(Pieter Breugel’s Triumph of Death)
I’ll conclude my account of the second week—though it doesn’t cover everything we talked about in classes—with this post on the other poems we discussed: Ezra Pound’s “In a Station of the Metro” and “The Return,” and two poems from William Carlos Williams’s Spring and All, which was his response in 1923 to T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land, which was published the year before.
My main purpose in reading these two poems by Pound was to look at the rhythms of them. “In a Station of the Metro,” as it was first printed and published a hundred years ago in Poetry, had extra spaces between some of the words, and floated its line-ending punctuation out to the right of the last word. It’s read by most people as a free verse poem, and in Pound’s mind I think it was. But in his mind, to judge from the evidence (his poems), free verse included lines of poetry that were still metrical but were not of a traditional length (especially pentameter).
We’re going to get to iambic pentameter soon, and in fact the students are going to write a sonnet. Pentameter is a core requirement of this course, simply because without being able to read it, we can’t understand what’s going on, at every level, in any poem written in that meter. And that’s most of the tradition of English poetry and a lot of American poetry, too.
Forty years ago I heard Stanley Kunitz tell of a game that he and Theodore Roethke had played against each other. When they saw each other, each would quote (from memory) a stanza from an English poem of the Renaissance (and it had to be fairly obscure for the game to work at all), and the other had to identify poem and author, and also the decade in which it had been written. (This could be done, by ears as great as theirs, and minds as happily filled with poetry as theirs, partly by listening to the rhythms and meter, because the iambic pentameter didn’t get sorted out in a stable way until the end of the 16thcentury, but more important, by listening for the specifics of stylistic identity, which they had certainly learned to recognize.) So Kunitz told me. He also said that he never managed to beat Roethke; there was no stanza that Roethke couldn’t either remember or figure out.
Teaching students how to hear the rhythms of English in the lines of poems, I start with listening to the rhythms of the natural speech stresses—from loose, quickly moving lines with fewer stressed syllables than unstressed ones, to lines in which the speech stresses are close-packed—two, three, four, and sometimes even more in a row.
Pound’s poem looks like this when we listen for the speech stresses:
The apparition of these faces in the crowd :
Petals on a wet, black bough .
Here I’ll add the metrical accents to the speech stresses (the difference between these is how meter works; it’s everything):
The áp | parí | tion óf | these fác | es ín | the crówd: |
( ˇ) Pét | als ón | a wét | black bóugh.|
(Really, the accent marks above the words should be over a whole syllable, but I’ve had to put them over vowels, because that’s the limitation of the character set in a word processing program.) I have notmarked the syllables in metrically unaccented positions at all, except for supplying the one that’s missing in front of “Pet-“.
In metrical practice (and terminology), a line like the second line here is often called “headless,” because it’s missing that syllable. But this variation is a perfectly acceptable, and frequent, variation of the iambic line, and then the line both begins and ends with a metrical accent, and is a syllable shorter than it would have been, and varies the sound and the effect of the word-rhythm.
So Pound composed this little free verse poem by writing a line of six iambic feet followed by a “headless” line of four. (They add up to ten… which would be the count of two lines of iambic pentameter; in effect, this is a disguised, syncopated couplet, with a strong “half” or “slant” rhyme.) Pound’s distribution of the speech stresses across the scheme of the meter creates what’s interesting in the rhythm of this famous little poem. The first line runs by quickly, lightly, ending on that heavy word “crowd”—a word with three consonants and a pretty broad, long-lasting vowel. The second line is rhythmically more emphatic, with four speech stresses out of a total of seven syllables. (Which is why he doesn’t happen to want, much less need, an article in front of “petals”—it would only lessen the rhythmic intensity.)
(Yes, “black” is a little less of a speech stress than “bough”—the vowel is short, the final “ck” is sharp and quick. So “black bough” is an iambic foot, even though “black” is given much more stress, has much more physical force in our mouths and ears, than the metrically accented but unstressed “on” in the second foot. (That’s what makes the second foot interesting, rhythmically.) Then “bough,” with its silent—but visually, typographically, charming—final consonant, is just one consonant and one vowel, but the vowel is very long, and of course it chimes with the identical vowel in “crowd”—with a different spelling, which is also visually pleasing to a mind given to liking these kinds of things, poet-mind. The bough is where the crowd is seen for an instant, after its metamorphosis into an image.
Pound’s poem imagining the return of Roman gods, “The Return,” is again rhythmically emphatic on the basis of the iamb, but he uses a metrical figure over and over to vary the iambic meter as much as possible without losing it, and he uses lines of irregular length, so I’m sure he thought, at the time he wrote this, that that too was one of the available kinds of “free verse.”
But William Carlos Williams went further (as did Pound himself, in his Cantos). We looked at Williams’s “By the road to the contagious hospital” (that’s the first line; originally Williams gave the poem no title) which is especially notable for the skill with which it catalogues a waste land (aha!) beside a road—just weeds and other wild plants, and weedy trees—that’s beginning to come to life as winter yields to spring. As compared to the Dantesque, Shakespearean, Wagnerian, ancient Greek, Baudelairean, Ovidian, Spenserian, Goldsmithian, etc. (all of which, and more, is in The Waste Land) English and European poets, whose words name the plants etc. for which those very words were coined, this, this weedy roadside on the way to a hospital built far from anyone because its patients all have infectious diseases—this is America, this is the humble, ordinary, nameless “stuff” with which we American poets must construct our poems because this is the rough, uncelebrated “new world” (line 16) that we who speak old European languages must describe and imagine in a new way. So Williams thought, or said he thought, and so he wrote, in this extraordinary amazing book. But note that the simple everyday language of this poem is as rhythmic as it can be: the “waste of broad, muddy fields,” “small trees / withdead brown leaves under them,” and so on. There’s no “ghost of the pentameter” (Eliot’s phrase) hovering behind these lines. Williams has noticeably kept it out (it can come right back in if the poet isn’t listening carefully enough). And the free verse rhythms—appearing to be spontaneous, impromptu—are as strongly emphatic as those in Hopkins or Pound.
In another poem from Spring and All, “Pink confused with white” (that’s the first line; originally Williams gave the poem no title), the literal images begin to glow with symbolic meanings, while remaining vivid to the mind’s eye. And here, for whatever reason, Williams does something that Pound does in “The Return”—he takes a metrical figure out of the tradition and uses it in free verse. Pound especially liked two of them. First, the initial trochee-plus-iamb, which is one of the most frequent variations of the first foot in a line: “Seé, they | retúrn!”—in this instance, speech stress completely coincides with metrical accent; Pound puts this into his poem over and over, whether it’s at the beginning of a line or not. The other one Pound loves to use and also to extend into another speech stress looks like this: “and the | slow feet.” It’s two syllables with neither speech stress nor metrical accent, very small and short indeed, followed by two stressed ones, so it’s effectively a two-foot figure; that is, a rhythmical device within the metrical scheme. Recognizing it as a two-foot figure, rather than trying to rationalize how it might be two iambic feet, makes it possible for us to steal it for use in free verse, for it does show us that even metrical verse, supposedly so artificially constrained, follows what English already does on our tongues—using lots of alternations of stressed and unstressed syllables, and sometimes packing them in closely.
Here’s Williams in “Pink confused with white,” using the first of the two metrical figures I described above: “dárting | it báck,” “petals aslant” “red where in whorls,” “gay with rough moss”; these are at the beginnings of lines, so they wouldn’t at all be out of place in a metrical poem. But this poem really is free verse. (It has no extended iambic passages. We can’t produce them by putting sequential lines together.) Other instances of this metrical (in metrical verse) and rhythmical (in both metrical and free verse) device are inside the lines: “flowers | reversed,” “darkened with mauve,” “there, wholly dark.” And the other device is here, too: “into the lamp’s horn,” “from the pot’s rim.”
There are many kinds of free verse, and many ways to try to define free verse, but one simple definition is that it does not have extended passages (five feet and more) of uninterruptedly iambic rhythm.
When what appears to be a free-verse poem does include such a passage here and there, it’s artistically inept, it stops us from hearing the pleasing irregularity of speech stresses and pulls us into hearing instead a metrical ghost; no, I should say zombie, because it takes over the body of the free-verse poem. (This is very different from a loosely iambic poem that tightens with very apparent deliberateness into polished meter in order to achieve an effect, for example at the end of a poem, or in some other moment of emotional intensity.)
We can see that Pound and Williams, in a moment of transition when the extended regularity of iambic verse simply had no more appeal in their minds, did nevertheless use some metrical effects that had been invented within iambic verse. Eliot remained comfortable with loosening the pentameter and continuing to explore its possibilities as a medium of allusion in The Waste Land (he himself tightens it at the end of the scene of the “carbuncular” clerk, with the effect of suggesting that the lovemaking gets steady, maybe mechanical). And in the Four Quartets he extends and contracts the line at different points, loosening or tightening it, mixing it in with free-verse lines in a way that feels (it was easy for him) very carefully calibrated.
Why should that be? Because this is what English does, this is what it sounds like—it is both predominantly iambic, even in everyday language, and it likes (that’s how I would put it) to sound iambic.
Millions of people worldwide died in the influenza epidemic of 1918. Here’s Williams, M.D., portraying a visit to the “contagious hospital” (perhaps it was built during the epidemic, or in response to the epidemic, obviously to isolate the sick geographically and thus lessen the transmission of the disease to others). The hospital was built somewhere out from town, where what we see on the roadside is weeds and mud and scrub trees. No doubt many of the patients are, in some peoples’ eyes, “weeds”: the poor, the immigrants. These were Williams’s patients.
I can’t resist adding one more little poem by Williams, in this same vein of responsiveness to what others do not notice (this one’s not in our anthology):
(Ad Reinhardt, Abstract Painting, Red and Abstract Painting)
I’ve been mentioning “literal” and “figurative” or “symbolic” images. Just to explain, quickly:
Imagery, it turns out, is enormously difficult to define, because it is so various, because the way the mind works out what words mean is so infinitely complex, and because we use words to mean more than one thing at the same time (red is a color; in a particular context red signifies blood and all the associations of violent bodily harm; in another context red signifies anger or bull fighting or a commercial drink also associated with a bull or a “surreal” effect, such as a red tree in a painting; and more). With students, I am emphasizing a basic distinction between a word that has a literal meaning and appears to have no additional value beyond its descriptive use for the sake of giving the reader something concrete to imagine, and a word (even the same word) that has a figurative function, and also perhaps a symbolic value (red could be used metaphorically, as in “Texas is a red state, but it may become purple”).
These lines from Seamus Heaney’s “Death of Naturalist” illustrate the literal image:
The “figurative image” is easily illustrated by the last line of the Gwendolyn Brooks poem:
In this poem, red has become the color of what is not even mentioned: blood, which in turn stands for the violence of the boy’s death (“red” is a metonym, in this sense, substituting the color of blood for the blood itself, which in turn is a metonym for the violence that produced the blood, that is, the murder). The whole prairie is now red. The murder “colors” everything. The word “prairie” suggests a natural state of the land, before the whole history of Chicago, so it too, while signifying literally a certain kind of geology and weather and vegetation, also symbolizes the “heartland” of the settled United States. (And the rhymes in that poem, culminating in the largest of them, “prairie,” produce their own sequence of thoughts, beyond what the poem says.)
In the last post I was describing some of the discussion in our classes during the first two weeks—ending with poems by Lorine Niedecker. Now I’ll add a few words about Denise Levertov and Gerard Manley Hopkins, the next poets we discussed.
In contrast to the way the language in Neidecker’s poems is often very concrete and only concrete, even while there’s a fascinating play of thought, or the way Seamus Heaney mastered from the very beginning of his work the use of words with Old English roots to create the most vivid mental images of the natural and human worlds, in Denise Levertov’s poem, “Stepping Westward,” the use of image-words is more like that of Gwendolyn Brooks in “The Last Quatrain of the Ballad of Emmett Till.” That is, the literal images have another meaning, and this second level gives the poem a thoroughgoing symbolic texture. (Not that any of these poets produce no symbolic meaning: they do, of course. The differences in the way they sound—and thus in the way they think and feel—has to do with proportions.)
In “Stepping Westward” Levertov uses lots of literal images: green, ebb, flow, north star, black sky, blue, quilts of cloud, sweet, salt, and so on. But nearly all of them turn into symbols—as we absorb them, they grow from words that point to the physical reality outside language to words that point to ideas in our culture(s), our era, and our heads.
In Gerard Manley Hopkins’s “Inversnaid,” the language is very sensuous in terms of how much our mouths do when we say it aloud. The consonants and vowels, like Heaney’s, really work our powers of articulation, and this—the way the English language works—makes the sense impressions, whether of sight or of other senses—especially vivid in our imaginations. That vividness is one of the great pleasures of the English language, and naturally enough it has been one of the primary poetic resources of our language, through all the life of poetry in English.
In Hopkins’s poem, we looked at the rhythms and the sounds, first. The emphatic rhythms of the close-packed speech stresses of lines like “His rollrock highroad roaring down” give more vividness to Hopkins’s description of the small, fast, fast-falling stream in Scotland. The neologisms and very particular existing words, like the tree that is called a “beadbonny ash,” also give the diction of the poem more concreteness, even when we don’t know what physical characteristics the beadbonny ash has. And then after all that hyponymic description (I’m coming to that in a moment), there’s the rhetorical shift to discursive language at the end—as if the fast stream, the “burn,” has now reached the level of the calm lake into which it drains, and the poem, like the lake, has time to think in a more familiar way: with general ideas.
In these lines nature has become an abstraction, a very valuable one in Hopkins’s mind: “wildness.” And “wet” has become an abstraction too. And even the literal image “weeds,” that generic term, becomes symbolic of all of life that grows up on its own. (Presumably in such a place in Scotland, that long ago, there might not have been the annoyance and danger of invasive species of weeds.) The poem was probably written in 1881 or soon thereafter; in America, Henry David Thoreau, who was born in 1817—almost thirty years before Hopkins—had begun to prize wild places by the 1840s, but I don’t imagine that Hopkins could have known of Thoreau. (I’d welcome a correction of my conjecture.) When Thoreau lectured and wrote, his rhetoric was discursive—a plea, a defense, a hope urged on his listeners and his readers. But he was a naturalist with a great appetite for specificity of detail. (Unlike Emerson, who was a general thinker; Thoreau said that taking a walk in the woods with Emerson was very unrewarding, because Emerson’s vision was poor, he didn’t notice things, and he talked all the time.) At the end of his poem, Hopkins comes to something like Thoreau’s rhetoric, but his utterance is first prepared for, through three intensely descriptive stanzas, by his presentation of what we might think of as a nature of words—the word-world that stands in relation to what it names in nature. The thing first (sort of), then the sentiment.
All of it intensified by the eccentric and fine-tuned ear of the poet.
Finally in this post: hyponym. A very useful word and concept. (Etymologically, it is formed from ancient Greek words.) As in hypodermic or hypothermia, the “hypo-” suggests something like “under,” “below.” And a hyponym is in fact an “under-name.” It is a name for something that is more specific, that has less conceptual breadth, than the word above it. So we can make a scale from most general to most specific by going down a list of hyponyms. For example:
(Wikipedia says of the rose: “’American Beauty’ is a hybrid perpetual rose, bred in France in 1875, and originally named ‘Madame Ferdinand Jamin’.”
The English language loves hyponymy. We relish the specificity, the taxonomic clarity, of words in everyday life. It’s well known that in French poetry, for instance, the reader is not likely to be told by the poet what sort of tree, for example, she is supposed to imagine. The tree, its foliage, its leaf, its red autumn leaf, its red maple leaf in autumn, its red Norway Maple leaf in autumn, is, in French, already idealized and thus simplified to “leaf” (la feuille) and it’s not likely to matter (to most French poets of all eras and to most French readers) which tree the leaf came from. What it looks like isn’t the focus; the focus is what it suggests, stands for, symbolizes. But the story of English, a Germanic language, is very different from that of French, a Latinate language. Which is why Shakespeare’s language—most famously—finds no analogous sort of diction in French. And because the languages differ, so too do the overall effects of the play that has been translated from English into French. Or the poem.
We spent the second week of class looking at poems that added some variety to our sense of how language, feeling, perception, and more are linked by sensuous qualities of language: the sounds of words, the rhythms of phrases and sentences and lines. We also made conscious note of the mental images evoked in us by words that point to things outside language, and the effect on us of words that do other things (see the two lists of language functions in post #6).
Our poets the first week were Auden, Brooks, Dickinson, Heaney, Komunyakaa, Larkin, Millay, Montale, Rich, Rukeyser, Sandburg and Sophocles in the anthology. (See post #4 for the table of contents.) Just to recap, so I can emphasize the ground work I want to do in this course: in that first week we focused our discussion—for which we have too little time!—on Seamus Heaney’s “Death of a Naturalist,” for the sounds and rhythms and the pleasures of the tremendous specificity of his language. We focused on Gwendolyn Brooks’s “The Last Quatrain of the Ballad of Emmett Till” in order to take full note of the tremendous compression and symbolic power of that short poem in which so many of the words have more than one meaning or resonance. I didn’t get us to the discussion of Sophocles’s so-called “ode to man,” which is one of the choral odes of Antigone; I scheduled this for the sake of encountering the first poem in western culture that celebrates the accomplishments of human beings (true, it’s “man” in the poem, but that’s another topic) and measures life by these accomplishments, not by a divine standard or law. (I would have also talked about the monumental structure of this poem.) And we focused on Emily Dickinson’s poem #359 in order to look at how her particular sort of narrating—which in this poem encompasses the straightforward and simple actions of the robin and then the turbulence of consciousness as her metaphoric impulse proliferates quickly and wildly. (I see that turbulence as a very subtle instance of the same—but much more explicit—attention that she gives, in many other poems, to the mysteries of consciousness and to her skepticism about how mind—given by god to man—can be so all-encompassing and yet be baffled by the divine. (In many poems she’s skeptical about the divine, too, as is well known.)
The students turned in their first poems—they were asked to describe in only 8 lines a natural place. They turned out (“in” … “out”: a syntactical figure for the sheer pleasure of it) to have been held back (dead metaphor—sorry) by the temptation to abstract, to idealize, to allegorize. A number of the students described a real place as an illustration of a meaning, so they generalized that place out of the range of the mind’s eye. Instead it would have been better to have described a real or even an imagined place so that it is vividly evoked in language. (And that’s what they’re doing in their re-writes.) This is one of the expected difficulties of beginning to write poetry, though, and no cause for anyone’s alarm. In fact, there’s a lot to be learned from talking about it.
This second week our poets were Hopkins, Levertov, Niedecker, Pound, Ritsos, Roberson, Snyder, Tsvetaeva, Turcotte, Williams and Yeats. (How will I ever make it up to poetry itself that there is not enough time in the span of a college course to spend an adequate amount of time on even one poem each by these poets?!) Our focus in class—necessarily much narrower—was on Lorine Niedecker, in whose work we listened to the lovely changes of pace of the speech stresses, the subtle surprises of her line-breaks and her movement of thought, the double meanings of words and combinations of words, the way she so quietly yet effectively, pleasurably, breaks an idiom or surprises our expectation of idiomatic word order (“my brown little stove” and “she gives heat”—in “Swept snow, Li Po”). We looked at she makes one word flower from inside a previous one in these lines (from Fog-thick morning”):
(This is something that Marina Tsvetaeva does exuberantly in Russian, but which few poets do at all often in English. In Joseph Brodsky’s essay on Tsvetaeva, in which he tries to show all of us who have no Russian what makes Tsvetaeva’s work so remarkable, he calls this “root-word dialectics”—which is not an easy idea to take in—but in the little example above there is no common root, only a shared group of sounds: c-a-r-y.)
And we talked about the lovely A-B-B-A (chiasmus) of the simple but reverberating conclusion to “My mother saw the green tree toad,” which suddenly turns the poetic self and her mother, observers of the apparently endangered species of toad, a very “other” sort of living being, into vulnerable creatures just like it:
(A-B-B-A: changed-brown-town-changed) In the next post I’ll continue this one.
Time out! But I’m not abandoning poetry—I’m only moving for a moment to another aspect of the life of poetry. Two important poetry events in Chicago are coming up in May and June.
On May 14 the Guild Literary Complex is presenting a tribute to Sterling Plumpp (it’s Guild’s annual benefit event). Plumpp was born in Mississippi, left that state for college, served in the army, eventually came to Chicago, and taught for many years at the University of Illinois - Chicago, before retiring not too long ago. He is one of the most original of American poets, and has developed the unique style of his poems through a deep, lifelong interrelationship between language and music—namely, both the blues and bebop. (In fact, he wrote several blues lyrics for the late Willie Kent.)
The author of numerous volumes, Plumpp has a recent poem in TriQuarterly:
Also at TriQuarterly is a very full interview: http://triquarterly.org/interviews/interview-sterling-plumpp
Then on June 7 the American Writers Museum Foundation, Third World Press and the Guild Literary Complex will present the first annual Brooksday—a celebration of the work of Gwendolyn Brooks (1917-2000) on her birthday. It will be a continuous reading of her work from 9 a.m. till 7:30 p.m. at the Cultural Center in downtown Chicago (at the corner of Michigan Ave. and Randolph St. (Enter from Randolph St.) If you live in or near Chicago, I hope you’ll want to come to one or both. For information about both, go to http://guildcomplex.org/
You’ll see buttons on the left for both these events.
Also, check out http://www.americanwritersmuseum.org/
(Back to poetry writing, in the next post.)
One useful very general critical source on literature in general, is the online edition of M. H. Abrams’s venerable Glossary of Literary Terms. In order to have a bigger frame in which to see the poetry that we ourselves write, we need to understand what we’re doing in the context of all other poetry, or at least in the smaller context of the poetry that lies behind our own efforts, even if we are not yet aware of it all. And in literary criticism and what used to be called (but no longer) “philosophy of art” or even “philosophy of literature,” a number of different aesthetic stances or theories have been conceived by those who have thought generally about literature, from classical antiquity to the present.
For example, the four types of criticism that M. H. Abrams has discerned in the whole history of (western) thinking about literature: mimetic theories of poetry, which look at the relationship between the poem and the world; pragmatic theories, regarding the relationship between the poem and the audience; expressive theories, on the relationship between the poem and the poet; and objective theories, which consider the poem mostly as an object to be studied closely for its intrinsic qualities. Read more.
And browse or search the whole glossary at:
Within these four categories, or related to them, there are different ways of reading poetry—linguistically, formally, historically, sociologically, philosophically, etc. The value of learning about these four types of criticism is that it can make us more aware of artistic opportunities in our own poems, and it reveals to us that what people read poems for, what they are in search of in poems, can be very different.
I like to think that poets have an intuitive and practiced sense of how many functions language has in daily life. Intellectually we tend to notice only the “representational” function—the way each word has a meaning (or several) and what that meaning is. But we use language not merely to communicate the meaning that the dictionary confirms for us. There’s a lot more going on in the simplest of human communication than that. Perhaps most of all in the simplest.
But the academic study of literary language tends to be confined mostly to the representational function, and almost never do I see a critical description or analysis of poetry that goes into the language functions that affect us at deeper, more intuitive levels. For a while, peaking in the 1980s and only slowly trailing off after that, it was hard to find a scholar in the field of literary studies who believed that language had any other function than the representational. Hence the strong attitudes of that time in many academics against what they call “the aesthetic,” meaning almost any formal aspect of poetry at all, from tiny phonetic figures to big structures.
The acquisition of language by children has been studied deeply, though, and here we can find a refreshing breadth of responsiveness to the different things we do with language—which means the different ways we make and communicate our meaning, and that in turn means: all the possibilities of meaning making that can be found in poetry.
Here’s my favorite example, although it is probably rather dated by now:
“The linguist Michael Halliday observed his young son during the period when his vocalizations were assuming consistent phonological form and when he began to exhibit clearly an intention to communicate by means of these forms. Halliday was able to distinguish seven different functions, or uses, of his son’s talk, which he took to be models of the child’s conception of what talk is for. The first notion to emerge is that of talk as  instrumental, a means of satisfying wants or needs. Another function is  regulatory: the child discovers that others seek to control him by talking and that he can also control the behavior of others. The child also senses that one can establish and maintain contact with others by talking; he recognizes  the interactional function. The child also expresses his individuality in talking; he asserts himself and his own sense of agency, for talking is a field of action in which he can make choices and take some responsibility. Thus talking has  a personal function, as well.  The heuristic, or learning, function, is exemplified in the perennial questions ‘why?’ and ‘what’s that?’; the child finds that he can use talk to learn about and describe his world. And talking serves  the imaginative function of pretend, which may overlap with an aesthetic function (although Halliday does not dwell on this possibility) as the child realizes that he can create images and pleasurable effects by talking. Finally, the perhaps the latest use of talk to appear, is the representational function, or talking to inform. Adults, when they think about language, regard it as a means of expressing propositions or as a means of conveying information. They view this as the primary function of talk, but it is hardly the dominant use for the child.” (Catherine Garvey, Children’s Talk, 1984, emphasis added)
The linguist David Crystal has analyzed the functions of language in a different, emphasizing communicative effect, whatever the intention may be.
(1) expressing emotion
(2) expressing rapport
(3) expressing sound
(5) controlling reality
(6) recording [and preserving, I would add] facts
(7) expressing thought processes
(8) expressing identity
…he also situates the use of language in the context of technology. Crystal is emphatic that one must keep oneself aware—when studying language itself, or even when thinking about it informally, as a lay person not a linguistic—of the diversity of language functions. (This list is from his book How Language Works.)
When discussing the poems that we’ll be studying in this course and the poems that the students will write, I emphasize how poetic effects and poetic meaning are created. Poetic effects communicate and enact thought and feeling, harmony and dissonance, emphasis and rhythm, movement and stasis, narrative and meditation, tones of voice, and more. In general, they also mark the language of a poem as belonging to poetry rather than to some other kind of utterance. The qualities of language that mark a poem as poetry are in a way a proof of the poet’s skill and artistic deliberateness; they used to be proof, long long ago, of the peculiar effectiveness of language when it is used in a particular, highly compressed way with notable rhythm, sound and tropes. But these qualities of language are also a trace of what I believe is an instinctual impulse in all of us to use language to do more than it usually does. And also the result of the fact that we get pleasure from language used in this way. (See Dylan Thomas’s account of his childhood sense of language, in his “Poetic Manifesto” —it’s reprinted in the book I edited, The Poet’s Work; this is only one of many essays in which poets speak of this.)
"You can tear a poem apart to see what makes it technically tick… You’re back with the mystery ofhaving been moved by words. The best craftsmanship always leaves holes and gaps in the works of the poem so that something that is not in the poem can creep, crawl, flash, or thunder in. The joy and function of poetry is, and was, the celebration of man, which is also the celebration of God." - Dylan Thomas from A Poetic Manifesto
We all feel to some degree an uncanny power in language to say more, to mean more, than words mean, and to do more than merely represent our world and our lives in it. We have all felt the power of language turned against us, and we have all used language against others. Language is not just something we use but also something we do. (I’ll post soon a quick summary of language functions.)
(In recent decades some of the arts have gravitated toward de-skilled creation, and so has poetry. But our focus is on work of manifest and impressive artistic skill.)
As I see our main work together in a poetry writing workshop, whether beginning or advanced, it’s more a studying of how poems say what they mean, rather than a discussion of what they mean. (That latter leads into what the poet believes and who the poet is, and everyone has to right, I must think, to believe and be who they are; but no one has an obligation to like what everyone else believes and who everyone else is. Poets rise and fall based partly on what sorts of human values and courage of being they give to the reader; that takes place on its own.)
That is, I try to teach how to describe how poems make meaning rather than how to interpret the meanings they make. We may have different (good) reasons, as individuals, for cherishing one poem over another, about which we may agree or disagree; but we’re pretty likely to agree on how a poem creates its effects in the listener and reader.
Among the elements of poetry that we’ll study are: the relationship between the poetic line and the shape of a sentence (i.e. syntax); the sounds and rhythms of the English language; imagery and figures of speech; word choice (diction); some of the traditional resources of poetry (such as particular devices and patterns), and particular purposes of poetry—like declaring, perceiving, mourning, acknowledging, playing, praising, narrating, meditating, and witnessing; and also the flexibility of poetic thinking.
Depending on the purpose of our looking, we look at the elements of poetry in different ways. Regarding poetic and linguistic resources, we study image, line, sentence, rhythm and meter, diction (word choice) stanza, structure, tropes (especially metaphor and metonymy), traditional forms and rhythmic patterns, and in general simply how poems (as opposed to other kinds of human discourse) move from thought to thought, feeling to feeling, image to image, and so on. Regarding the poet’s stance toward reality and use of imagination, we speak of landscape, history, social functions of poetry (which are related to genres), and the kinds of objects (in a psychoanalytical sense—that is: people, places, things, events, etc.) that hold the poet’s attention.
Here’s the Table of Contents of the little anthology I have created for this course. I chose each poem for its usefulness in showing (various) elements of poetic technique. And some of them speak to each other. Homer, Pound and Gunn; Pound and Duncan; Auden and Yeats; Baudelaire and Donne’s “Negative Love” and Greville and Voznesensky (regarding thinking by negatives); Williams and Niedecker and Levertov and others; all the sonnets; Hadas a sonnet, by the way—look at the line-endings for rhyme words, and then you’ll see how the poem is put together with a combination of expanded lines and “composition by field”; and other connections.
Essays about many of these poets, additional poems, and recordings of them reading their poems can be found at www.poetryfoundation.org.
More poems and resources are at the Academy of American Poets, www.poets.org.
There are also some recordings of the poets themselves or of others reading some of these poems on YouTube.
Anonymous, “Sir Patrick Spens”
W. H. Auden, “In Memory of W. B. Yeats”
Charles Baudelaire, “Obsession”
William Blake, “London,” “The Chimney Sweeper” (2 poems), “The Sick Rose”
Elizabeth Bishop, “In the Waiting Room”
Louise Bogan, “Women,” “The Crows,” “Dark Summer,” “Several Voices
Out of a Cloud”
Edward Kamau Brathwaite, “New World A’Comin’” (excerpt)
Gwendolyn Brooks, “The Last Quatrain of the Ballad of Emmett Till,”
Shawn Carter/Jay-Z, “History” (excerpt)
Charles Causley, “The Great Sun”
John Clare, “The Mouse’s NeHart Crane, “Voyages” (V), “At Melville’s Tomb”
Robert Creeley, “The Language”
Emily Dickinson, poems 359, 612, 647, 1000, 1004, 1611
John Donne, “Negative Love,” “Holy Sonnets” (X)
Robert Duncan, “At the Loom,” “Poetry, A Natural Thing”
Robert Frost, “Home Burial”
Allen Ginsberg, “Sunflower Sutra,” “Howl” (I—excerpt)
Fulke Greville, “In night, when colors…”
Thom Gunn, “Moly”
Pamela White Hadas, “Eurydice”
Thomas Hardy, “The Darkling Thrush”
Robert Hayden, “Those Winter Sundays,” “Night, Death, Mississippi,” “Homage to the
Empress of the Blues”
Seamus Heaney, “Death of a Naturalist,” “Casualty”
Edward, Lord Herbert of Cherbury, “Sonnet of Black Beauty”
Homer, Odyssey X (excerpt)
Gerard Manley Hopkins, “Inversnaid”
John Keats, “To Autumn,” “Ode on Melancholy”
Yusef Komunyakaa, “Yellowjackets,” “Memory Cave”
Philip Larkin, “The Explosion”
D.H. Lawrence, “Snake,” “Bavarian Gentians”
Denise Levertov, “Stepping Westward,” “Living”
Linda McCarriston, “With the Horse in the Winter Pasture”
Thomas McGrath, “Letter to an Imaginary Friend” (I—excerpt), “Love in a Bus,”
“Used Up,” “Epitaph”
Edna St. Vincent Millay, “I, being born a woman…”
John Milton, “Methought I saw…,” Paradise Lost IV (excerpt)
Eugenio Montale, “Lemon Trees”
Lorine Niedecker, “Swept snow, Li Po,” “Fog—thick morning—,”
“You are my friend—,”“Effort lay in us,” “
My mother saw…,” “Grandfather”
Frank O’Hara, “A Step Away from Them,” “The Day Lady Died”
Boris Pasternak, “Mirror”
Sylvia Plath, “Fever 103°”
Sterling Plumpp, Ornate with Smoke (excerpt)
Ezra Pound, “The Return,” “In a Station of the Metro,” “Canto II” (excerpt),
“Canto XXXIX” (excerpt)
Adrienne Rich, “The Fact of a Doorframe,” “Power”
Rainer Maria Rilke, “The Panther”
Yannis Ritsos, “The Meaning of Simplicity,” “Attack,” “A Wreath”
Ed Roberson, “”Beauty’s Standing” (excerpt), “Bend,” “Locus in Black Folktale”
Isaac Rosenberg, “Break of Day in the Trenches,” “Dead Man’s Dump”
Muriel Rukeyser, “Boy with his Hair Cut Short,” “”Letter to the Front”
Carl Sandburg, “Onion Days”
Sappho, fragment 31 (2 translations—by Anne Carson and Jim Powell)
William Shakespeare, Sonnet 29 (“When in disgrace with fortune and men’s eyes”),
Sonnet 55 (“Not marble nor the gilded monuments“), Sonnet 130 (“My mistress’ eyes
are nothing like the sun”)
Sir Philip Sidney, Astrophil and Stella sonnet 1 (“Loving in truth, and fain in verse my
love to show”
Gary Snyder, “Point Reyes,” “Milton by Firelight,” “Axe Handles”
Sophocles, Antigone, lines 332-375 [“Ode to Man”—translation by RG and Charles Segal]
Wallace Stevens, “The Snow Man,” “This Solitude of Cataracts”
Marina Tsvetaeva, “Poets” (excerpt) [translation by RG and Ilya Kutik]
Mark Turcotte, “Continue,” “Reflection”
César Vallejo, “A man goes by…” [translation by RG]
Andrei Voznesensky, “A Graveyard Within: To the Memory of Robert Lowell” [translation by RG and Ilya Kutik]
Derek Walcott, “The Schooner Flight” (excerpt)
Walt Whitman, “Whoever You Are…,” “A March in the Ranks…”
William Carlos Williams, “By the Road to the Contagious Hospital,” “Pink Confused with
Anne Winters, “The Mill Race”
William Wordsworth, “The Winander Boy,” “Composed Upon
Sir Thomas Wyatt, “Whoso List to Hunt…”
William Butler Yeats, “The Fisherman,” “Meru”
It’s National Poetry Month and TriQuarterly is proud to introduce a new web series by Reginald Gibbons, the Frances Hooper Professor of Arts and Humanities at Northwestern University. Professor Gibbons will report on his class discussion—what can be talked about with clarity and what is elusive, too. And also what his students find most interesting and how they develop through the course.
It’s always a pleasure for me to begin talking about poetry with this little bit of folk poetry, first attested only in the 19th century, but it must be much older. We spent a fair amount of time simply noticing everything that’s going on in these few words:
oats, peas, beans and barley grow
Beyond using that simple poetic line to notice sounds, rhythms, and ideas, these first few days of class I’ve spent reading just three poems with the students.
My idea is to get everything we can out of those three poems—they represent a wide range of poetic styles and effects—and start, just start, to map all the sorts of things that language-in-poems, or human-beings-doing-poetry, does, everything it and we make happen in terms of thought and feeling and in terms of using more of language than we do in most of everyday life. Which doesn’t mean that the language in a poem can’t be everyday, casual, intimate, personal. It can and often is, in our day. But because we encounter that language in and as a poem, we know that there’s more meaning in it—if we listen for it—than we’re used to hearing or reading.
We talked about Seamus Heaney’s “Death of a Naturalist”: we looked at the kinds of words he uses (so many with Old English roots—earthen words, used originally in a culture and time where technology was limited to crops and animals and weapons and ships), and at how these words create so many visual images, and how these remain “literal images” for the most part, without creating symbolic resonances in us. He sets a scene very vividly, in order to narrate (another thing the poem does) a moment of awakening (at least, that’s how it’s narrated, whatever experience he may have had, or not, and may still have remembered, at the time he was writing the poem). He invites us into what seems an autobiographical episode. We also looked at where the poem takes a step beyond where it has been hovering. It’s especially obvious where Heaney breaks that line two thirds of the way in, into two parts. That’s when the poem gets darker. And we listened to the speech stresses, and began, just began, to put them in relation to his “loose” iambic pentameter. (But notice that the first line and the last are very neatly done as impeccable pentameter lines) (including that extra unstressed syllable at the very end of the poem—almost as if he had barely gotten his fingers out in time—from where he didn’t, in the poem, actually put them).
Then we talked about Gwendolyn Brooks’s “The Last Quatrain of the Ballad of Emmett Till.”
I asked students to read on their own the story of this hate-crime murder, and of how Till’s mother kept the coffin open for the funeral in Chicago. When we looked at the imagery, the word choice, in this poem, we saw the superficial resemblance to the imagery in Heaney’s poem (the words for things: taffy, coffee, mother, room, boy, prairie, and for their qualities: pretty-faced, red, black, and so on). And we also saw the great difference—in Brooks’s poem, we are witnesses to something real, historical, that has enormous symbolic meaning. That is, the words are both literal in their creating our mental images, and many of them also have a symbolic value (three kinds of “black,” for instance, each of them pouring meaning into these simple lines).
We ended with Emily Dickinson’s famous poem number 359, “A Bird came down the Walk.” There’s so much for us to notice, think, and feel, in this poem. It’s far beyond the cute poem it’s thought to be. At the beginning, there are those visual images that create the scene of the poem. Simple, direct, amusing—and a little odd. ”A dew,” “a grass.” The little narrative has begun impersonally, then there’s an unsettling moment when the narrator shows up, and we see that by implication either the bird or the narrator, or both, feels anxiety, caution. There’s something dangerous for the bird in the presence of the human being—and there’s something dangerous for the human being in the *ideas* that will now bubble up with an almost joyous rapidity of metaphorical invention. And there’s all the ambiguity of that metaphorical profusion and overlap—things that can’t entirely be figured out, syntax that works in two different ways, words left out…
So in the first few days, we’ve got a fair amount to be placed on each student’s map of poetic technique: the rhythms created by the speech stresses; phonetic figures (repeated sounds); the movement from idea to idea or feeling to feeling or image to image, etc., families of words (from Old English roots, from Latin ones—the two biggest ones in English); the way these aspects of craft and others “mark” the language of a poem as poetic, and set us up to pay attention to that language much more closely, and how the poetic devices also vouch for the poet’s artistic skill. And more. We’ll see such things (and more yet to be named and pondered) over and over, as we go, and we’ll see how the individuality of each poet’s voice is created. And we’ll get a sense of the artistic range of the possibilities of poetry, and a little of a sense of the historical evolution of poetry—from Homer (we’ll look at one brief episode) to Jay-Z.