The magic of vestigial metrical features in unmetered poetry

Alfred Corn on stanzas in contemporary poetry:

If we look at unmetered poetry being published now, the last vestige, apparently, of traditional prosody to be given up is regular stanzaic division. It’s often true that contemporary poems with no iambic feet to speak of and lines of varying lengths will nevertheless divide the text into distichs, tercets, or quatrains. It’s as though the poet were suggesting that some basic principle of quantification had been applied to the poem, even in an inaudible one. Without meter we have trouble hearing stanzaic divisions, especially when stanzas have been enjambed. If a poem keeps this vestigial metrical feature, it probably does so in order to invoke the mysterious power of number, which inspires unconscious respect in both poets and their audience. When poems are divided in uniform stanzas, spontaneous utterance is being made to encounter an abstract numerical principle, which lends something like magic or impersonal authority to the text.


Poetry’s task

Poetry’s task is to increase the available stock of reality, R.P. Blackmur said. It does this by reflecting for us our many human faces, our animal faces, our face of insect wings, our face of ocean and cliff. The world is large and, like Caiban’s island, full of noises; a true poem reflects this, whether in the original or in translation. To try to encompass such knowledge, to be willing to fail, to prepare as fully as possible for the work of poetry, to make the attempt in the recognition that any understanding is one among many – this is all we can do, as translators or as readers.


Jane Hirshfield, from “The World is Large and Full of Noises”



some trace, however faint, of this initial sanctity of the Word

Even the physical embodiment of a sacred text is numinous: it is wrapped in leather or silk, stored in a cupboard used for no other purpose, copied over only by special scribes. It may be raised in both hands as an offering before being opened; it may itself be offered fragrant incense and sweet milk. All written work retains some trace, however faint, of this initial sanctity of the Word: the inhabiting Logos and the breath of inspiration are the same, each bringing new life into the empty places of earth. It is no wonder, then that many different cultural traditions share an ancient prohibition against translation. As George Steiner has pointed out in After Babel, if a sacred text has been given to us directly by its divine source, surely it must remain exactly as it first appeared, each word preserved intact for the meaning it may hold. Whether in a sacred text or a contemporary poem, any alteration risks unwittingly discarding some mystery not yet penetrated.

Jane Hirshfield, “The World Is Large and Full of Noises: Thoughts on Translation”

NaPoMo 2013 – my opening salvo – On poetry and transformation

I have a deadline to meet later this week, 500-700 words on “why poetry is transformative.” Here’s my start:

On Poetry and Transformation

Words don’t flow from meaning—meaning flows from words. Shift a syllable here or there, free a phoneme, dare to let the music choose its own lyrics, and what you know and what you feel veer out of the orderly lines and dart across the border beyond which There Be Dragons.

And honest poetry is the language of dragons translated into human tongues, or how human tongues speak Dragon.

Or maybe poetry is the place where I get to be a dragon.

Or poetry is what my Dragon-self and I create together, turning words into fire and flight.

As a poet, I try to turn experiences and emotions that exist outside of language into songs my people can sing. Like how I started this small essay a few inches above this line, determined to be smart and profound and deep, to craft carefully each syllable, until lines led to across led to border led to beyond which led (through a childhood soaked in fantasies of escape) to Dragons and now here I am, no longer a poet but a vast leather-winged beast with a voice that shatters stone walls and breath that burns walled cities to ash.

There is in every poet such as beast as mine—my Dragon-self, nostrils flaring, smells friend worth dying for or foe worth the fight. Most I think sport wings and armor or claws large as tree roots or eight sets of legs to dance an army off a cliff.

And for all of us poetry is our compromise between destroying the world and loving it. Or is the power of destruction transformed into love. Or love translated into the power to destroy.

A poem that is only what it seems to be is not poetry. Nothing is poetry until you catch a scent that makes you shiver, until what your brain reads and what your body knows diverge, until you catch out of the corner of your eye a shadow that strikes the nerve that knows you might yet be prey.

If at the end of a poem you are who you were when you started the poem you have not dared to dwell in poetry, nor dared to let poetry dwell in you.

from “Hunting Manual” by Eleanor Wilner

from her book Shekhinah

from “Hunting Manual”

…But the hard prey is the one
that won’t come bidden.

By these signs you will know it:
when you lift your lure
out of the water, the long plastic line
will be missing its end: the lure and the hook
will be gone, and the line will swing free
in the air, so light it will be without
bait or its cunning
sharp curl of silver. Or when you pull
your net from the stream, it will be eaten
as if by acid, its fine mesh sodden shreds.
Or when you go at dawn to check your traps,
their great metal jaws will be wrenched
open, the teeth blunt with rust
as if they had lain for years in the rain.
Or when the thunderstorm suddenly breaks
in the summer, next morning
the computer’s memory will be blank.

Look then for the blank card, the sprung trap,
the net’s dissolve, the unburdened
line that swings free in the air.
There. By day, go empty-handed to the hunt
and come home the same way
in the dark.

NaPoMo – April 15 “Poppies”


From atop the cliff the sun
at a certain angle sets them
afire, pulsing light
hearts beating

theirs, and yours, and then
the light moves on, you blink
and they are shadowed

so don’t stop looking

hold your breath, feel the thumpa-thump
of that good muscle—and the instant becomes
as eternal as you risk making it

as you risk holding the sun in place
holding the cliff
holding time
so the petals go on with their blazing and neither the poppies
nor you, watching
nor me, writing you watching
nor the flashing in your brain for each word read
are consumed by the flames.

NaPoMo April 7 – notes toward a poem

and by “notes toward” I mean the ideas that may underlie a poem someday. I used to write just like this—have a deep-something-to-say, write it in short lines with rich language and be done. But that’s like scribbling some lyrics and claiming to have a song!

But poem-a-day is a difficult pace and often means “poem first draft a day.” Today’s poem first draft is historically based: on this date in 1927, the first city-to-city television broadcast occurred. Secretary of Commerce Herbert Hoover was in DC and his audience was in New York. After some moments of Profound Blather about the greatness of this tool, the real entertainment came on—a comedian in blackface. I think that the music of this poem wants to be a sonnet. Its got bits of rhythm going, and the internal turns and twists of a sonnet. We’ll see.

the transmission of sight, for the first time in the world’s history
(Herbert Hoover, opening statement of the first city-to-city television broadcast)

Proudly announced on the first television broadcast, D.C. to NYC
Directly after: a comedian in blackface
And so it goes
And so it’s gone ever since, blackface, womanface, childface,
redneck face, youcantrustmeface, with the transmission of sight
masks glued on, a new way to profit from prejudice so now
my country’s vicious idiocy can be spread
as capitalist-gospel truth
How I’d like to pretend language rises above that fray but
what language rises higher than billboards or blimps?
We make a new way to communicate, we make a new way to lie,
telling you a story and selling you a story just sweet
phonemic first cousins, truth a matter of road to hell,
good intentions, how arrogant we poets can be, complacently believing
we are somehow different from tv

on Adrienne

from Hugh MacDiarmid’s manifesto “The Kind of Poetry I Want,” quoted by Adrienne in her speech/essay “Poetry and Commitment.”

A poetry the quality of which
Is a stand made against intellectual apathy,
Its material founded, like Gray’s, on difficult knowledge
And its metres those of a poet
Who has studied Pindar and Welsh poetry,
But, more than that, its words coming from a mind
Which has experienced the sifted layers on layers
Of human lives—aware of the innumerable dead
And the innumerable to-be-born…

A speech, a poetry, to bring to bear upon life
The concentrated strength of all our being…

Poetry of such an integration as cannot be effected
Until a new and conscious organization of society
Generates a new view
Of the world as a whole…

—A learned poetry wholly free
of the brutal love of ignorance;
And the poetry of a poet with no use
For any of the simpler forms of personal success

Poets on Poets

Vladimir Khodasevich writing about Marina Tsvetaeva:

Poets are not born in a country. Poets are born in childhood.
What, then, is Russian about Marina Tsvetaeva?

Tsvetaeva understood audial and linguistic work that play such an enormous role in folk song. Folk song is for the most part a litany, joyful or grieving. There is an element of lamentation, an element of tongue-twister and pun, there are echoes of spell, incantation, even exorcism in a folk song—there is a pure play of sounds—it is always partly hysterical, near the fall into tears or laughter, and partly zaum (refers to the pure play of language, “beyonsense” ).