Three Ways to Write a Poem

Of Plain Poems, Figurative Poems & Metaphoric Poems

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

The Plain Poem

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

Richard Cory
by EA Robinson

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

so much depends
upon

a red wheel
barrow

glazed with rain
water

beside the white
chickens

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Figurative Poem

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Compare this to The Winter’s Tale:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Other incidents flicker like foxfire in the black

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Love Calls Us to the Things of This World
Richard Wilbur

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Metaphoric Poem

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

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

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

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

Not so with Robert Frost.

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

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

Even when there isn’t.

As a nice essay at FrostFriends.Org puts it:

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

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

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

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

A Drumlin Woodchuck

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And that’s that.

up in Vermont: March 7 2015

The Beautiful Changes

the word exchange

Last week, April 28th, I drove up to Burlington to listen in on a reading by Greg Delanty, Major Jackson, SMC poet/professor Greg Delanty, and SMC Associate Professor of English Kerry Shea. The poets were celebrating the publication of The Word Exchange: Anglo-Saxon Poems in Translation. The reading was sponsored by The Association of Literary Scholars, Critics, and Writers.

The weather worked in their favor. Burlington was beautiful and, at last, showing some signs of spring. Finally, in Vermont, the grass is turning and the first buds are greening the trees. The evening was warm. Any other poetry reading I might have skipped for a date with my longboard, especially in Burlington.

But there’s something I love about Anglo Saxon poetry. It’s beautiful, to my ears, in the same way that some of the earthiest poetry of New England is beautiful. The best Anglo Saxon poetry speaks with a directness and simplicity you won’t often find in the sophisticated and cosmopolitan utterances of the Roman poets. And though stark, the Anglo Saxon temper also comes with a rugged humor and gamefulness typical of poetry in simpler and less self-conscious cultures. You have to go back to Sappho’s time and the earliest Chinese poets to find the same sorrow, laughter, nobility and raw sexual humor. The Anglo Saxons were also avid riddlers and story-tellers, to a degree, perhaps, that is unique to them. (Their riddles keenly interested and influenced J.R.R. Tolkien.) They wrote Beowulf. Many of their shorter poems retell the dealings of Thanes, Kings and Cheiftans – good and bad.

The book orders the poetry into subject matter and content. Here’s what you will find (in order):

  • Poems of  Exile and Longing
  • First Riddle Hoard
  • Poems about Historical Battles, People, and Places
  • Second Riddle Hoard
  • Poems About Living
  • Third Riddle-Hoard
  • Poems About Dying
  • Fourth Riddle Hoard
  • Biblical Stories, Lives of Saints
  • Fifth Riddle-Hoard
  • Prayers, Admonitions, and Allegories
  • Sixth Riddle-Hoard
  • Remedies and Charms
  • Final Riddle-Hoard

Seems to me the table of contents alone could sell the book. Who wouldn’t want to read the Remedies and Charms? — a strange collocation of Christianity, Witchcraft and Paganism. I wonder if our contemporary poet, Annie Finch (self-proclaimed Wiccan), hasn’t read these remedies and charms?

Of all the categories, The Biblical Stories, Lives of Saints, are to me the least interesting or compelling. All the rigor seems to drain out of the Anglo Saxon inkwell when they write about a distant, dysfunctional tribal people, the Israelites, and their obsession with real estate and a fitful God. The whole of it was utterly foreign to the Anglo Saxons and the poems feel pro forma (even if through the lens of their own experience). Better to include them, I suppose. Missionaries were fussily converting the Anglo Saxon pagans, but the poems still feel like book reports. Fortunately (for us and the rest of the poems) the Anglo Saxons get right back to betrayal, rings, sex, swords, a good joke and, above all, grim, hard deaths. They were a people who lived life in the bone and were much better when Christianity was subservient to their own ethos.

old English þrosoðy and translation

Worth noting is that there is no single translator. Each of the poems has been translated by a different poet and this brings up a subject I’ve discussed before. I disagree with the notion that a poem’s form doesn’t need to be translated: it’s rhymes, rhythm, meter, stanzas, etc… There are translators who denigrate such attempts. The results, they say, frequently contort syntax, word order and meaning for the sake of form. However, I find their arguments self-serving. The genius of poetry, up until the 20th century, was not just in its content but also in the patterning and beauty of its language. Like the earliest Chinese poems, many scholars believe Anglo Saxon poetry may have been written to the tune of this or that melody – certainly many believe they were likely to have been sung or chanted. Their poetry doesn’t rhyme, but it is patterned through the use of stress and alliteration.

Anglo Saxon prosody works like this: Each line is called a stich (pronounced stick). And every Anglo Saxon line, or stich, is divided in two – a first half and a second half. Each half is referred to as a hemistich. Each hemistich has two stressed syllables. There can be any number of unstressed syllables. (If you’re not sure of the difference between stressed and unstressed syllables, you can check out my guides to Iambic Pentameter.) Each half of the line (each containing two stressed syllables) is divided by a caesura — a pause.

  • Stressed syllables! // Strong verse!
  • Oh stressed syllables // make strong my verse!
  • Stressed will be the syllables // that make strong my verse!

Each line would be permissible, each containing two stressed syllables. There can be any number of unstressed syllables. The second requirement for an Anglo Saxon line is alliteration. Alliteration is when the consonants of each stressed syllable are the same or sound alike. In the lines above, the S sound is repeated in the first and second stressed syllable of the first hemistich and in the first syllable of the second hemistich. One more important rule: the second syllable of the second hemistich never alliterates except in the rarest of circumstances. So, if a is an alliterating syllable and b is a non-alliterating syllable, the possible combinations are as follows (based on The New Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics):

  • a a // a b
  • a b // a b
  • b a // a b

And that’s that. A commonly referenced modern example from Richard Wilbur, his poem Junk, can be found here. I love the poem, but Wilbur doesn’t follow the rules (the second stressed syllable in the second hemistich alliterates in many of his lines). A fun modern pastiche can also be found at asu.edu, a poem called Beocat. However, this poem, like Wilbur’s, bends the rules by alliterating the second syllable of the second hemistich. So much alliteration just seems too much for the modern poet to resist (not made from the stern stuff of the Anglo Saxon poet).

Anyway, trying to convey the formal aspects of any poem in translation is, indeed, difficult. But if the original poet thought it worthwhile to sweat over and struggle with, then why shouldn’t the translator sweat? Why is the translator exempt? Why do some translators make excuses and rationalizations? In my opinion, the translator who only translates the content of a traditional poem, is only translating half the poem. When Mandelbaum translated Dante’s Divine Comedy, he didn’t try to recreate the rhyming tercets of the original, but he did recreate the feeling of form and structure by writing blank verse. Mandelbaum also used blank verse to translate Ovid. (The accentual-syllabics of blank verse was foreign to the quantitative verse of Latin poetry.) I’m not suggesting that modern poets should always try to recreate the alliterative verse of the Anglo Saxons, but I do think there’s value in recognizing the traditional beauty of the original poem and language by recreating it’s rigor in our own.

At first glance, two poets out of the several dozen contributing poets, Derek Mahon and A.E. Stallings, managed to approximate what an Anglo Saxon might have heard. Here are the opening lines to the poem Durham, translated by Mahon:

Is ðeos burch breome     geond Breotenrice,
steppa gestaðolad,    stanas ymbutan
wundrum gewæxen.     Weor ymbeornad,
ea yðum stronge,       and ðer inne wunað
feola fisca kyn          on floda gemonge.
And ðær gewexen is    wudafæstern micel;
wuniad in ðem wycum    wilda deor monige,
in deope dalum      deora ungerim.

Known throughout Britain, this noble city
Its steep slopes and stone buildings
are thought a wonder; weirs contain
its fast river; fish of all kinds
thrive here in the thrusting waters.
A great forest has grown up here,
thickets throng with wild creatures;
deer drowse in the deep dales. (….)

  • If you want to hear Durham read in the original, Michael D.C. Drout, Prentice Professor of English at Wheaton College is heroically reading the entire corpus of Anglo-Saxon prosody. He reads Durham here.

And here are the opening lines to The Riming Poem, translated by A.E. Stallings (whose opinion on translating are like my own):

Me lifes onlah       se þis leoht onwrah
ond þæt torhte geteoh,    tallice onwrah
Glæd wæs ic gliwum,      glenged hiwum
blissa bleoum,      blostma hiwum
Secgas mec segon,     symbel ne alegon
feohgiefe gefegon;     frætwed wægon

The Lord lavished life on me               I had it all
Blessings were rife for me                    honor in hall,
Clad in the gladsome                               cloth of the looms
Dyed with the handsome                      hues of the blooms,
Men the looked up at me,                      friendship reigned
Filling the cup for me,                            wine never waned.

  • The riming poem is unusual in that it also rhymes in the original Anglo Saxon (which may be why Stallings was asked to translate it). One wonders if the original poet was excited by what he or she had written. By the standards of the day, it’s a tour de force performance. Professor Drout reads the poem here.

While many of the poets in the Word Exchange dispense with formal structure, writing free verse, (words are exchanged but there’s no verse exchange), I was nevertheless pleased to see that equally many tried to honor some sense of the original. (I was disappointed not to see Annie Finch. If she was overlooked, a pity.) However, the benefit of so many contributors, as Greg Delanty likes to stress, is that we are reminded that Anglo Saxon poetry doesn’t consist of one author or voice but of many (whose names have been lost). We are also made aware of the many different ways a poem can be translated, a kind of tour in and of itself, and what different poets value in translation.

the great  variety

One of the poets who read at the The Word Exchange was Major Jackson (someone I was finally able to meet). Jackson opted for free verse (by his own account, he originally attempted to introduce some traditional elements into his translation). Jackson translated The Gifts of Men. I’ve just been reading Walt Whitman and I couldn’t help but be struck by the Whitmanesque breadth of Jackson’s translation and, by extension, the Anglo Saxon original.

Fela bið on foldan    forðgesynra
geongra geofona,   þa þa gæstberend
wegað in gewitte,    swa her weorude god,
meotud meahtum swið,    monnum dæleð
syleð sundorgiefe,      sendeð wide
agne spede,    þara æghwylc mot
dryhtwuniendra     dæl onfon.
Ne bið ænig pæs    earfoðsælig
mon on moldan    ne pæs medspedig,
lytelhydig,      ne þæs læthydig,
þæt hine se argifa   ealles biscyrge
modes cræfta   oþþe mægendæda,
wis on gewitte   oþþe on wordcwidum,
þy læs ormod sy   ealra þinga,
þara þe he geworhte    in woruldlife,
geofona gehwylcre.

Behold God’s prevailing gifts on earth, discernable
to all souls! His unique powers are bestowed
and apportioned widely to every woman and man.
None are so wretched, unfortunate, or feeble-minded
to believe that the Giver of all has not endowed them
at least with a living breath, speech, and a smart mind
to appreciate their wordly abilities in this life.

With this broad-hearted beginning, the poet proceeds to a list of all the peoples and their avocations.

Sum in mæðle mæg modsnottera
folcrædenne   forð gehycgan,
þær witena biþ   worn ætsomne.
Sum mæg wrætlice   weorc ahycgan
heahtimbra gehwæs;   hond bið gelæred,
wis ond gewealden   swa bið wyrhtan ryht,
sele asettan,   con he sidne ræced
fæste gefegan   wiþ færdryrum.
Sum mid hondum mæg   hearpan gretan,
ah he gleobeames   gearobrygda list.
Sum bið rynig,    sum ryhtscytte
sum leoða gleaw,    sum on lande snel,
feþespedig. Sum on fealone wæg
stefnan steoreð…

One is a visionary statesman and effective member of the parliament.
One is a master architect of high-ceilinged buildings, a deft hand, disciplined and judicious, drafting expansive halls that last.
One skillfully plays the harp.
One flies swiftly round the track, one makes a good shot, one is limber, one is swift, first to finish a foot race.
One maneuvers a ship over harrowing waves.

  • Professor Drout reads Gifts of Men here. Drout also provides a complete prose translation.

Jackson’s rendition, for me, conveys some sense of the original poet’s joy and pride in his life and people, again reminding me of Whitman. There is a capaciousness that is unmatched, to my knowledge, by any other poem in any other ancient language: Greek, Latin, Chinese, Japanese.

The Anglo Saxons seemed to love a riddle and, like the rest of us, couldn’t get enough of sex. Put the two together and humor was inevitable. The following poem was read several times, at the meeting, both in Modern English and Old English:

Riddle 25
Ic eom wunderlicu wiht,    wifum on hyte,
neahbuendum nyt;    nængum sceþþe
burgsittendra,     nymþe bonan anum.
Staþol min is steapheah    stonde ic on bedde,
neoþan ruh nathwær.      Neþeð hwilum
ful cyrtenu    ceorles dohtor,
modwlonc meowle,    þæt heo on mec gripeð,
ræseð mec on readne,      reafað min heafod,
fegeð mec on fæsten.     Feleþ sona
mines gemotes,          seo þe mec nearwað,
wif wundenlocc.        Wæt bið þæt eage.

  • Professor Drout’s reading is here.

Call Me Fabulous translated by Gerry Murphy

Call me fabulous,
that rare thing,
a woman’s delight.
Ever ready in the kitchen,
harming none but those
who would harm me.
Standing tall in my own bed,
my talk rigid on its hairy root.
That haughty girl,
the churl’s beautiful daughter,
deigns to take me in hand,
fribbles me to distraction,
stashes me in her sanctum,
weeps at our union.
Not a dry eye in the house.

The following riddle is my personal favorite:

Hyse cwom gangan,  þær he hie wisse
stondan in wincsele, stop feorran to,
hror hægstealdmon,     hof his agen
hrægl hondum up,     hrand under gyrdels
hyre stondendre    striþes nathwæt,
worhte his willan;    wagedan buta.
þegn onnette,      wæs þragum nyt
tillic esne,      teorode hwæþre
æt stunda gehwam     strong ær þon hio,
werig þæs weorces.    Hyre weaxan ongon
under gyrdelse      þæt oft gode men
ferðþum freogað      ond mid feo bicgað.

Marcia Karp’s translation begins:

A boy came walking to where he knew
she would stand for what he would do.
He stepped from afar to her in that corner.
…………His hand raised his shirt.
…………He pushed under her skirt
his stiff I-know-not-what and he horned her.

To read the rest of the translation you will have to read the book. Drout’s reading can be found here. The answers to these riddles can be found on line and in the back-matter of the book.

One of the great Old English poems is The Wanderer, a plum among the many and one that Greg Delanty plucks for himself — a substantial poem of loss, grief and the passage of time. We read a poet’s lament from a thousand years ago, thinking of his own sense of loss and how his own life briefly passed, and can’t help wonder at who will read our words a thousand years for now and wonder at the briefness of our own lives.  You can read his translation and hear the poet himself here.  The Ruin, translated by Yusef Komunyakaa, is another poem in a similar vein and puts our own sense of loss and time in perspective. I’m reminded of Frost’s The need to be versed in country things.

For a clear-eyed vision of death and decay, something the Anglo Saxons were well acquainted with,  read The Damned Soul Addresses the Body:

“Listen, mudball, how come you abused me?
You skinbag, all shriveled up at alst,
You paid little heed, in your hunt for pleasure,
To the hard future in store for your soul
Once it had been banished from the body.
Am I the offender? Isn’t it you, worm-fodder?

Or read The Riming Poem:

….The day for me     comes arrow-swift
With deadly aim     as it approaches,
And just the same     the night encroaches
That won’t condone     my tenant’s terms,
Abode of bone.   Wassailing worms
Feast afresh     where limbs lie slain
Devouring flesh:    only bones remain….

It’s humbling to read this passage. From our perspective the poet’s passing was a few words and silence. So were the thousand plus years between us and him; and so will be the next thousand years. That said, there’s a painting in Cornwall-on-Hudson. It might still be at the 2 Alices, one of my favorite cafés when visiting upstate New York. It says something like: Each minute, your life is a minute shorter. I thought about it and decided the minutes were more enjoyable if considered this way: With each minute, your life is a minute longer.

The Anglo Saxons had a word for the wondrous world, it’s Wundorworuld.

In the poem The Song of the Cosmos, not only does the poet convey their joy in the wondrous world, but one can’t help be reminded of Tennyson’s great poem Ulysses. The poem begins:

Wilt þu, fus hæle,    fremdne monnan,
wisne woðboran   wordum gretan,
fricgan felageongne   ymb forðgesceaft,
biddan þe gesecge    sidra gesceafta
cræftas cyndelice    cwichrerende,
þa þe dogra gehwam   þurh dom godes
bringe wundre fela    wera cneorissum!

Hard-striving soul, greet  the wayfaring stranger,
To the keen-sighted singer give welcoming words,
Question to the questing one of all the worlds before,
Implore him to tell of incalculable creations,
The innate artful forces forever quickening
That day after day under God’s dominion
Bring wonders laid bare to fairing generations.

When I read Shakespeare, I think that he had more in common with his hard-living and stern-skinned Old English forebears than with the prim and decorous Restoration poets who were to follow. The thing to know about the Anglo Saxons is that they are our poets. They are the first poets of our English language. They loved the same words we love. And if any of your ancestors are from the British Isles, the blood of these poets runs in your veins. When you read the poetry of the Anglo Saxons, you are truly reading the poetry of someone from whom you descend.

In some sense, what the Book of Songs is to the Chinese, the poetry of the Anglo-Saxon poems is to our culture. Read it and know what the first speakers of your language grieved, loved, laughed at, and enjoyed.

Further Links:

Rhyme & Meter Online: April 19 2009

  • Missed last week. This one is a little delayed.
  • 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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PoemShape

Reading Richard Wilbur’s “Mind”

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

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Got a poem – by heart?

In our second hour today we’re talking with writer Jim Holt about learning poems by heart — and reciting them from memory.  Who needs an iPod, he says, when you’ve got great verse running through your head! We’re hoping our listeners, on the air and online, will bring their own favorites to the party. If you have a great poem you want to recite, from memory (no cheating!), then let’s hear it — call in this morning between 11am and noon Eastern, at 1-800-423-8255, and we’ll try to get you on…

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‘Book of Rhymes’ by Adam Bradley: Professor of literature takes us inside the rhythms of rap

Some folks may scoff at the comparison of hip-hop to metaphysical poetry, but Bradley wouldn’t be among them. A literature professor at Claremont McKenna College with a doctorate in English from Harvard, he is keenly attuned to what he calls “the poetics of hip-hop,” the ways that rap both converges with and distinguishes itself from what we traditionally think of as poetry.

Here you’ll find Yeats and Frost alongside Nas and the Wu-Tang Clan, together forming a discussion on meter and accent, scansion and slant rhymes. More important, the old-timers and the new jacks seem to get along just fine: Book of Rhymes, MLA vocabulary or no, takes great joy in the written and the rapped word, and it will leave you listening to your favorite MCs with bigger and better ears than before…

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Read Write Believe

Poetry Quote of the Day: Rilke Defends Rhyme

“Do not say anything against rhyme! It is a mighty goddess indeed…

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New York Times

Sunday Book Review

“A Greek gentleman in a straw hat, standing absolutely motionless at a slight angle to the universe.” With this sentence the novelist E. M. Forster introduced the Alexandrian Greek poet Constantine Cavafy to the English-speaking world in 1919. Since then, Cavafy’s distinctive tone —wistfully elegiac but resolutely dry-eyed — has captivated English-language poets from W. H. Auden to James Merrill to Louise Glück. Auden maintained that Cavafy’s tone seems always to “survive translation,” and Daniel Mendelsohn’s new translations render that tone more pointedly than ever before. Together with “The Unfinished Poems” (the first English translation of poems Cavafy was still drafting when he died in 1933), this “Collected Poems” not only brings us closer to one of the great poets of the 20th century; it also reinvigorates our relationship to the English language…

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All Rileyed Up

Poetry Talk with Ginny Kaczmarek

I like so many different poets for different reasons, and I’m always discovering new ones (or old ones I never read deeply before). I go through phases, too. Lately I’m really into formalist poetry, sonnets, villanelles, rhymes and meter, so I’ve been reading Gwendolyn Brooks, Claude McKay, for their takes on old forms. I love Thom Gunn, who wrote formal, British- proper poetry about biker gangs and his gay lovers and the plague of AIDS in the ’80s. Annie Finch inspires me with her feminist formalist experiments…

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Poemshape

Why do Poets write Iambic Pentameter?

Iambic Pentameter originated as an attempt to develop a meter for the English language legitimizing English as an alternative and equal to Latin (as a language also capable of great poetry and literature). Encyclopedia of Spenser – ExtractSince meter was a feature of all great Latin poetry, it was deemed essential that an equivalent be developed for the English Language. But poets couldn’t simply adopt Latin’s dactylic hexameter or dactylic pentameter lines. Latin uses quantitative meter, a meter based on the alternation of long and short syllables…

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Poetry By Stacey

Battle of Wills [Extract]

Fighting the urge was becoming too strong,
It had only been days but seemed so long,
Temptation all around, pulling him in,
Would its magnetic power finally win?

Desparately trying to keep occupied,
Pushing the thought to the back of his mind,
But despite everything he tried to do,
A voice screamed ” go on you know you want to…

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[Don’t know if this is recent – or just recently indexed – but an interesting post.]

The Politics of Meter: on Traditional Forms
by Catherine Wagner

For decades, traditional patterns have been distrusted by, for instance, the “organic form”/”projective verse” avant-garde, as well as by writers working with nontraditional word-patterns—the Language poets, Jackson Mac Low, Susan Howe, and others. The distrust of verse is widespread. Even my dad tells me he knows that poetry shouldn’t rhyme or be in regular meter anymore. And poets of all stripes still get suddenly bored or nervous when they detect traditional forms. Not very many years ago, some members of the Buffalo Poetics listserv were provoked to anger when Annie Finch joined the list to ask for input on the anthology of forms she was putting together. And after a reading I gave recently in England, a poet (a committed political activist and self-declared member of the avant-garde) congratulated me on my “anti-prosody.” She was certain that what she’d heard meant I was working in ironic opposition to traditional meter. Not so…

Reading Richard Wilbur’s “Mind”

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The Mechanics of Wilbur’s “Mind”

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

But metrical expressiveness is not Wilbur’s strong suit.

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

Richard Wilbur: Mind - Annotated

Interpreting the Poem

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Unless…

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

Darkly it knows.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

If you enjoyed this post, let me know!

Rhyme and Meter Online: March 8, 2009

  • As with last week, 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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Poetics and Ruminations

Robert Lowell from Soup to Nuts

Robert  Lowell  began as an arch-formalist deeply indebted to the Modernists, in particular his teacher John Crowe Ransom, and  his mentor-friend Allen Tate, both members of the so-called “Fugitive” poets of Vanderbilt University in Tennessee. Ransom was himself a leading member of the formalist New Critics, and the precepts he held close to his heart were those of the English Renaissance and the “Metaphysical” poets of the 17th-century.

Birthday of Richard Wilbur

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Structure & Surprise: Engaging Poetic Turns

The Structure-Form Distinction

Perhaps you asked yourself about content, and so you discovered that you like a wide variety of topics in your poems: desire, death, hope, nature, relationships, nightingales.  Perhaps you asked yourself about form, and so you discovered that you like a lot of forms—a lot of sonnets, some villanelles, a smattering of sestinas.  But one question you probably didn’t ask yourself was: do these poems turn?  If this question, which likely only arose if you had a number of sonnets on your list, in fact seems strange, then it is imperative to investigate this strangeness for it indicates that the turn, a significant shift in the poem’s rhetorical progress, which is so vital in poetry, is rarely recognized as such.

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Today’s Woman writing Community

Writing Advice: How To Write Great Children’s Poetry and Rhyming Stories


Children love rhyme. The rhythm of the text, the way the words bounce off the tongue can be especially appealing to young children who are mastering language and reading. There are two vehicles for verse in the children’s market: poetry and rhyming stories. Both have special guidelines.

Rhyming Stories. Often at writers’ conferences editors will say they don’t like stories with rhyming text. That’s not exactly true — rhyming stories are published all the time. What these editors are really objecting to is bad rhyming text. Too many writers try to copy Dr. Seuss, the master of the rhymed story. They imitate the form of his work but not the substance. The rhyme is a vehicle to tell the story, not the other way around. It must still follow all the rules of a good picture book: a strong opening, believable characters, an interesting plot, a satisfying ending. Every word must advance the story – you can’t throw in extra phrases simply to complete the rhyme. Consider the opening lines of The Cat in the Hat. In eight short lines Dr. Seuss establishes setting, mood and conflict. Few books written in prose do so much with so little…

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Poemshape

W.B. Yeats & Long Legged Fly: Meaning & Meter


The supreme act of creation, the genius of mind, moves outside its own awareness – becomes like the long legged fly that moves upon the stream or the the source of being and mind. It must not be observed lest the mind too, become aware of itself, and so slip from the supple surface of its contemplation. The beautiful metaphor of the fly upon the stream is Yeats’ expression of true genius – the state in which great art is produced…

(G)reatness & Style: Jack Stillinger on John Keats

…my feeling is that content (great in thought or otherwise) has all too readily been equated and conflated with (G)reat Poetry. There’s a difference (or at least one is inclined to assume so) given the broader public disregard of contemporary poets in favor of poets like Keats, Dickinson, Frost, Shakespeare, Millay and Cummings – all poets who were and are famous not just for their ideas, but for their poetry (the language and style in which they expressed their ideas).

What is: Heroic Couplets

The term Heroic refers to Iambic Pentameter and Couplets refers to any two, paired, rhyming lines.

Open Heroic Couplets: Open Heroic couplets are rhyming couplets that are enjambed.

Closed Heroic Couplets: Closed Heroic couplets are rhyming couplets that are, first and foremost, syntactically discrete, meaning that each couplet is end-stopped with the end-of-couplet rhyme…

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suite101.com

Understanding Emily Dickinson’s Wild Nights


The poem’s final stanza deepens the enigma that is Emily Dickinson. A little less than a year after the poem was allegedly written, Dickinson largely disappeared from society. She became a local Amherst eccentric, always dressed in white. Near the end of her life, she shunned company of any kind. This image of Dickinson, along with her austere portrait, taken at the age of 18 at Mount Holyoke Female Seminary, have jointly impressed on readers the notion of the poet’s ascetic restraint. But “Wild Nights” depicts a more radiant inner existence, to which she has allowed readers only a glimpse.

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How to write heroic couplets

Heroic couplets were once the epitome of poetry. If you had to read Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales.you’ve read heroic couplets. Poets used this form not just for “regular” poetry, but for social commentaries, arguments, political dissertationsanything and everything you could think of was put into heroic couplet form. It’s name was even derived from the distinguished and loft subject matter often contained in it’s verses. This form of poetry was immensely popular until about the end of the 18th century…

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TimesOnline

Poetry is the cornerstone of civilisation


You can’t teach being a poet, you can’t train to be one. I was once a judge in a poetry competition, and I can’t tell you how many people who aren’t poets write it. I have yet to hear a convincing explanation of where poetry comes from and how it arrives, but I do know it is the highest calling of a cerebral, emotional, aesthetic existence. Poetry, along with dancing and drumming, is probably the most ancient of all our arts. There was rhythm and rhyme before written language. Its meter resonates from our own heartbeats to make stories. Before somebody wrote down Homer’s Iliad, it was memorised and repeated. Poems lit up the memory of our collective past, told us who we were and where we came from, and they still do…

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Delight in Disorder

Imperfections and inconsistencies can enhance the appeal of a person, a place, a thing, an action, an idea, and so on. For example, an imperfection—a crack—helps make the Liberty Bell one of Philadelphia’s most popular tourist attractions. Likewise, a very noticeable imperfection helps make the Leaning Tower of Pisa one of Italy’s foremost tourist draws….

….A single mole on the cheek of a beautiful woman tends to increase rather than diminish her beauty. And graying temples can turn a middle-aged man into a distinguished gentleman…

IMHO: Critiquing the Critic

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

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

Holcombe summed Perloff up this way:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

That’s it.

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

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

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

She writes: “the reality is… probably…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

These, to me, are the questions worth asking.


Vernacular, Colloquial, Common, Dialectal

[This is a relatively old post and there has been a lot of interest in it (given the number of hits it receives per day). The article has undergone a drastic revision but even now I think one could dedicate a book to the subject. This post is thin gruel, all considered. I give just a few paragraphs to each poet but at least this may serve as a starting point. My apologies to those looking for a far more detailed and thorough treatment. Maybe on some upcoming posts I’ll go into more detail with specific poets.  Last revision Jan 1, 2009]

Wikipedia, as of my writing this, defines Colloquial as language “considered to be characteristic of or only appropriate for casual, ordinary, familiar, or informal conversation rather than formal speech or writing.”

The Challenge

A number of modern poets have said that they consider the proper voice for poetry to be ordinary speech. Some phrase this as the responsibility of the poet, others equate this choice as a political statement and for others it is a gender issue.

The reasons poets give, however, is not so interesting to me as the practical exercise, especially when it comes to the fusion of colloquial rhythms with metrical poetry. So my focus is on poets who write metrical (or formal) poetry with the hope that what I write can be applied to free verse poets as well.

The question is why, over a stretch of four centuries, there have been so few poets who write colloquially in metered verse. The answer, in part, is that it takes a special confluence of talents – the ability to work within meter with ease and mastery along with the talent to hear and reproduce the tone and inflection of ordinary speech. The two abilities don’t always go together. Add to this the circumstance of time and place, and it’s no wonder such a poet is so rare.

Back in the Day

william-shakespeareWhat makes writing colloquially in metered verse so difficult is that the rhythm of colloquial speech frequently runs counter to the regular patterns of accentual syllabic verse. It didn’t always used to be so difficult. When Shakespeare needed to write colloquially or dialectally, and needed to do it in Blank Verse, he could use all sorts of metrical cheats and did – elevating such devices to an art form. Here are just some of those tricks, drawn from Shakepeare’s Use of the Arts of Language, by Sister Miriam Joseph.

If Shakespeare needed an extra syllable, he used prosthesis to change rattle to berattle.

If he needed to change a trochaic word to a dactyl, he used epenthesis, changing meetly to meeterly.

If he needed to omit a syllable he could use aphaeresis, changing against to gainst.

If he needed to omit a syllable from the middle of the word he used syncope, changing prosperous to prosp’rous.

In short, Shakespeare could freely omit or add syllables as necessary. It was the norm and was prized in Elizabethan times when done skillfully. It was through the use of prosthesis and proparalepsis (adding a syllable to the end of a word), that many of our modern words were coined by Shakespeare. The bottom line is that using these techniques made writing colloquially and dialectally, in meter (Iambic Pentameter), much, much easier. Consider the Nurse in Romeo & Juliet, one of the most memorably colloquial characters in all of Shakespeare:

Lord, how my head aches! what a head have I!
It beats as it would fall in twenty pieces.
My back o’ t’ other side,–O, my back, my back!
Beshrew your heart for sending me about,
To catch my death with jaunting up and down!

In the second line Shakespeare uses the figure elipsis or eclipsis to eliminate the word if and the figure apocope to eliminate the last syllable of the preposition into. In other words, the line should read: It beats as if it would fall into twenty pieces. However, this would introduce two anapests (in the third & fourth foot) into the Iambic line, an embarrassing disaster in Shakespeare’s day.

scansion-romeo-juliet

I’m not sure a modern poet would dare to use the same techniques. Then, in the third line, the nurse’s colloquial speech once again threatens to rupture the Iambic Pentameter pattern.

scansion-romeo-juliet-2

This could probably be scanned differently, but this is my stab it. I’ve chosen to treat the third foot as a heavy feminine ending before a midline break (the comma after O). One could argue, perhaps, that the midline break really comes after side. In which case it would read:

scansion-romeo-juliet-3

In this case, the fourth foot would be a kind of double-onset after the midline break (after the word side). In both cases, the scansions are easily within the realm of acceptable iambic pentameter variants. In fact, the lines are mostly iambic. Shakespeare, of course, pulls this off by using the figure syncope, removal of a letter or syllable from the midle of a word – o’t’other side. If he hadn’t used this figure, the second foot would have been an anapest. In Shakespeare’s day, this anapest, along with the heavy feminine ending or the double onset (however you choose to scan it) would have exceeded the bounds of a tolerable variant.

A brief note on Shakespeare’s use of Proverbs. Of all the poets who put pen to paper, Shakespeare is the most conversant in the proverbial lore of this day. His mind was filled with proverbs and their use is like a multi-colored thread through the entirety of his output. At some point I may write a post on his use of proverbs. They give to his verse and to the voice of his characters an earthiness and familiarity that we hear as colloquial  and vernacular. But Shakespeare wasn’t unique in his love of proverbs. The Elizabethans were avid collectors of proverbs and they were taught them from their childhood schooldays. All the great Elizabethan playwrights sprinkled their writing with proverbial lore – if not so skillfully as Shakespeare.

Robert Burns

robert-burns-2One of the most dialectal, as opposed to colloquial, of English poets is Robert Burns, so much so that some of his poems are almost incomprehensible without annotation.

The night was still, and o’er the hill
The moon shone on the castle wa’;
The mavis sang, while dew-drops hang
Around her on the castle wa’.

Sae merrily they danc’d the ring,
Frae e’enin till the cocks did craw,
And aye the owerword o’ the spring
Was Irvine’s bairns are bonie a’.

This wonderful little tetrameter poem was written in rhyming couplets. Burns uses several metrical “cheats” to fit the dialect within the feet – all the same as those in Shakespeare’s day. He uses syncope to change over to o’er and evening to e’ening. In both cases he avoided an anapest. Notice that he doesn’t elide the word merrily. Even though we might, ourselves, be tempted to pronounce it with two syllable – merr’ly – Burns clearly wants it pronounced as a three syllable word – mer-ri-lyotherwise the solidly iambic patter breaks down.

Now, there’s one line that is especially tricky. How do you read: And aye the owerword o’the spring? One might be tempted to read the line as follows:

scansion-robert-burns

However, this would give us a dactyl in the third foot – something which, up to now, Burns has studiously avoided. The elipsis o’the, reducing two syllables to one, gives us a clue as to how Burns would like us to read the line.

scansion-robert-burns-2

With this reading the perfectly iambic pattern of the lyric is preserved. In fact, Burns (for all his dialect) is far, far more conservative than Shakespeare ever was and even Milton! His poems are all, by in large, strictly iambic.  And he accomplishes this feat using a variety of metrical “cheats”. Burns, it seems, valued metrical regularity over the irregular pull of dialectal diction. Another interesting facet of Burns’ poems is that, for all the dialectal vocabulary, his use of colloquialism or the vernacular voice is relatively normal. He may use colloquial or proverbial phrases, but not in any way that truly sets him apart from other poets. From A Dedication:

Be to the poor like ony whunstane,
And haud their noses to the grunstane;

The phrase the poor like ony whunstane has a proverbial ring to it. The colloquial expression hold their noses to the grindstone is typical of Burns’ use. Unlike Shakespeare, who poetically enriches his proverbs, Burns writes them out as he’s heard them. Having said all that, his use of these effects, when added to the rich dialectal voice of his poetry, unquestionably lends his poetry (despite their strict metrical devices) an air of the commonplace and the common voice.

But my point, in all this, is to demonstrate just how many metrical cheats poets were able to employ when writing colloquially or otherwise.

john-clareJohn Clare

John Clare’s career began as Burns’ ended. Like Burns he wrote about common things, but did so without  Burns’ virtuosity.When other poets were writing (or attempting to write) with a more elevated and heightened style, in a High Mimetic Mode, Clare was writing about common things in a common voice.

From The Nightingale’s Nest:

Hush! let the wood-gate softly clap for fear
The noise might drive her from her home of love,
From here I’ve heard her many a merry year
At morn, at eve, nay, all the livelong day,
As though she lived on song.

The phrase many a merry year is colloquial, as well as all the livelong day – an idiomatic & vernacular English (as opposed to uniquely American) expression. Like Burns, though, Clare is very careful to stay within the metrical foot – archly conservative in his use of variants. The only variants I could find were trochaic first feet (blank verse).  In the lines above, one might be tempted to read the third line as a variant.

scansion-clare

This reading would create an anapestic fourth foot. In the entirety of the poem, no line veers from ten syllables and hardly veers from Iambic. Although Clare hasn’t used syncope or elipsis to slur the syllables, the correct reading is almost certainly as follows:

scansion-clare-21

This reading retains the strong Iambic Pentameter pattern of the poem. It again shows how poets, writing in meter, expected to fuse colloquial diction with the demands of meter. Clare’s omission of elipsis was a sign of the future – when more modern poets, writing in meter, would omit the visible indication of slurred syllables on the presumption that a knowledgeable reader of metered verse would slur the syllables without prompting – other modern poets – not aware of this tradition – simply read their lines as anapests and see up to two or three anapests as an acceptable variant. My own feeling is that more than two anapests in a line tends to be a departure from Iambic Pantameter rather than a variant.

At other times, there was no need for Clare to use such figures of grammar. His colloquial speech fit effortlessly into the pattern of whatever meter he was writing:

Hark! there she is as usual- let’s be hush –
For in this blackthorn-clump, if rightly guessed,
Her curious house is hidden. Part aside
Those hazel branches in a gentle way
And stoop right cautious ‘neath the rustling boughs…

Such colloquial phrases as if rightly guessed and stoop right cautious fit neatly in the iambic pattern. Clare’s only concession was use aphaeresis when changing beneath to ‘neath – the only such figure in the entirety of the blank verse poem.

Most of John Clare’s poetry follows this similar pattern. An attentive reader can deduce that he wrote quickly, his verse frequently filled with words that do little more than fill out the meter, but his voice is always at ease and filled with the sort of speech and rhythms that seldom found their way into the more rarefied poeticizing of his contemporaries.

That said, and like Burns, Clare’s meter always remains rigid and archly conservative.

In fact, after the Elizabethans, the history of meter is one of ever increasing rigidity. The plasticity of a developing language hardened. By the end of the 17th Century words and their usages were all but standardized in comparison to the free-wheeling heydey of Shakespeare’s period. What this meant was that these techniques, rather than being an outgrowth of (and contributing to) a developing language, were becoming tools of poetry rather than of language. The coinage of new words declined rapidly and was even frowned on. Concomitant to this reining in of loose canons was an increasingly formal tone in poetry. Erudition, refinement and dignity were the bywords of Restoration Poetry – the stuff of Pope, Dryden , Davenant, Milton – not colloquialism. The malleable freedom of blank verse gave way to the strict accounting of heroic couplets. So, even though poets had the tools available to them, the times weren’t right. Colloquialism no longer found its way into the poetry of the leading poets.

After the restoration, even as the tyranny of heroic couplets finally began to give way, the rigidity of the restoration left its stamp of the following generations. The extravagant adventurousness of the Elizabethans were all but forgotten and seldom imitated, even as the nineteenth century fell under the sway of Keats, Shelley, Wordsworth and the great Victorains – Browning and Tennyson.

By the end of the nineteenth century many of the techniques used to fulfill the demands of meter and rhyme had become no more than mannerisms. It was to this that Pound was reacting when he rejected the sing-song meter of the Victorians. He believed that the only way to liberate poetry from the stale exigencies of meter and rhyme was to liberate it from meter and rhyme. Free verse was born and the exigencies were thrown out the window. They were no longer needed.

To some poets, though, Pound was taking the easy way out.

A few Poets looked for a new way to fuse the colloquial voice with metrical poetry.

Colloquialism without the Cheats

ea-robinsonE.A. Robinson was already meeting the demands of meter without recourse to the tired devices of his contemporaries — the tired metrical cheats, the flowery language and expostulations. Robinson’s poetry, for the first time in English language poetry,  reunited the common, colloquial voice with the demands of formal poetry.

The Blank Verse poem Aunt Imogen is a fine example of Robinson’s more vernacular and supple style. There are no thees or thous, no syncope, no elipsis, no aphaerisis.

The verse begins with an informality that was, up to this point, unheard of .

Aunt Imogen was coming, and therefore
The children—Jane, Sylvester, and Young George—
Were eyes and ears; for there was only one
Aunt Imogen to them in the whole world,
And she was in it only for four weeks
In fifty-two.

Knowing that the verse is iambic pentameter blank verse, we know a few things about the first line:

aunt-imogen

The first is that the first & last syllable of Imogen receives the strong stress, not the second syllable. The second thing we know is that therefore is pronounced differently than nowadays, with the second syllable receiving the stress – there-fore’. A quick search in Webster’s (not the dinky collegiate version but the old one the size of a cinder block) confirms that the older pronunciation of therefore was more prevalent in Robinson’s day. (Trochaic feet, in the fifth foot of an Iambic Pentameter line, is extremely rare before the middle of the 20th Century.) Robinson doesn’t mind the Pyrrhic fourth foot, willing to exchange metrical rigidity for phrasal flexibility.

After the informality of the first line Robinson offers up some American vernacular. “Were eyes and ears” comes from the expression all ears, a uniquely American Idiomatic expression. Then the next lines seek to echo the voice of the children saying that  “there was only one/Aunt Imogen to them in the whole world. It is the kind of exaggerated expression children are prone to but which, up to now, rarely found its way into serious poetry. Robinson ends this first sentence with the following: “And she was in it only for four weeks
In fifty-two”.
The closing words have the feeling of a conversational aside, adding to the air of informality and colloquial speech – something which Frost was to develop even further. There is, deliberately, no rhetorical heightening in any  of these lines.

In terms of the meter, Robinson relaxes his strict accounting, allowing the colloquialism to disrupt the iambic pattern.

robinson-in-the-whole-world

I read the first of the two lines as containing what’s called a double foot – a Pyrrhic-Spondee. (The double foot is an Iambic Pentameter variant which Sidney, an early pioneer of Iambic Pentameter, made frequent use of.)  The next line mirrors the first, though this time I read the line as having five feet. Though it probably was not deliberate on Robinson’s part, the second line helps re-affirm the Iambic Pentameter pattern without sacrificing Robinson’s colloquial effects. The effect is supple and flexible. It is a new voice in the poetry of blank verse.

There’s more to say about this poem but I think another poem will better demonstrate the other salient feature of Robinson’s verse – his magnificent Sonnet “The Sheaves”. He generally resists altering the natural grammar of spoken English for the sake of rhyme or metrical rhythm. He finds ways to preserve normal speech patterns while preserving the integrity of the Iambic Pentameter pattern. This is significant. Up until Robinson, poets regularly reversed grammatical units depending on what Iamb or Rhyme they needed.

For example, consider Wordsworth’s Scorn not the Sonnet:

“the melody
Of this small lute gave ease to Petrarch’s wound;
A thousand times this pipe did Tasso sound”

The last line reverses the normal grammatical order for the sake of the rhyme wound/sound. Allowing that we don’t use the auxillary verb do as an expletive, one would normall say: Tasso did sound this pipe a thousand times or Tasso sounded this pipe a thousand times.

Robinson tries to dispense with such devices, rhetorical heightening, the use of the antiquated pronouns thee or thou for a much more familiar and “low American”  colloquial voice or or “low mimetic style” (See my post on the Oratorical Style for a discussion of high and low mimetic styles – the discussion is in reference to Fantasy Writers but applies to poetry as well. Apart from the poets mentioned in this post, and up until the 20th Century, most poets writing in meter chose to write in a high mimetic style, including Emily Dickinson.)

Where long the shadows of the wind had rolled,
Green wheat was yielding to the change assigned;
And as by some vast magic undivined
The world was turning slowly into gold.
Like nothing that was ever bought or sold
It waited there, the body and the mind;
And with a mighty meaning of a kind
That tells the more the more it is not told.

So in a land where all days are not fair,
Fair days went on till on another day
A thousand golden sheaves were lying there,
Shining and still, but not for long to stay —
As if a thousand girls with golden hair
Might rise from where they slept and go away.

Robinson’s concessions are change assigned, magic undivined and long to stay (where one would normally expect assigned change, undivined magic and to stay long. Other than that, the poem sounds thoroughly modern to an American ear. Whitman can sound modern to an American ear, but Whitman set aside meter to do it. Robinson didn’t and that, and if only in this respect, is all the more impressive.

Robert Frost: A Master of Colloquialism in Poetry

robert-frost-youngAfter Robinson, Robert Frost became the unrivaled twentieth century master of the colloquial. Frost, through skill, genius or sheer determination, dispensed with any metrical concessions. His verse is free of grammatical inversions, syncope, elision or any of the other metrical concessions. And there are no wasted words – words merely to pad the meter. His colloquial phrases strain the meter (and he was criticized for it even by his students – Robert Francis). But nonetheless, he mastered both the demands of formal poetry and colloquial sense and discursiveness – the halting, digressive, deliberative and informal pattern of our daily talk.

We don’t speak in five paragraph essays, but feel our away forward, our thoughts shaped by what we build on. This is the tone that Frost mastered.  His uniqueness, in this respect, and the difficulty of his art is attested to by the fact that, so far, few poets and fewer poems have achieved anything comparable.

‘The wonder is I didn’t see at once.
I never noticed it from here before.
I must be wonted to it – that’s the reason.
The little graveyard where my people are!
So small the window frames the whole of it.
Not so much larger than a bedroom, is it?
There are three stones of slate and one of marble,
Broad-shouldered little slabs there in the sunlight
On the sidehill. We haven’t to mind those.
But I understand: it is not the stones,
But the child’s mound’

~ Home Burial: Robert Frost

Notice how Frost imitates the deliberative pattern of colloquial speech. The husband says: “I never noticed it from here before.” Then, colloquially, he reflects: “I must be wonted to it“. The poem is written in Blank Verse and the phrase fits neatly within the meter.  Outside the sphere of Dramatic Verse, no other poet before Frost ever introduced the everyday pattern of speech into verse.  This was Frost’s innovation. Notice the dialectal effect of “We haven’t to mind those.”

Dictionary.com defines Dialect “as a variety of a language that is distinguished from other varieties of the same language by features of phonology, grammar, and vocabulary, and by its use by a group of speakers who are set off from others geographically or socially.”

The pithiness of “We haven’t to mind those” is characteristic of the New England dialect still alive and well, up in Vermont – a tight, clipped and northerly accent. However, the dialectal language strains against the meter.

scansion-home-burial

This is a hard line to scan and don’t hold me to it. “We have” is iambic but from there, the dialect of the voice plays against the meter – the sort of liberty that Frost was criticized for by more traditional poets.  Nevertheless, Frost just manages to fuse the colloquial tone with the overall Iambic Pentameter pattern (the variant feet are an allowable variant).

That’s hard to do, especially for modern poets. One has to have an ear for colloquial language, for meter, and how to fit the two together. My own poetry shows the learning process. In my poem Come Out!, the first of my poems where I was able to fuse colloquial speech and meter, there are still some poetic turns of phrases that, if I were to write it now, I might avoid.

But I might be taught,
I should supposeI can’t say I see how.
A man must partly give up being a man
With womenfolk.  We could have some arrangement
By which I’d bind myself to keep hands off
Anything special you’re a-mind to name.

The phrase I should suppose is a Frostian touch followed by the colloquial asseveration  I can’t say I see how. It’s worth noting that he could have written I can’t see how but he needed the extra iamb |say I| to fill the meter. Because the phrase is speech-like and feels natural, the filling out of the line feels natural. But there’s another Frostian feature of the line, and that is the tension between natural speech pattern and the Iambic Pentameter pattern. A colloquial reading might go something like this:

robert-frost-i-should-suppose-colloquial-reading

This, at least, is how I would expect a local to say it. But something Frost is renowned for, and probably because of the tension between phrase and meter, is his tendency to put the expected metrical stress on words that normally might not receive stress. Here’s how the phrase reads if one takes the meter into account:

robert-frost-i-should-suppose

With this second reading, should takes empasis. The husband knows he should be more cognizant of his wife’s experience. And we know that this is how Frost meant the line to be read because the husband immediately avers, reconsiders, saying I can’t say I see how. In this phrase the iambic stress is on can’t and I. The husband has already determined that he can’t see through his wife’s experience and probably won’t. Not I he says.

The effect finds parallels in A Swinger of Birches, among other poems. The speaker seems to turn back, aver, reconsider what he’s spoken just as we do in everyday speech.

You may see their trunks arching in the woods
Years afterwards, trailing their leaves on the ground,
Like girls on hands and knees that throw their hair
Before them over their heads to dry in the sun.
But I was going to say when Truth broke in
With all her matter-of-fact about the ice-storm
,
I should prefer to have some boy bend them

The colloquialism of the italicized lines, like many of the lines, plays hard against the meter. In this sample, there is only one line that is indisputable Iambic Pentamter: Like girl on hands and knees that throw their hair. Taken at face value, the iambic pattern is lost, breaks down in these lines, but there is the echo of an older reading in these lines (and it is with this knowledge that Frost allowed himself some variance).

For instance, in Shakespeare’s day a little syncope and elipsis would have regularized the line :

Before them over their heads to dry in the sun
Before them o’er   their heads to dry i’th’sun

But he was going to to say when Truth broke in

[Where going is slurred via elision to read as one syllable.]

matter-of-fact-elision

On the other hand, Frost allows himself a more flexibility, willing to end a final foot with a trochee: bend them; willing to vary the Pentameter with a Tetrameter line having two anapests.

frost-anapestic-lines

In short, Frost was skilled at matching colloquial phrase to the metrical line, but he was also willing to deviate from the pattern when the phrasing mattered more than the meter. It was a flexibility that served him beautifully, and which he seemed to beautifully balance (never completely losing the iambic pentameter feel) – a flexibility which, as we will see, no modern poets writing in meter seem to have absorbed from Frost – despite their study and admiration of the poet. As for myself, my own poem All Hallows’ Eve works toward that ideal, along with some newer poems I have’t posted yet.

[For a look at meter and colloquialism in another Frost poem, check out my post on A Road Not Taken.]

After Frost

richard-wilburRichard Wilbur , probably considered the natural heir to Frost, seldom touches on the colloquial voice the way Robert Frost does. His voice and technique harken back to an older poetry – to Robinson mor than to Frost. Not only are Wilbur’s poems frequently formal in structure, but they mostly sound formal, even his free verse. The are spoken with an air of formality or literariness that works against the colloquial voice. Consider “Seed Leaves”, dedicated to R.F. (Robert Frost?). The poem begins:

Dislodging the earth crumbs
Here something stubborn comes,
It comes up bending double,
And looks like a green staple.
And making crusty rubble.

The inverted grammar of the first line, for the sake of the rhyming “comes/crumbs” firmly undercuts the feeling of a colloquial voice. The subject/verb inversion as much as announces the presence of Poet, much as one clears his throat before he speaks. In his latest collection, “Mayflies”, perhaps the most masterful , none of the poems are written in a voice other than his own — always the poet speaking. “The Crow’s Nest” begins:

That lofty stand of trees beyond the field,
Which in the storm of summer stood revealed…

Once again, this time in the second line, the normal order of subject, object and verb gives way to the exigencies of rhyme. And this is the trap of formal poetry, which only Frost seems to have overcome– how to write a metrical and rhyming poem while preserving the vernacular, colloquial voice.

Timothy Steele

timothy-steeleTimothy Steele, a contemporary poet well-liked for his skill in formal poetry, succeeds in areas where Wilbur does not. In one of his most Frostian poems, he largely succeeds, but Steele pays a dear price. It is excessively derivative both in voice and subject matter, as though Steele couldn’t write a colloquial poem without adopting not just Frost’s voice, but also his subject matter. Consider “Timothy“:

Although the field lay cut in swaths,
Grass at the edge survived the crop:
Stiff stems. with lateral blades of leaf,
Dense cattail flower-spikes at the top.
If there was breeze and open sky,
We raked each swath into a row;
If not , we took the hay to dry
To the barn’s golden-showering mow.

Compare this to extracts from Frost’s poems “Mowing” and “Tuft of Flowers”, written, probably, a hundred years earlier:

[Notice the echo of gold in the poem above and below…]

It was no dream of the gift of idle hours,

Or easy gold…

[Or the echo of “row” and Frost’s “swale” with Steel’s “swaths”…]

To the earnest love that laid the swale in rows…

[Or compare how flowers and spikes show up in both poems…]

Not without feeble-pointed spokes of flowers…

Or compare Steele’s “we took the hay to dry” with Frost’s “to toss the grass to dry“…

Steel’s poem is rife with Frostian parallels, so much so that one suspects that Steele either deliberately imitated Frost in style and subject as a way to learn , or that Steele is altogether too pickled in his admiration. His reverence borders outright theft. Thankfully, Steel’s other poems are not as pickled, but he does not, to my knowledge, ever write in another’s voice – something which lends itself to colloquial or dialectal diction. It were as though none of the formal poets had ever read anything beyond Frost’s very first book?

[Current revision ends here – Dec 21 2008]

Rebel Angels

[My intention is to provide some fuller examples from Lea’s poem – Dec 21 2008].

Sydney Lea

Sydney Lea

I paged through “Rebel Angels” a compendium of 25 poets: “Poets of the New Formalism”; and I could not firmly identify any poem as being written in a voice other than the “poet’s”, as opposed to say, Frost’s The Housekeeper, or The Witch of Coos or The Pauper Witch of Grafton. The only poet who might count is Sydney Lea and the poem The Feud. Lea comes the closest to a distinct (which is to say not Frostian) colloquial voice. His poems begins:

I don’t know your stories. This one here
is the meanest one I’ve got or ever hope to.
Less than a year ago. Last of November,
but hot by God! I saw the Walker gang…

In an earlier version of the post, I remarked that Lea’s meter was too variable to be true blank verse.

No longer. In fact, I find Lea’s meter to be somewhat conservative; and reading it now, I sometimes wish the colloquial phrasing conformed a little less to the Iambic pattern! That said, I wish the same for some of my poems. Lea’s poem is an admirable  effort – more so now that I’ve given it a second consideration.

My only disappointment remains the use of Italics (in the second line) – and something Sydney uses elsewhere in the poem.

One of the great advantages of meter, which free verse is incapable of, is in the ability to stress words that otherwise might not be stressed, according to their place in the metrical line. Consider Shakespeare’s most famous sonnet that begins “Let me not to the marriage of true minds/Admit impediments…” The temptation is to read it as follows: “Let me not to the marriage of true minds” However, Shakespeare’s sonnets rarely, some say never, deviate from the iambic norm. A safer bet is to assume that Shakespeare is playing against the meter, expecting us to read it as follows: “Let me not to the marriage of true minds” Admittedly, the prepositions [to] and [of] should not receive much stress.

The meaning of Shakespeare’s poem is very different when the meter is kept in mind. Lea, on the other hand, fails to use the meter to advantage. The italics, in fact, vary from the meter and act as a sort of cheat. In Lea’s poem we’ve come full circle. Only now, the effect is not to preserve the meter but to ignore it!

Coda

There’s more to write on this  subject, and I will.

It would be interesting to consider how colloquialism has been used in differing forms. For now, I still hope to find the formal poet who can re-unite the colloquial, common and vernacular with meter, verse and rhyme.