Rhyme & Meter Online: March 29 2009

  • 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

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Newsweek

The End of Verse?

A recent NEA report finds fiction reading on the rise, while readership of poetry has dropped significantly. Is an art form dying?

In January, the National Endowment for the Arts released a report titled “Reading on the Rise,” announcing that the number of American adults reading fiction had increased for the first time since the NEA began tracking reading habits in 1982. According to the report, 50.2 percent of adults had read a work of fiction in the previous year, compared with just 46.7 percent in 2002. The results were greeted with a mixture of excitement and caution by education experts. Some saw them as the long-awaited reversal of the trend toward a dumber, TV-obsessed United States; others, more wary, called them a statistical blip. Almost as an afterthought, the report also noted that the number of adults reading poetry had continued to decline, bringing poetry’s readership to its lowest point in at least 16 years.


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PoemShape

Sir Phillip Sidney: His Meter and his Sonnets

I have noticed that readers of my previous post on Shakespearean, Spenserian, Petrarchan Sonnet Forms have occasionally searched for further information on Sidney’s Sonnets. sir-phillip-sidneyThe first thing to know about Sidney is that his Sonnets predated those of Shakespeare, Daniel, Drayton, Donne, or Spenser. Spenser published his sonnets, Amoretti,  in 1595, 9 years after Sidney’s death and four years after Sidney’s own Sonnets were posthumously published. Samuel Daniel’s Delia was published in 1592. Micheal Drayton’s Idea was published in 1594. Shakespeare’s Sonnet Sequence was published in 1609. My point in mentioning this is that Sidney’s Sonnets are written in a variety of rhyme schemes and his meter varies between Iambic Pentameter and Iambic Hexameter (also called Alexandrines). Shakespeare, Spenser, Daniel and Drayton all settle on a single Sonnet scheme. When Sidney was writing, the Sonnet was still an unestablished form…

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Poetic meter, rhythm and rhyme

Michael Hickey

Meter is a systematically arranged and measured rhythm pattern in a literary composition, such as poetry. The root meaning of the word comes from the Greek term for measure…. Meter is the linguistic sound pattern of verse. You can imagine it as being a kind of measured beat of a poem. The precise units of poetic meter will vary from language to language and involve the manner in which syllables are arranged in repeated patterns, called feet, within a line…

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Ezine Articles

Holly Bliss

Homer and Hesiod – Greek Poets and Their Poetry Forms

In ancient times, people “would sing the stories of the Trojan War and its Greek heroes; these songs would be the Greek equivalent of a mini-series, for the stories were so long that they would take days to complete. The Greeks believed that the greatest of these story-tellers was a blind man named Homer, and that he sung ten epic poems about the Trojan War, of which only two survived (although the Greeks seem to have known them). As a group these poems told the entire history of the Trojan War; each poem, however, only covered a small part of that history” (Hooker).

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OPTIONS Associates: For a Better World

Time to Rhyme

It’s been a while since I’ve let myself write poetry. My heart hasn’t been in it. Tonight in my Monday night Big Yellow writing group, I decided it’s about time. And not just poetry, but rhymes. I love rhyming, so that’s what I wrote about in poem # 2…

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Women on Top

The Poet Robert Frost

What I find interesting about Frost is that I’ve learned how little poetic license he does take. Frost’s style, or individual method and tone, I read repeatedly, trying to decipher and understand better. I often wonder if Frost was more a master of prose disguised in poetry, as his literary writings seem to me to vary in rhythm and often seem more like ordinary speech. He seems to me to be very much a master of free verse. Furthermore, I feel Frost often wrote allegories, or stories with an underlying meaning symbolized by his characters and their action…

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Stoning the Devil

Formalism and the Pleasure Principle

I make no claims to be an expert where poetic form is concerned, but I want to posit a new possibility that has not, to my knowledge, heretofore been posited. What if someone were to put together post-avant (as it exists now) and formalism? The experiments of poets like Aaron Belz, Kristy Odelius, Robert Archambeau, and other Chicago affiliated poets, have put a proverbial foot in the door, but the door still needs to be kicked open…

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Book reviews: Michael Donaghy

Reviews by JOHN BURNSIDE

Michael Donaghy was, in his quiet way, one of the former: sensing that the Modernist/Postmodern game had gone on for far too long – that the conductors of chaos had, quite simply, lost the plot – he set out on a quest for order in poetry, though it was an order that in no way resembled that of some of those self-proclaimed “new formalists” who, like their opponents in the ludic-but-meaningless camp, were never very good at distinguishing baby from bathwater… In this quest, of course, he was not alone, but he was, for any number of reasons, exemplary, both in his own work, and in his critical understanding of poetics. In his work, form is never less than organic, the artifice is always paradoxically natural. Not surprising, then, that he has been a significant influence on the work of many of our leading poets, both in their thinking about form, and in their work…

Erlkönigin

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  • This poem is based on the Goethe’s famous poem – Erlkönig.
  • Schubert wrote an equally famous song for piano and voice based on the poem. Here is an orchestrated version (not orchestrated by Schubert). For those who don’t speak German (I do, by the way) this comes with English subtitles.
  • Here is an AMAZING animated excerpt. The complete video, for a price, can be found at http://www.theerlking.com/.
  • And here it is sung by Jessye Norman.
  • I just recently posted an astonishing new video based on Goethe’s poem, you can watch it here.

[Not a great reading of my poem – but here it is. There are a couple of mistakes and I may try it again when it’s not midnight.]


Erlkönigin - Page 1

Erlkönigin - Page 2

Erlkönigin - Page 3

Erlkönigin - Page 4

Erlkönigin - Page 5

Roethke & Waltzing Iambic Trimeter

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  • September 14, 2009. I remember making posters when I was a kid. The more I concentrated on the spelling, the more likely I was to get it wrong. It’s not Tetrameter but Trimeter. (This post was originally titled Roethke & Waltzing Iambic Tetrameter.) My thanks to Joy at  Welcome to Way Down Under for catching this mistake. Sometimes we just need a little help from friends.

Theodore Roethke lived from 1908 to 1963. He died the same year as Robert Frost, though much younger when he died – only 55. lives-of-the-poetsThough he won the Pulitzer Prize for his book, the Waking, his reputation these days remains overshadowed. Two good books that both offer brief biographies on  Roethke, Michael Schmidt’s the Lives of the Poets and David Perkins A History of Modern Poetry, cite Roethke’s inability to establish his own voice as contributing to his relative obscurity. His style ranges from an early rugged meter and rhyme, to a Yeatsian diction and subject matter mid-career, to a more elemental and Whitmanesque freedom of line and expression shortly before his death (though he never wholly abjures form in poetry). Schmidt writes: “His dependence on other poets for structure, mythology, and actual style shakes our trust in the poet; but no one can deny the original power of the poems that seek to make him whole.”  On the other hand, what Roethke generally did not adopt, unlike some of his contemporaries and successors, was the “abandoning of traditional forms and the contingent world in favor of the seductions of the unconscious and of dream.” Reothke’s best poems are strongly grounded in the real, present and natural world.

My Papa’s Waltz

Roethke - My Papa's Waltz

My Papa’s Waltz may be one of Roethke’s best known poems. It’s written in an Iambic Trimeter that Roethke skillfully varies according to the subject matter of the poem – a counterpoint unavailable to free verse poetry.

I’ve bracketed the first and third quatrains (or stanzas) because they offer something very deliberate. The feminine endings of dizzy and easy (slant rhymes), in the first stanza, and knuckle and buckle, in the third, masterfully reproduce the halting and drunken rhythm of his father’s waltzing. (Without being limping iambs, the lines create a similar feel.) The words themselves both reinforce and are reinforced by the meter – dizzy in the first stanza; the painful interruptions of knuckle and buckle in the second.

The other reason for bracketing both stanzas is that they are both strictly about Roethke’s dance with his father.

Another metrical touch is the trochaic foot in the second line of the second stanza:

slid-from

The trochaic foot skillfully emphasizes the disruption of the pans as they slid from the kitchen selves. This isn’t an easy waltz, things are backwards and upside down. The trochee in the second line is echoed by the near-spondee of the stanza’s fourth line:

could-not

As with his mother’s countenance, the meter too is disturbed.

Before the boy is whisked off to bed, the metrical pattern of the poem is disrupted one last time:

you-beat-time

The second foot of could be read as an out and out spondee:

you-beat-time-spondee

theodore-roethkeIn either case, the meter disturbingly echoes the slap of his father’s palm on the boy’s head, disrupting the meter of the poem, the waltz, and any joy the boy takes in the father’s drunken attention. The only real anapestic variant in the poem occurs in the second line of the poem’s final stanza – with a palm. Though I shy away from giving poets too much credit for qualities (such as vowel & consonant sounds) inherent in the English language, I think that Roethke’s anapest, in this stanza, was deliberate. He could have written – With palms|cracked hard| by dirt. I think the line would have worked that way. My reading is that the anapest nicely reproduces the hard, swinging whack of the father’s palm on the boy’s head.

And yet, through all these things, the boy still “clings” to his father’s shirt when he is waltzed off to bed. Even the rough attention of a drunken father is a “love” that the boy clings t. This is perhaps the most poignant, to me, conclusion of the poem. Despite the hard and painful dance of his father’s waltz, it’s not a dance that the boy wants to surrender.

Be sure and let me know if you enjoy these readings.

Measure: A Review of Formal Poetry Issue-1 2008

Measure 2008Here is something I’ve been meaning to do for a while – recommend Measure and a couple of poets within.

Measure is one of the few journals devoted to publishing poetry in meter and rhyme – published by the University of Evansville Press. In the name of supporting the journal, I’ve included address, subscription info and submission guidelines at the bottom.

The poetry, by the way, isn’t as fraught as their cover art. “Fraught” cover art seems to be all the rage among poetry journals these days – at least the ones I”m familiar with. I let a subscription to Poets & Writers Magazine expire when, for a year, every single cover had a distressed, pensive, burdened-by-the-weight-of-their-own-profundity, poet on it. Seriously.

Anyway.

All of the poets in Measure possess an enjoyable gift for language, can write elegantly, skillfully and succinctly within a form, but some of the poets offer more than a melodious line and exposition.

Some Poets to Watch

Peter Swanson: A Distant Figure P. 128

The poem is written in 5  sextains. Swanson uses off-rhyme which sometimes works and sometimes doesn’t – being the nature of off-rhyme. (The rhyme scheme fades in and out.) Dickinson’s poems feel this way to me too.

The meter of the poem is Iambic Tetrameter – on the conservative side with just a handful of variant feet. No complaint – just observing. In addition to his skillful use of meter and phrasing, his poetry offers fresh imagery and figurative language.

Love this image:

…in her wake
The light, a thousand nickles, fall
As though each wheeling stroke unfurls
A broken sun upon the lake.

Swanson falls back on the all too metrically convenient upon – a usage I’ve criticized in Stallings’ poetry. It’s an antiquated word and, besides that, Swanson uses the word incorrectly (as many metrical poets do). On and Upon are not always interchangeable. “To indicate a relation between two things, however, instead of between an action and an end point, upon cannot always be used: Hand me the book on (not upon) the table.” – Random House Dictionary. I’ve probably been guilty of it myself at some point.

Here’s some nice figurative language:

So many girls like her…
…clambered up
Into the coddling air…

Coddling air is a nice example of catachresis and personification.

But it’s the aptness of his imagery I enjoy the most. This is a poet who thinks deeply about analogy, simile and metaphor. He doesn’t settle for just any metpahor, but the metaphors he chooses inform the matter of his poetry. There are other examples, but here is the final stanza of his poem in full.

That rock, he knows, will outlast us,
Will feel another century
Of girls declare its back their bed
On summer days. That rock will see
Them burn away to rainbow dust,
Like dragonflies, by winter dead.

The skill of the imagery reminds me of Richard Wilbur, though Swanson’s phrasing is rougher. Setting off rainbow dust with the simile, like dragonflies, by winter dead is a master stroke, capturing the brilliant and moist (rainbow’s are a result of water droplets) beauty of the girl along with the inevitable transient dessication of her beauty. That’s the beauty of a masterful metaphor. A picture may be worth a thousand words, but a good metaphor can launch a thousand pictures.

Caki Wilkinson: Two Lullabies Page 150

Wilkinson offers up a pair of poems in ballad meter, two lullabies, one for the “precious child” and one for the “ugly child”. While the poems don’t plumb the depths of human existence, I was tweaked by her imaginitive imagery and acerbic wit. She writes of the precious child:

Tonight you’ll dream of open doors
and scoops of sherbet skies
while schooners sail from distant shores
led by your violet eyes

The imagery in the rest of this first poem to the precious child is comparatively conventional, but these four lines are imaginitive and wild. I liked them. This is a poet with an imagist’s bent. In the Lullaby for the Ugly Child she shows the same imaginative reach, she writes:

she’ll watch the nursury shadows bloom
as auspices of crows.

Dead Matter Page 152

A second poem by Wilkinson, a Shakespearean Sonnet, delights again.

…sycamores unroll their yellow sleeves,
when rust moves through the maple’s palmate veins…

or

…fruits of labor steep in garbage bags
cooked by the very juices of their birth…

My 0nly complaint, as concerns Wilkinson’s sonnet, is that all but one of her lines are end-stopped. The sonnet gives the feeling, rightly or wrongly, that it was studiously written line by line.

A.M. Juster: No Page 79

This sonnet was the winner of the 2007 Howard Nemerov Sonnet Award.

Of all the sonnets this one was the most expository.

There is no figurative language, no imagery or metaphor. (That the judges chose this sonnet over the others naturally reveals their own predilections.) But the sonnet is masterfully crafted. What I liked most was Justin’s flexible use of enjambment. When reading many poets who write formally, one gets the sense that they write line by line, foot by foot, rhyme by rhyme, until they’ve studiously erected their poem – as if they were painting by numbers. Juster’s thoughts move over the line and through them, and the rhymes give the illusion of sheer happenstance.

Pray. Comfort those
he lacerated. Keep him in your heart,
but use that grief to teach. When you compose
a line, it is a message, not just art.

Alan Sullivan: The Blighted Tree Page 89

This is a lovely sonnet marred only by the end-stopping of all its lines. Where Sullivan’s line lacks flexibility, however, the sonnet’s colorful and straightforward imagery recommends it:

I spare the tree to bear its sweetest fruit –
the last apples, stunted for want of sap,
their savor wrung from dying bough and root.

The Frostian language closes with a lovely couplet:

year after, I shall not tend trees at all
I too have fruit to bear before the fall.

The observation and careful detail make me curious to read other poems by Sullivan.

Info on Measure

Editorial Office

Measure: A Review of Formal Poetry
Department of English
University of Evansville
1800 Lincoln Avenue
Evansville, IN 47722

Publication

Measure: A Review of Formal Poetry is published in the spring and fall of each year.

Subscription

One-year subscriptions (2 issues) are $18, two-year subscriptions (4 issues) are $34, and three-year subscriptions (6 issues) are $50. Please add $6 per year for all subscriptions outside the US. Current and back issues are availalbe for $10 each.

Submissions

Manuscripts must be accompanied by an appropriately-stamped return envelope. Please see our website for complete submission guidelines.

Iambic Pentameter & Robert Frost’s Birches

  • February 22, 2009 – After reading this post, you might enjoy a colorcoded scansion of Birches included with a scansion of Frost’s Mending Wall.
  • April 25, 2009 – Added audio of Frost reciting Mending Wall.
  • May 9, 2009 – Added notes about the poem and discussed Frost’s erotic bent.

Balance

….the poem is more about striking a balance between getting “away from earth” and then coming “back to it” than it is about overcoming fear. He told his former student, John Bartlett: “It isn’t in man’s nature to live an isolated life. Freedom isn’t to be had that way. Going away and looking at a man in perspective ,and then coming back… that is what’s sane and good.” In one interview in 1931, he extolled the virtues of “striving to get the balance.” He added, “I should expect life to be back and forward–now more individual on the farm, now more social in the city,” reflecting the pattern of his own life. (Robert Frost: The People, Places, and Stories Behind His New England Poetryp. 77)

So wrote Lea Newman in her introduction to Birches. The genius of the poem is in its beautiful and powerfully sustained use of a fairly straightforward extended metaphor – swinging birches as a metaphor for balance. Frost is careful not to over interpret that balance. It could be between earth and spirit, nature and civilization, childhood and manhood, love and loss. The reader will bring to the poem his or her own meaning – and it is this capacity of the poem that makes it a great poem, a work of genius.

You Decide

For most readers there’s no hidden subtext beyond what’s grasped intuitively.

But this hasn’t stopped some interpreters.  For instance, in Robert Frost: Modern Poetics and the Landscapes of Self, Frank Lentricchia remarks:

Those “straighter, darker trees,” like the trees of “Into My Own” that “scarcely show the breeze,” stand ominously free from human manipulation, menacing in their irresponsiveness to acts of the will.

I’ve read Birches countless times, and the feeling of an ominous menace never once crossed my mind. To read this kind of interpretation into the imagery requires some kind of context and there simply is none – not in two lines. And referring to “Into my Own”, as though the two poems were somehow related or created the context for such an interpretation, is nonsensical. But the bottom line is that there doesn’t have to be a symbolic undercurrent (or double meaning) to every single word or image. Close readers and academics love nothing more than teasing out interpretations, but just because it can be done, doesn’t mean there’s any objective validity to the interpretation.  At some point, such exercises strike me as being more like parlor games.

Just because the other trees are darker doesn’t mean that they are ominous. Fact is, every single tree in the New England landscape is darker than the birch. And for the most part (and after a good ice storm) most other trees are, factually, straighter than birches. In The Wood Pile, Frost refers to the view as being “all in lines/Straight up and down of tall slim trees,” One need not read any more into Frost’s imagery than the simple fact of it.

But, naturally, if Lentricchia is going to invoke menace, he needs to explain why (to justify that interpretation). He writes that they are menacing in their “irresponsiveness to acts of human will”.  I just don’t buy it.

At best, one would need to make the assumption that Frost’s use of the word dark always constituted some kind of menace when used in reference to trees or the woods. But in his most famous poem, Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening, Frost writes that “The woods are lovely, dark and deep”. Despite Frost’s use of the word lovely, this hasn’t stopped close readers from suggesting that Frost was contemplating suicide and that loveliness, far from being praise of the New England wood in winter,  was a contemplation of the lovely, dark and deep oblivion that is suicide (or so they interpret it). Richard Poirer is among those who have made this suggestion. By the absence of a comma between the word dark and the word and he concludes that the “loveliness thereby partakes of the depth and darkness which make the woods so ominous.” The italics are mine. But Poirier’s reading could hardly be called objective. There is, in fact, no way of knowing what significance such punctuation might have held for Frost. However, Frost did have a thing or two to say about ominous interpretations. William Pritchard writes, in  Frost: A Literary Life Reconsidered:

Discussion of this poem has usually concerned itself with matters of “content” or meaning (What do the woods represent? Is this a poem in which suicide is contemplated?). Frost, accordingly, as he continued to to read it in public made fun of efforts to draw out or fix its meaning as something large and impressive, something to do with man’s existential loneliness or other ultimate matters. Perhaps because of these efforts, and on at least one occasion – his last appearance in 1962 at the Ford Forum in Boston- he told his audience that the thing which had given him most pleasure in composing the poem was the effortless sound of that couplet about the horse and what it does when stopped by the woods: “He gives the harness bells a shake/ To ask if there is some mistake.” We might guess that he held these lines up for admiration because they are probably the hardest ones in the poem out of which to make anything significant: regular in their iambic rhythm and suggesting nothing more than they assert… [p. 164]

All of which is to say, Frost had little patience for self-pity or, by extension, suicide. One need only read Out, Out to get a sense of Frost’s personality. In short, one can contemplate the soothing darkness and loveliness of the woods without contemplating suicide. But you decide.

However

Beyond the interpretation of individual words and lines, there is a larger philosophical debate within the poem that will flavor what readers bring to the poem. It happens in the opening lines:

….

But swinging doesn’t bend them down to stay.
Ice-storms do that.
Often you must have seen them
Loaded with ice a sunny winter morning
After a rain. They click upon themselves
As the breeze rises, and turn many-coloured
As the stir cracks and crazes their enamel.
Soon the sun’s warmth makes them shed crystal shells
Shattering and avalanching on the snow-crust
Such heaps of broken glass to sweep away
You’d think the inner dome of heaven had fallen.
They are dragged to the withered bracken by the load,
And they seem not to break; though once they are bowed
So low for long, they never right themselves:
You may see their trunks arching in the woods
Years afterwards, trailing their leaves on the ground,
Like girls on hands and knees that throw their hair
Before them over their heads to dry in the sun.

But I was going to say when Truth broke in
With all her matter-of-fact about the ice-storm
,
I should prefer to have some boy bend them
As he went out and in to fetch the cows–

The italicized lines bracket a digression that Frost characterizes as Truth. What does he mean? In fact, the differentiation Frost implies between Truth and his playful, imaginary fable of the boy climbing the birches, is central to the poem’s meaning. The world of Truth could be construed as the world of science and matter-of-factness – a world which circumscribes the imagination  or, more to the point, the poetic imagination, Poetry. The world of the poet is one of metaphor, symbolism, allegory and myth making. At its simplest, Frost is describing two worlds and telling which he prefers and how he values each. “One could do worse than be a swinger of birches.” And by that, he could almost be saying: One could do worse than be a poet.

The underlined passage “You’d think the inner dome of heaven had fallen”, has been nicely interpreted as a reference to Ptolemaic astronomy (which believed that the planets and stars  were surrounded by crystal spheres or domes). I like that interpretation and I can believe that Frost intended it. The inner dome and its shattered crystal shells like “heaps of broken glass” fit neatly within the allusion. But there is significance in the allusion. The Ptolemaic model of the universe was a poetic construct – a theory of the imagination rather than matter-of-factness. In this sense, Truth as Frost calls it (or modern science) has collapsed the inner dome of the poetic imagination and replaced it with something that doesn’t permit the poet’s entry. The shattered inner dome of the imagination (of the myth makers) has been replaced by fact – by science.

And in this light, the entirety of Frost’s description, climbing the birches, just so, and swinging back down, becomes a kind of description for the life which the poet seeks and values – the imaginative life of the poet:

…. He learned all there was
To learn about not launching out too soon
And so not carrying the tree away
Clear to the ground. He always kept his poise
To the top branches, climbing carefully
With the same pains you use to fill a cup
Up to the brim, and even above the brim.
Then he flung outward, feet first, with a swish,
Kicking his way down through the air to the ground.
So was I once myself a swinger of birches.
And so I dream of going back to be.
It’s when I’m weary of considerations,
And life is too much like a pathless wood
Where your face burns and tickles with the cobwebs
Broken across it, and one eye is weeping
From a twig’s having lashed across it open.
I’d like to get away from earth awhile
And then come back to it and begin over.
May no fate willfully misunderstand me
And half grant what I wish and snatch me away
Not to return. Earth’s the right place for love:
I don’t know where it’s likely to go better.
I’d like to go by climbing a birch tree….

The poet learns all there is to learn about “not launching out too soon”. He could be describing the art of poetry. You cannot swing from a birch without the right height. But if you also climb too high, if your ambitions exceed the matter of your poem, the birch will break . You must write your poetry, climbing carefully, with the “same care you use to fill a cup,/Up to the brim, and even above the brim.” But I don’t want to limit the poem’s meaning to just this. Frost is describing more than the poet, but a whole way of interpreting the world.

It’s the difference between the mind that seeks objective truths, irrespective of the observer, and the mind that perceives world as having symbolic, metaphorical and mythical significance. It’s the world of religion and spirituality. Its the world of signs and visions – events have meaning. In the scientific world view, nothing is of any significance to the observer: life is like a “pathless wood”, meaningless,  that randomly afflicts us with face burns, lashing us, leaving us weeping. The observer is irrelevant. In some ways, science is anathema to the poet’s way of understanding the world. It’s loveless. And that’s not the world Frost values. “Earth’s the right place for love,” he writes.  The woods that he values have a path and the birches are bent with purpose.

But having said all that, Frost also acknowledges a balance.

I’d like to go by climbing a birch tree
And climb black branches up a snow-white trunk
Toward heaven, till the tree could bear no more,
But dipped its top and set me down again.
That would be good both going and coming back.

If we read him right, he seems to be saying that he prefers not to be too much in one world or the other. Let him climb toward heaven, both literally and figuratively, but let him also be returned to earth. Having written this much, Frank Lentricchia’s own interpretation of the poem’s divisions may be more easily understood:

….There is never any intention of competing with science, and therefore, there is no problem at all (as we generally sense with many modern poets and critics) of claiming a special cognitive value for poetry. In his playful and redemptive mode, Frost’s motive for poetry is not cognitive but psychological in the sense that he is willfully seeking to bathe his consciousness and, if the reader consents, his reader’s as well, in a free-floating, epistemologically unsanctioned vision of the world which, even as it is undermined by the very language in which it is anchored, brings a satisfaction of relief when contemplated…..

If I may be so bold as to interpret (and interpreting academese does take some boldness), what Lentricchia seems to be saying is that Frost’s philosophical stance does not arise from any direct experience (as stated in the poem). Direct experience would be “epistemologically sanctioned”. Epistemology, a word coddled and deployed by academics with fetishistic ardor, is the “branch of philosophy that investigates the origin, nature, methods, and limits of human knowledge.” So, to interpret, Lentricchia appears to be saying that Frost’s “vision/philosophy” is not “epistemologically/experientially” “sanctioned/based“. In short, Frost’s experience (and that of the readers) is that of the poet and poetry – the purely subjective realm of imagination, story telling and myth making.

Interestingly, those who criticize the poem for being without basis in experience (Lentricchia is not one of them) seem blissfully unaware that this is precisely the kind of knowing that the poem itself is criticizing and examining. That is, the poem is its own example of myth-making — the transformative power of poetry. Yes, says Frost, there is the matter-of-fact (epistemologically sanctioned) world, but there is also the poetical world – the world of metaphor and myth that is like the slender birch (and the poem itself). It can be climbed but not too high. The matter-of-fact world is good to escape, but it is also good to come back to.

John C Kemp, in Robert Frost and New England: The Poet as Regionalist, goes further in explaining what some readers consider the poem’s weaknesses.

“Mending Wall,” “After Apple-Picking,” and “The Wood-Pile” are centered on specific events that involve the speaker in dramatic conflicts and lead him to extraordinary perspectives. ¶ (….)however, “Birches” does not present a central dramatized event as a stimulus for the speaker’s utterance. Although the conclusion seems sincere, and although Frost created a persuasive metaphorical context for it, the final sentiments do not grow dramatically out of the experiences alluded to. (….) Frost’s confession that the poem was “two fragments soldered together” is revealing; the overt, affected capriciousness of the transitions between major sections of the poem (ll. 4-5, 21-22, and 41-42) indicates that instead of striving to establish the dynamics of dramatized experience, he felt he could rely on the force of his speaker’s personality and rural background. In early editions, a parenthetical question, “(Now am I free to be poetical?),” followed line 22, making the transition between the ice storm and the country youth even more arbitrary.

My own view is that rather than making the poem feel arbitrary, the question Now am I free to be poetical? makes Frost’s thematic concerns too explicit. The question too sharply defines the contrast between the matter-of-fact and the poetical. In short, Frost may have felt that the question overplayed his hand.  (Some critics read this question as an affectation. I don’t. I read it as signaling the poem’s intent, a “stage direction” that Frost later removed.)

Frost was striving for balance both in poem and subject matter — between the poetical and the matter-of-fact.

Another Interpretation

Some readers have interpreted the poem as being about masturbation. George Monteiro, Robert Frost and the New England Renaissance, alludes to this interpretation in the closing paragraphs of his own analysis. (And if you have searched on-line, then you have probably found the same interpretation in some haphazard discussions.) But here is what Monteiro (in full) has to say:

If physiologically there is some sort of pubescent sexuality taking place in the “swinging” of “birches,” it is not surprising, then, that the boy has “subdued his father’s trees” by “riding them down over and over again” until “not one was left for him to conquer” and that the orgasmic activity should be likened to “riding,” which despite the “conquering” can be done time and again. One need only note that the notion of “riding,” already figurative in “Birches,” reappears metaphorically in Frost’s conception of “Education by Poetry,” wherein he writes: “Unless you are at home in the metaphor, unless you have had your proper poetical education in the metaphor, you are not safe anywhere. Because you are not at ease with figurative values: you don’t know . . . how far you may expect to ride it and when it may break down with you.” And what is true for metaphor and poetry is true for love. Frost insisted that a poem “run . . . from delight to wisdom. The figure is the same as for love. Like a piece of ice on a hot stove the poem must ride on its own melting.” Then it is totally appropriate within the metaphor of “swinging birches” that even the storm-bent trees should look to the adult male like “girls on hands and knees that throw their hair / Before them over their heads to dry in the sun.” No wonder, then, and fully appropriate it is, that when the poet thinks that his wish to get away from earth might by some fate be misunderstood such that he be snatched away never to return, his thought is that “Earth’s the right place for love.” At some level of his consciousness the pleasurable activity of “swinging birches” has transformed itself into the more encompassing term “love.” One might say, within the logic of this reading of the poem, that “Earth’s the right place for [sexual] love,” including onanistic love. The same sexual metaphor runs through the final lines of the poem as the mature poet thinks of how he would like to go but only to come back.

It’s an intriguing interpretation, but I don’t buy it. Frost was capable of writing about sexual themes, but there’s no precedent, elsewhere in his poetry, for such a sleight of hand. Just as any number of critics can convince themselves that Shakespeare was a lawyer, a homosexual, Edward de Vere, Francis Bacon, a woman, and even Queen Elizabeth, one can surely find evidence for just about any interpretive inference in just about any poem. Figurative language and metaphor, by definition, lend themselves to multiple interpretations.

The interpretation must remain, at best, purely speculative and very doubtful at that.

Then again, many modern critics and readers feel that the author’s intentions are irrelevant. Fortunately for the reader, the same rules apply to those critics and readers. Just because an interpretation can be made doesn’t mean they’re right or relevant. Again, you decide.

Robert Frost & the Blank Verse of Birches

I wanted to take a look at Robert Frost’s blank verse (Iambic Pentameter) and Birches is a beautiful example.  I understand that this won’t interest most readers and many may find it irrelevant. The rest of this post for those who enjoy studying how meter can be used to masterful effect. If you’re one of those, be sure to comment. I would enjoy hearing from you. In an effort to avoid a book-length post I’ll read the poem 10 lines at a time. But first, here is the poem in its entirety along with my scansion. If you are new to scansion then take a look at my post on the basics.

Frost recites Birches:

For the colorcoded version click here.

Birches

Robert Frost - Scansion of Birches

Lines 1-10

lines-1-10-corrected

As with The Road Not Taken, the other Frost poem I looked at, I listened to Frost read the poem before I scanned it. I actually would have been tempted to scan it differently before listening. The first line for example, I might have scanned:

When I |see bir|ches bend |to left |and right

That is, I might have been tempted to put the emphasis on When instead of I. Critics sometimes accuse metrists of unnaturally fitting a poem’s language to a metrical pattern. Read anapests, they say, don’t elide the anapest to read as an Iamb. What they forget though, is that poets who right metrical poems are themselves metrists. That’s why, when I read a line like To be or not to be that (is) the question, I prefer to put the emphasis on is. (It’s in keeping with the Iambic Meter). Similarly, listening to Frost, one can clearly hear him reading the meter. When I, he writes and reads.

robert-frost-chair1Interestingly, Frost reads the fifth line as follows:

But swinging them doesn’t bend them down to stay
As ice-storms do.

Instead of “Ice storms do that“. I like the printed version better because it varies the Iambic beat and makes the thought feel more like a colloquial aside. My guess is that Frost was reciting this from memory and that the Iambic alteration was easier to remember (which was partly blank verse’s advantage on the Elizabethan stage). The fifth line ends with an iambic feminine ending. And I just now noticed that I forget to mark morning, at the end of line 6 – corrected in the extract.

Up to this point, Frost has written an Iambic Pentameter that Shakespeare would have been recognized and accepted in Shakespeare’s day. The first four lines are strictly Iambic Pentameter. This has the effect of firmly establishing the meter of the poem. As long as Frost doesn’t vary too much, for this point on, the ear will register whatever he does as variations on an established Iambic Pentameter meter. I won’t say that Frost did this deliberately. In other poems, like The Road not Taken, he varies the metrical line from the outset. In this case, though, the effect is such that the lines stabilize the metrical pattern early on.

Ice-Storms and often (in line 6) are trochaic feet.

With line 7 one finds a nice metrical effect with As the |breeze ri|ses. The spondaic foot has the effect of reproducing the rising breeze – breeze being more emphasized than the, and ris-es being more emphasized than breeze. Unlike some, I won’t go so far as to say that Frost toiled for hours producing this effect, but he was probably aware that the natural progression of the language nicely fit the metrical pattern.

lines-11-20

In his book on blank verse called Blank Verse (which I’ve been meaning to review) Robert B. Shaw provides his own scansion of this passage (or a part of it.)

Here it is:

shaws-scansion

blank-verseIt’s gratifying to see that we mostly agree. Where our scansion doesn’t match is probably because I’ve followed Frost’s own reading. For instance, Frost gives greater emphasis to the word shed than Shaw does and gives less emphasis to crust (in snow-crust) than Shaw. I wouldn’t call Shaw’s reading incorrect, simply different than Frost (because Shaw’s reading recognizes the overall iambic pattern – unlike the scansion of The Road Not Taken at Frostfriends.org – which I criticized elsewhere.

More to the point, the story which meter tells reinforces the content of the poem. The poem, which up to this point has been fairly standard iambic pentameter, disrupts the metrical flow just as the rising breezes disrupt the tree’s “crystal shells”. The dactylic first foot Shat-ter-ing – one stressed syllable followed by two unstressed syllables, upsets the ear’s expectation, disrupting the iambic flow. The final foot of this line  – |the snow-crust – is called a heavy feminine ending. Whereas the usual iambic feminine ending ends with an unstressed syllable, a heavy feminine ending ends with an intermediate or strongly stressed syllable. This variant foot was wildly popular in Jacobean theater. Frost probably could have avoided it; but the use of it serves to further disrupt the metrical pattern – further mirroring the disruption of the “crystal shells”. All of this is an effect that is hard, and in some ways impossible, to reproduce in Free Verse.

The next line is one of the more metrically interesting:

youd-think

I can’t tell, but Shaw either has forgotten to mark the second syllable of heaven, or he has chosen to elide heaven such that it reads heav‘n – making it a one syllable word. Frost pronounces it fully as two syllables. So… what makes this final foot interesting is in what to call it. Strictly speaking, it’s a tertius paeon – two unstressed followed by a stressed and unstressed syllable. Another way to read the line would be as a long line or hexameter line.

youd-think-hexameter-reading

Hexameter lines can be an acceptable variant with an Iambic Pentameter pattern, but with a pyrrhic (weak) fifth foot and a trochaic (inverted) final foot, the feet seem too weak to support a hexameter reading (the extra foot). My preference is to read a line as being pentameter (having five feet) unless a line’s “feet” are strong enough to support hexameter.

Frost’s metrical habit is to see anapestic feet as a perfectly acceptable variant to iambic feet – frequently calling them loose iambs. With that in mind, my own reading is that Frost has substituted an anapestic feminine ending for an iambic feminine ending. To my ear, it’s an elegant variation – and not one found prior to Frost (to my knowledge). Frost will use this foot again later in the poem.

hearing-the-measuresOf interest in the next two lines are the elision of They are to They’re. Some metrists, like George T. Wright, are criticized for too readily reducing anapests to iambs by the use of elision – as if he were philosophically opposed to anapests. If the poets had meant the lines to be read as iambs, the reasoning goes, they would have written them as iambs.  If you’ve read my previous posts on meter you’ll know that, if I can, I tend to elide anapests to read as iambs. I learned this technique by reading Wright’s books on meter.

I feel a little vindicated noticing that when Frost reads or recites Birches, he pronounces (elides) They are as They’re – despite the fact that he hasn’t marked them as such. (Mind you, his lines would be perfectly acceptable variants if read them as anapests.) So, I don’t make this stuff up.

A last observation on these ten lines. It is interesting to note that balance Frost establishes between standard Iambic Pentameter and variant lines. The seventh and eighth line from the extract above are varied with trochaic and anapestic feet, but notice how both these lines are balanced by perfect Iambic Pentameter lines.

bracketed-lines-corrected

More so than the meter, the next ten lines are interesting for their Frostian colloquialism. Before Frost, no 19th Century Poet (or earlier unless they were writing Drama) would have stopped the poem mid-breath to say something like: But I was going to say. Up to this point, the poem’s tone could be considered fairly traditional, but Frost, as interrupts the elevated tone with colloquial banter: broke in, all her matter-of-fact, I should prefer, fetch the cows.

  • Note: There’s no denying the eroticism, by today’s standards, in the lines: “Like girls on hands and knees that throw their hair hair/ Before them over their heads…” I have a truffle pig’s nose for eroticism in poetry. Trust me. Read my analysis of Sidney and Dryden if you don’t believe me.  However, I think it’s reading too much into this imagery if one takes it as the starting point for an erotic subtext in the entirety of the poem. Several reasons:

1.) In 1913, when this poem was published, what was tolerated in terms of sexuality and eroticism was worlds apart from now (or the Elizabethan Age for that matter). There was erotic literature, but it was very underground. Women couldn’t vote. They couldn’t swim at the beach unless they were, practically speaking, fully clothed. Miller’s Tropic of Cancer, published just over twenty years later, wouldn’t be permitted on American shores for  another 50 years!  Doggy style was not the first thing to pop into  readers’ minds when they read this (or else the poem would have been banned). Pornographic language and imagery was practically non-existent in the public sphere.

2.) Frost himself was risk averse. He didn’t achieve any real recognition until he was in his mid-forties and he would not have risked his reputation if he had thought the image was too suggestive. He was nothing if not conscious if his own image as a sort of New England farmer/poet.  And there’s is simply no other precedent for this kind of suggestiveness in any of his other published poetry. There is some poetry that remained unpublished however – humorous and one step removed from bathroom graffiti. Here’s an example:

Sam-ball-ism

The symbol of the number ten–
The naught for girls, the one for men–
Defines how many times does one
In mathematics or in fun
Go as you might say into zero.
You ask the heroine and hero.

This was about as close as Frost got to anything “erotic”. He joked about sex, one notch above crude, or treated sexuality as a dark undertow in the lives of men and women, The Subverted Flower for example.

3.) It’s too obvious. Even in his unpublished pranks, he was indirect.  No where else is Frost ever so explicit about sexuality (if one insists on interpreting the line as such). Though some interpreters will probably still make the argument, I personally don’t buy it.

lines-21-30

In terms of meter, only the very rare 19th century (or earlier) poet would have ended a line with a trochaic foot. Frost does so with baseball in the 5th line and will do so again  later in the poem. His willingness to extend variant feet into places where they hadn’t normally been helps lend his poetry a colloquial feel. Frost isn’t willing to robertfrost-at-batsacrifice the “sound of sense” for the sake of meter. But he also strikes a balance. Once again, notice that he brackets this line with perfectly Iambic Pentameter lines before and after.  In the 9th line, he substitues an anapestic final foot for an iambic foot – a much freer variation than used by any poet in the generation preceeding him.

I scanned Line 8 as a headless line (the initial unstressed syllable is omitted) and the third foot as anapestic – in keeping with his willingness to substitute iambs with anapests. However, one can also read the line as starting with two trochaic feet:

one-by-one-trochaic

I’m not philosophically opposed to this reading. Two trochaic feet at the start of a line is perfectly acceptable. The reason I prefer my own reading, I suppose, is because I hear the phrasing, not as trochaic, but Iambic – One| by one | he sub-dued. This is where the art of scansion comes into play; and I’m not going to argue that my preferred reading is the right one (in this case).

Notice how Frost echoes one by one with over and over – it’s a nice touch and works within the metrical patterning he allows himself.

The next ten lines come with one metrically ambiguous line – the 6th line.

lines-31-40-corrected

I scanned the line as follows:

the-top-branches

This makes the line pentameter and my hunch is that this is the spirit in which Frost wrote it.I notice that in his reciting of the poem, he is careful to give carefully it’s full three syllables. However, were it not part of a well established Iambic Pentameter poem, I would be tempted to scan the line as follows:

to-the-top-trochaic

Essentially trochaic tetrameter. Either way, the meter echoes the hesitant and careful climbing of the boy. This line, of all the lines, most threatens the Iambic Pattern and, in that respect, most draws attention to what the boy is doing – climb-ing care-fully.

  • Alternate Readings November 11th 2016: I’ve just been having an email exchange with the poet Annie Finch, one of the finest “formalist” poets currently writing. She has a Ph.D. and currently teaches poetry. She strongly takes issue with my reading of the line above (and the next one below) as headless (∧). For example, where I read:

(∧} And |not one |but hung limp,| not one |was left

She reads:

And not | one but | hung limp,| not one |was left

I’ve used gray-scale and italics to indicate the level  of stress she assigns to each word. So, “not one” receives more stress than “And”, but not as much as the bolded words.

As I mentioned above, I chose to scan the poem the way Frost read it. This is not the only way to scan the poem; but since we have his recitation I thought it might be interesting to scan it the way he imagined it . Even in that respect my scansion is open to differences of opinion: Did Frost really emphasize a word as much as I’ve marked? That’s all subjective. Annie Finch’s reading, on the other hand, disregards the way Frost reads his poem. That said, I think her reading is equally valid and undoubtedly reflects the way she reads the poem. She writes:

You mention that you based the scansion of the poem on Frost’s own recorded performance of it.  I honor your interest in respecting Frost’s voice here, but this is really not a viable way to scan (his pronunciation of poems is so subjective that if scansion were dependent on the way a poem is spoken, meter would have ceased to exist long ago).

I agree that Frost’s reading is subjective, but I’d assert that all readings are subjective and that meter has nevertheless survived, so why not inquire into Frost’s own metrical preferences? As regards that, though, Annie Finch stated her guiding principle at the outset of our exchange:

As you will see throughout A Poet’s Craft, the SIMPLEST SCANSION IS ALWAYS BEST…” [Uppercase is her own.]

The book she refers to is her own. Her assertion that the simplest scansion is always the best leads her to write that my own scansion “is absurdly and needlessly complex.” I disagree and I don’t agree with her assertion if treated as an invariable rule (though it’s certainly useful as a guiding principle). In the case of Frost’s poem we can, at minimum, say that her “rule” leads her to read the lines counter to the way Frost reads them. Does that make her scansion wrong? No. I would, however, say that this demonstrates how scansion is less science than art. Do you care about how a poet reads his or her work? Does it matter when scanning? Does it matter if your scansion agrees with the poet’s? These questions are themselves debatable, but that they’re debatable is worth emphasizing. I don’t and would not claim that my scansion is the “correct” scansion—just my own spin on the matter.  She adds:

I notice you have marked three headless lines.  I believe only one of these is a true headless line and should be scanned as such, the one that begins “one by one he subdued.” (and this also fits with the meaning of the poem at that moment–he is subduing the poem in this one act of great metrical defiance).  Any other scansion distorts the line’s connection to the underlying iambic pentameter pattern, and furthermore the headless scansion is the simplest scansion of this line (by which I mean the scansion that has the fewest variations from the completely regular underlying model of iambic pentameter). 
 ·
The other two lines you have marked as headless, the one beginning “and not one” and the one beginning “may no fate,” are not truly headless.  A headless scansion of these two lines introduces needless complications and unnecessary variations from the underlying iambic pentameter  pattern. In the “may no fate” line, the only justification I can see for your headless scansion is that it avoids a trochee in the third foot (“FULly”) but that trochee is not a problem that needs to be avoided, because there is a caesura immediately after it followed by a four-syllable word that creates two of the most unrelentingly iambic feet in the poem.  Furthermore, the trochee “fully” in my opinion deserves to be scanned as such because it is a beautifully expressive prosodic example of willfullness and Frost deserves full credit for this magnificent piece of metrical variation. And finally, I feel it should be scanned to show the trochee because the trochee is I believe one of only two trochees in the poem that does not occur at a line-beginning or after a very strong caesura–and both of these wrenching, challenging prosodic moments express powerful verbal meanings of imposing will and overcoming the restrictions of reality (the other is “over” in the third foot of the line beginning “by riding them down”).
  ·
I think the risk here is that she’s associating her own aesthetics with Frost’s. In other words: ‘My reading, not yours, is the one that credits his “magnificent piece of metrical variation”‘. The problem with this sort of assertion is that it’s a logical fallacy, somewhat like the “No True Scottsman” fallacy in the following sense: “No true appreciation of Frost’s metrical art would read these lines other than the way I’ve read them.” Needless to say, I disagree. I could just as easily make the same claims for my own readings, that they are necessary because they uniquely capture Frost’s “beautifully expressive” prosody, but that would be just as fallacious. Further, I certainly don’t think trochaic feet are to be avoided. My own reading, after all, includes a trochee. She writes in closing:
  ·
And once you admit the poem really is in iambic pentameter, then any scansion of any line in the poem needs to use that as a starting point.  The scansion needs to show how Frost was following, when he was following, the basic rules of iambic pentameter. If he wasn’t following them, then show that he wasn’t.  But that is only possible when the scansion itself can be trusted to follow the rules.
  ·
I would dispute her characterization of my reading as not showing how Frost follows the basic rules of Iambic Pentameter. A headless line is a variant foot and very much a normal variant among those “rules” that define Iambic Pentameter.
  ·
All that said, I include her comments to demonstrate how contentious these matters can be. (Admittedly, it’s a bit like arguing over how many grains of salt are in a teaspoon.) I also want to stress that I consider her reading equally valid. I’m of the belief that scansion, within limits, may be subject to interpretation. Just as there’s often no one way to interpret a poem, there is sometimes more than one way to scan a poem. But I invite readers to make up their own mind.
 ·

The next two lines follow a more normative pattern with trochaic and anapestic variant feet.

The most elegantly metrical lines follow with the 9th & 10th line of the extract:

Then he  flungoutward, feet first, with a swish
Kicking his way down through the air to the ground

The spondee of flung out beautifully reinforces the image by disrupting the metrical pattern, as does feet first.  Kick-ing is further reinforced and emphasized by being a trochaic first foot. The word down, as Frost recites it, trochaically disrupts the meter again, more so than if it had been iambic.

lines-41-501

At Frostfriends.org you will find the following:

Birches: “It’s when I’m weary of considerations.” This line is perfect iambic pentameter, with an extra metrical (feminine) ending.

Their statement is incorrect. This line is not perfect iambic pentameter. A perfectly iambic pentameter line would not have a feminine ending (an amphibrach) in the final foot. It would have an iambic foot (if it were “perfect” iambic pentameter). The correct thing to say would have been: This is a perfectly acceptable variant with an iambic pentameter pattern.

Notice the trochaic final foot in the 9th line – a thoroughly modern variant.

As with the other lines, I scanned the 10th line as headless to preserve an Iambic scansion and because I thought it most accurately reflected Frost’s own reading of the poem. (That is, the feeling is Iambic rather than trochaic. ) While scansion doesn’t, by in large, reflect phrasing, there is a certain balance to be struck; and I have tried to do so in these lines.

lines-51-59

The fourth line is the most metrically divergent. I have scanned the line as Iambic Tetrameter with an anapestic feminine ending. The alternative would be to read it as follows:

id-like-to-go-pentameter

If this is what Frost imagined, then my own feeling is that the scansion fails as such. The pyrrhic fourth foot is exceptionally weak, even for pyrrhic feet, while a trochaic final foot seems inadequate to restore the underlying Iambic Pentameter pattern after such a weak fourth foot. Given precedence for an anapestic feminine foot earlier in the poem, and in the final line, the line makes much more sense if read as Tetrameter with an anapestic feminine foot. I don’t see this as being outside the bounds of an acceptable variant. Interestingly, the line remains decasyllabic so that the ear doesn’t so much perceive a short line as a a variant line.

This line has been preceded by some richly varied lines. As is Frost’s habit, he grounds the meter with the iambically regular 6th and 7th line. To that end (in his recitation) Frost effectively reads Toward as a monosyllabic word, emphasizing the return to Iambic Pentameter.

The closing two lines are conservative in their variants. Frost has reaffirmed the Iambic Pentameter and he’s not going to disrupt it again. The message, at this point, is what matters. The meter reinforces the calm and measured summation. In the second to last line, the only variant is an anapestic fourth foot.

chapin-robert-frost-lrWith the last line, the temptation is to read the first foot as One could| do worse, but Frost, in reciting the poem, once again reaffirms the iambic meter by emphasizing could. This sort of metrical emphasis, emphasizing words that might not normally be emphasized while de-emphasizing others that are more normally emphasized, is a Frostian specialty made possible by his use of meter. Free Verse can’t reproduce it. The last line, as Frost reads it, is regularly iambic until the last foot, at which point he elegantly closes with an anapestic feminine ending.

The final foot, with its anapestic swing and feminine falling off, could almost be said to imitate the swinging of the birch.

Such is the genius of Robert Frost.

The Seven Tales of the India Traders: The Third Day

Told on third day, after Pu-liang Yi’s Story of the Second Day

Sun

Said one trader to another: “Mistress Pu-liang Yi’s has left me as thoughtful as the nightingale that sings of nothing but thorns and roses. Let’s hear a fable of amusement!” Then the other traders agreed that they should hear Liang-chieh next.  “It has been good day for travel, let’s have a goodly fable to match it.

Liang-chieh’s Story

I cannot match Yün’s thoughtfulness and I do not have Mistress Yi’s depth of feeling. I am as shallow as a ditch. But you say I have humor and wit! Ha! Didn’t we see the sun until its very nose sunk into the southern plains and didn’t we see how the birds followed after it? When I was a child I wished to be a poet but my father said he would sooner clothe an ox in tailored silk than raise his son a poet. He made me a merchant, bless him. Here is my tale!

The Monkey and the Crane

“Ha!” said the Monkey. “Love is just a word!
“What good’s a thing that can’t be seen or heard?
“What use? You cannot shake it from a tree
“Or root it from the earth. What use to me
“Or anyone? The tiger still must hunt,
“And if you cry out “Love!” it will not blunt
“Her appetite. She’d eat me all the same
“And leave me no one but myself to blame!”

*

The Crane was next. She said: “I know
“That love will never melt midwinter snow.
“It is not rain to April buds or earth
“To summer growth. The measure of its worth
“Cannot be judged by any worldly art
“Yet love is life and summer to the heart.”

*

The Crane and Monkey were the last to speak,
Then Lao-tsu said: “I see that some are meek,
“The lion and tiger proud. The hummingbird
“Is quiet. The elephant is loud. A herd
“Of bison will uproot a field. A crow
“Will squat unnoticed even in the snow.
“As all of you must know I have two suns.
“When one is in my hat the other runs
“From east to west. When one sun sets I lay
“The other in the east to rise. This way
“The sun is out no matter what the hour.
“Yet I have had no time to pick a flower
“No time to rest beneath a shaded wood
“Or sleep. Sleep would be nice. So, if I could,
“I’d like to find out two from all of you
“To whom I’ll give my suns. Between the two
“The world should still have sunlight while I rest.
“I cannot say which one of you is best
“Yet given what each said on love I’ll choose
“The monkey and the crane—the two whose views
“Were most extreme. I find each sun a jewel
“And hope if either animal’s the fool
“The other may be wise. At least one sun,
“That way, remains—a better end than none.”

*

Though the other animals feared the worst
The Crane and Monkey stayed apart at first,
Just as the Monkey’s sun set in the west
The Crane was taking hers from out her nest.
By turns they kept the sunlight round the earth,
That was, until, the Monkey’s usual mirth
Made his sun seem the brighter one to him;
And so, one day, he swung from limb to limb
Until he found the jungle lake he knew
The Crane most liked. From there he climbed into
A nearby tree until she was in sight.

*

“Ha!” He cried. “Your sun is not so bright!
“I’ve seen mine up when yours is in your nest
“And even when mine’s setting in the west,
“Yours rising makes not half the fire of mine!
“This afternoon I’ll climb a mountain pine
“That’s stretched its limbs as far as heaven’s roof
“And there I’ll lift my sun to yours as proof
“That mine is like a plate of beaten gold
“And yours a tarnished copper dulled and old.”
“Oh!” the Crane replied. “I had not thought
“To set one sun against the other! Not
“Because I was afraid! It may be true
“That your sun’s brighter, just that I know too
“It is not light but warmth that brings forth life.
“Yet if it puts an end to any strife
“I’ll grant your sun’s the brighter of the two.”

*

The Monkey thought on this. “This will not do!”
He said at last. “It stands against all reason!
“As any fool knows well the hottest season
“Is when the sun is brightest in the sky.”
To which the Crane responded: “Then why not try
“Your sun against my own where all can see?
“The world be judge instead of you or me.”
“Agreed,” the Monkey said, “as long as they pick mine!”

*

Instead of finding out a mountain pine,
When it was next the Monkey’s turn to take
His sun, he put it back instead to make
It climb again (though now from west to east!);
And to be sure its backward motion had not ceased
He sat and watched until he saw each sun
Was climbing slowly toward the other one.
The animals had never seen them both
At once! The smallest hid in undergrowth
And those that couldn’t just as quickly ran
Into the jungle fearing the work of man.
The Monkey saw and jeered at every one.
“Ha!” He said. “I see that even tigers run!
“Why if I’d known it was so easy, I
“Would long ago have put them in the sky
“And left them there.” To which the Tiger said:
“You silly Monkey! Tell us why instead
“Of gloating, why you’ve put both suns together.”
“Simple!” said the Monkey. “Tell me whether
“My sun’s the brighter or the crane’s!” And when
The Crane came next the Tiger asked again
The reason but she said the same. ‘The two
‘Of us alone could not decide. We’ve come to you!’

*

Then all the animals began to talk
And there were some who even dared to walk
From underneath the jungle shade till one
By one the others came to pick a sun
Until, as with the Crane and Monkey, they
Were at a loss to choose and could not say
Which one was best. The Snake, the first to speak,
Said: “I’ve seen both already at their peak.
“If any one of you were made to crawl
“As I, you’d know the earth is cold. For all
“The light reflected in a field of snow
“There’s nothing lives for long where those winds blow—
“The earth is made no warmer by that light
“When even through the longest summer’s night
“It’s warm. I’ll take the moonlight in July
“To January’s sun!” The Owl said in reply
That she liked neither sun. She said:“I knew
The world without them, for then I flew
“And there was never sun to light my way.
“What needed I the sun to hunt my prey
“Who hears the fieldmouse toeing through the wheat?
“In the dead of night the tiger’s not so fleet
“As I! Let all this daylight be undone!”
To which the Tiger said: “I like the sun
“That burns the brightest burning like my heart.
“I like it glistering on the breath at start
“Of day or brightly watching like my eyes
“At evening from the fields before it lies
“In shadow. When it speckles through the tree
“Against the forest floor it looks to me
“As though a tiger left his paw prints there,
“Aglow, before returning to his lair.
“I like the sun that’s burning like my heart.”
The Elephant spoke next, saying: “I part
“With all of you in what you’ve said. Of all
“I can remember best and best recall
“A time when there was both a night and day.
“The dust I throw atop my back to stay
“The sun was what the night was to the earth,
“A cooling balm against that heat as great in worth
“As all the world’s waters. There is none
“Who live for long where there is only sun
“And wind. This world without the passing night
“Is like a desert, the sun like a blight
“And all reduced to dust. Surely we must drink
“To live, and sleep at night. I cannot think
“The world was always meant to have two suns.”

*

“Ha!” said the Monkey. “Where all this runs
“Is anybody’s guess. It should be plain
“By now the sun belonging to the Crane
“Is neither warm nor brighter than my own!”
To which the Crane replied: “I should have known.
“To teach a Monkey reason can’t be done!
“Why I could sooner teach a snail to run
“Or an ostrich to dance a roundelay!
“If nothing else this, at least, is plain as day!”

*

The Tiger interrupted both. He said:
“You’d better look into the sky instead
Where both your suns have nearly reached high noon!”
Then both the Crane and Monkey saw that soon
The suns would have to meet! As if to flee
The Monkey clamored to the nearest tree.
The Crane cried out and leapt into the air;
Both knew well there was little time to spare.
The Monkey climbed the limbs by twos until
The suns hung just beyond his outstretched hand;
And even when he did his best to stand,
His tail wrapped round the branches topmost stem,
He could not grapple either one of them.
The Crane, as quickly as she could, tried too
And strained against the winds until she flew
Beside the suns but then she could not choose.
She cried “I cannot tell whose sun is whose!”
And sure enough the Monkey could not say.
He pointed, scratched his chin, looked this way
Then that. And by the time they both decided
It came too late for next the suns collided!

*

So much light none had ever seen. And still
The sky grew brighter by the moment till
There came a sound as if two great bells
Had each been struck. Then like cockleshells,
Each thrown against the other mid-air,
The smaller of the two was shattered, there,
In countless pieces, scattered through the sky!
Not a creature dared to lift an eye
But stayed where each had fled and not a sound.
Just the Monkey who’d fallen to the ground —
Felled branch by branch until he’d struck the earth.
He checked if he was still his usual girth —
His head and then his bottom. All was there.
And looking he could do no more than stare.
His sun now glowed a thin and papery light —
A watery silver hardly half so bright
As what it was. He saw the sky aglow
As with a sparkling dust. It seemed as though
The brilliance of his sun was swept away
And all the pieces sprinkled through the half-lit day.
His fiery sun was gone.
And yet the Monkey thought he’d never known
A sight as beautiful as stars and moon,
And felt content to stare all afternoon.
“Ha!” That’s all the Monkey ever said.
Some held it came from landing on his head.
But others said they’d rather grasp the joke –
And though they tried the Monkey never spoke.
“Ha!” he said. That was all. The other sun,
Jolted from its westward course, had spun
Unbroken far into the southern sky.
Yet even so the Crane still flew close by
As if she feared to let it from her sight
Unless it whirl unwatched into the night

*

Lao-tsu didn’t see the suns collide
But napping in a meadow close beside
A brook he’d woken up to find a moon
And stars had splashed the fading afternoon
With light — some stars were falling from the sky
And some left sparkling trails where they passed by.
He rubbed his eyes before he looked again
And stared, his mouth agape, and knew by then
Some unknown mischief had unfixed the world.
It looked as if a giant’s rage had hurled
The sun as far as earth and sky still met.
He thought it seemed to topple there and yet
He still could see the crane against its light
Before it finally rolled into the night.
“Where are my suns?” he cried and rushed to where
He’d left them in the crane and monkey’s care,
Yet not a single animal would say.
The snake lodged underneath a rock to stay
Until the sun returned. The owl had flown.
The Tiger skulked the jungle’s dark alone.
The elephant recalled a darker night
Before the monkey’s sun had left its light
In splintered pieces. Alone among them all
The monkey sat absorbed by what he saw,
Unmoved from where he’d fallen from the tree.
He’d curled and propped his head against his knee
To watch the spinning stars. Lao-tsu cried:
“I see the crane fly south and thought she tried
“To catch the sun before it slipped away!
“I see, as with the remnants of the day,
“The night is dusted with a glittering light!
“I see a ghostly ball ascend the night
“As if it were the shadow of a sun!
“From this I cannot reason what you’ve done!”
The monkey only looked dissatisfied.
“Ha!” he said before he moved a branch aside.
Then Lao-tsu stared at him a little while
And could not say if it were simply guile
Or if the monkey also couldn’t reason why,
Till finally both sat gazing at the sky
Together with their backs against the tree.
There was a moon and countless stars to see.
Then he finally spoke once more that night,
He said: “The sky and earth will of themselves be right.”

“Ha!”

Here Ends Liang-chieh’s Tale

Followed by Ji-Yuan’s Story on the Fourth Day .

stamp-copyright-2009

As on a sunny afternoon…

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As on a sunny afternoon

Opening Book: The Green Gate Page 74-76

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Page 74 The Green Gate
Page 75 The Green Gate

Page 76 The Green Gate

IMHO: Critiquing the Critic

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

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

Holcombe summed Perloff up this way:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

That’s it.

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

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

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

She writes: “the reality is… probably…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

These, to me, are the questions worth asking.