How Poems Move #12

Thursday, April 25, 2013

(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 wetblack      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 | pa | 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 broadmuddy 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):