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The Locust Tree in Flower

Plato wanted poets expelled from his ideal republic because they did not arrive at truth by methodology, but, according to him and the ancient Greeks, poets came to truth by way of being possessed by a divine afflatus: a god, a demon, the muses. Of course, this truth the poets came by wasn’t always verifiable or reliable, and Plato’s Republic is all about reliability. It’s about truth verified by method and maintained by law and system. Utopias do not change insofar as they are predicated on an ideal, a measure of perfection: measure. We should consider this word before we proceed further. Measure is not only at the center of Plato’s Republic (he allowed music as long as it was march music and kept people in step) but it is also at the center of this wild unpredictable thing known as poetry. So if we were going to see Plato’s methodological truth as one side of a dialectic (thesis) and poetry’s non-systematic, irrational truth as on the other (anti-thesis), we could then consider measure to be the synthesis of philosophy and poetry. If we call the former precision, and the latter ecstasy, one might see Plato as privileging precision over ecstasy—a state in which the trains arrive on time as opposed to poetry where the trains might turn into Swans. But, still, Plato’s world of system is related to poetry in terms of rhythm, cadence, measure.

Here is the nice little irony: the more methodological the thinking, the more it is about ideas, and concepts, and information, the more it tends to be irregular in terms of the measure of its language. In a culture that keeps books, thinking, concepts, information soon loses the measure, the method of cadence, and becomes what we now know as prose. Poetry, especially insofar as it is–until fairly recently–always yoked to music, remains far more regular and measured. So Plato was not knocking the cadence of poetry except for one of its powers which he feared: it’s power to conjure, to con the listener by an appeal to the heartbeat and the senses, which exploits both the quality of measured music and flights of fancy, of hypnotized and altered states of being and uttering. The ecstatic, that which is in rapture, possessed, out of its usual senses, deeply immersed in the unconscious, the irrational is contingent far more on qualities of measure than is the methodological and logical arguments of prose.

And yet poets, in order to escape the tyranny of too regular a beat, have also embraced a far more irregular pulse and cadence over the last hundred or so years. Free verse is the most pronounced of these, but there is also syllabic verse, and prose poetry. What remains is what Plato feared: unsystematic thinking and a sense of momentum, of measure that appeals to the human mind not as information or data alone, but as an experience beyond paraphrase: that which cannot be summed up or reduced to a nutshell without losing much of its value. If measure is the common link then between precision and ecstasy, if it is that quality of verbal action that cannot be reduced to full precision or to pure ecstasy, then poetry, like music, like dance, might be defined as the precision of ecstasy, and the ecstasy of precision, an ecstatic precision, and measured ecstasy.

When both terms lose their separate properties and become one, poesis occurs, but we have a problem: since free verse has no discernible measure, is irregular in rhythm, what sort of poetry do we now have that Plato did not intuit? Free verse can be distinguished from prose in what way? We know how it can be distinguished from metered and rhymed verse: no regular pattern of beats, of feet, exist (and if they do, they are soon vanquished before they can set up a rhythmic anticipation on the part of the reader). Free verse usually does not rhyme. It tends to emphasize the line in terms of enjambments rather than full stops. It can be broken into lines in any number of ways, by any number of rules, none of which have absolute pride of place.

That’s how it differs from traditional metered and rhymed poetry. How does it differ from prose? In rhythm, in cadence? In meaning? In terms of intention? What makes it far more effective as a series of lines and line breaks rather than as loosely measured language written straight across the page? There is no real answer to this question. I have my own idea that free verse is that written language which may be either more heightened or flatter than prose. In terms of being more heightened, it often employs the ancient devises of spoken oratory: anaphora, anadiplosis, antithesis, alliteration, metonymy, enumeration, and listing—a sort of speechifying, an utterance conscious of itself at all times as an utterance—speech, but speech raised to the level of speechifying, the rhetorical devices of speech employed to create a sense of voice and speaker on the page (Whitman is a good example of this, but so is Allen Ginsberg. Often, this is used for comic mock epic effect. Ginsberg’s rapsodes often have a high degree of wise ass and silliness.).

In terms of being flatter than regular prose, free verse may emphasize blunt statement, parataxis, a complete deadpan presenting of disparate facts either aided and abetted by, or resisted by line and line breaks (think James Tate’s prose poems). Suppose I write: “Pass the soup please Veronica. All over the earth toads are gathering in the gardens of reasonably well fed men and woman.” I could line this any number of ways to emphasize different words, to isolate them in strange patterns. First, these two sentences are paratactic (one statement after another with no conjunctions or connective phrases). We can call this style of paratxis a sort of rhythmic non-sequitur (something Getrude Stein employs to perfection), but there is also actual ongoing non-sequitur, things jumping about, or said in a non-sequential, illogical manner that creates a sort of strangeness. In such a case, uber-flatness of utterance heightens the sense of strangeness, creating a language that may be both comical, and frightening in its emotional affect. In this case, no one would possibly speak this way (though we often do without being aware of it). This is the free verse of much New York school and language poetry, and all the variants in between. It comes from the conversational lyric (a type of poetic thinking on the page first developed by Coleridge and used most extensively by Wordsworth). The conversational lyric is the most common form of free verse.

The confessional, or narrative poem also uses the conversational lyric in which the measured sound is neither the strangeness of the oracular or the dead pan of uber flatness (glibness), but that which approximates a sort of ordered consciousness, a speaking consciousness in the act of relating a meaning, an atmosphere, a poetry that attempts to move a reader to laughter, tears or deeper appreciation of a theme. This is the poetry closest to prose in terms of wishing to communicate a truth that is not, to a large sense, swallowed up by its own utterance. It is serving information, communication, and expression of emotion. Very often, in order to do this, such poetry will be middle of the road, seek a sort of measured prosaic voice that does not draw too much attention to itself as a voice at all, but is trying to convey something beyond itself. Examples of this type of free verse might be the poems of Philip Levine, Maria Mazziotti Gillan, Sharon Olds, Stephen Dunn. This poetry seeks to be clear—to be understandable. It does not seek to razzle dazzle as does speechifying, or to create a strangeness of deadpan as does that free verse which is flatter than most prose. Some poems contain what might be called hybrids of all these types. Very often, even poets such as Levine and Gillan use the list, or anaphora, or contrast and they tend to do it far more than writers of prose, but they do so sparingly. Very often young poets write poems that use all three of these types of free verse in a single poem, and not successfully. This is why it is important to know your method of intention, and the way to do that is to read and learn from all these practices of free verse.

Now take some time to read George Trakl, who wrote in German. These translations by James Wirght and Robert Bly rendered Trakl into a sort of poetry that mixes the paratctic, flat style of free verse cadence with the last type I mentioned: the sense of a poet merely report what is scene, what is there for the sake of some meaning beyond the poem. If we could read these poems in German, if we could hear them in the natural measure of their utterance, we might have a very different poet before us—a poet carrying Holderlin and Heine, and Goethe, and also his contemporaries such as Rilke and Stephan George on his back. In meter and rhyme, these poems might seem totally different in character. We must read them here as English poems which have, through parataxis, a ghost of what I call “Ugg” clinging to them. “Ugg” is that overly stilted, stiff, sometimes simplistic English we have so called “primal” peoples speak: noble Indians, Tarzan, etc. We also use sophisticated Ugg for most Chinese and Japanese poems. It has the following features:

1. Usually short, declarative sentences, or even fragments, which have the rhythmic non-sequitur feeling of paratactic speech.
2. Dependance on image more than on rhythm, and on general rather than idiomatic phrasing. 3. Tendency toward eloquence in its new language which is not necessarily the same species of eloquence it had in its original language (for example Chinese poetry in Chinese is full of puns and verbal slights of hand. It is not: “the cherry trees bloom. I think of mustard” we tend to in English translation).

Translation of Japanese and Chinese poetry and other forms of ancient poetry tended to influence the actual writing of poems in the native language—to such an extent that it is hard to tell whether the imagists were imitating the Ugg translations of Chinese and Japanese poems, or Chinese and Japanese poetry was being reiterated into the flat, clear, paratactic “Ugg” measures of imagist poetry. Both are probably true.

Try to look at these Georg Trakl poems as free verse translations. Try rhyming them, complicating the sentences, emphasizing rhythmic pattern rather than image and see what happens. If you can, look at the original German. The point of this labor is to learn what exactly we mean by free verse and how exactly we become conscious manipulators of this tradition.

Georg Trakl has influenced many poets writing in English, especially the deep imagists, and poets such as Bly and Wright. His tone is that of the dream, the deadpan, almost drugged voice of disconnection we have come to see as one of the basic touch points of modernist, and post-modernist poetics.

Prompts for further exploration:
1. Take one of the Trakl Poems and try to retranslate it as a metered rhymed poem, keeping all the images, but playing with word arrangement and word choice. What does it do to the mood or effect of the poem? Now take this rhymed poem and retranslate it into free verse, rearranging as above.
2. Read “Locust Tree in Flower” by Williams–both published versions if you can. Try to reduce a poem of your own in this manner.
3. Take a movie review from the newspaper and play with it as a free verse poem. See what you can get rid of, what you can keep. The review should be three hundred words or less.

Dust of Snow

Robert Frost

The way a crow
Shook down on me
The dust of snow
From a hemlock tree

Has given my heart
A change of mood
And saved some part
Of a day I had rued.

A student, choosing to write a two page paper on this poem, quoted a critical authority who had managed, by the magic of stupidity, to turn it into a comment on racism. The crow is not described as black, and this apparently, is Frost’s way of saying that such stereotypes are evil. Now how this interpretation could exist is beyond me, but what could the teacher say to the student? The critic is stretching her own agenda beyond all proper bounds? Well, I wasn’t the teacher, so I told him that. I said: “experts can be stupid, too, you know… especially when they are trying to shove everything into their own theory, even if it does not fit.” The kid went on for two pages about racism and Frost’s remarkable foresight given that he had lived in a lilly white section of new England. His essay never quoted the poem.

We can go any number of ways, some of them might even include the actual poem,but what of it? If we know something about the literary tradition pertaining to crows, we can see the crow as a trickster, an intelligent creature who likes to cut the unsuspecting down to size.In a sense, even a sane interpretation of this poem is a distortion of it. Even if we go all Brooks and stick strictly to the poem at hand, as if nothing else by Frost existed, as if historical context and the life of the poet did not matter, we would still offer only a distortion. Interpretation is distortion. Some distortions are useful. They makes sense. They offer a new way of entering the poem, of understanding and enjoying it. Others make us shake our heads in dismay, but all interpretations are digressions and re-writings of the text. It is unavoidable. And this is what a poet should keep in mind: when we have an “idea” for a poem, a desire to do something or express something in a poem, the poem must win over the idea or both will be lost. An idea for a poem is always a competing poem. So, instead of just editing our poems after the first draft, we should do a close reading. And it is sometimes helpful to refer to ourselves as “the poet.” What is the poet trying to do here, and why, and how? What is his agenda? I am going to take a poem I admire by one of my students, Melissa Liebl, and model this method of first revision:

She lifts her
sharp collar bones
in a shrug
the rain so hard
the spaces between
form cups
and fill
I lean toward
the edge of her body
to sip
and one sweet
and turn
defers me to
the air

So what can we say about the poem at first glance? It is short, and thin, never more than five words per line. This might be considered the law peculiar to this poem. The longest line is five words. Given the rules the poem implies, is five too long? I re-write the poem, shortening the five word line just to see what happens.

I look at it visually and decide the poet is justified in having that five word line because, otherwise, the poem is too funnel shaped. So why so short, and so thin? Re-reading it I think: it’s a single action, a brief moment, and it would not make sense to have the poem any longer or fatter than it is. I comb through my thinning memory bank and think of two poems by Williams: “Fine Work with Pitch and Copper” and “The Locust Tree in Flower” (second version). Ok, the single gesture, the sense of a small and intimate moment justifies the choice of line and proportion. Good.

Now, I ask myself: what is the sonic action of the poem? Experience has taught me that a writer often goes wrong in a poem in terms of lineation and sonics before any other failing. So I investigate the sounds. Ah, two sibilants (s) one in initial and the other in terminal position! One has the h added to create the “sh” sound. Only the first vowel sound is pronounced– high e, the highest pitched vowel in the language. So “she” is the star in sonic as well as narrative terms. The i in lifts and the e in her are muted. There’s a labial in the L of lifts. So, in terms of sound, the chief action so far is muted vowels, and sibilants,as well as a labial.This creates softness, euphony, a sense of the delicate– as much as what she says. The meaning is also in the sound! Will this be the case once more in the next couple lines?

Yes! Here’s comes “sharp,” (sh again), here comes L in the medial position (collar), but note: there’s now a hard c, and the ominous arrival of plosives: p in sharp, and b in bones. The vowels have also gone a little violent here with the two “ar” and the one”Oh sounds. There is a subtle form of what I call ghost rhyme going on. At the sonic level, a lot is happening. Let us continue:

Following this trail of sounds we find out that S and sh are the stars, with a brief but memorable cameo appearance of plosives, and the lowest vowel sound in the English language: “Uh.” “In a shrug.” H also figures in all its many guises. The question is why?

Here’s a nice conjecture: if there is a turn in the poem, I bet the s and sh sounds go away, and if there is a return or climax, I bet they show up again. One more thing about the plosives: this is hard rain. it no doubt “pelts.” Now, let’s see if the s sounds disappear:

Voila! They, indeed, do. In the middle section of the poem, for three and a half lines, there are no further s sounds until the word sip. Fricatives appear in form and find. Also, dentals show up in the t and d sounds.: Sip, sweet, sigh, and then for the very last lines, our hero, the s sound is gone forever, replaced by the rise of the dentals in sweet, turns, defers, and to. If we reduced the poem to only its s sounds in initials position we’d get:She sharp shrug spaces sip sweet sigh.

Turn that into two sentences: “She sharply shrugs. Spaces sip sweet sighs”. The s sounds alone almost carry the tale. So I say: this writer, however unconsciously, was moving through the sonic as well as the narrative fairy tale of her poem. The ghost rhymes, and effects are so subtle, no one but a nut job like me might notice them, but this is the pleasure of poetry when you stop paying attention to only what the poem means.

Now, onto the grammar: the poem has no punctuation. To me punctuation controls the speed at which beauty moves through the room. If there is no punctuation, two questions must be asked: are the lines well enough constructed, and lucid enough using only the white space to justify no punctuation? Question two: if there is a grammatical ambiguity created by the lack of punctuation, does that ambiguity lend a greater possible meaning to the poem, and is it justified by the law of greater complexity (rather than mere confusion)? Is the writer conscious of the effect (ok. That is a third question)? So I put punctuation in: She lifts her sharp collar bones in a shrug, the rain so hard the spaces between form cups and fill.” A nun would kill me for that sentence because, if read in terms of grammar, the spaces could refer to the rain or the collar bones. How would you “fix” that? She lifts her sharp collar bones in a shrug, the rain so hard, the spaces between her collar bones form cups and fill.” Too wordy.

Definitely, this is not prose, and, in spite of the ambiguity, I’d let it stand as is. This is a complex sentence with the greater part of its length given to the dependent clause. The lineation, and white space, by breaking the parts up, actually helps rather than hinders, and so it is justified. Now the next sentence is compound: “I lean toward her body to sip, and one sweet sigh and turn defers me to the air.” The “and” is a beautiful pivot here. Because, in the poem, there is no punctuation, I initially thought the speaker of the poem was turning and sighing, which, in emotional terms, she is, but it is the object of her attempted sip who turns and sighs. This is nice. This is using uncertainty to best advantage. Ok. Finally, possible objections to the poem:

There are vulgar readers who will ignore all these virtues and say: so what? What’s the ontology of the poem? The ontology is rejection, but a rejection so soft and nuanced that it is also an unforgettable gesture. The speakers action is also an impulse, a reflex of the moment The use of the verb “defer” gives both the hint of rejection and the sense of a course diverted, not a final rejection. Wonderful! If she had written “leaves,”instead of “defers” I, too, might be tempted to say: “Nice poem, but so what?” Delicacy, if it be truly there, defeats philosophy, and thwarts despair. We do not ask the ontology of a swallow swooping at dusk. So, I give this student an A. And now some assignments:

1. Go over one of your poems the way I just went over this. See what you might discover that you didn’t realize.
2. Decide that a certain number of sounds will be threaded through your poem. Let their appearance and disappearance mimic a turn or change of meaning.
3. Read “Fine Work With Pitch and Copper,” and “The Locust Tree in Flower.” Try to render a single moment, bereft of punctuation, but in such a way that the white space, and the mabiguity will increase the possible meanings.
4. Go and read some favorite poems, and forget the meaning for a moment. Enter them through sound, through detail. Then return to meaning and meditate on how closely sound shadows sense. Good luck.