Recognizing & Using Caesuras, Enjambment and End-Stopped Lines

the end-stopped line

I’ve noticed a number of searches on caesuras, enjambment and end-stopped lines.

Sir Thomas Sackville

Fortunately, these are easy to recognize. When English poets first began writing blank verse (unrhymed Iambic Pentameter) one gets the feeling they had their hands full just counting syllables. Their efforts were stiff, wooden, inflexible. The example I always like to use is Gorboduc, by Thomas Norton andThomas Sackville. The play was written in 1561, 3 years before Shakespeare’s birth. For all its limitations, the play was the first (as far as we know) to have been written using blank verse and stands as a template for all the great verse plays to follow, including Shakespeare’s. Two features that make the verse feel wooden, by modern standards, is the strict Iambic beat on one hand (there are practically no variant feet) and the heavily end-stopped lines. End-stopped lines simply means that ones thought ends with the line. If you see that the line’s end is punctuated with a period, comma, question mark, semi-colon, etc… then the line is end-stopped. The phrasal unit, the syntactic sense, ends with the line.

Interestingly, the on-line text of the play at Luminarium (linked above), doesn’t include much punctuation. This could be because their text is taken from a facsimile or because the scanner (OCR) didn’t pick up on or recognize whatever text they scanned. I put my money on their having transcribed from a facsimile or an earlier, public domain (and relatively unedited) edition. It also means that you can test your ability to recognize end-stopped lines. Imagine you were an editor. How would you punctuate the following verse? If you can correctly punctuate the verse then you can recognized end-stopped lines. (Most end-stopped lines are marked by punctuation but some aren’t. Remember, if you can finish the line without feeling as though some sense is missing, or if you can pause (as though there were a pause in the syntactic sense or comma), then the line is end-stopped.

Gorboduc:

Are they in Arms? would he not send for me?
Is this the honour of a Father’s name?
In vain we travail to assuage their minds
As if their hearts whom neither Brother’s love
Nor Father’s awe, nor kingdom’s care can move
Our Councils could withdraw from raging heat
Jove slay them both, and end the cursed Line
For though perhaps fear of such mighty force
As I my Lords, joined with your noble Aides
May yet raise, shall repent their present heat
The secret grudge and malice will remain
The fire not quenched, but kept in close restraint
Fed still within, breaks forth with double flame
Their death and mine must pease the angry gods. (Act III l. 93)

What follows is an edited version from Drama of the English Renaissance 1:The Tudor Period, edited by Russell A. Fraser and Norman Rabkin.

Gorboduc:

Are they in Arms? would he not send for me? |
Is this the honour of a Father’s name? |
In vain we travail to assuage their minds, |
As if their hearts whom neither Brother’s love, |
Nor Father’s awe, nor kingdom’s care can move, |
Our Councils could withdraw from raging heat. |
Jove slay them both, and end the cursed Line! |
For though perhaps fear of such mighty force |
As I my Lords, joined with your noble Aides, |
May yet raise, shall repent their present heat, |
The secret grudge and malice will remain. |
The fire not quenched, but kept in close restraint, |
Fed still within, breaks forth with double flame. |
Their death and mine must pease the angry gods. |

I added red pipe marks at the end of each end-stopped line and a green one at the only enjambed line. There are 14 lines and only one of them is enjambed. Notice that every one of the end-stopped lines is also punctuated. In this tiny sample, over 90% of the verse is end-stopped. Is that representative of the play? I suspect it’s not far off. The actual figure probably hovers around 90% or less. That makes for very stiff verse. That ratio is typical for beginning poets who have a hard enough time thinking through the meter, let alone the line. Some mature poets never pull it off. (I’ve already named names elsewhere, no reason to beat the horse.)

enjambment

Enjambment is the opposite of the end-stopped line. There is a syntactic or phrasal pause which coincides with the end of the line. The simplest example:

Enjamb| ment makes | the read |er  read |beyond
The end |of a|ny giv|en line |of verse.

This blank |verse line| is not |enjambed |but end-stopped.

Don’t be fooled by the feminine ending in the latter line. It’s still end-stopped. By the time the Elizabethans, Marlowe, Shakespeare and Jonson, came into their own, so did blank verse. The judicious and skillful use of enjambment is what makes Shakespeare’s verse so elegantly flexible (and any verse for that matter). Among the loveliest examples is Florizel’s speech from the Winter’s Tale:

Perdita:

No, like a bank for love to lie and play on; |
Not like a corse; or if, not to be buried, |
But quick and in mine arms. Come, take your flowers: |
Methinks I play as I have seen them do |
In Whitsun pastorals: sure this robe of mine |
Does change my disposition. |

Mary Riley and Richard Baird in The Winter’s Tale.

Florizel:

·········································What you do |
Still betters what is done. When you speak, sweet, |
I’ld have you do it ever; when you sing, |
I’ld have you buy and sell so, so give alms, |
Pray so; and for the ord’ring your affairs, |
To sing them too: when you do dance, I wish you |
A wave o’ the sea, that you might ever do |
Nothing but that; move still, still so, |
And own no other function: each your doing, |
So singular in each particular, |
Crowns what you are doing in the present deeds, |
That all your acts are queens. |

The beauty of Shakespeare’s verse is that the enjambment nicely dovetails the passions of the speakers. In Florize’s case, when he is the most passionate and poetic, wishing his lover like a wave o’ the sea, the sense of the poetry washes over the ends of the lines like the wave he describes.

It’s a lovely effect.In the examples above, roughly 30% of the lines are enjambed. And just giving the verse of the play a cursory glance, I wouldn’t be surprised to see the play’s overall enjambment closer to 40%. Out of curiosity, I googled shakespeare, enjambment, and percentage to see if any scholar had actually done the work (I know they have), but I couldn’t find anything. I doubt there’s a single aspect of his plays that haven’t been written about – right down to the recipe for the ink on the manuscript of Sir Thomas More.  Who knows?

separating the boys from the men

Where the skill of a poet really shows itself is in the combination of meter and rhyme. The less capable poet will end-stop his or her rhymes. The skilled poet will enjamb their rhymes – not all of them, but enough of them to give their verse a more flexible and natural (unforced) feel. The poet who end-stops their rhymes is the poet who can’t think beyond the rhyme. The habit is typical of beginning poets, and to be expected, but the mature poet should learn to think beyond the line.  Here’s a poem by Dana Gioia, from his book Interrogations at Noon. I marked each end-stopped line with a pipe ‘|’ and left it at that.

Alley Cat Love Song

Come into the garden, Fred, |
For the neighborhood tabby is gone. |
Come into the garden, Fred. |
I have nothing by my flea collar on, |
And the scent of catnip has gone to my head. |
I’ll wait by the screen door till dawn. |

The fireflies court in the sweetgum tree. |
The nightjar calls from the pine, |
And she seems to say in her rhapsody, |
“Oh, mustard-bown Fred, be mine!” |
The full moon lights my whiskers afire, |
And the fur goes erect on my spine. |

I hear the frogs in the muddy lake
Croaking from shore to shore. |
They’ve one swift season to soothe their ache. |
In autumn they sing no more. |
So ignore me now, and you’ll hear my meow
As I scratch all night at the door. |

About 90% of these lines are end-stopped. We’re back to 1561. The lyric is charming enough, but the end-stopped rhymes give the poem a wooden feel. Gioia should have left this kind of verse behind long ago. By comparison, here are two stanza’s from the poet Robert Bagg, from a longer poem called Tandem Ride, a poet who I’ve reviewed elsewhere on PoemShape. Like Gioia, Bagg dispenses with meter but writes a regular, rhyming, verse.

XIX
We search the boathouse on Paradise Pond; |
the window lights of the state asylum
dominate the sweeping skyline beyond, |
radiating a contagious gloom
as if the campus were its anteroom. |
Sensing the madness in our enterprise
we abandon our foundering tandem, |
exhaustion having (at last) made us wise. |
Who’d pump a symbol seven miles but two Amherst guys? |

XX
She pushes a glass door open a crack, |
emerges form a tropical greenhouse, |
shoes squishing, then pauses–almost goes back– |
aware her sweat-drenched translucent blouse
would amuse us, or might even arouse
us more than her breasts did normally. |
She’d never say, Come on to me, guys, now’s
the right time!
–but I sensed viscerally
she wasn’t the same girl we had chased up that tree. |

Roughly half the lines are enjambed, giving the stanzas a nice ebb and flow. The  enjambment doesn’t overly emphasize the rhymes. Take a look at Shakespeare’s sonnets and you will notice the same freedom between end-stopped and enjambed lines. The thing to notice, most of all, is how Shakespeare (and other skillful poets) use end-stopping and enjambment to add emphasis to certain lines and thoughts. For instance, the vast majority of his sonnets’ closing couplets are end-stopped. This puts added emphasis on the rhymes which, in turn, brakes the sonnet’s momentum and emphasizes the finality of the couplets argument – the end-stopped lines emphasize the feeling of the epigrammatic sting.

Sonnet 63

Against my love shall be as I am now, |
With Time’s injurious hand crushed and o’erworn; |
When hours have drained his blood and filled his brow
With lines and wrinkles; when his youthful morn
Hath travelled on to age’s steepy night; |
And all those beauties whereof now he’s king
Are vanishing, or vanished out of sight, |
Stealing away the treasure of his spring; |
For such a time do I now fortify
Against confounding age’s cruel knife, |
That he shall never cut from memory
My sweet love’s beauty, though my lover’s life: |
··His beauty shall in these black lines be seen, |
··And they shall live, and he in them still green. |

The best poets will, instinctively, fully exploit end-stopping and enjambment when the opportunity calls for it. Lesser poets won’t.

Tom O’Bedlam

Caesuras

Caesuras are essentially nothing more than breaks in rhythm, thought, or syntax that occur anywhere between the beginning and end of a line. In other words, they’re the same as an end-stopped line except that the “end-stopping” occurs in the middle of the line. That said, they can be trickier to spot. They aren’t associated with the end of a line and aren’t always matched by punctuation.

Caesura’s were a fixture of classical Greek and Latin poetry but Anglo Saxon was the language in which the Caesura came to glory. In the book Creative Poetry by B. Roland Lewis  one finds this little gem tucked away in a footnote:

William Ellery Leonard’s two studies, “Beowulf and the Niebelungen Couplet” and “The Scansion of Middle English Alliterative Verse,” in The University of Wisconsin Studies in Language and Literature, for an entirely untraditional view about Anglo-Saxon prosody. Or see is Introduction to his own metrical translations of Beowulf. He holds that our meter of “Sing a Song of Six-Pence” is directly descended from the Anglo-Saxon meter of Beowulf; and his modernized version of Beowulf is in that meter. Professor E.W. Scripture’s new (1929) Grundzuge der Englischen Verswissensschaft has some closing chapters in Old English and Middle English alliterative verse in the light of laboratory analysis.

So, if we were to lineate Sing a Song of Six-Pence as Beowulf’s author might have, it might look like this  (caesuras marked):

Sing a song of sixpence, || a pocket full of rye.
Four and twenty blackbirds, || baked in a pie.
When the pie was opened, || the birds began to sing;
Wasn’t that a dainty dish, || to set before the king?

The king was in his counting house, || counting out his money;
The queen was in the parlour, || eating bread and honey.
The maid was in the garden, || hanging out the clothes;
When down came a blackbird || and pecked off her nose.

If you click the link to Leonard’s translation, you’ll see how this translates when applied to Beowulf. You might get an idea as to how the Anglo Saxons would have “heard” the great poem (and how the caesura was an integral part of the poem’s rhythm and structure). I always favor translations which try to capture, not just the sense, but the sound and structure of the original — something which is altogether too rare with the near total dominance of free verse.

The caesura’s importance to English poetry faded with the language’s modernization.  Still, examples can be found. Wikipedia offers an example from the ballad Tom O’Bedlam. I’ll give another from the same poem (which you can read in its entirety in Harold Bloom’s book The Best Poems of the English Language: From Chaucer Through Frost):

When I short have shorn my sow’s face
·······And swigged my horny barrel,
At an oaken inn || I impound my skin
·······In a suit of gilt apparel.
The moon’s my constant mistress
·······And the lovely owl my marrow.
The flaming drake || and the night-crow make
·······Me music to my sorrow.
While I do sing || “Any food, any feeding
·······Feeding, drink or clothing?
Come dame or maid, || be not afraid:
·······Poor Tom will injure nothing.

Notice that only the final caesura coincides with any sort of punctuation. (Is the rhythm of the ballad a faint echo of the ancient Anglo Saxon poetry? Possibly.) The caesura, in the stanza above, indicate rhythmic pauses. Also, all of the caesuras would be masculine caesuras. They each occur after a stressed syllable. Here are the first two stanzas from Edgar Allen Poe’s The Raven.

Once upon a midnight dreary, || while I pondered weak and weary,
Over many a quaint and curious || volume of forgotten lore,
While I nodded, nearly napping, || suddenly there came a tapping,
As of someone gently rapping, || rapping at my chamber door.
`’Tis some visitor,’ || I muttered, || `tapping at my chamber door -
Only this, and nothing more.’

Ah, distinctly I remember || it was in the bleak December,
And each separate dying ember|| wrought its ghost upon the floor.
Eagerly I wished the morrow; – || vainly I had sought to borrow
From my books surcease of sorrow – || sorrow for the lost Lenore -
For the rare and radiant maiden || whom the angels named Lenore -
Nameless here for evermore.

Once again, some of  the caesura are marked by punctuation, some aren’t. Most native English speakers will instinctively pause mid-line, even without punctuation. The combination of the internal rhymes (dreary/weary, napping/tapping) and the trochaic meter encourages us to read the lines as bipartite. Normally, for example, one wouldn’t pause between curious and volume in the second line, but the poem’s rhyme and meter strongly encourage us to divide the line (if only to reinforce the rhythm of the others). Try it. See if you agree. Conversely, we want to read through pauses that we normally wouldn’t. For instance, the heavy mid-line caesuras make us want to ignore the syntactic breaks in the first stanza’s third, fifth and last line::

While I nodded, nearly napping

`’Tis some visitor,’ I muttered…
Only this, and nothing more.

We might be more hard-pressed to ignore the natural break in ‘Tis some visitor,‘ I muttered…, but we could. In Poe’s poem, unlike Tom O’Bedlam, all the Caesura are feminine caesuras because they each occur after unstressed syllables.

In the following, another passage from Shakespeare’s Winter’s Tale, you will find caesuras and what’s called an epic caesura (generally in reference to a feminine caesuras within an iambic line – I highlighted the epic caesura in red.

It is for you we speak, || not for ourselves:
You are abused || and by some putter-on
That will be damn’d for’t; || would I knew the villain,
I would land-damn him. || Be she honour-flaw’d,
I have three daughters; || the eldest is eleven
The second and the third, || nine, || and some five;
If this prove true, || they’ll pay for’t. || By mine honour. (Act II, sc. I :142-148)

The fifth line contains the epic caesura. The unstressed syllable -ers at the end of daughters is hypermetrical (because the line immediately continues with the unaccented ‘the’ instead of an expected strong accent.). In other words, it’s an extra unaccented syllable. Below, the blue represents an anapestic foot and the green represents a feminine endings (the colors I use in all my scansions). Notice how Shakespeare, ever the dramatist, uses the unusually frequent caesuras and end-stopped lines to denote an agitated mind. Not all uses of caesura create the same sense of agitation. Context is everything and a good poets uses whatever tools are available.

I have | three daugh |ters; the eld| est is | eleven

The other way to scan it is to treat the epic caesura as its own feminine ending within the line.

I have | three daugh ters; |the eld| est is | eleven

My habit has been to use the second scansion (having learned to read and write Iambic Pentameter with George T. Wright’s book Shakespeare’s Metrical Art). Shakespeare’s line, therefore, has twelve syllables, unlike the expected ten of iambic pentameter, but nevertheless falls within the graces of standard practice.

A second kind of feminine Caesura would be the lyric caesura. This is probably the most obscure of all caesuras (and the one you’ll forget the quickest). Give something a name for the sake of giving it a name. This term refers to a caesura which occurs after an expected unstressed syllable. Got that? Four examples can be found in Dickinson’s poem Because I could not stop for Death–. I’ve highlighted them in red.

Because I could not stop for Death –
He kindly stopped for me –
The Carriage held but just Ourselves –
And Immortality.

We slowly drove – He knew no haste
And I had put away
My labor and my leisure too,
For His Civility –

We passed the School, where Children strove
At Recess || – in the Ring –
We passed the Fields of Gazing Grain –
We passed the Setting Sun –

Or rather || – He passed us –
The Dews drew quivering and chill –
For only Gossamer, my Gown –
My Tippet || – only Tulle –

We paused before a House that seemed
A Swelling of the Ground –
The Roof was scarcely visible –
The Cornice || – in the Ground –

Since then – ’tis Centuries – and yet
Feels shorter than the Day
I first surmised the Horses’ Heads
Were toward Eternity –

free verse

The use of enjambment and end-stopping can be very useful to the free verse poet and for similar reasons. T.S. Eliot, in his poem Rhapsody on a Windy Night, skillfully uses a combination of enjambment and end-stopping to control the ebb and flow of the verse and thought. Writing free verse, he could have broken his lines anywhere, but clearly manipulated the lines in such a way that they suggested a kind of rhythm.

Twelve o’clock.
Along the reaches of the street
Held in a lunar synthesis,
Whispering lunar incantations
Dissolve the floors of memory
And all its clear relations,
Its divisions and precisions,
Every street lamp that I pass
Beats like a fatalistic drum,
And through the spaces of the dark
Midnight shakes the memory
As a madman shakes a dead geranium.

Half-past one,
The street lamp sputtered,
The street lamp muttered,
The street lamp said,
“Regard that woman
Who hesitates toward you in the light of the door
Which opens on her like a grin.
You see the border of her dress
Is torn and stained with sand,
And you see the corner of her eye
Twists like a crooked pin.” (….)

Notice, in the second stanza above, how the first four lines are end-stopped, emphasizing and slowing down the verse with a kind of childlike, mother goose-ish feel. Then notice how, when the street lamp speaks, the lines are enjambed and the verse has the feeling of spaciousness. The voice feels different.  The effect is accomplished both through enjambment and the lack of rhyme.

It’s an effect, however, that the vast majority of free verse poets are unaware of or have chosen to ignore. The result is that their poetry is nothing more than lineated prose. While their lines may be end-stopped or enjambed, the effect feels completely arbitrary.

The caesura loses all it’s effect in free verse. After all, if the verse is regular enough to make the reader aware of such a syntactic feature, then the verse by definition isn’t free. If the verse has structure, then it’s not free. I’ve had this argument with practitioners of free verse and they either get that glazed look of breathtaking denial or they lose the ability to speak. Free verse can’t be both free and “structured” (in the sense of a regular pattern). Can’t happen.

Anyway, that’s that. If the post has been helpful, let me know. If not, I’m always ready to improve.

up in Vermont • March 26 2011

Stone Whisperer: Poems • Hendrik D. Gideonse

an exception

In offering to do reviews, I haven’t wanted to review free verse poets. The free verse aesthetic dominates poetry and offers ample venues for its writers. Traditional poets, on the other hand, have far fewer choices (if only because editors and critics don’t know how to read or judge traditional poetry). I also, generally, don’t find free verse as interesting or compelling. Free verse is much easier to write than traditional poetry; and that ethos (of avoiding the hard work) generally carries over into all aspects of the form: in its avoidance of metaphor, rhyme, figurative language and, well, all the stuff that takes time, discipline and practice. But, in matters of art, no rule is worth having that can’t be broken. So the challenge is this: not whether Gideonse’s poetry is up to my standards, but whether I am up to his.

plausible deniability

The first feature the reader will notice in Gideonse’s book is not his poetry, but the brief notes that precede each poem. All the notes are explanatory but differ in content. Some are autobiographical, for example, while others offer brief commentaries on a poem’s form or subject matter. What I find so interesting about this experiment is that it raises a whole host of questions: are the poems sufficient without them, are the poems changed with them, are they now a part of the poem? Do the prefatory material and the poem, in effect, create a larger unified work? I suspect Gideonse would argue that the poems are poems and should be read as independent; but, for the first time reader, these poems and their intros will always be inextricably bound. The only question is how the poems will be effected – not whether.

Are the poems enlarged or diminished?

Poets are notoriously cagey about their own poems (knowing that suggestiveness, after all, is at the heart of great poetry). The best poems are a starting point for the imagination, not an end point (which is why political poetry has such a short shelf life). The greatest poems are as unique to each reader as the reader’s themselves – no two will walk off with the same meaning. For the poets themselves, a refusal to comment allows for plausible deniability. Robert Frost derided attempts to read his poem, Stopping by Woods, as a suicide note, but he never out and out denied the interpretation – plausible deniability. Does Gideonse fence in his poems? Each reader will decide for themselves. As for myself: I have always found that knowing something about the poet adds immeasurably to the poem. However, hearing it from the horse’s mouth takes some of the mystery out of it. After all, some of the fun in reading poetry is the riddle – something that the great poet Richard Wilbur puts to masterful use. Some peculiar moments occur, such as when Gideonse’s diminutive four line poem, Symmetry, is preceded by a sizable, 23 lines of explication. One wonders, humorously, if the poem shouldn’t have prefaced the preface.

Having written all that, it’s worth mentioning that some of Gideonse’s prefaces are less revealing than others.

what you will & won’t find

You won’t find much in the way of traditional techniques.

There is very little figurative language, the imagery is thin, and there is little metaphor. Rhyme, even internal rhyme, is scant. There is no rhetorical heightening (as the poet Richard Wilbur refers to it). In fact, there is little that distinguishes these poems from short paragraphs of prose. But these are all stylistic choices – and to point them out isn’t criticism so much as description.

The Press release for Stone Whisperer gives us some background:

Gideonse is the retired (1996) University Professor and Dean (1972-86) of the University of Cincinnati College of Education. He is the former Director of Planning and Evaluation for the U.S. Office of Education Bureau of Research (1965-71), was professional staff to Senator Abe Ribicoff (1971-72), and taught at Bowdoin College (1963-4). He turned his summer home into his fulltime residence in 1998 and thereafter began the transition from academic and policy scholarship to writing poetry. (….)

Then, in the next paragraph, some of Gideonse’s artistic philosophy is shared:

He strives to make his poetry accessible to listeners and readers using introductions, word choice, phrasing, as one reader put it, to avoid the poem becoming something of a NYTimes crossword. Gideonse says, for example, that he doesn’t try to get published in the New Yorker; he’d rather amuse, enlighten, challenge, or encourage recognition and a sense of commonality.

So, if you love your poetry like a NYTimes crossword, Gideonse is not for you. But who ever thought that anti-establishment poetry would be the poetry that amuses, enlightens and encourages recognition? (For sure, the New Yorker Poetry editors seem to covet what I like to call cosmopolitan kitsch – a sort of turtleneck urbanity. ) But that a poet should feel the need to “defend” the simplicity of his poetry says something. So… Gideonse invites us to judge his poetry not by the standards of the language poet, the surrealist or conceptual poet, but by the degree to which he amuses us, enlightens, challenges, and connects with us.

the poetry

Gideonse’s title poem comes first and, like Frost’s The Pasture, one senses that Gideonse favors this poem both as an introductory poem , an invitation, and as a philosophical summing up. In the poem’s prefatory material, he writes: “Balancing Stones is a relatively new pastime for me, yet it has been an ever-present, quasi-meditative endeavor for more than a decade. I had done it, large stones and small, over and over…

Just as with stones, Gideonse could be decribing the writing of his own poetry.

…she asked hiim
How he’d balanced all those hefty, jagged rocks
On their narrowest points,
To stand however briefly as silent sentinels on crag and ledge,
Full of stored energy subject to release by a breath of wind,
The brush of the herring gull’s wing…

Are we to think of his poems like those rocks, hefty and jagged, balanced on their narrowest points? And are his readers like the wind or the wing of the herring gull, momentary visistors who will release the stored energy within them?

Readers may find that Gideonse later poems don’t quite live up to the sentinel-like imagery of this first poem – the flinty, almost desolate imagery of crag and ledge. In truth, that first impression is very different from the quotidian subject matter of some of his poetry, such as Still Type A, a laundry list of mundane chores with a gently humorous punch line.

But Stone Whisperer nevertheless displays what Gideonse, at his best, is capable of – building a poem on a central metaphor, symbol or parable – the allegorical poem. Many of the greatest poems in the English language are allegorical poems (poems of allegory or parable), such as Frost’s Birches or Keats’s La Belle Dame Sans Merci. It’s one of the few traditional techniques that modern poets haven’t completely discarded, but I still wouldn’t mind seeing more.

Another, in a similar vein, is the poem On a Twisted Sledge Norwottuck’s Called to Rest. Gideonse writes: “Senior year at Amherst I took my fiance for a hike and spring picnic… It was on that hike I saw the rusting sledge impaled by a heavy stand of laurel and set myself the challenge of writing a poem whose rhyme scheme evoked the timeless spirals of creation and decay.” It’s unclear whether this poem was written much later, remembering the hike and the sledge, or written while Gideonse was, presumably, in his twenties. In any case, the poem is one of the few in which Gideonse experiments with more traditional techniques. My own guess is that this is a youthful poem. One finds many of the mistakes associated with younger poets when they first try their hand at rhyme. Notice the grammatical inversion in the second line:

The earth calls back her own,
The straight now gray grain ages grown

The grammar, contorted for the sake of the rhymes own and grown, somewhat confuses the meaning of the line. Worse yet, two lines later one finds the sort of linguistic contrivance that makes more experienced poets cringe.

Iron bleeding into wood and ground
(How dragged here, left near this peak so deep.

And so the poem goes on. Gideonse’s traditional technique, at least in his youth, left something to be desired. In fairness to Gideonse (and to all of us and our youthful poems) I’m glad that he included it. Many poets relegate youthful folly to the oblivion of a shelf or desk drawer. For all its youthful eagerness (and I am assuming that this was a poem written in his youth) the poem shares the same love of detail that readers will find in his later poems (along with some of its drawbacks).

the imagery

Gideonse’s poems are rich with an eye for color, contrast shape, shade and detail.

These qualities are most effective in a poem like Come Spring…

Each year framed a perfect case
Of dandelion lawn in spring -
As Barbara D. would say,
Millions and millions of yellow dandellions -
A molten flow of sunny fire before the door
So solid each year it could only light the
Darker corners of any soul who saw it…

This is Gideonse at his best. The reader won’t find much in the way of extended metaphor, the poetic conceit, or any of the other more complex forms of imagery (such as one might find in Robert Frost’s poetry). The metaphorical description of dandelions in the “molten flow of sunny fire” is, to me at least, an all too rare occurrence. Gideonse’s feel for imagery is very matter-of-fact, unadorned, and almost entirely visual. If we separate imagery into Visual, Aural, Smell, Taste, and Touch, Gideonse is an almost exclusively visual poet. For instance, nowhere in this otherwise lovely poem, does Gideonse mention the smell of dandelions , the touch of them, their texture, moistness, or softness. There is nothing aural. We don’t hear, feel or taste the wind. But in this respect, Gideonse isn’t all that different from other poets I’ve reviewed – like Annie Finch.

That said, there are exceptions. Gideonse’s senses come to life in his erotic poetry. It’s not too hard to guess at what makes this poet’s heart race. The reader enters a different world. Consider Dandelion Seed Puffs:

The silky sepia tones of your skin,
Sensuous curve on curve,
So smooth, were my fingers tongues,
They would slide over you
As easily as an infant downs Junket.
When we held each other in late evening
And finally in early morning’s quiet and warmth,
We were two dandelion puffs
One interweaving with the other…

Or First Fruit:

Inclining lightly to my right
I turned your face toward me
And touched your yielding lips with mine.
An instant later I saw myself
Raising up my chin
Lest one ripe drop of liquid plum
Thus burst upon my mouth
Race down my neck untasted.

Or First Kisses

Playful?
But of course!
Yet unlike any kiss I’d ever given
Or taken before,
They were a velvet hook,
A honeysuckle flute
Summoning the bee in me.

While the imagery is still primarily visual, Gideonse is engaged with more than the plain fact of what he sees. Some readers may wish for more poetry on the same sensual plane (I do), but the straightforwardness of Gideonse’s imagery is in keeping with his stated desire to offer a poetry that is, above all, ‘accessible and that ‘encourages recognition’. And if there’s any other flaw in Gideonse’s heavy reliance on one sense, it’s that so much visual detail and observation sometimes has a “grocery list” quality to it.

Now they crouched together above the frame,
They seek to measure, fit, cut, raise,
and enclose in just one month.
One hand clasps tape,
a second the square,
a third holds post on beam,
a fourth scribes on the line
defined by the post’s edge… [Love Abuilding]

Leading used to be important to me.
Command was almost second nature,
Intelligence a knife,
Or sometimes glue,
Or leverage or spring a rusted thread,
Or move a boulder from here to there,
And words were Archimedean levers… [Pancake]

This former maker of rockets and stars;
A man of fancy;
A present-day gardener of rock,
Who cultivates his granite
And grows his obelisks and spires, his steps and pavers,
And schools still smaller stones to curves and spiral forms
That hold his flowers, squash, and more, tight to the living stone
And finds water for their lives in quarry filled;

Whose youngest child will etch and polish,
Or work with feathers, silver, shells and such…. [How Much More Do You Need to Know?]

They were finely calibrated sets
Of archeologically defined – and precisely recalled – strata.
The chairs cradled the lanky, solid frame
Whose life force smoldered for ideas and words,
And the worlds those words defined,
Or shook,
Or split,
Or built,
Or canted ever slightly out of whack,
Or blew to smithereens. [Tendrils]

It’s not that the individual poems don’t justify the writing, but the pattern reveals a habit of thought that will appear again and again. It’s the voice of the poet in intimate conversation, one who doesn’t feel compelled to finish the story, but relishes the journey and considers the evening young. I sometimes wish for the single, well-placed image – the image that startles and powerfully suggests – but I appreciate Gideonse’s obvious enjoyment in the richly superfluous.

poetic asides

And that brings me to the way these poems are written. If these were narrative poems, such piling on would sink them. A good narrative depends on momentum (especially poetry), and episodes of syndetic and asyndetic descriptiveness are the death of narrative flow. Gideonse’s poems aren’t narrative. They’re not confessional. Each one is more like an avuncular aside – one might call it Anecdotal Poetry. There is a thread of geniality and comfortable humor that strings these poems together, so much so that the entirety of the book has the feeling of a life told in anecdotes – accepting, unguarded and even intimate. Here is how Dictionary.com defines the anecdote: A short account of a particular incident or event of an interesting or amusing nature, often biographical. And that simple, short definition, ably describes the majority of Gideonse’s poems.

Gideonse’s poetic aim is, I think, to engage without pretense.

The price paid for that lack of pretense? I can’t help notice, sometimes, the smarmy rhetorical flourishes, the gratuitously inverted grammar, the unambitious imagery and language, but it isn’t helpful to criticize the poet for what he or she doesn’t attempt. Better to ask if they’re true to their own standards. And to that extent, I think Gideonse accomplishes his goals. He speaks with clarity, honesty, and openness. His effort strikes me as that of a man who warmly invites the reader into his life and the inspiration drawn from it.

Gideonse doesn’t chase new ways to be new (as Frost put it). And his poetry is exactly the kind that editors, the self-appointed guardians of poetry’s quote unquote highest standards, summarily reject (preferring the unimpeachably generic). And it’s for poetry like Gideonse’s that self-publishing is essential and necessary for the health of modern poetry.

Shape Poetry

I’ve noticed that googlers frequently come to my blog expecting to find shape poems – could it be the name of my blog? It’s among the forms I haven’t properly discussed. Happily, Gideonse playfully offers a shape poem – humbly the first of its kind, I think.

Mycelium: My Town

I would harvest for the
people the outcomes of close attendance to the surround
and careful meditation thereon, but it’s like knowing there are mycelia
down there somewhere beneath the composting mulch of public
need and desire and
trying to guess when
mushrooms’
caps will
first break
through, in what
shape, what color,
and where.

Stone Whisperer P·O·E·M·S
by
Hendrik D. Gideonse

$17.95

The Gandalf Press
Available at Amazon.com

Horsegod: Collected Poems by Robert Bagg

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  • In exchange for a complimentary copy, I expressed interest in reviewing poetry by poets “in exile” – the self-published. Specifically, I was looking for poets who trade in meter or rhyme, the disciplines of traditional poetry. This book, Horsegod, by Robert Bragg, was the first book I received. What a great way to start.

Me? A reviewer?

And in addition to this book, I have two more books to review. I ask myself: What if it were my own poetry? No poet wants a comment that discourages readers from reading their work.

I favor criticism that analyzes poetry on its own terms rather than according to the tastes of the reviewer. For an idea of what I mean, check out my post on Marjorie Perloff’s criticism. (What poet wants to read that his or her rhymes are too simplistic when that is precisely the kind of rhymes they are pursuing.) Poets make aesthetic choices, and my own philosophy is not to criticize them for that – but to observe.

Let’s see how I do.

About Robert Bagg

Just a couple words, because there’s a perfectly good biography of Bagg at his own website. The thing worth noting (and to my profound envy) is that he met and studied with Robert Frost.

At Amherst he had the good fortune to study with Walker Gibson and James Merrill and to alarm Robert Frost, who chided him for writing about sex, noting that Yeats waited until old age to broach that aspect of experience.

I don’t know to what extent he studied with Frost or the others, but just to have met the great poet sends me into a tailspin of jealousy. Also worth noting is the experience Bagg brings to his poetry.

After a semester at Harvard he earned a Ph.D. in English at the University of Connecticut, taught briefly at the University of Washington (1963-65), and then for the rest of his career at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst where he served as Department Chair from 1986 to 1992. His teaching specialties were English Romantic Poetry, Modern Poetry, and Great Books from Homer to Hemingway.

A Limber Lope

Horsegod by Robert BaggTo give you an idea of the kind of poetry you can expect to find, here are the final lines of a Sonnet called Caption for a Wire Photo:

(…)machine gun slugs
seek out his jacket and rip up her dress;

exposed while sprinting for a house safe
from this blood-starved cancerous regime—
enraged by a remission all too brief—
their drab lives shed like debris from a dream

they click a neutral camera and point-blank rifle,
feel a shrill heaviness, and are forever still.

The rhyme scheme is that of a Shakespearean Sonnet but Bagg dispenses with an accentual/syllabic meter – normally Iambic Pentameter. He opts for a syllabic line (counting the number of syllables per line). His rhymes combine true rhymes, slant rhymes and wrenched rhymes – reminding one of Emily Dickinson’s approach.

For this reason, his verse will read as rough, muscular, and knotted. But there is maturity in his choices – he’s  an experienced poet whose stylistic choices are controlled and deliberate. He avoids an overly end-stopped verse, doubtlessly made easier by the use of a syllabic line and a variety of half-rhymes. The overall effect is of a poet who blends free verse and traditional poetry. A visit Bagg’s homepage confirms as much:

Bagg also often takes advantage of the freer practice of the twentieth-century, since the “freedom” it encourages allows for plunging ahead when necessary with little heed for decorum.

It does grant the poet greater latitude, but also surrenders some of the effects unique to meter (accentual syllabic) and true rhyme. Nevertheless, Bagg is a model for the younger poet. There is a middle ground between the traditional and free verse aesthetic.

I suspect Bagg is commenting on his own poetics in this seemingly whimsical poem Girl with Her Pigtails Crooked.

Her left leg lagged behind the right,
a firm step followed by a limp.
Her pigtails haggled down her neck
like lines of tangled hemp.

I watched the shameless way she lamed,
She needn’t limp so lumpily,
I thought, so I called down to her,
“Hey, you don’t need to limp!”

She let her hair have its head —
it went its separate ways—like rope
let out to trim a coming storm
She stepped into a limber lope.

Think of the pigtailed girl as this little poem and Bagg as the boy who calls down to her: “Hey, you don’t need to limp!”  He lets his rhyme and meter, like the girl’s hair, go its separate ways, like “rope let out to trim a coming storm”. His little poem steps into a limber lope, a characterization that could apply to all of his poems.

Some Brief Narration

One of the showpieces in Bagg’s book is a narrative poem called The Tandem Ride. You can read the poem in its entirety by visiting Bagg’s webpage: Robert Bagg: Poems, Greek Plays, Essays, Novels, Memoir. The narrative poem is a genre almost altogether forgotten and, though I may be wrong, I suspect that poetry journals are largely to blame. While the great variety of journals provide a venue to an equally great variety of poets, their interest in poetry is a very limited kind: short; something that will fit politely fit the page.

Some journals limit poems to as little as 25 lines, at most, two pages, but reluctantly. Many of my own poems are eliminated simply by virtue of their length.

The results are obvious. The birth of the poetry journal, of which there are hundreds, coincides with the POETRY Anthologyubiquity of the short lyric. The long, sturdy narratives of the romantics and Victorians gave way to short lyrics and confessionals that neatly fit the pages of the poetry journal. Poetry Magazine recently issued a collection of poems been published in their pages since their founding in the early 20th Century – The POETRY Anthology, 1912-2002. All but a handful of the poems fit neatly on the page.

Nearly all the poems hum along in the first person or first person plural.

Reading POETRY’s anthology reminds me of the dusty old anthologies from the Victorian Era, proudly full of competent period pieces and timely poets – all of which and all of whom are forgotten by the next generation. They’re easy to find. Just look in any used bookstore. You can almost smell them.

Although I haven’t searched exhaustively, I’ve only found one or two stories in nearly five hundred pages of poetry (all among the very first poems published by the periodical) and they are also among the few not written in the first person. These are the better known poems. One is by Robert Frost – his The Code – Heroics. The other is by T.S. Eliot, The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock. As the 20th Century progressed, poetic ambition seems to have grown smaller and ever more forgettable.

Bagg’s effort is a welcome departure. His Keatsian or Spencerian stanzas (depending on how they’re appraised) nicely carry the narration forward. They’re enjambment, made easier through the use of off-rhymes, helps the poem succeed where others fail.

She pushes a glass door open a crack,
emerges from a tropical greenhouse,
shoes squishing, then pauses – almost goes back-
aware her sweat-drenched translucent blouse
would amuse us, or might even arouse
us more than her breasts did normally.
She’d never say, Come on to me, guys, now’s
the right time!
— but I sensed viscerally
she wasn’t the same girl we had chased up that tree.

This is  a stanza of almost perfect rhyme (greenhouse and blouse is a wrenched rhyme), but the content and language are thoroughly modern. So many modern poets who write with meter and rhyme seem unable to combine the disciplines with a modern vernacular. Once again, the lack of meter (I don’t normally consider syllabics a meter) and off-rhymes give the poem an almost free verse feel. In some cases, the combined effects buries the rhymes. It’s a deliberate effect. Robert Bagg Some will like it, some won’t. Don’t come to his poetry looking for soaring melody. His voice is modern and rigorous.

In this book, at least, it’s not until the very last pages that this narrative impulse reappears and then on a much smaller scale. That’s somewhat of a disappointment to me, but may not be to other readers. Another disappointment is that the subsequent poems are primarily first person. Some address a “you”, but they all have the feel of a poet discussing himself. I wouldn’t call them confessional, though that term can be broad. There’s an element of confessionalism in all of his poems – but never self-pity.

The Heart of Bagg’s Poetry: His Imagery

And now we really get into the meat of Bagg’s poetry.

Bagg’s imagery is  full of physicality and motion, is full of the body. As in his imagery, so too in his poems. He his not a poet, like Keats, at ease with ease, contemplation or sensuality (all qualities that later poets during the Victorian era considered effeminate). Bagg’s physicality won’t be restrained.

In Be Good, the child “hugs the intolerable boulder/has muscled uphill since birth”.

The world he prefers to observe is also full of kinetic energy.

My iron is wide; you use your blessed driver
and hit it with your fullest strength,
skimming the club heads so close to the earth
I hardly hear your shot, but see it fly
over everything toward the green… (My Father Plays The 17th)

In describing a couple’s decision to marriage, his analogy is full of athleticism:

Ashley and Melissa, you have circled
marriage like a distant challenge–
a mountain ripe for climbing–plotting,
perhaps, a night approach across
a secret valley… (A Toast for Ashley and Melissa)

Bagg’s eye is drawn to sport and action (as in this translation from Sophocles Elektra):

Reacting quickly, the skittish
Athenian pulled his horses off
to one side and slowed, allowing
the surge of chariots tot pass him.

Orestes too had laid off the pace,
in last place, trusting his stretch run.
But when he saw the Athenian,
his only rival, still upright, he whistled
shrilly in the ears of his quick fillies
to give chase. The teams drew even,
first one man’s head edging in front,
then the others, as they raced on. (Chariot Race at Delphi)

In the powerful and substantial lines of his poem An Ancient Quarrel, Bagg turns an appraisal of Yeats into a titanic wrestling match:

You might be stirring forces hard to quell–
that thrill exploding in your abdomen
when a trapped quarry turns his fear on you.
You go in flailing hand to hand, frenzied

because your own survival’s now at risk.
His barbarous thrusting voice impales you
deep in the place from which your war-cry soars.
Now its the pure joy of battle driving…

Notice words like exploding, trapped, flailing, thrusting, impaling. One might object that words like these are only to be expected given the subject matter. I don’t argue the point, except to say that Bagg is also in control of the subject matter, and gravitates toward the physical, the muscular, the strain of motion. He has an eye for it.

It’s no wonder, as with the very first poem cited in this review, that Bagg, more than once, is drawn to the topic of war. He doesn’t valorize or glorify war (very much the opposite) but his sensibility is drawn to the physicality of war, and its horrors.

And it’s also no wonder that Bagg shocked Frost with the sheer physicality of his poetry’s sexual content. The poem Cello Suite , the closest Bagg comes to pure lyricism, is nothing if not a celebration of the sensual physicality of sex and procreation:

Cheek to her cello’s gnarled scroll,
impulsive
irretrievable love,
once wildly made, crests,
then calmly overflows
the cello rosewood curves.

As she lifts her bow to the skies
her lover’s hand slides
under her shoulder,
her breasts lift
to his passing forearm.

(Unfortunately, WordPress doesn’t allow me to reproduce the layout of the poem.)

In the lovely lines of his poem Twelfth Night:

If music be love’s food, disguise
must be love’s speech, each wanton thrust
engendering a gentle parry–
a playfulness that implicates
interested parties wearing tights.

At the start of this poem Bagg praises Viola’s masculine pluck, and one gets the feeling that this is no idle praise – that this is precisely the thing that has drawn the poet’s eye to this character – her masculinity, her insinuated physicality. There is nothing Keatsian or feminine about her (though there is and he knows it). In this poem, at least, there is an unmistakable homeroticism that Bagg clearly enjoys and with which he is beguiled.

But Bagg’s eye for physicality carries a price. In the entirety of Twelfth Night and Cello Suite, for example, the reader never once smells. There’s no taste and, oddly enough, there’s no sensation (touch).  Bagg prefers motion, sometimes repetitively, where he might have evoked a different sense:

“her sliding tears/reflect her mother’s”
“her lover’s hand slides/under her shoulder”

This isn’t to say that Bagg never evokes the more effeminate senses (as Victorians called them) but never with the same eye for the physicality of the body and the world.

Now he’ll go.
His body hardens with still-clenching muscle.
I edge my right heel back along his side,
tuck my head to his neck, feel his ears poke
out straight, and out of rotting earth we churn-
reanimated halves of the one beast
both off us want mightily to be: the Horegod.

We pound through reeking sludge and angry bush
that claws at our face, snags our thrusting legs.
We are joy pulsing through a line of verse!

Even in these lines, the word reeking has more the feel of a physical assault than an appeal to our sense of smell. In what way does it  reek? What does it reek of? Bagg doesn’t tell us.

As with Bagg’s revelry in sexuality, it should come as no surprise that the physical decline of age is an experience that Bagg feels keenly – it’s slowing and diminishing vigor.

…age so
intensifies what’s left
of our skills and passions,
we linger over them
with apprehensive
appreciation–
as over a single malt’s
evanescent bouquet.

We fear the softening
of our golf swing
will put even the easy
carries beyond our reach;
that lovemaking’s
strife will become
affectionate peace… (Bittersweetness)

Bagg is not at ease with an affectionate peace, her fears it. Lovemaking, to Bagg, is strife, of both body and mind. His poetry, a lovemaking of its own order, is full of strife and motion. These are qualities the reader can expect in Bagg’s work. There is more than a touch of Hemingway in Bagg’s vigorous verse and he draws out the comparison himself:

Now that your honed survival skills assert
themselves, ask fellow Hemingwayfarers
this: When the powers in your loins and mind

wane, should you punish both with a twelve gauge?
Or keep on brining dark bulletins back
from our last war zone–as Phillip Roth does
(who holds the title Hemingway renounced),
determined to die ringside to himself
matched with an unbeaten serial killer. (Heavyweights)

Younger poets and readers looking for a model – for a poet who makes vigorous and muscular use of rhyme and sometimes meter – couldn’t do better than read Bagg’s verse. His language and poetry is modern, forceful, and uncompromising.

Bagg on the Internet

Robert Bagg Homepage

  • Visit Bagg’s Homepage for links to other books, opinions and more poems.

Gently Read Literature

  • Bagg takes exception to David Orr’s opinions on Political Poetry.

Bagg at Brockton

  • Three of Bagg’s Poems brought to you by the Brockton Public Library

Oedipus Plays

  • The Oedipus Plays of Sophocles: Oedipus the King, Oedipus at Kolonos, and Antigone – Translated by Robert Bagg

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