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rhyme

When I was 19, I read the Iliad, Robert Fitzgerald’s translation, which I enjoyed, except for the endless lists of boats. Later, I came to realize the Greeks who were listening to this were from the various tribes mentioned, so when their group of ships came up, they were probably shouting out like soccer hoodlums. This didn’t make me enjoy the list, but it gave me a modicum of empathy.

A list, structured with rhythm and imagery in mind can be one of the chief structural devices of both epic/bardic poetry and free verse. Whitman has more listings than an anal retentive suburbanite. How many people here have at least one parent who loves his or her to do list as much as they love their children? Whitman is a list nut: Whitman lists. One of the syntactic clues to listing is an excess of participles and gerunds, what we will call verbs murdered by “ing.” Whitman is the only great poet who gets away with having more “ings” than metaphors. He’s the “ing” champ. Ginsberg, for all his ings, can’t make a pimple on Walt’s gluteus maximus.

Gerunds are often a sign that a poet hates sentences. Maybe he or she hates them on aesthetic grounds. We tend to think poetry should sound floaty, ephemeral, pretty. Maybe he or she hates sentences because he or she does not know what a sentence is. Some people, especially very poetic middle class people, dislike strong verbs. They don’t like strong anything. It seems brutal to them. Strong verbs are violent. They don’t float. They commit. They create the action of the noun: shit happens. I try to make my classes brutal. I say, “From now on, you are allowed only two ‘ings’ per poem, even if you list. Anymore than that will result in ten points off your grade, unless, of course, with great brilliance, you can defend your excess of gerunds to me and the whole class. Screw Whitman!”

Meter is not rhythm. It is a kind of rhythm, but it isn’t rhythm. We can create rhythm without meter, or rhyme. We can even create a pattern of rhythm without meter or rhyme. We can do so by enumeration (a type of list), repetition, refrain, by a system of alliterations. All these devices are used. We can create rhythm by emphasis: a series of imperative sentences, for example, or by suspense (holding off the payoff of a sentence until the very end–something gerunds are good for). I would suggest you all read Paul Fussell’s Poetic Meter, Poetic Form because it is a beautifully written and lucid book, especially his chapter on free verse. Every time I read this chapter I grow warm and fuzzy, the way people do during slow dances at proms. I am weird that way. Intelligence and lucidity make me stupid with pleasure. So let’s take a look at a list, or enumerations that does not indulge in “ing.” Let’s look at Theodore Roethke’s “Elegy for Jane (My Student Thrown by A Horse)”:

I remember her neck curls, limp and damp as tendrils;
And her quick look, a side long pickerel smile;
And how, once startled into talk, the light syllables leaped for her,
And she balanced in the delight of her thought…

This is a list and it gives us information: not only about Jane, but about the voice of the poem. The “I” of the poem seems, at the very least, charmed by her. He is both listing her qualities and building his relationship to her, and the reader’s sense of his feelings for her and it is all done by a list. Let’s steal the technique for a moment:

I remember her nose, red nostrilled by a cold;
and the way she said “danks” when I tossed her a tissue;
and how, she fell asleep, head on my shoulder,
all the way to Chattanooga…

See how we can steal? Musicians cop chord changes all the time. We have thousands and thousands of effects we can build on. Why not? Poets must find a way to render the emotion. Expression depends on devices, on tricks. Sincerity depends on a strategy of approach. By the way, this use of enumeration is also common to prose. Most devices of rhetoric belong neither to prose nor poetry. They belong to utterance. Okay, so here’s another device: parataxis.

In some ways parataxis the opposite of what we just did. There are no conjoining words such as “and”, “but”, “as”, and so forth. An example of parataxis:

Pluck It– Janet Lynch

It is late. The moon rises in the east
over the Episcopalian church.
Why did I give my heart to an idiot?
The moon in the East will not answer me.
Oh moon, oh eastern rising moon,
why do I expect you to say something?
Idiot! Idiot moon. Idiot me.
I keep hoping he will call.
Hope is the thing with feathers.
Pluck it.

There is little order of priority here. Parataxis is what translators of Chinese and Japanese poems often employ. It’s one thing after another.

TY: I want to ask about line breaks, which can do a lot of work in free verse poems. What principles or rules or guidelines do you use when deciding when to break lines?

CW: I try to rely on composition as much or more than instinct. First of all, I aim to compose in lines. I don’t think of line breaks as an afterthought. For me, it’s helpful to read aloud while writing since line breaks are in part about breath. And relating form to content is essential. A poem whose energy is equable may want end-stopped lines with contained images, while one whose energy is frenetic or about a certain kind of momentum may require a type of enjambed composition. I ask myself, what is the poem trying to do? Different line breaks evoke different sensations.

While free verse isn’t governed by rules of meter or rhyme, there is no question that writing free verse can be informed by understanding how they work. I’ve found that experimenting with forms, especially with obsessive forms like sestinas and pantoums, has helped me see how lines work.  It’s not surprising that the writers who proposed the radical idea of free verse in the early 20th century were fluent in meter and traditional forms. Discipline was a means to liberty.

Francis Ford Coppola said something that I relate to this topic; something that has stayed with me. When filming Apocalypse Now, he told Dennis Hopper, “If you know your lines, then you can forget them. But it’s no fair to forget them if you never knew them.”

I like that in part because his ruling of “no fair” sounds like a playground outburst. After all, there’s a certain amount of play as well as rebelliousness in creating. But he underscores the need for laying groundwork before launching squally inventiveness. Similarly, Charlie Parker said, “Learn the changes and then forget them.” Not that writing is the same as interpreting character before a camera, or improvising onstage. But there’s a similar sort of negotiation that is best entered with knowledge of the constraints and a certain amount of skill working within them.

TY: How do you know when a poem wants to be in sections rather than presented as a whole block?

CW: Different stanza structures offer different rewards to the reader, so I consider what I’m trying to achieve with the piece. I use similar judgment regarding stanzas as I do with lines: I try to bring the concerns of content to the needs of form. Changing theme, shifting imagery, musical modulation, the need for a strong pause are some things I consider when determining stanzas. As with lines, experimenting with stanzas brings to light for me the various ways they can build or temper tension and sustain the reader’s investment in the piece. I have a poem called Velocity about a drive at night and the rush of images the narrator sees in her headlights. I presented that piece in a unified block. The content was about an almost manic state and presenting the piece in a unified block created an unremitting tension that mirrored the narrator’s experience. Another poem in “Bartab”, Belly Up, is the expression of a kind of spiral of ruminative thought or anxiety. The same kind of stanza structure would have been too much. Ordering it in carefully composed lines separated the movements and mitigated the tautness.

TY: Some writers talk about inspiration – a Muse is the traditional term – is there anything in your life that inspires you to write and keeps you going when you don’t feel like it?

CW: I grew up in a very isolated place in the rural South and spent a great deal of time alone. That solitude along with an unpredictable and often violent home environment cultivated my imagination by necessity. In those years, flights of imagination were corporeal needs. They were acts of survival. Music and dance and language were terribly important to me. And they still have a power and magic for me that reach beyond fleeting pleasure or escapism. I’ve always tried to write songs I needed to hear. Now I try to write what I want to read. A startling image or seemingly insignificant detail can draw together a moment of unity or emotional clarity. This aspiration continues to summon me. Writing is also an urge for catharsis; a way to exorcise elements of my past and to process it. I know it sounds bizarre, but I have long felt that writing for me is a way to dialogue with generations of my family.

While I do it differently than I did years ago, for me inspiration requires surprise. When I was younger, I bought into the idea that an artist has to live a life of violent transitions. If I wasn’t feeling inspired, I felt it was my duty to go out and challenge stasis. I felt I could only draw on the experiences of upheaval and privation and exhilaration. I’ve outgrown that self-destructive urge, but the need for surprise remains.

Since I was a teen I have rather defensively defied traditional gatekeepers who hindered my efforts at getting my voice and work into the world to connect with a listener or a reader. I’m still driven by this. Before I began the manuscript for “Bartab: An Afterhours Ballad”, I had inherited a bit of the cultural disdain for feminine forms of expression, for the journal or diary. But after confronting events I couldn’t have possibly anticipated, I made a decision to work within personal narrative. Considering the challenges and dangers confronting girls and women, as well as the silence and secrecy surrounding those perils, telling our individual stories can be politically empowering. I teach writing workshops to women in recovery. When you give permission to these women to write about their lives, to talk about things that aren’t part of the cultural dialogue, it’s powerful. You can see the inception of a transformation. I’m inspired by the idea of a similar exchange with a reader.

I could go on about this topic. For example, I would love to talk about Lorca’s “duende” and how my pursuit of it has been important to me since I was a much younger writer. Suffice it to say, I find inspiration everywhere because I like to solve problems. I get excited when I read something that succeeds or excels in what it aims to do. I want to know how the writer achieved that and I set about figuring it out.

Perhaps more important than the question of inspiration is how to persist in its absence. For me, the answer is just that – persistence. Perspiration is more reliable than talent or inspiration.

booklady bathroom pic

TY: I hear lots of sound devices in your poems, which is one of the ways even contemporary poems can sound musical. Have you been influenced by music in your writing? Or how did you become conscious of and use sound so well in your work?

CW: I’ve absolutely been influenced by music. I grew up drenched in music of every kind. I was taught nursery rhymes from a very young age, and memorizing Bible verses was very important. We had songs and rhymes for every occasion when I was small that I still remember – a morning song, and one to say goodnight and even one for when I came out of the bath! It was great stuff, really instructive in language while filling me with delight. Not surprisingly, my first poems were really just juxtapositions of different words that were interesting for their harmonic interplay, if you will; experiments with the music of language. Today when I’m at work on something, I have found that reciting it while walking helps me explore its rhythm. I’m very conscious of poems as something read aloud, the physical sensation of their recitation, how it’s like singing. When talking with excitement about something I’m working on, I frequently slip and call a poem a song and vice versa. It used to cause me chagrin, but now I look at it as a blessing, the fact that there’s unity in the things I love to do.

TY: What writers do you return to most often? Why? What is in their work that continues to teach you?

CW: Andre Dubus, Sherwood Anderson, Richard Yates, Denis Johnson, Raymond Carver, Susan Minot, Breece D’J Pancake. When I was a student of Gregory Orr, he talked to me about creating one’s family of writers, and I think it’s essential, really. Among poets, I’d say Sharon Olds, Charles Simic, Jane Kenyon, Gregory Orr. I love how Simic never gets in the way of the poem but trusts the unadorned image. But in talking about what I admire and try to learn from these writers, I could devote several hours to each.

________________________________________________
Cesca Janece Waterfield is a journalist, poet, and songwriter based in Virginia. She has been selected three times to receive songwriter grants from The American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers (ASCAP). She is the author of Bartab: An Afterhours Ballad (Two-Handed Engine Press). Her poems and fiction have appeared in numerous literary journals. She can be reached at cescawaterfield.com

 

 

1.

What makes a work of art satisfying? What is the difference between a poem we call mawkish, or overly sentimental, and a poem that carries the right amount of sentimentality and wit? How do we judge or evaluate these questions of taste? Aside from all the contentious feelings that immediately crop up when considering questions of taste – questions of taste are elitist, say, or only matters relevant to a leisured bourgeoisie – how do we evaluate a work of art? What criteria do we invoke? Is there such criteria?

Charles Wegner writes, “Fundamentally, human beings are capable of aesthetic satisfaction because they are intelligent, imaginative, active, and percipient beings, not because they are educated, ‘cultured,’ leisured, or ‘artistic.’ If we can at least hesitantly agree with this proposition, then we might ask, What is it about a poem, a work of art, or a piece of music, that can inspire in its listener, viewer, or reader an aesthetic satisfaction that brings the participant back for another viewing, listening, or reading? What makes something beautiful, or sublime? How do we even talk about such a thing? And if the work of art is not sublime but kitschy, how do we make that distinction? How can we make a distinction between kitsch and art when history sometimes blurs that distinction?

2.

Here are two excerpts from poets who are not read widely anymore. The first is by Delmore Schwartz, the second by Algernon Swinburne. Both make heavy use of rhyme, meter, assonance and alliteration. Yet the Schwartz excerpt, I would argue, is mawkish and bloated, and the other is sentimental and beautiful. Since both poems are utilizing the same techniques, what makes one poem successful, and the other unsuccessful? What is the difference between a “good” and “bad” sentimentality?

A tattering of rain and then the reign
Of pour and pouring-down and down,
Where in the westward gathered the filming gown,
Of grey and clouding weakness, and, in the mane
Of the light’s glory and the day’s splendor, gold and vain,
Vivid, more and more vivid, scarlet, lucid and more luminous,
Then came a splatter, a prattle, a blowing rain!
And soon the hour was musical and rumorous:
A softness of a dripping lipped the isolated houses,
A gaunt grey somber softness licked the glass of hours.

and

O heart of hearts, the chalice of love’s fire,
__Hid round with flowers and all the bounty of bloom;
__O wonderful and perfect heart, for whom
The lyrist liberty made life a lyre;
O heavenly heart, at whose most dear desire
__Dead love, living and singing, cleft his tomb,
__And with him risen and regent in death’s room
All day thy choral pulses rang full choir;
O heart whose beating blood was running song,
__O sole thing sweeter than thine own songs were,
____Help us for thy free love’s sake to be free,
True for thy truth’s sake, for they strength’s sake strong,
__Till very liberty make clean and fair
____The nursing earth as the sepulchral sea.

I find the first excerpt, by Schwartz, dull, childish, jarring, and juvenile. Many of the sound plays – rain with reign, “luminous” rhymed with “rumorous” – seem ostentatious, more interested in calling attention to themselves than doing any work in the poem. “Where in the westward gathered the filming gown” might seem at first glance like a powerfully eloquent line, perhaps because of its feverish meter, but on further investigation should strike the sensitive reader as pretentious and bombastic, an overly fancy way of talking about fog. Much of the poem’s play with sounds strike me as similarly overly fancy and foggy – they do not seem like necessary stylistic or technical choices, but rather razzle-dazzle meant to distract the reader from the actual weakness of the poem. The first seven lines, which are all one sentence, exhibit a breathlessness that borders on hysteria; one feels Schwartz is working himself into fits, but one isn’t sure why. It’s as if the poem’s philosophy is that “good poems must be intense to the point of hysterics,” or that “a real Romantic poem must rhyme and make heavy cooked use of meter.” But neither of these assertions is necessarily true. Perhaps this is why the poem, in my book, fails to move or please. It is sentimental in the “bad” way, in the sense that it is hysterical without providing pleasure for the reader. It is pathetic (embarrassing) without being pathetic (full of pathos).

Swinburne’s poem, on the other hand, while seeming perhaps to partake in all the vices characterized in Schwartz’s, does not partake, I would argue, in a single one. (I think Swinburne is in line for a re-consideration, if he isn’t already. He can be absolutely wonderful.) It is a beautiful and strong poem, though sentimental, but why and how? We might say that all its stylistic decisions are commensurate to its content – that its form and style – sentimental as they may be – are equal to its soaring diction, and that it is eloquent rather than bombastic. “O heart of hearts, the chalice of love’s fire” is a wonderfully rich and varied line, full of interesting vowel variations. It somehow manages to speak about the most clichéd subject – love – in an interesting way – as a cup that holds fire. What a powerful image! The rhymes are not ostentatious, but unadorned and lovely. One senses that Swinburne is dealing with complicated subject-matter, and the poem is not an easy read. But the poem’s complexity in its discussion of love is part of its pleasure. The subject of the poem is mysterious – “the heart of hearts” – a burning inner core within the metaphysical heart, out of which desire and passion stem and stream. Yet despite or because of the mysteriousness of the subject, we are given images that are equally mysterious, provocative and enigmatic: flowers “hid round” it, together with “all the bounty of bloom”; a heart “at whose most dear desire / Dead love, living and singing, cleft his tomb”, (meaning, if you can pardon the clumsy summary, a heart powerful enough to awaken or resurrect in tired dead hearts a passion again); a heart whose very “beating blood was running song.” These are very eloquent and un-ostentatious lines. They shadow forth great strength in a pounding pulse, while utilizing the same techniques that Schwartz uses to such a detriment in his poem – rhyme, assonance, alliteration, rhythm. They are sentimental in the richest, fullest sense, as lines in a poem that are moving, beautiful, wrenching, and captivating.

It is for this reason that I have never placed too much value on generalized arguments that “rhyme,” say, “is always too conventional, too elitist,” or that free-verse, according to Frost, is like “playing tennis with the net down.” In the hands of a skilful poet, rhyme might be the best technique for conveying the complexity and beauty of her thought; in the hands of a different poet, free-verse might provide the poet with adequate freedom to explore the possibility of meaning in longer or just more “free” extended lines. These arguments depend upon the time-period and the countervailing trends. Yet such choices are also contingent upon the powers and predilections of the poet. They do not, in and of themselves, make a good or bad poem. In other words, as these examples hopefully make obvious, it just depends upon how such technical devices are used. (In the same sense, then, sentimentality is not a good or bad thing. It’s just the way in which it is invoked and evoked.)

3.

What about visual art? What makes Thomas Kincaid’s paintings of houses such easy targets for ridicule, while a Hopper painting is interesting and powerfully enigmatic? For your viewing pleasure or displeasure, here is a Thomas Kincade painting, following which is the Hopper.

kinkade_foxgloveCottageB

House-by-the-Railroad-artist-Edward-Hopper

Both paintings make use of the same general techniques: they are interested in line and color, shape and texture, mood and tone – just as Schwartz and Swinburne are interested in line and rhythm, sound and diction, form and tone. But the way these painters use these categories is radically different, leading to a radically different product.

So: what makes the Kincade painting bad, and the Hopper painting wonderful and haunting? (Apologies to the art history majors out there, for whom this comparison probably strikes one as obvious and juvenile.)

We might start with a question about expectations. What do we turn to art for? Do we look at a piece of visual art in order to have our weaker convictions confirmed, or decimated? Kincade’s painting, I would argue, confirms a tepid taste for art. It is condescending, meaning it does not have very high expectations for its audience. It is an overly sentimental, mawkish representation of a house that could not exist, for nothing in the real world could be so garish. The colors do not accentuate the life or vividness or story of the house, but rather simply call attention to themselves, like Schwartz’s line about the fog. It is an infantile painting that feels mass produced, but not in an interesting Warhol-esque way, with interesting ramifications for such mass production – rather, the painting seems to prey on the audience’s desire for some kind of complacent cozy satisfaction. It does not even have the relevant quaintness to be considered a relic of folk art. This is a bad painting, and it is acutely unpleasant to look at. It hurts the eyes, while doing nothing for thought. It seems to put an end to thought, rather than provoke a beginning. It strikes one as lazy, as exactly the kind of thing you would expect. Therefore, in an odd way, Kincade’s painting meets our expectations, yet these expectations are low ones, the kind we might have when entering into a depressing nursing folks home or hospital. Rather than taking us out of ourselves, it simply confirms the weakest of our expectations. It is, in this sense, the opposite of strange.

Now look at the Hopper. The house is immediately striking. It looms above the railroad tracks like some ancient, gaunt grandfather. It seems to partake simultaneously of the actual world and of the vision of the painter – like the Kincade painting, I suppose, although here the artist’s vision is mature, idiosyncratic, and very mysterious, as opposed to childish, conventional, and disgustingly familiar. It is strange how the house appears above railroad tracks, which heightens the sense of isolation in the painting, a kind of distance that is both haunting and surprising. Kincade’s house is surrounded by all the bathetic coziness you would expect for such an unimaginative painting – flowers, bushes, trees, an old fence. Hopper’s house, on the other hand, is completely alone. There are no trees, shrubs, or flowers. It is not a house one could easily imagine. This mood of austerity is heightened by the dramatic way in which light falls on the house, and the painting seems to be on the borders of something surreal, something out of De Chirico maybe. Perhaps, then, one of its virtues is its compelling strangeness, its difficult-to-place beautiful oddness in the virtually empty landscape that Hopper chose to represent. It is idiosyncratic, and it defies the viewer’s expectations, while simultaneously supplying these expectations with large doses of viewer pleasure. It is simply a massively wonderful painting. Like Swinburne’s poem, it uses the techniques of its art form to create something marvelously new. Yet it is not exactly sentimental, so much as marvelously puzzling – it seems to raise just as many questions as it answers, and in doing so, provides its unique and enigmatic pleasures.

4.

Yet it is not only strangeness in and of itself that makes for a compelling read or viewing experience. There are many strange poems out there that miss the mark, that make a virtue out of strangeness without making that strangeness compelling. For that reason, I want to make our first virtue of satisfying art be a compelling strangeness. (This idea is not original; Harold Bloom, for example, has written much about aesthetic uncanniness in the same way, and much of the Russian formalists’ work on the familiar-made-unfamiliar strike a similar note.) It is the difference between Ashbery’s greatest poems, and the poems of many of his imitators (including me). It is also the difference, I would say, between the best songs of Bob Dylan, and the worst, or between the great novels of William Faulkner versus the so-so novels of John Steinbeck. It is a strangeness that pulls us out of ourselves. When we return, we are different; we have changed. It is makes the quality of the greatest aesthetic work so idiosyncratic. I cannot imagine another Walt Whitman or Emily Dickinson, because each is so fully and astonishingly their selves. A compelling strangeness, therefore, is as deep as ontology. It is an ontology and an epitstemology, and it gets at the heart of what makes art satisfying versus disappointing. The marvelous, the wonderful, the provocative, the sublime, even the beautiful, all fall under the rubric of compelling and strange. It is for this reason that a truly poignant and authentically weird work of art is the most satisfying of all.

5.

The last poems we looked at, successful and unsuccessful, were both fairly ostentatious – they dealt with assonance, alliteration, rhyme and meter in a somewhat heavy hand, which might strike a modern reader as somewhat overwrought. Is there a way to produce a compelling strangeness that is not ostentatious so much as vividly, lucidly, fully austere, like Hopper’s house? How do we describe, for example, some of Wallace Steven’s late work, or for that matter, the poems of a young Allen Grossman? For both poets can be marvelously strange, and yet their compelling strangeness is different stylistically and aesthetically from Swinburne’s – equally mysterious, but somehow barer, less baroque, more hauntingly Protestant, though still convincing. Let’s look at an early poem by Grossman first, called “The Room,” from his wonderful book, Sweet Youth: Poems by a Young Man and an Old Man. “The Room” reads,

A man is sitting in a room made quiet by him.
Outside, the August wind is turning the leaves of its book.
The door is open, everything is disclosed, each leaf, all the voices.

The man is resting from the making of the quiet in which he sits.
The floor is swept, his books are laid aside open, his eyes are open.
All the leaves and voices are outside in the restless wind.

Soon he will rise, or take up a book, or someone will enter;
Or, perhaps, a leaf will come across the threshold, or a voice
Will blunder through the room, blind and unanswerable on its way elsewhere.

But now the room is quiet as the man has made it.
Everything in its place is at rest inside the room.
And the man is at reset, seeing each leaf, and hearing all the voices.

What is this poem about? Why is it, as I believe it is, so beautiful?

I think the answer to this question lies for this poem in a certain remarkably dramatic simplicity that, for all its lucidity, is more strange because so simple. The poem is ostensibly about a topic that might in another context reduce its audience to yawns and tears: a man, sitting in a quiet room, doing nothing. One can be forgiven, then, if, upon hearing what this poem is about, they might imagine something written by Nicholson Baker. But in this case, such an interpretation would be far from the truth. For the first part, the poem is not funny; actually, it’s incredibly serious. And secondly, the poem is not about minutia, so much as it is about minutia’s opposite: the profundity of the sublime, the sublimity of a kind of high contemplation. It is as though Grossman, with a beginner’s mind, starts with first principles; and the simplicity of the poet’s mind, reflected in the work, is beautiful, captivating, and seemingly artifice-less.

For these reasons, this is arguably one of the most peaceful, startling poems I have read in a long time. It is so exquisitely simple, both thematically and stylistically; and yet the poem conveys the great weight of thought, the great weight of contemplation going on in this man, this poet perhaps, who makes the Stevensian quiet in which he sits. There are many, many Stevensian echoes: the “turning” of the leaves echoing Stevens’s “Domination of Black,” the reference to a man sitting near books reminiscent of Stevens’s “Large Red Man Reading,” and the whole barren emptiness of the lines absolutely influenced by Stevens’s late and exquisitely modulated plangent-with-simplicity work in Auroras of Autumn and The Rock. Grossman, like Stevens and Yeats, weaves a profound tapestry out of the simplest of words – “man,” “book,” “leaves,” “wind,” quiet.” It is for this reason, perhaps, that his poem is so strange – not because the imagery is necessarily alien, but the echoes of the imagery as they accumulate in the lines is haunting, compelling, and very difficult to forget. It stays with you, even as you put the poem down; it lingers like a powerful novel, or a song that you cannot get out of your mind, because it is so overwhelmingly beautiful; (I think of the chorus of Bob Dylan’s “Nettie Moore,” from his late album Modern Times).

What about Stevens? How do we even discuss his haunting late work, which makes Swinburne look even more decadent? Here is “A Quiet Normal Life,” from The Rock.

His place, as he sat and as he thought, was not
In anything that he constructed, so frail,
So barely lit, so shadowed over and naught,

As, for example, a world in which, like snow,
He became an inhabitant, obedient
To gallant notions on the part of cold.

It was here. This was the setting and the time
Of year. Here in his house and in his room,
In his chair, the most tranquil thought grew peaked

And the oldest and the warmest heart was cut
By gallant notions on the part of night –
Both late and alone, above the crickets’ chords,

Babbling, each one, the uniqueness of its sound.
There was no fury in transcendent forms.
But his actual candle blazed with artifice.

It is as if Stevens and Grossman’s poems were talking to each other – as if Stevens’s poem provided the context for Grossman’s poem, explaining the reason why and how the man in Grossman’s poem achieves such masterful quiet. For in Stevens poem, which is also very quiet, we are given a glimpse into a certain conflict, a conflict that has faded in a magnanimous, noble way, but faded nonetheless into night, into the present that Stevens calls “here.” That conflict has to do with Stevens’s entire poetic enterprise, his interrogation in his previous poems of transcendent forms, of the “bodiless,” of the abstract, of anything whatsoever that could lead the mind away from the present moment and into a kind of shadowy cave of contemplation. Anything notional – any notions of night, or of cold, are for Stevens in this poem too distanced from reality, from the “warm heart.” And yet this diminishing does not produce depression or disillusionment, but rather makes the present stand out more vividly, more starkly, as a kind of “artifice” made “actual,” (another way of talking about poetry, among other things). And that is the achievement of his, as well as Grossman’s poem – their ability to make the present stand out more boldly, with a kind of visceral haunting embodied thrust. In this sense, both Stevens and Grossman’s poems are about poetry – each posits a scene that is half actual, half artificial, in which the sounds of the words produce an incantatory rhythm that creates the quiet in which they stir. They are so quiet, they are almost – almost – surreal, though these are not surreal poems. And both poems interrogate the very strange notion of no notion – of a sort of quiet in which sitting and being is enough, in which thought itself is made aware of its own eventual demise. Both poems are therefore compellingly strange, for they interrupt our thought, pull us out of ourselves, and return us to ourselves, so that we may see ourselves, as Stevens writes, “more truly and more strange.” They are just barely sentimental, yet they are profoundly moving. In exploring what eloquence looks like when it is reduced to first factors, they give the reader a zen experience of head-shaking clarity, austerity, and, in the Stevens poem, a haunting elegiac strain of loss.

When I was ten or so, a large flock of starlings, and assorted brown-headed cowbirds used to come visit a deserted lot near my house every fall. I liked nothing better than to run among them, and listen to the collective soughing swoop of their wings as they lit out for the trees. It was best if the sky was full of brooding cumuli. It was best if the wind was trying to rip the brown leaves from the pin oaks.

I don’t know why this made me feel so happy. When those birds no longer showed up the next year, it was a short but real grief that overcame me, and I would go to the lot in order to feel my grief more keenly. Since the birds were no longer present, my grief over their absence sufficed.

Wildness–to spin, to run amuck, to go shouting into the sea…all this unbridled sense of motion–has something to do with obedience. In the world beyond mere social order, obedience takes the place of conformity. There is a cycle of seasons, a rising and ooze of sap, a motion of tides, a curl of carrot leaf and wave, and all this grand motion obeys. It is not disobedient. Disobedience only exists where the laws have already built the scaffold of conformity from which preachers admonish and on which sinners hang.

A year or two later, I had found an old, slightly water logged copy of King Lear, and I read it with much confusion but with far more delight in its loud cacophony of sounds. I liked saying the words aloud in a very pretentious voice:

Blow, winds, and crack your cheeks! rage! blow!
You cataracts and hurricanoes, spout
Till you have drench’d our steeples, drown’d the cocks!
You sulphurous and thought-executing fires,
Vaunt-couriers to oak-cleaving thunderbolts,
Singe my white head! And thou, all-shaking thunder,
Strike flat the thick rotundity o’ the world!
Crack nature’s moulds, all germens spill at once
That make ingrateful man!

The birds came back, and instead of running among them, I shouted this speech of mad Lear as loudly as I could. They scattered! The second time I did it, they scattered less. On the third try, they just kept grazing on the seeds and grasses and ignored me. The birds understood the first and second delivery as a threat not much different than running among them. But, by my third performance, they knew it was no real threat–just some crazy kid in a field shouting. Still, I realized the sounds in this language obeyed some real violence–the violence of wind, and storm, and anger. The words were not imitating nature They were not mimicking a large mammal rushing at a flock, but they contained some of the same energy and violence as that force. Rather than holding the mirror up to nature, they were using some of the mechanisms the dynamics of cacophony. If I had delivered them in a whisper, not one bird would have flown away.

As far as the difference between conformity and obedience goes, we can submit that Cordelia obeys, whereas the Regan and Goneril conform. Obedience in the realm of the social construct can cause us to be misunderstood, even censored. To obey the organic truth underlying principles is much more dangerous than conforming to their outward resemblance. Many great writers pay a price, not for being disobedient, but for being obedient to some necessity beyond mere conforming. To be a non-conformist in this sense means to obey the deeper truth and risk being mistaken as a rebel. Nothing is more perverse to the status quo than true obedience. Goodness does not need the status quo. Evil and mediocrity insist upon it.

Some of the worst conformists I know practice a sort of intentional disobedience. They have no more idea of the underlying principles of the laws they break than the conformist who never thinks of going against the status quo. They break laws for the sake of breaking laws. They, too, like the conformists, are incapable of knowing anything but the letter of the law. In their case, they hate the letter, but do not know the spirit. A saint is always a scandal, always a destructive force in relation to the status quo because a saint obeys in such a true sense that he or she is liberated from the status quo. The saint cannot be tamed by law. Law exists because saints are in short supply.

Rather than telling students not to rhyme or have meter, rather than telling students to write free verse, ask them: what do you think are some of the reasons people rhyme and employ meter. If you work hard at this, you might get:

1. Because it’s fun, and like magic–like a spell (spells, nursery rhyme, any manner of conjuring)
2. Because rhyme and meter takes human speech out of its ordinary ruts (ceremony, or the love of pattern)
3. Because it is a great device for remembering (the reason for rhymed adages and proverbs)
4. Because it can order strong emotions and passions so that they are portable and inversal (Elizabeth Bishop’s “One Art”).

Then you can ask what might be some of the reasons a poem does not rhyme or have a regular meter:

1. Because the poet wishes to explore subjects beyond the mere sonic semblance of rhyme and meter–in their organic movements so to speak from one thought to another, without struggling to shape thought to a regular pattern.
2. Because the poet wishes to explore the very “normality, and strangeness” of regular speech patterns, of people just thinking or speaking. In short, not a lack of pattern, not randomness, but the complexity of irregular rhythm.
3. Because the printing press was invented, and prose became the dominant force, and the mimetic need for rhyme and regular meter was no longer so urgent.
4. Because free verse can step outside prevailing patterns and enter the stream of consciousness in which the writing is seemingly of the moment, without poetic conceits of rhyme and meter.

All these are legitimate reasons why one might choose either to write in rhyme and meter or free verse. You can also mention other mimetic devices beyond rhyme and meter that free verse has maintained, but in lesser volume: alliteration, anaphora, rhythmic listing, enumeration, hyperbole, metaphor, understatement, over statement. Once you parse out why one might choose one over the other, you can eliminate conventions and get at underlying principles.

Both metered/ rhymed verse and free verse must have a sense of rhythm yet an occasional relief from pattern in order to be effective. Variety is intrinsic to free verse. In rhymed and metered verse, variety is the exception to the rule that keeps the rule honest. In free verse, any prolonged pattern is the exception that keeps the free verse honest (or endangers it). But both conventions rely on variety and pattern. It’s a matter of emphasis (one places pattern above variety, the other variety over pattern), but both variety and pattern show up. Bad rhyme sounds sing-songy. Bad free verse seems to have no real pulse or sense of ceremony. It may as well be prose (and not very good prose). This does not rule out the flat as a value. Intentional flatness, maintained as the law of a poem, is a rhythm of sorts. If it is intentional, then you ask: what is the purpose of the flatness? Some poets are masters of flatness–of that which is so seemingly mundane that its whole poetic effect relies on denying the usual “poetic” effects of poetry: haiku, imagism, objectivism, deadpan, all rely on not seeming to try at too hard to be poetic. But this is not a universal law. It is a convention. It as much a convention as rhyme and meter. It is not the spirit; it is the letter of a certain convention.

So a teacher must avoid teaching conventions as universal laws. If not, the student will become as blind as the teacher and adhere to a rule without ever considering why it is a rule. By the same token, a teacher who insists the students experiment and go hog-wild is also in danger of limiting the student to the letter, and not the spirit. Novelty for its own sake does not an original poem make. It might provide temporary relief from convention, but, when it is made a convention in its own right, it ceases to have value as anything more than a convention: “Hello, I am rebel. I do nothing conventional, and I don’t like anyone who does things conventionally. That, my dear, is my convention. Love me!” God, help us.

All conventions must be tested. All diversions must be tested. If I ran after those birds a hundred times, they would have scattered on the next run. Why? Because a large body moving at them with arms waving is certainly a threat. If they ignore me, they will run the risk of ignoring the dog or cat who comes and eats them. But a boy yelling King Lear is absent some of the exact mechanisms of a predator. We must teach our students to reinvent the wheel over and over again, to go back to origins and test them. Most importantly, a teacher must question his or herself. Do I like this poem because it is good, or because it affirms my ideas? Do I dislike this poem because it is bad, or because it is not my kind of good? Ethics in this sense are much more rare than rules of thumb. Rules of thumb were invented for those who have no intrinsic sense of ethics.

I want students to be obedient–fiercely obedient. I don’t want them to conform. When a true Cordelia enters my classroom, I know because, initially, I am annoyed. Such a creature refutes my laziness. When a conformist enters my class room either as a kiss-ass or as a professional nay-sayer I feel sad. How can I teach someone who conforms, but who can never obey? It is like a child who sees a field of birds, and does not run among them or even feel tempted. Someone has taught that child not to be a child. Someone has killed King Lear.


Here’s a story right up my blogging alley. I’ve written quite a bit in the past on translation (about Horace and ESL/film), as well as bit on technology and language. I wrote about how Google used the insights of Wittgenstein to overcome the problem of polysemy in search, but ended questioning whether Google could ever overcome the complexities of poetry. Turns out Google has been laboring away at creating a machine translator of poetry.

If I understand it correctly, the poetry translator basically layers several poetic constraints on top of the standard translator: line length, rhyme, meter, etc. Google’s translator uses what Jaron Lanier calls a “brute force” approach to translation. That is, it doesn’t know the rules of grammar—it doesn’t even really have a dictionary. Rather, it scours its database and determines statistical correlation between translations of pages. Put another way, it imitates by means of statistical analysis.

Meta-lord of the cloud-lords of meta of!

Questions of quality aside (i.e., let’s assume Google can be completely successful and create passable—even good poetry translations), would you really prefer Google’s translations Rimbaud over, say, Ashbery’s? Aside from needing a translation in a pinch, I can only imagine an interest in Google’s translation that is analogous to the Turing test: an interest that asks the question “If I didn’t know—could I tell the difference between the results of computer and human translation?”

I have been reading Jaron Lanier’s book You Are Not a Gadget over the last few weeks. He makes a convincing point that Turing’s test is essentially the wrong question. Part of the function of asking “can it fool us?” is a desire to find a computer that can. As a result, we’re essentially willing to dumb down our expectations of what it means to be human in hopes we’ve created machines that think. Ironically, it’s our very human desires that make the Turing test fail. The real judge of the Turing test should be a computer with a merciless set of criteria. No doubt somebody, somewhere has already realized this, and there is a computer slaving away at creating and judging its own intelligence.

Which brings me back to the question: why do we want to read Ashbery’s translations of Rimbaud? I see two motivations: the first is to read Rimbaud without learning French; the second is to read Ashbery reading Rimbaud. Google doesn’t read. To say that it does would actually change the definition of reading, wouldn’t it? Reading implies not a functional end (e.g., Ashbery produces a translation of Rimbaud), since it can exist without a functional end (e.g., Ashbery reads Rimbaud in French).

Perhaps more importantly, Google doesn’t even use language in a way that we recognize as language. Some animals use what we would rightly be called protolanguage. They can acquire a vocabulary, and perhaps even use it in creative ways (I heard a story once about an ape that put two words together to ask for a watermelon: “candy water” or something along those lines). At best, though, animals can only mash together vocabulary, without what we could refer to as “syntax.” Syntax is the ability not only to acquire vocabulary, but to manipulate it according to a deeper intelligence that categorizes vocabulary. It’s the difference between “Micah smile” and “Micah smiles.” The latter indicates not only the fact that I have associated one thing with another (the action of smiling with the word “smile”), but that I can categorize it as a verb and thus deploy it in a sentence (oh the difference an “s” makes). This syntactic ability expands when we think about relative clauses, which nest and hierarchize ideas. We even have words for pure functions of language (e.g., articles). Animals are unable to do this (unless, of course, you’re teaching a gorilla that it will die someday—perhaps death is the motivator of syntax!). Google uses statistical analysis to achieve a kind of protolanguage at best. At best, it “learns” (a word also worth an essay) to associate certain phrases with one another. But, unlike animals, it has no will to use them.

All this is to say that there is something uniquely motivating about a person doing something. A Google poetry translation will never make me reconsider my life, except in a purely serendipitous (i.e., accidental) way.

I suppose deep down I am a personalist, believing there is something utterly unique and irreducible about persons. And I worry sometimes that the whole preoccupation with AI actually takes away from the real achievements of Google’s poetry translator: we clever people have found a way to essentially use an on-off switch (0s and 1s) to do something as complex as creating a passable translation of a poem. But as we are humans wont to do, we get distracted, venerating our creation rather than marveling at the deep mystery inside us which motivated us to create it in the first place.

Here’s a quick overview of the project if you’re interested in reading more about it. Here’s an interview about the project from CBC radio (scroll down to “Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Digital Night”—below that one, there’s also another very interesting interview with a Canadian student who created a computer program to analyze rap lyrics).