On a Definition of Poetry

“It’s Not Poetry if it Doesn’t Rhyme”

This is the title of a recent post I was reading, and it got me thinking. First of all, it’s a definition of poetry. It defines poetry as something that rhymes and if taken at face value, excludes almost all the works Shakespeare and Milton. They mainly wrote blank verse. More usually, readers who say this are using “rhyme” figuratively. What they’re really saying is that poetry without form on a definitionisn’t poetry. Form includes rhyme and meter. So, what someone is really saying is that free verse isn’t poetry. Apart from whether the definition is wrong or right, that led me to wonder why definitions are important.

Do definitions matter?

There’s no question that definitions change over time, but we nevertheless have them. Not too long ago, the definition of planets was revisited and Pluto was demoted to a proto-planet. There was disagreement, but not the kind we might have gotten had certain kinds of poetry or poems been demoted to proto-poems (though I think some should be).

But here’s why definitions matter: Without them, no one could excel. Mastery and achievement wouldn’t exist.  For example, if not for definitions, sports wouldn’t exist (let alone the Olympics), hence the reason for Robert Frost’s famous quip: Writing free on a definitionverse is like playing tennis with the net down. Every rule, in a sport, is a definition that defines the sport. Baseball is defined by its number of outs, bases, players, etc… Once one begins fiddling with the rules that define baseball, then it ceases to be baseball. If there were no rules to baseball, tennis, or basketball, then anyone could play them and everyone could make up their own rules and everyone could be a Babe Ruth or Michael Jordan. For my own part, the first thing I would do is to lower the basket so I could dunk the ball. I’d also make the basket a lot bigger — but only for me. I know I’ll make any number of enemies by following this up with the obvious analogy: There’s no difference between lowering the basket (or the net) and writing without rhyme. There’s no difference between giving yourself 12 outs, instead of 3, and writing without meter. Writing poetry without rhyme and meter is vastly easier. So is dunking a basketball when the hoop is only six feet off the ground. The fact that the NBA would never change the rules for all the wannabes means that the rest of us get to see who the real pros are.

Does that make some kinds of poetry better than others?

Does that mean that some things that are called poems, really aren’t?

Yes and yes. Would you prefer watching basketball with or without rules? Having rules that defined poetry allowed a wide variety of poets to excel. Games are nothing more than a defined way of playing and kids love games. Why? Because games give kids a chance to be better than the next kid. Rules give kids a chance to be competitive, to excel, to accomplish and to master.

on a definitionWhen I was growing up in the seventies, poetry was taught with a nebulousness that made clouds look decisive. Poetry was a feeling. There were no rules; and you can still find those Deep Thoughts right up to the present day. On About.Com, Mark Flanagan, apparently tasked with defining poetry, comes up with the following chestnut:

“…defining poetry is like grasping at the wind – once you catch it, it’s no longer wind.”

The end result of “deep thoughts” like these is that I lost interest in poetry. Who wants to play a game without rules? I decided that poetry was the dumbest art form on the planet. If I saw a game being played willy-nilly, I’d think the same thing. It’s a peculiar thing that the prior generation’s effort to make poetry something “anybody can do” ruined it for children like me. It was only when I began teaching myself about poetry that I learned the truth. There is a definition of poetry. It isn’t easy. You can’t neatly sum it up in a Miriam Webster’s entry, but there is a definition and there are rules. That’s when I got interested in poetry. First, I wanted to learn the rules. Next, I wanted play by the rules. I wanted to prove that I could do it. Next, I wanted to excel. I wanted to master the mystery. Even the seemingly diminutive haiku is defined by centuries of tradition.

Is a definition of poetry useful?

Some readers may object that poetry can’t be compared to sports. The point, however, is not to compare poetry to sports, but to compare a definition of poetry to the kinds of rules that define a sport, or music, or architecture or carpentry. If you don’t have a definition, then you don’t have a game. If you don’t have a game, then who’s going to watch or play?

Definitions, like rules, are useful because they give us a way to ascertain the skills of the players. They allow us to judge how the player is doing. mechanics-imageOne of the hallmarks of the contemporary poetry critic is his and her complete avoidance and non-discussion of the aesthetics or mechanics of poetry. The vast majority of contemporary criticism limits itself to the content of poetry. Why? Because, as with Flanagan’s quote above,  contemporary critics and poets have convinced themselves that defining poetry, to quote Flanagan again, “kind of leaves you feeling cheap, dirty, all hollow and empty inside like Chinese food.” However, in order to critique the mechanics/stylistics of a poem, you have to have a definition of poetry. Can’t be any other way.  And you have to have a definition of what constitutes mediocre or good writing.

During a dispute back in 2009, England’s Poetry Society offered the world this definition of poetry:

“There is poetry in everything we say or do, and if something is presented to me as a poem by its creator, or by an observer, I accept that something as a poem.”

In other words, poetry is anything you want it to be, and they do mean anything. Poetry Magazine, for its part, has taken to publishing comic strips, among other things, and calling them poems. What all this means is that if everyone can make up their own rules/definitions, then there’s no way to judge the skills of the poet or the accomplishments of the poem. If there were no rules in Basketball, then a player like Michael Jordan could never emerge. Or how about gymnastics? We would have no means or vocabulary with which to contrast the poor gymnast with the great gymnast. No Tiger Woods could emerge because everyone would be a Tiger Woods. They’re all playing their own special game of golf and the critic has no way to compare or contrast.

Without a definition of poetry, you can’t have criticism of poetry. In truth, you can’t even have poetry because if poetry is anything, then it’s also nothing. Or, as Syndrome put it in the movie The Incredibles: “If everyone’s a super, then no one is a super.” Anyone who can’t define poetry certainly shouldn’t be teaching it. What exactly would they be teaching? A definition of poetry is not only useful, it’s crucial. Individuals and organizations who fail or refuse to address a definition of poetry do a disservice to the reader, to poetry, and to the next generation of poets. Out of curiosity, I googled the following: “definition of poetry” “Poetry Foundation”. I found nothing straightforward. The fact that the Poetry Foundation, the premier (and self-appointed) curator of American Poetry doesn’t offer a definition of poetry (or even a denial that a definition is possible) is a disgrace.

What about it then?

Where can you find a definition? There are all kinds of quips and one-offs by a variety of poets.

Poetry is truth in its Sunday clothes. –  Joseph Roux

Poetry is what in a poem makes you laugh, cry, prickle, be silent, makes your toe nails twinkle, makes you want to d o this or that or nothing, makes you know that you are alone in the unknown world, that your bliss and suffering is forever shared and forever all your own. – Dylan Thomas

Poetry is, at bottom, a criticism of life. – Matthew Arnold

I could no more define poetry than a terrier can define a rat. – A.E. Housman

Poetry is the universal language which the heart holds with nature and itself. – William Hazlitt

Poetry is not only dream and vision; it is the skeleton architecture of our lives. It lays the foundations for a future of change, a bridge across our fears of what has never been before. – Audre Lorde

Poetry is all that is worth remembering in life. – William Hazlitt

A poet’s work is to name the unnameable, to point at frauds, to take sides, start arguments, shape the world, and stop it going to sleep. – Salman Rushdie

Poetry is like making a joke. If you get one word wrong at the end of the joke, you’ve lost the whole thing. – W.S. Merwin

Poetry is a way of taking life by the throat. – Robert Frost

Poetry is the record of the best and happiest moments of the happiest and best minds. – Perrcy Bysshe Shelley

At the touch of love everyone becomes a poet. – Plato

Poetry is a search for ways of communication; it must be conducted with openness, flexibility, and a constant readiness to listen. – Fleur Adcock

Do you know how poetry started? I always think that it started when a cave boy came running back to the cave, through the tall grass, shouting as he ran, “Wolf, wolf,” and there was no wolf. His baboon-like parents, great sticklers for the truth, gave him a hiding, no doubt, but poetry had been born—the tall story had been born in the tall grass. – Vladimir Nabokov

Poetry is man’s rebellion against being what he is. – James Branch Cabell

Poetry should surprise by a fine excess and not by singularity—it should strike the reader as a wording of his own highest thoughts, and appear almost a remembrance. – John Keats

All poetry is misrepresentation. – Jeremy Bentham

Poetry is plucking at the heartstrings, and making music with them. – Dennis Gabor

Poetry is not a turning loose of emotion, but an escape from emotion; it is not the expression of personality, but an escape from personality. But, of course, only those who have personality and emotions know what it means to want to escape from these things.   – T.S. Eliot

Poetry lifts the veil from the hidden beauty of the world, and makes familiar objects be as if they were not familiar. – Percy Bysshe Shelley

Poetry is at least an elegance and at most a revelation. – Robert Fitzgerald

The poem . . . is a little myth of man’s capacity of making life meaningful. And in the end, the poem is not a thing we see—it is, rather, a light by which we may see—and what we see is life.  – Robert Penn Warren

You can tear a poem apart to see what makes it tick . . .. You’re back with the mystery of having been moved by words. The best craftsmanship always leaves holes and gaps . . . so that something that is not in the poem can creep, crawl, flash or thunder in. – Dylan Thomas

Poetry is the language in which man explores his own amazement . . . says heaven and earth in one word . . . speaks of himself and his predicament as though for the first time. – Christopher Fry

Poetry isn’t a profession, it’s a way of life. It’s an empty basket; you put your life into it and make something out of that. – Mary Oliver

Writing poetry is the hard manual labor of the imagination. – Ishmael Reed

Most people ignore most poetry because most poetry ignores most people. – Adrian Mitchell

Prose—it might be speculated—is discourse; poetry ellipsis. Prose is spoken aloud; poetry overheard. The one is presumably articulate and social, a shared language, the voice of “communication”; the other is private, allusive, teasing, sly, idiosyncratic as the spider’s delicate web, a kind of witchcraft unfathomable to ordinary minds. – Joyce Carol Oates

Poetry is the journal of the sea animal living on land, wanting to fly in the air. Poetry is a search for syllables to shoot at the barriers of the unknown and the unknowable. Poetry is a phantom script telling how rainbows are made and why they go away. – Carl Sandburg

Poetry is the breath and finer spirit of all knowledge. – William Wordsworth

Poetry is a deal of joy and pain and wonder, with a dash of the dictionary. – Kahlil Gibran

Poetry is like fish: if it’s fresh, it’s good; if it’s stale, it’s bad; and if you’re not certain, try it on the cat. – Osbert Sitwell

The essentials of poetry are rhythm, dance, and the human voice. – Earle Birney

Poetry is thoughts that breathe, and words that burn. – Thomas Gray

Poetry is ordinary language raised to the n th power. Poetry is boned with ideas, nerved and blooded with emotions, all held together by the delicate, tough skin of words. – Paul Engle

Poetry is the rhythmical creation of beauty in words.  – Edgar Allan Poe

Poetry: the best words in the best order. – Samuel Taylor Coleridge

Poetry is what gets lost in translation. – Robert Frost 

on a definition

And there are far more at goodreads. You might think  there’s nothing very useful in all these quotes, just poets being cute and clever, but there is, actually, a subtle commonality that runs through some of them.  “Poetry is truth in its Sunday clothes.” What does Roux mean? That poetry isn’t just the clothes of the workaday, but language that is elevated whether through meter, rhyme or the figures and schema of rhetoric (and these include metaphor, simile, and all figurative language).  Hazlitt, “…the universal language…”; Keats, “Poetry should surprise by a fine excess [and] strike the reader as a wording of his own highest thoughts…”; Thomas, “You’re back with the mystery of having been moved by words…“; Fry, “…the language in which man explores his own amazement…”; Oates, “…private, allusive, teasing, sly, idiosyncratic as the spider’s delicate web…”; Sandburg, “…a search for syllables…”; Birney, “The essentials… are rhythm, dance…“; Engle, “Poetry is ordinary language raised to the n th power…”; Poe, “the rhythmical creation of beauty in words…”; Coleridge, “the best words in the best order…“; Frost, “what gets lost in translation…”

What all these have in common is the idea of poetry being defined as a way of using language. Poetry is an art that uses language not only for its semantic content, as a way to communicate, but as an aesthetic experience in and of itself — its “music”: sounds, rhythms, onomatopoeia, assonance, alliteration, and rhymes . Rhyme and meter are the most extroverted expressions, a display of a languages ability to produce repeated sounds and rhythm while the many rhetorical figures, such as simile, hendiadys, anthimeria, puns  and verbal metaphor (and figurative language in general) are a more introverted play with language – using words to express ideas that are unexpected and novel. Prose, inasmuch as it also uses these techniques, can be poetic, but the aesthetic aims of prose and poetry are different.

Think of Robert Frost’s final quote, which I deliberately put at the end: Poetry is what gets lost in translation. Because of poetry’s emphasis on linguistic play, poetry is notoriously difficult to translate. Something as basic as a pun, a staple of many haiku, is lost  unless both languages are lucky enough to share puns. The wholesale disregard of rhymes, internal or otherwise, when translating  into free verse is another example. on a definitionMeter is much easier to reproduce, but does any English meter really reproduce the music of Chinese meter or Latin quantitative meter? How about onomatopoeia, alliteration or assonance? These are all essential to poetry, but are nearly impossible to capture, altogether, when moving from one language to another. Poetry truly is what  gets lost in translation.

So many writers, poets and organizations seem pathologically afraid to exclude anyone. But rather than doing the art form a favor, their unwillingness to exclude so much as the ingredients list of Mac & Cheese has done and continues to denigrate the very art form they claim to cherish and encourage. I personally have no qualms drawing a line in the sand. If all a writer is doing is lineating prose, then it’s not poetry or, at best, it’s bad poetry.  If the writer does nothing more with language than what I expect from an IRS instruction manual, then it’s not poetry. Content, in my view, is secondary; and that will probably rub a lot of poets and readers the wrong way but unlike, at least, the public stance of numerous poets and organizations, I think it’s worth having some idea, some rules, that define what poetry, and great poetry, truly is. It gives the next generation something to fight for or against.

To quote Salman Rushdie again:

A poet’s work is to name the unnameable, to point at frauds, to take sides, start arguments, shape the world, and stop it going to sleep.

Take a position. Define poetry. Write by that definition. It doesn’t have to be mine. Don’t, whatever you do, buy into the bloodless notion that anything and everything is poetry. Poetry isn’t like the wind. As any Japanese poet will unhesitatingly tell you, the wind is like the wind.

Britannica and a definition of Poetry

There are a few sources which have tackled the definition of poetry. I’ve appended a definition provided by Poetry.Org. Their definition was originally copied from Wikipedia (since changed). Wikipedia’s current entry is less a definition than a historical overview. However, one of the more interesting entries is Britannica’s.

on a definition

Britannica’s entry on poetry begins with a primal scream of terror presented with a stiff upper lip. Only the British can do it. The article’s author writes: “This article considers the difficulty or impossibility of defining poetry…” As anyone knows, there are two reactions when terrified—fight or flight. Britannica opts to fight. The editors begin their definition by roundly upbraiding the reader. Did you really come to Britannica expecting a definition?

“People’s reason for wanting a definition is to take care of the borderline case, and this is what a definition, as if by definition, will not do. That is, if a man asks for a definition of poetry, it will most certainly not be the case that he has never seen one of the objects called poems that are said to embody poetry; on the contrary, he is already tolerably certain what poetry in the main is, and his reason for wanting a definition is either that his certainty has been challenged by someone else or that he wants to take care of a possible or seeming exception to it: hence the perennial squabble about distinguishing poetry from prose, which is rather like distinguishing rain from snow—everyone is reasonably capable of doing so…”

Did you get that? Let me translate: “If you came to the Encyclopedia Britannica looking for a definition of poetry, it’s because you have an agenda and the august editors of Britannica will not, I say will not,  be a party to your filthy crusade. So there.” Apparently, the author of the article never got the memo: Definitions are what Encyclopedia’s do. Encyclopedias aren’t supposed to cop attitudes when readers come looking for information.

Britannica next offers a rebuttal to Frost’s quip that poetry is what is lost in translation:

“And yet to even so acute a definition the obvious exception is a startling and a formidable one: some of the greatest poetry in the world is in the Authorized Version of the Bible, which is not only a translation but also, as to its appearance in print, identifiable neither with verse nor with prose in English but rather with a cadence owing something to both.”

So, after having informed the reader that no definition will be forthcoming, the editors (without a hint of irony) assert that the Bible (or an unspecified part therein) is poetry. All it takes, it seems, are a few thees and thous. What the editors apparently fail to consider is that the “poetry” of the King James Bible may not be the “poetry” of the original. The King James Version, in fact, was not a new translation done from scratch, but a revision of The Bishop’s Bible 1568 and the Tyndale’s New Testament of 1526 among others. Besides that, there is considerable dispute as to the faithfulness of the King James Bible.  It’s quite likely that the King James Bible is better and more poetic, written during the glory of Elizabethan poetry, than the original. It might be more accurate to call the King James Bible a transliteration rather than a translation. Bottom line: try translating the King James back into Greek and then we’ll talk.

Britannica then follows this up with a curious revelation:

“When people are presented with a series of passages drawn indifferently from poems and stories but all printed as prose, they will show a dominant inclination to identify everything they possibly can as prose.”

How this is relevant to a definition of poetry isn’t exactly clear.  For example, when people are presented with passages of iambic pentameter, they regularly misread it (see Iambic Pentameter from Shakespeare to Browning), reading it like prose. Are we therefore to conclude that there’s no difference between blank verse and prose? Both studies probably say more about the “people” than about poetry or iambic pentameter.

Even so, despite the opening disclaimers, provisos and exculpatory cautions, Britannica sides with Justice Potter Stewart (Jacobellis v. Ohio), when it essentially uses the obscenity test (or was it pornography?) to define poetry. To whit: “We know it when we see it.” The editors of Britannica therewith offer up there choice piece of “pornography”:

“Happily, if poetry is almost impossible to define, it is extremely easy to recognize in experience; even untutored children are rarely in doubt about it when it appears:

Little Jack Jingle,
He used to live single,
But when he got tired of this kind of life,
He left off being single, and liv’d with his wife.”

on a definitionImmediately following this, the editors finally reveal their true colors:

“It might be objected that this little verse is not of sufficient import and weight to serve as an exemplar for poetry. It ought to be remembered, though, that it has given people pleasure so that they continued to say it until and after it was written down, nearly two centuries ago. The verse has survived, and its survival has something to do with pleasure, with delight; and while it still lives, how many more imposing works of language—epic poems, books of science, philosophy, theology—have gone down, deservedly or not, into dust and silence. It has, obviously, a form, an arrangement of sounds in relation to thoughts that somehow makes its agreeable nonsense closed, complete, and decisive. But this somewhat muddled matter of form deserves a heading and an instance all to itself.”

I couldn’t have said it better. Not only that, you might recognize a common theme: “It has, obviously, a form, an arrangement of sounds in relation to thoughts…” There it is again — language (and form too). This little ditty is a poem because of its language, because of the way it exploits language, not for its notional and semantic content (which is nonsensical), but for the language’s aesthetic properties — the rhyme (parallel sounds) and the meter (accentual). Poetry exploits the properties of language (independent of the poem’s content) to inform and elevate the semantic content. This is what distinguishes  poetry from prose. This, traditionally, has been poetry’s reason for being. Prose may be poetic, and display some of the same techniques as poetry (though never end-rhyme or refrains), but that is not its aim or reason for being.

How much should we expect definitions to change?

My guess is that if any objection is to be made, it’s that definitions change. Get used to it. Okay, but then what is it now?

It used to be that if it didn’t rhyme, it wasn’t poetry. If rhyme is understood in its broadest figurative sense (in the sense of a work of literature concerned not just with the content but with the aesthetics of language itself), then I’m still inclined to agree. I’m not willing to concede that on a definitionanything and everything is or can be a poem. Either that, or I’m content to call the uncooperative poem a bad poem or, if we want to be trendy, a proto-poem— a minor and lonely object that’s kind of interesting but didn’t quite have enough material to become a full blown poem.  In fact, I’m really liking that term.

I think it’s okay that we hew to an understanding of poetry that has worked for hundreds and thousands of years, the nervous self-indulgence of the twentieth century notwithstanding. And we can change our definition of “rhyme”, in its figurative sense, to include the figurative language available to free verse — assonance, alliteration, and all the rhetoric that has always been more common to poetry than prose. The poetry of Allen Ginsberg is chock-full of rhetorical figures and schema, lest you think that rhetoric only applies to fusty medieval manuscripts (and Walt Whitman’s poetry too). I’d be willing to say that Ginsberg’s poetry, figuratively speaking, has got “rhyme”.

Anyway, the next time somebody is having their kumbaya moment, proclaiming that poetry is like the wind, or a butterfly or that a definition would crush the delicate flower that is poetry, you can come back to this post for a draught of bitter.

Poetry is hard as hell.

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The Rhyme and Meter of Tang Poetry

Turner's Blog PageAnyone who enjoys Chinese poetry might enjoy Frederick Turner’s new translation of the Tang Dynasty Poets. The translation is unique in that he attempts to reproduce some of the Chinese formalism. He’s offering it for free (in digital form).

Although the formal genius of Tang poets is frequently described, translators rarely try to capture that facet. It’s a puzzling omission; but rhyme and meter have been denigrated by generations of free verse writers, sometimes vehemently. Content is the alter at which free verse worships. Rhyme and meter are seen as needlessly ornamental. But when written with genius, the formal aspects of a poem, it’s aural effects, are part of its content. My own opinion is that if a translator ignores a poem’s technical content, then it’s not a true translation – this includes the many free verse translations of Rumi, Homer and Virgil.

However, for those interested in what constitutes meter in Chinese, Turner’s introductory discussion of Chinese poetry’s formalism is bizarrely amateurish and uninformative – a peculiar oversight since the uniqueness of the translation is premised on its formalism. Turner states that “to my ear” he can hear “a regular stress pattern of alternating strong and weaker stresses”.  This would give one the impression that  Chinese is an accentual language (like English) which it isn’t – not remotely. He goes on:

The normal Tang poem has eight or four lines. To my ear—this feature is not often discussed by scholars—the lines are  stressed TUMta TUMta TUM for the five 20 syllable line, TUMta TUMta, TUMta TUM) poetry dictionaryfor the seven syllable line. p. 20-21

To the uninitiated, he might as well be describing trochaic trimeter or tetrameter. When I asked him how he was qualified to judge the meter of a Chinese poem, he veered off into the twilight zone by responding that he was good at recognizing meter in German and Hungarian – both of which are accentual languages (English is a Germanic Language) but have nothing whatsoever to do with Chinese.

Thank god for poetry dictionaries. Here is how John Drury, author of the Poetry Dictionary, sums up meter in Chinese poetry.

Chinese Forms

Whether or not Turner is right in hearing what he thinks he does,  my advice is to consult other resources. What constitutes meter in Chinese, at the very least, is not what Turner is describing.  That said, the only meter available to English is an accentual one. A translator can’t reproduce Chinese meter, but he or she can attempt  to reproduce a  commensurate formalism. This is what Turner has done. Here is one of Du Fu’s Poems (spelled Tu Fu by other translators):

Spring Night with Happy Rain
Du Fu (712-770)

A good rain knows the season when it’s right,
In spring, on time, it makes things sprout and grow.
Follow the wind, sneak out into the night:
All moist things whisper silently and slow.

Above the wild path, black clouds fill the air,
The boatlamp on the flood the only glow;
At dawn you see wet mounds of crimson where
The heavy flowers of Chengdu hang down low.

P. 79

Du Fu, according to the Chinese, was the unrivaled formalist.  (I’ve always wondered what it must be like to read the original.) Though Turner’s translation is probably only an approximation, it’s a refreshing attempt and reproduces what all free verse translations gloss over. It also makes the poem feel less like the product of the 20th or 21st century (an aesthetic with which Tang poetry has almost nothing  in common). As far as the poems themselves go, I hope more translators follow Turner’s lead. (Scribd’s interface leaves something to be desired. I downloaded the book in Adobe Acrobat. It’s also available as a .doc or .txt file.)

CALENDARS by annie finch

  • September 18 2009 • Cleaned up typos. Oddly, Firefox keeps mucking up WordPress Javascsripts. I’ve switched to Google Chrome. This is the  third time I’ve had to correct the same typos.

How the Book Faired

Not many reviewers hold poetry books to the same standards I do. In fact, none that I know of.

I am unique among reviewers.

Annie Finch CalendarsLet me begin by stating that I received the book straight from the publishers. The copy that I ordered was hardcover. The book was beautifully wrapped in a fine tissue paper and lacked only a wax seal. The care taken in its presentation leaves the reader with the impression that this is a book (and poet) that the publishers are proud of.

After receiving this beautiful book, I promptly left it on the roof of my car and drove off. Several hours later, I recovered the book from the off-ramp of I-91. This alone is remarkable. The book was able to stay on top of my car for some 23 miles at speeds of just over 70 miles per hour. This bespeaks a slender volume with subtle curves able to withstand gale force winds.

I then put the book next to my favorite chair.

Whereupon one of my little girls knocked over my freshly filled glass of ice tea (I had just been preparing to review the book). CALENDARS was soaked (along with some other books). I then did what I do with all my books that get caught in lemon iced-tea downpours.

I put it in the oven (which has a pilot light) underneath my 1940’s edition of the Columbia Encyclopedia.

I then forget that the book is in the oven and crank the oven to a pizza-ready 475 degrees. As any good lit major knows, paper burns at 451 degrees, hence Fahrenheit 451. Fortunately, the smell of broiled Columbia Encyclopedia and roast Finch alerted me to the impending book burning. I removed the books. Very hot. Very dry. Very bent.

I noted that the binding and glue had withstood both gale force winds and a controlled propane explosion. I promptly placed the roast Finch under my beloved 1938 Webster’s Encyclopedia (all 11 or 12 pounds of it) to straighten it out. Finch is small. Webster’s is big. I forget about the roast Finch until last week. Upon recovering Finch from her premature burial, I discover that the book is straight and, to the untrained eye, looks good as new.

So, I can now say without reservation that the quality of the book is outstanding and highly recommended.

Printed by Tupelo Press.

About Annie Finch

A brief biography of Annie Finch states that she was born in New Rochee, New York in 1956. She studied poetry and poetry-writing at Yale. (I’m not sure of the distinction between poetry and poetry-writing, but then I didn’t go to Yale.) Of interest to me is her collection of essays called The Body of Poetry: Essays on Women, Form, and the Poetic Self (2005),  A Formal Feeling Comes: Poems in Form by Contemporary Women (1994) and After New Formalist: Poets on Form, Narrative. And Tradition (1999). She’s a formalist. (I normally don’t care for the term because I am not formal, but Finch uses it.) Finch is currently directing the Stonecoast Masters of Fine  Arts program in creative writing at the University of Southern Maine. And of final note: Calendars was shortlisted for the Foreward Poetry Book of the Year Award.

Annie Finch is incredibly productive.

Now to the Poetry:  Understanding Them

Reading Finch is a bit like reading Yeats in the following way: They are both steeped in a spirituality that uses “code words”, symbols and associations that the average reader may or may not be familiar with. Anyone who does a little research on Finch will learn that she’s Finch Study Guidea practicing Wiccan and that to more thoroughly understand her poetry is to more thoroughly understand her spirituality. Fortunately for readers of Yeats, a reader’s guide is available and indispensable. But what if you’re reading Finch? Well, as it turns out, the publishers have provided what they call a “study guide“. Clicking on the image at right will download a PDF from Tupelo press.

If you download it, you will find that the guide consists of a series of leading questions for each of the book’s poems. The questions are meant to provide readers with avenues of investigation that will presumably provide clues to or reveal the poem’s associations, symbols and meaning. By way of  example, here is the first poem (normally I wouldn’t reprint an entire poem, but readers might enjoy following the text as Finch reads the poem in the video below):

Landing Under Water, I see roots

All the things we hide in water
hoping we won’t see them go—
(forests growing under water
press against the ones we know)—

and they might have gone on growing
and they might now breathe above
everything I speak of sowing
(everything I try to love).

Here is the first of the two questions found in the study guide:

Finch dedicates this poem to Rita Dove in the “Acknowledgments” and has mentioned during readings that this poem came to her after reading Dove’s verse play The Darker Face of the Earth. The play, which retells the story of Oedipus among slaves on a nineteenth-century plantation, concerns the influence of a family’s past history on the present. Are these themes reflected in “Landing Under Water, I See Roots”?

Is one to assume that one must read “Acknowledgments” in order to fully appreciate Finch’s first poem? This seems to be the implication. How many readers are going to want to pursue this research? I, for one, am not. I have a whole pile of books yet to read, all on the floor next to my chair, all ready to soak up my next glass of iced tea. I generally don’t care for poetry of this sort. My own bias is to believe that a poem that isn’t self-sufficient, whose meaning can’t be plumbed without the aid of footnotes or endnotes, hasn’t done its job. It’s unfinished. But that’s my bias. I know that other poets enjoy this kind of poetry, as do many readers.

And here is the poet reading the poem:

As it stands, Finch’s first poem is beautifully written (if obscure). Who hides things in water? I don’t. And if we don’t take it literally (which I don’t think we’re meant to) how exactly are we to interpret “water”? Another reviewer, Tim Morris at the University of Texas at Arlington, has this to say:

Annie Finch’s work consistently makes us read a line twice. You are never sure just where a line or a thought is going. But in contrast to one dominant poetic school in America at the moment, descended from John Ashbery, where the reader does not know or for that matter care where the next thought is going, in Finch’s poetry one always cares.

I would modify that second sentence just a little: You are never sure just where a line or a thought went.

OK, never is too strong a word, but perhaps you take my point. There can be an opaque quality to Finch’s poetry, the feeling that you just had to be there. Finch’s poems can be like sentences without nouns where one is never quAnnie Finchite sure what’s being described or conveyed. I’m dubious but, as Morris asserts, Finch’s associative leaps pale in comparison to an Ashbery. There are readers who enjoy this sort of opacity and  I do think it is possible to enjoy Finch’s art without fully understanding her references. In no way do I want to dissuade readers from reading her poetry. My reactions are to be taken with a grain of salt.

But besides that, what’s with the study guide anyway? A whole host of questions beg to be asked.  Was it thought to be necessary? If so, why? Is the text to be considered complete without it? Why wasn’t it included with the book? Doesn’t it imply a certain level of presumptuousness? Is Annie Finch so established that her poetry now comes with study guides? Are readers obligated to read the study guide alongside her poetry? I’m certain she and the publisher would say no, but there it is. I must admit, I would probably have a near death experience if my own poetry were issued with a study guide, but I would also be just a little embarrassed. Shouldn’t I be dead before this happens? Mind you, only some of these questions relate to the quality of her poetry. That said, they’re questions I inevitably ask myself. If a book of poetry comes with (or requires) a study guide, what’s missing in the poetry?

All the same questions could be asked of Yeats, but then Yeats was Yeats. He was writing, unapologetically, for the Irish. Who is Finch writing for? – other women who happen to be wiccans? It’s a question that will occur to some readers through the course of the book and in poems like The Menstrual Hut, Without a Bird, Summer Solstice Chant. None of this, by the way, is a criticism so much as a description of what you will find.

On the other hand, not all of Finch’s poems are so oblique.

A Wedding on Earth is rich with earthy exuberance. At Religioustolerance.org the Wicca religion is described as  neopagan, earth centered religion. Finch’s poem is nothing if not earth centered. It’s imagery is concrete, sensuous, and erotic, reveling in the fecundity of the earth. There is no “earth as it is in heaven”. Heaven is earth.  Religious Tolerance, by the way, defines neopaganism as the following:

A Neopagan religion is a modern faith which has been recently reconstructed from beliefs, deities, symbols, practices and other elements of an ancient religion. For example, the Druidic religion is based on the faith and practices of the ancient Celtic professional class; followers of Asatru adhere to the ancient, pre-Christian Norse religion; Wiccans also trace their roots back to the pre-Celtic era in Europe. Other Neo-pagans follow Hellenismos (ancient Greek religion), Religio Romana (ancient Roman religion), Kemetism (ancient Egyptian religion) and other traditions.

Unlike with some of her other poems, it’s not essential to know that she’s a Wiccan or to know what Wicca entails, but it does inform the poem.

And as each fruit that drips down the earth’s strong chin
spills new sugar over an ancient face,
we all hold seeds that vibrate alive within,
and every hardened pod pulls the world’s embrace
from a new hiding place.

This is from the first stanza. The rich imagery and Whitmanesque rhetoric continue, unabated, through the entirety of the poem. Not all of the allusions or images make sense:

sand to emptiness, memory to the full..

Sand may have some Wiccan connotation of which I’m unaware. Without knowing, lines like this sound a little like words for the sake of words. They are like the witch’s chants – more incantation than meaning – creating a sort of sound and wall of imagery that’s meant to be like sounds and color. Like a magic spells, the words aren’t quite meant to make sense but to create a mood. The poem works. She moves in and out of incantation and exhortation:

Let your bodies make a body of bodies – cool
with the pores of a question, rich and warm
with answers quickening to beat and roll and spool
through the lost space anchored only by love’s vast charm,
where pools of kiss and hope and remembering meet,
crossed in a sculpting heat.

While we’re talking about content, you might not notice Finch’s mastery of form. And that’s the way it should be. Of all the poets who still write in the aural tradition, which is to say she uses meter and rhyme,  she is the most skillful. Her lines are rich with enjambment. This is a poet who can think beyond the line ,whose inventive powers move over many lines at once. One doesn’t get the sense that she writes line by line – as one does with so many other formalist poets. Her thought and meaning move through the form – that is, Finch gives the illusion that the form is accidental. The poem feels as though it has created the form rather than the form creating the poem.  Her poetry is mercifully free of metrical fillers and archaisms (in terms of word choice and grammar) that so frequently mar the efforts of other modern formalist poets. This is Finch’s singular gift and mastery.

The study guide provides a brief explanation of the meters and a sample scansion of all the poems in Calendar. Of the Wedding on Earth, the study guide writes:

This invented stanza uses the same line lengths, with the rhyme pattern of the Spenserian stanza. As befits a meter related to the Sapphic stanza—a meter that does not lend itself to Wedding On Earth Scansionsubstitution, since a particular pattern of different metrical feet constitutes its identity—this invented meter does not usually use substitution within the line. However, it does tend to leave off the final unstressed syllable of a line, lending the poem a more insistent, drumlike and ceremonial quality.

Notice the emphasis on the insistent, drumlike character of the meter – all in keeping with the feeling of the poem as incantation. This aspect of the study guide is especially useful and one wishes (or at least I do) that the publishers had included an appendix in the book itself – though I can understand why Finch, the publishers, or both opted not to. I fully admire Finch’s passion for the aural tradition, along with the varied exploration of the moods the different meters rouse in her. One gets the sense that the various stanza forms and meters are like musical keys to her. Different composers reacted differently to C Major, C# Minor or E♭major; and one gets the same sense that the different meters evoke commensurate moods and subjects in Finch.

And speaking of the study guide, I find some of its scansions puzzling.

For instance, the study guide scans the first poem as follows (trochaic tetrameter):

Landing Under Water ScansionNotice that the second and fourth line of each stanza shows a missing unstressed syllable. This implies that the meter is what’s called Long Meter, which has a syllable count of  8,8,8,8 . In other words, the ballad meter should be read as Long Meter with a missing syllable in the second and fourth line. In fact, Finch’s ballad meter is a trochaic version of 8s, 7s. A wealth of examples can be found here at the Fasola web site.

I might be accused of quibbling.

The study guide adds: Line 2: The rest or omitted syllable, very unusual in the middle of a trochaic line, creates an emphatically strong stress on “won’t.

I wouldn’t scan it that way. If this was Finch’s intention, then she didn’t quite pull it off. The tug of the trochaic meter pulls too hard against her intentions. At best, one might scan the line as follows:

spondaic Finch

This would make the second foot spondaic. However, I suspect many readers would read it as follows:

weak spondaic Finch

This scansion makes the word won’t more of an intermediate stress. If Finch had created some syntactic pause after won’t, I think readers would be more apt to heavily stress the word. But such is the art and science (the nitty-gritty) of writing meter. And I love Finch for trying.

Finch’s poems are full of metrical niceties like these and even if I’m dubious as to the success of some of them, I’m in no way criticizing her. Her poems are richer for the effort and the scansions available in the study guide give the interested reader something to think about. Did it work?  Did it not work? If so, why?

It’s refreshing to read a skilled craftsmen and, in effect, have her share her thoughts and poetic ambitions with the reader. In the hands of a master, the tools of the aural tradition add a layer that free-verse  simply can’t reproduce. And Annie Finch is a master.

Her Imagery

Finch’s imagery is curious. It is primarily visual.

She rarely touches on the sense of smell; and when she does, it’s only in the most conventional way. In A Wedding on Earth, for example, she refers to the “fragrant dust” – a rather abstract allusion that carries few, if any, associations. Her sense of touch is also muted – which is strangest of all (especially for a poet so devoted to the Earth). She rarely goes beyond the most conventional descriptions. A stone is rough, the earth is damp, lips are soft, or hands are warm, for example. Other than that, she will frequently use the verb touch (in many of her poems), but rarely explores the sensation other than to say that she or something was ‘touched’.

Taste and Sound (Aural) are also muted. It’s really quite remarkable. I wasn’t able to find a single example of taste in any of her poems. However, I’ll concede that I wasn’t looking for this when I first read her poems and have only quickly thumbed through the poems the second time round. Maybe I missed something. The closest we come, again, is in “A Wedding on Earth” She writes:

And as each fruit that drips down the earth’s strong chin
spills new sugar over the ancient face…

But even here, the sense of taste is suggested but nothing more. The mouth appears frequently in her poems, but Finch rarely, perhaps never in Calendar, actually explores the sense of taste. In Butterfly Lullaby she refers to the “sweet question mark”, but the word and the word’s usage are so conventional as to flirt with cliché. It hardly connotes the sense of taste.

A sense of hearing is also missing from her poetry except in the most conventional usage. The closest she comes may be in the poem Belly, where she refers to the “Humming sparrow touching my breast…” There’s the sense of touch again, but the imagery is abstract. Is she describing sound? Is she describing an inner sensation akin to touch? Even in her poem Faces with Poulenc, ostensibly about her reaction to the composer and his music, the sense of sound is conspicuously absent. Her poem, it might be said, recreates her experience of sound through visual motion. And this is what most characterizes Finch’s imagery.


Her poetry is full of verbs, adverbs and present participles. Inks interpenetrate. The Sun tucks its way through the ground. Spirals bend into flame. There is whirling, spiraling, breathing, touching, meeting, curling, fish-rushing sparks, floating, evenings ravelling of slats to emerald. The wisteria raises its inchworm head. “Delve for me,” she writes, “delve down.” Then later: cradle the concrete ground till it softens. Things vine and sink and hide and pour. The sky is grass-moving. Consider the following lines: Indian grass lapping up the spattering sun; a great building that breaths under sunlight, currents of earth linger; You reach through your mouth to find me – Bursting out of your body. In the poem Churching she will “stay here looking” with her blood, she will “stay here holding up” her blood and “will stand here with” her blood but she won’t smell, taste, touch or hear it.

Hers is the visual imagery of constant motion. The verb reaching appears in poem after poem. The verbal imagery lends her poetry energy and richness but also, to me, gives them a monochromatic feeling.  Each poem seems written in the same key. Taken one after the other, they begin to feel breathless and hyperactive. As I say, it’s a curious effect. And to be fair to Finch, she is not alone in overly favoring one sense. I can look back through my own poems (most of them on this website) and see that I seldom explore all five senses. In some, like my All Hallows’ Eve, I made a deliberate effort to exploit taste, touch, sound and smell, but that was a much longer poem. I suppose one might wish that she modulated the pitch of her imagery the way she varies the poems’ formal aspects.

To Whom She Writes

Traditionally, the poetry loved by the most readers (the poetry that is considered universal) is the poetry in which the poet, in effect, disappears.  It’s the poetry in which the reader can say to his or herself: If I could have, that’s how I would have said it. The great poets help us find our own voice, help us express our own ideas and dreams. Guy that I am, I  just don’t see myself ever wanting to recite The Menstrual Hut or Chain of Women while I’m bucking logs. To read Finch’s poetry is to see the world the way see she’s it – to experience the earth and spirit the way she experiences it. Hers is a very personal poetry.

The downside is that sometime the poet’s reveries are so full of personal significance, oblique chants and imagery, that the reader will feel excluded. They might feel as though they are watching a self-involved ceremony that is both strangely secretive and exhibitionist.

And, as I wrote before, the reader might feel as though they just had to be there. Her various chants give that impression: Lammas Chant, Summer Solstice Chant, Winter Solstice Chant, the Imbolc Chant. I suppose they ought to be treated as part of a larger performance. (The book, after all, is called Calendars.) On the other hand, I think it’s fair to wonder at their intrinsic value. She herself writes:

Some are poems I decide I want to write for a certain occasion (“Elegy for My Father,” “A Wedding on Earth,” “A Carol for Carolyn,” the valentines, which are an annual tradition for my husband, and the five seasonal chants); in the elegy and the wedding poem, for example, I wanted to provide an earth-centered religious context for certain rituals of marriage and death.

You just had to be there.

Poems like the chants are probably best enjoyed for the mood they evoke.  Enjoy them and her other poems for their rich rhythms and masterful control. Enjoy her poems for the incantatory spell they can cast on you. I wouldn’t recommend reading the book in one sitting. Read it like you would read the calendar, a day at a time. Then you will especially enjoy poems like Lamia to Lycius and the almost metaphysical conceit of The Intellect of Woman (a kind of companion or response to Wilbur’s poem Mind.  You will savor her metrical skill, the subtlety of her enjambment and the vibrancy of her imagery.

She’s one of the best.

So the intellect of woman will not mind
the sight of where the diamond’s edge has moved.
Perfection’s habit opens us to find
cuts in a window we have never loved.

The Intellect of Woman

Note: I don’t recommend her book in any recipe, ovens or cauldron.

Annie Finch reads American Witch (not from Calanders)

Ryme & Meter Online • September 13 2009

  • Slowly recovering from my August vacation.
  • Many discussions on various forums which, though interesting, are too changeable to reference.
  • If any readers would like to recommend sites or blogs please do! Feel free to recommend your own blog or poem if you like but please don’t post your poem in the comment field (provide a link and the first lines).
  • Search terms used to find these posts: Rhyme, Meter, Formal, Formalist, Poetry


Poetrybay: An on-line magazine for the 21rst Century

FALL 2009


Walt Whitman is considered the American progenitor of the wide, expansive ‘free verse’ style of poetry that puts aside rhyme and rhythm in favor of a more muscular, natural form of verse. So one would think that when a national poet is chosen to serve as the poet in residence at the Walt Whitman Birthplace in West Hills, they’d choose a free verse style writer.

Not in 2009.

In choosing X J Kennedy as writer in residence at the WWBA, the association chose one of the key figures in the world of formal verse since he first began publishing in the late 1950s, and a man for whom advocacy of poems that use rhyme and meter has been a fundamental mantra.

Not that Kennedy sees any conflict in that. “In American poetry there are many mansions,” said Kennedy earlier this year, as he prepared to take on his duties as Master Poet and Poet In Residence at the WWBA. “I have admiration for someone who can write good free verse.”

Things have not always been so cordial…


George Kalogeris on C.P. Cavafy’s Collected Poems
The Sensuous Archaism of C.P. Cavafy: A review by George Kalogeris

…What Auden most likely meant by Cavafy’s unique tone was an irreducible trace element in the poet’s signature style, and not the tone of individual poems, each of which is dependent upon intricate effects of prosody.  In his deeply instructive, excellent introduction to his new translation of Cavafy’s oeuvre, Daniel Mendelsohn reminds us that Cavafy’s poems are “unmistakably musical”, and that one of the goals of his book is to restore some of the richness of Cavafy’s linguistic  texture through close attention to prosody, and specifically to matters of diction, rhyme, and meter…


Gail D. Welborn
Published 08/30/2009 – 7:07 a.m. CST

…Washington author, Renee Riva, writes with a catchy rhythm and fanciful sounding rhyme and meter. The rhyming Izzysounds will engage children and encourage their imitation of this humorous read-aloud book.  A book that features qualities not usually found in the animal kingdom, such as traits of  kindness and compassionate mercy.

Steve Bjorkman’s captivating illustrations portray Izzy Lizzy’s kind expressions and colorful dress. With umbrella in hand, she sports a large straw hat, as she slithers down the bayou. Jeb is bright yellow with black bee stripes and gossamer wings to complement Anastasia, the light purple spider. Filled with colorful flowers, foliage, trees and water, Bjorkman’s illustrations will capture and delight children’s imaginations….


Joel Nelson · Alpine, TX
Cowboy Poet

Interview by Josephine Reed for the NEA

…I had a good background in poetry. I had two wonderful literature teachers in high school who caused me to really fall in love with the sound of the words written and rhyme and meter, just the way that poets like Robert W. Service and Edgar Allan Poe and Rudyard Kipling assembled their words just fascinated me. They had such command of the English language and they could express an idea so eloquently and do it in rhyme and meter without detracting from the thought. And that takes a great command of the language to be able to do that…


International Examiner

“Breaking the Map”
By Na Young Kwon

…Lieberman describes herself as a “mixed-race Amerasian… growing up in a bilingual, bicultural home which shaped [her] basic understanding of the world.” While the poet favors prose-like stanzas for more structured forms that may utilize rhyme and meter, Lieberman does employ the Breaking the MapVietnamese “ca-dao”— “a genre of popular Vietnamese poems that stems from oral tradition, a sort of cross between folk song and nursery rhyme”— which she learned from songs her mother and grandmother sang to her. The ca-dao comprises a fixed form of “luc-bat” or “6-8,” which is marked by an alternating syllabic count for every couplet with rhyme patterns and tonal emphasis. The subject matter typically reflects themes of agricultural life—nature, seasons, animals and folk proverbs. The first section of “Four Folksongs” is a translated version from this genre…


Los Angeles Times

Nicholson Baker: Inside the author — and his alter ego

His new book, ‘The Anthologist,’ is a novel within an novel featuring a character who sheds light on his creator.

Baker is not Paul Chowder, for Chowder is in the thick of a crisis. He’s a poet in America in the beginning of the 21st century, problem one. The AnthologistHis girlfriend has just left him, mainly because he’s a pathological procrastinator. His one potential source of income, the introduction to a poetry anthology, eludes him day after endless day. But boy, does he love poetry. The novel is a course in meter, rhyme, inspiration; some well-known poets, some lesser known…¶

“I grew up writing poetry with meter and rhyme,” Baker recalls. “This is not good for one’s career. We’ve gone through this phase of childish experimentation when it comes to poetry. Now we’re having to relearn those finer things, things Tennyson and Swinburne knew at 14.” It’s not that he dismisses free verse entirely. So many poets he loves — Louise Bogan, W.S. Merwin, Mary Oliver — write in free verse. “I want them to be subversive and they can’t be if the orthodoxy is free verse,” Baker says, in a characteristic jitterbug with history. Clearly, his ideas for “The Anthologist” have been marinating for a long time…



Susan Wheeler
Assorted Poems
reviewed by Will Cordeiro
143 pp. Farrar, Straus, and Giroux. Hardback. $25.00. 9780374258610 hardcover

All That Glitters

Susan Wheeler Assorted Poems…It’s as if all we are left with are snatches of distorted song on a broken jukebox. This typical freewheeling stanza has the giddy verve of language spun in a cyclotron, throwing off new, short-lived, unstable semantic particulates.

The same process, however, begins to spin the day-to-day laws of macro-level sense-making out-of-control, caroming everything back into an undifferentiated cosmic alphabet soup.  The whole is held tenuously together by the thread of sonic association, the bumptious almost-meter and the loopy half-rhymes structuring its happy-go-lucky semblance of story along with the obsessive repetition at the end of the line.  It has gusto aplenty.  —But what the hell does it mean? (…)


  • Google must have just indexed this page. The article dates from 2005, but the topic interests me, so I’ve included it here.  In some previous posts, like those on Donne, I’ve speculated as to the way the Elizabethans might have pronounced our words.

The real sound of Shakespeare? (Globe theatre performs Shakespeare’s plays in Shakespeare’s dialect)
BBC News  | Joe Boyle

Posted on 07/19/2005 10:36:29 AM PDT by nickcarraway

Ever been baffled by the bard? Vexed by his verse? Or perplexed by his puns? London’s Globe theatre thinks it has the answer: perform Shakespeare’s plays in Shakespeare’s dialect.

In August the theatre will stage an “original production” of Troilus and Cressida – with the actors performing the lines as close to the 16th century pronunciations as possible.

By opening night, they will have rehearsed using phonetic scripts for two months and, hopefully, will render the play just as its author intended. They say their accents are somewhere between Australian, Cornish, Irish and Scottish, with a dash of Yorkshire – yet bizarrely, completely intelligible if you happen to come from North Carolina.

For example, the word “voice” is pronounced the same as “vice”, “reason” as “raisin”, “room” as “Rome”, “one” as “own” – breathing new life into Shakespeare’s rhyming and punning.


The New York Times

Def Poetry

Published: September 8, 2009

…To that end, the first half of the book is a triumph of jargon-free scrutiny. Bradley takes on rhythm — from the Book of RhymesGreek rheo, meaning “flow,” which is apt: flow is what rappers possess — and dissects rap’s “dual rhythmic relationship,” its marriage of rhymes and beats (with the beat defined as “poetic meter rendered audible”). Next comes rhyme: “the music M.C.’s make with their mouths.” “A skillfully rendered rhyme strikes a balance between expectation and novelty” — e.g., “My grammar pays like Carlos Santana plays,” per Lauryn Hill — and for rappers, rhyme “provides the necessary formal constraints on their potentially unfettered poetic freedom.” The chapter entitled “Wordplay” is the strongest, and that’s appropriate, since play is what hip-hop does best. We’re treated to lyric upon juicy lyric — not just from the usual suspects, to Bradley’s credit — filled with similes, conceits, personification, even onomatopoeia (“Woop! Woop! That’s the sound of da police,” KRS-One rapped)…


Alan Nordstrom’s Blog

Alan Nordstrom's BlogWhat you’ll find below is an upside-down anthology of sorts: a journal of my frequent nightly musings from January 2008 till now, in reverse order.

Much of what I write here is verse in traditional rhymed iambic pentameters, old fashioned in form but contemporary in topics and idiom. It asks to be read aloud so that the effects of rhyme and meter may be felt.


Poetry Guardians Reject Modern Verse

…While I was at Vermont Studio (VSC), I met Kevin Young.  He said my poetry was sing-song-ey and that I should write prose poetry instead.  I told him that I grew up with ballads and beautiful poetry that rhymed so that is my preferred method of expression.  Mr. Young said my rhymes were obvious; however, I highly doubt that as I have always used creative and abstract methods.  I would suggest that VSC match incoming artists to appropriate writers as I really didn’t benefit from the workshop with him…

  • The article mentioned by the Poetry Verse blog is also linked below.


Poetry Guardians Reject Modern Verse

‘A lot of people high up in poetry circles look down on rhyme and metre and think it is old-fashioned,’ said Bernard Lamb, president of the QES and an academic at Imperial College London. ‘But what is the definition of poetry? Poertry GuardiansI would say, if it doesn’t have rhyme or metre, then it is not poetry, it is just prose. You can have prose that is full of imagery, but it is still prose.’

The campaign is being spearheaded by Michael George Gibson, who said it was ‘disgraceful’ that the Poetry Society had failed to respond properly to his demands for a definition. ‘For centuries word-things, called poems, have been made according to primary and defining craft principles of, first, measure and, second, alliteration and rhyme,’ said Gibson. ‘Word-things not made according to those principles are not poems.’ True poems, he said, gave the reader or listener a ‘special pleasure’.


Paradise Tossed

…I’m one of those rare persons who greatly prefers formal poetry to modern free verse. I know I’m a minority, and I’m not here to argue the merits of each over the other. I simply want to offer up some resources for those who, like me, are of the formal school or for those who prefer free verse but would like to get better acquainted with formal poetry—especially fellow poets who would like to write some. One of the arguments I’ve heard against formal poetry is that it’s obsolete, antiquated, a relic of the past. On the contrary, the movement is alive and well, and there are a number of modern technological resources available to anybody with a computer. With the following five, I believe anybody can come to understand, enjoy, and write formal poetry…


Formal Feeling
Posted on August 31, 2009 by Annie Janusch

When translating closed form poetry, the formal elements (meter and rhyme) are often the first thing the translator abandons. It’s common to read sonnets in translation, for example, that dispense with the rhyme and meter of the original. I’m no neo-formalist, but when a translator comes along who’s able to convey not only the sense of the original, but an approximation (or recreation) of the rhythm and rhyme, I pay attention. George Szirtes, a prolific writer and translator born in Budapest, who has lived in Britain for most of his life, is that kind of poet…


“Breaking the Map”

By Na Young Kwon

Millay’s Sonnet 42 • What lips my lips have kissed

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Sonnet 42

What lips my lips have kissed, and where, and why,
I have forgotten, and what arms have lain
Under my head till morning, but the rain
Is full of ghosts tonight, that tap and sigh
Upon the glass and listen for reply,
And my heart there stirs a quiet pain
For unremembered lads that not again
Will turn to me at midnight with a cry.
Thus in the winter stands the lonely tree,
Nor knows what birds have vanished one by one,
Yet knows its boughs more silent than before:
I cannot say what loves have come and gone,
I only know that summer sang in me
A little while, that in me sings no more.

Edna St. Vincent Millay

Edna St. Vincent Millay, for a great many poets and critics, challenges notions of greatness. What defines a great poet? – What in her person and what in her poetry?  One almost wishes photographs of Millay had never been taken or never survived. In her New York Review of Books review of Millay and Millay’s reviewers,  Lorrie Moore quotes some of Daniel Mark Epstein’s (What Lips My Lips Have Kissed) more lascivious biography:

Epstein Book Cover[Epstein] is a little startling, for example, on the subject of Millay’s naked breasts, about which he exults–photographs of which he has apparently poured over in the files of the Library of Congress (which cannot authorize their release and reproduction until the year 2010).  When he gives us his own feverish descriptions, readers may become a little frightened, but eventually he moves on, and I do believe everyone recovers. Such an instance does not , however, prevent him from other periodic overheatings (“Her coloring, the contrast between her white skin and the red integuments, lips, tongue, and more secret circles and folds her lovers would cherish, had become spectacular after the girl turned twenty.)

On the one had, one might argue that Epstein is writing about Millay’s Loves and Love Poems and so is entitled to this sort of fetishistic “field research”, but one has to wonder whether Epstein would apply the same zeal to the skin color and “secret folds” of Robert Frost or E.E. Cummings were he to write a book about their love poetry.

What a writer like Epstein conveys, wittingly or unwittingly, is the bewitching effect Millay’s self-evident beauty had on both men and women (who were also among her lovers). Would her poetry have received the same attention if she had looked like Tina Fey on one of her comedic bad days? Would estimation and discussion of her poetry’s greatness (which some refute) be any different?

As it is, discussions of her poetry almost always includes discussions of her personality, beauty, and love affairs (including this post). And, to be fair, Millay’s life and poetry are intricately intertwined in a way that is not as evident with other poets. One always gets the sense that her poetry is mischievously auto-biographical. She writes about herself. And the best poets, in my opinion, are frequently the ones with skeletons in their closets. In Millay’s case, the plush carpet between her bed and closet is well worn. If I had been around during Millay’s youth, I probably would have been just as smitten as the rest of them (and hanging in her closet).

Moore, at the start of her NY Review of Books article, writes:

She was petite, in-tense, bright, witty, romantic, freckled, auburn-haired, self-dramatizing and beautiful. (As a poet friend recently remarked to me, “Why has Judy Davis not yet played her in the movie?”) At one time arguably the most famous living poet in the world, her work lauded by Thomas Hardy, Elinor Wylie, Edmund Wilson, Sarah Teasdale, and Louse Bogan, Millay lived stormily and wrote unevenly, so that her place in American letters was in descent even in her lifetime. In her day she was hailed as a feminist, lyric voice of the Jazz Age, yet she went largely unclaimed by the feminism of subsequent decades. She owned, perhaps, too many evening gowns. And her poems may have had an excess of voiceless golden birds (she did not strain her metaphors… Her work could be occasionally modernist, but only occasionally, and so was not taken up by the champions of modernism…

But Millay has her champions and continues to have her admirers. Deservedly so. She lived life large. She was unapologetic about her proclivities and a fiercely independent woman when, in many ways, women were still treated like guileless children.  She was the poet’s poet. She spoke directly and truthfully in her poetry, anticipating the women poets of the later 20th century.

Millay’s Legacy

This is my third go around with this section. I think, like many other readers, poets and critics, I ask myself: Why am I reading her? Is she a great poet who wrote mediocre poems, or was she a mediocre poet who manged to write some great poems?

Now that I’m rewriting this for the third time, I think I’ve got a fix on all of this. Lorrie Moore, in her NY Review of Books article, refers to Millay as a “skilled formalist”. Skilled is  probably a good adjective. Micheal Haydn (the composer and brother of the genius Joseph Haydn) and JC Bach (the son of the great JS Bach) were both skilled composers. They both wrote some incredibly catchy and occasionally, deeply expressive music, but neither was a genius and neither will ever be counted among the greats. Not familiar with classical music? Take REM. REM is a skilled rock band. They may have written one or two great songs, but nobody, fifty years from now, will include them among the great bands. And I’m not the only one who holds that opinion.

Millay with FlowersSo, skilled is a measured way to describe Millay’s formalist abilities.

She could write the perfect sonnet. She was an avowed master, and I do mean master, of the rhyming couplet, most typically in the form of the epigrammatic sting that frequent and succinctly closes her Shakespearean Sonnets.  No other 20th Century poet even distantly approaches the sly and witty ferocity of Edna St. Vincent Millay’s rhymes. But her skill as a formalist only went so far.

She rarely modulates her formalism to suit the subject matter. One gets the feeling that she paid more attention to the prettiness of the line, than to its aptness. Despite the mood, whether it was rage, sorrow, delight, or fear, there is a sameness of voice to all of her poems. By way of comparison, compare Robert Frost’s Mending Wall to Birches. While there is a certain sameness to every poet’s output, some poets are able to master a greater technical range than others. Birches and Mending Wall both sound like Frost, but both show a distinctly different approach in imagery and, more specifically, formal devices. When at his best, Frost modulated his voice to suit the subject matter.

One doesn’t get the same sense from Millay.

And that has a curious effect, at least to me. The skilled and elevated diction of her formalism makes her trivial poems  seem better than they are, and her more profound gestures feel less profound.  So, in my own appraisal of Millay, I would consider her  a major poet, though not great. She was a skilled formalist, but possessed a very limited range.

And it’s in that respect that I disagree with criticism that calls her style anachronistic. Returning to Moore’s NY Review of Books article, she writes:

A gifted formalist and prolific sonneteer, a literary heir to Donne, Wordsworth, Byron, and, well, Christina Rossetti, Millay today has been admired only slightly or reluctantly, if at all, her poetry viewed, sometimes by its detractors as well as its devotees, as anachronistic, unreconstructedly Victorian, sentimental, recycled. Even the critic Colin Falck, who writes in his ardent introduction to her Selected Poems that the “occulting of Millay’s reputation has been one of the literary scandals of the twentieth century,” nonetheless finds only a quarter of her poems worthy enough “to entitle her to consideration as one of the major poets of the country.”

Millay was born in 1892 which means, like other poets of her generation, she grew up with the poetry of the great Victorians ringing in her ears. Tennyson died the same year she was born. Robert Browning had only been dead three years. Christina Rossetti lived until 1894. Their legacy and presence was still profoundly felt. In short, when Millay began writing, the 19th century’s aesthetic was not anachronistic.

Millay’s shortcoming was not that she was writing formal poetry when the vast majority of her generation (and later) had adopted free verse. Her shortcoming was that her formalism defined her voice, rather than her voice defining her formalism. It can be difficult to discern which of Millay’s poems are her mature poems and which are the poems of her youth.

The Scansion

As is my habit, all unmarked feet are Iambic. The color coding is a visual aid, meant to help you quickly see how the poet has varied the given meter (in this case, Iambic Pentameter).

What Lips My Lips Have Kissed by Millay - Scansion

About the Meter and Structure of the Poem

Millay’s sonnet is firmly in the tradition of the Petrarchan Sonnet. The Sonnet is split into the Octave (the first 8 lines) and the Sestet (the last 6), both “halves” of the sonnet characterizing the traditional volta or turn of the Patrarchan Sonnet. The Petrarchan form is well suited to the contemplative subject matter. There is no argument. There is no epigrammatic summing up or sting (such as we find in a Shakespearean Sonnet).

The sestet deliberately avoids close rhymes creating, to my ear, a diffuse music that nicely matches the poems’ tone. The final rhyme more feels like a distant echo of before, like the echoes of her lovers. The more diffuse rhyme scheme also serves to further differentiate the sestet from the octave. The octave speaks to the loss of lovers. The sestet speaks to a deeper loss – her fading memory of them. “I cannot say what loves have come and gone…” she writes. The diffuseness of her memory is nicely echoed by the rhyme scheme (intentioned or otherwise).

The metrical style is characteristic of Millay. There are only three definite variant feet in the entirety of the poem. The first variant foot, which I marked as |I have| could also be read as an Iambic foot |I have|. I’ve searched for a recording of Millay reading this sonnet  but haven’t found any. I have a hunch she would have read that first foot as an iamb. She was very conservative in her metrical daring.

In that respect her temperament is entirely that of a late Victorian, rather than that of an Elizabethan (with whom the sonnet form originated). The Elizabethans were always restlessly stretching and violating forms. They were the great explorers, both at sea and in literature – in just about everything they did. In that respect, Millay’s sonnet has almost nothing in common with them but a rhyme scheme.

And it’s in this respect that some critics wish Millay had stretched herself. I suspect she could have but preferred the contemplation and quiet dignity of an uninterrupted iambic line. Her rhyming is equally conservative, especially in light of Emily Dickinson’s poetry. The eye rhyme pain/again was probably pronounced as a full rhyme when Millay read the poem. (She was nothing if not affected when she read her poetry.) I considered reading this poem myself but I just can’t get beyond the absurdity of a man’s voice behind her words.

Here is Millay reading Sonnet 121:

Oh Sleep forever in the Latmian cave,
Mortal Endymion, darling of the Moon!
Her silver garments by the senseless wave
Shouldered and dropped and on the shingle strewn,
Her fluttering hand against her forehead pressed,
Her scattered looks that trouble all the sky,
Her rapid footsteps running down the west-
Of all her altered state, oblivious lie!
Whom earthen you, by deathless lips adored,
Wild-eyed and stammering to the grasses thrust,
And deep into her crystal body poured
The hot and sorrowful sweetness of the dust:
Whereof she wanders mad, being all unfit
For mortal love, that might not die of it.


What does the poem mean?

The poem is beautiful in its simplicity – an effect that is surprisingly difficult to master.

But, having said that, I can’t help but wonder at another meaning. I’m not sure at what point in her career she wrote this sonnet, but I wonder if she’s not also describing her poetry. Think of the lads as poems and kisses as the act of writing the poems. If one reads the poem this way, she writes as poet who feels her powers waning.

Read in this light, the final sestet feels especially poignant. Millay stands as the tree in whom poetry used to flourish, but whose birds have flown, one by one. She can’t even remember what loves have come and gone. The inspiration of her youth fails her. The poems that used to come budding to her lips have all but vanished. She writes: “I only know that summer sang in me / A little while, that in me sings no more.”

The Sonnet Before the Sonnet

And now for some of that unmatched ferocity that Millay could summon up. When reading Sonnet 42 (when lost to its wistful beauty)  it’s best to keep in mind the Sonnet that immediately preceded it. Which is the real Millay? Both, no doubt. In real life, biographers tell us that 41 would have come after 42.

Sonnet 41

I, being born a woman and distressed
By all the needs and notions of my kind,
Am urged by your propinquity to find
Your person fair, and feel a certain zest
To bear your body’s weight upon my breast:
So subtly is the fume of life designed,
To clarify the pulse and cloud the mind,
And leave me once again undone, possessed.
Think not for this, however, the poor treason
Of my stout blood against my staggering brain,
I shall remember you with love, or season
My scorn with pity, — let me make it plain:
I find this frenzy insufficient reason
For conversation when we meet again.

An Interesting Video Inspired by the Sonnet

It’s not me, it’s you.

A Bad Date

This, in a nutshell, is what too many modern poets and the poetry establishment, publicly and privately, has been telling themselves and telling the modern reader for over half a century: It’s not me, it’s you. Just recently I was discussing the matter with another blogger, who I like, but who contemptuously characterized the modern reader as only interested in greeting card poetry or  poetry for children.

Why I Wake Early - Mary OliverThe poetics of the last 60 years has largely been a failure. And who’s to blame? You.

What do I mean by failure? I mean that poetry, as a genre, has failed to engage the modern reader and audience.

There are exceptions. Mary Oliver would be an exception. So would W.S. Merwin. Oliver and Merwin, like all poets, have written good poems and bad poems (they don’t need me to defend them), but  they have engaged the modern reader in a way that no avant-garde  poet has equaled – certainly not Ron Silliman or Ashbery. At Amazon.com, Mary Oliver’s “Why I Wake Early” has a sales ranking of 8,636 (the best, so far, of any poetry I’ve found). John Ashbery CollectedBy way of comparison, the best John Ashbery  (the darling of the modern poetry establishment) – The Library of America’s Collected Poems: Volume 1 – has a sales ranking of 245,215. The book that is considered by many to be his masterpiece and very best, Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror, comes in at 427,389. Ron Silliman’s Alphabet ranks at 523,241.

This means that, at Amazon, Oliver’s sales rank, compared to Ashbery, is 28 to 1; compared to Silliman 60.5 to 1.

And yet Ashbery was the poet who Library of America chose to glorify. In fact, according to Amazon, Oliver has consistently outsold every English speaking avant-garde poet on the planet. What does this say about her poetry? The ignored poets will tell you that popularity is no indication of quality, let alone greatness because: what do you know? – even while they themselves yearn to be read by you (read popular). This is a convenient belief and goes some way toward explaining why a poet like Oliver or Merwin, both of whom are far more widely read and appreciated by the modern reader, is overlooked in favor of Ashbery. And it gives you an idea of what the modern poetry establishment thinks of your taste: if the modern reader wasn’t such a lazy dolt with child-like attention spans and greeting card aesthetics, then the truly deserving poets (apparently not Oliver) would be popular. Really, it’s you.

By the way, and because the subject will inevitably come up, here’s how Amazon’s Sales rankings can be understood:

47.9% of Amazon’s sales consisted of titles ranked better than (under) 40,000. 39.2% of their sales were books ranked between 40,000 and 100,000.5 Titles ranked between 100,000 and 200,000 accounted for 7.3% of sales, while titles ranked from 200,000 to 300,000 accounted for only 4.6% of sales.5 Anything above that accounts for only 1% of sales.

Researchers at MIT (Brynjolfsson, Yu and Smith) studied publisher-provided data of one publisher’s weekly sales for 321 titles, and compared the figures to Amazon’s sales rankings for the same week. The observed weekly sales of these books ranged from 1 to 481 copies and the observed weekly rankings ranged from 238 to 961,367.5 Morris Rosenthal of Foner Books also analyzed performance based on a brand new book he published. Combining the information culled from both studies, if a book is ranked 100,000 you’re looking at selling about 1 copy per day. At a ranking of 30,000 it’s averaging between 1 and 2 copies per day. The 10,000 ranking calculates to 2 copies a day. The 1,000 ranking is estimated at 11 sales that day. A book with a rank of 10 is estimated to get 700 sales a day.

Keep in mind that a ranking at any single point in time is not indicative of actual sales. Selling two copies of a title, regardless of whether it has ever sold before, will propel it into the top 50,000 for at least a few hours. If the same book otherwise sells very rarely, or never, it will drop 100,000 rankings the next day, 400,000 rankings over the course of the week, another 200,000 rankings the next week, and so on. Eventually it will hover around 2,000,000.

So, keeping that in mind, I’ve been watching the sales rankings of both books, Oliver’s I Wake Early and Ashbery’s Collected Poems, for the last 8 weeks. They have both remained fairly stable. And as this post ages, you can check them again and update me. I’ll do the same. I’m all about the evidence. The long and short of it is this: Oliver’s book represents a part of the 47.9% described above, Ashbery’s book represents a part of 4.6% (which is all the more damning given the fanfare surrounding the Library of America’s publication). And if we’re making a fair comparison (single book to single book), Ashbery’s Masterpiece is found in 1% of Amazon’s sales.

Lastly, and as of 2008, Amazon represented 70% of the online book market. By any standard, that makes Amazon a fairly reliable indicator.

Is the audience out there?

Another refrain you will hear is that the audience for poetry no longer exists; poetry isn’t a genre that people care about. And you may also hear that the modern American reader can no longer distinguish between great poetry, good poetry or bad poetry. Both of these have to be among the most self-serving arguments ever concocted. It’s you, really, it’s you. We’re writing great poetry, you are just too clueless to recognize it.

In Tyler Hoffman’s book, Robert Frost and the Politics of Poetry, he opens with a lovely anecdote: “In 1919, Frost wrote a letter to his daughter Lesley. who had entered and lost a poetry contest, urging her to beware of caring about the reception of one’s [sic] work: ‘Setting our heart when we’re too young on getting our poems appreciated lands us in the politics of poetry which is death.'”[Intruction p. 1]

Hoffman continues:

As Vernon Shetley has shown, this hostility to modernist difficulty is not unique to Frost; other sophisticated readers saw that such difficulty spelt the demise of the “common reader” – a condition Shetley argues, from which we have not recovered: “The last time they [general readers] were sighted in large numbers was in Frost &  Politics of Poetrythe 1960s, refreshing themselves in the New England landscapes of Robert Frost.” Although the recent rap-meets-poetry scene has done much to reenfranchise the common reader, or, more accurately, the common listener, Shetley’s point is well-taken. [Ibid 2]

And finally:

To be sure, Frost’s poems seem on the surface fairly accessible by virtue of their colloquial sounds, and the appearance of his poetry in such mainstream magazines as Haper’s, New Republic, and Scribner’s attests to his success in attracting a popular audience. (…) In a 1913 letter, Frost made clear his ultimate intention of getting out beyond the poetry circle in his hunt for money and fame:

[T]here is a kind of success called “of esteem” and it butters no parsnips. It means a success with the critical few who are supposed to know. But really to arrive where I can stand on my legs as a poet and nothing else I must get outside that circle to the general reader who buys books in their thousands…. I want to be a poet for all sorts and kinds. I could never make a merit of being caviare to the crowd the way my quasi-friend Pound does. I want to reach out, and would if it were a thing I could do by taking thought. [Ibid 3]

And this is what Frost’s poetry continues to do, along with Oliver’s. They reach the crowd. And the crowd, contrary to the insinuations of modern poets, has no trouble recognizing the good poetry from bad. They continue to buy Yeats, Frost, Dickinson, Cummings (today’s sales rank 32,675), Keats, Eliot, etc… If they didn’t sell, publishers wouldn’t stock bookstores with multiple issues – never mind the numerous books on haiku, sonnets, love poetry, erotic poetry, etc…

Don’t be fooled. The audience is out there, but if sales are any indication, they don’t want to read disjunctive, non-grammatical poetry. A great poet may emerge out of the conceptual or avant-garde aesthetic, but it won’t be by badmouthing or ignoring the judgment of the “common reader”.  If these poets want to succeed (and with more than that success “of esteem” or the teapot-approbation of their own establishments) they will have to do it the same way every great poet has done it, by engaging the “common reader” intellectually and emotionally (which is what those other best-selling writers condescend to do, otherwise known as short-story writers, dramatists and novelists).

If  the vast majority of latter, 20th century poets aren’t read as widely as they might be, maybe it’s because their poetry isn’t as good as it might be?

Is it them, and not you?

And of course, my standards apply to me. If my own poetry is abysmally under read (and it is), then I’m not going to blame the readership. The audience is out there. I’ve certainly failed to reach it and I have failed to market myself (this blog is a start). I happen to think my poetry is great poetry but I haven’t put it to the test. I blame myself for that. Given the chance and exposure, suppose I fail?

Emily DickinsonThen it’s likely I’m a poor judge of poetry, especially my own.

I’m not going to blame my lack of success on the mediocrity of the masses.

Is popularity the same as quality?

This is the direction these discussions inevitably go. If one judges the worth of a work according to its sales, what about all those mediocre poets and artists who were also, in their own day, best selling? Think of Longfellow or Salieri.  Longfellow wasn’t a bad poet, but was hardly the equal of Whitman or Dickinson.

But the question isn’t whether mediocre artists can’t also be popular, but whether the better poets weren’t.

The foremost example of the great poet who wasn’t popular is Emily Dickinson. But her example is flatly misleading. In her own lifetime, Dickinson never courted the public. She effectively sequestered both herself and her poetry. What if she had tried to court the public? We don’t know. What we do know is that once her poems reached the public, after her death and, albeit , in an edited form (primarily normalizing punctuation and spelling according to scholars), they were a definitive success – rapidly adopted by the reading public.

Poetry FreedomWalt Whitman achieved considerable success during his own lifetime. So did Tennyson, Shelley, the Brownings and Wordsworth. Keats didn’t live long enough to see success in his own lifetime. And though his reputation ebbed and flowed, his influence was ever present. Among the moderns, T.S. Eliot and Robert Frost were both recognized by the general public and saw their work widely disseminated.

Looking back through history, the pattern is the same (though what it meant to be successful depended on the era). Shakespeare retired a rich man.

The bottom line: modern poets can’t argue that obscurity or neglect doesn’t portend continued obscurity and neglect. If this generation’s self-selected great poets are being largely ignored by the general public then, according to history, it’s a reliable sign that they will continue to be ignored.   How long will the current generation’s establishment continue to champion poets who aren’t being read? Probably right up until the next generation quietly (or not so quietly) removes them from their pedestals. That’s the way it’s always been.  While popularity isn’t a reliable sign of greatness, it’s a fairly reliable sign of mediocrity. Poets who courted the general public and were marginalized in their own day continue to be marginalized by later generations. Right now, I can’t think of any exceptions.

What poets are being read by the general public? They are, first and foremost,  the poets who write to be understood. Their poems possess imagery that the average reader can make sense of, along with clarity and unity of thought. The public continues to buy and read poetry written in rhyme and meter. The youngest audiences instinctively gravitate toward language that possesses rhythm (accentual and accentual syllabic meters) and rhyme. They find it in nurseryThe Shadows of Sirius - Merwin rhymes and later in rap and popular music. Go to a site like Poetry Freedom if you want to see what the youngest poets and readers enjoy.

It’s easy for modern poets to dismiss these young poets and their poems as trivial and mawkish, but the techniques they use, are learning and enjoy are the techniques of the great poets: Frost, Keats, Shakespeare, Cummings, Dickinson, Eliot, Yeats, along with poets like Simic, Merwin and Oliver. They’re the audience of the future.

My bet is that they know great poetry when they see it.

(W.S. Merwin’s Book, The Shadows of Sirius, as of July 22nd, 2009, has a sales rank of 5,406. Just checked at 4:30. Someone must have bought another copy, Merwin’s ranking jumped to 2,879.)

[The Frost book which I’m following is the Library of America Edition – same as the Ashbery. So is the Whitman, which I’ve included just out of curiosity. Ron Silliman is represented by his new book, the Alphabet. Christian Bök is represnted by Eunoia.]


July 23: 8,632 –|-346,513—-|-15,010—|-181,394-|-630,876—-|-555,938—|43,348
July 24: 8,192–|-371,296—-|-4,085—-|–71,003-|-678,531—-|-631,346—|38,318
July 26: 5,255–|-87,204——|-11,116—-|-184,614|-705,812—-|-206,932—|127,792
July 27: 8,618–|-94,564——|-8,527—–|-87,657-|-252,553—-|-344,750—|122,208

Robert Frost’s “Out, Out”

Buzz Saws and Saw Machines

When I first read this poem, barely a teenager, I got it into my head that Frost’s buzz saw was just another word for a chain saw. But chain saws, as we know them, didn’t make it to the general public until the mid 1920s. The types of saws Frost and New England farmer’s were familiar with are scattered throughout the post.

The saw at right is probably very close to the kind of saw Frost was imagining – called a buzz saw. Here’s how it worked: The flat surface that looks like a table slid forward and back on the two rails. The farmer would put the log on the table and push it through the circular saw.

If you look closely, underneath the front left corner, you’ll see a small iron wheel that rides on the rail. Behind the table, another close look will reveal another larger round metal wheel – the pulley. A belt went around this wheel and could be attached to any kind of motor: steam, gas, or even a horse. (By 1910, Ford was already producing and widely selling gas powered traction machines – later called tractors, that could be attached to a buzz saw.) But having both the buzz saw and the early tractor would have been an expensive proposition.

To get a better idea of how these saws worked, here’s an old gas driven rig, the kind that sawyers would have used (expensive in its own day).

Because I don’t see these rigs run anymore, even up here in Vermont, I joined an antique chainsaw forum to get my facts straight. Here’s what Tom Hawkins, a forum member to whom I’m most grateful, had to say:

[The video shows] a single cylinder (or one lunger) type gasoline engines, some of which are known as “Hit & Miss” or “Make & Break” engines. These terms refer to the engine ignition systems where the spark in constantly interrupted to maintain a set or governed engine speed. In some case it is not the spark, but rather the fuel charge that is temporarily interrupted, these are throttle governed engines. Those two engines pictured above are also hopper cooled type engines, where a large case iron tub filled with water surrounds the engines cylinder for cooling. Note it is not steam powered (…) but steam from the coolant that’s seen in the video. The stream is not uncommon for a working engine, and considered as a normal sign of proper engine operating temperatures, they run best when the stream is present.

Since the machines were too expensive for most, farmers and landowners would cut and stack logs during the winter. Later in the spring and summer, (with the wood close to the homestead) the Sawyers could bring their rigs right into the dooryard and cut the wood into “stove length pieces”. These pieces would then have to be split for cook stoves. Once again, here’s Tom:

A farm family would cut down small sized trees (about 9″ at the butt), beginning in the late fall (after the crop harvest) though early spring, dragging the logs over the winters snow was easier than the bare ground. This work had to be completed before the farmers time would be consumed with the springtime task of cultivating his fields. ¶ The firewood was needed for the next winters home heating and cooking supply, the cleared land for expanding their field crops. ¶ The logs were piled close to the wood shed or home for cutting into stove length pieces, then stacked inside for dry storage and winter access. ¶ The farmers would then arrange a time when the sawyer would be available in his area, the sawyers travelled from homestead to homestead doing several cutting jobs before moving on. Many people did however cut their own firewood by hand with an axe and buck saw.

What is clear, in both Frost’s poem and the newspaper clipping that inspired it, is that the saw was machine powered. These are the kinds of machines New Englanders used before the advent of chainsaws. They could be easily moved by a team of oxen or horses wherever the cordwood needed to be bucked. And there was very little in the way of safety.

On the Writing of the Poem

The title of Frost’s poem will immediately remind knowledgeable readers of Shakespeare’s Macbeth. The title echoes what are, perhaps, some of the most famous lines in all of Shakespeare:

To-morrow, and to-morrow, and to-morrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day,
To the last syllable of recorded time;
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!
Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player,
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage,
And then is heard no more. It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing.

Macbeth Act 5, scene 5, 19–28

The feeling of exhaustion and surrender and life’s futility is palpable. And it warns, all too tragically, of the death (and its tenor) in Frost’s poem. Earlier in the play, and in keeping with Shakespeare’s habit of thought, the doubled combination of out appears in the character of Lady MacBeth.

Out, damned spot! Out, I say! One–two—
why then ’tis time to do’t. Hell is murky. Fie, my lord, fie!
A soldier, and afeard? What need we fear who knows it,
when none can call our power to account? Yet who would
have thought the old man to have had so much blood in

Macbeth Act 5, scene 1, 26–40

Lady Macbeth’s utterance expresses abhorrence – abhorring a deed that cannot be undone, cannot be washed out or slighted. The blood of murder, the spot, has irrevocably stained her hand. Likewise, the boy’s hand, all but severed by the saw, cannot be redone or restored. There will be no backward step.

Shadow Newman on FrostIn her indispensable book on Frost’s most famous poems, Lea Newman observes that Frost based Out, Out on a real incident. She writes:

The March 31, 1910, edition of The Littleton Courier of Littleton, New Hampshire, carried the following story:

Raymond Tracy Fitzgerald, one of the twin sons of Michael G. And Margaret Fitzgerald of Bethlehem, died at his home Thursday afternoon, March 24, as a result of an accident by which one of his hands was badly hurt in a sawing machine. The young man was assisting in sawing up some wood in his own dooryard with a sawing machine and accidentally hit the loose pulley, causing the saw to descend upon his hand, cutting and lacerating it badly. Raymond was taken into the house and a physician was immediately summoned, but he died very suddenly from the effects of the shock, which produced heart failure… {March 31, 1910]

I can’t recommend Newman’s book enough. Clicking on the image will take you to Amazon.com and the book will take to her more detailed introduction. Buzzsaw & TractorBriefly, as part of her introduction, Newman mentions that Frost didn’t write Out, Out until his return from England, the summer of 1915. She writes that, “he bought a farm outside the village of Sugar Hill, near the Lynches, with a view overlooking the five peaks of the Franconia Range(…) It overlooked five mountain ranges to the west toward Vermont, the same view described in the poem.” He wrote the poem in 1916.

The newspaper clipping doesn’t call the saw a buzz saw but a saw machine. In 1910, the terms saw machine could refer to just about any saw (including circular saws).

Note: The tractor at left is a Farmall from the 1930s.The Howell Drag Saw Machine

However, I’ve noticed that a machine called a drag saw was almost always referred to as a saw machine (when circular saws sometimes weren’t).

The illustration at right comes from the Encyclopedia of American farm implements & antiques. The motor (which could have been just about anything – including an animal) driving the drag saw isn’t in the illustration. To truly appreciate how these machines worked, I’ve found a youtube video of a steam driven drag saw machine. Notice that the saw hangs from a pulley (as well as in the illustration). Now imagine if the pulley was hanging loose or unsecured (or the rope of the pulley) and that someone accidentally bumped the rope or pulley. The blade might suddenly release. If the machine was running, imagine the damage to ones hand.

The Scansion

Now to the poem. Without further ado, here is the poem and it’s scansion. All unmarked feet are Iambic. Pyrrhic feet are yellow. Trochaic feet are red. Spondaic feet are purple. Green indicates a feminine ending. Blue indicates an anapestic foot. The colorized scansion is my own invention and I try to keep the colors consistent throughout my scansions. As far as I know, this little innovation is all my own. The colors, to my eyes, help to quickly visualize the Frost’s metrical patterning, his use of variant feet. If scansion and its symbols are new to you, visit What is Iambic Pentameter (The Basics).

A scansion of Robert Frost's Out, Out

Meter and Meaning

The very first thing to note is that the poem is written in unrhymed Iambic Pentameter, otherwise known as blank verse.

The second thing to note is that the repetition of a Pyhrric foot followed by a Spondee is one of the more interesting patterns in this poem. While I don’t think repeating the figure is, in and of itself, significant, each individual occurrence nicely underpins the text of the poem. While it might be too much to say that every one of Frost’s variant feet are meaningful, he certainly was aware of when he was varying the iambic pattern and the effect it would have.

First Lines Metrical Example

These are strongly varied lines. The second of the three has only one Iambic Foot. All the rest are variant. Frost must have liked the effect of the trochaic dust in the first line. The snarling, rattling saw made dust (where the word dust disrupts the normal metrical pattern. This foot is followed by the spondaic dropped stove. Here too, the meter nicely emphasizes the dropping of the stove length sticks with two consecutively stressed syllables. Did Frost plan this all out? I don’t know, but in this line at least meaning and meter work well together.

Sears & Roebuck Circular Saw Machine Ad 1897I chose to read the first foot of the second line as spondaic. However, one could also read it as Iambic and I have a hunch that Frost read it this way. (Frost usually emphasized the iambic pattern of his poems when reading.) The second line would then read as follows:

Sweet-scen | ted stuff | when the | breeze drew | across it.

The real virtuoso display comes with the phrase “when the breeze drew across it“. To my ears, the pyrrhic foot followed by the spondaic “breeze drew” nicely mimics the rise and draw of a breeze followed by its “fall” in the feminine ending: across it. It’s a lovely touch and I suspect Frost was aware of the effect.

The third line could also be read as iambic pentameter, thus:

And from | there those | that lif | ted eyes | could count

I could imagine Frost reading it like this but I haven’t found a recording. It’s said that Frost rarely read it. I’m guessing that he felt the poem ought to be more private than public, having been based on real events. The next lines that give a nice metrical example also both demonstrate a repeated pattern of thought in this poem, the pyrrhic foot followed by a spondaic foot.

And the Saw Snarled - Metrical Example

Note: For those readers and poets who really enjoy understanding how the minds of poets (and by extension all of us) work, there’s a fascinating little book by Edward A. Armstrong called Shakespeare’s Imagination. Armstrong traces what he calls image clusters in the works of Shakespeare. Swing Saw AdvertIn other words, when a goose shows up in Shakespeare’s imagery, the bird is usually associated with disease, lechery and even the plague. Likewise, when Shakespeare is reminded of a violet, his thoughts almost invariably turn to breath, which becomes wind, sweet airs and even tempests. Not only Armstrong, but other Shakespearean authors have noticed, if in passing, these same habits of thought. Caroline Spurgeon, in Shakespeare’s Imagery, notes similar patterns, including Shakespeare’s negative association with dogs. M.M. Mahood, in Shakespeare’s Wordplay , observes patterns of wordplay. When one word shows up, another associated word will usually show up with it. The reason I mention it is because I’ve noticed similar habits in the writing of meter. In any given poem or stage in a poet’s career, certain variant feet will show up and in habitual combinations. Compare the hard Iambic regularity of Mending Wall with Birches. The varying use of meter in all these poems certainly reflects on the intent and mood of the poem, but I also wonder if it reflects on the poet’s state of mind.

Back to Out, Out. Everyone who has heard a chainsaw knows how the engine revs and rattles. The two lines above, to my ears, capture that sound. The pyrrhic foot followed by the doubly stressed spondaic foot and the amphibrach (feminine ending) all contribute to a kind of metrical onomatopoeia: and the saw snarledand rattled/ as it ran light. By no means does every variant foot feel so nicely wedded to meaning, but Frost, like all great metrical poets, knows how to take advantage of the art when the opportunity arises. Mediocre poets will frequently dilute the power of such variations by introducing them meaninglessly and even contrary to the textual meaning.

All spoiled

The disruptive spondee |Don’t let| disrupts the iambic pattern – a kind of shock and outcry both textually and metrically.

The hand was gone

With this line the blank verse pattern breaks down. There are two ways to scan this line. Above, I’ve scanned the line as an Iambic Tetrameter line with a spondaic first foot and a feminine ending. It’s a nice little trick of meter. The hand is missing and a metrical foot is missing. With an Iambic Tetrameter scansion, the meter neatly reinforces the meaning of the text. Something is missing. The experienced reader of metrical poetry may subliminally or consciously sense the missing foot in the poem. The effect can be powerful, causing both the reader and the listener to pause, to palpably sense an absence. The line is the turning point of the poem.

Another way to scan the line (and the two ways of scanning the line are not mutually exclusive, though that may sound odd) is to treat the first two syllables as monosyllabic feet.

The hand was gone (monosyllabic feet)

Many, if not most, poets and metrists claim that monosyllabic feet don’t exist. I don’t agree. Metrical Art with ShadowI go along with George T. Wright, author of Shakespeare’s Metrical Art. He writes:

Occasional lines appear to be missing an unstressed syllable in some other position than at line -beginning or after a midline break. Anomalous lines of this kind appear in some early plays, sometimes (as in the work of Shakespeare’s predecessors) without notable expressive effect. But as Shakespeare develops the technique in his middle and later plays, it becomes a deliberate device for conveying emotional excitement. All of the following lines appear to involve a foot-long monosyllable intended to be spoken with great force or weight [The following is the second of the two examples Wright offers p. 178]:

King Lear Monosyllabic Feet

In like manner, I’ve read Frost’s So and But as monosyllabic feet. (This makes the line a five foot line.) While the variant feet don’t convey emotional excitement, they do convey a profound emotional turning point in the poem. I imagine the intonation as profoundly sad – a kind of tragic acknowledgment. The words could be spoken slowly with a generous pause – a tragic acceptance (though there are other equally powerful ways to read the poem).

Whether one reads the line as Pentameter or Tetrameter, the effect of both scansions can be felt simultaneously. And this is partly what scansion can do. It demonstrates the different ways readers and poets are affected by speech stress and rhythm in language, and sometimes there is more than one way to scan a line.

The final lines worth considering is the following:

Little, less, nothing

It’s the second line that’s especially noteworthy – a trochaic foot (the heart skips a beat), a spondaic foot (the last two heartbeats) and a pyrrhic foot (then nothing, no stresses, no beats). The boy dies. …such is Frost’s mastery of meter. I give him this one. I think he knew very well how he was playing the meter with the meaning. It’s an effect free verse can approximate, but can’t equal.

The Storyteller

A comparison of the newspaper clipping with Frost’s poem shows a number of changes. He changed the young man to a boy; and Frost clearly means for us to think the boy is more child than man – calling him “a child at heart”. If only given the newspaper clipping, I think most readers would imagine someone in his early to mid teens, rather than a “boy”.

Frost doesn’t want the reader to think this was simply carelessness – a young man who should have known better.

This was a boy, a child at heart, who didn’t know better. Frost suggests where the real responsibility rested: Call it a day, I wish they might have said. They, presumably, are the boy’s elders. Some critics and readers have read, in the poem’s closing lines, a cold callousness. Homemade Swing Saw (Side View)But if the narrator is assumed to be Frost, then there is also compassion and empathy in these lines. Frost possessed strong political opinions. And though his poetry is not overtly political, his philosophical and political views inevitably informed his poetry. Artists can’t escape their personalities (or at least I’m not aware of any).

Note: The saw at left is called a swing saw or swing saw machine. The swing saw in the image is homemade but is representative of the kind of saw that turn-of-the-century word workers would have been familiar with. (Cross-cut saws and chop saws would eventually replace them.) Notice how the saw is hanging like a pendulum. The weight of the circular saw blade (and assembly) were usually counterbalanced by another weight – like the “window weights” in old double-hung windows. If the counterweight hung from a pulley and someone bumped the weight or pulley, the saw might descend on the users hand. However, these saws were primarily shop saws and wouldn’t have been used in a dooryard for bucking lumber. In my view, a swing saw is probably not what was being referred to as a saw machine.

Some readers and critics have taken Frost’s poem as a criticism of child labor laws. Frost had spent time as an educator and so one might expect his sympathies to be attuned to the young. When Frost wrote the poem child labor was still a pernicious practice. It wasn’t until 1938 that the Federal government regulated child labor in the Fair Labor Standards Act. Frost, by this point, was already in his early sixties.

The other change was from a sawing machine to a buzz saw. Saw machines (like the larger drag saws) were probably less apt to be operated by a single person. The newspaper clipping states that Fitzgerald was assisting someone else (or others). A buzz saw, on the other hand, could easily be used by one person handling smaller logs. The impression Frost gives is of a boy working alone (his sister has to come out to tell him supper is ready). A child working after hours and alone only adds to the feeling, not of carelessness, but of tragedy. Frost additionally resists blaming the boy. He writes that the saw leaped out at the boy’s hand, as if it knew what supper was. The modern reader might wonder how a buzz saw could leap, but here’s Tom Hawkins again:

Now I’ve run many a cordwood saws in my life, so I kinda understand that poem a bit. Those old one lunger type gasoline engines had counterweighted flywheels to keep up their momentum as they were running, this caused the saw rig to bounce somewhat. The engines also had a make and break ignition, spark on and off as engine needed to maintain it’s governed speed, so as a new charged fired the whole unit would jump. ¶ I remember that when were cutting real dried out Oak or more so Locust (very hard wood), a large cloud of sawdust would surround an encompass us. ¶ It’s very possible that the saw did leap right out and take the hand, these type of saws really do jump, especially when their slowing to a stop, which appear to be the case here. The jump or leaping is caused by those counterweighted flywheels rotating at lower than normal balance speed.

Was it the boy? Was it the saw? Did the “boy give the hand”? It was fate. These things simply happen. The effect is to express the inexplicable.

Frost and the Poem’s Reception

As I’ve mentioned already, many of Frost’s readers were perplexed by the seeming callousness and indifference of the poem. Consider, as well, the reference of the poem’s title.

Out, out, brief candle!
Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player,
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage,
And then is heard no more. It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing.

Is this how readers are to understand the boy’s death? – as signifying nothing? Other words and images occur in Frost’s poem that may or may not have their source in Shakespeare’s passage. Consider these lines:

all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death.

Then consider how dust appears within the first lines of Frost’s poem:

The buzz-saw snarled and rattled in the yard
And made dust…

And the saw does just that. The buzz saw turns the boy’s own life to dust. It makes dust both literally and symbolically. And the poem, like Shakespeare’s soliloquy, closes with the word nothing.

They listened at his heart.
Little — less — nothing!

Just as with the poor fool, the actor who frets his hour upon the stage and is heard no more, so too is the boy’s heart “heard no more”.

Belief & UncertaintyRobert Pack, one of the only authors to offer a detailed analysis of the poem, writes in Belief and Uncertainty in the Poetry of Robert Frost:

The poem’s narrative arc is of dust returning to “dusty death” (Shakespeare’s phrase), although the narrator and reader are at first misled by the sweet-scented odor of the cut wood in the breeze. The narrator, along with those other would-be believers who have lifted eyes, appears to be enjoying a vision of great depth into nature itself — “the Five mountain ranges one behind the other / Under the sunset, far into Vermont” — as if nature were beautiful and benign, a spectacle of Wordsworthian and biblical revelation. But the narrator will subsequently realize that he has had, rather, a vision of nature’s beautiful indifference. [p. 158-159]

Pack calls the poem a confrontation with nothingness. And the feeling of nothingness and utilitarian purpose is only emphasized by the choice of words that close the poem, “no more to build on there“. This was more than the loss of a child. The work of building, of preparing for the season, the next season and the years to come never stopped. Frost’s words are hard. What had to be considered was not just the loss of a child but what the child contributed. Life in New England, at the turn of the century, was not easy. The response to the poem, among some of Frost’s closest readers and associates, seems to have put Frost on the defensive. Pack quotes a passage from a letter that may capture some of that defensiveness:

“And I suppose I am a brute in that my nature refuses to carry sympathy to the point of going crazy just because someone else goes crazy, or of dying just because someone else dies.” [p. 160]

Though Pack calls this passage “revealing” he doesn’t indicate why (or if) he thinks Frost was referring specifically to Out, Out. This sort of “hard pragmatism” can also be found in Home Burial. But even more revealing than this brief passage is the poem The Lesson for Today. As with the poem For Once, Then, Something, Frost seems to be responding to his critics, readers and even, perhaps, to his closest friends and family – acquaintances who may have accused Frost, himself, of that same hard callousness.

Major Themes of RFWe are all doomed to broken-off careers,
And so’s the nation, so’s the total race.
The earth itself is liable to that fate
Of meaninglessly being broken off.
(And hence so many literary tears
At which my inclination is to scoff.)
I may have wept that any should have died
Or missed their chance, or not have been their best,
Or been their riches, fame, or love denied;
On me as much as any is the jest.
I take my incompleteness with the rest.
God bless himself can no one else be blessed.

O hold your doctrine of Memento Mori.
And were an epitaph to be my story
I’d have a short one ready for my own.
I would have written of me on my stone:
I had a lover’s quarrel with the world.

Radcliffe Squires, who also noted the relationship between this poem and the poem Out, Out, comments:

What matters is that [Robert Frost] could hold together in one poem the two severe and mutually accusing ideas that one must be moved to pity and compassion and that one must coldly and sternly pursue the duty of endurance and survival.

The beauty of the poem, and it’s powerful effect on the reader, arises from the balance Frost obtains. The accident is both carelessness, “the boy gave the hand” and accident “the saw leaped”. The narrator is both compassionate, “call it a day I wish they might have said”, and coldly pragmatic, “since they / Were not the one dead, turned to their affairs”. The narrator is almost like nature itself – the passionate and dispassionate observer – that leaves us, the readers, to wonder at its design and purpose. That’s the best kind of poetry.

The Art of Rhyme and Meter

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The oral tradition of Poetry

Poetry began as an oral tradition. Homer’s Odyssey is probably far older than Homer and Odysseus’ sojourn, in one form or another, may have been handed down for centuries from one storyteller to the next.

Each storyteller probably added details and expanded the story until, by the time Homer learned it, the epic was a real feat of memorization. As every reader of Mother Goose knows, Homer's Odyssey Fragmenta ditty or poem that has a rhythm or rhyme is easier to remember than one that doesn’t.

The Dactylic Hexameters of Homer’s Odyssey, it’s meter, was the  rhythm that made the epic easier to remember. And a device used for the filling out of this meter was the  Homeric Epithet. These colorful descriptions (or epithets) might have also served as cues – much like stage directions.

Before Homer, the tightly wound relationship between dance, music, rhythm and sound was demonstrated by recently discovered poems from ancient Egypt. In a book called The Ancient Egyptian Culture Revealed, Moustafa Gadalla writes:

The Egyptians perceived language and music as two sides of the same coin. Spoken, written, and musical composition follow the same exact patterns. Both poetry and singing followed similar rules for musical composition. Poetry is written not only with a rhyme scheme, but also with a recurring pattern of accented and unaccented syllables. Each syllable alternates between accented and unaccented, making a double/quadruple meter and several other varieties. Patterns of set rhythms or lengths of phrases of Ancient Egyptian poems, praises, hymns, and songs of all kinds, which are known to have been changed or performed with some musical accompaniment, were rhythmic with uniform meters and a structured rhyme. ¶ Ancient Egyptian texts show that Egyptians spoke and sang in musical patterns on all occasions and for all purposes–from the most sacred to the most mundane. [p. 155]

This oral tradition continued with the very first works of the Anglo Saxons, the alliteration of Beowulf, up until the start of the 20th Century, when poets like Frost, Cummings, and Yeats, continued to imbue their poetry with the sounds and rhythms of its oral, musical, lyrical and storytelling ancestry.In short, traditional poetry finds its roots in music.

Free Verse is a different Genre

This all ended with the 20th Century. The poetry of meter & rhyme, the techniques formed out of an oral past,  had become dogmatic and stylized. A new genre replaced the poetry that had been written for thousands of years – free verse.

Though it may seem controversial to suggest that free verse is a new genre (only tangentially related to the poetry of the previous 200o years), the assertion isn’t to the detriment of free verse. Free verse practitioners have themselves, to varying degrees, deliberately avoided the traditional rhythms of a regular meter; have eschewed rhyme; have avoided alliteration; and whole schools have rejected techniques like metaphor. All of these techniques grepower Plain Englishw out of an oral tradition – frequently, or so scholars think, as mnemonic aids or for the purposes of musical accompaniment.

Free verse is the child of the 20th Century printing press (which isn’t to say that free verse can’t be read aloud and enjoyed as such). And it’s not to say that free verse doesn’t borrow techniques from the oral tradition, but free verse doesn’t do so systemically. (Poets, like William Carlos Williams, studiously avoided anything short of what he considered plain speech or plain English and the avant-garde is premised on the avoidance of anything that smacks of traditional poetry.) It was the explosive availability of the printed word that made the visual cues of free verse possible. Aurally, there is frequently nothing that distinguishes free verse from prose.  Cleave Poetry, for example, is defined by its visual appearance  (rather than any aural cues).

In short, free verse didn’t evolve from the poetry of the oral tradition, it replaced it.

So what does this all have to with meter and rhyme? Just this. The near total dominance of free verse in print media and on store shelves (stores that bother with a significant collection) has left its mark on what readers consider a modern style. It makes writing meter and rhyme much more challenging but also more rewarding if done well.

Unlike metrical poetry prior to the 20th Century, the best modern metrical poetry does not draw attention to itself. The best metrical and rhyming poems make the reader feel as though they are reading modern English (without also feeling like free verse). The demands weed the men from the boys, the girls from the women. Robert Frost was a master of this illusion and so was Yeats and Stevens.

Grammatical Inversions & Rhyming: Subject • Verb • Object

When novice poets try to write meter, they frequently use what are called grammatical inversions. They can be effective or they can sound contrived but I suspect that few poets really understand the origin of these techniques, how they’ve  Shakespearean Sentencesbeen used, and why.

The best book on the subject is by John Porter Houston. If you’re a poet and you’re interested in this tradition as practiced by our greatest poet, then this is the book to read. I had a hard time finding it at Amazon but when I finally did I scanned in my own book for their image and added a short review. Here’s how Houston introduces the book.

The history of SOV word order (as, using a common abbreviation, I shall henceforth call the subjectdirect objectverb pattern) vanishes into the Indo-European mists, which has encouraged linguists to formulate various theories of its original importance or even of its former dominance. Be that as it may, the word order shows up historically in Greek, Latain, and Germanic, being associated in the latter especially with subordinate clauses. However, it seems unlikely that, in its English poetic form, SOV is so much an atavistic harkening back to primeval roots as it is a consequence of the adaptation to English of the Romance system of Riming verse. Verbs in Old French and Italian make handy rimes, and they make even better ones in English because so many English verbs are monosyllabic. The verse line or couplet containing a subject near the beginning and a verb at the end is a natural development. [p. 2]

The English language, descended from the Germanic languages, prefers the following pattern:

Subject | Verb | Object (SVO)

Subject | Verb | Object
The girls | play   | on the seesaw.

But poets, as Houston observed, found it convenient, for the sake of rhyme, to invert the grammar. They might write:

The girls on the seesaw play:
“Life goes up, life goes down
“You’ll have good luck another day!”

The first line would be an SOV construction:

Subject | Object | Verb
The girls |on the seesaw |play

This is a construction one sees very often among amateur poets writing rhyme. The only purpose for the grammatical inversion is to make the rhyme. It’s what free verse poets (more so than others I think) derisively call rhyme driven poetry. And it’s precisely this sort of writing that was acceptable right up until the start of the 20th century.

With this in mind, a somewhat peculiar commentary on  rhyme driven poetry can be found at the Poetry Foundation’s blog Harriet. The post is by Alicia Stallings. Alicia StallingsThe reason I say it’s peculiar is because, though she expresses exasperation at the criticism, she never offers an alternative. She begins her post by writing:

As a poet who works in form, I weary of seeing in critiques–either in on-line workshops or in published reviews–the complaint that a poem or phrase or line is “rhyme driven”. Of course rhyming poetry is rhyme driven. Rhyme is an engine of syntax.

But then Stallings immediately acknowledges what the criticism really means: that is, when itis obvious [that] the whole purpose of the line is to arrive at some obvious predestined chime, like the set-up of a punch line.” Stallings then offers some examples of why a poem might feel rhyme-driven, but she never offers a reason why the criticism shouldn’t be made. However, she does write:

But it seems to have become an immediate and unthinking response to lines that rhyme that are in any way out of the ordinary–particularly anything that has the slightest whiff of “inversion”–that is, out of “natural” English word order–which is often interpreted as the blandest, strictest of simple declarative sentences.

And this is to say that such criticism can be carried too far; but then inasmuch as any criticism can be carried too far, this doesn’t invalidate the original impulse. The bottom line is this: Stallings makes sure her rhymes don’t arrive like some “obvious predestined chime”. Rhyme might be the engine, but she makes sure (in her own poetry) that the engine isn’t heard. She’s an exceedingly skillful rhymer. So, the best advice, as regards Stallings, is to do as she does. Read her poetry. Make your rhymes feel accidental, as if they’re an inevitable accident of subject matter.

Robert Frost, on these very grounds, was deservedly proud of his poem “Stopping by Woods”.

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.” [Pritchard, Robert Frost: A Literary Life Reconsidered p. 164]

If you want a model for how to rhyme, read Frost’s Stopping by Woods or The Road not Taken again and again. No one would accuse these poems of feeling rhyme driven although, as Stallings would point out, that’s precisely what they are – rhyme driven.

Again (and I don’t think beginning poets appreciate this enough) it’s not whether a poem is rhyme-driven, it’s whether it feels and reads rhyme driven. Are the rhymes determining the line and the subject matter, or is the subject matter determining the rhymes? In Frost’s poems, it’s hard to imagine how they could have been written any other way. The rhymes feel entirely accidental. The rhymes feel  driven by the subject matter; and this is the effect you are looking for.

For the record, I love the SOV construction – especially when done well. I don’t think I’ve ever used the syntax in my own poetry but I might, just for the enjoyment.

Shakespeare’s use of SOV wasn’t for the sake of a rhyme. Shakespeare used the reversal of normal English  (unusual even in Shakespeare’s day) to add metrical emphasis and elegance; to make a line more memorable; to add meaning; or to reveal character.

Here, for instance, is how Shakespeare reverses the normal syntax of English to convey and build suspense. Horatio is describing having seen the ghost of Hamlet’s father (I have included Houston’s explanatory comment):

william-shakespearethrice he walk’d
By their oppresss’d and fear-surprised eyes
Within his truncheon’s length, whilst they, distill’d
Almost to jelly with the act of fear,
Stand dumb and speak not to him. This to me
In dreadful secrecy impart they did,
And I wish them the third night kept the watch,
Where, as they had deliver’d, both in time,
Form of the thing, each word made true and good,
The apparition comes. (
Hamlet I, ii, 202-11)

Having devised a sentence in more or less normal word order in which the verbs have radically different positions, Shakespeare then resorts to inversion, and the OVSV clause contains, moreover, a peculiar reversal of impart and did. The next sentence places two circumstantial expressions between subject and verb, so that the latter, with its short object, seems curiously postponed, even though the number of intervening syllables is not great. Finally, in the concluding subordinate clause, both subject and verb are held off until the end. [p. 83]

Notice how Shakespeare holds off the apparition comes until the end of the line. Throughout the passage the inverted grammar underpins the feeling of terror and suspense, the feeling of a character whose own thoughts are disrupted and disturbed. (I think it’s worth commenting at this point, especially for readers new to Shakespeare, that this is poetry. Elizabethans did not talk like this. They spoke an English grammar more or less like ours. Shakespeare can be hard to read because he is a poet, not because he is Elizabethan.)

  • The tradition of altering grammar and syntax for the purposes of making language more memorable is a lovely one.
  • The tradition of altering grammar and syntax for the sake of rhyme is dubious.

Toward the end of the Houston’s introduction, he makes an interesting point. Although the use of the SOV construction continued into the 19th century (even with a poet like Keats who was consciously trying to shed the feeling of antiquated and archaic conventions), the general trend was toward a more natural speech. Houston writes:

The importance of SOV word order in subsequent English blank verse is worth noting. Although it is scarcely unexpected that Milton, with his latinizing tendencies, liked the device,its persistence in the romantics can be a trifle surprising. Keats slight use of SOV in The Fall of Hyperion is odd, given that there he supposedly tried to eliminate the Miltonisms of Hyperion to some extent; Hyperion, in fact, contains no SOVs. An example of two in Prometheus Unbound does not seem incongruous with the rest of the language, but finding SOV word order in The Prelude runs somewhat counter to our expectations of Wordsworth’s language.

but scarcely Spenser’s self
Could have more tranquil visions in his youth,
Or could more bright appearances create
Of human forms (VI, 89-92)

Examples are to be found in The Idylls of the King and seem almost inevitable by the stylistic conventions of the work, but the use of SOV in the nineteenth century is essentially sporadic, if interesting to observe because of the strong hold of tradition in English poetry. [p. 3-4]

The usage was ebbing. The result is that its use in rhyming poetry stood out (and stands out) all the more. And now, when the conventional stylistic aesthetic is that of free verse, SVO inversions stands out like a sore thumb.

Anyway, this short passage can’t possibly do justice to the rich tradition of grammatical inversion in English Poetry. Reading Houston’s book, if you’re interested, is a better start. The point of this post is to raise poets’ awareness of why they might be tempted to write like this; and to make them aware of what they’re hearing when they read poetry prior to the 20th century.

Other grammatical Inversions

There are other types of inversions besides Subject•Verb•Object . In a recent poem I examined by Sophie Jewett, you will find the following line:

I speak your name in alien ways, while yet
November smiles from under lashes wet.

The formulation lashes wet reverses the order of adjective and noun for the sake of rhyme. This sort of inversion is also common among inexperienced poets.

  • Avoid it at all costs.

Conveniently moving around parts of speech might have been acceptable in the Victorian era and before, but not now.

And here’s another form of grammatical inversion by Thomas Hardy from The Moth-Signal:

ThomasHardy“What are you still, still thinking,”
He asked in vague surmise,
That you stare at the wick unblinking
With those deep lost luminous eyes?”

Normally the present participal, unblinking, would follow the verb stare. This is the way grammar works in normal English sentences. However, for the sake of the rhyme, Hardy reversed the direct object, at the wick, with the past participal unblinking. The effect is curious. To what is unblinking referring? – one might ask. Is it the stare that is unblinking? – or the wick? Apologists meaning to rationalize this inversion might point out that the syntactic ambiguity is brilliantly deliberate. I don’t buy it; but they could be right.

  • Again, my advice would be to tread lightly with this sort of inversion. It smacks of expediency.

As I find other examples I will post them.

Ultimately, one of the most telling attributes of an experienced rhymer is the parts of speech he or she chooses to rhyme. A novice may primarily rhyme verbs or nouns. The novice’s rhymes will be end-stopped. In other words, the line and sentence will end with the rhyme. The rhymes of the more experienced poet will move like a snake through his verse. The rhymes will shift from verb, to noun, to adjective, to preposition, etc. They will fall unpredictably within the line’s syntax and meaning – as if they were an accident of thought.

In the spirit of put up or shut up, check out my poem All my Telling. Decide for yourself whether I practice what  I preach. And here is Alicia Stallings what what is, perhaps, the most succinct advice on rhyme that I have ever read – her Presto Manifesto. The most important statement from her manifesto, to me, is the following:

There are no tired rhymes. There are no forbidden rhymes. Rhymes are not predictable unless lines are. Death and breath, womb and tomb, love and of, moon, June, spoon, all still have great poems ahead of them.

You will frequently hear poets and critics remark that a given rhyme is tired or worn. As a counterexample they will themselves offer poems with rhymes that, to my ear, sound concocted and contrived. I call this sort of thing safari-rhyming – as if the poets had gone safari hunting, shot the rare rhyme, and proudly mounted it. The truth of the matter is this: the English vocabulary is finite. There are only so many rhymes. It’s not the rhymes themselves that are worn or trite, but the lines that are tired. Give an old rhyme a new context and magic happens. Robert Frost’s rhymes in Stopping by Woods are nothing if not tired; but the poem’s effortless progression of thought and idea means we don’t notice them. They become a kind of music rather than a distraction.

And this is what rhymes are meant to do. Ideally, they’re not meant to be noticed. This is why the novel rhyme can be as distracting as the line that is syntactically contorted for the sake of a rhyme. The best rhymes are like a subtle music. If, when reading a rhyming poem aloud, the listener doesn’t immediately discern the rhymes, take that as a good sign.

One last thought on rhymes from Stallings:

Translators who translate poems that rhyme into poems that don’t rhyme solely because they claim keeping the rhyme is impossible without doing violence to the poem have done violence to the poem. They are also lazy.

I agree.

On Keeping the Meter

This is the most difficult portion of the post to write because so much of what I write will be construed as a matter of taste; and the distinctions between mediocre meter and meter written well can be subtle. Readers will have to decide for themselves. Way back when, I wrote a post called Megan Grumbling and the Modern Formalists. The point of the post was to demonstrate how the stylistic conventions of free verse had influenced, adversely, the meter and blank verse of modern formalists. (This would seem to go against my earlier statement that poets writing meter can’t write the same way (as in the 19th century) since the advent of free verse. Not entirely. As with anything, there’s a balance to be struck. The best meter doesn’t draw attention to itself.) Feel free to read the whole post, but I’ll extract the most relevant part because I think it has some bearing on this post.

In the January 2006 issue of POETRY magazine, we find some beautiful poems by Megan Grumbling. But remember, this is mirror mirror world. Just as Dryden’s heroic couplets showed up, ghostlike, in his blank verse, free verse asserts itself, ghostlike, in modern formal verse.

“Their strident hold upon the back roads pulls
our morning drive, out to where Oak Woods Road
crosses the river that they call Great Woks.
The nearby fields so rich it’s hard to breathe–
the hay treacly with auburn, grasses bronzed–
we stop before a red farmhouse, just shy
of where the river runs, where maple trees
have laid the front lawns ravished with their loss.”

The enjambment of the first three lines has all the flavor of free-verse. There are no auditory clues (in the way of syntactical units) that might hint to a listener that these are lines of blank verse. One might as easily write the first sentence as follows:

Their strident hold upon the back roads pulls our morning drive, out to where Oak Woods Road crosses the river that they call Great Woks.

The average reader would never suspect that this was blank verse. The reader might, in a moment of preternatural attentiveness, notice that the line is entirely iambic. That said, there is no indication that this sentence is Iambic Pentameter. Given Grumbling’s approach, one might as easily print her poem as follows:

Their stri|dent hold |upon |the back
roads pulls |our mor|ning drive, |out to
where Oak |Woods Road |crosses |the river
they call |Great Woks. |The near|by fields
so rich |it’s hard |to breathe– |the hay
treacly |with au|burn, grass|es bronzed–
we stop |before |a red |farmhouse,
just shy |of where |the ri|ver runs,
where ma|ple trees |have laid |the front
lawns ra|vished with |their loss.

This is perfectly acceptable iambic tetrameter, but for the short last line. I only had to remove the purely metric “that”. It might be argued that one could submit any iambic pentameter poem to the same exercise, but such an argument would only be partially true. One would find it exceedingly difficult to apply the same exercise to Shakespeare’s passage from Antony and Cleopatra. Or, more fairly, consider Frost’s An Encounter (more fairly because Grumbling’s poetry is clearly inspired by Frost.)

Once on the kind of day called “weather breeder,”
When the heat slowly hazes and the sun
By its own power seems to be undone,
I was half boring through, half climbing through
A swamp of cedar. Choked with oil of cedar
And scurf of plants, and weary and over-heated,
And sorry I ever left the road I knew,
I paused and rested on a sort of hook
That had me by the coat as good as seated…

And now for the tetrameter version:

Once on |the kind |of day |called “weather
breeder,” |When the |heat slow|ly hazes
and the |sun by |its own |power seems
to be |undone, |I was |half boring
through, half |climbing |through a swamp
of ce|dar. Choked |with oil |of cedar
And scurf |of plants, |and wear|y and
over-|heated, |And sor|ry I
ever |left the |road I |knew, I
paused and |rested |on a sort |of hook
That had |me by |the coat |as good
as seat|ed…

The latter isn’t a very passable version of iambic tatrameter. The third line is entirely trochaic and can only be “rescued” if we elide power to read pow’r or read the line as follows:

and the |sun by |its own pow|er seems

Though this too is unsatisfactory. The fifth line fails altogether. I picked Frost’s poem at random (lest the reader think I picked one poem especially antithetical to such treatment). What the poem illustrates is Frost’s skillful wedding of sense (grammatical & otherwise) to blank verse – Iambic Pentameter.

The same commitment is not sensed in Grumbling’s poem, skillful though it is. One might assert that Grumbling’s poem is primarily iambic and only secondarily pentameter. The ghostly influence of free-verse pervades her poem, just as the ghost of heroic couplets pervaded Dryden’s blank verse. One might say that she only grasps the surface of blank verse. But her choices might also be deliberate.

This is actually a good exercise.

If you can successfully convert your Iambic Pentameter to Iambic Tetrameter or even Iambic Trimeter, then you’re probably doing something wrong. If nothing else, your meter may be too regular or the joining of line and thought may be too slack. There’s an art to fitting thought, meaning and syntax to a metrical line. It’s subtle and difficult to describe but, if done well, line and meter are like hand in glove.

Not to pick on Timothy Steele but… Steele illustrates the opposite dilemma. There’s a stiffness to his meter that one can learn from. His poem, Sweet Peas, starts us off:

The season for sweet peas had long since passed,
And the white wall was bare where they’d been massed;
Yet when that night our neighbor phoned to say
That she had watched them from her bed that day,
I didn’t contradict her…

In particular, compare the following:

Yet when that night our neighbor phoned to say

Then one foggy Christmas Eve/ Santa came to say:

(The latter line is from the Christmas Carol Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer) The point of the comparison, cruel though it may be, is to demonstrate what they both have in common – a slavish devotion to an Iambic beat. In the case of the Christmas Carol, it’s necessary. The lyrics, after all, have to coincide with the rhythm of the carol. (You can’t have variant beats in Christmas Carols.) Steele doesn’t have that excuse. His line is full of metrical expediencies.

Normally, the average English speaker would say:

“Yet our neighbor phoned that night saying she had watched them…”

But that’s not Iambic Pentameter. Steele had to move things around. The first thing he does is to shift “that night”. That’s not ideal, but there’s some justification for it. Maybe he wants to emphasize that night? Curiously though, he doesn’t punctuate the clause – Yet when, that night, our neighbor phoned… One would think, if emphasis were the motive, he would want to add some punctuation. As it is, the odd placement has the feel of a metrical expediency. But the phrase phoned to say only makes it worse. The phrase is modern English but in this context it sounds entirely expedient, not just metrically but because it’s clearly thrust to the line’s end for the sake of a rhyme. (This is a rhyme driven line.)

The line is just too obviously metrical.

Three of the four lines are end-stopped, negatively emphasizing the rhyme and meter. The third line is marginally end-stopped. All this combined with the fact there’s only two variant feet out of the first 20 makes for some very wooden meter.

Here’s the rest of that opening verse from Steele’s poem:

Steele_TimThe season for sweet peas had long since passed,
And the |white wall| was bare where they’d been massed;
Yet when that night our neighbor phoned to say
That she had watched them from her bed that day,
I didn’t contradict her: it was plain
She struggled with the tumor in her brain
And, though confused and dying, wished to own
How much she’d liked the flowers I had grown;
And when she said, in bidding me good night,
She thought their colors now were at their height–
Indeed, they ne|ver had |looked lovelier–
The only kind response was to concur.

These lines are an object lesson in how not to write meter and rhyme. There are only three variant feet out of 60. All but one of the lines are strongly end-stopped. Steele’s use of contractions is a matter of expediency. For instance, in line 8, he contract’s she’d but doesn’t contract I had. It feels arbitrary. The effect is to highlight the obviousness of the metrical beat. The rhymes are mostly nominal or verbal and, because the lines are end-stopped, they land with hard thumps. A poet might be able to get away with any one of these features in isolation, but when thrown together, the poetry feels contrived. Just as an experiment, let’s see if we can turn this poem into an Iambic Tetrameter.

The season for sweet peas had long
Since passed, and the white wall was bare
Where they’d been massed; yet when that night
Our neighbor phoned to say that she
Had watched them from her bed that day,
I didn’t contradict her: it
Was plain she struggled with the tumor
In her brain and, though confused
And dying, wished to own how much
She’d liked the flowers I had grown;
And when she said, in bidding me
Good night, she thought their colors now
Were at their height– indeed, they never
Looked lovelier– the only kind
Response was to concur.

What do you think? I actually think it improves the poem. I only had to remove one word. The lines take on a certain sinuousness and flexibility that moderately makes up for their thumping iambics and subdues the cymbal crash of their end-stopped rhymes. They become internal rhymes – they are registered but no longer hit the reader over the head.

If you’re having trouble writing meter that isn’t end stopped (and if you’re not rhyming), remove two words from your first line and shift the rest accordingly. (And you can try removing other metrically expedient words along the way to really shake things up.)  I’ll demonstrate. Rather than pick on any more modern poets, here’s something from the first act of Gorboduc, the first English drama written in blank verse (and just as end-stopped and metrically conservative as some modern formalist poetry):

There resteth all, but if they fail thereof,
And if the end bring forth an evil success
On them and theirs the mischief shall befall,
And so I pray the Gods requite it them,
And so they will, for so is wont to be
When Lords and trusted Rulers under kings
To please the present fancy of the Prince,
With wrong transpose the course of governance
Murders, mischief, or civil sword at length,
Or mutual treason, or a just revenge,
When right succeeding Line returns again
By Jove’s just Judgment and deserved wrath
Brings them to civil and reproachful death,
And roots their names and kindred’s from the earth.

So, let’s remove the word thereof, which is only there for the sake of meter (a metrical filler):

There resteth all, but if they fail, and if
The end bring forth an evil success on them
And theirs the mischief shall befall, and so
I pray the Gods requite it them, they will,
for so is wont to be when Lords and Rulers
To please the present fancy of the Prince,
With wrong transpose the course of governance
Murders, mischief, or civil sword at length,
Or mutual treason, or revenge, when right
Succeeding Line returns again by Jove’s
Just Judgment and deservèd wrath brings them
To civil and reproachful death, and roots
Their names and kindred’s from the earth.(…)

Voila! What do you think? The lines take on greater flexibility and there are fewer end-stopped lines. Even though the overall pattern is just as relentlessly iambic, the effect is somewhat mitigated by the shift between line and thought. You can practice the same with your own poetry, even if its rhymed. You could even try writing Iambic Hexameter, then shifting all the lines so that they’re Iambic Pentameter.

Metrical Fillers

This, as it turns out, is the most contentious part.

I’m fairly hard-nosed about what are (in my view) egregious metrical fillers, but many formalist poets are equally pugnacious in protecting their turf.

The word at the top of my list is upon. While, no doubt, the words has its place, my irritation stems from its reflexive use as an all too convenient iambic substitute for on. Most formalist poets use it. They’re not apologetic. And I’m not apologetic when I call it lazy. The problem, in many cases, is that poets (even free-verse poets) misuse the word. Upon is not universally interchangeable with on. Also, my sense is that, in terms of everyday speech, on has more or less replaced upon. Upon has become a primarily literary usage and feels fusty to me.

But that’s only my opinion.

And it’s easy to get hung up on the word. The point is to avoid metrical fillers – words that are unnecessary to the sense of a line’s meaning (whose only purpose is to fill the meter). Here’s a sample I discussed in my earlier post on Megan Grumbling:

we skim as much brimmed crimson as these few
stout bags will hold within, enough to lay
four inches of the fall upon this field.

The word upon expediently substitutes for on.  The word “within” is metrical padding. How else does a bag hold anything but “within”?

Later in Grumbling’s poem, more metrical padding appears with “out to where the Oak Woods Road…” Using modern English, we say: “out where the Oak Woods Road…” A.E. Stallings indulges in the same sort of metrical expediency.

Sing before the king and queen,
Make the grave to grieve,
Till Persophone weeps kerosene
And wipes it on her sleeve. [Song for the Women Poets]

The added and unnecessary preposition (to) before (grieve) is nothing more than metrical filling. Here is another example from Stallings‘ The Dollhouse:

And later where my sister and I made
The towering grown-up hours to smile and pass:

Again, the effect is antiquated. The preposition (to) before (smile) is unnecessary – another metrical filler.

However, some of the most abused metrical fillers are adjectives, especially among poets first tackling meter. My advice to poets just starting out is to write meter without adjectives or write with a strict limit (maybe one for every ten lines). Whether writing meter or free verse, nothing can weaken a line like an adjective. Use them sparingly.

After so many examples of what not to do, I thought I’d close with a fine example of beautifully modulated meter and rhyme by Annie Finch (whose book I will be reviewing soon):

annie finchDo you | hear me, |Lycius? |Do you hear |these dreams
moving |like words |out of |the air, it seems?
You think you saw me thin into a ghost,
impaled |by his |old eyes, with |their shuddering boast
of pride |that kills |truth with | philosophy.
But you hear |this voice. It is a serpent’s, or
is it |a wom|an’s, this rich |emblazoned core
reaching |out loud for you, as I once reached
for you with clinging hands, and held you, and beseeched.  (…)

These are the opening lines to Lamia to Lycius, from Annie Finch’s new book Calendars. The poem is written in open heroic couplets, like Steele’s, but the difference is night and day. The thing to notice is that there are only two end-stopped lines in these first nine. The syntax and thought of the lines moves sinuously through the line ends, subduing the rhymes. The effect is to make the rhymes feel more organic, more like an outgrowth of the poem’s subject matter.   Notice also the rich use of variant feet balanced against more regular iambic feet and lines. (I’ve marked phyrric feet in grey.) Notice also the absence of metrical fillers. Finch isn’t determined to keep a strict count like other poets – Timothy Steele or Dana Gioia (the link is to my review of his poetry). The result is a far more varied and rich voice.

If this post has been helpful, let me know.

Whether it be rhyme, meter or both,

Critiquing the Critic: Is Meter Real?

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What’s this essay about?

In the course of writing another post, I stumbled across Dan Schneider’s essay Robinson Jeffers, & The Metric Fallacy. The  essay itself was so stuffed with ludicrous and fallacious arguments that I can’t help responding.

jeffersOstensibly, Schneider’s essay is a defense of Robinson Jeffers, but for the first 1867 words (counted by WordPerfect) Schneider only mentions Jeffers’ name twice, and this is in the last 75 words. So Schneider’s essay is really two essays, the first  being nothing less than a diatribe. And even after reading the essay as a whole, one isn’t quite sure how the diatribe is a defense of Jeffers. But it’s the first part of the essay I’ll be responding to.

Here’s how Schneider begins his essay:

What if someone actually said to you that all music was composed of just 2 notes? Or if someone claimed that there were just 2 colors in creation? Now, ponder if such a thing were true. Imagine the clunkiness & mechanicality of such music. Think of the visual arts devoid of not just color, but sepia tones, & even shades of gray.

Schneider immediately frames his argument as a choice between absurdity (metrists) and reason (Schneider). How absurd to think that music would be composed of two notes? Wouldn’t it be a fool’s errand to disagree with him? Schneider would like you to think so. This is called framing an argument. Politicians do it all the time. The Republicans are especially good at it. Who could argue with a Clear Skies Initiative or who could argue with the No Child Left Behind act?

But what metrist has ever asserted that meter is composed of just two discrete stresses and that, furthermore, these two stresses are precisely the same no matter the context? None, unless there’s some fusty nineteenth century pedant I’ve never heard of.  Even the fustiest recognized that the markings used in scanning poetry were a relative indication – symbols and nothing more.

But let’s examine how Schneider frames his diatribe by altering a couple of words:

What if someone actually said to you that all music was composed [of just 2 beats]?

Well, on the face of it, why not? Any piece of music in 2/4 time is written with 2 beats – a downbeat and an off-beat. Within that binary ground there is an infinite variety of shading. But, when it’s time to dance, everybody knows where the downbeat is. Period. If this weren’t the case, then there would be no such thing as dancing. What if Schneider said the following: No two beats of music are the same (no two are played with the same volume or emphasis), even in 2/4 time, therefore the whole concept of a time signature is absurd. To quote Schneider, to suggest such things to a musician or painter or photographer would most likely engender- if not outright laughter- some strange looks, indeed.

But this is precisely how he defines meter. He writes:

For the uninitiated meter is the theory (claiming origin by several cultures) that spoken language consists of 2 primary vocalizations of a sound- i.e.- stressed & unstressed.

First, Schneider’s definition of meter  is wrong. Period. Latin meter does not consist of stressed or unstressed “sounds”. Neither does meter in Chinese or Greek. Meter, to the initiated, is the means by which poets organize their respective languages  into predictable patterns. But anyway, the absurdity of Schneider’s assertion makes for an easy straw man .  He then states, as though he were the first one to realize it, that “in the context of spoken words, as well as those internal voicings, an absolute plenitude of stress levels ensnares one.”

Yes, and there are an absolute plenitude of stress levels when performing rhythm in music. This doesn’t mean that a time signature doesn’t exist. Meter is nothing more than a kind of time signature. Any Iambic meter could be thought of as a 2/44/4etc. time signature. It is a binary, Iambic, time signature. A Dactylic meter could be treated as having a 3/4, 6/8, 9/4, etc. time signature.

Think of meter as a time signature and you will avoid the same cognitive trap that Schneider falls into.

Schneider continues:

In fact the dualistic notion of mere stressed & unstressed sounds is- in practice by its many proponents- almost always so loose as to be meaningless anyway, as metrics should really redefine its definitions as greater & lower stress(es) (with a plenum of in-betweens), since (obviously) a truly unstressed syllable would be silent. But even that is far too inadequate, for even if you would read this essay aloud to this point-   you would, if to tape it on any recorder, really hear at least a dozen stress levels- if not several dozen, were your ear fine-tuned enough.

Having set up and burned down his straw man, Schneider then engages in nothing less than reductio ad absurdum.His argument? Since stressed and unstressed syllables can be read with almost infinite gradation, there is no such thing as stressed and unstressed. But this argument is a red herring. No one denies that stress is subject to infinite variation. No metrist is arguing for fixed stress, but only relative stress.  Try auditioning for Hamlet speaking your lines like this:

To be or not to be: that is the question.

You would get some strange looks from all those musicians, artists and photographers. Or try declaiming the line with no stress at all.

But if you read the line the way Shakespeare meant it:

To be or not to be, that is the question

To be or Not to be (Iambic Scansion)

It makes sense. The symbols don’t mean that each stress is of a fixed pitch. No, this line could be spoken in an infinite variety of ways – but in all those ways, the syllables would always be stressed and unstressed in relation to each other. This is the way the English language works. What if the actor wanted to emphasize that instead of is in the fourth foot? Then he would speak it this way:

To be or not to be, |that is| the question

To be or Not to be (Trochaic Scansion)

If Schneider is to be believed, such a feat wouldn’t be possible. But it is. And it is because English speakers use relative stress (strongly stressing one syllable while weakly stressing another) to indicate focus.

In English, all syllables are relatively stressed or unstressed in relation to each other. Setting aside poetry and metrists, there is a whole field called Stress Linguistics dedicated to the very real and serious understanding of this facet of language. Maybe Schneider would like to argue that Stress Linguistics is a sham? Try teaching a computer how to speak English. The study of stress in language allows the computer to corrrectly identify which words receive stress and which don’t, otherwise they sound monotone and even incomprehensible.

In English, stress is most dramatically realized on focused or accented words. For instance, consider the dialog

“Is it brunch tomorrow?”
“No, it’s dinner tomorrow.”

In it, the stress-related acoustic differences between the syllables of “tomorrow” would be small compared to the differences between the syllables of “dinner“, the emphasized word. In these emphasized words, stressed syllables such as “din” in “dinner” are louder and longer.[1][2][3] They may also have a different fundamental frequency, or other properties. Unstressed syllables typically have a vowel, which is closer to a neutral position (the schwa), while stressed vowels are more fully realized. [Wikipedia]

What’s important to understand is that these stresses (unstressed and stressed) can be objectively measured and that the stress is relative. All that meter does is to organize these relative stresses into a pattern: Iambic Pentameter, Tetrameter and Trimeter; Anapestic Pentameter or Tetrameter; Dactylic Trimeter. This is what nursery rhymes do.

From this unpromising beginning, Schneider delves into some real gobbledygook. He places the invention of meter at the feet of “Classical Society’s need for reductivist explanations to fit into their simplistic cosmological view”. The absurdity of this statement is in the implication that “classical society” was responsible for the invention of meter. But meter isn’t limited to the English language. It’s also a feature of ancient Latin and Greek epic poetry. It’s also a feature of recently discovered ancient Egyptian poetry – poetry written long before such a thing as “classical society”. Maybe Schneider wants to argue that meter is a product of a “classical society” within ancient Greece, Rome and Egypt too?

Schneider then compares the English language to the gallop of a horse which, when caught on film, turns out to be far more complex that artists previously thought. But Schneider is merely dismantling an argument no one but he, himself, has made. No metrist or Stress Linguist would assert that English is ruled by two discrete stresses. All stress is relative. A true analogy would be to assert that scanning metrical poetry is, in fact, more like the horse’s known gait while Schneider’s characterization of meter is more like the naive artist’s before film was invented.

Scheider’s fundamental ignorance of the artistry behind the writing of meter is revealed when he touts variant feet as proof that meter is invalid.

Therefore iambic pentameter- easily the most common meter is 5 iambs- or 10 syllables- although an elided final stressed syllable or unvoiced extra syllable often occur, & are allowed. Yet these oft-recurrent exceptions (& tacit admissions of the theory’s invalidity) have not seemed to vitiate the metric rules its adherents cling to. Similarly anapestic trimeter is 3 anapests or 9 syllables. Yet with the same exceptions allowed as in iambs one might confuse the 2 meters quite often- especially when they often flout their own prerogatives.

Why a variant foot is a “tacit admission of the theory’s invalidity” goes unexplained. What does Schneider mean by theory? He doesn’t tell us. And that’s because…

There is no theory. Poets, during different periods, might have prided themselves in their ability to produce strict, unvarying metrical lines, but  all the greatest poets recognized that metrical inflexibility produced monotony. The effect was unnatural. Schneider seems to interpret this as meaning that meter is therefore unnatural and invalid, but the interpretation is absurd. Just because unvarying meter produces monotony doesn’t mean that relative stress doesn’t exist. On the contrary, it proves that it does! And it proves that the best way to reduce the monotony of a too-regular metrical pattern is to introduce variant feet. Also, whether or not one “confuses” meters has no bearing on whether relative stress can produce meter.

Schneider then introduces what, to him, is his killer piece of evidence – the word generation.

A nice 4-syllabled word. The dictionary had it diacritically marked as  ge¢ ne ra¢ tions, or (stressed-unstressed-stressed-unstressed). But really listen: if you say the word over & over; just this word, mind you, free of context & naked upon the table- generations, generations, generations….it should become clear that there are 4 distinct stress levels.

Once again, Schneider seems to have discovered (all on his own) what the rest of the poetical world has known for thousands of years. Stress is relative. Regardless of whether there are 4 distinct stress levels, the second and fourth syllables will always receive less stress than the first and second syllable. This is what scansion indicates – relative stress. (And I can’t stress that enough.)

But Schneider has more to say:

But here is another truism, long hidden by the Classicist bent- music in language, or poetry, has almost nothing to do with the individual stresses of syllables.

And, actually, I’m not troubled by this assertion. Schneider says “almost nothing”. Depending on how he defines “music in language”, he could be right, somewhere in between, or maybe wrong. But he doesn’t tell us what it means to him. He only tells us that this “music” has “almost nothing to do” with individual stresses. OK, but what does almost mean? Again, he doesn’t tell us. All we know is that stress does have something to do with the music in language but not everything.

From this point Schneider offers an alternative to understanding the “music of words” in lines.  They rest on “rime (in all its varied form & types), alliteration, assonance, enjambment, & in the overall tropes of lines in accordance with the lines directly before & after it.” But what is striking is that Schneider essentially rediscovers (perhaps without realizing it) Robert Frost’s principle of the “sound of sense“. Schneider goes on to described  “sharply-sounded lines” and states that “the digression- say, to some warm memory of love- may necessitate or facilitate the abrupt switch in line sound”.  In a nutshell:

Simply put, music in verse- or language- depends on the congruence of syllable with syllable, word with word, line with line, stanza with stanza, etc.- as well as each of those congruent units’ emotional/intellectual congress with sound & meaning.

And here is Robert Frost (From a Letter to John Bartlett, 4 July 1913):

(…) I am possibly the only person going who works on any but a worn out theory (principle I had better say) of versification. You see the great successes in recent poetry have been made on the assumption that the music of words was a matter of harmonised vowels and consonants. Both Swinburne and Tennyson arrived largely at effects in assonation. But they were on the wrong track or at any rate on a short track…

(…) Those sounds are summoned by the audial imagination and they must be positive, strong, and definitely and unmistakeably indicated by the context. The reader must be at no loss to give his voice the posture proper to the sentence.

The parallels and the extent to which Schneider reinvents Frost’s sense of sound is striking. This whole principle of music in sentence sounds, first elucidated by Frost, is profound, but it’s not the either/or situation that Schneider makes it. It’s not either the “sound of sense” or meter. This is an absurd dichotomy dispelled by none other than Frost himself – who was able to combine sentence sounds and meter. The two facets of language work at different levels. Schneider is right to the extent that meter is not, in and of itself, the source of “music” in poetry. When it is used, it is only a part of the whole.

Where Schneider really veers into the demonstrably nonsensical is with the following:

The answer returns us to the very root of why metrics is such a ballocksed concept. Human beings simply DO NOT think, speak, or even hear things in a rhythmic fashion. There is no innate rhythm to human speech.

Humans do think and hear things in a rhythmic fashion. The unmitigated absurdity of Schneider’s comment is demonstrated by Rap, the Beatles, Schubert and Bach. It’s been demonstrated for thousands of years by every composer who has put music to words. Schneider tells us that the whole idea of a strong and week stress is rubbish, and yet musicians unfailingly match the strongly stressed syllables with the downbeat and the weakly stressed syllables with the off-beat. German is a stressed language like English and Bach was known to rewrite the lyrics of his Cantatas so that the stress patterns (the meter) coincided with the time signature of his music.

But what does Schneider make of rappers? Is he going to tell us that they, of all poets, musicians and artists, “don’t think, speak, or even hear things in a rhythmic fashion”? eminem-aliveRap is nothing if not a thumping example of accentual and accentual syllabic verse. Anyone who has seen 8 Mile by eminem knows that rappers have no trouble finding the “innate rhythm” in human speech. And what about all those children who can pick out the rhythms in Mother Goose – repeating its nursery rhymes over and over and over?

Moreover, if you don’t want to take my word for it, then consider the science. In an essay called “Perceptual biases for rhythm: The Mismatch Negativity latency indexes the privileged status of binary vs non-binary interval ratios” scientists have demonstrated “that the privileged perceptual status of binary rhythmical intervals is already present in the sensory representations found in echoic memory at an early, automatic, pre-perceptual and pre-motor level.” And here’s another study which refutes Schneider’s baseless assertion.

But what brings me to the science is an article I read several years ago. Humans are predisposed to hear rhythm even where there is none! For instance, humans will hear the tick-tock of clocks as being composed of a strong and weak ticking  even when scientists calibrate the ticking mechanism to produce exactly the same tick! Humans, contrary to Schneider’s ludicrous pronouncement, have been programmed by nature to hear rhythm even where rhythm doesn’t exist!

What is Schneider’s alternative. He writes: “Humans speak & even think punctually.”

This may or may not be true. However, this has nothing to do with humanity’s ability to find rhythm in language. Schneider creates another false dichotomy.

But around this time, Schneider begins writing the second part of his essay, his defense of Jeffers.

But if the manifest denuding of this fallacy (& the others detailed) by this essay is not enough to get the Established doggerelists to finally drop their theoretically based & politically motivated vendetta against him & re-recognize Jeffers’ towering mastery, then surely the greatness of his verse should be allowed to stake that claim.

But what Schneider’s diatribe against meter has to do with defending Jeffers is muddled. If, as Schneider seems to imply, Jeffers reputation is being discounted because he didn’t use or couldn’t master meter, then the better approach is to question the legitimacy of his critics’ aesthetics. In other words, is a poem or poet’s greatness truly contingent on his or her use of meter? I say no. Great poetry can be and is written without meter or rhyme; but I say so without making the ridiculous counterclaim that metrical poetry is a sham.

In the one, perhaps, revealing portion of Schneider’s essay, he writes:

Jeffers was originally a mediocre formalist. His earliest published poems & books are forced, clunky, & melodramatic- in the worst sense. (…) I, too, have gone through that process- although every artist of excellence progresses at their own pace, & in their own way. Like Jeffers I too studied hard (he in college, me on my own) syntax, grammar, metrics, etc. to such a degree that I became an incredibly proficient mediocrity.

Is this the reason for Schneider’s hostility toward and denial of rhythm in language?  – because he was a mediocre formalist? When I sit down to draw or paint a landscape, I am a phenomenally mediocre artist, but I don’t launch into a diatribe against perspective, denying its existence and railing against any artist who thinks he or she can perceive it.

The practice of writing meter and the symbols poets use to scan it represent relative stresses and nothing more.  Other languages have produced their own meters – such as the quantitative meters of classical Latin and Greek. It symbolizes the fundamental human desire for rhythm even at its most subtle. While it’s not the only source for “music” in language, it is very real and plays a very real part.

Dan Schneider responds:

To be honest, my first reaction is to be flattered.

That said, I still find his initial essay ludicrous and stuffed with fallacious arguments.  He made many points in response to my own assertions, but most of them are tangential to a definition of meter.  For example, he points out that I got the title of his essay wrong, true, and that there are typos in my posts, also true.  He accuses me of writing him a possibly virus ridden hate-E-Mail which I don’t remember and which he, conveniently, can’t produce. (I’m calling that one, false.) He also takes issue with how I characterized his arguments. I don’t blame him, but I stand by those characterizations. However, none of this has anything to do with meter itself.

On to his assertions concerning meter.

In the entirety of his response, he provides only two (2) specimens to support his arguments.

In answer to my rhetorical question, ‘…what metrist has ever asserted that meter is composed of just two discrete stresses and that, furthermore, these two stresses are precisely the same no matter the context?’, Dan writes the following:

I will now disprove such by using two definitive texts. The first is from Webster’s Universal Unabridged Dictionary (1964). In reference to meter (meaning poetic metrics, no other usages of the term):

1.      (a) rhythm in verse; measured, patterned arrangement of syllables, primarily according to stress and length; (b) the specific rhythm as determined by the prevailing foot and the number of feet in the line; as iambic meter; (c) the specific rhythmic pattern of a stanza as determined by the kind and number of lines.

I don’t see how Webster’s helps Dan’s case. Notice that Webster’s does not assert that meter is composed of two discrete stresses or that they are the same no matter the context.  Dan’s original assertion was that:

“meter is the theory (claiming origin by several cultures) that spoken language consists of 2 primary vocalizations of a sound- i.e.- stressed & unstressed.”

And this definition, as a very general one, isn’t necessarily wrong. But he then calls that definition into question by writing that:

In fact the dualistic notion of mere stressed & unstressed sounds is- in practice by its many proponents- almost always so loose as to be meaningless anyway, as metrics should really redefine its definitions as greater & lower stress(es) (with a plenum of in-betweens), since (obviously) a truly unstressed syllable would be silent.

In other words, (according to Dan) the  “plenum” of stresses available in an accentual language contradicts the notion of “2 primary vocalizations”. But it only contradicts if one assumes that the “2 primary vocalizations” can’t be relative (or widely vary in relation to each other). Schneider’s argument only holds water if the “2 primary vocalizations” are discrete and always the same. But, as I wrote, no metrist, to my knowledge, has ever asserted the same (only, ironically, Dan Schneider). All “theories” of meter recognize that stress is relative and therefore recognize a “plenum” of stresses. They recognize that English is an accentual language, and that within the language’s “plenum” of stresses, one stress will always be relatively strong and one will always be relatively weak.

Webster’s definition in no way bolsters Dan’s contention that meter doesn’t exist. Nowhere does Webster’s definition limit meter to two discrete stresses which are always the same. The Webster’s definition  rightly asserts  that meter is a pattern of stresses (English for example) or lengths (Latin for example).

What is especially curious about Dan’s example is that Webster’s defines meter the way I do(!) and, most importantly, doesn’t question its very existence.

On to Schneider’s next example:

The oldest and most important device of Verse form, meter selects one phonological feature of lang. (stress, pitch, length) and reduces it several levels or degrees in ordinary speech (3 or 4 levels of stress; high, mid, and low pitch; various durations) to a simple binary opposition (‘stress’ vs. ‘unstress’; ‘level’ vs. ‘inflected’ pitch; ‘long’ vs. ‘short’) which may be generalized as ‘marked’ vs. ‘unmarked’.

This is from the New Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics. Dan rightly mentions that Princeton’s overview covers several pages. However, he glosses over the implications of this concession by writing:

This is very important to note, because from the start of my essay through its end, I am the person arguing that meter is a reductio ad absurdum, it is not real, and it reduces human speech to a false binary opposition. Princeton proves I’m right on that score, and says so in black and white.

(Never mind that Dan’s own example from Webster’s contradicts his claim that meter is “a reductio ad absurdum” – which is to say, it doesn’t exist.) Well, OK Dan, but, as you intimated, Princeton says a lot more in black and white. It also writes:

The traditional view had always been that m. is an arbitrary pattern imposed on words — that, as Gurney put it, “metrical rhythm is imposed upon, not latent in, sppech” (1880). It seems indubitable that meter is in some sense a filter or grid superimposed on langauge. But 20th century linguistics has shown convincingly that many aspects of poetic form are merely extensions of natural processes already at work in language itself.

One page later, and after much exegesis to support this contention, Princeton closes the section by writing:

But modern metrics also holds that strong syllables outside ictus are “demoted” and weaker syllables under ictus “promoted” under the influence of the meter. Promotion of weak syllables under non-ictus weights and slows the line, adding power. Demotion of stresses under ictus gives a quicker and lighter line. This is not a purely metrical mechanism, it shadows normal phonological process by which alternation of weak and stress, and strong and stronger, is effected atomically in polysyllables.

Apparently Dan either couldn’t be bothered to read this far or conveniently chose to ignore this portion. Princeton, in fact, not only disagrees with Dan but recognizes the binary stress pattern of the English language as a “normal phonological process”. And, by the way, did I mention it does so in black and white? Not only that, but Princeton rightly points out, as I have, that 20th Century linguistics has shown convincingly that many aspects of poetry are “extensions of natural processes already at work in language itself.” The next time Dan claims to be a man of science, take it with a grain of salt.

Dan then goes on, at some length, railing at my characterizations of his argument. None of which, curiously, supports his claim that meter doesn’t exist. He repeatedly refers back to  Websters and Princeton, neither of which support his argument.  Among other things, he writes:

This is really amazing. First, VP spends the bulk of his essay claiming that my claim that meter is a fallacy is wrong, then he cites a study (naturally, the links do not work)…

I just checked the links. They work.

Without, apparently, reading them, he both dismisses and reinterprets the science (which, did I mention, he didn’t read).

More importantly, Dan never counters the example of an artist like Eminem. As I wrote above, Rap is “thumping example” of accentual and accentual syllabic verse.

Dan quotes Princeton out of context, ignores science, and glosses over 8 Mile. He then closes:

As I implied in the piece VP quotes, I was a mediocre formalist. Note the past tense. I am a great poet, formally and in free verse. There are poems of mine that scan perfectly, according to metric nonsense, but not because I was following metric dictates, but because any well musicked poem will, given the reductive aims of meter, scan well. It’s what is in them that matters.

So, according to Dan, meter doesn’t exist but, by gosh(!), when he wants to, he writes meter with genius!

Not that all meter isn’t “nonsense” (but his poem scans perfectly). He’s not following metrical dictates  (it’s just that a “well musicked poem” does the same thing), and not that it’s not nonsense (but it scans well). Never in the annals of “seminal” essays has a more self-contradictory paragraph been written.


I guess that’s what happens when you try to have your cake and eat it too. At the very least, readers shouldn’t be taking advice from a man who claims meter doesn’t exist, then hurriedly, as an afterthought, asserts that he nevertheless writes meter with genius. Makes you wonder who the idiot really is, doesn’t it?

By the way Dan, I prefer – Fool.

In a play like King Lear, he’s the only one who lives.

Dante Gabriel Rossetti: A Sonnet (Posted by Request)

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For my reader, Aranza, who posted a request for this over at Sidney’s Sonnets.

  • June 16, 2009: Corrected link to Google’s “A Companion to Victorian Poetry”. Also corrected extract. Added extracts from Christina Rossetti’s little piece of righteous vengeance called The Ballad of Boding.

About Rossetti and The House of Life

Here’s what I’ve found. Rossetti’s Sonnet is the first sonnet, an introductory sonnet, to his sonnet cycle, The House of Life. The cycle is considered, in its day, to be the Victorian Era’s most famous sonnet cycle.  Whether that makes it the greatest is, perhaps, a different question. No critic or biographer appears to make that argument. In fact, the first thing I did was to look up DG Rossetti in the book, lives-of-the-poetsLives of the Poets, by Michael Schmidt.  Schmidt devotes several pages to Rossetti’s sister, Christina Rossetti, but only a single paragraph to Dante Rossetti, curiously and dismissively referring to him as “her brother”. He writes:

Her brother, Dante Gabriel (1828-82), has been eclipsed even as her star has risen. Only his most famous poems, “The Woodspurge” and “The Blessed Damozel,” are tenuously held in popular memory. The whole Pre-Raphaelite thing, at the hub of which he stands, with its attitudinizing, its excesses, its wild and sometimes lunatic palette, is less popular in literature than in the galleries. His poems do not partake of the charged excess of the paintings…

Schmidt closes the paragraph, however, by noting:

…in sonnets and narratives and inventive lyrics, he is a master — of enjambment, of cunning irregularity in prosody — who approaches “voice” with a diction remarkably unliterary and uncluttered for a man of his coterie. [p. 480]

The history of the sonnet cycle has to be one of the most bizarre in all of literature. My sense is that The House of Life was written as a meditation on and exaltation of his marriage to Rossetti's Beatabeatrix 1863Elizabeth Siddal – a woman who inspired many Pre-Raphaelite painters besides Rossetti.

[For a brief biography on Rossetti, visit Victorian Web.]

But Rossetti and Siddal’s affection for each other,  while it inspired Rossetti’s most intense and productive period of poetry, was not ideal. Siddal came from a lower class family and Rossetti’s sisters harshly disapproved of the relationship. Rossetti himself, sensitive to such criticism, hesitated to formally introduce Siddal  to his family and was privately criticized for it by the Art critic John Ruskin. Several years were to pass before they married. Siddal, apparently predisposed to depression (and already ill when the couple finally married) never fully recovered. Though their marriage included a period of intense and secluded contentment, Rossetti’s affections waned.  Siddal’s depression worsened along with her addiction to Laudanum.

When the couple’s first daughter was stillborn, the blow may have been too much. After becoming pregnant a second time, Rossetti would discover Siddal unconscious and dying from an overdose of Laudenum. Some have suggested that a suicide note was discovered and that Ford Maddox Brown, given the stigma and scandal still attached to suicide, strongly urged Rossetti to destroy the note. In any event, Rossetti seems to have blamed himself for his wife’s dissolution. His guilt led him to bury his poetry, including The House of Life, with the remains of his wife at Highgate Cemetery. Seven years would pass before, at the urging of his friends, the collection of poetry was exhumed and published in 1870. Talk about Gothic…

Rossetti’s Brotherhood

A key, perhaps, to understanding some of the imagery in the sonnet, is a knowledge of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood – a group which Rossetti founded. Yale Fair CopyI’ve linked to Britannica rather than Wikipedia. The part that Britannica leaves out, and the part for which Wikipedia provides misleading information, is the group’s rejection of materialism. Wikipedia links to an article on materialism which, I think, over complicates the issues the Brotherhood objected to. Essentially, their understanding of materialism meant placing too much emphasis on physical well-being and worldly possessions. They considered materialism to be an over attachment with worldly concerns. This, I think, is the central tenant Rossetti carries over from painting into poetry. More on that later.

The Poem

A Scansion of Rosetti's A Sonnet

About the Scansion

All unmarked feet are Iambic. If these terms and scansion are new to you, visit Iambic Pentameter and the Basics. Trochaic Feet are red. Pyrrhic feet are yellow. Spondaic feet are purple.  The slurs, as I call them, indicate that the words should be pronounced monosyllabically rather than disyllabically (or as one syllable rather than two).

The brackets at left indicate the usual pattern in Petrarchan sonnets – the octave followed by the sestet (both divided by the volta). For more of an explanation of these terms, visit the link to Shakespearean, Spenserian and Petrarchan Sonnets . The brackets at right indicate the three quatrains and closing couplet more typical of the Shakespearean form.

About the Form of the Sonnet

The Sonnet is a kind of hybrid between the Petrarchan and Shakespearean mode, but is a form that was first pioneered in Sidney’s Sonnets. Dante Gabriel RossettiWhen Sidney used this form, the Sonnet and Iambic Pentamter (in which Rossetti’s Sonnet is written) were both brand-spanking new. Sidney’s aim was probably an homage to the Patrarchan Form, which was the form in which the Sonnet first reached the English shores, with a nod to the more rigorous and intellectual English Sonnet (Shakespearean Sonnet), then rapidly becoming a favorite form among Elizabethan poets. That is, the English Sonnet appealed to Sidney because he was an Elizabethan. He was trained to think rigorously and rhetorically. The homage to the Petrarchan form (in the first octave) was possibly a concession to legitimacy. In other words, Sidney was saying: This is a real sonnet, I’m just tweaking the form.

Rosetti may or may not have been familiar with Sidney’s Sonnets. (My guess is that he was.) But beyond sharing a rhyme scheme, Rossetti’s sonnets bare little resemblance to Sidney’s. Rossetti had his own reasons for combining the Petrarchan and Shakespearean sonnet forms. The nesting quatrains, called Italian Quatrains, which enclose heroic couplets are suited to the more contemplative style of the Petrarchan Sonnet. They encourage the sense of a self contained form – a self-contained octave and sestet. The Petrarchan Sonnet is not a sonnet that is racing vigorously toward an epigrammatic conclusion in the form of a final couplet. The Petrarchan Sonnet’s rhyme scheme emphasizes two, more or sometimes less, discrete ideas at play with one another. The self-contained rhyme scheme emphasizes the volta, the intellectual and thematic turn that characterizes Petrarchan Sonnets; and that frequently distinguishes them from Shakespearean Sonnets (whose sonnets just as frequently dispense with the Volta).

So, the octave of Rossetti’s sonnet (the first two quatrains) are written in the manner of a Petrarchan Sonnet. Rossetti intends the Octave to be a sort of self-contained setting out of an idea or theme. We aren’t meant to rush over it, the way we might when reading a Shakespearean Sonnet. We are meant, in a way, to savor the octave. The octave is as a sort of contemplation.

But Rossetti also desired the concision of the Shakespearean form. In the final Sestet, we find ourselves in a very different world. The rhyme scheme is that of the Shakespearean Sonnet. The interlocking rhyme scheme of the sicilian quatrain doesn’t encourage a pause. Where the Petrarchan rhyme scheme introduces a couplet, encouraging, perhaps,  the ear to subliminally linger over the rhyme (or at least I find myself doing so) the Shakespearean form separates the rhyme, encouraging us to read headlong until the sonnet comes to a final thematic closure of the couplet.

If one thinks of Petrarchan Sonnets as contemplative statement and Shakespearean Sonnets as argument, then one might also treat Rossetti’s octave as statement and the closing sestet as argument. This is a generalization, and has its limits, but may be helpful toward understanding the reasons Rossetti chose the conflicting rhyme schemes.

The Sonnet and the Sonnet Sequence it Introduces

One of the most useful explications of this sonnet can be found here at Google Books, beginning on Page 103 (first paragraph below). Alison Chapman notes that the whole of Rossetti’s sonnet sequence is built on ideas of duality.  She writes:

Corrected Companion to Victorian Poetry (extract)

She goes on to make the argument that Rossetti’s sonnet sequence, in general, deals in dualities : love and loss, eroticism and religious asceticism, the physical and the spiritual. Dante Gabriel Rossetti and the Late Victorian Sonnet Sequence

What is “The House of Life” about? In his book, Dante Gabriel Rossetti and the Late Victorian Sonnet Sequence (the book at Google), John Holmes writes:

In The house of Life Gabriel employs sacramental imagery to blend Christian worship and sexual love, evoking an ecstatic sacramental imagery to blend Christian worship and sexual love, evoking an ecstatic passion before calling into question belief in both Love and God. This fusion — central to what many, following Frederic Myers (1883), have seen as Rosetti’s ‘Religion of Beauty’ — is intesified in the finished text of The House of Life. [p. 49]

On the next page, Holmes adds: “Rossetti elevates bodily love to the level of the divine.” This is the material to which “A Sonnet” serves as an introduction.

What the Poem Means

Another website offers a reading of this poem line by line: A Reading of D. G. Rossetti’s “The Sonnet” by D. F. Felluga.  I recommend the site with trepidation. Felluga indulges in such statements as the following:

“The sequence of ‘m’s and ‘n’s also forces us to take special notice of the prominent ‘s’ that precedes and follows this sequence, suggesting (once again both orally and orthagraphically) a special connection between “Sonnet” and “Soul,” an alignment even further underlined by capitalizing both of these words.”

This comes too near, for my comfort, to David Orr’s Enactment Fallacy. For more on this, read my post on Robert Frost’s The Pasture. Also see David Orr’s New York Times article. Orr writes: “Basically, this is the assignment of meaning to technical aspects of poetry that those aspects don’t necessarily possess.” Felluga, in my opinion, packs his analysis with this sort of fallacy. One gets the impression that every line break, comma, and letter means something. I don’t buy it. I think it’s reading far too much to assert that the s’ in the opening lines “suggest” a connection between Sonnet and Soul. I also somewhat disagree with Felluga’s interpretation of the sestet.

Of the sestet, he writes:

[It] concerns itself not with self-sufficiency but with the “Power” to which the sonnet owes its “due.” Indeed, the first “Power” could be read precisely as the “appeals” of a public that demanded that poetry, like the novel, serve the concerns of politics, reform, and quotidian life generally.

This reading ignores Rossetti’s use of the word august in reference to life, which means “inspiring reverence or admiration; of supreme dignity or grandeur; majestic.”  Hardly quotidian. It also ignores Rossetti’s elevation of bodily love to the level of the divine. The physical expression of love is nothing if not a celebration of life. After all, this is what the ensuing sonnet sequence is all about – an august celebration of life! Rossetti may have reviled the public’s quotidian materialism but, in the sonnet at least, this isn’t what he was talking about.

But anyway, if you maintain a skeptical reading, Felluga has much to say.

A Sonnet is a moment’s monument,–
Memorial from the Soul’s eternity
To one dead deathless hour.

Rossetti’s comparison of a sonnet to monument is apropos. The sonnet itself serves as a marker, or monument, to the sequence as a whole. It stands at the entryway to the “House of Life”. The sense of the sonnet and the cycle as a whole, as a memorial to his deceased wife, is also implied I think. Although the poem was written before his wife’s death, the fact of its having been buried with his wife’s remains  for seven years lends a much more gothic (if unintended by Rossetti) layer of meaning to the sonnet as a memorial! The spondaic variant foot of |Dead death| is a nice metrical stroke.

To one |dead death|less hour. | Look that | it be

The effect is to aurally slow the reader. It’s a beautiful touch, really; and reminds one of Donne, who regularly used spondaic variant feet to the dismay of his peers. It is a touch available to free verse poets, but not with the same power or effect as when the repeated hard accents disrupt a regular Iambic pattern. Consider also the paradox in moment’s monument and dead deathless. This theme of contrast, duality and paradox will be continued in the sonnet sequence. A monument is usually for all time, and yet Rossetti acknowledges the timeliness of poetry which is a product of its age and depends, in part, on that context to be understood. Think of how frequently Donne’s sonnets are misread because readers no longer understand meter and how poets wrote for it. These poems are a monument, but they are also momentary. We say that Love is eternal, but we know that our loves are mortal. The hour in which the sonnet is written will be dead. The age in which the sonnet is written will be dead; but the sonnet itself, Rossetti tells us, is deathless.

Look that it be,
Whether for lustral rite or dire portent,
Of its own intricate fulness reverent:

In a structure similar to Shakespeare’s soliloquy To be or not to be, Rossetti engages in Prolepsis or Propositio. Rosetti makes a general statement, then particularizes it. In the lines above, Rossetti particularizes the idea of the sonnet as moment’s monument. A monument will outlast the age in which it was created. But in order for the monument to have meaning to later ages, it must be “of its own intricate fulness reverent”.  The word reverent has religious connotations, but in this context it’s understood as referring to something “entitled to high respect , venerable” [Shakespeare Lexicon]. Rossetti is advising the reader and poet that the true sonnet is respectful of its capacity as a monument, whether for lustral rite or dire portent, by its “intricate fullness”. This brings us back to the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood and their emphasis on having “genuine ideas to express”, to respect what is direct, serious and heartfelt in previous art, and to “produce good pictures and statues”. Rossetti is defining what produces a good sonnet. The impulse in poetry, for Rossetti, was the same as his impulse in art. In order for the monument to outlast the moment, it’s meaning must be self-sufficient.

Carve it in ivory or in ebony,
As Day or Night prevail; and let Time see
Its flowering crest impearled and orient.

Rossetti now particularizes the idea of the Sonnet as one dead, deathless hour. The ink and paper of the printed sonnet is fleeting,"House of Life" by V Williams but carve it in ivory or ebony and the sonnet, through the skill of the artists, attains permanence.  Rossetti appears to link ivory with day and ebony with night. The idea being, perhaps, that the artist’s responsibility is to suit the medium (the materials used) to the subject matter (day or night). Rossetti’s theoretical concerns, poetry and art, intermingle. One might also argue, and safely I think , that artistic medium serves as a Metaphor for form in poetry. In this light, Rossetti might be arguing that a given form is equivalent to an artist’s choice between ivory and ebony, between a Petrarchan Sonnet and a Shakespearean Sonnet (or the combination of the two). Let Time, and by Time he means posterity, judge the resultant work. Felluga makes the observation that orient is a reference to the rising sun (which rises in the East – or the orient). Felluga argues that Rossetti is playing on the idea of oppositions, that this is an ephemeral phenomena, as opposed to the permanence of something impearled. On the other hand, it’s worth mentioning that sunrise doesn’t happen only once. The phenomena is one of endless renewal (and will keep occurring long after our planet has turned into a charred cinder block).  In this sense, Rossetti could be implying that the great work of art constantly renews itself with every new generation. I prefer this latter interpretation.

And now for the volta.

A Sonnet is a coin: its face reveals
The soul,–its converse, to what Power ’tis due:–
Whether for tribute to the august appeals
Of Life, or dower in Love’s high retinue
It serve; or, ‘mid the dark wharf’s cavernous breath,
In Charon’s palm it pay the toll to Death.

Note: For foreign language readers. Don’t confuse the word august with the name of the month – August. The former is accented on the second syllable. The latter is accented on the first syllable. The word august has the meaning: “inspiring reverence or admiration; of supreme dignity or grandeur; majestic”.

And a note on the Meter: When scanning the poem, I used Synaloapha to elide “the august” to read “th’august”. If one doesn’t elide these words, then we are left with an anapestic variant foot, thus:

Whether |for tri|bute to |the august |appeals

Given Rossetti’s fairly conservative prosody, a more likely reading , in keeping with traditional expectations surrounding Iambic Pentameter, would be:

Whether | for tri|bute to |th’august|appeals

Also, and for similar reasons (an anapest in the final foot of the closing couplet would have been very unusual), I’ve opted to read the 13th line as follows:

It serve; |or, ‘mid |the dark |wharf’s cav’|rnous breath,

Think of the octave as a statement explaining how the form is made to transcend time. Think of the sestet as an argument establishing the Sonnet’s purpose. A sonnet is a coin, he tells us. Harkening back to the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, here again we see Rossetti’s principles at work – his distaste for Victorian Materialism. Fellugi, in his online reading, especially emphasizes this aspect of the sonnet. My own reading is as follows: true monetary value is in the intellect, art and the spirit. Ones ability to express oneself artistically is the true currency of ones life: to the poet, poetry is his or her coinage;’ and will be posterity’s true inheritance and wealth.

To the extent that a poet’s art represents his or her coinage, it represents what they bequeath – their legacy. And their legacy will define their spiritual “worth”. It will define to what “power [their work is] due”. The poet’s legacy might be a celebration of life. It might serve as dower to Love. Websters defines a dower as ” the part of or interest in the real estate of a deceased husband given by law to his widow during her life”. Again, in this sense, Rossetti plays on the idea of art as legacy to be bequeathed. The closing, epigrammatic couplet, the summation of the sestet’s argument, warns that the poet’s misspent genius may end,

‘mid the dark wharf’s cavernous breath,
In Charon’s palm it pay the toll to Death.

The final couplet effectively adds emphasis to the warning. The mispent coin  (the mispent wealth of an artist’s or poet’s genius) will end in oblivion “‘mid the dark wharf’s cavernous breath.” No mistake that the Sonnet’s last word is Death. This is the other side of the coin. The artist who wastes his talents will surrender his legacy to oblivion, to “Charon’s palm” in toll to death.

So it is. The sonnet frames Rossetti’s elevation of bodily love as an august celebration of life. And it frames the sonnet sequence, The House of Life, as a dower to love’s high retinue.

All the while, the sonnet also manages to express some of Rossetti’s most cherished principles on the creation of a lasting art.

Facsimile (Enlarged)

  • The original source for this reproduction can be found here. The link, though, is unreliable. It comes and goes. Maybe they’re having trouble with their server?

A Favorite Sonnet from The House of Life.

Because I’m a bit like Rossetti when it comes to celebrating bodily love , I can’t resist offering the following sonnet from the sequence. It was, so I’ve read, the most controversial (horrifying Dante’s prim and buttoned-up sister Christina Rossetti). Why? It celebrates, in a nutshell, post-coital bliss. Long live D.G. Rossetti!


At length their long kiss severed, with sweet smart:
And as the last slow sudden drops are shed
From sparkling eaves when all the storm has fled,
So singly flagged the pulses of each heart.
Their bosoms sundered, with the opening start
Of married flowers to either side outspread
From the knit stem; yet still their mouths, burnt red,
Fawned on each other where they lay apart.

Sleep sank them lower than the tide of dreams,
And their dreams watched them sink, and slid away.
Slowly their souls swam up again, through gleams
Of watered light and dull drowned waifs of day;
Till from some wonder of new woods and streams
He woke, and wondered more: for there she lay.

Apparently, Christina Rossetti was so nettled by her brother’s attitude toward, gasp, sex (or the “spiritualism of sexual love”) , that she promptly wrote an allegory in which three ships sail forth on broad, calm seas – a piece of righteous vengeance called The Ballad of Boding. (Apparently no one pointed out the pun on boating). Anyway, three ships set off: the first ship is packed with “merry lovers”; the second ship is packed with pride, envy and avarice (read Wall Street Brokers); and the third ship is manned by, you guessed it, the poor and hungry “toiling at their oars”. Cue violin. All three ships are attacked by a Demonic Monster (read Christina Rossetti).

Guess which ships are promptly dispatched?

Here is how Christina Rossetti sent her decadent brother straight to the bottom of the ocean:

There was sorrow on the sea and sorrow on the land
When Love ship went down by the bottomless quicksand
To its grave in the bitter wave.
There was sorrow on the sea and sorrow on the land
When Worm-ship went to pieces on the rock-bound strand,
And the bitter wave was its grave.

And it’s no accident that the Love Boat was the first ship  sunk. What happened to the poor and hungry?

…the third ship crossed the bar
Where whirls and breakers are,
And steered into the splendours of the sky;

Victorian Poetry isn’t for sissies. Presumably, Christina was seated primly in the third ship. For more details on the sinking of the “Love Ship“, look here! You will find that this isn’t the only poem she wrote.

  • And, finally, for a nice collection of D.G. Rossetti’s poetry and paintings, visit here.