in verse #75 : free verse, dear love

Turns out Walt Whitman had a greater influence on fin de siècle American poetics than I had supposed.  It was his plain diction that led Pound to largely forgo archaicisms,[i] and led to the plainspeak of the Cantos, insofar as that exists.  Before going into that, however, let me allow John Tytell to place Pound in the context of this time:

As a young man Pound frequently referred to himself as a genius and at this time saw himself as connected to a great chain of poets whose lessons he could master and who could speak through him in his poems.  Much of Pound’s most successful early work was imitative — he had the best ear among poets of his generation and could mimic to perfection.  Of course he had his own taste and his struggle during the early years of his apprenticeship, from 1908 through 1912, was to forge his own voice.[ii]

This period of apprenticeship, as Tytell dates it, stretches from Pound’s publication of A Lume Spento and A Quinzaine for this Yule in 1908 through The Sonnets and Ballate of Guido Cavalcanti and Ripostes in 1912, or about 245 pages of verse.[iii]    We saw the young Pound expressing the feelings Tytell reports in the poem “Histrion” in my December post.  I bring it back here for its value in illustrating Pound’s self-absorption:

No man hath dared to write this thing as yet, Continue Reading →

in verse #74 : verse wants to be free?

Consider this quotation from Amy Lowell:

The definition of Vers libre is: a verse-formal based upon cadence. To understand vers libre, one must abandon all desire to find in it the even rhythm of metrical feet. One must allow the lines to flow as they will when read aloud by an intelligent reader. Or, to put it another way, unrhymed cadence is “built upon ‘organic rhythm,’ or the rhythm of the speaking voice with its necessity for breathing, rather than upon a strict metrical system. Free verse within its own law of cadence has no absolute rules; it would not be ‘free’ if it had.”[i]

Photograph of Amy Lowell at Sevenels, by Bachrach, ca. 1916.

The academic tone of this definition matches her tone in the quote from last month’s post on “The Poet’s Trade”.  Lowell “never attended college because her family did not consider it proper for a woman to do so,”[ii] and this definition speaks in the tone of the auto-didact in its statement that “One must allow the lines to flow as they will when read aloud by an intelligent reader.”  As long-time readers of these posts will know, I don’t disagree with the primacy that statement gives to reading verse aloud.  It’s the overall tone, the insistence on an “intelligent reader,” that betrays a certain in-group knowingness I associate with auto-didactism.

I would argue that the better part of that definition is what is quoted in the end, and I haven’t been able to find who is being quoted there, or whether Lowell is quoting herself; but the reliance on “the rhythm of the speaking voice with its necessity for breathing” fits better my understanding of English meter, with its Anglo-Saxon heritage of stress harnessed with its French insistence on a metrical foot, than the first part of the definition.  And the statement “Free verse within its own law of cadence has no absolute rules” is perfectly descriptive of most of the verse of my contemporaries that Continue Reading →

in verse #73 : New poets for a new year

Nothing new about this year, really — nothing new about the poets under consideration, unless you don’t know them.  What’s new in Orem, on the other hand, is also old:  car washes.  It used to be there was only one car wash with a pull-you-thru tunnel:  SuperSonic Car Wash.  Last spring, construction started up in an empty lot in front of Costco on 800 South; Valerie and I speculated on what it could possibly be — a bank branch, a McDonalds, a drug store.  So we were suitably surprised when the sign went up:  Quick Quack Car Wash.  Just about the same time, construction began on the empty lot on Center Street opposite the post office.  It was, proudly announced some big signs, a Wiggy Wash, “North America’s Largest Car Wash,” come to rescue Oremites from sedate, nay stolid, car washes.

SuperSonic.  Quick Quack.  Wiggy Wash.  No, alliteration is not making a comeback— it never left.  But it’s been cheapened by this kind of usage.  And yet, people respond, as they always do, to beauty, to poetry — with hunger.  We recognize this response, but often make the mistake of considering it the poet’s intent.  Amy Lowell had something to say about that, and it is good to be reminded, occasionally, of what she said:


Amy Lowell as a debutante, age 16.

No one expects a man to make a chair without first learning how, but there is a popular impression that the poet is born, not made, and that his verses burst from his overflowing heart of themselves. As a matter of fact, the poet must learn his trade in the same manner, and with the same painstaking care, as the cabinet-maker.
His heart may overflow with high thoughts and sparkling fancies, but if he cannot convey them to his reader by means of written word he has no claim to be considered a poet. A workman may be pardoned, therefore, for spending a few moments to explain and describe the technique of his trade. A work of beauty which cannot stand an intimate examination is a poor and jerry-built thing. Continue Reading →

in verse #72 : Christmas poems

None of the modernist poets I am discussing at present produced what might be called traditional Christmas poems.  My attention is drawn to them by the advent of Christmas on this, the longest night of the year.[i]  So once again I interrupt myself in the stately progress of this blog to be diverted by gems glittering in the garden.  But, as I said, these select modernists did not produce traditional Christmas poems.[ii]

Robert Frost came closest, in writing a poem a year to send out for Christmas.  But even that idea was imposed on him Continue Reading →

in verse #71: Giving Thanks for a trans-American Poet

In my last post I focused on three emblematic moderns:  Frost, Pound and Eliot.  In a prior post I mentioned that Whitman and Dickinson would not begin to influence poets until a generation further on.  I was wrong.  Whitman appears to have found an exponent of his long line in a contrary American poet, one who, though born in the east, unlike Amy Lowell and Hilda Doolittle and Sara Teasdale did not stay there, and unlike Frost, Pound and, Eliot, moved from east to west:  I refer, of course, to Continue Reading →

in verse #70 : image, rhythm, voice

I will now take up the question of how three Western American writers — Pound, Eliot and Frost — brought in a new poetry for the new century.  I will examine the oddities and contradictions in their lives and in their poetry.  So when I make broad, sweeping generalizations like that in the first sentence, or in the next, I beg you to hear me out.  I will examine with each poet that quality most renewed in their verse:  with Robert Frost, the matter of voice in poetry; with T. S. Eliot, the matter of rhythm; with Ezra Pound, the matter of the image with which he is irrevocably associated.  This should take a couple of years.

Of the three, Pound, the most radical, spent the least time in the west.[i]  He was born in Hailey, Idaho, on 30 October 1885, where his father worked in the land office, and taken away on a train in a blizzard by a mother with pretensions of gentility 18 months later, to New York.  The family eventually settled in Philadelphia, where Homer, the father, worked in the U.S. Mint, having learned assaying in Hailey.  All of Pound’s formal education occurred in the East.  Eventually he moved abroad, first to Venice and then to London.

Frost was born in Continue Reading →

in verse #69 : Recapitulation, 19th Century

I ended my last post with this sentence:  “I will next take up the question of how three Western writers — Pound, Eliot and Frost — brought in a new poetry for the new century.”  I’m not quite ready to do that.  Those who have read this blog patiently, hoping for new insights every time, may be disappointed — or may be elated.  You may view this post, not as a recapitulation, but as a capitulation to the necessity of cleaning up a house where contractors have been reconstructing our kitchen whilst we traipsed out-of-reach through British Columbia (because our phones don’t work in Canada), and lolled in a small cabin on Gabriola Island in the Salish Sea, me reading Leonard Arrington and the writing of Mormon History[i], followed by Malcolm Lowry’s last novel, October ferry to Gabriola[ii], which I had brought along knowing we would be staying on Gabriola, and which provides a remarkable portrait of his home in Dollarton, north of Vancouver, in chapter 11, “Eridanus” — and Valerie desperate for new reading matter because none of my books interested her, until she started reading Leonard Arrington, etc.

But I wanted to note something some of you may have not noted: Continue Reading →

in verse #68 : bad poetry versus good

Valerie and I have been travelling through Canada, crossing the border at the Port of Roosville, north of Eureka, Montana, and driving through Kootenay, Banff and Jasper National Parks for most of a week. On our last day in Jasper, we stopped at two waterfalls, Sunwapta Falls on the Sunwapta River, and Athabasca Falls on the Athabasca River. The Sunwapta is fed by the Athabasca Glacier[i] , and eventually flows into the Athabasca, which is fed by the Columbia Glacier[ii]. Both glaciers are part of the now much diminished Columbia Icefield in the park[iii].

The falls are fascinating because both rivers, which are wide, swift, cold and turbulent, squeeze through rock crevasses which seem far too narrow to admit the volume of water passing through them. At Sunwapta, for example, the massive rock-flour river plunges through a gorge maybe 15 feet wide, at least 30 feet below a bridge spanning the gorge. DSC04833

This is a picture of the head of Sunwapta falls, and it is impressive enough that a river that wide and turbulent is plunging into this gorge. It could be a very wide but shallow river. This, however, is the wide part of the gorge, and it was impossible for me to determine how deeply the river has cut into the rock. But the next photograph is the narrow part of the gorge: Continue Reading →

in verse #67 : hymns, not hearse

More than even Whitman, Dickinson killed the line of verse in poetry.

But it was dying.  And, as I hope I have shown, even more than that mercy killing, the strongest influence Dickinson has had on succeeding generations of poets shows in her practice of extreme compression, in her willingness to pare away most of the syntax of her sentences.  She is able to do that by keeping to fairly strict meters.  “Basically” writes Thomas H. Johnson “all her poems employ meters derived from English hymnology.”[i]  Here is one of them, one of the ten published in her lifetime (the 5th, in fact):

Blazing in Gold – and
Quenching – in Purple!
Leaping – like Leopards to the sky –
Then – at the feet of the old Horizon –
Laying its spotted face – to die!

Stooping as low as the kitchen window –
Touching the Roof –
And tinting the Barn –
Kissing its Bonnet to the Meadow –
And the juggler of Day – is gone![ii]

[First published in Drum Beat, Brooklyn, NY (February 29, 1864)] Continue Reading →

in verse #66 : “Sic transit gloria mundi”

“Sic transit gloria mundi”[i] is not a bad pun about Gloria Swanson getting sick on the trolley every Monday, as Ogden Nash had supposed, but rather  the first line of Emily Dickinson’s first published poem, which I discussed last month.  It is one we have only as a transcript from the newspaper that published it.  It was published — without her permission — because it delighted some editor.  It may be that experience which soured her on publication, although the following poem, which Franklin dates to 1863, may be expressing disgust with the subsequent theft of three poems, at least one of which is now among her most beloved.  The 4th line of this poem gave last month’s post its subtitle:

Publication – is the Auction
Of the Mind of Man –
Poverty – be justifying
For so foul a thing

Possibly – but We – would rather
From Our Garret go
White – unto our White Creator –
Than invest – Our Snow –

Thought belong to Him who gave it –
Then – to Him Who bear
It’s Corporeal illustration – sell
The Royal Air –

In the Parcel – Be the Merchant
Of the Heavenly Grace –
But reduce no Human Spirit
To Disgrace of Price – [ii]

I would argue that, despite the clarity of this poem, Dickinson was not opposed to publication.  Continue Reading →

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