Three Ways to Write a Poem

Of Plain Poems, Figurative Poems & Metaphoric Poems

Call this post a rough draft; and there are more than these three (like Allegorical Poems) but these are the three primary ways a poem is written, I think. On and off I get queries from poets who would like my opinion on their poems. In a very general way, I can break down their poems down into three main types — the Plain Poem, the Figurative Poem, and the Metaphoric Poem; though almost all the poetry sent me falls into the first two categories. I don’t know whether these categories are original to me. I doubt they are, and I may be using the terms differently (if they’re already out there). But so be it. There are poetic masterpieces in all three categories, so I’m not going to argue that one is superior to another, but of the three types of poetry — the Plain Poem and the Metaphoric Poem are the kind I admire most. But first things first:

The Plain Poem

plain-chant 002When I first began writing this, I called this kind of poem a ‘Literal Poem’; but I decided ‘Plain Poem’ is a more poetic description, and reminds me of plain chant. Plain Poem also allows for some variation, some touches of figurative language perhaps, whereas the term ‘Literal’ invites too strict an interpretation. I have no idea what percentage of contemporary poems are Plain Poems, possessing minimal figurative language, but my hunch is that they represent fewer than one might expect, maybe only single digits. They’re very difficult to write well (or memorably). Perhaps Edwin Arlington Robinson would be its finest exponent in traditional forms. The fact of his plainness may, in some measure, contribute to his relative neglect. (It’s ironic that Ezra Pound preached the gospel of “everyday language and materials”, as Christopher Clausen put it, only to write a massive book, “The Cantos”, that becomes progressively all but incomprehensible.)

Richard Cory
by EA Robinson

Whenever Richard Cory went down town,
We people on the pavement looked at him:
He was a gentleman from sole to crown,
Clean favored, and imperially slim.

And he was always quietly arrayed,
And he was always human when he talked;
But still he fluttered pulses when he said,
‘Good-morning,’ and he glittered when he walked.

And he was rich – yes, richer than a king –
And admirably schooled in every grace:
In fine, we thought that he was everything
To make us wish that we were in his place.

So on we worked, and waited for the light,
And went without the meat, and cursed the bread;
And Richard Cory, one calm summer night,
Went home and put a bullet through his head.

RobinsonSome readers might object that Robinson uses a smattering of figurative language, but they’re of the colloquial, ‘every day’ sort. We don’t need editorial footnotes to understand “from sole to crown” or “fluttered pulses” or “glittered when he walked”. This is truly the language of the every day and the reader would have to stretch, or be a Helen Vendler, to read more into it than is there. The power of the poem isn’t to be found in any sort of figurative or metaphorical elusiveness. As with the majority of Robinson’s poems, it is what it is, but beautifully so. Robinson uses meter and rhyme to lend the poem direction, succinctness and to make the poem memorable. Until the very end the rhymes seem innocuous enough, and then the rhyme of bread and “put a bullet through his head” strikes like a thunderclap. As with many good rhyming poems, the reader is likely to anticipate the final coup de grâce, which gives the narrative that extra kick.

  • I’ve ready many passages of free verse poets, especially, posturing over the predictability of rhymes, but this bespeaks an ignorance of what good rhyme do. There are times when the predictable is exactly what the poet wants.

Another good example might be William Carlos Williams’ The Red Wheelbarrow:

so much depends
upon

a red wheel
barrow

glazed with rain
water

beside the white
chickens

There is such a reflexive determination to think that a poem has to mean something more than what it says. I’m not sure how much sweat and blood has been spilled over what Williams really meant. And yet, the haiku-like sublimity of the poem is self-evident and probably instinctively grasped by anyone who reads it (and needs no explanation or rationalization). This poem, wc williamsquite simply, means what it says. But what makes it so memorable? There’s no rhyme or meter, so something else is at play. In part, it’s very much its similarity to the best haiku. There’s no discourse or disquisition. In other words, a narrator doesn’t thrust himself, nattering, between the reader and the poem (an intrusion into the conversation that Williams can rarely resist). We are permitted to consider the facts as they are and draw our own conclusion — and that is how a poem is like a haiku. The next facet is the imagery. Williams has carefully chosen what to emphasize — the contrast between the red of the wheelbarrow and the white of the chickens, for example. As an experiment, substitute blue for red, or brown for white.

Red is an impish color when you think about it. It attracts attention to itself; (there’s a reason we call red cars “cop magnets”). The poetic juxtaposition of a loud color like red on a humble wheelbarrow gives it a sort of underdog status — like a red Volkswagon beetle — and endears it to the reader (maybe not universally but as a generalization I think this is probably true). After all, so much depends on that red wheelbarrow. What other color could it be? (Unfortunately, my own wheelbarrow is blue, but I’m going to spray paint it red.)

And then there are the chickens. What if they had been brown? Nah. The white chickens make the wheelbarrow all the redder. The contrast is easy to imagine. But what if Williams had written white horse or, white house, or white tractor? When the reader imagines the scene, the chickens will always be smaller than the wheelbarrow; and this has the effect of making the red wheelbarrow a little bigger, and a little more important, and a little more there, like an ever present, reassuring background to the lives of the chickens. If Williams had written ‘white horse’, then that might have diminished the importance of the wheelbarrow. The white chickens give us a contrast in color and in size.

But what about a white house or white tractor? These two would have diminished the wheelbarrow’s ‘scale’ (for lack of a better term). Not only that, but we can imagine the lives of the chickens being dependent on the wheelbarrow, but not an inanimate house or tractor. The wheelbarrow is larger than the chickens, and is brought into the living ecosystem of the barnyard by being beside the chickens. In a certain sense, it’s given life by giving life.

And glazed with rainwater? Why this detail? Well, what if it had been coated with dust? My own feeling is that a coat of dust implies disuse. There are certainly farm implements (and carpentry tools) that get dusty, but that coating is always disturbed by use. I think it’s safe to say that a well-used wheelbarrow would seldom be covered by dust. The word glazed is one most commonly used in reference to pottery. When we glaze a piece of pottery we are finishing it. We are, one might say, making it beautiful and, to a certain degree, transforming it into a finished work of art or, at minimum, a usable implement. Williams choice of word is probably no accident. There’s also the sense that o much depends on the wheelbarrow that it cannot be spared even in the rain. This is an indispensable presence in a living and working environment.

But this poem is lightning in a bottle. Williams only pulled it off twice, I think. With The Red Wheelbarrow and This Is Just to Say. These two poems are justly famous and plain poems. They are plain (or very literal), easy to grasp, but in their choice of observation, like the best haiku, they successfully evoke a world of emotional associations. And this, perhaps, is the trick to the greatest poems of this kind — the art of evocation.

  • I haven’t discussed haiku, but these deceptively simply poems (and carefully literal) are some of the most evocative poems in any language.

Another example of a plain poem would be Frost’s Stopping by Woods:

Whose woods these are I think I know.
His house is in the village though;
He will not see me stopping here
To watch his woods fill up with snow.

My little horse must think it queer
To stop without a farmhouse near
Between the woods and frozen lake
The darkest evening of the year.

He gives his harness bells a shake
To ask if there is some mistake.
The only other sound’s the sweep
Of easy wind and downy flake.

The woods are lovely, dark and deep,
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep.

Many attempts have been made to read meaning into this poem, but it is what it is. It’s beautifully simple and, in that simplicity, is profoundly evocative. This is poetry that uses language not only for its semantic content, as a way to communicate, but as an aesthetic experience in and of itself. The combination of rhyme and meter add to the memorability of the poem — a revelry in the “felicities of language” as Frost called it. William Pritchard had this to say:

Discussion of this poem has usually concerned itself with matters of “content” or meaning (What do the woods represent? Is this a poem in which suicide is contemplated?). Frost, accordingly, as he continued to to read it in public made fun of efforts to draw out or fix its meaning as something large and impressive, something to do with man’s existential loneliness or other ultimate matters. Perhaps because of these efforts, and on at least one occasion – his last appearance in 1962 at the Ford Forum in Boston- he told his audience that the thing which had given him most pleasure in composing the poem was the effortless sound of that couplet about the horse and what it does when stopped by the woods: “He gives the harness bells a shake/ To ask if there is some mistake.” We might guess that he held these lines up for admiration because they are probably the hardest ones in the poem out of which to make anything significant… [Frost: A Literary Life Reconsidered p. 164]

There’s a certain kind of reader for whom plain poems are anathema. One of the more common criticisms leveled at Frost was that his poetry was that of the “simple, farmer poet” — as if that were bad thing in and of itself. In truth, the plainly stated poem, done well or even greatly, is an exceedingly rare accomplishment. The criticism itself says vastly more about those making it. They seem to think that the only good poem is the “difficult” poem. The 20th century is nothing if not the pursuit of obscurity/difficulty as an end in itself, and not just any obscurity, but the kind meant to evoke layers of “meaning”, elusive and implying depth, brilliance and perhaps genius. As a rule of thumb, the more ambiguous — the more interpretations available to the poem — then the better it must be. And while that sort of writing may be candy to the critic and academic, the precipitous decline in modern poetry’s audience suggests that the average reader has better ways to spend their time (rather than sort out a poet’s “meaning”). “Make it plain”, a reader might say, and the modern poet hears: “Dumb it down”. But that’s not at all what the reader is saying.

Greatness in literature has nothing to do with how “difficult” it is.

And perhaps the most remarkable 20th century writer of Plain Poems was Charles Bukowski:

we had goldfish and they circled around and around
in the bowl on the table near the heavy drapes
covering the picture window and
my mother, always smiling, wanting us all
to be happy, told me, ‘be happy Henry!’
and she was right: it’s better to be happy if you
can
but my father continued to beat her and me several times a week while
raging inside his 6-foot-two frame because he couldn’t
understand what was attacking him from within.

my mother, poor fish,
wanting to be happy, beaten two or three times a
week, telling me to be happy: ‘Henry, smile!
why don’t you ever smile?’

and then she would smile, to show me how, and it was the
saddest smile I ever saw

one day the goldfish died, all five of them,
they floated on the water, on their sides, their
eyes still open,
and when my father got home he threw them to the cat
there on the kitchen floor and we watched as my mother
smiled

Charles-BukowskiIn the process of writing this post, I read through about two dozen poems by Bukowski, and if he ever wrote a simile, I haven’t yet found it. I would judge Bukowski’s favorite rhetorical device to be the analogy. In the poem above, for instance, Bukowski is essentially drawing an analogy between the goldfish and the suffering experienced by himself and mother. Even then, Bukowski’s use of analogy is sparing and far from obvious. A reader may read a Bukowski poem, read a scenario which he or she has never experienced, and yet feel a commonality because the subject is nevertheless analogous to his or her own experiences. This, I think, is at the root of Bukowski’s genius — his ability to provide a context for experiences that make them recognizable and universal. In the poem Bluebird, Bukowski is again essentially drawing an analogy between his suppressed empathy and compassion and a symbolic bluebird he keeps locked in his heart.

The Figurative Poem

By this, I mean poems that use figurative language but are otherwise (or mostly) plain in their meaning. In other words, I would consider calling a Figurative Poem a ‘Plain Poem’ that uses figurative language. Figurative Poems, as I use the term, probably represent the vast majority of poetry. Nearly all of free verse is of the figurative kind. Shakespeare’s Sonnets are all figurative poems. They are by far and away the most popular and have therefore accumulated an ocean of bad examples. The term figurative (or figurative language) refers to rhetorical figure (a figure understood as any rhetorical linguistic device). A linguistic device most commonly includes, for example the simile — the favorite rhetorical figure of twentieth and twenty-first century poetry. As soon as you see a simile, you know you’re dealing with figurative poetry. Additionally, and unfortunately, it’s nearly always a sign of second or third rate poetry — almost without fail (the exceptions prove the rule, perhaps).

I know I’ve mentioned the following passage before, but I’m offering more of it because it first got me thinking about this subject (many years ago):

“Shakespeare’s style, as everyone knows, is metaphorical to excess. His imagination is always active, but he seldom pauses to indulge it by lengthened description. I shall hereafter have occasion to direct your observation to the sobriety with which he preserves imagination in its proper station, as only the minister and interpreter of thought; but what I wish now to say is, that in him the two powers operate simultaneously. He goes on thinking vigorously, while his imagination scatters her inexhaustible treasures like flowers on the current of his meditations, His constant aim is the expression of facts, passions ,or opinions; and his intellect is constantly occupied in the investigation of such; but the mind acts with ease in its lofty vocation, and the beautiful and the grand rise up voluntarily to do him homage. he never indeed consents to express those poetical ideas by themselves; but he shows that he felt their import and their legitimate use, by wedding them to the thoughts in which they originated. The truths which he taught, received magnificence and amenity from the illustrative forms; and the poetical images were elevated into a higher sphere of associations by the dignity of the principles which they were applied to adorn. Something like this is always the true function of the imagination in poetry, and dramatic poetry in particular; and it is also the test which tries the presence of the faculty; metaphor indicates its strength, and simile its weakness. Nothing can be more different from this, or farther inferior to it, than the style of the poet who turns aside in search of description, and indulges in simile preferably to the brevity of metaphor, to whom perhaps a poetical picture originally suggested itself as the decoration of a striking thought, but who allowed himself to be captivated by the beauty of the suggested image, till he forgot the thought which had given it birth, and on its connexion with which its highest excellence depended. Such was Fletcher, whose style is poor in metaphor. [The New Shakespeare Society Publications, Series VIII Miscellanies Nos. 1-4 A Letter on Shakespeare’s Authorship of the drama entitled THE TWO NOBLE KINSMEN, by William Spalding p. 16-17]

This was published in 1876, so the language is Victorian and convoluted, and Spalding didn’t quite have the tools to express his ideas. That was to come nearly three quarters of a century later with Wolfgang Clemens and The Development of Shakespeare’s Imagery. Clemens showed how Shakespeare essentially absorbs the simile into a metaphorical language — the idea that Spalding is trying to express. (My dictionary calls metaphor a compressed simile, which is a good way to think about it.) For example, Clemens shows how in Shakespeare’s earliest poetry he hadn’t yet absorbed the simile:

The particles “as” and “like” not only make the image stand out from the text and isolate it in a certain way; they also show that the object to be compared and the comparison are felt as being something different and separate, that image and object are not yet viewed as an identity, but that the act of comparing intervenes. It would be false to exaggerate the importance of such a fact, because in Shakespeare’s let plays we also find many comparisons introduced with “like” or “as”. Nevertheless the frequency of such comparisons with “as” and “like” in Titus Andronicus is noteworthy, and this loose form of connection corresponds entirely to the real nature of these image4s. If we take, for example, passages such as these:

…then fresh tears
Stood on her cheeks, as doth the honey-dew
Upon a gather’d lily almost wither’d.

…that kiss is comfortless
As frozen water to a starved snake.

we see that these images are simply added on to the main sentence afterwards, dove-tailed into the context, appended to what has already been said as flourish and decoration. They occurred to Shakespeare as an afterthought, as “illustration”, as “example”, but they were not there from the very beginning as simultaneous poetic conce3ption of subject and image. [The Development of Shakespeare’s Imagery p. 22-23]

Compare this to The Winter’s Tale:

Later, in the same scene, Camillo asks him to be “cured of this diseased opinion” (I.ii. 297) and retorts to Leontes’ false assumption of his “infected” wife “who does infect her?” (I.ii. 307). The disease-imagery links up with the notion of taint and stinging things. Shortly after Camillo’s question Leontes speaks the following words which also contain dramatic irony:

Leon. Make that thy question, and go rot!
Dost think I am so muddy, so unsettled,
To appoint myself in this vexation, sully
the purity and whiteness of my sheets,
Which to preserve is sleep, which being spotted
Is goads, thorns, nettles, tails of wasps, (I.ii 325)

In the next scene this collocation of disease, of stinging and poison becomes more obvious. Note the following by Leontes:

There may be in the cup,
A spider steep’d, and one may drink, depart,
And yet partake no venom, for his knowledge
Is not infected: but if one present
The abhorr’d ingredient to his eye, make known
How he hath drunk, he cracks his gorge, his sides
With violent hefts. I have drunk, and seen the spider (II. i 39)

The dramatic and structural significance of this image should be noted. For it is the first time Leontes builds up a full image, all the more striking as Leontes’ hasty diction does not usually allow of the elaboration of images. The directness and realism with which this image; of the spider in the cup is presented and the way Leontes turns it into a personal experience, expressed by the laconic ending “I have drunk, and seen the spider”, bring home to us the brutal and naked force of Leontes self-deceiving obsession… [p. 196-197]

shakespeareMost importantly, notice that Shakespeare never uses “as” or “like” in these two passages. The similes have been organically absorbed into the character’s “personal experience”, not tacked on as in Titus. It’s this difference that Spalding was trying to express almost a hundred years earlier. Shakespeare, in the course of his poetic development, learned to speak through metaphor rather than by the elaboration of similes (John Fletcher, not so much). It’s in this sense that Spalding delineated the difference between Shakespeare and Fletcher’s verse:

“Something like this is always the true function of the imagination in poetry, and dramatic poetry in particular; and it is also the test which tries the presence of the faculty; metaphor indicates its strength, and simile its weakness.”

  • A very simple example from Shakespeare: “He draweth out the thread of his verbosity finer than the staple of his argument.” In earlier days Shakespeare might have written: “He draweth out his argument like a spinner who draweth out his thread & etc.

The same criticism applies to all poets since Shakespeare, including the poetry of our current poet Laureate, Charles Wright (2014-). On a whim, and at random, I looked up his poetry at Poetry Foundation. The first to come up was Archeology. And what do we find?

The older we get, the deeper we dig into our childhoods,
Hoping to find the radiant cell
That washed us, and caused our lives
…………………………….to glow in the dark like clock hands
Endlessly turning toward the future,
Tomorrow, day after tomorrow, the day after that,
………………………………………all golden, all in good time.

Just as with Shakespeare’s earlier efforts, or Fletcher, Wright tacks on the simile, “appended to what has already been said as flourish and decoration”. Like will appear twice more in this short poem:

Gaze far out at the lake in sunflame,
Expecting our father at any moment, like Charon, to appear
Back out of the light from the other side,
…..low-gunwaled and loaded down with our slippery dreams.

Rather than compress the comparison of his father to Charon in the language of metaphor, Wright interrupts the narrative (amateurishly in my opinion) with the announcement of the simile, and then a little later:

Other incidents flicker like foxfire in the black

Nevertheless, at the poem’s conclusion, Wright demonstrates that he can write metaphorically (compress simile):

Sunlight flaps its enormous wings and lifts off from the back
….yard
The wind rattles its raw throat,
…………………………………but I still can’t go deep enough.

And if you ask me (and in terms of technique) this ‘compression’ of simile in the language of metaphor is the better way to write poetry (though there are obviously exceptions). Loading ones verse with similes strikes me too often as a kind of poetic shorthand — roughly equivalent to inserting a thee and a thou just because that’s what poetry is supposed to do — and frequently the simile adds little to the narrative. It’s more poetic flourish than necessity. Wright’s poem is an example of figurative poetry, though not a good one. Wright tells us what it’s about: “[digging] into our childhoods…” (so that it’s cousin to the plain poem) then uses the rhetorical figures of simile, metaphor, verbal metaphor, adjectival metaphor, etc…

But there are also beautiful examples of figurative poems that work. The Love Song of J. Afred Prufrock, by T.S. Eliot, begins:

Let us go then, you and I,
When the evening is spread out against the sky
Like a patient etherized upon a table;
Let us go, through certain half-deserted streets,
The muttering retreats
Of restless nights in one-night cheap hotels
And sawdust restaurants with oyster-shells:
Streets that follow like a tedious argument
Of insidious intent
To lead you to an overwhelming question …
Oh, do not ask, “What is it?”
Let us go and make our visit.

ts eliotThe poem begins with the famous simile “Like a patient etherized upon a table”. “Muttering retreats” is both an adjectival metaphor and personification. “Like a tedious argument” is another simile describing the way streets “follow” — itself a verbal metaphor. And why do I like these similes, and not Wright’s? Because Eliots are wholly original. When before has an evening been compared to a patient “etherized upon a table”, as opposed to an evening boater to Charon? (I don’t hold a high opinion of Greek mythology’s appearance in modern poetry. It’s often plugged into a poem when having to do the work oneself would be much more difficult.) When has the layout of a city’s streets been compared to “a tedious argument”. Eliot’s simile’s are not only fresh, they add a subtext to the poem. Why the choice of etherized? What does this say about the narrator? Why compare streets to a tedious argument? — And how does this play into the narrator’s own avoidance of complications and explanations later in the poem?

The Silken Tent, by Robert Frost, is not only one sentence but is comprised, but for the first two words, of a single simile! The sonnet is the simile:

She is as in a field a silken tent
At midday when the sunny summer breeze
Has dried the dew and all its ropes relent,
So that in guys it gently sways at ease,
And its supporting central cedar pole,
That is its pinnacle to heavenward
And signifies the sureness of the soul,
Seems to owe naught to any single cord,
But strictly held by none, is loosely bound
By countless silken ties of love and thought
To every thing on earth the compass round,
And only by one’s going slightly taut
In the capriciousness of summer air
Is of the slightlest bondage made aware.

She is like a silken tent, says Frost, and from there the sonnet elaborates. Shakespeare’s famous Sonnet 116 would also fall into the category of the Figurative Poem:

Let me not to the marriage of true minds
Admit impediments. Love is not love
Which alters when it alteration finds,
Or bends with the remover to remove:
O no; it is an ever-fixed mark,
That looks on tempests, and is never shaken;
It is the star to every wandering bark,
Whose worth’s unknown, although his height be taken.
Love’s not Time’s fool, though rosy lips and cheeks
Within his bending sickle’s compass come;
Love alters not with his brief hours and weeks,
But bears it out even to the edge of doom.
··If this be error and upon me proved,
··I never writ, nor no man ever loved.

The whole of the poem is an example of personification, in which Love is endowed with personality, intent, and conviction. The figure itself is called prosopopia: “(Rhet.) A figure of speech in which an inanimate object or abstract idea is represented as animated, or endowed with personality…” Shakespeare was extremely adept at using this figure (a common one during his era); and his skill, above and beyond that of his contemporaries, was surely attributable to his dramatic genius. In essence, the inanimate became characters. Take a look, for example, at the following brief passage from King John, at the way Shakespeare so beautifully personifies grief:

“Grief fills the room up of my absent child,
Lies in his bed, walks up and down with me,
Puts on his pretty look, repeats his words,
Remembers me of his gracious parts,
Stuffs out his vacant garments with his form”

And this also reminds me of Richard Wilbur’s extraordinary poem Love Calls Us to the Things of This World, wherein the morning breezes are, in a sense, animated and endowed with the personality of angels. One might justifiably dispute whether this is really personification (since Wilbur never attributes the angel-like behavior to the breezes, but rather distinguishes the angels and air by saying that the “morning air is all awash with angels”) — perhaps more accurate to call the angel-like behavior of the breezes a poetic conceit (in the sense of an extended metaphor that nearly governs the whole poem).

Love Calls Us to the Things of This World
Richard Wilbur

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.

···Some are in bed-sheets, some are in blouses,
Some are in smocks: but truly there they are.
Now they are rising together in calm swells
Of halcyon feeling, filling whatever they wear
With the deep joy of their impersonal breathing;

···Now they are flying in place, conveying
The terrible speed of their omnipresence, moving
And staying like white water; and now of a sudden
They swoon down into so rapt a quiet
That nobody seems to be there.
·······································The soul shrinks

From all that it is about to remember,
From the punctual rape of every blessèd day,
And cries,
··············“Oh, let there be nothing on earth but laundry,
Nothing but rosy hands in the rising steam
And clear dances done in the sight of heaven.”

Yet, as the sun acknowledges
With a warm look the world’s hunks and colors,
The soul descends once more in bitter love
To accept the waking body, saying now
In a changed voice as the man yawns and rises,
“Bring them down from their ruddy gallows;
Let there be clean linen for the backs of thieves;
Let lovers go fresh and sweet to be undone,
And the heaviest nuns walk in a pure floating
Of dark habits,
··············keeping their difficult balance.”

richard-wilburThe poem, as I read it, comes very near to being what I would consider a Metaphoric Poem. I’d say it falls in the far spectrum of figurative poems, but still a Figurative Poem, because the poetic conceit of the angels is framed by the reality of eyes opening “to a cry of pulleys”. The conceit is framed by the reality of the “morning air” at the beginning and the thieves, lovers, and nuns at the close. It’s is brought ‘down from its ruddy gallows’, back into the difficult balance of the real world.

  • The conceit is itself considered a trope. The Longman Dictionary of Poetic Terms writes that “In general usage, most poets and critics use the term to indicate, as Coleridge proposed, any language that aspires toward the state of metaphor.”

The Metaphoric Poem

I’m trying to coin a new term and I’ve sweat over it. As far as I know, this type of poem hasn’t really been given a name. It’s not just poetry that uses metaphor, or a conceit, but a poem that, in its entirety, is a metaphor for something else. So, I settled on Metaphoric rather than Metaphorical. I’ve checked all my poetry dictionaries. I’ve Googled the term. I checked my Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry, and the term “Metaphoric Poetry” isn’t used in any specific way. So, I’m claiming it to mean something very specific. As I judge it, a poem may be metaphorical simply by using metaphor, but what distinguishes the Metaphoric Poem is that the poet doesn’t, or only in the most oblique way, give the reader any indication that the poem is really about something other than its apparent subject.

To me, the metaphoric poem is the pinnacle of poetic accomplishment. The poem can have the appearance of a Plain Poem or a Figurative Poem, but is really, in its entirety, a beautifully modulated, extended metaphor on what can be an altogether different subject. I’m going to go out on a limb and say that, in fact, Robert Frost more or less invented and perfected this kind of poetry, though it’s tempting to go back in history, point to other poems, and say that this or that poem was never really about X, but about Y. We have become somewhat accustomed to this way of reading and critiquing poetry, but I’d assert that this way of thinking about poetry is really a very late development. For instance, I had a reader write the following after my post on Ann Bradstreet’s poem, Before the Birth of One of Her Children:

“…when Bradstreet writes about the dangers of childbirth in Before the Birth of One of Her Children, this could also be read as the dangers women face when publishing their work”

That’s reading Bradstreet’s poem as a Metaphoric Poem. My response was that this is probably anachronistic. Bradstreet was a contemporary of John Donne and near contemporary of Shakespeare. There’s no evidence (that I’ve ever found) that poets wrote or thought this way prior to the 20th century. In every poem that I’m aware of, the conceit, or metaphor, or analogy, is framed as a poetic construction within the poem. The reader is always made aware of the poet’s “misdirection”. In all of John Donne’s poems, for example, there’s no confusion as to what the poem is about (setting aside the usual interpretive challenges). He famously constructs elaborate conceits, but we always know that he knows that we know what the conceit is really about.

Not so with Robert Frost.

For years he was accused of being “a simple, farmer poet”. The accusation, as accusations usually do, revealed more about the critics. In short, despite considering Frost a 19th century hold-over, it was in fact the critics who were behaving like 19th century readers — reading all poems as Plain Poems or Figurative Poems. The day that readers and critics realized that Frost might have been fooling them all (all along) can actually be dated very precisely. While it’s not the birth of Metaphoric Poetry, it might be the birth of it’s broader awareness. It happened at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel, in 1959, on the evening of Frost’s 85th birthday. It happened when, to the shock and consternation of all those gathered, Lionel Trilling called Frost a “terrifying poet”. (Trilling, embarrassed by his own comment and worried that he’d insulted Frost, reportedly left the gathering early.)

Trilling opened the world’s eyes to the possibility that yes, all along, they’d been reading Frost with outdated expectations. As Frost said himself, as if to drive home the point that he wasn’t just writing about “nature”: “I am not a nature poet. There is almost always a person in my poems.”

Even when there isn’t.

As a nice essay at FrostFriends.Org puts it:

“Frost uses nature as metaphor. He observes something in nature and says this is like that. He leads you to make a connection, but never forces it on the reader. Read on a literal level, Frost’s poems always make perfect sense. His facts are correct, especially in botanical and biological terms. But he is not trying to tell nature stories nor animal stories. He is always using these metaphorically implying an analogy to some human concern.” [Frost and Nature ~ March 7 2015]

But then Frost had already been telling the world as much. In The Cambridge Companion to Robert Frost, Judith Ostler begins her contribution entitled “Frost’s Poetry of Metaphor” with the following paragraph, quoting Frost at the outset:

“‘Metaphor is the whole of poetry.’ ‘Poetry is simply made of metaphor… Every poem is a new metaphor inside or it is nothing.’ Such are the burdens Robert Frost placed upon metaphor, and on himself as a poet. He went even further in his claiming that metaphor is the whole of thinking, and that, therefore, to be educated by poetry — note: by poetry — is to be taught to think.” [p. 155]

 Why did it take so long for readers to realize that Frost had been ‘fooling’ them? He was cagey in life, and cagey in his poetry.

A Drumlin Woodchuck

One thing has a shelving bank,
Another a rotting plank,
To give it cozier skies
And make up for its lack of size.

My own strategic retreat
Is where two rocks almost meet,
And still more secure and snug,
A two-door burrow I dug.

Robert-Frost-TFWith those in mind at my back
I can sit forth exposed to attack
As one who shrewdly pretends
That he and the world are friends.

All we who prefer to live
Have a little whistle we give,
And flash, at the least alarm
We dive down under the farm.

We allow some time for guile
And don’t come out for a while
Either to eat or drink.
We take occasion to think.

And if after the hunt goes past
And the double-barreled blast
(Like war and pestilence
And the loss of common sense),

If I can with confidence say
That still for another day,
Or even another year,
I will be there for you, my dear,

It will be because, though small
As measured against the All,
I have been so instinctively thorough
About my crevice and burrow.

I hesitate to call this a Metaphoric poem, as the narrator gives away the game (if the joke wasn’t already painfully obvious) with a wink and a nod to “my dear”. You could read it as Frost’s commentary on his own art and persona with a sly pun on Thoreau in the closing rhyme of thorough/burrow. To read quite a good essay on the significance of the pun, visit Two Woodchucks,or Frost and Thoreau on the Art of the Burrow by Fritz Oehlschlaeger.

“Further suggestion that the woodchuck be seen as a poet figure can be found in the somewhat submerged tension between the poem’s playfulness and the seriousness of the matter at hand. The woodchuck’s jocularity nearly causes us to forget that his survival is at stake. While the burrow provides him a wonderful possibility for fanciful comparison to his counterpart at Walden, it also serves the mundane but equally important purpose of saving him from the hunters.” [p. 5]

And there’s more at stake than that. Who are the hunters? Could they be his critics? Think of Frost’s uncanny poem this way: The burrow as his poetry and the two entrances are two ways (among many more we suspect) to enter therein — a “two-door burrow”. As soon as you try to catch Frost by hunting down one crevice, he’s out the other. While pestilence and war rage, and notably “the loss of common sense”, Frost remains cagey enough not to be cornered. He won’t be caught up one side or t’other.

There are a good many of his poems that are ‘two-door burrows’. The most famous example might be “Stopping by Woods” and its many interpretations. At the two extremes are notions of the poem as a simple and beautiful lyric on the one hand and a suicide poem on the other. It may have seemed that Frost grew impatient with readers trying to identify the meaning of the poem, as if they all tried to come in at the same door, but he’d also never say what a poem wasn’t. Frost, in the end, always wanted to keep his burrow a “two-door” burrow

“Mending Wall” and “Birches” can both be read as Metaphoric Poems and I’ve offered a reading of Birches and Mending Wall suggesting how (though my interpretations may or may not reflect Frost’s thinking). The trick in Metaphoric Poetry is in knowing how to be understood or how not too be too obscure. The poet writes to be understood (unless you’re a John Ashbery).

WE make ourselves a place apart
··Behind light words that tease and flout,
But oh, the agitated heart
··Till someone find us really out.

’Tis pity if the case require
··(Or so we say) that in the end
We speak the literal to inspire
··The understanding of a friend.

But so with all, from babes that play
··At hide-and-seek to God afar,
So all who hide too well away
··Must speak and tell us where they are.

‘Revelation’ is from Frost’s first book of poetry and reveals him, early on, searching out the balance between hiding “too well away” and having to “speak the literal to inspire”. Frost, much later in life, addresses this same question in the Metaphoric Poem For Once Then Something. In it, Frost cannily addresses the accusation that his poetry is shallow by using the very device, the Metaphoric Poem, that his critics stubbornly and shallowly misread. It’s an elaborately constructed tour-de-force, and perhaps a little too much so, not being among his better known or understood.

But now that I’ve made the argument that Frost was the first to deliberately write Metaphoric Poetry, there is a genre of poetry that anticipates Frost by several centuries (in some cases) — the nursery rhyme. Many of these poems mean something entirely other than their ostensible meaning. They were written in a time when speaking freely, and too freely, could be a life and death matter. “I Had a Little Nut Tree”, for instance, is speculated to be about the visit of Joanna of Castile to the court of Henry VII, though I happen to disagree with that 19th century assertion. “Little Boy Blue” is said to parody the life of Cardinal Wolsey. “Hey Diddle Diddle, The Cat and the Fiddle”, is thought to originate with Queen Elizabeth. The cat is Queen Elizabeth, who was known to greatly enjoy dancing to the fiddle at Whitehall Palace (throughout her reign). The moon is said to represent the Earl of Walsingham (who she skipped over, choosing to remain unmarried) and the dog was the Earl of Leicester (jeered in the poem as a laughing dog) because he “skulked at the Queen’s flirtatious behavior”, asking to leave the Court for France [Origins of Rhymes, Songs and Sayings, p. 157-159]. Nursery rhymes could be seen as related to the fable and apologue (being symbolic, metaphorical and archetypal in nature). The notion that Frost was the first to write metaphorically is not what I’d assert; but I think he was the first to make the poem the metaphor, as it were.

So, the next time you write or read a poem, these three categories might give you another way to approach it.

And that’s that.

up in Vermont: March 7 2015

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.