On Robert Frost’s After Apple-Picking

      My long two pointed ladder's sticking through a tree
      Toward heaven still,
      And there's a barrel that I didn't fill
      Beside it, and there may be two or three
5     Apples I didn't pick upon some bough.
      But I am done with apple-picking now.
      Essence of winter sleep is on the night,
      The scent of apples: I am drowsing off.
      I cannot rub the strangeness from my sight
10    I got from looking through a pane of glass
      I skimmed this morning from the drinking trough
      And held against the world of hoary grass.
      It melted, and I let it fall and break.
      But I was well
15    Upon my way to sleep before it fell,
      And I could tell
      What form my dreaming was about to take.
      Magnified apples appear and disappear,
      Stem end and blossom end,
20    And every fleck of russet showing clear.
      My instep arch not only keeps the ache,
      It keeps the pressure of the ladder-round.
      I feel the ladder sway as the boughs bend.
      And I keep hearing from the cellar bin
25    The rumbling sound
      Of load on load of apples coming in.
      For I have had too much
      Of apple-picking: I am overtired
      Of the great harvest I myself desired.
30    There were ten thousand thousand fruit to touch,
      Cherish in hand, lift down, and not let fall.
      For all
      That struck the earth,
      No matter if not bruised or spiked with stubble,
35    Went surely to the cider-apple heap
      As of no worth.
      One can see what will trouble
      This sleep of mine, whatever sleep it is.
      Were he not gone,
40    The woodchuck could say whether it's like his
      Long sleep, as I describe its coming on,
      Or just some human sleep.
Frost reciting After Apple-Picking:

·

  • Interestingly, in Robert Frost’s reading (or memorization) of the poem, the line: “Cherish in hand, lift down, and not let fall…” is spoken as “Cherish in hand, let down, and not let fall.”

After Apple-Picking is one of Robert Frost’s great poems and among the greatest poems of the 20th century. The first thing I want to do is to revel in the structure and form of the poem. I’ve seen several references made to Rueben Brower’s analysis of the meter in this poem, and all the frostsources concur in calling Brower’s analysis a tour-de-force. I have not read Brower’s analysis and won’t until I’ve done my own. I love this sort of thing and don’t want my own observations being influenced. So, if there are any similarities, I encourage you to conclude that fools and great minds think alike. Here we go. First, T.S. Eliot:

“The most interesting verse which has yet been written in our language has been done either by taking a very simple form, like iambic pentameter, and constantly withdrawing from it, or taking no form at all, and constantly approximating to a very simple one. Is this contrast between fixity and flux, this unperceived evasion of monotony, which is the very life of verse… We may therefore formulate as follows: the ghost of some simple metre should lurk behind the arras in even the ‘freest’ verse; to advance menacingly as we doze, and withdraw as we rouse. Or, freedom is only truly freedom when it appears against the background of an artificial limitation.”

Eliot could have been describing Frosts’s After Apple-Picking (though he doesn’t say). Despite the appearance of free verse (which it is) Frost’s poetry moves toward and away from a regular meter, and into and out of rhyme, so that the arrhythmia of free verse  and the rhythm of meter co-exist and beautifully blend.

After Apple-Picking (Scansion)

  • Unmarked feet are iambic. Yellow is pyrrhic (which I will never learn to spell). Purple is spondaic. Red is trochaic. Green is an amphibrachic foot (called a feminine ending when closing the line).

Worth noting is that the poem is, allowing for the usual variant feet, as iambic (if not more so) than many of his more “regular poems”. The difference is in line length. The alternate lines are trimeter, dimeter and one monometrical line.  There are no alexandrines however. Frost seemed unwilling to extend the line beyond iambic pentameter. I listened to Frost’s own reading of the poem so that the scansion would more accurately reflect what he had in mind. Interesting to me is the fact that Frost, when he reads at least, prefers to emphasize the iambic lines. For instance, I was initially tempted to scan the following line as follows:

One can see |what will trouble

That’s two anapests, the second has a feminine ending. Frost, however, reads the first four syllables with an almost equal stress:

One can see what will trouble

This makes me more apt to scan the line as trimeter with two strong spondees:

One can |see what |will trouble

It may be reading too much into Frost’s performance (since he tends to emphasize the iambics in many of his poems) but the poems hard, driving iambics lend the poem an exhausted, relentless feel that well-suits the subject. There is no regular rhyme scheme, but there is a sort of elegant symmetry to the rhyming that’s easier to see with some color and some visual aids.

After Apple-Picking (Rhyme Scheme)

My own feeling is that one has to be careful when ascribing too much intentionality to the poet. How much of this rhyme scheme was the result of deliberate planning and how much arose naturally as the poem progressed? In other words, I grant that none of the rhymes are  accident, but I doubt that Frost sat down in advance to build his poem around a rhyme scheme. The poem has the feeling, especially given the shorter (almost opportunistic) line lengths, of a certain improvisation. When he needed to rhyme earth, he cut short a line (making it dimeter) to end up with “As of no worth”. On the other hand, I don’t think it’s coincidence that we find bough/now just after the start of the poem, and fall/all shortly before the poem finishes. In the middle, as though bracketed by these two couplets, is the triple rhyme well/fell/tell. The effect is to nicely divide the poem and give a certain symmetry.

The last element to include is the phrasing, something I haven’t done in other poems, but will try to elucidate in this one. Part of the art of poetry, too often overlooked, is the achievement of phrasing that, at its best, mimics human speech. We don’t tend to speak in one long sentence after another and we don’t favor an endless stream of short sentences (unless “dramatic” circumstances call for it). Not only was Frost keenly interested in the colloquial voice, but also understood the importance of phrasing, of the give and take of normal speech. A mistake that many beginning poets make, in their effort to so much as fit their ideas into the patterns of rhyme and meter, is to sacrifice a naturalness in their phrasing. A telltale feature of such writing is a poem dominated by end-stopped lines — syntax and phrasing that slavishly follows the line.After Apple-Picking (Phrasing)

So, what I’ve done is to color code what I perceive to be the rhetorical structure of the poem. I’m iffish on a couple details, but let’s get started. The fist five lines are a simple, declarative sentence. Frost (I’ll refer to the speaker as Frost) begins the poem with a scheme called the Italian Quatrain. This only means that the rhyme scheme follows an abba pattern one would find in Petrarchan sonnets. ( I don’t, for an instant, suggest that Frost was thinking to himself: I shall now write an “Italian Quatrain”.) I do mean to suggest that the quatrain has a certain closed feel to it. But the poem isn’t done and neither is the work of apple-picking. In the fifth line there are some apples “still upon some bough” and there is new rhyme, bough,  dangling like an unpicked apple.

Frost turns inward:

6  But I am done with apple-picking now.
   Essence of winter sleep is on the night,
   The scent of apples: I am drowsing off.

The light green and “Dartmouth” green (couldn’t resist calling it that) signify the moments when Frost’s gaze turn inward. This happens four times in the poem.  Whereas the first five lines are comprised of syndetic clauses (clauses linked by the conjunctive and), the  second clause, the apple ladderturning inward from the orchard (which places the poem) to Frost’s exhaustion, is asyndetic. The first five lines, with their repeated and’s are the way we speak (and you’ll even notice it in children) when we want to express the idea of endlessness.  We might say: I have this and this and this and this to do. In a similar sense, Frost wants to communicate the endlessness of this chore. The first five lines are a rush of description.

When his gaze turns inward, to his own exhaustion, the lines become asyndetic. The fifth line, introducing a new rhyme, is complete in and of itself. The syntax, I think, mirrors Frost’s own exhaustion. The sentences are short. Clauses are no longer linked by conjunctions (they could be).

But I am done with apple-picking now.

By rights, one could pause after that line as though to catch one’s breath. The pause is reinforced when the line completes the rhyme of bough with now, as if Frost had picked the apple. In some ways, one could stop the poem here. The rhymes are complete. We have an Italian Quatrain followed by a concluding couplet. In a sense, the first six lines are the larger poem in miniature. “Essence of winter sleep,” not just the sleep of a night, already hints at a longer hibernation.  From there Frost sleepily stumbles onward and the rhymes, like unpicked apples, will draw him. The sentences become progressively shorter as though Frost’s ability to think and write were as curtailed as his wakefulness. The eighth line ends with the simple, declarative, “I am drowsing off.” There’s nothing poetic about such a line or statement; and that’s part of its beauty and memorableness.

  • An apple ladder is usually tapered, much narrower at the top than bottom. This makes pushing them up through the limbs much easier. Some are joined, like the ladder in the picture, while others are not. Frost’s ladder was “two pointed”, and so not joined at the top. The ladder going up to my daughter’s loft is an old apple ladder.

The next six lines, beginning with “Essence of winter sleep…” are another set of interlocking rhymes DEDFEF

7   Essence of winter sleep is on the night,
    The scent of apples: I am drowsing off.
    I cannot rub the strangeness from my sight
10  I got from looking through a pane of glass
    I skimmed this morning from the drinking trough
    And held against the world of hoary grass.

The rhetorical course of the poem links lines 6-8 while the rhyme schemes of lines 1-6 and 7-12 are separate. There is an overlap between the subject matter (in green) and rhyme scheme (purple).

After Apple-Picking (Overlap)The overlap draws attention away from the rhyme scheme (at some level, I think, disorienting the reader). I know I’m flirting with Intention Fallacy, so I’ll try not to draw too many conclusions as to Frost’s intentions when writing a given rhyme scheme. However, whether he wrote these lines on purpose or instinctively, they produce a similar effect in this given poem. The poem’s rhetorical structure, which doesn’t always mirror the rhyme scheme, draws our attention away from the rhymes and may contribute to any number of the poem’s effect, including the feeling of exhaustion. At its simplest, the crosscurrents of rhetoric and rhyme, I think, help to create an organic feeling in the poem — the feeling that it’s not a series of stanzas knit together.

”Are you trying to tell me that I don’t know what I’m doing when I paint?” ”Well, not exactly . . . ,” I began. ”My God,” he roared, ”every time I put a brush to a canvas, I have an intention. And I damn well better know what it is, or else the painting ain’t gonna be any good.” He rolled his eyes. ”Intentional fallacy,” he muttered. Then with a weary sigh: ”What do these critics think art is? Monkeys dabbling? Art is nothing but decisions. Decisions, decisions, decisions.”

My response Ben Shahn’s outrage would be to point out that it’s all well and fine for the artist (or poet) to indignantly claim an intention behind every brush stroke, line break or stanza break. It’s another to expect the reader or critic to guess it right. This issue is what was behind the failure of Charles Hartman’s Free Verse, An Essay on Prosody. Hartman was essentially (in my opinion) trying to turn every line break into a prosody of free verse. The problem is that a prosody depends on the reader correctly guessing an author’s intention. Without that, all you’ve got is a game of Russian roulette called Intention Fallacy.

The rhyme scheme of DEDFEF forms a sexain, but Frost’s thoughts veer beyond it.

After Apple-Picking (Overlap-2)

Just as before, there is one line more than the rhyme can bear: “It melted, and I let it fall and break.” Once again, the analogy of the unpicked apple comes to mind. Is this the analogy Frost had in mind? To say so would be an Intention Fallacy, but I think the analogy works in the context of the poem. Anyway, we’re left with an unresolved rhyme.

But Frost has other matters to address. As if remembering the course of his poem after an aside (a wonderful and colloquial technique that appears in many of his poems – Birches) he seems to gather his resolve with three rhyming lines, short and quick.

   But I was well
15 Upon my way to sleep before it fell,
   And I could tell
   What form my dreaming was about to take.

Take resolves the hanging rhyme of break. For a moment, both the poem’s rhetorical course and the rhyme scheme meet. There is a moment of resolution before Frost’s dreaming overtakes the poem, and with it an interlocking set of rhymes that don’t find resolution until line 26.

 25 The rumbling sound
    Of load on load of apples coming in.

At this point, the poem will once again pivot. Here’s another image to help visualize what I’m describing.

After Apple-Picking (Rhyme & Rhetoric)

In terms of rhyme and rhetoric (in the sense of concluding thought and concluding rhyme) the poem could be divided into three parts. Until then, subject matter and rhyme overlap in a way that, to some extent, might subliminally propel the reader.

    Magnified apples appear and disappear,
    Stem end and blossom end,
 20 And every fleck of russet showing clear.
    My instep arch not only keeps the ache,

The word end like the stem end of an apple (or itself another unpicked apple) won’t find it’s blossom end until the next three lines that are (now this gets really cool) the only three lines where an identifiable rhyme scheme isn’t matched to subject matter. That’s to say, most of the other rhymes come in tercets and quatrains (look at the boxes surrounding them). It’s only in the weightless center of the poem where any sort of identifiable scheme more or less breaks down. There’s a kind weightlessness, right after the dreaming and at the center of the poem, seems almost meant to imitate the dreaming exhaustion of the poem itself. I would love to think he did this on purpose.

  • I’ve suggested that other poems by Frost can be understood, beneath their surface, as extended metaphors for the writing process. Some others are much more transparently about writing (as much as saying so), so I don’t think such speculation is without merit (though I realize I could be accused of playing the same ace of spades with each hand).  After Apple-Picking could easily be read as analogous to the writing process itself — apples being understood as poems. Frost, by this point in his career, may have been feeling like writing poetry was like picking apples. While Frost didn’t think much of Yeats’s description of writing as “all sweat and chewing pencils” he also stated that after getting paid for the first poem he found he couldn’t write one a day for an easy living: “It didn’t work out that way”. Poems were like apples, it turned out. One couldn’t just shake the tree and let them fall. Doing that would leave them “bruised or spiked with stubble”, which is another way, perhaps, of saying that the hurried poem would be the flawed poem. They had to be cherished. Writing the poem, imagining its landscape of imagery, perhaps was like looking through “a pane of glass… skimmed… from the drinking trough/And held against the world of hoary grass.” Looking at the world through a poem is, perhaps, a bit like looking at the world through ice, a distortion that is both familiar and strange.
21 My instep arch not only keeps the ache,
   It keeps the pressure of the ladder-round.
   I feel the ladder sway as the boughs bend.

Ache remembers the rhyme of break and take, but is far removed and seems more like a reminder than part of any rhyme scheme. Round is new, and sends the ear forward with the expectation of a rhyme.  Bend turns the ear back, remembering end (is far removed as ache from take). The poem “sways”, in its center, like the ladder. The reader is never given the opportunity to truly settle in with any kind of expectation, but like the speaker of the poem, is drawn forward in search of a rhyme’s “blossom end” and, with the next line, is drawn back to a different rhyme’s “stem end”. Rhymes are magnified, appear, then disappear.

  • Notice too how Frost divides the central portion of the poem into three of our five (or seven) senses.
       SIGHT
 What form my dreaming was about to take.
 Magnified apples appear and disappear,
 Stem end and blossom end,
 And every fleck of russet showing clear.

       TOUCH/SENSATION/KINESTHETIC

 My instep arch not only keeps the ache,
 It keeps the pressure of the ladder-round.
 I feel the ladder sway as the boughs bend.

       SOUND

 And I keep hearing from the cellar bin
 The rumbling sound
 Of load on load of apples coming in.

Earlier, Frost touched on the sense of smell with the “scent of apples”. The point here is that part of what makes this poem so powerful are the concrete images and the evocation of our senses. Don’t ever forget this in your own poetry. I know I’ve written it before, but it bears repeating: remember each of your senses when you are writing poetry. Don’t just focus on sight (which the vast majority of poets do) but think about sound, smell, touch, movement, texture, etc… Notice too, how Frost turns the ordinary into some of the most beautiful poetry ever written. There are no similes to interrupt the narrative. There are no overdrawn metaphors. Frost makes poetry by simply describing and evoking the every day; and doing so in ordinary speech. The rhyme scheme knits the poem together in an organic whole. Think how much less impressive the poem would be if it were simply free verse, free verse as it’s written by the vast majority of contemporary poets.

Notice Frost’s thought-process. He muses over “what form” his dreams will take, then expands on it (in yellow). He mentioens the ache of his instep arch, then expands on that (in lavender), then describes what he hears from the cellar bin (in purple). It’s a nice way of writing that reminds me of the rhetorical figure Prolepsis (or Propositio) in Shakespeare’s To be or not to be….

With coming in we arrive at the third portion of the poem.

      For I have had too much
      Of apple-picking: I am overtired
      Of the great harvest I myself desired.
30    There were ten thousand thousand fruit to touch,
      Cherish in hand, lift down, and not let fall.
      For all
--
      That struck the earth,
      No matter if not bruised or spiked with stubble,
35    Went surely to the cider-apple heap
      As of no worth.
      One can see what will trouble
--
      This sleep of mine, whatever sleep it is.
      Were he not gone,
40    The woodchuck could say whether it's like his
      Long sleep, as I describe its coming on,
--
      Or just some human sleep.

Frost turns inward again.The phrase, “I am overtired…” reminds us of his previous declarative statement “I am drowsing off”, inviting a sense of symmetry and closure. This time, though, Frost won’t digress. He is overtired of the great harvest. He will plainly say what exhausts him and why. The rhyming couplet fall/all adds to the sense of symmetry, hearkening back to the couplet bough/now. In both subject matter and form, Frost is recollecting himself. Again, it’s a similar structure to Birches — an assertion, a digression, and a concluding restatement of the original assertion.

aerusset

…every fleck of russet showing clear.

The closing rhyme scheme of lines 33-41 is essentially comprised of two Sicilian Quatrains, the same that characterize the Shakespearean sonnet. However, the first Quatrain is interrupted by heap. You can see it above in the overall rhyme scheme (at the beginning of the post), but also directly above. It’s as if the poem is coming out of a sort of fever, a confusion of consciousness, and back to order. The rhyme heap/sleep might have been the concluding couplet in a Shakespearean sonnet, but that kind of epigrammatic finality would have been out of place in a narrative poem like this. Instead, the word heap slips into the first quatrain, another new sound, and the ear perhaps subliminally or subconsciously looks for the rhyme, but it doesn’t come. We finish the first of the two quatrains without it.

With the second quatrain of this third section:

      This sleep of mine, whatever sleep it is.
      Were he not gone,
40    The woodchuck could say whether it's like his
      Long sleep, as I describe its coming on,

The speaker seems almost recovered from the confused reverie of the poem and once again the poem’s beautiful symmetry is upheld. The poem begins with a Sicilian quatrain and all but closes with a Sicilian quatrain. But there is still one loose-end, one apple that has not been picked. Frost metaphorically picks it in the last line.

Or just some human sleep.

It’s a beautiful moment. The line is short and simple. It’s shortness may remind the reader of the speaker’s own weariness. He doesn’t have it in him to compose a fully Iambic Pentameter line. His sleep may just be some human sleep, and nothing more.

  • Frost asks whether his sleep will be like that of the woodchuck’s. The comparison seems almost like a moment of levity after so much profundity. Some critics throw all their weight into these last 5 lines. Because sleep is repeated several time, Conder (as is the habit with some critics I have noticed), take this to mean that “sleep” must be central to the poem’s meaning and that all other considerations are mere trivialities. As example, consider John J. Conder’s analysis of After Apple-Picking. There, you can also find a collection of other essays on the poem.  Personally, Conder’s analysis makes my eyes badly cross. Almost every sentence seems like a Gordian Knot. Here’s an example:
But if the speaker’s dream and sleep exist in life, then to assert that, after his labors, the speaker “is now looking not into the world of effort but the world of dream, of the renewal,” is to oversimplify the poem. This view identifies the dream (interpreted as pleasurable) with the sleep (seen as a time for contemplation as well as renewal) and in the process limits both. Such a reading qualifies the word “trouble” into insignificance (to be troubled by a lovely dream is to be superior to the woodchuck, who cannot dream) and oversimplifies the speaker’s attitude toward his experience. Given the feats of association that he makes, given the fact that he speaks in contraries, the speaker’s attitude toward his sleep is far more complicated than at first seems clear, and his trouble far more real than might be supposed.
·
And here is Conder’s entire essay much simplified:
Conder AnalysisAnd now you don’t have to read the essay. (You can thank me by e-mail.) You’d think the poem should have been called: Before Going to Sleep.  My point, besides having a little fun at Conder’s expense, is to argue that it’s possible to read too much into Frost’s comparison of his sleepiness to that of the woodchuck’s. My own feeling is that he’s not suggesting a sweeping metaphor of man, sleep and nature, but that the analogy is what it is. He’s overtired. He’s almost feverish with exhaustion and speculates that the only sleep to recover from that kind of weariness (the weariness of a whole season of apple growing) might be a whole season of sleeping – the hibernating sleep of a woodchuck. It’s an earthy, slightly sardonic, reference in keeping with the colloquial tone of the poem.
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I also resist the temptation to draw comparisons between apple-picking and the apple in the Garden of Eden. I won’t go so far as to say that close-readers who suggest this allusion are wrong, but where do we honestly draw the line? Is every single mention of an apple, in every work of literature, an allusion to Genesis? Really? Really? That just feels facile to me. In truth, the myth of the Garden of Eden could be suggested as “alluded to” in a disturbingly large portion of literature. But so be it. I’m not going to go there (if only to be contrary). There’s not one quote from Frost, that I’m aware of, that suggests any of these readers are correct, so just keep that in mind when making comparisons to Genesis.
·
Lastly, there’s no doubt that Frost delighted in the close readings his poems were subjected to (what poet wouldn’t be flattered), but we also know that he expressed more than a little frustration and exasperation. The usual defense (which I get a little tired of) is that Frost was a dark, disturbed, calculating and suicidal man. Ever since Lionel Trilling described Frost as a “terrifying poet”, critics (William Logan among others) have taken that as open season. There’s always the urge to look for the “darkness” in his poems. There is undoubtedly much darkness in Frost (as there is in all of us) but I think this too must be treated with moderation. It’s possible that a reference to a woodchuck is just  that — an old New Englander’s sardonic reference to a woodchuck — not the sleep of man-out-of-nature, nature-out-of-man, or the sleep of death.
·
In her (strongly to be recommended) book, Robert Frost: The People, Places, and Stories Behind his New English Poetry, author Lea Newman has this to say:
·
“The reference to the woodchuck and his long sleep in the concluding lines of the poem has confused many readers. Frost probably found the idea of comparing humans to woodchucks in Emerson’s essay “Nature,” where readers are told, “let us be men instead of woodchucks.” A discussion of hibernation in another Emerson essay, “Fate,” may have been the source for the term “the long sleep”. In terms of the dream-ridden and exhausted speaker state of the speaker in Frost’s poem, he could be seeking the dreamless sleep of an animal or the month-long sleep of hibernation.”
·
My point is that you are free to interpret the poem how you will. No one but Frost knows what Frost meant.
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Whispering under the floorboards… send out the sun.

In my most recent job, I replaced a rotten sill on an old New England house. Since I’m not the one with claustrophobia, my job was to crawl into the crawlspace, through an opening too small for inhalation. What did the sill look like? It didn’t take long to decide. A very, very bad decking installation under a standing-seam eave meant that all the roof’s water was redirected into the wall and onto the sill. A solid old 6×6 sill had been reduced to mulch.

But while I was under there, I saw some very old fragments of a newspaper still glued to the bottom of the building’s old hemlock or pine floorboards. There was just a slender scrap left. All the rest had fallen off and disintegrated in the dirt of the crawlspace. I carefully pulled off the remaining fragments and brought them, perhaps for the first time in a hundred years, into the light of the sun. We had all wondered how old the building was – when it was built.  Anything that might have identified the paper itself, or the date, was gone. Some other scraps hinted at news from New York or Boston. But here was the fragment of a poem – a little clue.

The fragment praises the sun. How quieting to think that a song like this had been hidden away in a dank darkness for so long.

Send out the sunlight it sings again and again.

So, as a kind of gift to this little fragment, here is some sunlight (and as a gift to the song’s author, surely long since received by a different kind of light).

Send out the sunlight! ’tis needed on earth,
…                                       afar in scintillant mirth
…     more than gold in its wealth-giving worth!

And it’s last words before it vanishes…

…send out the sun…

There will surely be some librarians among my readers. Take a look. If you ever discover the name of the poem or the author, leave a comment. In the meantime, a little fragment for the sun – after so much darkness.

From up in Vermont
June 5, 2010

❧ Another god-damn Villanelle

Audio:

Guess what! This was translated into French (unbenownst to me). How apropos. Now this vile poem can afflict the selfsame nation that afflicted us with the Villanelle. You can see the original here. Or click below:

Continue reading

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:

…bring
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.

Motion.

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)

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,

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!

NUPTIAL SLEEP

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.

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…

IMHO: (G)reatness & the Language of Poetry

On Being Memorable

I’ve been scouring the net for other response’s to Orr’s New York Times Article, where he asks: Where is the ambition? Where are the Great poets?

Orr - On PoetryWhile pursuing discussion on Orr’s article over at A Compulsive Reader, another question occurred to me. Why is it that practically no poets after the moderns seem to be widely read, remembered or recognized by the general, non-poetry reading public. Almost everyone I ask (who maybe reads three or four poems a year) knows of Robert Frost, can name a poem by him and maybe even recite a line or two. No one, (during my unscientific survey), could do the same for any poet of the later generation.

The one clear difference between Frost, Cummings (and Eliot in some cases) is that they wrote Poetry that utilized meter and rhyme to varying degrees. There’s no dispute that meter and rhyme are mnemonic aids. The trick of rhythm and rhyme begins before writing, with the oral tradition. So, the fact of Frost’s popularity is, I think, indisputably linked (though not fully dependent on) his use of meter and rhyme.  His poems are memorable in ways that Ashbery’s poems simply are not.

The Marketplace

There aren’t a lot of Border bookstores or Barnes & Noble bookstores in the smaller malls of the Midwest. Instead, there are shops like Waldenbooks (now owned by Borders), that cater to the very general public. I used to shop at Waldenbooks – the only bookstore close by. I know all about their poetry section. It usually only had four or maybe five books in it. Waldenbooks, unlike Borders and Barnes & Noble (which are still primarily located in urban and metropolitan areas), only buy what they know they can sell.  That said, they are a top-notch barometer of what the wider population typically reads on a daily and weekly basis.

Here’s what I never found on any of their shelves: Language Poets, Avant Gard, Black Mountain Poets, Objectivists,  Beats, etc… none of the various “schools” after the moderns. If anyone reading this can tell me whether this has changed, let me  know. While I was shopping at Waldens, the only free verse poet they  stocked was Walt Whitman. Period. The other poets were Robert Frost, Christina Rosetti, Elizabeth Barret Browning, Shakespeare’s Sonnets, his major plays, maybe Keats, maybe Tennyson.

What do all these poets have in common?

With the exception of Whitman, none of the poets are free verse poets.

Why has the generation of free verse poets that followed the moderns largely failed to appeal to the wider, non-poetry reading, public – why have they failed to capture their imagination and inspire them? Or let me put it another way: Why have they failed to be salable?

If popular appeal is a part of (G)reatness – then the last generation of poets have failed.

In reading the various responses to Orr’s article, almost every individual volunteered a list of poets who Orr could have or should have mentioned. But I can’t think of any two bloggers who agreed on a poet.

A Failure of Aesthetics? Poetry is more than content.

My hunch is that Orr is equating (G)reatness with popular recognition and appeal, which is why he passed over all the poets other bloggers have variously mentioned. That said, Orr studiously avoids defining much of anything –  asking more questions than he answers. He avoids defining what he believes to be (G)reatness in style which, it would seem, ought to be part of the equation. His description is artfully noncommittal:

Generally speaking, though, the style we have in mind tends to be grand, sober, sweeping — unapologetically authoritative and often overtly rhetorical. It’s less likely to involve words like “canary” and “sniffle” and “widget” and more likely to involve words like “nation” and “soul” and “language.”

Ya think?

I’ll go a step a further.

AR Ammons Collected PoetryA poet can’t be (G)reat unless his or her poetry is stylistically (G)reat – and by stylistically (G)reat, his or her poetry must stand apart from prose. It’s not enough to have “great thoughts”. At least in the wider literary marketplace, poetry is judged in part by how and to what degree it differentiates itself from prose. AR Ammons’ poetry attains a level of complexity comparable to that of Stevens, but he lacks Stevens’ melodious line and flare for metaphor and imagery.  His poetry is more like a compressed prose. Meanwhile, the poems widely considered to be Stevens’ best are also, frequently, his most metrical and metaphorical- Sunday Morning and The Idea of Order at Key West.

Shakespeare’s ideas, as Robert Shaw pointed out, are frequently pedestrian, but his language could elevate proverb to profundity. Poetry is more than content. That’s the realm of the novel (which isn’t to say that some novelists aren’t better stylists than others) but that’s not why the broader public reads them. Poetry has to be more than content, or it places itself in direct competition with every other work of prose. What Do We KnowThe results are, simply put, obvious and indisputable. A store like Waldenbooks is stuffed with contemporary novels while its poetry section couldn’t stop a screen door.

When poets adopted free verse, they surrendered the one quality of poetry that, up until then, differentiated it from every other form of writing. And it’s not just rhythm and rhyme that were rejected, but rhetoric and the building of ideas out of metaphor. Walt Whitman, while he rejected rhyme and metrical pattern, remained an intensely rhetorical and figurative poet. In contemporary poetry there is frequently nothing that distinquishes a poem from any given prose paragraph.

Mary Oliver is perhaps among the most salable of modern poets. Her poetry is rich with figurative language, image and metaphor, all immediate and accessible. Her poetry uses language in a way that a novel doesn’t.

Who knows whether Oliver will be counted among the (G)reats?

Maybe her stature will be comparable to Andrew Wyeth, who was favored by the wider public while being largely rejected by art critics, curators and collectors who couldn’t help but interpret Wyeth’s popularity as a rejection of their own increasingly unpopular aesethetics. As it is, I have an uncertain sense of Oliver’s overall popularity.

Elizabeth Bishop’s poetry, while it may be held in high regard by fellow poets, must be special-ordered in most smaller book stores while Robert Frost’s poetry can be found in any number of permutations, including children’s books.

Can the contemporary aesthetic of free verse be (G)reat?

Have the poets of the last hundred years legitimized their own aesthetics?

If wider public appeal is any indication, the answer is No. The poets of the last generation have failed to produce a genre that in any way  competes in the marketplace of modern literature. It has failed to inspire the wider public. Rather, the marketplace continues to favor a poetry that is not prose or “lineated prose” – but that is differentiated from prose in all the ways rejected by the generation following the moderns and contemporary poets.

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.