Sounds of Poetry, The 0374526176, 9780374526177

The Poet Laureate's clear and entertaining account of how poetry works. "Poetry is a vocal, which is to say a

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Sounds of Poetry, The
 0374526176, 9780374526177

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ROBERT PINSKY HE SOUNDS OF POETRY A

BRIEF GUIDE

"a profoundly uplifting book

.

.

.

plnsky returns to

language a sense of possibility and delight."

— Brian Gunn, San

Francisco Chronicle

ROBERT PINSKY THE SOUNDS OF POETRY ROBERT PINSKY States.

is

Poet Laureate of the United

His translation of The Inferno of Dante was

published in 1994, and The Figured Wheel, a volume of his collected poems, in 1996.

He teaches in the grad-

uate writing program at Boston University and lives in

Cambridge, Massachusetts.

THE

SOUNDS O F

POETRY

BY ROBERT PINSKY

POETRY Sadness and Happiness (1975)

An

Explanation of America (1979)

History of

My Heart

The Want Bone

(1984)

(1990)

The Figured Wheel

(1996)

PROSE Landors Poetry The

(1968)

Situation of Poetry (19 J j)

Poetry and the World (1988)

TRANSLATIONS The Separate Notebooks, by Czeslaw Milosz The Inferno of Dante

(1994)

(198})

THE

SOUNDS O

F

POETRY A

BRIEF GUIDE

ROBERT PINSKY Farrar, Straus

New

York

and Giroux

^

Farrar, Straus 19

and Giroux

Union Square West,

New

York 10003

©

Copyright !99^ by Robert Pinsky All rights reserved Distributed in

Canada by Douglas

& Mclntyre Ltd.

Printed in the United States of America First published in 1998 First Farrar, Straus

by

Farrar, Straus

and Giroux

and Giroux paperback

edition,

1999

Library of Congress Cataloging- in- Publication Data Pinsky, Robert.

The sounds of poetry a brief guide / Robert Pinsky. :

p.



1st ed.

cm.

Includes bibliographical references and index.

ISBN 0-374-52617-6 1.

(pbk)

Oral interpretation of poetry.

P7V4151.P55 808.5

'4



I.

Title.

1998

98-18873

c21

Author photograph by Don Hogan Charles / Permissions appear on page 131

NYT Pictures

To Biz

Contents

Introduction, }

Theory, 7

I

II

III

/accent AND DURATION, /syntax and

25

/technical terms and vocal REALITIES,

IV

line,

II

J/

/like and unlike sounds,

7^

V/ BLANK VERSE AND FREE VERSE, Recommendations for Further Study,

Notes, 119

Index of Names and Terms, 123

iiy

^7

Nor

is

there singing school, but studying

Monuments of its own

— W ILLIAM

magnificence.

BUTLER YEATS,

"Sailing to

Byzantium"

THE

SOUNDS O

F

POETRY

Introduction

The

idea in the following pages

hear more of what

more

is

is

to help the reader

going on in poems, and by hearing

enjoyment and understanding.

to gain in

Every speaker, intuitively and accurately, courses gracefully through

sound.

We

accent

is

immensely

subtle manipulations of

not only indicate, for example, where the

in a

word

like "question," but also preserve

that accent while adding the difference between that a question?" and "Yes, that It is

We

almost as

if

we

sing to one another

do not need to be taught such things:

taught in school,

we would

find

"Was

was a question." all if

day.

they were

them hard and make

a

mess of them. In this regard, the is

like the

way we

English verbs:

I

small, or anyone,

way we

use "down" and "up" with certain

have never heard a

however

discriminating

among such

me

its

up?" and

brings

me

down,"

use the sounds of language

cousins

stupid,

make

expressions

— "Don't

"I wasn't

put

child,

however

a mistake as:

when

"Can you put

me

down,"

"It

brought up that way," "Then

what If

it

we

comes down

memorizing them, It is

to

is,

why

bring

up?" and so forth.

it

learned these distinctions by making charts and

by

or

rules,

we would

blunder.

the same with what Robert Frost calls "sentence

sounds."

Because

1

we have

sound patterns organically,

learned to deal with the

for practical goals,

from be-

we can remember, without reflection or instruction conscious analysis, we all produce the sounds, and

fore

or

understand them, with great efficiency and subtle nuance. Because of that

skill,

acquired like the ability to

walk and run, we already have

finely developed

powers

that let us appreciate the sound of even an isolated single line of poetry

meaning



— even

if

we have

very

little

idea of the

that

someone might quote with appreciation,

that

stirs

like,

The

fire

about her,

when

she

stirs

Or,

In a smart burnoose Khadour looked on, amused Or,

Absence

my

presence

is,

strangeness

my

grace

Or,

Back out of

all this

now

Or,

Let be be finale of seem

Introduction

/

4

too

much

for us

Or,

Further in

Summer

than the Birds

Or,

Sorrow

is

my own

yard 2

The hearing-knowledge we bring

to a line of poetry

a knowledge of patterns in speech

hear since

we were

knowledge

b}^

atic

elaborate rules or through brute, system-

would not be able

And

yet,

is

to

tried to learn such

memorization, then just as with the distinctions

volved in putting up with to use

me and

them

in-

me up, we as we do.

putting

as fluently

having learned these graceful, peculiar codes

from the cradle to

we

infants. If

we have known

make works



the vocal codes that poets have used

of art

the nature of what

—we can

we

gain a lot by studying

learned long ago without study:

learning to hear language in a

enhance our pleasure in

more conscious way can

lines

by study or coaching, can learn

and poems. Athletes, to

walk or run more

effectively.

Study of that kind

is

the intention of this book: to

enhance the reader's pleasure in poetry through knowledge of a few basic principles and their tremendous fects. I try to

with a

ef-

explain the principles in plain language,

minimum

of special terms, objectively,

close attention to particular

poems and

by paying

specific words.

Technical language, vague impressions about the emotional effects of sounds (the supposedly exuberant or

Introduction

/

$

doleful ivs, the anxious or sensual ?s,

marks and

work

special typographical symbols

little



accent

all these, I

to avoid.

This

map

elaborate

etc.),

systems, categories that need memorizing,

a brief guide:

is

but a

my

goal

not an all-inclusive

is

brief, plain, accurate presentation of

the most

important points. More exhaustive approaches characterize

such good books as Alfred Corn's The

Heartbeat, Harvey Gross's Sound and

Form

in

Poems Modern

Poetry, John Hollander's Rhyme's Reason, and James

McAuley's

Versification. In these sources the reader

can

find excellent accounts of terminology, detailed discus-

sion of exceptions and anomalies, aesthetic and semantic theories, definitions

A

and examples of received forms.

wonderful historic account

is

John Thompson's The

Founding of English Meter, from which a great deal.

Thompson's book

first

sent

I

have learned

me

to

George

Gascoigne's sixteenth -century "Certayne Notes of Instruction Concerning the

Ryme," the

first

Making

of English Verse or

such essay in English and

still

one of

the best. Often,

I

quote some poetry without identifying the

author. (In such cases, the poet at the

is

identified in the notes

back of the book.) The purpose

is

to defer inter-

esting matters such as a given poet's reputation, themes,

biography, historical context, and so forth, in order to concentrate for the

moment on

the sounds of poetry in English.

Introduction

/

6

this book's

one

subject:

Theory-

There are no

rules.

However, principles

may

example, in the

tice: for

in the lines poets

be discerned in actual prac-

way people

have written.

If a

actually speak, or

good line contradicts

a principle one has formulated, then the principle, by

which

mean

I

a kind of working idea, should be dis-

amended.

carded or

Art proceeds according to principles discernible in

works of

art.

Therefore,

if

one

is

asked for a good book

about traditional metrics, a good answer

is:

The Collected

Poems of William Butler Yeats, or The Complete Poems of Ben Jonson. Two excellent books about so-called free verse are the two -volume Collected

Carlos Williams and The Collected Stevens. is

lot

One

of the

Poems of William Poems of Wallace

most instructive books on short

lines

The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson. To learn a about the adaptation of ballad meter to modern po-

etry,

an invaluable work

Poems.

No

instruction

ful attention to the

is

Thomas Hardy: The Complete

manual can teach

as

much

as care-

sounds in even one great poem.

But a guide can be helpful. The theory of is

that poetry

The medium

is

a vocal,

of poetry

air inside the chest,

is

which a

this

guide

is

to say a bodily, art.

human

body: the column of

shaped into signifying sounds in the

larynx and the mouth. In this sense, poetry

is

just as

physical or bodily an art as dancing.

Moreover, there

is

a special intimacy to poetry be-

cause, in this idea of the art, the expert's body, as

when one

medium is the audience's poem by Emily Dickinson

body.

a

or

medium

my

is

embody

hearing

is

not an

goes to the ballet: in poetry,

the

tist's

medium

breath.

When I

say to myself

George Herbert, the

The

ar-

and

reader's breath

the poet's words. This makes the art

physical, intimate, vocal,

and individual.

Other conceptions of poetry might include flamboyantly expressive vocal delivery, accompanied by impressive physical presence,

by the poet or a performer; or

the typographical, graphic appearance of the words in itself,

apart from the indication of sound. Those areas

are not part of this book's conception.

Ezra Pound wrote that poetry prose,

one aims an arrow

is

a centaur.

at a target.

take to be the

intellectual I

hope

of grunts

human

and bodily

to focus

The

horse

skills.

on the way an extraordinary system

as the material of art.

vocal and intellectual sense

/

8

in

body. Poetry calls upon both

and mouth-noises evolved by the human

mate has been used

Theory

is,

In a poem, one

does the same thing, while also riding a horse. I

That

is

an ancient

pri-

Poetry in this art or technol-

ogy: older than the computer, older than print, older

than writing and indeed, though some

much

surprising,

older than prose.

technology of poetry, using the

dium, evolved for ory,

I

may

presume that the

human body

specific uses: to

find this

as its

hold things in

both within and beyond the individual

life

me-

mem-

span; to

achieve intensity and sensuous appeal; to express feelings

and ideas rapidly and memorably. To share those ings and ideas with companions,

and with those

Theory

/

9

to

come

after us.

and

also

feel-

with the dead

ACCENT AND DURATION

What

determines the

stress or accent in

and sentences? What precisely does

we

example, that

stress

the

first

it

English words

mean

syllable in the

exactly does the voice do to create that audible,

(A term that for

distinct accent?

changeably with

at

word

word "omit"?

"rabbit" and the second syllable in the

What

to say, for

now

I will

more

interesting question than

might appear

This

is

first.

Just considering the question can, in

a

use inter-

"stress.")

itself,

help

we

one to hear more about the sounds of the words speak.

For instance, the answer that increased loudness or tory, as a little

what

volume

is

stress is

produced by

not completely satisfac-

experimentation will suggest. Consider

a speaker does to distinguish between, say, the

word and the Permit

me

last

word of the following

to give

first

sentence:

you a permit.

Turning the volume down or up has some relation

what our voice

to

does, but fails to explain the delicate but

quite distinct difference that virtually

and virtually

indicate

more minutely

focus

I'll

all listeners

speakers can

all

can detect.

moment. Here

for a

is

an

English sound: it

In the nature of the English language, the sound,

which happens

be a one-syllable word,

also to

by

stressed nor unstressed,

long,

by

is

neither

neither short nor

itself. It is

itself.

The sound

is

conventionally stressed, relative to the

syllables near

it,

when one

"she had wit."

It is

says "bitter" or "reiterate" or

conventionally unstressed

says "italicize" or "rabbit" or

u

Pat had

it."

These examples demonstrate a useful stress

on a syllable in English

sound, but relative.

A

syllable

stressed or unstressed

only in relation to the syllables around accent

is

because

a matter of degree. This

if

accent or stress

is

principle: the

not inherent in the

is is

when one

it.

As a

knowledge

corollary, is

a matter of degree,

useful

we

can

hear interesting rhythms even in a line where the basic structure

and

is

the simple pattern of alternating unstressed

stressed syllables. For example:

It is

not growing like a tree

In bulk, doth

make man

Each of these two Each pair of

lines

syllables

The Sounds of Poetry

/

is

12

is

better be.

made

1

of four pairs of syllables.

arranged so that the second one

has more accent than the

more than

"It" in the very light first pair;

more than "not"

sticks out

and "like"

pair;

"is" sticks out just a bit

first:

in the rather

sticks out quite a lot

and "tree" definitely

sticks out

and "grow"

heavy second

more than

more than

"a." In the

final pair of the line ("a tree"), the difference

the unstressed lable

first

syllable

and the

between

stressed second syl-

We

greater than in the earlier pairs.

is

"-ing";

could

analyze the second line similarly, noting that the considerable pause early in the line also varies the rhythm.

What

interesting

is

that within the simple system

is

of four pairs, each pair ascending in accent syllable to second, the actual

rhythm

singsong or repetitious, because so

you make special,

from

of the words

much

first

is

not

Unless

varies.

the mistake of pronouncing the words in some

chanting or "poetic" manner, you can hear both

the pattern and the constant variation.

The degree

of

accent varies and the degree of difference between the unstressed and stressed syllable also varies, from one pair to the next.

In

fact,

the syllable "not," unstressed within

its pair,

has about the same or even more stress than the syllable "is,"

which

is

stressed within

syllables in the line ("It

in degree of accent.

clude that the line syllable: a

is

From is

Thus, the

first

four

not grow-") actually ascend

such observations,

not simply a

diagram of the

and

its pair.

line

we can

thump on every

would not be a

con-

other

series of

sawtooth fashion, but a

much

equal

hills

more

varying, precise graph, with the stressed syllable

Accent and Duration

valleys,

/

13

in one relatively light pair or

sometimes on a level with,

even below, the unstressed syllable of a relatively

heavy

pair.

Here the graph might show

stairs,

or four

ascending points. (Something like this happens in the

second

line, in

u

phrase:

A

the

first

make man

doth

technical

name

four syllables of the following better be.")

for the pattern I

have been describ-

ing as a "pair" of syllables, with the

prominent than the second,

The

"iamb."

stressed syllable

is

first

syllable less

an "iambic foot" or

is

determined only in

re-

lation to the other syllables within the foot. Thus, a stressed syllable within

may

one foot

be

less stressed

than the unstressed syllable in another. As the imaginary

graph of a line like It is

not growing like a tree

indicates, not all

iambic feet are

alike.

In

fact,

no two

are the same.

has taken

It

of

me many

words

to describe only a little

what we hear when we hear the two

lines

spoken and

perceive, in an instant, both the abstract pattern or sys-

tem

(four pairs of syllables per line, the second half of

each pair accented) and the actual, living rhythm of the lines.

The

laborious process of description, compared to

the lightning apprehension, dramatizes

form

To

is,

and how sensitive the

how

efficient the

ear.

return to the original question: what does the ear

so precisely

Volume

and delicately hear the voice doing? or loudness does not satisfactorily explain

The Sounds of Poetry /

14

what we do when we accent most

or,

pitch



a syllable, because pitch

change of

precisely,

pitch, ordinarily higher

plays a major part in signaling the accent. Thus,

it is

not merely fanciful to say that in a

day

to

way we

sing

all

when we speak: What was the question?"

one another,

"What was "I'll tell

it?

you the question

me

you permit

to



it

was, will you or won't

have a learner's permit?

Is it

permis-

illustrates

another

sible, idiot?"

"You sound

The

last

so embittered."

word above, "embittered,"

important distinction. or

any

I

syllable in English,

relative to the syllables

that the syllable

and the

in

is,

is

first.

"it,"

accented or unaccented only

around itself,

this second statement

same

is

it,

not in

itself. I

added

neither short nor long

not a mere rephrasing of

Long-and-short, a matter of duration,

is

not the

as accent.

That the

have said that the syllable

fact

first

is

demonstrated by such words

syllable

is

stressed.

as "popcorn":

But saying the word aloud

a few times, and listening carefully, will indicate clearly that

second syllable

the

is

longer



slightly but distinctly longer. In the contrast, the first syllable

Thus,

sometimes

sometimes

it

is

the

word "ocean,"

duration

reinforces

contrasts with accent. In the

/

15

lasts

in

both stressed and longer.

tered," the accented second syllable

Accent and Duration

sound

is

accent,

and

word "embit-

much

shorter than

the rather long final syllable: duration contrasts with accent, with a certain audible effect. In the

word "con-

founded," which has the same accent pattern as "embittered," the accented second syllable

is

much

longer than

the rather short final syllable: duration reinforces accent,

with a quite different audible

Duration cent,

and

effect.

(also called "quantity")

like accent

accent, quantity

is

it

comes

is

distinct

from

ac-

in relative degrees. Like

not an off-or-on-toggle. This can be

demonstrated by taking the

syllable,

it

and making

it

longer in duration by changing the vowel

to a longer sound:

ought or longer

still

unvoiced

"t,"

voiced "d,"

by changing the consonant sound from the

which does not use the larynx,

to the

which does use the larynx:

awed This matter of long and short spelling, as

is

spelled with

is

a matter of sound, not

demonstrated by the relatively short sound,

many

letters:

picked as contrasted

with the relatively longer sound

The Sounds of Poetry /

16

odd

The

reader

tinctions I

of

who

cannot immediately hear the fine

am making should

some mysterious

kind of attention.

not panic:

it is

dis-

not a matter

but of habits, vocabulary and a

gift,

though

It is as

I

were trying

to analyze

the complex process of walking into the roles of the various muscles and bones in legs and feet.

The reader who wonders what

make

distinctions can possibly is

invited to inspect

some

to

difference these fine

anyone

— why

care?

actual lines of poetry, with

the distinctions in mind.

For example:

Now

winter nights enlarge

The number of their hours, And clouds their storms discharge Upon the airy towers. 2

Each

line consists of three pairs of syllables (allowing

the extra syllable in the

each pair of syllables

example



rhyme "towers/hours"), and

falls



just

as

in the previous

into the pattern of first syllable less stressed

than the second.

But there

is

nothing monotonous or singsong, in a

nothing "regular," about the

way

you don't pronounce them some

way

these lines sound,

special

way

if

that over-

emphasizes the less-stressed then more-stressed pattern

Accent and Duration

/

iy

of each pair. If

you say the

lines in a natural

way, with-

out thumping at the pattern, without pausing unnaturally at the

ends of the

and without any

lines,

hammy

overexpressive "interpretation," you hear an attractive

rhythm.

I

encourage the reader to say the lines aloud,

letting the voice

no

stilted

keep going,

as the sentence does,

with

pause after the verb "enlarge" or the verb

"discharge," and with no special emphasis on the ac-

cented syllables:

Now

winter nights enlarge

The number

And

clouds their storms discharge

Upon

I

the airy towers.

think that

if

and that

tive,

of their hours,

a reader understands that accent it

comes

moreover, that accent tity (a

synonym

is

in

degrees,

is

rela-

and understands,

sometimes reinforced by quan-

for "duration"),

and sometimes

not,

then

the reader will better perceive the attractive, dance-like

rhythm Here the

in these lines. is

a specific analysis to

first line,

word

show what

I

mean. In

the three pairs of syllables (the technical

for such a pair or unit

is

"foot," plural "feet")

create a pleasing effect of crescendo: changes in degree

of accent, changes in the difference

cented and accented parts of each tity,

between the unac-

foot,

changes in quan-

and the way the verb "enlarge" swells or reaches

The Sounds of Poetry

/

18

over the line ending toward

object

its

"The number"

of these elements contribute to the process of cres-

all

cendo over the three

More minutely:

feet, in

in the first foot, the difference be-

tween the unstressed and slight,

three corresponding stages.

stressed syllables

is

relatively

with the longer but unstressed syllable "Now"

preceding the shorter but stressed vowel in the

The

lable of "winter."

effect is a

from the long, unstressed one, with

maybe some

first syl-

kind of acceleration

syllable to the short, stressed

sense of tension in

what might

be called the "interference pattern" between quantity

and

accent.

Then, in the second

tween the two halves strained or tense

is

more

foot,

distinct,

the difference be-

with maybe a

movement, because here the duration

and accent are in

less

conflict,

though the unstressed

syllable of the foot (the "ter" of "winter")

in quantity.

And

less

in the final, third foot,

is

pretty long

which

consists

of the

word "enlarge," the difference between the two

halves

is

quite distinct: duration and accent both

em-

phasize the second syllable of the word.

This

little

movement

is

from quick and tense toward

increasingly slow and luxuriant. It is

worth pointing out that while the line moves

from some tension last foot,

to the fullness

the running-over

and resolution of

grammar from

its

"enlarge" to

"The number" represents not

resolution or completion

And

these sentences describe

but an extending reach.

only some of the energies that course through the lines

and make them

Accent and Duration

feel alive:

/

19

Now

winter nights enlarge

The number

of their hours,

And clouds their storms Upon the airy towers.

No self

discharge

writer would think this

way

—muttering

to one-

about short and long, stressed and unstressed

more than

a jazz musician

would think that a

dotted eighths and sixteenth notes might

— any

series of

make

a nice

contrast to the triplets of a preceding bar, or a boxer

would ponder whether

more room

to fake a right cross to

for the jab.

The

make

expert makes the moves

without needing to think about them. But the more notice and study, the

And

formance.

more we can

get from actual per-

analysis of a fluid performance into

parts can lead to understanding, to the expert's level of insight

we

its

and perhaps eventually

and the expert's kind of

j°y-

What

I

have said about the opening

lines of

winter nights enlarge," with their three iambic plies equally to so-called free-verse

written in iambic

One must have To regard Of the

feet.

a

poems

For instance:

mind

of winter

the frost and the boughs

pine-trees crusted with snow,

The Sounds of Poetry /

20

"Now

feet, ap-

that are not

And have been cold a long time To behold the junipers shagged with ice, The spruces rough in the distant glitter Of the January

sun,

Of any misery

in the

Here

too, variations in

difference

and not

to think

sound of the wind

degree of accent, variations in the

between an unaccented

syllable

and an

ac-

cented syllable, and a varying play between accent and duration

More

all

have a part in creating the rhythm. the relatively short vowel sound

specifically,

found in the word

word "winter," involves accent.

That

somewhat lengthened

"it,"

a contrast

in the

between pitch and

the stressed syllable in the word

is,

shorter than the unstressed syllable.

One must have

a

mind

line

of winter

movement

generates a lot of

The

is

in

its

short space partly

through other variations between pitch and quantity: the stressed first syllable followed

by three increasingly more

rapid, relatively lighter syllables before the slowing, full

syllable "mind,"

which

is

both stressed and pretty clearly

the longest syllable in the line.

Then

the shorter but

stressed first syllable of "winter" speeds things

in a different

way



so that the line

to rapid, to slower, to another

(In the

first

line of

Accent and Duration

/

21

up again,

moves from

slow,

kind of speed.

Campion's

"Now Winter

Nights

Enlarge," the same word

movement: the pion's

line,

is

is

part of a quite different

stressed syllable of the word, in

the

first

Cam-

of three progressively longer

stressed syllables.)

Free verse like that of "The

Snow Man" moves

partly

by avoiding the unstressed-stressed pattern of iambic the cluster of three rapid syllables "must have

feet: thus,

a" functions to keep the

iambs.

mere is

On

rhythm from

the other hand, the

poem

slipping into

does not

prose, either; achieving such intensity of

fall into

rhythm

sometimes a matter of putting longer or stressed

lables next to

Of the

one another,

pine-trees crusted with snow,

where the three tensity that

That

is

syllables "pine-trees crust" serve

not iambic and that

in-

not prose.

movement from

and back, in varying degrees,

where

is

an

intensity has a lot to do with quick, distinct

variations in pace, an alert

The

syl-

as in the third line:

fast to

slow

as in the line

spruces rough in the distant glitter,

iambic beginning of the line a

after the

light,

rapid series of syllables ("in the distant glitter"), quick as a fish, breaks

from

up the

pattern.

fast to slow, light to

The

line,

And have been

The Sounds of Poetry

cold a long time

/

22

reverse

movement,

heavy, characterizes an earlier

But

it

may

and separate

be time to stop concentrating on syllables before such concentration gets

lines,

notonous, and proceed to larger units.

quoted

is

poem

part of a

Here

single sentence.

passage

I

have

that happens to consist of a

the entire

is

The

mo-

poem

(by Wallace

Stevens):

The Snow

Man

One must have To regard the Of the

a

mind

frost

of winter

and the boughs

pine-trees crusted with snow,

And have been cold a long time To behold the junipers shagged with ice, The spruces rough in the distant glitter Of the January

sun,

Of any misery

in the

and not

to think

sound of the wind,

In the sound of a few leaves,

Which

is

the sound of the land

Full of the

That

is

For the

same wind

blowing in the same bare place

who

listener,

listens in the

snow,

And, nothing himself, beholds

Nothing that

Accent and Duration

is

not there and the nothing that

/

23

is.

I invite

the reader to say this

poem

aloud, without

undue

pauses at the ends of lines, trying to listen for variations in accent

and duration, respecting such variations and

their effect

on pace, rather than relying on expressive

interpretation.

But accent and duration, and the variation in each,

and their varying relation

to

one another, are only part

of a poem's bodily, vocal presence.

The

syntax inside and across

the single sentence

of

"The Snow Man,"

The Sounds of Poetry

/

lines, as in

larger flow of

also deserves attention.

24

11/

SYNTAX AND LINE

What

is

a line of poetry?

To put

the question

more

precisely,

what vocal

reality

underlies the typographical convention of stopping at the right

margin and returning

in Latin,

the

to the left

margin? {Versus

from which the word "verse"

derives, signifies

ploughman

at the

end of a furrow turning about

to

begin again, so that 'Verse" and "reverse" are closely related.) I

will deal with the question

by looking

at

some po-

ems, beginning with an example that seems particularly conscious

of

its

own

lines.

(1572—1637), conveys in his

The

title

has given his picture (no small

photography) subsequently wild,

remote place,

to a

author,

Ben Jonson

that a lady to gift,

whom

he

in the days before

left that gift in

Londoner of the time

Scotland (a

— no

small

distance to leave any valued object behind). In response,

Jonson writes:

My I

Picture Left in Scotland

now

Love

think,

For else

it

rather deaf than blind,

is

conld not be

That she

Whom

And \\\\

much

adore so

I

cast

my

sure

my

should so slight me,

love behind.

language to her was as sweet,

And every In sentence of

els

close did

meet

subtle feet

As hath the youngest he

That

shadow of Apollo's

sits in

my

Oh, but

conscious fears,

That

my

fly

me

Tell

My

tree.

hundred

thoughts between,

that she hath seen

ol

gray hairs.

Told seven and forty years,

Read

much

so

My mountain And

a

1

1

waste, as she cannot belly

and

my

embrace

rocky face;

these through her eyes have stopped her

(\irs.'

The evidence a

line

mav

of this

be,

it

is

poem not

same Length throughout Jonson seems

to delight

line consists of a single

lew

necessarily a

m

26

a

given poem.

whatever

unit

On

that

is

foot:

Iambic

else

the

the contrary,

varying the line length.

Iambic

lines consist of three

The Sounds pfPoetrs

indicates that

One

"That she." Quite

feet;

"And every

a

close

did meet" or "That fly is

my thoughts between." And there

one line that consists of four iambic feet (only one

such

no reader

line, a fact

is

likely to notice unless, as

right now, counting for purposes of study): "In sentence

of as subtle feet."

And

there are

some longer

lines, of

with which Jonson begins and

five feet, including those

ends his poem. Therefore, judging by a line

is

a

My

Picture Left in Scotland,"

not necessarily a unit of equal length through-

out a poem.

On

the other hand, the lines do unmistak-

have a certain rhythm in common, an

ably

coherence: part of the pleasure the

rhythm while the sentence

that

through

you

poem

like

sound



it,

or along with

to

it,

describe the

or

gives

courses

whatever

is

way we hear

hearing

over

spatial

artful

or

it,

language

the sentence-

the voice saying what Jonson chose to say

continuing through the iambic lines of varying length. I

find an appealing show-off quality to the lines in

this particular

poem. Cupid, the

classical

god of

who

traditionally blind; Jonson chides the one

loved

him enough by

accusing her of paying

love,

has not

more

tention to the surfaces her eyes see than to the

ment

of the words he offers. So he

perform



like the

is

at-

move-

makes the sentences

body of a great dancer,

as the

syntax

the words in their arrangement, and the dynamic en-

ergy the arrangement creates line ending,

across

it.

— sometimes

pauses at a

and sometimes streaks or leaps or

There

is

a pronounced pause after the

strains

first line,

then the syntax runs over from the second line to the

Syntax and Line

/

2j

third,

and even more from the very short third

fourth, with

more

a full stop after the

I

now

think,

For

to the

of a pause after the fourth line,

Love

else

and

fifth:

it

is

rather deaf than blind,

could not be

That she

Whom

I

adore so

And The run-over the varying

my

cast

should so slight me,

love behind.

and pauses, the varying

lines

way

much

the unit of syntax (that

line lengths,

the gram-

is,

matical phrases) coincides with the unit of rhythm (that is,

the lines) or does not coincide

expressive, flamboyant whole.

slows

down many

five lines.

Though

different



all

of these create an

The poem

ways

the lines are

speeds up and

in the course of these

all

made

the variation in pace and emphasis

is

of iambic feet,

great



greater

than could be easily attained in a comparable thirty-one

words of prose. I

invite the reader to say the

words of Jonson's poem

aloud, taking care not to pause in a stilted

ends of the

lines,

when

the

grammar runs

pause only as the grammar might pause, exaggerating the effect a has done.

The rhymes

little to

way over. if

at the

Try

to

necessary

hear what the author

(for instance,

'Tor else

it

could

she/Whom I adore so much should so slight not lost when the voice carries pretty rapidly

not be/That

me")

are

through them: on the contrary, they sound better than

The Sounds of Poetry

/

28

when that

the voice stops mechanically at each one.

if

one

reading the

tries

One way moments

in a

up the

line,

syntax.

The

poem

is

movement

that the syntax

is

and the

line

is

is

at

such

trying to speed

trying to slow

down

the

between the two elements, the

relation

sulting pull or dance,

There

goes dead.

think of the related

I

think

poem with an even pause

movement

after each line, the

I

is

an analogy

re-

pleasing and expressive. to

be

made

here: just as in the

previous chapter the examples indicated the infinite

range of expressive

sometimes coincide differ, in

possibilities as accent

to reinforce

ever-varying degrees

and duration

one another, sometimes



so the

example of

"My

Picture Left in Scotland" suggests an infinite range of expressive possibilities as the unit of syntax and the line

sometimes coincide

There are

as

many

there are ways one is

different kinds of line ending as

word can follow another: sometimes

rather violently trying to slow

tence, while the sentence as in this ecstatic,

I

each other, sometimes

ever-varying degrees.

differ, in

the line

to reinforce

is

down

the sen-

trying to speed up the line,

extreme run-over of the syntax in Hart Crane's

mystical

poem "The Dance":

learned to catch the trout's

Drifted

how many

And sometimes

hours

I

moon whisper; knew

the line ending reinforces the syntactical

divisions, calling attention to the thrust

Syntax and Line

/

I

never

29

and

arrest of a

sentence, as in the opening subtleties of Elizabeth Bishop's

"At the Fishhouses":

Although

an old

a cold evening,

it is

down by one

man

of the fishhouses netting,

sits

his net, in the

gloaming almost

invisible,

a dark purple-brown,

and

worn and

his shuttle

no two iambic

Just as

polished.

feet are alike, so

no two gram-

matical joinings between words are alike; every foot a

different

little

sentence a

From

and every

line

ending

slices into

is

the

little differently.

the discussion so far follows one of the most

important principles of this book: the line and the syntactical unit are not necessarily the

fying reading and

much

same.

Much

unsatis-

inferior writing proceeds

from

not getting this idea right.

Before testing this principle against some more poems, there raised

is

a matter of terminology and description that

by the second half of Ben Jonson's

a

My

is

Picture

Left in Scotland." This terminology will be discussed again,

more

fully, in

the next chapter; but here

I will

anticipate that discussion, with a point I will return to in

more

detail.

Oh, but

my That

Here

is

the second part of Jonson's poem:

conscious fears,

my

fly

The Sounds of Poetry

/

30

thoughts between,

Tell

My

me

that she hath seen

hundred of gray

hairs,

Told seven and forty years,

Read

My And

much

so

waste, as she cannot embrace

mountain all

my

and

belly

rocky face;

these through her eyes have stopped her

ears.

Although

I

iambic feet

ond

have described



that

is,

poem

this

as consisting of

pairs of syllables in

syllable sticks out

more

in

sound

which the



the

first

sec-

and

third lines of this passage begin with pairs of syllables

that invert that order. In the pairs "Oh, but" and "Tell

me,"

it is

the

first syllable,

"acoustic prominence" "sticks out

more

not the second, that has more use the technical term for

(to

in sound").

Beginning a line with an inverted foot

is,

statistically,

extremely common. The inverted or reversed order appears to be an effective is

one reason

characterizes

Now

is

I

discuss

way it

many famous

to

launch the line (which

here). This initial inversion

quotations:

the winter of our discontent

Jove in the clouds had his inhuman birth

Further in

Summer

than the Birds

When

to the sessions of sweet, silent

That's

my

Syntax and Line

last

/

thought

Duchess painted on the wall

)i

Much have

I

traveled in the realms of gold

Something there

The

inverted foot,

is

that doesn't love a wall

when

substituted in the

first

position

in the line, as at the beginning of the second half of u

Jonson's

My

Picture Left in Scotland"

conscious fears"),

much

is

common, and

I

a (

my

Oh, but

do not hear

it

as

of a variation: certainly less significant a variation

than the changes in degree of accent, the changing lation of accent

re-

and duration, and the changing relation

of line to syntax. Statistically less

iation to

my

sition, as in

My

ear, is

a

more prominent

var-

the inverted foot in the second po-

these examples:

heart aches, and a drowsy numbness pains

What The

Now Or

common, and

vain art can reply

soft voice of the nesting

no joy but lacks

dove

salt

in the third position:

For precious friends, hid in death's dateless night

With eager thought warbling I

his Doric lay

step inside, letting the door thud shut

And more

rarely (in a line long enough) the fourth posi-

tion:

The Sounds of Poetry

/

32

The By

beat's too swift.

The

notes shift in the dark

the dark webs, her nape caught in his

For purposes of the present discussion of

enough iation

bill

2

lines,

it

is

to think of the inverted foot as a frequent var-

common

on the iamb, especially

at the

beginnings

of lines. (The technical term for an inverted foot

chee" or "trochaic foot," with the

u

is

"tro-

ch" pronounced like

"k.")

Besides sometimes being inverted, the iambic foot also

sometimes has

unstressed part divided into two,

its first,

as in the three-foot line

Told seven and forty years,

where the second

word "and"

word "seven"

syllable of the

to serve together as the

of the second foot.

The

effect

unstressed part

—bouncing two quick one —

lables, often elided together, into

rapid,

first,

joins the

even galloping rhythm.

It

syl-

the place of

is

a

occurs in the third foot,

following the pause, in this line:

Dust

as

we

are,

the immortal spirit grows 3

This rhythmical figure, with the unstressed half of the foot divided into two, as in "the expense,"

"anapest" or "anapestic foot." in

mind





is

called

an

these two variants

the inverted or trochaic foot and the anapestic

foot that begins with

one

With

two rapid

light parts in place of

the line of iambic feet can be understood and dis-

tinguished from the free-verse line.

Syntax and Line

/

33

Now

let

me

continue the discussion of line and syntax,

amplifying the idea that the rhythmical unit (the line) does not always coincide with the syntactical unit (the

grammatical phrase). Here

is

another

aloud:

To Earthward

Love

As sweet

And once I

was touch

at the lips

as I could bear;

that

seemed too much;

lived on air

That crossed

The

flow of

me

from sweet things

— was

it

musk

From hidden grapevine

Down I

hill at

springs

dusk?

had the swirl and ache

From

sprays of honeysuckle

That when they're gathered shake

Dew I

on the knuckle.

craved strong sweets, but those

Seemed strong when

The It

petal of the rose

was that stung.

The Sounds of Poetry

/

34

I

was young;

poem

to

read

Now

no joy but lacks

That

is

And

salt

not dashed with pain

weariness and fault;

crave the stain

I

Of

the aftermark

tears,

Of almost

too

The And burning

much

love,

sweet of bitter bark

When take

I

From

clove.

and sore and scarred

stiff

away

my

hand

leaning on

it

hard

In grass and sand,

The hurt

not enough.

long for weight and strength

I

To

feel the earth as

To

all

This is,

is

my

poem

is

rough

length. 4

pretty clearly

composed

in vocal lines: that

you can hear them, and you would detect their

pres-

ence without a printed version of the poem, just by

hearing

it.

As before,

I

advise the reader to read the

sentences, not treating the

tomatic pause.

I

/

line as

an au-

suggest that you experiment with a sin-

gle sentence, such as

Syntax and Line

end of every

35

I

had the swirl and ache

From

sprays of honeysuckle

That when they're gathered shake

Dew

on the knuckle.

Reading the sentence aloud two

ways

different

with a natural continuation of the syntax after

— u

first,

ache"

and "honeysuckle" and "shake"; then a second time, pausing after each line



demonstrates, to

continuing rather than pausing

is

sounds better, and far from being

sound

better.

To put

this idea

more

lost

my

ear, that

attractive.

It

the rhymes, too,

another way, reading each

line differently according to the differences in syntax

conveys more information: you get the information of the line as well as the information of the syntax. Ideally,

you are hearing

much

as

difference as possible, and also

hearing the underlying pattern of the

And

if all lines

were

alike,

then

lines.

why would anyone

write in lines?

The poem "To Earthward"

illustrates

how

writing in

lines

can establish great variation in pace, from slow to

fast.

This fluid change of speed, accelerating and decel-

erating expressively, emerges partly from varying ways

the actual words are related to a symmetrical pattern.

The poem

is

organized into eight symmetrical units.

I

say "symmetrical" because each unit consists of four lines,

with the

first

three

made

and the fourth made of two

The Sounds of Poetry

/

)6

of three pairs (or feet)

feet.

But

this pattern

ner, as

we

not treated in a monotonous

is

man-

can hear.

For example, the passage about the honeysuckle, with its

long words and run-over

lines,

dances forward rather

quickly while staying within the pattern of lines of three feet followed

compare

rhythm with

its

by a fourth

line of

to

two

three feet;

a later passage that also stays

much different move faster than

within the pattern, but to a

Longer words tend

first

effect.

one-syllable

words, and sentences whose parts keep going across the line

move

faster

than sentences that make more of a

stop at the ends of lines:

I

had the

From

and ache

swirl

sprays of honeysuckle

That when they're gathered shake

Dew

on the knuckle.

For such objective causes syntax to as

compared

it,

than

take

From

more

stiff

moves more

and sore and scarred

away

my

hand

leaning on

it

In grass and sand.

Syntax and Line

/

)j

distinct

iambic feet

rapid, varying degrees of difference

that passage

this one:

When I

to



length, the relation of

and we can add even,

line,

and accent

— word

hard

quickly, as I hear

Such differences are they are

distinct.

subtle, not

They

ponderous or

gross: yet

are not impressionistic feelings,

but part of what the sounds in English do. I

have put

off

mentioning the

little

extra syllable at

the end of "honeysuckle" and "knuckle." Traditionally called, for

some

reason, "feminine rhyme," this effect

(like the extra, "galloping" syllable referred to above,

which begins the phrase "the immortal

makes

The

spirit

grows")

movement.

for a quicker

relation of syntax to line can express very fine

shades of meaning in the voice. Sometimes the effect like the extra signals

we can

a change in our voice, or with a facial expression or

There

gesture.

in the

way

is

something

is

give in conversation, with

hand

like a gesture of the voice

the sentence leaps from the

first

four-line

unit to the next, at the beginning of the poem, where it

runs over on the word "air":

Love

as I could bear;

And once I

lived

on

that

seemed too much;

air

That crossed

The

was touch

at the lips

As sweet

flow of

me

from sweet things

—was

it

musk

From hidden grapevine

Down

hill at

dusk?

The Sounds of Poetry

/

38

springs

And

of course, there

a different kind of leaping in the

is

from "musk"

run-over

And

springs."

I

hear

"From hidden grapevine

to

still

another kind of grammatical

reaching toward the phrase "From hidden grapevine

by the dash

springs," launched

the syntactical energy

When we

is

"The flow

like a physical act of

poem

say the

after

aloud,

it

is



of

";

meaning.

a physical act of

meaning. I

have used a slightly corny vocabulary, words

"dancing" and "leaping," to describe the effect

like

when

syntax does not coincide with the rhythmical unit of the line,

but goes on past the

line.

the technical word for what

I

That vocabulary echoes

have been calling a "run-

over" or a "run-over line": enjambment, based on the

French word for

leg.

the syntax throws

its

In enjambment, or a run-over

leg over the hedge or low wall of

the line.

Here

is

another example of the principle:

To a Poor Old

munching

a

Woman

plum on

the street a paper bag of

them

in her

hand

They

taste

good

They

taste

good

Syntax and Line

/

to her

39

line,

They

to her.

good

You can way

the

taste

her

to

see

it

by

she gives herself

one half

to the

sucked out in her hand

Comforted

plums

a solace of ripe

seeming

They

to

fill

good

taste

Although

the air

poem

this

her 5

to

is

not composed in iambic lines but

in so-called free verse, the

each unit, has four

if

we count

lines.

element of symmetry part of the

title as

(The technical term

units, separated

word

the

by white space,

for these

is

symmetrical

"stanza," the Italian

for "room.")

Even more than "To Earthward,"

this

four-line stanzas as syntactical wholes;

sometimes runs over from stanza Old

Woman"

this

poem

word

is clear:

first unit,

is

never does. In

poem

"To Earthward"

to stanza;

fact,

treats its

"To a Poor

the second stanza in

given over to repetitions of a single,

five-

sentence.

The "They

poet (William Carlos Williams) gives us a phrase, taste

good

to her," first as a

alyzed differently by the line. ture applies here, too.

The Sounds of Poetry

/

whole and then an-

The notion

of a vocal ges-

As in "To Earthward," the varying

40

intersection of syntax

and

line,

sometimes in agreement

and sometimes in an interference pattern, expressive.

That

is,

is

precisely

the tension between syntactical unit

and rhythmical unit



the line trying to slow the sen-

tence down, the sentence trying to speed up the line gives a

somewhat

different

emphasis to the phrase each

time. First

we

get the five-word phrase in

Then

form, end-stopped.

whole prosaic

its

the analytic effect of the line

cutting across the sentence emphasizes

first

the predicate

adjective "good," then the verb "taste" with the

"they" as until

its

subject (the

two stanzas

later),

pronoun

word "plums" does not appear and

finally at the

stanza the isolated phrase "good to her."

end of the

When

the re-

peated sentence comes

back in the last line, fitted entire

into a line again,

informed by our

it is

memory

of the

separate emphases of the second stanza.

These rather solemn explanations neglect the

feeling,

and the poem's material. There are some plums, and a

woman, and they

taste

good

to her; also, there

eager to direct the reader toward the complex

is

a poet

web un-

derlying an experience so simple a child could articulate it:

they taste good to her; you can see

it.

In "To Earthward," the yearning, stretched-forward quality of the vocal gesture persists through the youthful,

exquisite sensibility stung

later, older sensibility

by rose

petals

"stained" by tears; you could say

that the relation of syntax and line in that

poem conveys

that quality. In the context of the explicit

Syntax and Line

/

41

and the

meanings of

the words, the pattern of sounds has moral force:

too,

it,

means something.

The

"To

repetitions in

a Poor

made

that kind of moral force,

"you can see

it."

Old

Woman"

explicit

The poem dramatizes

also

have

by the phrase

the taking in of

a supposedly ordinary experience,

and the

most hectoring repetitions are

an effective sermon

The

in praise of simplicity.

like

playful, al-

quality of the goodness and

the subjective experience of tasting are visible to the observer.

The energy lurking

inside the adjective "good"

or inside the syntax coursing through five monosyllables

indicates the energy of the senses, a force so powerful

that

you can

see

in another person.

it

way

currence becomes a ing the

is,

and how

stripped,

of saying

difficult.

plain

perception of

made memorable

parallels the

re-

simple such see-

The heightened

phrase,

rhythm and meaning,

how

The varying

in

its

heightened percep-

tion of the visual scene.

This resource, the angling of syntax into line and stanza at interesting

tilts,

four-square manner,

is

rather than in an end-stopped,

supremely important. The

enjambment; the beautiful end-stop

ations

of

Frost's

"The hurt

is

vari-

after

not enough" or after Williams's

"Comforted"; the play between the symmetries of stop

and of return; the

lines

on one side and the twists of

each sentence on the other



these are an important part

of the pleasure in poetry.

An

aside:

In their relation of speech-syntax to

and in their relation of vocal

The Sounds of Poetry

/

42

line,

alertness to sensory alert

ness,

'To Earthward" and "To a Poor Old

much

common. Yet

Woman"

have

their respective authors, Frost

and

Williams, are conventionally viewed as extremely

dif-

in

ferent,

even opposite, kinds of American poet.

To conclude

this chapter, here

poem arranged

in

Assume

moment

ther

for the

way



that

is,

two

is

a

little exercise:

a

different ways, typographically.

that the sound

is

assume that the sound of

the same u

ei-

My Picture

Left in Scotland" or "To Earthward" or "To a Poor Old

Woman" would

we typed the poems up much harder for the In this theory, the poem is and the poem in print is a

be there even

as blocks of prose:

it

would

reader to detect the sound.

something one hears aloud, notation designed to

if

just

be

make what one

hears as clearly

apprehensible as possible.

With

that assumption,

which of the following two

arrangements gives the most useful and helpful infor-

mation about the poem they represent? Which erable?

VERSION

A

Pictures from Breughel,

(Children

This

is

s

X

Games)

a schoolyard

crowded with children of

all

ages

near a village

on a small stream meandering by

Syntax and Line

/

43

is

pref-

where some boys are swimming bare-ass or climbing a tree in leaf

everything

elder

is

women

motion

are looking after

the small fry

wedding

a play

a christening

nearby one leans hollering

empty hogshead

into an

VERSION

B

Pictures from Breughel,

(Children

This

is

s

X

Games)

a schoolyard

crowded with children

of

all

ages near a village

on a small stream

meandering by

where some boys are

swimming

bare-ass

The Sounds of Poetry

/

44

or climbing a tree in leaf

everything is

motion

elder

women

are looking

after the small

fry

a play

wedding a

christening

nearby one leans

hollering into

an empty hogshead

A

reader might have sensible reasons for preferring Ver-

sion A:

it

avoids one-word lines,

it

does not cross the

flow of the syntax with such violent enjambments as

"small /fry" or "a/ christening"; ity

it

attains a certain clar-

and ease by presenting units of thought such

"everything

is

motion" within single

lines.

as

For corre-

sponding reasons, Version B will seem choppy, perverse

and unnatural

And

yet,

time as the

way

it

I

tend to do

to

some

Version

A

readers.

is

takes to type

something it;

I

produced in

I tried to

as little

arrange the lines

think most beginning poetry students would it.

Syntax and Line

Version B, on the other hand,

/

45

is

the

poem

as

composed by William Carlos Williams.

that one should take the superiority of authority, however; if

author's version

it

can't be

I

B

don't believe

as a

demonstrated

better, the question should

is

matter of

why

the

be open.

Such demonstration requires thinking about what the

poem means. By

asking what, precisely,

it is

how

can begin to form a judgment about

about, one it

should

sound, and therefore about what arrangement in lines best brings out those vocal

The poem

rhythms

painting that apparently has

many

energy, and a lot of movement. it

is

for the reader.

describes a painting by Peter Breughel, a

a painting,

separate focuses of

To speak

movement. As though aware of that the

way movement

illusion,

precisely, since

should say the illusion of a

I

in the static

fine distinction, or

medium

Williams seems deliberately

lot of

of paint

an

is

to violate a great

creative writing dictum: he uses the verb "is" almost exclusively. This "is" a schoolyard, the boys "are"

ming

or climbing,

small

fry.

Young cific,

and

and the elders "are" looking

writers are exhorted to

make

swim-

after the

their verbs spe-

to avoid the passivity of the verb "to be." Here,

that verb and the

many

participles (the

meandering,

climbing, swimming, looking, hollering) seem to call tention to the paradox of motion in something

Even the

generalization,

"everything

is

at-

static.

motion,"

depends on the verb "to be." The participles are emphasized by other "-ing" words that resemble them:

"wedding,"

"christening,"

The Sounds of Poetry

/

46

and perhaps even "every-

thing." Every stanza after the

one word

first

one contains

at least

that ends in "-ing," again emphasizing the

ideas of activity and, if not stasis, a kind of eternal pres-

ent for each activity: this painted stream keeps mean-

dering forever, and so too the painted children keep on

swimming and climbing and

hollering and the painted

on looking. (This distribution of words in

elders keep

"-ing" symmetrically over symmetrical stanzas

is lost

in

Version A.)

There a

to be,"

is

one exception

and that

is

to the participials

and the verb

in the poem's one active, inflected

verb, delayed until almost the very end:

a play

wedding a

christening

nearby one leans

hollering into

an empty hogshead.

The

active verb

"leans"

think, stretching in the

is

effectively placed here, I

enjambment

across the space

that precedes the last stanza. As with Frost's run-over

from

me

"I lived

on

air" in his first stanza to

from sweet things" in the second, the

"That crossed effect of pour-

ing across suits the meaning, and therefore what the voice does in continuing rather than stopping, quite well. It is also

worth noting that the verb "leans" deserves

Syntax and Line

/

4*7

its

emphasis in another way:

and a

state.

to pick

it

That

word

indicates an active process.

in a sentence like "the tower leans, as

do shortly after

it

down

in a sentence like "he leans

is,

up," the

denotes both an activity

it

was

built," the

word

it

But

was noted

to

indicates a stable

condition. Thus, in spilling over to "hollering" in the last stanza,

the word continues the double or perhaps

even paradoxical nature of Williams's description.

Some to create

readers will find in the final action of hollering

an echo a reflection of the poem's theme: im-

itating in paint or

The

words what has occurred in nature.

painting echoes certain activities, and the

oes those activities

poem

ech-

and the painting. This notion gives

a further appropriateness to the

enjambment

everything is

motion

because there

is

a kind of philosophical or metaphysical

weight that the tension of enjambment emphasizes. Because the sentences are tilted in the frame of symmet-

and

rical stanzas

lines,

they have more motion and also

more weight. I

created Version

A

by treating each

line as a

matical unit: prepositional clauses, modifiers, ural pauses, allowing myself a slight

of

boredom

I

what writing

think, on the in lines

meant

word



/

48

the nat-

enjambment, out

"after." If this

were

that the lines simply fol-

low the units of syntax, with no tension or

The Sounds of Poetry

all

gram-

tilting



the

question

I

have mentioned before would

in lines? It

I

the potential to vary

even an end-stopped

affects

good

is



that gives the art

its

think one can learn a



arise:

a potential

when

line,

why write which

the writing

is

point.

lot

by typing a poem up

as a

block of prose and then, working from that block, trying to

arrange

rhythms

you think bring out the

in lines that

it

most

in the

effective

way

possible.

How

would

one distribute the different kinds of emphasis? Where should the emphasis of enjambment go?

On which words On which

should the emphasis of beginning a line go?

words should the emphasis of ending a line go? Which faster

and slower passages are most

crucial?

Where

should the emphasis of the end-stop go?

Then,

after

completing what seems the most success-

ful typographical

seems

to indicate

arrangement, and listening to what

it

about the rhythms of the sentences,

one can compare the new version

to the original, the

seem impos-

lines as

composed by the author.

It doesn't

sible to

me

new arrangement,

that occasionally the

de-

signed for the exercise, might have some virtue the actual

poem

lacked. Either

way one

learns something.

Less formally, a mental process like such an exercise

—being aware

of

how

more by noticing more goal

is

a thing



is

is

done, and appreciating

the goal of this book. That

the justification for the terminology which has

been generated

so far,

the next chapter.

Syntax and Line

/

49

and which will be elaborated in

Ill/

TECHNICAL TERMS AND

VOCAL REALITIES

The

material in this chapter

in the first

two chapters;

is

and duration, then syntax and onstrate

some

of the

The way each

work.

in itself

and in

not as important as that

there, in discussing first accent line, I

have tried

to

dem-

ways in which the sounds of a poem of those four elements varies, both

varying relation to the others, seems

its

profoundly interesting to me. In this chapter,

I will discuss

the choice of terms to

describe such elements.

No than

aspect of a its

lables,

rhythm.

poem I

more

is

have tried

no two iambic

feet,

to

singular,

show

it is

clear that each

each poem, has a rhythm different from

If this is

that no two syl-

no two degrees of accent or

duration, are quite alike. Therefore, line,

more unique,

is

all others.

true about iambic poems, then presumably

even more true of poems in free

verse.

it

This principle

has been illustrated by comparing various units, each of three iambic feet, and

When

stiff

all

with quite different rhythms:

and sore and scarred

The number

And

all

these through her eyes

The wide range tern

is

of their hours

of difference possible within a basic pat-

even more dramatic with a longer

examples,

all

with old

woes new wail

In having

its

undeviable say

The house was

my

that smoothe tongue

move

infant sight

whose music

away hell canst

2

vocal reality, in other words,

tinct in

dear time's waste

quiet and the world was calm

— and looked and looked our From

line, as in these

five feet:

And with

The

1

ways too subtle

to describe completely.

for

is

individual and dis-

any terminology or system

At most, only the simple outline

or structure (as in "three feet in each line" or "an in-

verted foot at the beginning") can be described.

Many

writers on the subject

make

this point

by

dis-

tinguishing between the terms "rhythm" and "meter":

rhythm

is

the sound of an actual line, while meter

is

the abstract pattern behind the rhythm, roughly analo-

gous to the

way

4/4 time in music underlies the actual

dotted eighths and sixteenths and so forth.

Rhythm

is

the reality, in this distinction, and meter (a term derived

from the Greek word symmetry.

A

for

"measure")

is

the ruler-like

ruler or rectangular grid can give useful

The Sounds of Poetry

/

52

information about an irregular or complex shape; meter

can be thought of as doing something similar in relation to

Though

the irregular, complex sounds of speech.

hardly essential for appreciating the this distinction

who

A

agrees to use

and

encourage the reader

I

it.

refinement or corollary to the rhythm-meter

tinction, for

tion

sensible,

is

sounds of poems,

some

between

rhythm,

writers,

stress

to the

and

is

to

make

accent: assigning stress, with

approximate emphases of speech; and

assigning accent, with meter, to the

more

artificial,

ular divisions of metrical feet. Again, the reader likes the distinction

tinguish

dis-

a parallel distinc-

should use

what can be described

Certainly

it.

or

it

reg-

who

helps dis-

measured from what

cannot.

What

I

conclude from the impossibility of describing

the countless differences in

rhythm among

ems and phrases

is

ple, informative,

and minimal.

as possible,

by which

maximum number ber of terms.

It

lines

and po-

that the terminology should be sim-

mean

It

should be as universal it

should cover the

of cases with the

minimum num-

I

that

should try to describe the meter

synonym "measure" was once common

— and



the

not the

rhythm.

Here

is

a practical demonstration of that point.

could devise

many

different descriptive approaches, all

equally sensible, to describe ously discussed. For instance,

sage

Terms and

Realities

/

One

53

some I

of the

poems

have said that

previ-

this pas-

Love

as I could bear;

And once I

was touch

at the lips

As sweet

that

seemed too much;

lived on air

can be described as three lines containing three pairs of syllables

and a fourth

line containing

two

Sug-

pairs.

gesting that a pair of syllables that ascend in accent

an iamb, or iambic foot

such a pair or

foot, I asserted that

the basic unit in "To Earthward."

is

I

exception by saying that quite often the line

reversed or inverted, as in the

is

here ("Love

What

as

two

reason

is

by describing the

first line,

one thunketta

u (

Love

at the") followed

Though

vented somewhat silly-sounding terms, they they describe something still

Love as

an

I

all

by a

have

make

in-

sense:

can hear.

— would

also

make

sense.

For

in-

could also describe the line

was touch

at the lips

initial

monosyllable

u (

apest ("at the lips") and an

Or

I

other descriptive terms for the same line

the same vocal reality stance,

two words

first

there not to divide each line dif-

thunk-pa-thunk ("lips was touch")?

But

foot in a

first

was touch,

at the lips

feet:

fudged in an

at").

ferently, for instance

Love

is

(to try

Love") followed by an an-

iamb ("was

the reader's patience just a

The Sounds of Poetry

/

54

touch"). little

more) the

same

line could

be described

as

two

feet:

one that could

be graphed visually as a U-shaped unit ("Love at the lips")

followed by one that could be graphed as a

J-shaped unit ("was touch"). Similarly, the line I

have described

as three

iambic

feet,

As sweet

as I could bear,

can be rationally described as one kathunka as") followed

What

is

by a thunk-pa-thunk

u (

As sweet

("I could bear").

wrong with these terms? Nothing



in the

sense that, though arbitrary, they do register something that

is

there in the sound of the words. Each set of terms

does give a roughly accurate description of what one hears.

But such terms

bitrary nature: that stract pattern

you

like);

fail to

is,

from the

they

concede their abstract, fail to

distinguish the ab-

reality (meter

from rhythm,

if

the enterprise of such nomenclature implies

that one can describe a rhythm,

And

ar-

the terms

I

which

have invented

needlessly complicated. If

I

to

is

make

impossible. this point are

try to describe too

much,

proliferating extra terms to register, for instance, the similarity of the

two strong

syllables "too

integrity of the ("U-shaped") phrase

my

much"

"Love

or the

at the lips,"

imaginary vocabulary of thunkettas and so forth ob-

scures the principle of similarity stanzas, the last line

in each stanza



— iambic

feet, four-line

one foot shorter than the

that not only unifies

but also connects "To Earthward" with so

Terms and

Realities

/

55

first

three

"To Earthward"

many

other

works in English. Such works include the plays of Shakespeare (written mainly in lines of five iambic feet), and

writing by Frost's approximate contemporaries Wallace

Stevens and T.

S. Eliot.

The "thunketta" approach turn of rhythm



is



trying to identify each

not simple enough, and

the principle that the

rhythm

it

neglects

varies in relation to the

meter.

Such a method of description lacks

universality, not

only because the iambic foot does a superior job of clarifying the relation of "As sweet as I could bear" to the rest of

"To Earthward" and the

but because

all sorts

rest of poetry in English,

of other possible descriptions

make

much sense. What we hear can be described in many different ways. The question is: which is the most useful system? as

I

conclude that the most information about the unique,

varying vocal reality est set of terms:

is

given by the simplest, most mod-

something minimal and therefore ap-

proaching the universal, like the lines on a ruler or the grid of rectangles an artist

might use

to

copy an image.

When I hear the four words "that seemed too much," my noticing that they comprise two iambic feet helps me hear more about their sound. It helps me notice that the stressed and unstressed halves of each foot are very

with the change in pitch distinguish-

close to each other,

ing them.

To

call

them

"four heavies" or "a long-long

followed by another long-long"

tells less, in

through undertaking to describe more than

The Sounds of Poetry

/

$6

my is

opinion,

possible.

have tried

I

make

to

by using the opening

this point

"To Earthward" because the

lines of

familiar to the reader,

by now

lines are

and because three-foot



lines are

relatively easy to hear.

But the point

many

attempt describing the rhythm,

ways

alternate

to

but a simple understanding of the meter

even stronger with the five-foot

line.

that there are

more

tells



is

Here are four such

lines:

When

to the sessions of sweet, silent

thought

summon up remembrance of things past, I sigh the lack of many a thing I sought, And with old woes new wail my dear time's I

These

sound good

lines

egance of sound, thing like

to

me. Thinking about their

el-

describe the passage to myself some-

I

each line has five iambic

this:

waste. 3

feet.

The

first

line has the familiar trochaic, or inverted, foot at the

beginning ("When

to").

iambs are made of two ("old woes,"

though

"new

I like

some

last line,

of the

prominence

wail") that they are practically equal,

hearing the slight change of pitch throb-

bing through them. throbbing

In the

syllables so close in

I

hear a similarly slow-but-onward,

movement when

ascend in accent, in the

four

first line:

syllables

in

a

row

"-sions of sweet, si"

the pattern where the stressed syllable of one foot has less stress

than the unaccented syllable that begins the

next

In

the

foot.

fact, this

movement

Terms and

in that fourth line,

Realities

/

$y

is

echoed by

where the

differences

ascending pattern

between unstressed and most, but

iambs

stressed halves of the

think don't quite, dissolve.

I

al-

I also notice,

in

the third line, after three quite distinct iambic feet ("I sigh the lack of ma-") the lightly bouncing anapest, with

the unstressed half divided into two, in the fourth foot,

and the

clear

iamb

Even when

am

I

in the fifth:

me

-ny a thing

I

sought."

uncertain, this simple pattern of five

me

iambs per line helps pleases

u

hear the varying energy that

in the passage.

Even when

I

am

not sure

if

the difference between stressed and unstressed halves of u

old

woes new wail"

when

am

I

is

there, or that I can hear

not sure whether to

let

me

terms help

And

foot,

this

this

to consider

notice the sounds.

The

pattern

of five-foot

lines

way, with this kind of syntax, relates the

other lines by Philip Sidney and

to other lines

to

poem

also

I

know, have

lines.

If I describe the first line to

strong-strong

("sweet,

thought"),

making

thing

and

it

as a thunketta

I

am

an

iamb

telling about

accurately, but I

am

("-lent

some-

losing the

and the widespread application of

simplicity, the clarity,

/

and

si-"),

four feet,

telling

The Sounds of Poetry

myself

another thunketta ("sessions of"), a

to the"),

real,

poem

by John Keats and Wallace Stevens and

Sylvia Plath, writers in five-foot lines who,

("When

rhymed

Thomas Wyatt, which

Shakespeare might have read, and relates the

read these

it

the simplicity and universality of the

the beginning of a sonnet by William

is

Shakespeare.

even

the pattern dictate

an iambic pronunciation of "And with" or an inverted

it,

58

which

plainer terms, by

I

mean

the iamb and

Because the longer line of the sonnet invites even

ations.

more subpatterns than the

shorter one of

"To Earth-

ward," more rhythmical relations and possibilities

Trying

to describe that

attempt

to perceive

exist.

rhythm rather than the meter,

more, but in fact

simple unit, the iambic eral

vari-

its

foot,

helps

perceive

I

me

less.

I

The

perceive the gen-

aesthetic principle, like a time signature or the

grooves on a

dial,

that guides

me

through the

infinite,

actual variety.

That

is

how

the iamb or iambic foot has been so basic.

Because the stressed syllable

determined only in

is

lation to the other syllable or syllables in the foot,

re-

one

can hear the rising and falling and turning of the line as a I

whole, yet also hear a principle of order. don't

know why

the iamb has been basic, and

doubt that anyone can

say.

4

Certainly

say that the language "is iambic." It

is

it

is

I

not true to

worth noting that

English does not have the inflected grammatical endings that characterize

some other languages, and

uses monosyllabic words to

from,

his,

their,

are

trochaic:

make

hungry,

worker, color, catcher, winter.

made

certain distinctions:

for example.

this,

people,

Many

country,

A

so instead

lot of

English words cattle,

seagull's

The sweet

Terms and

wings shall dip and pivot him

of bitter bark

Realities

/

59

farming,

iambic lines are

of trochaic words and monosyllables:

The

of,

Now

winter nights enlarge

In sentence of as subtle feet

When This

so

is

thought

to the sessions of sweet, silent

much

when

the case that

Elizabeth Bishop

writes a five-foot line with three iambic words in effect

is

strange, catchy in

its

difference, like a

it,

the

samba

or

reggae beat: In a smart burnoose Khadour looked on, amused.

Such interesting Yet they

may

can just barely be described.

effects

be more notable

—more

of a variation

than, say, the trochee or inverted foot at the beginning of the line, as in Hart Crane's

Vaulting the

The

sea,

trochees in both the

line that begins the

How many have an (Or,

the prairie's dreaming sod.

dawns,

effect to

first

and the third foot in the

same poem,

my

chill

from

his rippling rest,

ear of a kind of double beginning.

on second thought, should the

first

foot be consid-

ered an iamb?)

The

third kind of foot I have mentioned, the anapest,

where the

first,

unstressed part of the foot

two, tends to speed up the line into is



is

divided into

putting two syllables

the space where one might have been. The anapest

frequently very light, the added syllable eliding or

The Sounds of Poetry

/

60

melting into the others, as in this Shakespeare

with

line,

two quick, barely-audible anapests:

And moan In

fact,

the expense of

many

a vanished sight.

the original (pirated) printing of Shakespeare's

sonnets treated the

anapest typographically as an

first

elision:

And mone The anapest

th'expence of

in English tends

between the two syllables

seem

to

many

light,

and the

a vannisht sight.

toward a

more

distinct difference

or less elided unstressed

stressed one; the difference does not

vary as fluidly as

it

can with iambs.

The

effect

of heavier unaccented syllables hustled along,

and of

many

highly

anapests jouncing by one after another,

is

conducive to comedy:

When

you're lying

and repose I

is

conceive you

indulge

in,

taboo'd by anxiety,

may

use any language you choose to

without impropriety. 5

With the iambic



awake with a dismal headache,

foot

trochaic or inverted,

and these two variations on

and anapestic or divided



it

the

reader can apprehend the basic structure of a great body of traditional poetry in English.

And by

hearing that

poetry, the ear for free verse, for variations of sorts,

can be sharpened.

Terms and

Realities

/

61

many

The purpose

much

as

few other terms, of occasional usefulness: one

is

"sprung rhythm." Sometimes an unstressed syllable

is

of the terms

is

apprehend

to

as

possible of the vocal reality that one hears.

A

omitted,

jamming two

stressed syllables together; thus,

Fulke Greville writes, about arising in the middle of the night to pursue a forbidden love

Up

I start

To

see if Cynthia

Wonders

And

believing well

I

were awake;

who

saw,

The second and foot, essentially

iambic

in the

did not write the

To

lines.

The

I start

Wonders

I

u

first

line omits the first

line omits the un-

who," creating a double

middle of

his line; that

more conventional

is,

stress

Greville

lines,

believing well

see if Cynthia

And

spake. 6

and the remarkable third

who"

So up

I

tell?

fourth lines are straightforward four-

stressed syllable before

"saw,

can

thus unto myself

syllable,

affair:

were awake;

saw, that

who

thus unto myself

I

can

tell?

spake.

This small difference, emphasizing the accents, makes the lines that the narrative,

much more various and, in the context of and, perhaps, less that much more sexy



complacent and more off-balance.

The Sounds of Poetry

/

62

Sprung rhythm

refers generally to the

The

stressed syllables.

in of

spectacular generator of the term

many

Gerard Manley Hopkins;

is

jamming

of his greatest lines

demonstrate the border between iambic and free verse.

The

we

lines are so strong that

it

hardly matters which term

use:

My

cries heave, herds-long;

huddle in a main, a

chief-

woe, world-sorrow; on an age-old anvil wince and sing

Then

lull,

ering! Let

The

then leave

me

be

Fury had shrieked 'No

off.

fell:

force I

must be

The most conventional at the

beginning of the

between the next.

Ben Jonson,

place for the omitted syllable

it

now

Poets,

Terms and

I love.

write fifty years,

have had, and have

my

Peeres;

though divine, are men:

Realities

/

6)

in the

manages

with varying pauses, right across

Less your laughter, that I

first

in "His Excuse for Loving,"

not your wonder move,

Though

the double stress

one line and the

that strong, emphasized line ending:

Let

lines.

line, creating

last syllable in

to write fluid sentences,

I

brief.'

reader ambitious to write free verse could profit

from studying these formal, rhymed

is

ling-

Some have loved as old* And it is not always face! Clothes, or Fortune gives the grace:

Or the

feature, or the youth:

But the Language, and the Truth.

With the Ardor, and the

Passion.

Gives the Lover weight, and fashion. If

you then

will read the Storie.

prepare you to be sorry

First,

That you never knew Either

whom

But be glad,

When

as

shall

make

it

let

Till she

the old

It is

she.

is

man

young,

at stay.

nothing high decay. be the reason why.

All the world for love

interesting to note

terest

this

was sung.

Keepe the middle age

And

now.

how:

soon with me.

you know, that

Of whose Beautie She

till

to love, or

may

die.

how much more rhvthmical

and emotional urgency

this has

than

not omitted the syllables, and written a

Let

And

it

less

not your wonder move.

your laughter, that

For though 1 still

I

now

write

have had. and have

The Sounds of Poetry

/

64

I love.

fifty years,

mv

Peeres.

if

in-

Jonson had

rhythm

like:

To me,

this chatty

how

onstrates

make.

When

and rhythmically dead revision dem-

great a difference these small matters

the omitted syllable occurs consistently

at

the beginning of the line, the lines are called "catalectic" or "beheaded."

Terms

like "iamb," "trochee,"

and "anapest" come

to

us from the quantitative meters of Greek and Latin

meters based not on accent, but on duration; in those languages, syllables are long and short, not relatively but

Among

absolutely.

been used

term

Greek

for a

Though

I

the

many

classical

to describe English sounds

or Latin foot of

have said that

I

terms that have

is

"spondaic" (the

two long

hear the iambic

syllables).

movement

in pitch right through the long, distinctly accented syllables of a line like

And with it

woes new wail

old

makes sense

to call the

moments. (Personally,

I

my

dear time's waste,

rhythm "spondaic"

have listened

for so long, in these ways,

so

at those

hard to English

and in particular

to poetry,

that I never hear an actual, perfect "spondee"; there

is

always at least a slight difference between the two syllables to

my

ear,

so

I

prefer the adjectival form,

"spondaic") Besides the monosyllabic foot and the spondaic move-

ment, writers sometimes refer to a "pyrrhic describe the very light

iamb followed by

a

foot," to

heavy

(or

"spondaic") one, as in the third and fourth feet of a line I

have discussed,

Terms and

Realities

/

6$

When There

thought

to the sessions of sweet, silent

nothing wrong with having a term to refer to

is

this figure; the

main

thing, as I hear

the slight step up in pitch from

from "sweet" syllables

is

a

is

it,

to perceive

-sions" to "of"

and

to "si-," because that rise in pitch over four

a pleasing

movement, one that

contrasts with

the spondaic feeling of the second pair in the group.

Students sometimes encounter the classical term "dactyl,"

which in Greek or Latin verse means a long

followed by two short ones. to

me; though

it

It

The term seems unnecessary

describes something

as in this line of

we sometimes hear,

Campion's,

What

if

makes

a kind of sense to say that this

("What

syllable

a day, or a month, or a year

if a,"

is

three "dactyls"

"day or a" and "month or a") followed by

a monosyllable. But the line can be adequately described

without adding this additional term

above about

clarity, simplicity,

see the remarks

and universality



as the

trochee ("What if"), an iamb ("a day"), and two

initial

light anapests ("or a

Turning from there



feet to lines,

it

"or a year").

remains to note that

a traditional, technical language for the kinds

is

of line I have "four-foot," classical

line of

month" and

and

been calling "two-foot," "three-foot," "five-foot."

Borrowing again from the

system, custom names the

two

lines like this: the

feet (like the fourth lines in the stanzas of

"To Earthward")

is

called "dimeter"; the line of three

The Sounds of Poetry

/

66

feet

is

predominant

called "trimeter" (the

Earthward" and of four feet

is

"Now Winter

line in

"To

Nights Enlarge"); the line

called "tetrameter" (the line of "Let It

Not Your Wonder Move"); the

line of five feet (the line

and sonnets, of Milton's "Paradise

of Shakespeare's plays

Lost" and Keats's "To Autumn," of Stevens's "Sunday

Morning," of

Frost's narrative

poems, and also buried in

Allen Ginsberg's "Howl" and William Faulkner's prose) is

called "pentameter"; the line of six feet (rather rare)

is

called "hexameter."

Here are some quick additional examples these lines. Trimeter, as in the examples of

for

some

of

"Now Winter

Nights Enlarge" and "To Earthward," quoted previously, is

often a rather song-like, sensual measure.

involving dance

come

to

Examples

mind, though the dance

be not entirely happy, as in Theodore Roethke's

may "My

Papa's Waltz":

The whiskey on your breath Could make a small boy

But

I

hung on

Such waltzing was not

The measure

is

dizzy;

like death:

made

easy.

dirge-like in

any in Time of Plague":

Rich men,

trust not in wealth,

Gold cannot buy you health; Physic himself must fade;

Terms and

Realities

/

6y

Thomas

Nashe's "Lit-

All things to end are made;

The plague

full swift

The "sensuous" simply with

measure.

The

line that

seem

as

in this

Ways

or "dancing" quality

how

the end-rhyme,

may have

to

do

frequently the line ending (and also there

if

effect

is

is

any) occurs in such a short

similar in

some kinds of free-verse

related to the trimeter (three-foot) line,

passage from Wallace Stevens's "Thirteen

Looking

of

goes by

at a Blackbird":

At the sight of blackbirds Flying in a green

Even the bawds

Would

of

euphony

cry out sharply.

As a present

to the reader, here

trimeter lines, by

The

light,

Thomas Hardy:

Self- unseeing

Here

is

the ancient

floor,

Footworn and hollow and

thin,

Here was the former door

Where

the dead feet walked

She

here in her chair,

sat

Smiling into the

The Sounds of Poetry

/

fire;

68

in.

is

a

whole poem

in

He who Bowing

played stood there, it

higher and higher.

Childlike, I danced in a dream;

Blessings emblazoned that day;

Everything glowed with a gleam;

Yet we were looking away!

The tetrameter

(four-foot) line

is

maybe more

often

used for a song-like or comic effect than the pentameter (five-foot).

And

may

the tetrameter

be harder to sustain

over quite a long poem, partly because in the middle,

and tends

tral pause, as in

horn." T.

S.

is

divides evenly

symmetrical cen-

to fall into a

the line "This

it

the cow, with crumpled

Eliot lets the tendency of tetrameter to fall

by a central pause, create a

into equal halves, divided

grotesque effect in the

first

stanza of

"Sweeney Among

the Nightingales"; in the fourth line of the stanza, there's a kind of relief or release

from that pattern:

Apeneck Sweeney spreads Letting his arms hang

The

his knees

down

to laugh,

zebra stripes along his jaw

Swelling to maculate

giraffe.

Keeping the pause (technical name: "caesura") from ing monotonously in the middle trameter.

Terms and

When

Realities

it falls

/

69

is

fall-

a challenge in te-

near the end or the beginning

of the line^ the emotional effect can be remarkable.

good example of the line

is

in

this effect of the

Ben

Jonson's "Excuse for Loving," quoted

in full above; in these three lines, the pauses

me

seem

to

to contribute considerably to the emotion:

prepare you to be sorry

First,

That you never knew Either

A

A

pause early or late in

whom

till

to love, or

now,

how:

free -verse counterpart to the tetrameter (four-foot)

line,

and

Plath's

the

also of this off-center pause, appears in Sylvia

poem

first

"Sleep in the Mojave Desert." In each of

three lines below, there

midpoint. Then, in the fourth the words

u

is

line,

a pause near the

the run-over from

the only," coming after the pause quite late

in the line, breaks the

symmetry, with an

effect that I

hear as increasing the urgency or restlessness.

from that point may become

Hot

grains, simply. It

And On the mind's the air

Of poplars

is

The

lines

less static or closed-in:

dry, dry.

dangerous. Noonday

acts queerly

eye, erecting a line

in the

middle distance, the only

Object beside the mad, straight road

One can remember men and

objects by.

Description can only gesture toward effects like

which are made of

The Sounds of Poetry /

so

yo

many

this,

elements. (For instance, in

these lines by Plath, the

rhyme

phasizes the heavy pause

the

rhyme on

midway

in the third line;

emand

"by," at the end of the passage, modifies

the effect further



returning as to a musical theme, but

changing the theme,

I

of "dry" with "eye"

too.)

have described the pentameter

line,

based on a pat-

tern of five iambic feet, as the line of Shakespeare's plays, of Milton's Paradise Lost, Keats's

and Stevens's "Sunday Morning"; as the equivalent of 4/4

it

"To Autumn,"

has been described

time in music or of the rectan-

gular canvas in painting.

I will

look at this pentameter

line in detail in the chapter entitled

"Blank Verse and

Free Verse."

For now, here are some one-line examples from the

works

name

I

in the previous paragraph:

To-morrow, and to-morrow, and to-morrow {Macbeth, V,

The dark unbottom'd

v, 19)

infinite

Abyss

(Paradise Lost, Book

Among

II,

line 405)

the river sallows, borne aloft

("To Autumn")

And

pick the strings of our insipid lutes!

("Sunday Morning")

Terms and

Realities

/

7/

I

have

eters

noted that lines and clumps of such pentam-

also

show up

eloquent, high

in the free verse of Allen Ginsberg,

moments

liam Faulkner and

and

at

in the prose of writers like Wil-

Herman

Melville.

Here are some

lines

from "Howl," rearranged typographically

to reveal the

iambic pentameters (the second line a

rough):

Alchemy

The

Who And

little

of the use of the ellipse

catalog the meter

&

the vibrating plane,

dreamt and made incarnate gaps in Time space through images juxtaposed, and trapped

Or, again with an anapest here

and

there,

even the open-

ing lines reveal the pentameter throb:

I

saw the best minds of

my

generation

Destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked,

Dragging themselves through the negro

streets at

dawn

The poem

contains

many

such passages, as well as

strik-

ing single pentameters buried in the free-verse context:

Who

lost their

loveboys to the three old shrews

Moloch whose mind

Who

barreled

down

The Sounds of Poetry /

72

is

pure machinery!

the highways of the past

And

u

Howl"

wonderful closing words also make a

's

pentameter, with the trochee in

its

conventional

first

position:

Door of That

my

cottage in the Western night

line follows a

rhythmic pattern

close to this pen-

tameter of Wordsworth's in the Tintern Abbey "Lines":

among

Sent up in silence, from

Or

this

the trees!

one by Milton in "Lycidas"

knew by

(a

poem Ginsberg

heart):

So sinks the day star in the Ocean bed

Here

is

a passage

The pentameter

sage, but recovers

would

It

from Faulkner's Absalom, Absalom!

dissolves a bit in the

with a

into a passage

fit

was no

last line that, like

the

first,

by Shakespeare:

madman who

Hard manual

middle of the pas-

bargained and cajoled

labor out of

men

like Jones;

It was no madman who kept clear of the sheets And hoods and night-galloping horses with which [Men who were once his acquaintances

Even

if

not his friends discharged]

The canker suppuration The two

lines in brackets

tameter a

little,

Realities

waver from the iambic pen-

but the second of them ("Even

his friends discharged")

Terms and

of defeat.

/

j)

is

if

not

a perfect tetrameter, with

moment

the initial foot inverted. Another wonderful

when W. E.

a pentameter occurs in prose B. DuBois's great essay,

Men": the I sit

first

is

the peroration of

"Of the Training of Black

sentence of the concluding paragraph

is:

with Shakespeare and he winces not.

Alternating lines of four feet (tetrameter) and three feet (trimeter) comprise the stanza often used for ballads

and hymns. The ballad stanza

or a version of

it

often

appears in poems by Emily Dickinson:

Further in

Summer

than the Birds

Pathetic from the Grass

A

minor Nation celebrates

Its

unobtrusive Mass.

And by Thomas Hardy: The

tangled bine-stems scored the sky

Like strings of broken

And Had The

all

mankind

lyres,

that haunted nigh

sought their household

ballad or

hymn

stanza

measure" of alternating

is

fires.

related to the old "Poulter's

lines of six

and seven

feet (thir-

teen, the poultry-seller's dozen, allowing for the

ken egg, hence

odd bro-

"Poulter's"). Because the lines are divided

The Sounds of Poetry

/

74

by a central caesura, the four,

and three

effect is units of three, three,

Here are the

feet.

first

four lines of Fulke

Greville's elegy for Philip Sidney:

Silence augmenteth grief, writing increaseth rage,

Staled are

my

thoughts, which loved and lost the

wonder of our

age;

Yet quickened now with

fire,

though dead with

frost

ere now,

Enraged

know

I

write

know

I

not what; dead, quick,

I

not how.

If these lines

were divided in half

first line, after "lost"

and "what" in the

(after "grief" in the

in the second, "fire" in the third,

fourth), their resemblance

clear to the similar stanza (three feet,

would be

then three again,

then four, then once again three) in Dickinson:

The Heart

And then And then

asks Pleasure



first

—Excuse from Pain Anodynes — those

little

That deaden suffering

As a free-verse equivalent or

relative of the ballad stanza,

some

poems

of Robert Creeley's

in four-line stanzas

sometimes echo the movement between four and three, while avoiding the iambic pattern, as in the beginning of his

poem "The

Terms and

Realities

/

Faces":

j$

The

faces,

with anticipated youth

look out from the current identifications, judge or salesman,

the neighbor, the

man who

killed.

Finally, a suitable transition to the next chapter will be

by quoting from a kind of hyper-ballad, Ed-

to conclude

win Arlington Robinson's "Eros Turannos" ("Love the King" or "Love the Tyrant"). Here the movement be-

tween four-foot and three-foot

lines

is

extended into

a stanza of eight lines, including a spectacular triple

rhyme. Here are two of the poem's

She

fears

What

six stanzas:

him, and will always ask

fated her to choose him;

She meets in

his

engaging mask

All reasons to refuse him;

But what she meets and what she

Are

less

Drawn Of

fears

than are the downward years slowly to the foamless weirs

age,

were she

to lose

him.

Between a blurred sagacity That once had power

to

sound him,

And Love, that will not let him be The Judas that she found him, Her As

pride assuages her almost,

if it

were alone the

The Sounds of Poetry

/

j6

cost.

He sees that he will not be lost, And waits and looks around him. These rhymes, which can be appreciated best reader knows

how

to let the voice continue

if

the

through and

past them, carried on by the energy of the syntax, ex-

emplify the material of the next chapter.

Terms and

Realities

/

jj

IV/

LIKE AND

UNLIKE SOUNDS

In different ways,

and

words are similar and This simple state,

fact,

in varying degree, the sounds of different.

almost embarrassingly obvious to

provides the basis for a tremendous part of poetry's

power.

The

line

from Macbeth which

I

have quoted

earlier

represents one extreme of likeness:

To-morrow and to-morrow, and to-morrow That

is,

repetition can be thought of as the ultimate in

like sounds.

So rhyme, however

we

define

a matter

it, is

of unlikeness as well as likeness: "to-morrow"

with "sorrow" because of

how

rhymes

the two words are like

and unlike. "To-morrow" does not rhyme with

morrow" because they

rhyme with Here actual it is

is

are exactly alike;

does not

"sagacity" because they are too unlike.

an example of

like

and unlike sounds in an

poem. The poem provides a good example because

short (only four lines long)

chime

it

"to-

variously:

and rich in sounds that

The dry

The unfeeling

soul rages.

With the dry vehemence So

I,

Am

at the

unwon,

in the Idea of your arms,

undone.

as the real in the unreal

The end-rhymes

feel

of the unreal.

1

{feel with -real and -won with -done

ends of the lines)

make up

only part of the poem's

complex web of likeness and difference in sound audible

web

trust the

so attractive to

cause the sounds have so

When

me

meaning, even while

I

that I feel willing to it,

be-

conviction and appeal.

do get the meaning

brace of the desired one, which distracts the frustrated lover

quite get

I can't

much

— an

is

who



the imagined em-

unreal, confounds feels real

an unreal fantasy, dry and vehement



and

absence and

the compacted,

fiendishly chiming nature of the sounds seems to enact

that action of "raging."

The emotion,

the sexual horni-

produces an artifact of extravagant control.

ness,

By

web

mean,

for

example, the

recurrences in "the unfeeling feel" and

"I,

in the Idea."

the audible

of sound

I

Both of these examples involve repetition of the same sound in a different word: in the case of "unfeeling a repeated sound with the

and in the case of

The

triad of

"I,

opposite,

in the Idea," a different meaning.

"unwon" and

rhyme between the

same meaning made

feel,"

"unreal,

prefix "un-"

undone" involves the and both "won" and

"done."

When

you consider

also the

rhyme between "Dry"

(another repeated word) and both "I" and the

The Sounds of Poetry

/

80

first syl-

vowel sound repeated in

lable of "Idea," as well as the

and "Idea," the most striking aspect of the poem

"real"

becomes the way too

many

rages,"

it

avoids

jamming

up, overclotted with

like sounds. In this sense, the

sounds of "soul

"vehemence," and "your arms" become impor-

much

tant because they don't

recur:

in a

way

these

sounds, keeping the richness from being overdone, are

the most important ones in the poem.

This example indicates that likeness and difference of

sound are matters of degree. Rhyme, however one defines that term,

is

a matter of degree, and not necessarily

an either/or toggle. Just as the varying relation of pitch

and duration, in

their changing degrees, can be expressive,

and

just as the

varying relation of line and syntax can be expressive, the varying kinds and degrees of likeness of sound can

be expressive.

"The dry

soul rages" demonstrates that principle in

an end-rhymed poem. Here are some that

is

from a poem

not end-rhymed, demonstrating the same prin-

ciple, I think.

verse"

lines



that

The poem is,

(by Robert Frost)

pentameter

(five-foot)

in "blank

is

lines

with no

regular end rhyme; but rhyme, or something like rhyme, surely plays a great part in the poem's effect:

An

Old

Mans

Winter Night

All out-of-doors looked darkly in at

Through the thin

Like and Unlike Sounds

frost,

/

81

him

almost in separate

stars,

That gathers on the pane

empty rooms.

in

What kept his eyes from giving back the gaze Was the lamp tilted near them in his hand. What kept him from remembering what it was That brought him to that creaking room was age. He stood with barrels round him at a loss.



There

is

a complicated embroidery here.

One thread

in-

volves like consonant sounds such as those at the end of

"doors" and of "stars" and perhaps of "gathers"; or the related consonant sounds (the

a

s"

sound called a

"sibi-

lant") at the

end of "eyes" and of "gaze" and of "was,"

and perhaps

at the

consonant-thread

is

end of

"loss," too.

But crossing that

another vowel-thread involving the

long "a" sound in "pane" and "gaze" and "age."

Thus, in the line

What

kept his eyes from giving back the gaze

the reader

may

hear "his" and "eyes" and "gaze" rhym-

ing with one another and also with "was" two lines

But the reader

may

also hear a likeness

word "gaze" and the word "pane" the-line pause) above

it

later.

between the

final

at a caesura (within-

and the word "age"

more

at the

end

of a line below

it.

"Hear"

term here: that

is,

the reader doesn't necessarily think

about

the

sounds

threads, or register felt, just

I

The Sounds of Poetry

/

have

them

the same: the

82

is

a

compared

consciously.

poem

or less figurative

to

embroidery

But the

effect is

almost sings in end-rhyme

about this solitude, but mutes the singing quality instead:

more

And

all

like

humming

As always, description behind what

far

even

out,

to oneself,

of this happens in an

lags, in its

gestures toward.

it

maybe.

"unrhymed" poem.

cumbersome way,

Much

is

always

as the sentences of description pile up.

It

left-

would

be interesting, for example, to think about the likeness

and difference of syntax

as

stretches

it

and

folds across

the two units, of two lines each, which both begin with the words

"What

two units are

kept": the

parallel,

but

not perfectly parallel, in ways that contain and echo and contrast with the play of like

Here

three lines that illustrate

end-rhyme

of

and unlike sounds.

a sentence from farther along in the poem,

is

how

a supposedly

close to the audible effect

unrhymed poem can come.

Listen to the terminal "t" sound (called a "dental" sound, as is that of "d") as lines, at

light

still

To

at the

ends of

others at no particular pause:

he was

Where now he

A

sometimes

other times after the caesura or pause within

the line, at

A

falls

it

no one but himself

to

sat,

concerned with he

knew what,

quiet light, and then not even that.

say the sentence aloud, hearing the delicate, fluc-

tuating echo on

light, sat,

what,

light, that is

pleasures to hear the

way

pentameters. That

because the passage

Like and Unlike Sounds

is,

/

83

among

other

there are pentameters within is

made

out of

— and two

units of three

there

feet,

is

a kind of buried

pentameter line that would read,

To no one but himself where now he if

the

poem were

written a

sat,

little differently,

and another

one that would read,

Concerned with he knew what, a quiet light

The terminal an

sound marks

"t"

off these possibilities

with

effect of great penetration.

The poem

at

blank verse and night

is

such points seems to tremble between

end-rhyme,

full

as

though the old man's

partly a matter for narration, partly for some-

thing more

The poem's

lyrical.

conclusion continues that

double quality:

And Once

slept.

The

log that shifted with a jolt

in the stove, disturbed him,

and he

shifted,

And eased his heavy breathing, but still slept. One aged man one man can't keep a house,





A

farm, a countryside, or

It's

In the

man"

thus he does

last

it

three lines, the

at the

if

he can,

of a winter night.

rhyme between "one aged

beginning of a line and

the end of another line

is

or

if

he can"

at

separated by the kind of "bur-

ied" pentameter line I've referred to

The Sounds of Poetry /

a

Can't keep a house, a farm, a countryside

And one is

effect of this musical, shifting,

widening of what "keep" means,

to intensify the

man

that the

echoing quality

"keeps" something as metaphysical as "a

countryside." This philosophical sweep

heavy partly because,

I think,

is

not loud or

the pattern of sounds pro-

vides something like a leavening counterpoint. repetition of the

word "man,"

metaphysical or not, the story

A

free-verse

Chapter a good

I,

poem

itself,

is

And

the

reminds us that

also actual, present.

that I have quoted at the end of

Wallace Stevens's "The Snow Man," provides

example of

sound in

like

lines that are neither

iambic nor end-rhymed:

The Snow

Man

One must have To regard Of the

so

a

mind

of winter

the frost and the boughs

pine-trees crusted with snow,

And have been cold a long time To behold the junipers shagged with ice, The spruces rough in the distant glitter Of the January Of any misery

sun,

and not

to think

in the sound of the wind,

In the sound of a few leaves,

Like and Unlike Sounds

/

8$

Which

is

the sound of the land

Full of the

That

same wind

blowing in the same bare place

is

For the

who

listener,

snow,

listens in the

And, nothing himself, beholds

Nothing that

In the ter"

first

and

and the

is

not there and the nothing that

two three -line

"glitter" first

is.

stanzas, the similarity of "win-

accompanies the similarity of "mind"

syllable of "winter." In going

to "winter," the "i"

is

from "mind"

shorter in the second word, and

the dental sound changes from "d" to

"t,"

but the con-

sonant clusters of "nd" and "nt" (both described technically as a "nasal"

sound followed by a "dental") are

reinforced by the stress that falls on

many

repetitions that are

on the way

them and by the

—beginning with

the sound of "pine-trees," which echoes the vowel of

"mind" and the consonants of "winter."

The

recurrence of the nasal-dental cluster becomes

quite rich and prominent in this passage:

not to think

Of any misery

in the sound of the wind,

In the sound of a few leaves,

Which

is

the sound of the land

Full of the

That

is

same wind

blowing in the same bare place

The Sounds of Poetry /

86

For the

listener,

who

listens in the

snow,

And, nothing himself, beholds

Nothing that

is

not there and the nothing that

The repeated words

is.

make

"sound," "land," and "wind"

the audible presence of like sounds so intense that their relative absence

becomes an important part of the

nal four lines.

say "relative" absence because the

"And," with

(I

its

distinct pauses before

the rhyme-sound distinctly

much



and

after,

fi-

word

echoes

a bravura touch to put so

musical and syntactical force on so bland a word.)

Because "beholds" and "snow" and "nothing" and are quite dissimilar

"is"

from mind/sound/ land/wind, they

have an emphasis similar

to the

emphasis

I tried to

point

out in "The dry soul rages"; sometimes, the like sounds serve to dramatize and heighten the unlike sounds.

In a

way

parallel to

where the syntax might the shift

away from

moment when

how an enjambment stop,

is

a place

but pushes forward instead,

a consonant sound

may mark

a

things might chime, but depart instead.

Here, the relative absence of a consonant sound, and its

one recurrence on "and"

"beholds"

— emphasizes



like the

enjambment on

and tempers the change from

one kind of severity to another: from the

brilliant,

bleak

landscape to the differently severe process of "beholding."

So

far, I

have spoken of only one kind of

degree of rhyme. But "The

Like and Unlike Sounds

/

8y

Snow Man"

likeness:

contains a few

examples of another kind of likeness or unlikeness, such as the phrases

January sun

and distant glitter

and junipers shagged,

phrases in which

all

I

hear a kind of delicious contrast

between the Latin and the Germanic that between crunchy and

physically



similar

soft.

"distant"

roots, a little like

Though and

the sounds are

same vowels, "January" and "sun" sharing



"distant"

tly

more

with the

"glitter"

a consonant

and "January" and "juniper" are from a sub-

abstract

or

scientific-sounding

area

of the

English lexicon, while "sun" and "glitter" and "shagged"

and "crusted" are from a more immediate-sounding or concrete-sounding part of the language.

While the

phrases involve sounds that are similar physically, the

sounds of the words, in this more figurative or emotional sense of "sound," are in contrast.

This

is

an

effect Stevens

seems

to like especially,

even more striking examples in his work come like the phrase in

"Sunday Morning,"

inarticulate pang,

or in these lines,

The Sounds of Poetry

from the same poem:

/

to

and

mind,

Nor visionary

Remote on heaven's As

palm

south, nor cloudy

that has endured

hill,

endure

April's green endures; or will

Like her remembrance of awakened

Or her

By

desire for

June and evening, tipped

the consummation of the swallow's wings.

"Tipped"

is

from a Germanic

German word

zipf\

"January"

is

root,

is

I

from the Latin. I

have quoted:

Germanic; "distant"

is

Germanic; in the next phrase,

it

is

the adjective, "shagged," that

noun, "juniper," that

is

two-word phrases

Latin and "sun"

Latin and "glitter"

akin to the Old High

"consummation"

So, too, for each of the

is

birds,

is

is

Germanic and the

Latin.

think that Stevens, in his particularly characteristic

way

of

making

these Latin-Germanic pairs,

may

be

re-

cording his love for the poems of Keats, more than any single poet. (Phrases in Keats such as

"maturing sun,"

"unravished bride," "dull opiate," "strenuous tongue" flood to mind.)

This expressive contrast

noun

pairs.

To

is

not limited to adjective-

say that "green endures" or to speak of

make

the same contrast

"remembrance" of "birds"

is

to

as in "visionary south." It

is

a contrast that calls

history of the English language

spoken

it,

up the

and the people who have

often invading, enslaving, raping, and tortur-

ing one another, or converting one another to religions, or

new

marrying one another, and changing the

language in the process. The freshness or contrast sug-

Like and Unlike Sounds

/

gested sometimes by yoking words with different roots calls

on such

history.

me

This contrast of roots seems to sound:

know

I

validly a matter of

who

think that the speaker or reader

from a Germanic root hears the

a Latin root

ference. This

part of

is

does not

being tricked by lawyers

with

Simultaneously

dif-

why may

try to hide in Latin roots:

the

individual

a police officer afraid of

being

appre-

hended, he indicated prior information he had obtained concerning that locality.

This

way

of saying "At the

largely intuitive, as plain, short, rude

stances

same time

knew about

guy, he said he

as

were ear-guided,

it

words

we caught

the

the place before" takes a

for bodily functions

and sub-

and parts are Germanic: the longer, more

words are Latin. You don't need

to

Our

direction.

know

clinical

this to

hear

that the difference between "shit" and "excrement" parallel to the

tercourse."

We

thinking about strated

one between "fucking" and "sexual

in-

hear the difference, without necessarily it.

(The

by the phrase

I

fact that

we hear

it is

demon-

have quoted, "inarticulate pang":

the clearly Latinate adjective contrasts with the syllable

is

"pang" in the way

I

have described, but

knowledge the root of "pang" Germanic.)

The Sounds of Poetry

/

90

is

unknown.

It

monoto

my

sounds

So,

when

Elizabeth Bishop writes toward the end of

"At the Fishhouses," about the very cold water:

If

you should dip your hand

in,

your wrist would ache immediately, your bones would begin to ache and your hand

would burn water were a transmutation of

as if the

I

we hear some Germanic

think

fire

plainness in "your wrist

would ache" contrasted with some Latinate

definition in

"immediately" (a word that means "without any inter-

vening medium"

—nothing coming

contrast anticipates the contrast bones,

ache,

realities



those substantial

the Latinate transmutation: a process that

changes the substantial. The Latinate word

way

Bishop's

poem

surges

perience to something I

don't

mean

more

part of the

to suggest that this

combining and con-

a conscious process for the writer, any

more than

for the reader.

"life, liberty

When Thomas

Jefferson

and the pursuit of happiness,"

doubt that he was thinking of the primal, physical of

Germanic

"life,"

the

Roman,

legalistic force of

"liberty," the courtly, equestrian connotations of

French "pursuit," and the return "hap."

It

sounded right

Like and Unlike Sounds

ex-

reflective or mysterious.

is

it is

is

upward from immediate

trasting of roots

wrote of

that

between the Germanic

hand, burn, water, fire

— and

And

between).

/

to

91

to

him, as

Germanic it

I

effect

Latin

Norman

roots with

sounds right to

us.

Similarly,

matters

Frank O'Hara

when he

is

not thinking about such

writes, in "Steps":

the apartment was vacated by a gay couple

who moved they moved

to the country for

fun

a day too soon

even the stabbings are helping the population explosion

though in the wrong country

Part of the comic effect has to do with the legal or ponderously journalistic terms

("vacated,"

way

quasi-

from the Latin

"population explosion") contrast in sound

with "moved to the country for fun" and "stabbings."

The

contrast in roots

effects of

When

is

not necessarily for the sensuous

Keats and Stevens. Allen Ginsberg writes in "Kaddish" of "Money!

Money! shrieking mad

celestial

evokes speed and intensity of

among

tion

money

of illusion," he

mind by the speed

of

mo-

kinds of root. His phrases in "Howl" like

"contemplating jazz" or "ultimate cunt" rely on this

same

rhetorical turn.

When

the word with a Latin or French root rhymes

with the Germanic

root,

we hear

that, too.

Thomas Har-

dy's

"The Darkling Thrush" demonstrates

this

kind of expressive contrast. The poem's

is:

The Sounds of Poetry

/

92

his ear for first

stanza

I

leant

upon a coppice gate

When

Frost

was

specter- gray,

And Winter's dregs made desolate The weakening eye of day. The tangled bine-stems

scored the sky

Like strings of broken

lyres,

And all mankind that haunted nigh Had sought their household fires. "Leant," "desolate," "specter," and "dregs"

all

share a

vowel sound. "Day" and "gray" and "gate" share another



in fact, the

end-rhyme of a day" and "gray," two

monosyllables from the same area of the language, potentially dull. ness,

The

and one way

certain

distinctive

passage resists

it

words:

about a spiritual dull-

is

banality

is

by means of and "day,"

"gray"

unlike

"coppice" and "bine-stems" and "scored" (with liant

is

its bril-

evocation of both a musical score and incised

scratch marks) have a lot of character.

But

if

the "gray/day"

rhyme

is

a

little flat,

the rhymes

of "desolate" with "gate" and "lyres" with "fires" gain

a lot of energy because the roots differ: "desolate" from

Latin "desolans" and "gate" nearly as concrete and Ger-

manic

as a

noun can

be.

from the Greek, and basic,

the

"Lyres" comes through French

"fires" is

not only Germanic but

even more basic than "gate":

first

it

words one would learn, and

a classical symbol of

Like and Unlike Sounds

art,

/

93

poetry,

might be one of

it is

rhymed with

and music.

Other terms for the kind of word or root calling

Germanic might be Anglo-Saxon

These terms

or

have been

I

Old English.

another part of the

call attention to yet

complex matrix in "The Darkling Thrush." The nating lines of four and three

end-rhymes, recall the formal closeness of this

hymns and ber

1900"

51,

poem

A

ballads.



alter-

and the alternating

feet,

sophisticated work, dated

the exact turn of the century

poem

to

"Decem-

— Hardy's

harks back to the English ballad, to folk poetry

and communal singing, while

also a literary

it is

work,

well aware of predecessors like Keats's "Ode to a Nightingale."

The

play between

modern and

old, literary

folk elements, runs through the very sounds.

Here

is

and the

second stanza:

The

land's sharp features

The

seemed

to

be

Century's corpse outleant,

His crypt the cloudy canopy,

The wind The

his death-lament.

ancient pulse of

germ and

birth

Was shrunken hard and dry, And every spirit upon earth Seemed

fervorless as

The Germanic

or

I.

Old English root "outleant" rhymes

with the Latin or Romance root "lament." The hard, earthy,

and northern monosyllables of the "pulse of

germ and birth/ Was shrunken hard and dry" one

color,

are like

with the more southern and perhaps more

The Sounds of Poetry /

94

learned-sounding "spirit" and "fervorless" as another one.

Given such

intricate patterns of sound, in great

sure intuitively heard

tern of

poem

end-rhyme

builds

its

like a grid or baseline

is

mea-

and intuitively perceived, the

pat-

on which a

unique, expressive structure of likeness

and unlikeness. The couplet scheme (conventionally notated as aabb) of

alternating

end-rhyme in "The dry

soul rages"; the

scheme (conventionally notated

end-rhyme in "The Darkling Thrush"

or

as abab) of

"To Earth-

ward"; the elaborate abbbacccbb that swirls through the first

of

stanza of

end-rhyme

Snow Man" tle

"My in

or

Picture Left in Scotland"; the absence

"An Old Man's Winter Night"

"Howl"



these paradigms

tell

or

"The

only a

lit-

about the chiming and echoing of vowel and conso-

nant in the actual works.

As with other aspects of the sound of a poem, rhymed and unrhymed are not only matters of degree,

infinitely

varied; they also vary, expressively, in the context of all

the other aspects of the poem. Hearing as variation as possible

is

the goal.

Like and Unlike Sounds

/

95

much

of that

v/

BLANK VERSE AND FREE VERSE

I

have suggested a

series of analogies

of sound, based on the

way

between elements

pairs of elements vary sig-

The

nificantly in relation to each other.

play between

pitch and duration, between syntax and line, between like

and unlike sounds, becomes a means of

ways

are comparable

to achieve

In this final chapter

I

want

art.

meaning and

These

feeling.

to propose a similar,

but

more

conceptual, play between the rhythms in a free-

verse

poem and

writer



of the

the recalled experience

— by

reader and

rhythms in iambic poems, of which

I

will

take blank verse as a great, representative type. This duality, too



the play between free-verse rhythms and

iambic rhythms

meaning and

To hear demanding

— can

be

an

it is

means toward

feeling.

free verse, skill.

and

to write

In that sense,

mal": the form in some cases others

artistic

not. I think that

verse in particular,

among

is

all

it

effectively,

true poetry

is

is

a

"for-

based on a measure, in

an understanding of blank

the iambic measures, can help

one hear more accurately and elegantly the rhythms of

free verse. This final chapter will consist largely of

examples of that principle, which

I will try to

some contemporary poems written

some

draw from

in extremely effective

free verse.

Blank verse (unrhymed iambic

feet)

lines based

on a norm of

five

has had a predominant role in poetry writ-

ten in English. This predominance, historically, has been considerable. Free verse

might be described

as the

most

successful alternative to pentameters. Ezra Pound, speak-

ing of formal developments early in the twentieth century,

wrote in a

much

quoted formulation:

pentameter, that was the

a

to break the

heave."

first

Writing in 1918, Pound noted the widening adaptation

and



view

in his



dilution of free verse; he

com-

plains:

has become as prolix and verbose as

Indeed vers

libre

any of the

flaccid varieties that

brought faults of phrasing

is

preceded

it.

It

has

own. The actual language and

its

often as bad as that of our elders without

even the excuse that the words are shoveled in

to

fill

a metric pattern or to complete the noise of a rhyme-

sound.

Whether

or

no the phrases followed by the

followers are musical cision.

libres,"

At times as

I

stale

Swinburnian,

at

must be

/

the reader's de-

can find a marked meter in "vers

and

hackneyed

as

any

pseudo-

times the writers seem to follow no

musical structure whatever.

The Sounds of Poetry

left to

98

1

The standard

this passage brings to free verse

standard that inspired the free-verse

is

like the

movement

early in

the century: a standard of freshness, expressiveness and musicality. Blank verse, in

evergreen in

its

possibilities, in its

oppressive staleness, in

monumental

history,

and



free,

tendency to underlie writing of other kinds

its

measured, even in prose



its

provides an important basis

for comprehension.

To show what examples in pose

is

to

I

mean,

move from

return to one of the

I will

"To Earthward."

this book, Frost's this

poem

to the

first

My pur-

pentameter mea-

sure and from there to free verse. As we've seen, the

poem

is

in lines of three

and two

feet ("trimeter"

and

"dimeter"): three trimeters in each stanza, followed by

one dimeter:

Love

at the lips

As sweet

And

as I could bear;

once that seemed too much;

I lived

on

air

That crossed

The

was touch

me

from sweet things,

—was

flow of

musk

it

From hidden grapevine Downhill

at dusk?

Notice that because the twos,

it

springs

poem

contains fives; that

is,

are pentameters, the five feet

Blank Verse and Free Verse

/

99

is

written in threes and

contained in the structure of:

And And

once that seemed too much;

also,

lived

lived on air

overlapping that hidden, but audible,

other pentameter, the five feet

I

I

on

air that crossed

line, an-

of:

me

from sweet things

There are "buried" or contained pentameters within the poem, some of them beginning or ending

at the caesura.

This observation suggests that measures and rhythms

may sometimes The

three-plus-two line, the line concealed in the

stanzaic

main

form of "To Earthward," has been one of the

sorts

moves

overlap and coincide and diverge again.

of blank-verse line.

Sometimes the pause

and the

line appears as a four-

to near the end,

plus-one:

But

if

the while

Or with the pause

I

think on thee, dear friend

earlier, as a one-plus-four:

Second, the conscious impotence of rage 2

Or

any of

as

many

other variations that divide five feet

with a pause. It

is

means

worth noting that the four-and-one division

that the pentameter line also contains a four-foot

or tetrameter rhythm: varying the two-and-three divi-

sion of the

"To Earthward" stanza

divided into two and three

feet.

other measures, or to flicker into

The Sounds of Poetry

/

ioo

or of five-foot lines

This capacity to contain

them

at times,

is

an-

other aspect of the pentameter line,

much

exploited by

Shakespeare in the plays.

The pause may come

middle of a

in the

tax

falls in relation to line

frame

And

The degree

of appeal

in pentameters varies considerably,

part

yet this same, five-

for fixed-and-variable treatment

noxiously formulaic.

upon the mood and

and

the syn-

ending and pause, the number

of variations approaches infinity. foot

foot;

how

with the variations in pitch, duration, and

can seem ob-

and tedium

depending

at least in

predilections of the reader, as

well as the talent of the writer.

Both the potential attraction and the potential monotony of

this

The pentameter

historical record.

quence

itself,

have proved remarkable, on the

line

and

it

can sink into

description of getting first

line can

trite

become

elo-

formulas. Pound's

away from the pentameter

as

a

the

heave" of his modernist enterprise has repeated

more than

itself

once, for other writers since the begin-

ning of the modern period.

For example,

many

poets of the generation of

icans born in the late nineteen-twenties careers writing pentameters

name

just a few,

and abandoned them. To

Robert Bly, Galway Kinnell, Philip

Levine, Adrienne Rich, and James Wright first

Amer-

began their

all

published

books with pentameter poems, ranging from ade-

quate but wooden in rhythm to quite beautiful. sonal observation

is

striking pentameters

that those

went on

free verse. Here, for example,

Blank Verse and Free Verse

/

101

who wrote

to write the is

My per-

the best, most

most

a passage

attractive

from an early

poem by James Wright, "A to

My

Son"; the writing seems to

though

tiful,

Presentation of

in

some ways the

with the phrases "he hardly

me

restless

within the

way

Birds

extremely beau-

sensibility that

flies

comes up

on brains" and "pockets

of air impale his hollow bones" seems or

Two

somewhat caged

the pentameter lines are

handled:

Look up and

How

shall

see the swift above the trees.

I tell

you why he always veers

And banks away from

Away from

ground?

the shaken sleeve of

He

hardly

air,

on brains;

flies

Pockets of air impale his hollow bones.

He

leans against the rainfall or the sun.

One

could meld this passage onto a continuous stream

of blank verse, concealing the join

between passages

from Shakespeare and Milton, then continuing the sentences from, say, a descriptive passage in Paradise Lost into

Wordsworth, and from Wordsworth into the Stevens

of "Sunday

Morning" and then Frost

or the Eliot of

"Four Quartets," and perhaps contrive a

Roethke into

into this passage

slide

through

from Wright's poem, and then

some of the pentameters

I

have winkled out of

Ginsberg's "Howl."

Observing

how

Wright's pentameter lines are put

gether largely in units of two feet

"Look up and (e.g.,

see,"

(e.g.,

to-

"pockets of air,"

"away from ground") and three

feet

"the swift above the trees," "the shaken sleeve of

The Sounds of Poetry

/

102

"he hardly

air,"

on brains"), sometimes overlapping,

flies

the reader might recall the threes and twos of "To

Earthward." But at least one of the

the

lines,

first,

might

be divided by the caesura into one foot and four: "Look up,"

we might

hear, "and see the swift above the trees."

Hearing those units of two, three, and four

feet,

and

hearing the iambs, light or heavy or in between, in some counterpoint or resistance to the idiosyncratic utterance, is

good preparation,

be divided into

can't quite

hearing lines that often

and

feet,

clusters of syllables

away from the iambic pattern

that pull free-verse

graph

I think, for

poem by Wright, "The

First



as in a late,

Days" (the

epi-

"Optima dies fugit"):

is

The

first

Was

a

thing

saw

I

in the

morning

huge golden bee ploughing

His burly right shoulder into the belly

Of

a sleek yellow pear

Low

on a bough.

Before he could find that sudden black honey

That squirms around

in there

Inside the seed, the tree could not bear any more.

The pear

fell to

With the bee Inside

The

first

syllables

thing

I

its

the ground,

still

half alive

body.

two

lines alternate clusters of relatively stressed

packed together



like the four syllables "first

saw," and the spondaic-sounding "huge gold"

Blank Verse and Free Verse

/

103

and "bee plough" lables, like

two

—with

clusters of relatively light syl-

the last syllable of "morning" and the

bee," isolated

by

first

Yet "Was a huge golden

syllables of the next line.

could be one of the threes in "To

itself,

Earthward," or part of a pentameter. The movement of the opening lines, in other words, mediates between a

kind of allusion or echo of iambic verse and a refusal of

movement.

that

Similarly, the line "Before he could find

that sudden black honey" teases toward a pentameter

and declines

to be one, while

"Low on

a

bough" and

"That squirms around in there," on either longer line, are units of two and three feet

be in a

poem

To hear

side of the



or

would

that maintained an iambic norm.

these lines avoiding pentameter

is

to

hear

more about them. I

to

don't

know

mean

to

imply that one must know pentameter

poetry, or to hear

it.

On

the contrary,

little

or

heard a

no iambic pentameter lot of

it,

I

think:

it is

clear

who wrote

that great poetry has been written by poets

— though they must have

whether

in Yeats, Eliot, Stevens,

Wordsworth, Milton, Donne, or Shakespeare. Neither do

don iambs fact



I

mean

to say that

or pentameter

in order to

— he

compose

his

Wright "had

poems

has been claimed that pentameter

is

authentically. It

not a contemporary,

or not an American, measure. Possibly this until the next great poet

makes

it

no longer

been claimed that people, or Americans in

The Sounds of Poetry

/

104

to" aban-

never entirely did, in

is

true only

true. It

has

particular,

do

we

not speak in iambic pentameter. But sometimes

do.

Consider these examples: All politics

is

local politics.

Excuse me: can you

To Monmouth Well come

me how

tell

to get

Park, in Oceanport, from here?

on, Baby, take a whiff

on me.

Or, in the Shakespearean style of dividing pentameters

among

speakers:

C: Look

— when

the guy that plays

His check, his name A.:

Of course

first

written on

is

it,

right?

it is!

Whose name?

C;

That's right.

A.:

What's right?

C: A.:

base picks up

No, what's the

name

guy on second

of the

base!

C: Ah, bocka-docka, bucka docka baahl

seem much more than

Often, there does not retical point in recalling

to

which pentameter

porary free verse

I

is

a theo-

pentameter, or the iambic forms central. In

admire, there

some

is

of the contem-

far less presence of

the pentameter, or of the threes and twos, than in the

"Who's on

First?" routine.

For example, here are the

opening four lines of C. K. Williams's

Blank Verse and Free Verse

/

105

poem

"Tar."

The

would not be mistaken

long, end-stopped lines

for

pentameter, or any other iambic measure:

The

first

morning of Three Mile

Island: those first

disquieting, uncertain, mystifying hours.

morning

All

a

crew of workmen have been tearing

the old decrepit roof off our building,

and

all

morning, trying

wandering out

to distract myself, I've

been

watch them

to

they hack away the leaden layers of asbestos

as

paper and disassemble the disintegrating drains.

Common

sense suggests that long lines are

more

likely

be end-stopped while shorter lines are more likely to

to

involve enjambment. But there these long lines that

"My

Jonson's

is

of various length

forms



phenomenon within

enjambments of Ben

make

a

graceful set of plat-

of five feet, or four, or three, or two, or one

for the sentence to

I

a

Picture Left in Scotland." In that poem,

lines



is

like the

now For

dance

think,

Love

else

could not be

it

is

across, Astaire-like:

rather deaf than blind,

That she

Whom And

I

much

should so slight me,

my love behind. my language to her

cast

I'm sure

And

adore so

every close did meet

The Sounds of Poetry

/

106

was

as sweet,

In sentence of as subtle feet

As hath the youngest he

That

The

sits

in

shadow of

energy continuing through rhythmic

syntactical

units of various length

And

this stanza.

Apollo's tree.

is

part of the

force of

the pauses inside the long free-

so, too,

mark

verse lines of "Tar"

charm and

off,

without halting, parts of

a syntactical energy, as can be indicated

by imposing a

different typography:

The

first

those

morning of Three Mile

first

Island:

disquieting,

uncertain,

mystifying hours.

This hesitant series of short units

is

followed by some-

thing very close to a pentameter (anapest in the second position):

All

morning

a crew of

workmen have been

tearing

the old decrepit roof off our building,

And

there

in the

way

is

something

C. K.

like the

Ben Jonson poem,

too,

Williams ends his sentence with a long,

tamper with

resolving unit; again,

I'll

a point, and arrange

them

blank verse (though

it

so they

make

line of

requires a run-over in the middle

of a word):

Blank Verse and Free Verse

his lines to

end with a

/

ioy

and

all

morning,

trying to distract myself,

been wandering out

I've

watch them

to

they hack away

as

the leaden layers of asbestos paper and dis-

assemble the disintegrating drains.

The rhythm

of pauses, the alternation of longer

shorter units, the flirting with iambic

second "line" above, which buried pentameter "line" asbestos

among

paper"):

all

rhythms

close to trimeter, or the

is

made by

of these

"the leaden layers of

are

tracing

expressive,

other things a contrast between the tentative def-

inition of the psychological state in the poem's line

and

(as in the

opening

and the confident demolition described in the longer

The repeated phrase

units.

ferent cadences in a

way

"All

morning" takes two

dif-

that recalls the expressively

partial or varied parallelisms of Frost's

"An Old Man's

Winter Night." It

probably

"Tar"

to

its

is

a good idea to restore the opening of

proper typography; the lines are neither

short nor iambic. In fact, the keeping together of rather stressed syllables (as in the first three syllables of

Mile Island" or the

and

first

two

syllables of "all

morning"

of "uncertain") muffles the iambic potential, brings

out a far different movement.

phy

"Three

is

notation for what

we

And though

the typogra-

hear, the long lines do tell

us that the pauses marking off elements of different

The Sounds of Poetry

/

108

lengths are part of a larger cadence or symmetry, the

long units of roughly equal length:

The

first

morning of Three Mile

Island: those first

disquieting, uncertain, mystifying hours.

All

morning a crew

of

workmen have been

tearing

the old decrepit roof off our building,

and

all

morning, trying

wandering out as

been

to distract myself, I've

watch them

to

they hack away the leaden layers of asbestos

paper and disassemble the disintegrating drains.

The

art of the

dence that

is

poem

is

that

it

achieves an intense ca-

neither prose nor iambic: that

is

one way

of defining "free verse."

(The

arbitrary, typographical breaks required

fact that Williams's lines are longer

wide should be

The

instructive.

than

this

by the page

is

typesetter's (or page-

maker's) breaks, determined by the physical dimensions of the page, are conventionally or functionally invisible in relation to the sound.

The

typographical arrangement

The pause

is

line

is

vocal, a sound; the

a notation for that sound.)

that separates units of varying length

is

a

powerful aspect of the gorgeous sixteenth -century poems that inspire the lines of

rhythms of Frost and Stevens,

Thomas Campion's,

Blank Verse and Free Verse

/

like these

a series of unexpected

109

sym-

— metries and asymmetries that explode into the longer unit in the fourth line:

Follow your

follow with accents sweet,

saint,

Haste you, sad notes,

fall at

her flying

feet:

There, wrapped in cloud of sorrow, pity move,

And

tell

the ravisher of

my

soul

I

perish for her

love.

rhythms

Just as

Campion's clearly underlie "To

like

Earthward," in free-verse poems, of

movement

too,

we can

related to Campion's starts

and

find kinds stops,

the relatively standard two-three division of his to the

in the

non-standard pauses in the third line first

and before the three

foot,

from

first line

—midway

syllables "pity

move." Listen, for example, to the

lengths give

life

and force

way

to the

short units of varying

grammatical

isms of this passage in Louise Gluck's

It is

not the moon,

It is

these flowers

I tell

you.

lighting the yard.

I

hate them.

I

hate

them

the man's sealing

as I hate sex,

mouth

my

mouth, the man's

paralyzing body

The Sounds of Poetry

/

no

parallel-

"Mock Orange":

and the cry that always

escapes,

the low, humiliating

premise of union

my mind

In

tonight

hear the question and pursuing answer

I

fused in one sound

mounts and mounts and then

that

split into

is

the old selves,

the tired antagonisms.

We

were made

And

Do you

see?

fools of.

the scent of

mock orange

through the window.

drifts

...

Gliick's parallel phrases ("It is not I

low

follow"), put the repeated

.

.

.

an

different length, with

mism

..." or "I

example by Campion ("Fol-

hate ...

hate"), as in the

It is

effect of

word

into units of

movement

coursing through the stasis of repetition.

hate them," shorter than the units before and

an

or dyna-

effect

move"

in

something Campion's

like lines.

Her

after,

"I

has

that of "There," and "pity

And

as

Campion

releases the

energy built up by the pauses into the hypertrophied long fourth

enjambment thetic

In I

line,

with relatively

little

caesura, Gliick's

of a long grammatical unit creates an aes-

and emotional

my mind

release:

tonight

hear the question and pursuing answer

Blank Verse and Free Verse

/

in

— fused in one sound

mounts and mounts and then

that

the old selves,

split into

is

the tired antagonisms.

And

as that

the short unit

earlier "I hate

them." But in

see?" echoes the

effect, in

made pentameter

words or phrases such

is

"Do you

across the

another sense,

see" also echoes "pity move."

Shakespeare

so, too,

see?

movement, the grammar swelling

line, subsides,

"Do you

Do you

interesting

how

is

poem, does Frank

the blank-verse

rhythms that are not iambic and then out of

Here

it.

out of single

"never" or "and to-morrow";

as

in a free-verse

lines

Bidart.

rhythm overlaps

at all, surging into the

is

What poem

of the poem, Bidart's

all

"Overheard Through the Walls of the Invisible City":

.

is

.

.

telling those

who swarm around him

that an appendage from each of

fill,

invade each of his

his desire

them

orifices,

repeating, chanting,

Oh yeah

O yeah

until, as if in

O yeah

O yeah

Oh yeah

darkness he craved the sun, at

reached

consummation.

The Sounds of Poetry

/

112

last

he



Until telling those

who swarm around him

begins again

(we are the wheel

The too

line of

the

is

to

"Oh yeah"

first

which we are bound).

five

times

is

a pentameter, but so

part of the next line,

until, as if in

darkness he craved the sun,

with an anapest in the fourth position. Another overlapping pentameter

is

as if in darkness

he craved the sun,

Thus, the phrases "until" and

a

at last

at last"

— each

of

them

excluded from one of these overlapping pentameters the

more prominently echo the one-iamb

yeah.

" I

think that, without thinking about

the phenomenon,

we hear

unit of "Oh it

or

naming

such cadences, and the pres-

ence of the older rhythms moving through such passages

and out of them. This kind of hearing free verse

My is

have the intensity of

final

example, the final

from James McMichael's

that goes from

West

is

what makes

verse.

poem quoted

in this book,

"Itinerary," a narrative

to East,

poem

and backward in time, from

a contemporary setting in the

Western mountains

to the

East Coast and Colonial Virginia. Various American diarists are

quoted or alluded to along the way. The be-

Blank Verse and Free Verse

/

113

ginning of the

poem

in

is

an eloquent, highly cadenced

free verse:

The farmhouses north silos for

BUTLER rain

of Driggs,

miles along the road saying or

coming

SIOUX. The on, the

light saying

wind not up

yet,

animals waiting as the front hits everything on the high

bouncing

like rabbits

hailstones

flats,

under the

sage.

This free-verse description segues gradually through the adventures of Lewis and Clark and others, the cadences

varying as the idiom does. Here in

is

the poem's conclusion,

which McMichael, one of the most innovative and

experimental of contemporary poets, allows his

poem

break, gradually, into blank verse:

This walk in

is

news.

Its

me

bodies point

and out along some newer

always

course.

There have been divers days together wherein alone

I've

watched these flowers

buoyed on their stems and holding up the sun. Just

now

I

catch

them thinking on

themselves,

composing from their dark places the passages for light, tendering

how

and how

comes

I

look on them.

that the world

thinking on

is

itself

The Sounds of Poetry /

to the

It

end of

and how

114

its

least

they look to

it

parts

me

to

gather with one another for their time.

These are the

light,

and

the forms they

all

show

are lords of inns wherein the soul takes rest. If I could find

it

in myself to hide

the world within the world then there would be

no place

to

which

I

could remove

that brightness wherein

It is

things

all

it;

save

come

to see.

with the seventh line from the end, "gather with

one another for their time," that the blank verse fully takes over. But the whole passage trembles toward that

cadence (and in the line "Just

now

I

on themselves" shudders right into

catch it).

them thinking

The

structure of

McMichael's poem, a journey through landscape into the past,

seems

to

have required

this

unexpected formal

arrival. I invite

the reader to read this passage aloud, and to

take pleasure in the sounds of

it.

Though

the lines are

about a kind of ecstatic perception, in context of the

poem which

journeys back in history they are also about

memory. Most

writers

try's origins associate

griots in tion,

consider the subject of poe-

the art of verse with

memory: the

Alex Haley's Roots preserve detailed informa-

reaching back

records,

who

many

generations, without written

by using a technology of recurrent sounds.

Rhymes and emphatic rhythms Verse in this

way

is

help us to memorize.

a technology for

sounds of language, created by a uses marks.

Blank Verse and Free Verse

/

115

memory, using the

human

body, as writing

Blank verse

end-rhymed

is

perhaps

and

verse,

memorized than blank dences and forms, ory,

its

less

easily

free verse

is

perhaps

less easily

verse. Nevertheless, poetry's ca-

patterns of like sounds persist in

embodying the deep, ancient

human

memorized than

intelligence, culture,

these

all

links that join

mem-

and the sounds of spo-

ken language. In the particular physical presence of

memorable language we can ity to

know and

wherein

all

retain

things

The Sounds of Poetry

come

/

116

find a

knowledge to see."

reminder of our itself:

abil-

the "brightness

Recommendations for Further Study

I

have

tried to

show ways

to

hear more of what poems

accomplish, and thereby to take

What

I

have tried

ability to write or

to

more pleasure

heighten in the reader

in them.

not the

is

speak about technical aspects of poetry

but the ability to read poetry with insight into the vocal nature of the

The lary,

art.

test of success is

not in reproducing

my

vocabu-

but in the experience of reading.

Implicitly, I

young poets,

have been addressing

as well as readers.

for further study

is

to identify a

aloud, perhaps to write

get at least

some

of

groups,

heart.

my advice

poem one loves,

longhand or type

it

by

it

poets, in particular

To both

it

Having done

to read

out, that,

same with another poem, and with many more. this advice not as a sentimental parting salute

stringent invitation to study. For an art

is

to great examples.

As Yeats says in the

have taken

Nor

is

for

of

its

own

magnificence.

I offer

but as a

my epigraph:

there singing school, but studying

Monuments

to

do the

best understood

through careful attention

lines I

and

it

Notes

Introduction

1.

Frost uses this phrase, and enlarges on

John T. Bartlett

to

Richard Poirier, great essay

p.

(Frost,

664 — 69).

On

essay

in a letter of July 4, 1913,

is

and Plays,

ed.

recommend

Frost's

brief prose piece

which

this subject I also

"The Figure a Poem Makes," a

Frost included in every collected

The

it,

Collected Poems, Prose

poems published during

his lifetime.

unaccountably omitted from the defective Collected Po-

ems edited by Edward Connery Lathem, but included

in the Poirier

volume (published by the Library of America). 2.

The

quotations are from

poems

by, in the order quoted,

William

Butler Yeats ("The Folly of Being Comforted"), Elizabeth Bishop

("Over 1,000 Illustrations and a Complete Concordance"), Fulke Greville

(Caelica #69,

"When

all this

All doth pass

from age

to age"),

Robert Frost ("Directive"), Wallace Stevens ("The Emperor of Ice Cream"), Emily Dickinson (#1068), and William Carlos Williams

("The Widow's Lament in Springtime").

I

1.

/

ACCENT AND DURATION

Ben Jonson, "To the Immortal Memory and Friendship Pair, Sir

2.

Lucius Carey and Sir Henry Morrison."

Thomas Campion, "Now Winter Nights

Enlarge."

of

That Noble

/

II

SYNTAX AND LINE

Ben Jonson: The Complete Poems,

1.

ed.

George

New Haven

Parfitt,

1975. I have taken the liberty of modernizing punctuation, partly in

order to

make my

point here.

"First position" examples:

2.

Stevens,

William Shakespeare, Richard III; Wallace

"Sunday Morning"; Emily Dickinson, #1068; Shakespeare,

"My

Sonnet 30; Robert Browning, First

Last Duchess"; John Keats,

Looking into Chapman's Homer"; Robert

Frost,

"On

"Mending

Wall."

"Second position" examples: John Keats, "Ode

Thomas Nashe, "Litany

to

in

Time

of Plague";

mer Commentary"; Robert

Frost,

"To Earthward."

a Nightingale";

Yvor Winters, "A Sum-

"Third position" examples: Shakespeare, Sonnet 30; John Milton, "Lycidas"; Philip Larkin,

"Church Going."

"Fourth position" examples: Louise Bogan, "Song for the Last Act";

William Butler Yeats, "Leda and the Swan." 3.

William Wordsworth, The Prelude, Book

4.

Robert Frost, "To Earthward."

5.

William Carlos Williams, "To a Poor Old Woman."

III

1.

/

I,

line 340.

TECHNICAL TERMS AND VOCAL REALITIES

Lines from the following previously discussed poems: "To Earthward" (Frost);

"Now Winter

Nights Enlarge" (Campion);

"My

Picture Left

in Scotland" (Jonson). 2.

William Shakespeare (Sonnet lace Stevens

("The House

30);

Was

Robert Frost ("In a Poem"); Wal-

Quiet and the World

Was

Calm");

Elizabeth Bishop ("Over 1,000 Illustrations and a Complete Concordance";

Thomas Campion ("When Thou Must Home

to

Shades of

Underground"). 3.

William Shakespeare, Sonnet

4.

John Thompson, in The Founding of English Meter,

Notes

/

120

30. offers a brilliant,

lucid theory: that the

iamb

is

model of two predominant

the most elegant, because the simplest,

characteristics of

spoken English:

its

ac-

centual character, and the tendency of the strongest accent in a se-

quence of accents to find

its

way

as nearly as possible to the

end of

the appropriate grammatical-syntactical unit (phrase, clause, sentence). 5.

W.

S.

(the 6.

Gilbert,

J.

V.

V /

1.

2.

You're Lying

Awake with

Iolanthe).

Fulke Greville, Caelica, #56.

IV / LIKE

1.

"When

Lord Chancellor's song from

AND UNLIKE SOUNDS

Cunningham, "Epigram

16."

BLANK VERSE AND FREE VERSE

Literary Essays of Ezra Pound, T.

Notes

S. Eliot,

/

121

"Little Gidding."

p. 3.

a Dismal Headache"

Index of Names and Terms

NOTE: in the

have included in bold face a few terms that are not used

I

main

text of this

My

and want defined.

book but that readers

may

encounter elsewhere

definitions are cursory, particularly in relation to

"received forms" like sestina and villanelle, which

much

interest

I

confess do not

me. For more complete definitions, and more terms, an

work

excellent reference

accent, Chapter I passim,

accentual meter.

A

The Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and

is

works

Poetics. See also the

mention

I

and

in the Introduction.

3, 29, 32, 37, 53, 54, 57, 62,

structural principle

wherein the

65

lines of a

poem

have a certain number of accents, while the position and degree of accent varies, as does the

number

of syllables. This meter has never

been much used in English, perhaps because the varying degree of accent

makes such

lines

line has predominated,

the foot

is

more

hard to hear. The iambic, accentual-syllabic

maybe because determining

intuitive or feasible.

accent lines, from Edgar Bowers's

Earth

is

Though

dark where you rest a

little

winter grass

Glistens in icy furrows.

There, cautious as

I pass,

Here

is

the accent within

an example of three

poem "Dark Earth and Summer":

Squirrels run, leaving stains

Of

minute

their nervous,

feet

Over the tombs; and near them Birds gray and gravely sweet.

This sounds good to me, but more in the way of a good free-verse

poem than

way

in the

of a

accentual-syllabic meter.

poem have

A

poem

structural principle

number

a certain

in iambs.

wherein the

lines of a

of feet. This term refers to the kind of

meter, based on the iambic foot, which has historically predominated in English verse. It

defined both by it.

I

that

more is

more

its

is

called "accentual-syllabic" because the foot

syllables

is

and by the placement of an accent within

often use the term "iambic lines" or "iambic meter" because

nearly always what

it is,

and the phrase seems

to

me

to give

useful information.

alliteration.

The

recurrence of like consonant sounds at the beginnings

of words or syllables, as in "through the threatening throng."

anapest, 33, 54, 58, 60 — 61, 65—69, 72, 113

assonance.

A

repeated vowel sound, as in "bake" and "claim."

Bidart, Frank, 112 — 15

Bishop, Elizabeth,

4, 30, 52, 60, 91

Bly, Robert, 101

Bogan, Louise, 33

Browning, Robert, caesura. in

31

The pause

or break within a line, as after the first three words

"She fears him, and will always ask."

Campion, Thomas, consonance.

A

17, 52, 66,

109—11

repeated consonant sound, as in "stroke" and "ache."

Corn, Alfred, 6 couplet.

Two

successive,

rhyming

lines.

typographically.

Crane, Hart, 29, 60 Creeley, Robert, 75 — 76

Index of Names and Terms

/

124

More

loosely,

two

lines set off

Cunningham,

J.

80

V.,

Dickinson, Emily,

75

5, 7, 31,

Donne, John, 104 DuBois,

W.

E. B., 74

duration, Chapter

passim, and 29, 32, 51, 65, 81, 97, 101

I

Eliot, T. S., 56, 69, 100, 102, 104

Faulkner, William, 67,

feminine rhyme. The with the

syllables,

73-74 at the

ends of words that involves two

final syllable less

prominent: "winter / splinter"

like

sound

and "hammer / glamour" are feminine rhymes, foot,

Chapter

free verse,

III passim,

V

Chapter

and

14,

18—20, 26—27, 30 — 33, 59, 99 — 103, 110

passim, and

20 — 22, 33,

7,

51,

63 — 64, 70—72,

75-76, 85 Frost, Robert, 4, 5, 32,

34-43,

47, 51,

54~57> 81-85, 99-101,

108, 109

Ginsberg, Allen, 67, 72 — 73, 92, 95, 102

Gluck, Louise, 110 — 12 Greville, Fulke, 4, 62, 75

Gross, Harvey, 6

Hardy, Thomas,

7,

68 — 69, 74, 92 — 95

Hollander, John, 6

Hopkins, Gerard Manley, 63 iamb,

55, 56, 57, 58,

14, 32, 51, 54,

Jefferson,

Thomas,

Jonson, Ben,

7, 12,

59-60,

Keats, John, 32, 58, 67, 71, 89, 92, 94

Larkin. Philip, 32

Levine, Philip, 101

McAuley, James, 6

Melville,

75

25 — 29, 30 — 31, 52, 63 — 64, 70, 106, 107

Kinnell, Gal way, 101

McMichael, James,

61, 65,

91

113 — 16

Herman, 72

Milton, John, 32, 67,

71, 73, 102,

Index of Names and Terms

/

104

125

103, 104,

monosyllabic

foot,

65

Nashe, Thomas, 32, 67 — 68

O'Hara, Frank, 92 pitch, 15, 56, 65, 81, 97, 101

Plath, Sylvia, 58, 70

poetry.

book

will be content in this

I

nition of poetry: poetry

what

is

to accept a social, cultural defi-

a bookstore puts in the section of that

name. From such a definition one can proceed poetry one prefers or admires,

98 — 99,

Pound, Ezra,

8,

prose poem.

A poem

to discuss the

kind of

etc.

101

written in prose rather than lines.

pyrrhic foot, 65

A

quatrain.

stanza of four

lines.

rhyme. The sound of words with

rhythm and meter,

51

like endings.

See Chapter

III.

— 59

Rich, Adrienne, 101

Robinson, Edwin Arlington, 76

Roethke, Theodore, 67 sestet.

A

stanza or unit of six

lines, particularly

the last six lines of a

sonnet. sestina.

A

set or "received"

form

for a

poem

of six six-line stanzas plus

a final three-line stanza, involving the recurrence of a selected six

words

at the

ends of lines in each of the

first six stanzas,

in a certain

sequence; the words are also repeated, two in each line, in the final stanza.

An

Bishop's

excellent definition can be deduced from reading Elizabeth

poem

"Sestina."

Shakespeare, William,

31, 52, 56,

58 — 59,

61, 67, 71, 73, 101, 102, 104,

112

Sidney, Philip, 58, 75 sonnet. (From the Italian for set

form of fourteen

rhymed or as

lines,

"little song.")

as three alternately

written within a

rhymed quatrains followed by

two alternately rhymed

Index of Names and Terms

A poem

normally of iambic pentameter, frequently

/

or abba quatrains followed

126

a couplet

by

six lines

rhymed

in the pattern abcabc. In the traditional sonnet,

and

Philip Sidney's sequence Astrophel

Stella,

responds to turns in the argument, the plotted sequence, and the seduction.

From

theme

the

poem

modeled on

rhyme scheme

is

cor-

part of a loosely

extravagant sexual courtship or

is

a form based on the rhetorical display of courtship,

the sonnet evolved over decades and centuries to accommodate

many

kinds of feeling and subject matter. Immensely popular in the 1590s,

the sonnet became a kind of playing field for poetic rhetoric, ingenuity, emulation,

and experiment.

spondaic, 65, 103

sprung rhythm, 62 stanza.

A

division of a

above and below

number refer to

poem,

set off

typographically by white space

Strictly speaking, a stanza has a set, recurring

it.

of lines in a pattern; loosely speaking, the term

is

used to

any verse paragraph.

Stevens, Wallace, 4,

22—24, 3 1

7,

'

52

>

5^, 58, 67, 68, 71,

85 — 89, 92,

102,

poem

con-

104, 109 stress

and accent, 53

syllabic meter.

A

structural principle

tain a certain

number

and quantities

varies.

glish,

wherein the

lines of a

of syllables, while the placement of accents

This meter has never been

much

used in En-

perhaps because the variations in accent and duration

extremely hard



virtually impossible



to

hear

how many

make

it

syllables

there are in a line. Possibly the most celebrated and excellent poet to count syllables in English to

make her

lines

is

Marianne Moore.

I

hear her lines as excellent free verse; the syllable count seems more or less arbitrary to

Here are the

"The

me.

first

two stanzas of Moore's rhymed,

Fish":

The Fish

wade through black- jade.

Index of Names and Terms

/

12 7

syllabic

poem

Of the crow-blue

mussel-shells, one keeps

adjusting the ash heaps;

opening and closing

itself like

an injured fan.

The

barnacles which encrust the side

wave cannot hide

of the

there for the submerged shafts of the

my

This sounds very good to me, but while

fingers tell

my

are nine syllables in each stanza's third line, syllable. Surprisingly hard to define.

Rather than

me

that there

ear cannot.

try, I will

acknowledge

that fact here, in the hopes that conceding the slipperiness of this

seemingly straightforward notion

may

encourage those readers

have trouble hearing the word "syllable"

itself as

word, or the word "trailed" as only one syllable. There about a writing student from Alabama

many

word

syllables are in the

"fire."

who

A

stanza of three

Thompson, John,

6,

is

a story

asked his teacher

how

Informed that the answer

"one," the student responded that, in the South, tercet.

who

a three-syllable

it

is

contains four.

lines.

59

trochee, 33, 60, 61, 65, 66, 73 villanelle.

A set form

for a

poem

The

first

and third

of nineteen lines: five three-line stanzas

stanza, using only

two rhymes throughout.

lines of the initial stanza,

which rhyme, take turns

and a concluding four-line

recurring as a concluding, refrain line in the next four stanzas. Then, in the final, four-line stanza, the

two

lines of the

poem,

other as a conclusion.

rhyme.

An

two refrain

so that the

The second

two

lines

become the

final

refrains recur one after the

lines of all five three-line stanzas

excellent definition can be deduced from reading

Dylan

Thomas's poem "Do Not Go Gentle into That Good Night." Although great poems have been written in received forms, the

complex scaffolding often leads the writer

Index of Names and Terms

/

128

to substitute patience

and

ingenuity for actual formal accomplishment.

To

write "in a form"

is

not necessarily to write with form, a quality that appears in the freeverse

poems

of Williams and Stevens. As to "forms,"

I

believe that

George Herbert invented an interesting one nearly every time he wrote a poem. Williams, C. K., 105 — 9 Williams, William Carlos,

5, 7,

59—49

Winters, Yvor, 32

Wordsworth, William, 33, 73,

102, 104

Wyatt, Thomas, 58 Wright, James, 102 — 5 Yeats,

William Butler,

4, 7, 33, 104, 117

Index of Names and Terms

/

129

Permissions

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Through

the Walls of the Invisible City" from Desire.

1997 by Frank Bidart. Reprinted with the permission ofFarrar, Straus Elizabeth Bishop, "At the Fishhouses" (excerpt) from

Poems 1927 — 1979. Copyright

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with the permission of Farrar, Straus

&

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The Complete

Methfessel. Reprinted

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excerpt from

©

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"Dark Earth and Summer" from Collected Poems. Copyright

"The Faces" (excerpt) from Collected Poems of Robert Creeley 1945 — 1975. Copyright

©

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by The Regents of

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J.

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J.

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Cunningham,

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Reprinted with the permission of Ohio University Press/Swallow Press; Emily Dickinson, #336 ["The Heart asks Pleasure

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@V**-

r

v/Li

'a

keenly idiosyncratic account of the place of poetry

our time

.

.

.

not only interesting but suspenseful to

—James Longenbach, The

read."

As Poet Laureate, Robert Pinsky advocates for poetry. this book tion, syntax,

in

one of America's best

is is

Nation

his brief guide to dic-

accent and stress, verse form, and the

the sounds we call poetry. "poetry

is

a vocal, which

like: is

to

say a bodily, art," he says, and he draws on dozens of

great poems to show how poets use the "technology"

the

sounds

of poetry to create works of art that are "per-

formed"

in

us

when we read them aloud.

tive yet accessible introduction to

this "authorita-

the tools of the poet's

trade," as the atlantic monthly 's reviewer pointed out,

"can be read with profit by the seriou*s student and the

amateur alike."

'one of the marvelous things about this book

deep recognition that a poem

is

is

plnsky's

successful not because of

the poet's ambition or sense of purpose but because of the effect over time."

it

creates

in

the reader, and

in

many readers

— Graham Christian, The Boston

Phoenix

BOUNDS OF POETR'i

z

:zi

farrar, strausELLIOTT BAY BOOKS

be