that the sheets and shirts would probably be covered with specks of dust, grit, maybe even with a trace or two of bird droppings. At best, those sheets seen (if seen at all) from Manhattan highrise windows in the fifties, billowing over the fire-escapes under the newly installed TV aerials, would surely be a bit on the grungy side.”

Perloff is excoriating Wilbur for writing a poem that is seemingly out of touch with the realities of cleaning laundry – the laborious, hand-chaffing, skin-cracking work of “Woman”. In short, she accuses him of being a male, self-absorbed (male avoidance) day-dreamer – out of touch with the realities of women’s labor – never mind that men have been known to do their own laundry. (Evidence must exist somewhere.) What’s ironic, though, is that she herself writes as if she knows better.

She writes: “the reality is… probably…

Probably? It’s a disingenuous argument. After excoriating Wilbur for being out of touch, it turns out that she doesn’t know what she’s talking about either! If she doesn’t know (and clearly she doesn’t) then her criticism is just as aloof as Wilbur’s so-called daydream. But not content to leave it at that, she adds: “shirts would probably be covered with specks of dust, grit, maybe even with a trace or two of bird droppings…”

I’ve lived in the city and I lived in the country. I’ve hung laundry out to dry. I’ve never, to this day, had  bird droppings on my laundry (which isn’t to say it never happens); and its never been grungy. If Perloff were probably right, who would hang their laundry out to dry? If it’s going to need another cleaning just for being hung on the line, why bother? What is especially absurd is that Perloff’s commentary has nothing whatsoever to do with the poetry. What point is she making? – that Wilbur is wallowing in male avoidance? So what? What about the poem?

Perloff’ self-serving disingenuousness continues. She writes, for example, : “those sheets seen… from Manhattan highrise windows…” Well, ok, but who said anything about highrises? Not Wilbur. He himself called it the “upper-story window of an apartment building“. But Perloff disingenuously and self-servingly interprets  this as a highrise window, all to make Wilbur’s poem seem ridiculous and unrealistic. Proceeding from her straw man, rather than the poem, she belittles Wilbur along with the poem. And to what purpose?

Perloff asks: “The poem refers to “rosy hands in the rising steam”–no doubt, as Eberhart remarks, an allusion to Homer’s “rosy-fingered dawn” (AO 4), but where are the real hands of those laundresses, hands that Eliot, half a century earlier, had seen “lifting dingy shades in a thousand furnished rooms?”

Perloff’s question is trite. Yes, I suppose Wilbur could have written a poem about, as she puts it, a woman “who only dreams of better detergents“, but this is criticizing the poem for not being what it isn’t. (It’s also an ironically sexist comment.)

She might as well complain that the hammer makes a poor screw driver.

Perloff wants us to believe that Wilbur and his poem are aloof or as John Holcombe summarizes: an aloof conceit. However, the same could be said of Perloff’s critique. Wilbur didn’t set out to write the kind of poem she thinks it should have been. To spend so many words pointing this out is to say nothing about the poem – but much about Perloff’s own ideology and dogma. The best criticism would help the reader understand Wilbur’s poem on its own terms and in its own aesthetic milieu – a masterfully constructed conceit which many readers have enjoyed and rightfully praised. How did he do it? What can we learn from it? What makes the poem so moving to so many? – even in 1956.

These, to me, are the questions worth asking.

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.


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.


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:


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:


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.


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.


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:


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:


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.


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.” 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.


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:


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:


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.]


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.


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!


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.


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