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Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Out of Pound and Williams

We get technical tradition of free verse. Olson and Creeley, Levertov, and Ronald Johnson, Eigner, all the rest continue this technical obsession. What I mean is that there is a lot of talk about the technique and the measure, the breath, etc...  This is fine, and it's a tradition that I myself am in, though I think poets like O'Hara have an ear as fine as those who seem more "technical."

There are a few problems.  One is that with all the talk of technique, the actual analysis of this verse is metaphorical rather than technical in any precise sense. The poets prided themselves on their ear, but they wouldn't explain what they were doing, with a suspicion of actual metrical analysis.  Or they couldn't explain very well.

The "Variable Foot" was a disaster. Both as a theory, and because many of the poems written in the three-step line are full of abstract language.  Some of the poems are ok, but not necessarily because of his prosody.

With this problem came the use of free verse without any prosodic intention at all.  It's hard to prove a negative, but we've all seen these poems. I can't give examples because then you'd take issue with my examples, so provide your own.  

Here's a poem you might want to take apart, "The Counter" by WCW.  You'll notice the ear here is finer than in the variable foot poems.  The poem doesn't rely on enjambment very much, and each line as 2-3 stresses. The "refrain" is placed at different points in each stanza, and broken up a bit. The two lines in this refrain (the first two of the poem) differ in only one syllable. Likewise the lines "quietly the flower / opens its petals." 2 of the twelve lines end with a single syllable accented word, and the other ten end with trochee words. The rhythm feels regular, and that is the reason for the effectiveness of the final stanza, with its less symmetrical phrasing: "lost / to its own fragrance / indifferent, idle--"  This is just brilliant stuff.  That line, "indifferent, idle,"  has the same pattern as "my days are burning" but it sure feels different.

You could do the same kind of analysis with "The Lonely Street" and many other WCW poems, like "If I could count the silence I could sleep, sleep, but it is one, one, no head even to gnaw, spinning"  They feel deliberate and skillful and don't over-rely on line breaks.  The breaks are there to lay bare the prosodic structure that is already there.

Many people haven't read these poems, because they have only read a few that are in all the anthologies. I studied these poems intensively for many years, memorizing them, in order to teach myself to write poetry, but I remember a famous feminist theorist telling me that Williams was a bad influence when I was in college.      

My days are burning
My brain is a flower
Hasten flower to bloom
my days are burning

Quietly the flower
opens its petals
My days are burning
My brain is a flower

My brain is a flower lost
to its own fragrance
indifferent, idle--
my days are burning

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