On the Line
1. Poetic Form
I’m always coming across articles in literary journals that simplistically associate the poetry of closed forms with the poetry of closed minds. Usually a political or metaphysical authority is evoked, as being less suspect than the purely aesthetic: words like “democratic” or “existential” are opposed to others like “elitist” and “authoritarian.” But to be avant-garde in poetry is to be thoroughly traditional; similar words and equivalent values have informed the dialectic of English poetic theory throughout its history.
On the other hand, the pull towards unity and coherence in poetry is so strong that even free verse tends to fall into quite regular line-lengths, whether these are controlled by number of strong stresses, number of syllables, a certain recurring speech cadence, or even typographical boundaries. John Hollander remarks wryly that:
At the present time in the United States, there is a widespread, received, free-verse style marked by a narrow (25-30 em) format, strong use of line ending as a syntactical marker, etc., which plays about the same role in the ascent to paradise as the received Longfellow style did a century ago..i]
Hollander is not alone in recognizing the conventionality of free verse today; more and more poets are exploring other ways of articulating the line beside the “received style.” Metre and rhyme have made a come-back among some; others are following the Whitmanesque route of long lines governed by speech cadence or rhetorical schemes; still others have turned to the prose-poem. Rather than labelling certain poetic forms “closed” and others “open,” therefore, what is obviously required is a re-examination of what we mean by the word form.
For example, a form may be “closed” in that it is patterned, and nonetheless unique to a single poem. The early English lyricists invented hundreds of forms they never repeated: Sir Philip Sidney alone used 143 different line and stanza patterns in his 286 poems, 109 of which he used once only, and most of which had never been used before in English.[ii] And even when such organizing structures are repeated we run into problems of terminology. As Robert Hass notes,
Thinking about poetic form has … been complicated by the way we use the word. We speak of the sonnet as ‘a form’ when no two sonnets, however similar their structures, have the same form.[iii]
When we move from poetic “forms” such as the sonnet or ballad to formal structures of poetry such as rhyme or metre, we encounter the same difficulty: we are always dealing with analogy, not identity. A sonnet, formally, is more like another sonnet than it is like a sestina; one person’s iambic tetrameter resembles, though it never duplicates, another’s. For metre is a system of relative, not absolute stress (just as rhyme is an approximate chiming of sounds). “‘Tis eight o’clock — a clear March night —” and “It is an ancient Mariner,” the first lines of Wordsworth’s “The Idiot Boy” and Coleridge’s “Rime of the Ancient Mariner” respectively, are both nominally in iambic tetrameter. And even poems by the same poet having the same metre may sound totally different; Milton proved this wittily by writing both “L’Allegro” and “Il Penseroso” in iambic pentameter.
Metre, after all, is only one component of rhythm, especially in English, which is a stress-based language.[iv] All metre does is give the inevitable alternation of weak and strong stresses in English speech a recognizable pattern; this pattern can range from monotonous regularity to unpredictable irregularity. Unfortunately, because it is the component of poetic rhythm most susceptible of study, metre has received much more attention than other important factors such as pitch, pace, cadence, and pausing. And because of the great investment scholars and critics from the sixteenth to the twentieth century made in the study of scansion, unmetred poetry (in its modern, “free verse” incarnation) initially met with critical opposition. Critics were disarmed of their best tools of analysis, the plotting of metrical and rhyming patterns, when free verse came along.
Now that free verse has established itself as the dominant prosody, we have a new orthodoxy. Too many poets and critics talk as though the vindication of free verse necessitates the rejection of poetry in metre. This is as unimaginative and historically inappropriate a response as that of their predecessors. To quote Robert Hass again:
What passes for discussion of it [form] among younger poets has been an orgy of self-congratulation because they are not writing metrical poems. A marginal achievement, since many of us, not having worked at it, couldn’t write them competently if we wanted to.[v]
At the same time, it’s essential to remember that, as Donald Hall notes:
The wholeness and identity of the completed poem, the poem as an object in time, the sensual body of the poem – this wholeness depends upon a complex of unpredictable fulfillments. The satisfying resolutions in a sonnet are more subtle than rhyme and meter, and less predictable … Any poet who has written metrically can write arithmetically complex correct iambic pentameter as fast as his hand can move … The poet is mostly aware of what sounds right and what does not.[vi]
Seventeenth-century dramatists were not counting beats when they wrote blank verse. Contemporary poets do not scrutinize every single line-break while composing. A lot of poetry — like any art — is improvisation; it relies on a profound understanding of formal conventions, but doesn’t enlist theoretical analysis unless the writer becomes aware of a problem. Criticism comes afterwards, if something doesn’t “sound right.” And what sounds right changes, as the conventions themselves change, from age to age.
I believe that one way to get over the formalist hurdle and into the heart of poems from other times and other cultures is to concentrate on the function of the line, the fundamental structural element of poetry. By “the line” I mean something more than the typographical convention, though the visual test (“if it’s in lines it’s a poem; if not, it’s prose”) is more comprehensive, if more fallible, than the aural test (“if it rhymes,” etc.) [vii] By concentrating on the line, I mean to focus on the way a poem moves, and moves us, by its interruption of narrative progression by a system of pauses, both syntactic and rhetorical.[viii]
The poetic line is where feeling and syntax meet. That is to say that the movement of the line enacts two different ways of using language at the same time; the first, which I have gestured at rather inadequately under the name of “feeling,” has to do with the way emotions, thoughts and perceptions are recreated by the poem using all the non-grammatical resources of language. These include cadence, pace, pitch, metre, all kinds of rhythmic patterning, and other figures of sound like alliteration, rhyme, and onomatopoeia. “Syntax” refers to the use of words according to the principles of grammar. Feeling and Syntax are equally important influences on the final shape of a line; their interaction determines the sequence of words in the line, the segmenting of groups of words by pauses, and the positioning of the line-break itself.[ix]
With this terminology, I am setting the line against the sentence as a unit of composition.But I want to emphasize first that, except for concrete poetry, which is unequivocally textual, most poetry today strikes a balance between writing and speaking. Though we meet it first on the page, and its typographical appearance is very important, poetry creates the illusion of a speaking voice. It is most useful, therefore, to look at the way lines and sentences differ not as abstract grammatical units, or as typographical segments, but in the way they are articulated by the voice. A sentence is segmented by its syntactical structure; it is punctuated, as here, to elucidate the grammatical relationships of its phrasal and clausal components. It may include some purely rhetorical punctuation, to clarify how the sentence should be heard (for example, my last comma was technically unnecessary), or typographical clues (as in my italicization of the word “heard”), but syntax is always the priority. Where rhetoric and syntax collide there is confusion — or poetry. For in poetry the priorities are often reversed. Obviously poetry has to allude to grammar to be understood: language is a system of symbols which must be mutually intelligible to speaker and audience, writer and reader. But poetry is always testing the limits of syntax to achieve more freedom for itself.
Therefore, although a line may coincide with a sentence or with a segment of a sentence so that its rhythm accords with syntax, it need not do so, because it is motivated by non-logical impulses. That is to say that discursive thought and language, while important resources for poetry, are always used for specific purposes: as means and not as ends. Poetry is less concerned with the clear statement of thought than with the evocation of experience. As Auden wrote, poetry is “a way of happening.” But it is also, as he continues in “In Memory of W.B. Yeats,” “a mouth”: that is, a linguistic event. Ultimately then, it “makes nothing happen: it survives/ In the valley of its making.”
This is not to say that poetry automatically excludes discursive thought or considered statements – far from it. But logical thinking is only one of the resources poetry has.[x] To capture the totality of experience, poetry elicits a full range of linguistic possibilities, from the most geometrically intricate couplets of Pope (which emphasize syntax itself as a source of aesthetic patterning and wit) to the most syntactically diffuse projective verse of Charles Olson. All poets try to articulate a personal grammar as an alternative to the impersonality of syntax. Some, like Pope, enlist syntax as part of their scheme; others reject it.
The most obvious way of signalling this alternative grammar is by the emphatic patterning of sounds and rhythms. End-rhyme and accentual-syllabic metres are the patterns we in the West are most familiar with today; the more overtly patterned poetry is, the more clearly it identifies itself as “art language” rather than conversation or discursive prose. In fact, ask the average Westerner what a poem is, and the reply will be “Language that rhymes.” Impatient as we may be with a response so ignorant of much of the great unrhyming poetry of the world, we must nonetheless acknowledge that rhyme is an infallible, and therefore reassuring, signal of poetic form. People know what to expect with rhyme and, after all, a large part of what makes poetry poetry is the willingness to listen. As Robert Graves said, “one doesn’t ‘listen’ when reading standard prose,” and listening — attending to all the details of sound and meaning, not just scanning for paraphrasable content — is central to the experience of poetry.[xi] To really listen, especially while reading silently to oneself, one must have a strong sense of the sound of language. Rhyme is the hook that lures people into listening, and helps them remember what they’ve heard. For us, the talking animals, what better seduction is there than the pleasure, not of the text, but of the ear!
It is the pleasure of expectation: we are cued to anticipate the return of sounds in sequential or alternate lines of the poem. It is also the pleasure of surprise, for, though we may anticipate a particular rhyme-word, we cannot infallibly predict it. Listening for the chiming of like sounds with unlike meanings engages the audience with meanings as well as with sounds. Consider the sequence of rhyming words in Shakespeare’s sonnet 129: “shame” “lust” “blame” “trust” “straight” “had” “bait” “mad” “so” “extreme” “woe” “dream” “well” “hell”. A whole story has been implied by the combined weight and resonance of similar sounding words.[xii] Those who dismiss rhyme, scornfully, as embarrassingly old-fashioned, are under-estimating its usefulness as a poetic resource.
Nor was rhyme always “old-fashioned. Like Campion in his Observations in the Arte of English Poesie (1602), Milton, in his preface to Paradise Lost, condemns rhyme as “the invention of a barbarous age” and a “troublesome and modern bondage.” Milton loved the oratorical cadences of Hebrew poetry, and both writers were devoted classicists; to them, therefore, rhyme was a “modern” invention. And historically they were right. Even in their own England, the native Anglo-Saxon strong-stress, alliterative poetry was only gradually displaced by rhyming poems in accentual-syllabic metres after the Norman Conquest. These new metres were a tremendous resource for Chaucer; his voice was liberated by the same conventions that Milton would later find so restrictive. (And by Blake’s time, Milton’s blank verse had become a burdensome and artificial measure to be denounced with the heroic cry “Poetry Fetter’d, Fetters the Human Race!”)
One of the great arguments for rhyme has always been that it helps us to hear each line of poetry as an integral unit. Dr. Johnson, for example, was uncomfortable with blank verse because, to his ear, it did not infallibly mark the line terminus. English accentual-syllabic metres, with their only relatively weak and strong stresses, he considered highly imprecise forms of measurement compared to classical scansion by long and short syllables. He favoured rhyme as a way of keeping line-boundaries distinct. To quote from his essay on Milton in Lives of the English Poets:
The musick of the English heroick line strikes the ear so faintly that it is easily lost, unless all the syllables of every line co-operate together: this co-operation can only be obtained by the preservation of every verse unmingled with another, as a distinct system of sounds; and this distinctness is obtained and preserved by the artifice of rhyme. The variety of pauses, so much boasted by lovers of blank verse, changes the measures of an English poet to the periods of a declaimer; and there are only a few skilful and happy readers of Milton, who enable their audience to perceive where the lines end or begin. Blank verse, said an ingenious critick, seems to be verse only to the eye.[xiii]
Johnson’s comments suggest two areas of investigation; the first, the question of what constitutes “music” in poetry, and whether this quality can only be attained by preserving the integrity of each line, I will return to later. But even granting him his premises, is rhyme the only guarantor of line boundary? He himself admits it is not, but does not trust the reader to pause long enough at the end of each line unless such pausing is enforced by rhyme.
In his analysis of phonetics in poetry, David Abercrombie found three main characteristics that distinguish the line from the sentence. One is rhyme. Another is a monosyllabic stress coming only at the end of the line. The third is what he calls a “silent stress”: the pause indicated by the line-break. All these conventions have a common acoustic effect in ensuring that the boundary between lines will be clearly marked, and that each line will be heard as a distinct unit.[xiv] In free verse, therefore, the silent-stress alone does a job that is reinforced in traditional measures by both rhyme and metre. The line-break itself serves to emphasize the line and becomes the clearest signal of poetic form.[xv]
Traditionally, we have described lines that break at syntactical pauses as “end-stopped,” and those that run over the line-break to complete themselves as “enjambed.” Enjambed lines are read with a much slighter pause than end-stopped lines – but that fractional hesitation is still there; it is noted on the page and should be honoured in the reading. Thus Denise Levertov remarks:
“Poets who write non-metrical poems but treat the linebreak as non-existent are not even respecting the traditional “slight pause” of the run-on line.”[xvi]
But chronic confusion has surrounding the function of enjambment; too often both writers and readers have considered it a signal to disregard lineation. There would be no point writing in lines if enjambment meant that the line-breaks were to be regarded as invisible! Enjambment works precisely because it emphasizes the unexpectedness of the line-break. This unexpectedness itself enforces the line-break; hesitation as to meaning is reinforced by an audible pause. That pause, Abercrombie’s “silent stress,” allows for many kinds of effects, both semantic and rhythmical. Words are redefined once their full context is known.
Of course, in metrical and/ or rhyming poetry, the line is fairly easy to hear through the enjambment, since it is so clearly measured, or marked by terminal sound. It may be worth noting, at this point, that this was why Campion objected so strongly to rhyme: he felt it was a facile substitute for a truly musical line structure; a kind of ornamental affectation which could cover up shoddy craftsmanship. Therefore, speaking of his own work in quantitative metre he declares:
some eares accustomed altogether to the fatnes of rime may perhaps except against the cadences of these numbers; but let any man judicially examine them, and he shall finde they close of themselves so perfectly that the help of rime were not only in them superfluous but also absurd.[xvii]
Campion asks us to listen “judicially” and we shall hear the lines “close of themselves.” Of course, it is less easy to hear the lines close in free verse than in metre; this is precisely why the line-end pause must be respected, and why poets such as Levertov are so concerned with exact placement of the line-break. Levertov in her way, like Johnson in his, is pleading above all for accurate scoring of poetry: both critics wish the poem on the page to be an exact guide to reading. Levertov is more democratic than Dr. Johnson, however; she trusts the reader to be “skillful.” The poet’s job to make sure the written score is easy to interpret.
John Hollander, who has written the single best essay on the subject of enjambment, describes the spectrum of possible line-breaks as ranging from “hard” (deliberately cutting into syntax, the most extreme form of which would be to break in the middle of a word) to “soft” (coincidence of line-break with syntax, the most extreme form of which would be the period concluding the last line of a poem).[xviii] Line terminus has a more marked cutting effect than the simple boundary between words, though a less emphatic one than the kind of pausing signalled by punctuation. The degree to which the cutting effect becomes prominent and operates as a rhythmically and semantically meaningful technique in a poem depends upon the reader’s perception that the line-breaks have been placed deliberately. Variety can be important in this regard; the most radical enjambment can lose its effectiveness if it appears habitual. Anyone who reads contemporary literary journals can testify that breaking every line against syntax can result in tedium as quickly as pausing only at ordinary phrasal divisions!
The interplay between syntactical pauses and line-breaks is often described as “counterpoint.” In music, counterpoint means the independent movement of two melodic parts. Gerard Manley Hopkins appropriated the term to describe the way the abstract pattern of metre pulls against ordinary speech rhythm in poetry. This process might more accurately have been described as “syncopation” (the playing off of a new rhythm against the expected one by the displacement of accent), but Hopkins’ choice of terminology has stuck, perhaps because by evoking melody, it suggests a more comprehensive description of poetry than the purely percussive.[xix]
Critics used to accept the effect of counterpoint in metered verse but rejected its operation in free verse, where there is no metrical pattern to displace. John Livingston Lowes was typical of many early critics in doubting that unmetered poetry could provide much rhythmical interest. I would like to quote his 1919 opinion at length, since it is more thoughtful than those of many of his contemporaries, and clearly articulates the issues that were to be debated for many years to come.
The movement of regular verse is a resultant, a resolution, of two rhythms, one of which, taken alone, tends towards utter freedom, the other of which, taken alone, tends towards restraint. There is in verse, on the one hand, the metrical unit – that is to say, for our present purpose, the line. There is, on the other hand, what we may designate as the sentence rhythm or cadence. If the line length and the sentence rhythm uniformly coincide (as they do in some of Pope’s couplets, for example) we get monotony, deadly and intolerable. If there is only the sentence cadence, without the beat of the line, there is variety, but it is merely the variety of your speech and mine, when charged with emotion in varying degrees.[xx]
The problem here is Lowes’s definition of the line; he identifies it with metre by calling it “the metrical unit,” and allows for no rhythmical possibilities in poetry other than the two extremes of regular patterning in quantifiable measures and the purely rhetorical emphases of speech. Lowes is reluctant to give up metre for the same reason Dr. Johnson held fast to rhyme. Both critics fear that, without systematic formal devices, poetry will lose its generic purity, becoming nothing more than a record of the speaking voice: in Dr. Johnson’s words, “the measures of an English poet” will change into “the periods of a declaimer.”
Nonetheless, Dr. Johnson acknowledges that, despite his discomfort with its prosodic subversiveness, Milton’s blank verse works. Similarly Lowes is more than half-way to accepting free-verse; he just needs to be persuaded that it too is “a resultant, a resolution of two rhythms.” In his early defence of free verse, T.S. Eliot tried to explain that taking away rhyme and metre would not deprive poetry of music; on the contrary, it would encourage the poet to discover the native music of the English language. He said:
When the comforting echo of rhyme is removed, success or failure in the choice of words, in the sentence structure, in the order, is at once more apparent. Rhyme removed, the poet is at once held up to the standards of prose. Rhyme removed, much ethereal music leaps up from the word.[xxi]
This is of course the beginning of the answer I promised earlier to the anxieties of Dr. Johnson about whether poetry without rhyme would have any music. Only a beginning because, radical as Eliot’s statement seemed at the time, it seems quaintly timid now. Moreover, one must read rather carefully. Eliot does not mean to suggest that free verse is nothing more than a framing technique for focussing the reader’s attention on the sounds of words. On the contrary, he emphasizes the poet’s task of selection and arrangement, “success or failure in the choice of words, in the sentence structure, in the order.”
Of course, the word “sentence” is unfortunate, implying as it does that the poet writing without rhyme and metre is automatically writing sentences, not lines. On the other hand, here is Wallace Stevens who seems to be replying directly to Dr. Johnson, conceding but vindicating his description of unrhymed poetry as “declamation.” Stevens says
yesterday, or the day before, the time from which the use of the word “music” in relation to poetry has come down to us, music meant something else. It meant metrical poetry with regular rhyme schemes repeated stanza after stanza. All of the stanzas were alike in form. As a result of this, what with the repetitions of the beats of the lines, and the constant and recurring harmonious sound, there actually was a music. But … there has been a change in the nature of what we mean by music. It is like the change from Haydn to a voice intoning. It is like the voice of an actor reciting or declaiming or of some figure concealed, so that we cannot identify him, who speaks with a measured voice which is often disturbed by his feeling for what he says … Instead of a musician we have an orator whose speech sometimes resembles music. We have an eloquence, and it is that eloquence that we call music every day, without having much cause to think about it.[xxii]
Powerful stuff, except that in an effort to reclaim music for poetry, Stevens starts comparing poetry to speech. For Eliot, free verse has the virtues of prose and its music is the music inherent in ordinary sentence rhythms; for Stevens (like Lowes), free verse is like speech and its rhythms those of a passionate orator. Unfortunately, as long as free verse is defined in terms of prose and speech, poets will have trouble staking a claim for their own area of discourse.
What leads to this confusion is lack of recognition that the poetic text is never speech; the most conversational tone, diction and cadence remain illusory: the results of aesthetic design. Wordsworth’s “Preface” to Lyrical Ballads, the rallying cry for the modern movement in poetry, makes this very clear. Wordsworth says that his poems are an experiment
to ascertain how far, by fitting to metrical arrangement a selection of the real language of men in a state of vivid sensation, that sort of pleasure and that quantity of pleasure may be imparted which a poet may rationally endeavour to impart.[xxiii]
And although his American heir, William Carlos Williams, wanted to reverse the method, finding new metrical arrangements to fit “the real language of men,” he too emphasizes the need for craftsmanship and control; the attentiveness to measure. As he explains:
We have today to do with the poetic, as always, but a relatively stable foot, not a rigid one. That’s all the difference.[xxiv]
No one could have been more self-conscious in the composition of lines than William Carlos Williams. It is to him more than to any other single writer that we owe the vindication of free verse as a legitimate prosody, and the redefinition of counterpoint to include the play of line rhythm — whether metrical or not—against ordinary syntactical pausing. And yet, the way Williams actually uses the line-break, while capturing the cadences of American speech, is nonetheless resolutely textual; most of its power comes from how it’s put down on the page. To take the most famous and obvious example, “The Red Wheelbarrow” from Spring and All:
so much depends
a red wheel
glazed with rain
beside the white
What Williams has written here is clearly, even defiantly, a poem, in that it’s neither speech nor prose but a kind of language which insists on being read carefully, being attended to, in the way that poetry does. The longer you look at it the more dense it seems, the more exquisite the internal clockwork, the more surprising the degree of organization in so small and unprepossessing a piece. The visual pattern is immediately apparent; four couplets, unpunctuated and with no capital letters, each consisting of a three word phrase followed by a single word. If we count syllables we get a ratio of 4:2; 3:2; 3:2; 4:2 – highly symmetrical. If we count stresses we get 3:1; 2:1; 2:1; and 2:1. The extra stress in the first line focuses our attention on another anomaly: the word “depends.” It is the only disyllabic word in the first line of a couplet, and the only abstract idea in the poem. The opening statement “so much depends upon” is both rhetorically insistent and mysterious; we have to figure it out by interpreting the images that follow. The first is a man-made tool, the second alludes to both art (“glazed”) and nature (“rain water”), the third a domestic bird whose colour – white — is set in opposition to but also paired traditionally with the red colour of the wheelbarrow, reminding us of their connection and common setting: a farm. Man is being placed in the context of all that he “depends upon” for survival, however banal it may seem at first sight. The point of the poem is the homely dependency.
And so on. To plumb Williams further would be superfluous to my point here which is simply that, whatever the graces (or deficiencies)of this poem, they have less to do with “the American Idiom” than is usually claimed. It may well be that the rhythms enacted in such poems are American, but as Williams himself made clear, speech itself only provides “hints to composition. This does not mean realism in the language. What it does mean, I think, is ways of managing the language, new ways. Primarily it means to me opportunity to expand the structure, the basis, the actual making of the poem.“[xxv]
The making of the poem here, as in every other poem, happens in the lines.
English prosodic theory has always taken a while to catch up to poetic experiment, and it tends to become prescriptive rather than descriptive. Moreover, despite borrowing from the studies of musicologists, phoneticians, acoustic scientists and aesthetic philosophers, we don’t really know how to describe poetic rhythms except to say that stresses are relatively weak or strong and occur in certain groupings. We still have only a partial understanding of how repetition and variation create meaningful patterns; at the same time, we recognize that numerical principles account for a small part of our experience of poetry. For as Donald Hall reminds us:
Even correct meter, alone, does not make form; it makes at least a grid, and it allows form, but so does free verse or a prose paragraph.[xxvi]
The main difference between metered poetry and free verse, therefore, is the extent to which this rhythm is made to conform to an overt pattern. Or as Barbara Herrnstein Smith puts it:
The distinction between metrical verse and free verse is a relative, not an absolute, one: it lies in the range of formal features of language patterned in each, and the extent to which the principles of formal generation in each one are limited in variability.[xxvii]
Metre and rhyme provide some limits to the variability of rhythm and sound, but as William Carlos Williams says, there is really “no such thing as free verse” because all poetry is structured.[xxviii] Rhyme is a way of patterning sound throughout a poem; it creates continuity by binding lines together. It also makes for closure at the end of each line by emphasizing the line terminus. Metre operates in a similar fashion, except that, like syllabic measure, it apportions the number of units per line. Free verse, by emphasizing the value of the silent-stress at the line terminus as a special form of punctuation, also asserts the integrity of each line within the stanza, even as it plays the lines against each other in the evolution of meaning. Poetic structure may be discovered entirely during composition rather than in connection with a pre-determined scheme of relative stress or relative sound, but every poem conforms to its own internal principles of coherence.
Therefore, every poet should demand, as Campion did, that the reader “judicially examine” the way the poem moves, and we all ultimately should endorse his conviction that “the eare is a rational sence and a chiefe judge of proportion.”[xxix] We should also recognize, as Campion’s opponent Daniel noted in his Defense of Ryme:
Every language hath her proper number and measure fitted to use and delight, which, Custome intertaining by the allowance of the Eare, doth indenize, and make naturall. All verse is but a frame of wordes confinde within certaine measure; differing from the ordinarie speach, and introduced, the better to expresse mens conceipts, both for delight and memorie.[xxx]
Daniel here is chiding Campion for his scorn of rhyme, and reminding him that poetry results from the interplay of art and nature, of “Custome” and “the Eare.” We could do far worse than to take the gentle Daniel as our guide when we look at poetry which does not conform to our own tastes or precepts. Instead of calling rhyming couplets mechanical or free verse shapeless, or whatever, we should focus on in each. We must allow poetry to be “a way of happening” and the best way to enter “the valley of its making” is, as it always has been, the line.
© copyright Susan Glickman 1990
[i]. John Hollander, “Observation of the Experimental,” in Vision and Resonance, 24.
[ii]. See Alicia Ostriker, “The Lyric,” in English Poetry and Prose: 1540-1674, ed. Christopher Ricks, (London: Barrie and Jenkin, 1970), 126.
[iii]. Robert Hass, “One Body: Some Notes on Form,” Antaeus 33/31 (Spring 1978), 337.
[iv]. In fact, David Abercrombie contests that in English, stress is so prominent as the basis of rhythm that the rhythmic features of poetry, prose and conversation do not differ in kind from one another — only in distribution. See “A Phonetician’s View of Verse Structure,” in Studies in Phonetics and Linguistics (London: Oxford University Press, 1965), 16-25.
[v]. Robert Hass, “One Body: Some Notes on Form,”336-7.
[vi]. Donald Hall, “Goatfoot, Milktongue, Twinbird: The Psychic Origins of Poetic Form,” rpt. in Claims forPoetry, ed. Donald Hall (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1982), 144.
[vii]. The test by lineation is more fallible because both its implications are subject to exceptions. My college roommate, for example, once seized a grocery-list off my desk, eager to read my new “poem” (it was written in lines). At the other extreme, this definition excludes all poetry written in justified paragraphs.
[viii]. Jiri Levy suggests that this system of pauses is itself “the fundamental formative element of verse.” His study of the relationship of line segments to their context considers the way they are set off by pauses according to principles of coherence, regularity and equivalence (or, more typically, their opposites: incoherence, irregularity, and intensity). See “The Meaning of Forms and the Forms of Meaning,” in Poetics 2 (Warsaw: Polish Scientific Publishers, 1966), 45-59.
[ix]. My use of a word as old-fashioned, humanist and hopelessly vague as “feeling” is entirely deliberate. I mean thereby to acknowledge many more non-grammatical influences on the ordering of words in a line that Julia Kristeva allows for in her theory of “The Semiotic.” This she defines as “a ‘second’ return of the instinctual functioning within the symbolic, as a negativity introduced into the symbolic order, and as the transgression of that order.” Revolution in Poetic Language, trans. Margaret Waller (NY: Columbia University Press, 1984), 69. I agree with Kristeva’s description of what “the semiotic” does in poetry, but not with her definition of what it is. Her definition seems entirely too mechanistic; she leaves no room for the expression of the emotional or intellectual life of the poet through anything but the most bleakly rational use of language, and seems to perceive the “presence” or “voice” of the individual as nothing but the eruption of subconscious “drives”
[x]. I differ here from Donald Davie, who argues that the dislocation of syntax in poetry “indicates a loss of faith in conceptual thought.” (See Articulate Energy: An Inquiry into the Syntax of English Poetry, 1955; rpt. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1976; 151.) We need not consider poetry a “fall” from some prelapsarian union of mind and language; it is a different way of using language to express the full experience of the mind.
[xi]. Robert Graves, The Common Asphodel: Collected Essays on Poetry, 1922-1949 (London: Hamish Hamilton, 1949), 8.
[xii]. The classic study of the semantic implications of rhyme is that of W. K. Wimsatt, “One Relation of Rhyme to Reason,” in The Verbal Icon (Lexington, Kentucky: University of Kentucky Press, 1954), 153-66. Roman Jakobson calls this the principle of “equivalence”; a good critique of his theory may be found in Jonathan Culler’s Structuralist Poetics: Structuralism, Linguistics and the Study of Literature (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1975), 67.
[xiii]. Samuel Johnson, “Milton,” in Lives of the English Poets (1779; rpt. London: Oxford University Press, 1952), Vol. 1, 133.
[xiv]. “A Phonetician’s View of Verse Structure,” 25.
[xv]. Jonathan Culler amusingly demonstrates the power of line-breaks to foreground language and thereby imply intentionality to its smallest details by transforming an accident report into a “poem” simply by breaking it into lines “surrounded by intimidating margins of silence.” What he shows is that line-breaks act as a signal to the reader to pay attention, and that therefore the words come alive with meanings otherwise unperceived. See Structuralist Poetics, 161.
[xvi]. Denise Levertov, “On the Function of the Line,” rpt. in Light Up the Cave (New York: New Directions, 1981), 67. See also “Line-Breaks, Stanza-Spaces, and the Inner Voice,” in her earlier collection of essays and interviews, The Poet in the World (New York: New Directions, 1973), 2-24.
[xvii]. See “Observations on the Arte of Englishe Poesie” (1602), in The Works of Thomas Campion, ed. Walter R. Davis (NY: Doubleday, 1967), 312.
[xviii]. See “Sense Variously Drawn Out: On English Enjambment,” in Vision and Resonance: Two Senses of Poetic Form (New York: Oxford University Press, 1975), 112.
[xix]. Rather than relate the traditional controversy over counterpoint in poetry, I refer the reader to Charles O. Hartman’s excellent discussion in Free Verse: An Essay on Prosody (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1980), 61-80
[xx]. John Livingston Lowes, Convention and Revolt in Poetry (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1919), 231-
[xxi]. T. S. Eliot, “Reflections on Vers Libre,” (1917), rpt. in To Criticize the Critic and other writings (London: Faber and Faber, 1965), 188-9.
[xxii]. Wallace Stevens, “The Effects of Analogy,” in The Necessary Angel: Essays on Reality and the Imagination (NY: Random House, 1951), pp.125-26.
[xxiii]. William Wordsworth, Preface to Lyrical Ballads (1805: London: Collins, 1968), p.18.
[xxiv]. William Carlos Williams, “On Measure –For Cid Corman,” Selected Essays (New York: New Directions, 1969), p.340.
[xxv]. William Carlos Williams, “The Poem as a Field of Action,” pp.290-91.
[xxvi]. Donald Hall, “Pythagorus, Form and Free Verse,” in Poetry East 20-21 (Fall 1986), p.125. This whole issue of the journal is devoted to essays on poetics, some of which are germane to the topics under consideration here. See especially the piece by Alice Fulton, “Of Formal, Free and Fractal Verse: Singing the Body Eclectic,” pp.200-13.
[xxvii]. Barbara Herrnstein Smith, Poetic Closure: A Study of How Poems End (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1968), p.87.
[xxviii]. William Carlos Williams, “The Poem as a Field of Action,” in Selected Essays (New York: New Directions, 1969), p.283.
[xxix]. Campion, “Observations in the Arte of English Poesie,” p.350.
[xxx]. Samuel Daniel, “A Defense of Ryme,” in Poems and A Defense of Ryme, ed. Arthur Colby Sprague (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1950), p.131.