Posts Tagged ‘The Last One

29
Aug
15

Quick Notes on Ted Hughes

These are mostly notes and observations I am writing for myself as I prepare for the Contemporary Poetry section of my comps. I will try to do this with each poet I read. Maybe the notes will be useful to others, too. Again, they are notes and observations. They are not thesis-driven arguments.

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Ted HughesTed Hughes (1930-1998) was an English poet, but he surrounded himself with the American Confessional poets of Robert Lowell, John Berryman, Anne Sexton, and Sylvia Plath (who was his wife). Despite engaging with the Confessional poets, he was not a Confessional poet, though he did try to find outlets to explore who he was.

One of the first things I notice and latch onto as I read through Ted Hughes Selected Poems 1957-1994 (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2002) is the use of the “I,” or the lack of it. Hughes is an observer of the world he is situated in. He is both empathetic and sympathetic to it, as he is trying to understand his surroundings. In his early poetry, there is a certain amount of joy and awe, but later the joy will disappear, at least for a short while. Early on, Hughes uses the “I” sparingly, and when he does, it is usually not a stand-in for himself, but, instead, he inhabits another form. For instance, in “The Man Seeking Experience Enquires His Way of a Drop of Water” (from his first collection of poems The Hawk in the Rain (1957)), he allegorically uses a drop of rain as a stand-in for himself, so that with the last line “Blundered the world-shouldering monstrous ‘I’,” that is the rain drop giving the “plain lesson how / Experience has worn or made you anew,” and it speaks for itself, and allegorically for Hughes. The rain drop is announcing its existence, much like I think Hughes is trying to do throughout his poems, but he can’t quite plant himself into the poems.

In his observations, he creates a mythic world, or at least creates a world with a frame in which he can center himself to focus on what’s around him. He is trying to find the “Blood [that] is the belly of logic” (“An Otter,” Lupercal, 38). As said above, the “I” Hughes uses is not him, but the embodiment the “I” uses generates more sympathy for what he is looking at or experiencing. “Wodwo,” in Wodwo  (1967), is good example of what I mean.

     Wodwo

     What am I? Nosing here, turning leaves over
     Following a faint stain on the air to the river’s edge
     I enter water. What am I to split
     The glassy grain of water looking upward I see the bed
     Of the river above me upside down very clear
     What am I doing here in mid-air? Why do I find
     this frog so interesting as I inspect its most secret
     interior and make it my own? Do these weeds
     know me and name me to each other have they
     seen me before do I fit in their world? I seem
     separate from the ground and not rooted but dropped
     out of nothing casually I’ve no threads
     fastening me to anything I can go anywhere
     I seem to have been given the freedom
     of this place what am I then? And picking
     bits of bark off this rotten stump gives me
     no pleasure and it’s no use so why do I do it
     me and doing that have coincided very queerly
     But what shall I be called am I the first
     have I an owner what shape am I what
     shape am I am I huge if I go
     to the end on this way past these trees and past these trees
     till I get tired that’s touching one wall of me
     for the moment if I sit still how everything
     stops to watch me I suppose I am the exact centre
     but there’s all this what is it roots
     roots roots roots and here’s the water
     again very queer but I’ll go on looking

A “wodow” is a wild-man, a half-man and half-animal spirit type entity, like a faun or satyr. This poem is an ars poetica, of sorts, as Hughes is exploring the use of “I” and trying to represent himself and/or locate himself in the world and in his poetry. On an ars poetica level, “What am I to split” indicates the split between Hughes and the subject he is writing about. Hughes wants, seemingly, to write about himself but he has to dislocate from himself and embody another, much like the lines, “Why do I find / this frog so interesting as I inspect its most secret / interior and make it my own?” That seems to be at the heart of most of Hughes poetry until about 1989 in Moortown Diary.

In his next collection Crow (1970), Hughes embodies a crow, and in this collection there is a sudden shift in tone. The tone of the poems, the accumulation of images in the poems is very Merwinesque. Despite the tone changing, Hughes is still trying to center himself in the world, but his observations are mediated throw a crow, who is seemingly godlike and/or omnipotent, which adds to the mythmaking feel. The mythmaking is so Merwinesque, I often feel like I am reading Merwin and not Hughes, and many of the long poems, especially “The Contender,” sound and move just like Merwin’s “The Last One.”

Hughes continues his observations and world creating with a sort of celebratory tone and feel until Moortown Diary (1989) and Earth-Numb (1979). In Moortown Diary, a harshness develops, as Hughes observes the less beautiful and exposes an unsympathetic nature. In Earth-Numb he experiences the harshness of life and towns and cities. In these collections, it is as if “Pain was pulled down over his eyes like a fool’s hat. / [. . .] He could not understand what had happened. / Or what he had become” (“The Beacon: A God,” Earth-Numb, 208-9). These poems are hung with pain.

By 1986, in Flowers and Insects, he continues with his empathetic observations, but they are less cynical and more prosy. Another turn in his poetry occurs in Wolfwatching (1989), which is unlike any of his other poems, as he explores the suffering of war, especially though his father and his Uncle Walt.

In the end, I don’t know how to generalize Hughes or what poets to group him with, but he is an impersonal poet trying to become personal. I would gather to say he was influenced by the New Critics because of this impersonality, but he’s not allusive or stylistically/technically as tight as one might expect from a New Critic poet, though early on he makes good use of anapests, which almost give his poem a sense of play or fun. Early on at times, too, he feels like D. H. Lawrence in his observations and sympathies, and I think of Lawrence’s poem “Snake,” in particular. Also, early on his poems can be surreal or dreamlike.

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26
Jul
14

Swinburne, Four Syllables, and Learning to Listen to Write

The prompt for this essay was to write a 10-15 page paper about poems, stories, or novels that influenced my writing. Below is my response.

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Algernon Charles Swinburne

“Algernon Charles Swinburne” by painting George Frederic Watts 1867.

As I thought about what poems changed my work or writing, I had to ask myself in what capacity. In the capacity of expressing myself? in the capacity of using images? being concrete and clear? in the capacity of using the line? in using etymologies? in sounds? etc. Many poems of course came to mind, such as John Donne’s Holy Sonnet #10, Edmund Spenser’s “One day I wrote her name upon the strand,” Gerard Manley Hopkins “The Windhover,” W. S. Merwin’s “The Mountain,” “The Unwritten,” “For the Anniversary of My Death,” and “The Last One.” Two essays also came to mind: Ezra Pound’s “A Retrospect,” which was really the start of everything for me, and Charles Olson’s “Projective Verse.” There were so many choices, but the more I thought about it the more I kept dwelling on Algernon Charles Swinburne and one of his poems. In fact, it was really just four syllables in this poem that I kept turning to for ten years during the 1990s. I believe these four syllables changed my writing more than any other poem. As a result, I will show how this happened and what I learned. In essence, I will show the growth of how my ears learned to listen. As a result, much of what follows will probably be common knowledge to anyone who’s been writing poems for some time, but it is still a sketch of how I learned prosody, or invented my own prosody.

I was introduced to Swinburne by way of Ezra Pound’s “Swinburne and His Biographers.” In this essay, Pound says:

Swinburne recognized poetry as an art, and as an art of verbal music. [. . .] No man who cares for his art can be deaf to the rhythms of Swinburne, deaf to their splendor, deaf also to their bathos. [. . . ] The rhythm-building faculty was in Swinburne, and was perhaps the chief part of his genius. (292-93)

Before I found my way to that essay and to Swinburne, I had been living in and practicing Pound’s advice in “A Retrospect.” You are probably familiar with the three principles (“Direct treatment of the ‘thing’ whether subjective or objective;” “To use no word that does not contribute to the presentation;” and “to compose in the sequence of the musical phrase, not in the sequence of the metronome”) as well as the motto “Go in fear of abstractions.” In the “Rhythm and Rhyme” section of the essay, Pound also points out:

Let him dissect the lyrics of Goethe coldly into their component sound values, syllables long and short, stressed and unstressed, into vowels and consonants.

It is not necessary that a poem should rely on its music, but if it does rely on its music that music must be such as will delight the expert. (5)

As a young writer, I of course wanted to “delight the expert,” as well as everybody else. However, I didn’t know how. Nor did I know what long and short syllables were. I only knew stressed and unstressed syllables, and not very well. And then, as I mentioned, I met Swinburne, and he, and especially one of his poems, drastically informed and changed how I wrote poems during the 1990s.

Swinburne’s poems will force anyone to hear stressed and unstressed syllables. One really can’t “be deaf to the rhythms of Swinburne.” It’s unavoidable. It’s with him my decade-long research into meters (qualitative and quantitative) and forms began. Swinburne wrote in so many meters and forms, I felt required to do the same. I especially loved Sapphic meters, and he has two Sapphic-metered poems, but they are done with qualitative meters instead of quantitative meters. However, I didn’t know this yet. All I knew was to listen.

And so I listened to Swinburne and other poets and my own poems. It was a long training process, but the poem that may have taught me more about meter and rhythm and influenced my own writing is one of the chorus sections from his Greek-like play in verse Atalanta in Calydon. The chorus opens:

Before the Beginning of Years

And it continues for 46 more lines in a bouncy rhythm. The backbeat of the poem is iamb, anapest, and anapest, which Swinburne will play off of throughout the poem. However, there’s much more going on than that. Here’s a typical scansion of the opening line:

Before the Beginning of Years - Simple Scan

In this scansion, I use “u” to indicate an unstressed syllable and “/” to indicate a stressed syllable. That scansion is absolutely correct, or is it? There’s something more complicated going on in that first syllable. I didn’t realize it the first few times I read it, but eventually, sometime later, I heard it different.

I read the opening line over and over again. I read it loud, soft, fast, and slow to try and figure out what was happening with that first syllable. While the “be” in “before” is unstressed, it certainly has more stress than “the.” “How can that be?” I asked myself. I discovered a number of reasons for this.

Edmund SpenserThe first reason was breath. “Be” is the first syllable of the poem, as a result it receives the first exhale from the speaker’s mouth. It receives initial breath, which is more powerful than subsequent breaths in a poem, at least when it pertains to unstressed syllables. When reading a poem aloud, one can’t help but to burst into the poem on the opening syllable, even if it’s just a small burst. The breathing takes time to regulate, usually a syllable or two or three. What I learned from this is that the opening syllable to a poem can’t really be unstressed. Actually, where I first realized that the opening breath adds stress to an unstressed syllable was in the opening line of Edmund Spenser’s “Sonnet 75,” which begins, “One day I wrote her name upon the strand.” The “one,” while correctly scanned as an unstressed syllable, is more of a semi-stressed syllable. I read Spenser’s poem again and again, I compared “One” to “u” in “upon” and to “the,” which are obviously unstressed syllables, I thought about it, and then applied what I learned to Swinburne’s chorus. It held true there. It held true with many other poems, too. It held true with the poems I wrote. What I learned is that the opening syllable will almost always have a little more stress than the same syllable later in the poem, unless there is a deliberate metrical play being facilitated by the poet. This semi-stressed syllable realization while important was still not fully developed, especially in me and my poetry.

The idea that there was the special syllable intrigued me. I had assumed there were either stressed or unstressed syllables and nothing else. This is all I ever read in books or was taught. Even in the dictionary, there are only stressed and unstressed syllables, and the “Be” in “Before” is unstressed. But here’s a third syllable that is neither. “Is it just an aberration? Is it only true of opening syllables?” I asked myself. I eventually found two answers. The first was realizing that stressed and unstressed syllables are not absolute. They are relational, as hinted at before with the “u” in “upon” and the “the” in Spenser’s poem. While “be” in “before” will usually be unstressed, its unstress comes in relation to the other syllables around it. Since the “be” in “before” is always surrounded by the stressed “fore,” it will almost always sound unstressed. Still, it is more stressed than the “the” later in the Swinburne line. In fact, articles are almost always unstressed, especially when it follows the stressed “fore.” The next unstressed syllable that follows the unstressed “the” is also “be,” but this time in the word “beginning.” This “be” is also considered an unstressed syllable because of where it is in relation to the stressed “gin.” But when I listened closely, I heard it being more stressed than the preceding “the.” I didn’t hear the “be” in “beginning” as stressed or unstressed. It was in between. This time, however, it wasn’t because of initial expulsion of air. It was something else.

When I listened to the lines in this chorus, I heard rising rhythms. Of course, the rhythm will rise naturally with iambs and anapests, but there was more nuance in the rising in Swinburne’s chorus, and it occurs in the second syllable of the anapests. It turns out Swinburne wasn’t using a two-scored scansion system of syllables. He was using a three-scored scansion system. Here’s a different scansion of the opening line:

Before the Beginning of Years - Three Tier

In this scansion, I use “u” and “/” as I used them above, but here I use “u/” to indicate a semi-stressed syllable. When I scanned it by hand with a pencil in the 90s, I used a “u” with a slanted line through it. I was inventing my own scansion and scansion markings, and I would invent more. But back to this line. The rising rhythm is nuanced. It’s smooth. It glides up into each foot’s stressed syllable – unstressed to semi-stressed to stressed. But there’s even more to this rising.

Again, after reading this poem many more times, as well as reading other poems and writing my own poems that tried to imitate meters and rhythms, I heard this chorus’s opening line differently. This time I heard how the last syllable “years” is more stressed than the other syllables in the line. Here’s how I scanned it:

Before the Beginning of Years - Four Tier

Here I use “x” to indicate what I call a strong stress. My ear now heard four levels of stress and I had built my scansion system to include one more scansion symbol. My poet’s ears were really coming alive. Hearing the sounds wasn’t enough for me. I wanted to know why it happened and how I could do it. While figuring it out, I reread Swinburne’s poem “Sapphics.” I liked the way the poem moved, but I didn’t know why it was called Sapphics. At the time, I had a little 4 ½” x 3 ¼” inch Collins Gem Latin Dictionary. (I still have it.) In it, in the prefatory materials, there is a seven-page “Metres” section about Latin meters and poetic forms. One of those was called “Sapphics,” after the poetic form Sappho used, which may have been created by Alcaeus of Mytilen (Sappho’s contemporary). But when the dictionary laid out the meter and format of the poem and gave a brief description of it, it didn’t use stressed and unstressed syllables. It used long and short syllables to represent the three hendecasyllabic lines (or “lesser Sapphics”) and the one adonic. I then remembered Pound mentioning “syllables long and short.” I realized some syllables have a longer pronunciation duration than other syllables. For instance, the “e” in the word “he” is longer than the “e” in the word “the.” I listened to that opening line again.

Before the Beginning of Years - Quantitative

The “–” below the line indicates a long syllable and the “u” below the line indicates a short syllable. My scansion system continued to grow as did my scansion markings as did my poet’s ears. The quantitative scansion system, I would later realize, is also relational, but the relationship has a wider scale. It works mainly with the whole line rather than what is nearby, as in qualitative scansion.

At this point you may be asking, “Why is the ‘Be’ in ‘Before’ longer than the ‘be’ in ‘beginning’?” That’s a good question. Outside of this poem, or if “before” and “beginning” are spoken as independent words, both “be”s would be the same length. In this opening line, however, I hear the “e” in “Be” in “Before” as a long “e.” It is as if the poem begins with a running start or as if the speaker is tuning his/her voice with the commencement of the poem. It might also be because of that initial expulsion of air. Nonetheless, pronouncing it as a short “e,” as in “beginning,” just doesn’t sound right. It’s seems out of key and out of tone, especially with the mood of the poem. One could argue that it is in fact a short syllable, and that is fine, as scansions can be debated. However, I heard and still hear it as a long syllable. The more important observation is the long syllable “years.”

I’m sure Swinburne was aware of long and short syllables, but he didn’t seem to consciously implement them. Even in his poem “Sapphics,” he translates the Greek quantitative meter into an Anglo qualitative meter. Pound will later write at least two Sapphic poems (“Apparuit” and “The Return,” though he disguises the form) where he plays quantitative meter against qualitative meter, and even later on, James Wright will Americanize Sapphics in “Erinna to Sappho,” using three iambic tetrameter lines and an iambic dimeter line. That, however, is another lesson. Back to Swinburne. No matter what Swinburne’s intentions were or were not, “years” is long and stressed. I thought this is how he made the syllable have more stress than a typically stressed syllable. I would later learn that a long syllable, and sometimes just a long vowel, can not only make a stressed syllable more stressed, but it can add stress to an unstressed syllable. In the opening to the chorus, the length of the syllable may also contribute to “Be” in “Before” being a semi-stressed word.

So what I had learned so far and practiced in writing by way of Swinburne? While there are stressed and unstressed syllables in poetry and they can be used as a backbeat to build a poem on, there’s more nuance to those syllables. There are at least four levels of stresses and they can be impacted by the length of the syllable. I learned that I can play stress and length off each other to create certain auditory effects. I would later learn that there’s even a fifth stress. It is more stressed than the strong stress I represented with an “x” in the above scansion. I picked this up from Robert Duncan, who somewhere wrote something like, “in each poem, there is one syllable that is more stressed than all the other syllables.” I found and find this to be often true. Though sometimes there are two syllables that are more stressed than all of the other syllables and sometimes there aren’t any outstandingly stressed syllables. I also learned that stresses are relational as well as the length of the syllable being relational. In addition, this chorus from Swinburne also aided me in realizing that rhythms can rise and fall, rhythms have their effects and can be used to create effects to please a listener’s ear and “delight the expert,” and they can also be used to affect meanings.

Writing in quantitative meters in English, however, is more a difficult endeavor and much more complicated than the four levels of stress. In the Romance languages, as I understand it, the lengths are more certain, just like our Anglo-American stresses. In Anglo-American, however, there are so many variable lengths of syllables it’s too difficult to scan effectively, but knowing when to use a long or short syllable is still useful in composing a music that “will delight the expert.” Further complications in quantitative syllables are compounded with schwas and diphthongs. How many syllables are in a diphthong? For instance, is “fire” one or two syllables? Or is it even more syllables as Robert Pinsky once pointed out when he was in the south and saw a woman running from her burning house yelling “fire” as a five-syllable word. This also became a learned lesson: context can dictate how a syllable is pronounced.

Additionally, after figuring out how a long syllable became a long syllable, which often occurs with a long vowel sound, I learned that vowels, especially long vowels, carry emotions. I thought the long vowel’s emotional effect had to do with duration and pitch. I learned some of this from Robert Bly, who I had thought had a tin ear, but would later realize he was using long vowels to create tones, which was his music. In “Educating the Rider and the Horse,” he briefly discusses it effects:

[The third type of sound a poem with a “wild animal” form is] the conscious intensity – not sequence – of pitches. Syllables that rose high, very high, in the Old Norse line the poets called “lifters.” We can hear them in Beowulf. Sometimes the lifters resemble the peak of a roof, sometimes the dragon prow of a Viking ship that rises and falls. Sounds pronounced naturally in the roof of the mouth, such as “ee,” drive the sound up; conviction drives it up; the beat as it arrives helps drive it up. This is mysterious, unquantifiable. (294)

Allen Ginsberg would do something similar as Bly, but his music came from the ups and downs of pitch. His poems, the lines in his poems (at least the ones I liked and read and studied) would often rise and fall in pitch. Bly would rely on a field of pitch (or a small range of pitches) for tonal effect, whereas Ginsberg would rely on mountains and valleys of pitch for movement and for physical effects. I eventually made up a hypothesis that in poetry the vowels in a word carry the emotions and the consonants carry the meaning, which I think is even more true the further back in English poetry history one listens.

During the 1990s, as mentioned, pretty much all I did was to write in as many meters (quantitative and qualitative) and forms as I could find, including free verse and projective verse. Olson’s “Projective Verse” essay was a major influence on how I wrote poetry. It taught me about breath and breathing, and informed, as a result, though indirectly, my understanding of long and short syllables. I would quote some of the poems I wrote, but I burned them all (all two boxes of them) in a bonfire fifteen years ago on July 3, 1999. It might be for the better because I couldn’t master aligning sound and sense, and to quote them would be embarrassing. Nonetheless, I could write meters very easily. And I could write a line or two that were clear, but writing a whole poem, especially with the complications I added (which I will note below), was more difficult than I could expect it to be. The poems I wrote had intricate meters and sounds, but the meaning of the poems were held together only in my head. They wouldn’t make much sense to other readers. Or the poems would be too abstract. Meters, I discovered, lend themselves to polysyllabic abstract words. At least that is true for me and even Swinburne. Swinburne in his later years fell into polysyllabic music, too. Still I kept at writing in meters and forms. I even tried to train myself to speak in sonnets, but I drift off topic.

Swinburne was not only an inspiration, but he also became a testing ground. If I discovered something in another poem, I would test it out in his poems, as I briefly illustrated above. I would also test it out in my own writings. I began with writing syllabics and used Swinburne’s poem “Syllabics” as a guide, as well as other poets. Once I got syllabics down, I moved on to iambs and then trochees and then to forms with those meters. Then I returned to syllabics and tried to incorporate other musically devices into it, like assonance, alliteration, and consonance. Gerard Manley Hopkins, Thomas Campion, Wallace Stevens, and Linda Bierds were vital in this musical development to “delight the expert.” Having figured out how to make those sounds, I then tried laying those sounds on top of iambs, and then atop other meters, and then into forms. This process restarted again with syllabics and then trying to incorporate etymologies into syllabic poems. I learned how to do this from Hopkins and Wallace Stevens. For instance, in one of Hopkins sonnets (I think it is the one that begins “Thou are indeed just, Lord, if I contend”), most of the words in the poem have etymological roots in feudal law, especially concerning lord and vassals, which I learned after half an afternoon with a dictionary in the Paddy Hill Library in Greece, NY. The poem was rooted by way of etymologies. Stevens did something similar, at times, especially with “Crispin” and “clipped” in “The Comedian as the Letter C.” I would even invent a school of poetry called “Skeatsism,” based on Rev. Walter W. Skeat’s An Etymological Dictionary of the English Language and my findings with Hopkins and Stevens. My writing/discovery process continued with the iambs, other meters, forms, and harmonies, etc. Swinburne was then also a motivator to go learn more. While Swinburne can teach a lot, he can’t teach everything, like long and short syllables, the emotions of vowels, and etymological rotisserie. Still there is one last lesson he had for me.

Besides not being able to write successful poems in meter and form, I also couldn’t master what call the ghost syllable. A ghost syllable is a syllable that has no representation in words or sounds. It is a syllable that is felt. It is a syllable that lingers like a ghost lingers after someone passes away. For example, I will return to the Swinburne chorus I’ve been writing about. Here are the opening four lines again, with scansion:

First Four Lines - Simple Scan

You can see and hear how Swinburne varies the rising rhythms in lines 3 and 4. If you listen even closer, you will hear two extra beats at the end of each those four lines. So it can be represented like this:

First Four Lines - Ghost Syllables

Those two extra stresses (“/   /”) at the end of each line are what I refer to as ghost syllables, and they move the poem forward. They create an extra tension between what is heard and unheard. They extend the line. I thought perhaps I might be hearing things. However, once in 2002 or 2003, I gave a poetry reading to a very receptive audience. Not too far into my reading of this chorus by Swinburne, the audience started supplying those ghosts beats at the ends of the lines by stomping their feet and slapping their tables. They picked up on the ghost syllable, and validated my reading. This effect is magical. Later on, I purchased The Fugs: The Fugs First Album. (The Fugs were an avant-garde rock band, and poets Ed Sanders and Tuli Kupferberg are the most known members.) They did a musical rendition of the same chorus and called it the “Swinburne Stomp.” They heard and included the ghost beat, too. (Their rendition of the song has also influenced my reading of the poem, which is now more dramatic, especially at the end.) To this day, I still do not know how the ghost syllables work or how to do it. I wish I did, but I don’t. This among many things is what makes Swinburne a metrical genius from whom I learned so much about the music of poetry. Those two ghost syllables, the “Be” in “Before,” and “years” were the four syllables that affected me the most.

As a result, Swinburne prepared me for listening and listening with intent. He taught me prosody and how to talk about it. He prepared me for Gerard Manley Hopkins, especially “The Windhover,” which was another influential poem to my ears, as well as Edmund Spenser’s “One Day I Wrote Her Name Upon the Stand” (which maybe a perfect sonnet), and it prepared me John Donne’s Holy Sonnet #10, “Death, be not proud, though some have callèd thee.” It prepared me in such a way that I preferred to write musical poems over poems that made sense. That is, I became so obsessed in writing music to “delight the expert” that I forgot about everyone else, which means I forgot about clarity. The reader needs clarity. Writing poems with clarity would take me a whole other decade with W. S. Merwin to accomplish.

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Works Cited

Bly, Robert. “Educating the Rider and the Horse.” American Poetry: Wildness and Domesticity. New York: Harper & Row Publishers: 1990. 289-96. Print.

Donne, John. “Holy Sonnet 10.” The Norton Anthology of English Language: Volume 1. 5th ed. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1986. 1099. Print.

Hopkins, Gerard Manley. “Thou are indeed just, Lord, if I contend.” Gerard Manley Hopkins: Poems and Prose. New York: Penguin Books, 1988. 67. Print.

Pound, Ezra. “A Retrospect.” Literary Essays of Ezra Pound. Ed. T. S. Eliot. New York: New Directions: 1968. 3-14. Print.

—. “Swinburne and His Biographers.” Literary Essays of Ezra Pound. Ed. T. S. Eliot. New York: New Directions: 1968. 290-294. Print.

Spenser, Edmund. “Sonnet 75.” The Norton Anthology of English Language: Volume 1. 5th ed. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1986. 770. Print.

Swinburne, Algernon Charles. Atalanta in Calydon. Major Poems and Selected Prose. Eds. Jerome McCann and Charles L. Sligh. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2004. 3-67. Print.

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Sapphics

– u  – u  – u u  – u  – u

– u  – u  – u u  – u  – u

– u  – u  – u u  – u  – u

– u u  – u

 

u = short syllable. – =long syllable.

The first three lines are the hendecasyllabic lines, or “lesser Sapphics.” The fourth and eleventh syllables are open syllables. Originally they were long, but now are variable.

The adonic is the fourth line.

A Sapphic poem usually consists of a number of these formally structured stanzas.

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To download a PDF of this essay, click Four Syllables.

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08
Jan
13

W. S. Merwin’s Migration: New & Selected Poems (2005)

Over the next few weeks or months, I will post all my reviews (“Tom’s Celebrations”) that appeared in Redactions: Poetry, Poetics, & Prose (formerly Redactions: Poetry & Poetics) up to and including issue 12. After that, my reviews appeared here (The Line Break) before appearing in the journal. This review first appeared in issue 6/7, which was published circa mid-2006.

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W. S. Merwin's – MigrationAt last, I have found it. I have found the one book that I want with me on the deserted island where I am stranded forever — W. S. Merwin’s Migration: New & Selected Poems (Copper Canyon Press). Migration, singular, because, as Merwin wrote on postcard to me, “each of us is alone.”

But why this book for the deserted island? Because, in part, this selection of poems has substance. In fact, the selections are such that a reader can actually get a genuine, though not complete, feel of each book from which the poems were pulled. You can almost sense Merwin in his entirety. For me, I can, for my life time on the deserted island, be enamored by the poems giving something that is present, but that may not actually be there, or by the noting of the presence of an absence. I can feel the breathless continuation of intimate detail, not unlike book two of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, which Merwin also translated.

I can read & re-read “The Mountain,” which is what I want to talk about here. This is my favorite poem that has not failed to stimulate me in my numerous readings & listenings to it. (And if you are lucky enough to find W. S. Merwin: Reading a Selection of His Poetry (a CD from Copper Canyon Press), get it. You will hear more clearly & crisply the pauses, the tonal shifts, and the syntax of Merwin’s mind.)

And it is in “The Mountain,” a poem from very early in Merwin’s career, where I can hear Merwin begin to develop. It is from this poem where I can find a base for Merwin’s perceptions & thinkings – that is, either we can perceive a part of something from close proximity, or we can perceive the whole but only from a distance too far away, where we cannot see it. Consider these lines from “The Mountain”:

                  It is believed that if one could see it 
   Whole, its shape might make this clearer, but that 
   Is impossible, for at the distance at which in theory 
   One could see it all, it would be out of sight.

And notice the interjection – “at which in theory / One could see it all” – delays the completion of the thought, but not without regard to the thought, for here the momentum slows, the tone lowers, & Merwin produces another moment, where none could be anticipated, a momentary stay against confusion within the momentary stay. And he gives us the possibility of seeing the Mountain in its fullness but only to realize that one could not see the mountain, for it would lose its “slope,” its dignity from the point at which one could see it all.

And then consider this line from later in “The Mountain,” “Shadows are not without substance.” Can you hear what poem that is calling up? Merwin’s “The Last One” (among others, I suppose). Can you hear how it presents the thing without matter & gives it matter — a substantiality? And its from here I can make a leap into the understanding of a maturer Merwin, who does not use punctuation. He has said he does not use punctuation because “the mind does not think in punctuation.” For Merwin, it seems, the poem is never more than an extension of syntax. But the syntax is there, despite its absence – you can hear it, you breathe it. By not using punctuation, by the use of caesuras & line breaks, he creates a punctuation we readily understand. I think, for Merwin, that punctuation puts an anchor on the imagination. (I know it does for me.) The punctuation limits the presentation of the whole, limits the imagination in intimate connection. The punctuation creates a relationship that is either too close or too far; without the punctuation, the imagination can wrap around what it perceives — at least more fully. It can bend language into perception instead of compromising perception for language. But consider these punctuated lines from “The Mountain.”

   Only on the rarest of occasions, when the blue air, 
   Though clear, is not too blinding (as, say 
   For a particular moment just at dusk in autumn) 
   Or if the clouds should part suddenly 
   Between freshets in spring, can one trace the rising 
   Slopes high enough to call them contours; and even 
   More rarely see above the tree line. Then 
   It is with almost a shock that one recognizes 
   What supposedly one had known always: 
   That it is, in fact, a mountain, not merely 
   This restrictive sense of nothing level, of never 
   Being able to go anywhere 
   But up or down, until is seems probable 
   Sometimes that the slope, to be so elusive 
   And yet so inescapable, must be nothing 
   But ourselves; that we have grown with one 
   Foot shorter than the other, and would deform 
   The levelest habitat to our misshapen 
   Condition.

Read “punctuation” or “standard-English syntax” in place of “clouds”, then perhaps you will see what I am suggesting above. Now consider:

                        Of course to each of us 
   Privately, its chief difference from its peers 
   Rests not even in its centrality, but its 
   Strangeness composed of our own intimacy 
   With a part of it, our necessary 
   Ignorance of its limits, and diurnal pretense 
   That what we see of it is all.

(Notice that beautiful pause between “its” & “Strangeness”.) I think it is in this poem that Merwin begins to break through, & is telling himself on some level that he can’t see it all unless he cleanses his lens of perception from standard-English syntax. But Merwin can see it all (or at least more than us) – he can be intimate, & you can be intimate with Merwin in your alone reading of Migration: New & Selected Poems – an experience of meeting Merwin when he is not there, even though he is. //

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Merwin, W. S. Migration: New & Selected Poems. Port Townsend, WA: Copper Canyon Press, 2005.//




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