August 5, 2022
This is the last of a series of three newsletters on the pleasures of language, a topic intended for summer enjoyment. We have been moving from circumference to center, beginning with the language of criticism, which should instruct about literary texts but which is, or should be, or could be, an art in itself, and therefore should give its own kind of pleasure. Last week we moved to the language of literature itself, but the greater part of the discussion was about prose. Today we arrive at the center of literature, which is poetry, the most language-intensive genre of literature and therefore the one which should give the most pleasure.
When I have taught poetry creative writing, I have always begun by having students read the following response by Dylan Thomas to a research student’s questionnaire:
I should say that I wanted to write poetry in the beginning because I had fallen in love with words. The first poems I knew were nursery rhymes, and before I could read them for myself I had come to love just the words of them, the words alone. What the words stood for, symbolised, or meant, was of very secondary importance; what mattered was the sound of them as I heard them for the first time on the lips of the remote and incomprehensible grown-ups who seemed, for some reason, to be living in my world. And these words were, to me, as the notes of bells, the sounds of musical instruments, the noises of wind, sea, and rain, the rattle of milk-carts, the clopping of hooves on cobbles, the fingering of branches on a windowpane, might be to someone, deaf from birth, who has miraculously found his hearing.
From this sheer pleasure in language was born the desire to write poetry himself:
“I wrote endless imitations,” he says, “though I never thought them to be imitations but, rather, wonderfully original things, like eggs laid by tigers.” He ends by saying, “I, myself, do not read poetry for anything but pleasure,” and he recommends: “Read the poems you like reading. Don’t bother whether they’re ‘important,’ or if they’ll live…The joy and function of poetry is, and was, the celebration of man, which is also the celebration of God.” The rest of this newsletter will do no more than elaborate on what Thomas has said definitively.
Dylan Thomas was the first poet I liked at an age when I thought I didn’t like poetry. His Collected Poems was the first book of poetry I ever bought, at the age of 18. I remember standing in a bookstore that no longer exists, reading around in it and thinking, “I have no idea what most of this means, but it is wonderful. I intend to go on to understand it someday.” I was true to my word, and wrote my doctoral dissertation on the poetry of Dylan Thomas. Its rough sketch was the final essay I wrote for Northrop Frye’s graduate course in Literary Symbolism.
But I always tell my students to confront the hard questions about any subject they are trying to write upon, even if they have to sit and think hard about what those questions might be. They will always be there, waiting for you to wrestle with them. If you go on to grad school, you will learn that the academic jargon for this method is “problematize,” although that kind of jargon is more likely to induce migraines than pleasure. At any rate, the hard question here is whether Thomas’s attitude does not trivialize poetry, make it a kind of art-for-art’s-sake game. My response to my students is, the Victorians tended to think of poetry as the annunciation of Great Thoughts; we tend to think of it as the expression of feelings, as confessional or at least subjective. But in my experience the students most likely to go on to become published poets are those whose first interest is not in personal expression but in language. Thomas says, “What I like to do is to treat words as a craftsman does his wood or stone of what-have-you, to hew, carve, mould, coil, polish and plane them into patterns, sequences, sculptures, fugues of sound expressing some lyrical impulse, some spiritual doubt or conviction, some dimly-realised truth I must try to reach and realise.” Notice that Thomas does finally arrive at some relationship that language potentially has to reality—to doubt, conviction, or truth. But art is the opposite of what we are told about life: in art, it is pleasure before business.
I seem to be revolving in recent newsletters around Keats’s aphorism that “Beauty is truth, truth beauty.” What I think that Keats—or his Grecian urn—means, if I may put it in my own lingo, is that beauty, in other words the imagination, recreates reality or truth in its own image, so that truth or reality becomes beauty, becomes transformed—which is not the same as prettified. We think of the imagination as a subjective fantasy activity inside a self that is surrounded by external reality. But the goal of the poetic process, the play or the work of language, which to the poet are the same thing, is to reverse that relationship, to make the form of the poem the circumference of reality. Whether that goal is always achieved, or ever completely achieved, is another matter. It is probably truer to say that in the poetic process, language wrestles with reality as Jacob with the angel. It will be wounded, but if lucky will get a blessing. But let us not get too serious too quickly: a wrestling match, an agon, is still a game, a form of play. Play may get very intense without ceasing to be play. And the motive for play is pleasure. Wallace Stevens’ long poem “Notes toward a Supreme Fiction” is organized in three parts, each of them titled with one criterion for a supreme fiction. One of them is, “It Must Give Pleasure.”
In the two previous newsletters, we organized our study by utilizing a rhetorical typology, a schematic diagram of the ways in which language works upon us. There is a vertical axis of levels of usage—high, middle, and low in the old Classical rhetoric books; formal, conversational, and popular in modern composition texts. This is intersected by a horizontal axis of style: ordinary language forms a center which may shade off in one direction into a lyricism that intensifies into the increasingly oracular, in the opposite direction into a wit that may intensify into intellectual riddle or enigma. The history of modern English-language poetry, with its radical transformations and battles between stylistic schools, can be mapped onto this grid in a way that might tell us something about why there are so many styles and schools, and what the relationship among them might be. And for me there is, as usual these days, the advantage of being old: I was around when most of it happened.
I first became aware of modern American poetry in the 1960’s when a revolt against a previously dominant high or formal poetic style was already well underway. This formalism was not the ornate aristocratic rhetoric of Renaissance literature, or even the genteel style of the 18th and 19th centuries—those were long gone. But a new formal style had been both created and advocated by an influential group known as the New Critics, many of whom were both poets and critics. Most of the New Critics were cultural conservatives who regarded the decay of traditional values and the rise of mass culture as a disaster. Some were Southern, but one of them, John Crowe Ransom, taught at Kenyon College outside of Columbus, Ohio, a little over a hundred miles from where I live. In a crucial move, Robert Lowell, of the eminent patrician family, left Harvard for Kenyon to study with Ransom, and later went on to study with two other New Critics, Robert Penn Warren and Cleanth Brooks. As the Norton Anthology of Modern and Contemporary Poetry puts it, “He was greatly influenced by the predilection of these poets and critics for ‘formal, difficult poems’” (120). A famous work of New Criticism was William Empson’s Seven Types of Ambiguity, and Lowell employed all seven, to the point where his own mentor Ransom, according to the Norton Anthology, found them “forbidding and clotted” (120). The type of poetry the New Critics admired was dense, obscure, allusive, and ironic: they were instrumental in persuading the modern world to admire the Metaphysical poets of the 17th century, particularly John Donne in his more gnarly and paradoxical moments. Lowell’s early poetry, true to the Puritanism of his family background, was dark, anguished, haunted by evil and death. But pleasure is not simple. We are perfectly capable of finding pleasure in dark, anguished hauntedness well expressed, as in this opening from one of Lowell’s best-known early poems, “The Quaker Graveyard in Nantucket”:
A brackish reach of shoal off Madaket— The sea was still breaking violently and night Had steamed into our North Atlantic Fleet, When the drowned sailor clutched the drag-net. Light Flashed from his matted head and marble feet, He grappled at the net With the coiled, hurdling muscles of his thighs….
And yet, after a time the style is exhausting: as coiled and hurdling as the muscles of a dead man’s thighs, it never relaxes:
My heart, you race and stagger and demand… Till I, the stunned machine of your devotion, Clanging upon this symbol of a hand, Am rattled screw and footloose.
Moreover, it is elitist, hermetically sealed against so much of life that it condemns.
Lowell changed, and his poetic style changed with him. In 1959, he published the tremendously influential, significantly titled Life Studies. Suddenly, the style drops from the formal into the conversational voice, as in this opening of the famous poem “For the Union Dead”:
The old South Boston Aquarium stands In a Sahara of snow now. Its broken windows are boarded. The bronze weathervane cod has lost half its scales. The airy tanks are dry.
Explaining his reason for the change, he said, “Why not tell what happened?” And modern poetry followed him, or at least moved along with him.
At this point, histories of modern American poetry have a tendency to jump immediately to the free verse revolution, to the style that tells what happened in a style so plain that it is only poetry because the author says it is. But that is a great oversimplification. I think an argument could be made that a truly conversational style is better captured in a flexible blank or smoothly rhymed verse than in free verse, where another kind of rhythm tends to rise up from below, as it were, and take over the conversation. When Robert Frost said that free verse is like playing tennis without the net, he seemed to be preferring the game-playing aspect of poetry, but in fact Frost’s games are usually very simple, like the blank verse of “Out, Out—” or “Birches.” It does not get any more naturally conversational than those poems, whose ancestors are the “conversation poems” of Wordsworth and Coleridge, such as “Frost at Midnight”:
When I see birches bend to left and right Across the lines of straighter darker trees, I like to think some boy’s been swinging them.
Behind the Romantics is of course the blank verse of Shakespeare and the other poetic dramatists. The great advantage of blank verse is its flexibility, its ability to shift from the syntax of ordinary speech momentarily towards wit or lyricism and back again, varying the tone. Shakespeare does this constantly. If the plain speaking voice shifts towards the witty end of the horizontal stylistic spectrum, it produces the kind of poetry characteristic of a number of poets who, in my opinion, are considerably underrated. I speak as one who when young was enraptured by the other, visionary and oracular end of the stylistic spectrum, which we will get to shortly. But as I grew older, I came to appreciate the quiet, unpretentious sanity of a number of poets, formalist in a sense, in that their stylistic default was either blank verse, or, in some cases, syllabic verse, patterned by counting the number of syllables rather than stresses in a line, which enabled the verse to sound free and yet remain unobtrusively controlled, but wearing their formalism lightly, so to speak, in contrast with the hieratic intoning of much New Critical verse.
In the generation after Frost, the most famous exemplar of this conversational style was W.H. Auden, although Auden was a virtuoso who could write in every style, and did. But the conversational mode was congenial to him, and his wonderful poem “In Praise of Limestone” is at once an example and a defense of what is not just a poetic style but an attitude to life:
If it form the one landscape that we the inconstant ones Are consistently homesick for, this is chiefly Because it dissolves in water.
Much of the poem catalogues the types who are made of sterner stuff, the saints, the Caesars, the solitaries, who actively and heroically reject the easy pliancy of the limestone that allows itself to be molded by the forces of life. But the poem ends by affirming its kind of almost Taoistic acceptance:
Dear, I know nothing of Either, but when I try to imagine a faultless love Or the life of the world to come, what I hear is the murmur Of underground streams, what I see is a limestone landscape.
A Classical precedent for such a middle style is the relaxed urbanity of the Roman poet Horace. Another is the smooth couplets of Molière, for whom Richard Wilbur proved the perfect and celebrated translator, although he was a rewarding poet in his own right. In “Ceremony,” writing of a painting of a woman in the woods by the French Impressionist Bazille, he says, at once defending the painter’s style and his own:
Ho hum. I am for wit and wakefulness, And love this feigning lady by Bazille. What’s lightly hid is deepest understood.
What is to be understood, what “ceremony never did conceal… is “How much we are the woods we wander in.”
The greatest of the wit poets, to my mind one of the major poets of the 20th century, was James Merrill, who, like Auden, could do anything. “The Broken Home” is a stylistic tour de force, a series of seven sonnets, each of which plays a different variation on the rules of the supposedly “strict” form. Into this sequence Merrill compresses an entire autobiography, sketching a vivid portrait of his rich and problematic father Charles E. Merrill of the investment firm Merrill Lynch, Pierce, Fenner & Smith:
Each thirteenth year he married. When he died There were already several chilled wives In sable orbit—rings, cars, permanent waves. We’d felt him warming up for a green bride. He could afford it. He was “in his prime” At three score ten. But money was not time.
The next sonnet makes the dry comment,
Always that same old story— Father Time and Mother Earth, A marriage on the rocks.
But what is “lightly hid” behind this kind of defensive wit is the pain and loneliness not just of the child but of the 36-year-old poet who writes the poem.
That combination of wit, pain, and loneliness would drive Merrill to write The Changing Light at Sandover, an astonishing poem in three volumes clearly modeled on the three parts of Dante’s Divine Comedy—if the Divine Comedy had been written by Marcel Proust. For Sandover purports to be the recorded conversations of Merrill and his partner David Jackson over many years through a Ouija board with the world of the dead, including W.H. Auden. Merrill always insisted these conversations really happened, and there is no reason to doubt him. The poem, while occasionally spooky, is overall a divine comedy in the sense of a conversation among friends, both the living and the dearly departed who, it turns out, are not entirely departed after all. Sandover quotes Northrop Frye on its first page, a signal that Merrill knows what kind of mythmaking he has embarked upon.
Despite Merrill’s wealthy background, the poetry of serious wit does not have a necessary connection with class privilege. Marilyn Hacker has written lesbian, feminist decidedly non-snobbish poetry in all the fixed forms, as in “Rondeau after a Transatlantic Telephone Call”:
Love, it was good to talk to you tonight. You lather me like summer though. I light up, sip smoke. Insistent through walls comes the downstairs neighbor’s double-bass. It thrums like toothache. I will shower away the sweat, smoke, summer sound.
Nor is it always connected with the kind of elite education implied by sonnets and rondeaus, but can go in for more satiric roughhousing, as in the spirited doggerel of “God, a Poem,” by the English poet James Fenton, in which God disabuses his worshipper:
“I didn’t exist at Creation, I didn’t exist at the Flood, And I won’t be around for Salvation To sort out the sheep from the cud— Or whatever the phrase is. The fact is In soteriological terms I’m a crude existential malpractice And you are a diet of worms.
Although it’s true that to get the final joke you have to know about the trial of Luther at the Diet of Worms.
The conversational style can move in the other direction, towards the lyrical, as in a hauntingly beautiful sonnet by a neglected poet, May Sarton, called “Girl with ‘Cello,” a mood piece with only two rhymes describing a girl playing a cello:
And she drew out that sound so like a wail, A rich dark suffering joy, as if to show All that a wrist holds and fingers know When they caress a magic animal. There had been no such music here until A girl came in from dark and falling snow.
A further move upon the stylistic spectrum and the lyrical intensifies into the oracular, and the ordinary begins to be charged with a visionary intensity. This is the kind of poetry that I first loved when younger. Its early modern master was Yeats, followed by Dylan Thomas and Hart Crane; in the younger generation, Theodore Roethke and James Dickey were influenced by Thomas. James Dickey frequently attempts to imagine the unimaginable. “The Heaven of Animals” pictures animals immortal like dying god figures, through a cyclical death-and-rebirth process:
Fulfilling themselves without pain
At the cycle’s center, They tremble, they walk Under the tree, They fall, they are torn, They rise, they walk again.
In 176 long, breathlessly rhapsodic Whitmanesque lines, “Falling” describes the experience of a stewardess as she falls after being swept through an emergency door of a plane, a real incident that Dickey read about in the New York Times.
In “The Lost Son,” the first of a sequence of experimental poems, Theodore Roethke embarks on a mythical descent journey—but it is the language that descends, down to its usually preconscious roots in what Northrop Frye calls “babble” and “doodle.” The narrative of “The Lost Son” is implied, marked by section titles that move from “The Flight” to “The Pit” to “The Gibber” to “The Return.” Among the gibberish is this representative sample:
What a small song. What slow clouds. What dark water. Hath the rain a father? All the caves are ice. Only the snow’s here. I’m cold. I’m cold all over. Rub me in father and mother. Fear was my father, Father Fear. His look drained the stones.
Roethke has said that his influences included the lyrics of Blake, Emily Dickinson, and nursery rhymes.
Stylistically, what gets admired, or at least what gets more attention in American poetry after the second world war, is the poetry that smashes the old poetic forms and conventions the way that Protestant iconoclasts smashed the stained-glass windows of Catholic churches in the Renaissance, as a protest against an alleged aesthetic idolatry that was felt to be inseparable from an outworn elitist ideology. Meter, rhyme, fixed forms like the sonnet were taken to be inherently conservative and conformist, a poetic equivalent of the polished, artificial manners of a privileged class. Aesthetically, this is nonsense, and yet it is true that such conventions are sometimes adopted by poets who project on them their ideological need for control. They are also broken away from by poets who feel the need to escape from such control. Perhaps the best known example is Adrienne Rich, who published her first book of technically perfect formal verse, with an introduction by Auden, at the age of 21. “Aunt Jennifer’s Tigers” is the portrait of a woman totally mastered by patriarchal control, whose repressed life energies can only escape in the form of the tigers of her embroidery, “proud and unafraid”:
Aunt Jennifer’s fingers fluttering through her wool Find even the ivory needle hard to pull. The massive weight of Uncle’s wedding band Sits heavily upon Aunt Jennifer’s hand.
The technical virtuosity is remarkable, the fluttering rhythm of the first two lines being contrasted by the massive weight of the stresses in the third. Unlike Aunt Jennifer, Rich escaped. After raising three sons, Rich went on to become a lesbian radical feminist and a poet of broken rhythms, as in “Power”
Living in the earth-deposits of our history
That is the first line. The second begins disjunctively, “Today a backhoe divulged out of a crumbling flank of earth / one bottle amber perfect,” a cure “for living on this earth.” The rest of the poem speaks of Marie Curie, who denied “her wounds came from the same source as her power.” The reader has to put the fragments together—or not.
The ostensible goal of the free verse revolution was to liberate the language of poetry from both formal and measured conversational style, liberating a truly popular voice, the style in which we actually speak, whereas conversational style is slightly polished. It succeeded so completely that a flat, popular style now dominates in the little magazines that publish poetry, some of which state in their submission rules that they are not interested in any kind of formal verse. Donald Platt’s “The Main Event” begins like this:
At the weigh-in On the morning of March 24th, 1962, the World Welterweight Champ, Benny “Kid” Paret, Called his challenger, Emile Griffith, a maricón— Cuban slang for “faggot”— and smiled.
Platt emphasizes the commonplace factuality of such language by quoting Norman Mailer’s prose description of that fight, which is far more poetic than his own style is: I use Mailer’s piece in writing classes to show the use of vivid metaphor even when describing realistic action in an essay. Mailer wrote that Griffith’s hand was “whipping like a piston rod which had broken through the crankcase, or like a baseball bat demolishing a pumpkin.” Paret died in the fight, while the horrified audience watched.
The language of poetry like Platt’s is authentic: it is how we really talk. The technical trick is to keep it from turning into merely chopped-up prose, and a glance into any recent “best of the year” anthology is likely to provide examples of the failure to keep that from happening. Poetry is invitingly democratic these days: you can write a good poem, a poem worth writing, without having to know the rules for a rondeau. The democratic free verse revolution has also helped to free poets to write in their native dialect rather than standard English, a subject that deserves a newsletter to itself someday. And yet plainstyle verse demands a technical mastery of a different sort, lest the poem sound as flat as a soft drink left out overnight.
Moreover, Northrop Frye pointed out that when meter disappears, another kind of rhythm tends to arise out of the arrangement of the words on the page:
Another rhythm lurks beneath the syntactic surface rhythm of the sentence, haunts it like a ghost, another voice, an other speaking with our voice, hinting at what we do not know about the self we do not know
I just made that up, and could have written that as a normal sentence, but the effect would have been quite different. The control of the eye by the line breaks is transferred to the brain, which hears, in the mind’s ear, so to speak, competing with or even overwhelming the prose sense, what Frye calls the associative rhythm, which is the primary process of the unconscious beginning to make itself heard. Incidentally, that trick of explaining a poetic device by means of writing the explanation in the convention itself is employed thoroughgoingly and with great wit by John Hollander in Rhyme’s Reason, the poetic handbook I most enthusiastically recommend.
The liberation of the associative rhythm has a transformative effect upon the poetic content as well. Rich’s “Power” employs syntactic disjunction to express a fragmented experience. Earlier in the 20th century, Ezra Pound’s Cantos and T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land developed a style in which fragments that are not connected by syntax or narrative logic have some kind of hidden associative relationship—if you can find it. What appears like the triumph of entropy on the surface might—might—display deeper relationships and identities to an interpreter who is up to the challenge. And in Pound’s Cantos, it can be quite a challenge:
Hang it all, Robert Browning, there can be but the one “Sordello.” But Sordello, and my Sordello? Lo Sordels si fo di Mantovana. So-chu churned in the sea. Seal sports in the spray-whited circles of cliff-wash, Sleek head, daughter of Lir; eyes of Picasso Under black fur-hood, lithe daughter of Ocean… (Canto II)
You can think it is haunting and enticing, or you can think WTF, or you can think both at once. Your ambivalence may very well be shared by the poets themselves, who are not trying to mystify or show off. In later poets employing creative fragmentation, including Charles Wright and Jorie Graham, there is a yearning for what the title of one of Graham’s poems calls “The Dream of a Unified Theory” that would reveal how all the fragments fit together. And more, how all these different styles relate to one another. If there is an “order of words,” such as Northrop Frye posits, why is our grasp of it so tantalizingly, agonizingly just out of reach? We are back to our theme of forbidden knowledge of some weeks ago. When asked if he felt satisfaction on the completion of a poem, Dylan Thomas replied, “There is never any satisfaction. That is why I write another poem.” There are two temptations to be resisted. One is to believe we could ever master the order of words, which would be tantamount to mastering reality. The other is to think that, because we cannot do so, such an order is just an idealistic illusion.
But mastery and certainty are not the goal: the goal is pleasure. The more one experiences the range of styles, the more we feel that the whole of modern and contemporary poetry, in its untamable profusion and confusion, does provide us with an imperfect experience of a unity, an order, that can be experienced even if never totally understood or commanded. Some poets try to provide this in microcosm, writing poems in multiple parts, each part in a different poetic style, like Eliot’s Four Quartets or some of the long, numbered sequences of Yeats. Wallace Stevens also wrote long poems in numbered sequences, varying the style of his protean blank verse from the satiric to the philosophical to the visionary in what Frye deemed a theme-and-variations form. And some poets drive towards a center where the witty and the lyrical, the riddling and the oracular, are fused and simultaneous, as they often are in myth and dream. Dylan Thomas’s sequence of ten blank verse sonnets, “Altarwise by owl-light,” concerns a protagonist who is simultaneously God, fallen humanity, the poet, and the reader, and in which past, present, and future happen all at once, in every line. Needless to say, it is not easy reading. But, once again, the goal is not perfection, whether intellectual or formal. There is something to be said, in fact everything to be said, for what the title of a Wallace Stevens poem calls “The Pleasures of Merely Circulating.”
All but a few of the quoted poems can be found in The Norton Anthology of Modern and Contemporary Poetry, 3rd edition, 2003. I suspect that all the texts can also be located on the Internet.
Hollander, John. Rhyme’s Reason: A Guide to English Verse. 3rd edition. Yale University Press, 1971.
Thomas, Dylan. “Answers to an Enquiry.” In Dylan Thomas: Early Prose Writings, edited by Walford Davies. Dent, 1971.