restricted access In the Bamboo Grove: Some Notes on the Poetic Line
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16 In the Bamboo Grove Some Notes on the Poetic Line The free verse line has been a troublesome and slippery thing to me, defying control and proper description, almost as elusive as what was called “the voice” in the sixties and early seventies. When I studied it, looking at examples from what my teachers (piously or facetiously, depending on their age and fashion of education) called “the canon,” it seemed always to make sense, to have integrity, to fit the various styles, and to attach itself to a consistent system of traditional prosody. Even the free verse of T. S. Eliot, the nearly blank verse of the more formal Wallace Stevens, and the improvisations of William Carlos Williams off of a syllabic base all made fair sense and had their own feel and flavor to me, seemed authentic and individual. It was great fun to analyze past practice this way—­ it was far more difficult to develop a sense of contemporary method and a practice of my own. With the free verse revival of the sixties, marking its ascendant role in American poetry since, say, the impact of publications like Williams’s Pictures from Brueghel (1962), James Wright’s The Branch Will Not Break (1963), and Theodore Roethke’s The Far Field (1964), free verse has become the normative practice of our day. Because of this development, a host of nontraditional styles have come into print and become popularized, some even equipped with their own bibliographies of theoretical literature explaining their prosodic method, political rebelliousness, and sometimes mystical roots. As a student, I was both thrilled and puzzled by these innovations—­ happy because they seemed to want to give literary voice to the American immigrant and working class that, except for Whitman, the free verse patriarch, seemed not to have 17 been granted that voice in the established tradition. But I was as confused as I was happy, even frustrated, while I continued to read essays, attend readings and lectures, engage my friends and, when given the chance, even the proponents themselves in discussions about this new American poetry. What I didn’t understand was that I was wanting to know about style, how a poet constructs a line and shapes syntax around it, and carries the narrative and imagery along too. What was frustrating me was how no one would speak about style as it related to technique, but instead elevated technique over most other concerns. In the extreme background were the ideological wars on the questions of culture and poetic value, many poets unprepared and ineloquent on these matters, the critics for the most part lacking adventurousness, unwilling to give these issues more than a few stray, sarcastic remarks. Much preferred were discussions that made, out of the prosodic eccentricities of a few approved masters, either a science or a mystic undertaking. And it is the legacy of the workshops that, when in doubt about what we are to teach or to uphold, we emphasize and trace the development of technique, oftentimes contributing to the trivialization of the genre, raising prosodic and structural fussiness to the level of a fetish-­ enterprise. My first poems were written in fairly short, for the most part end-­ stopped and imagistic lines breaking on the grammatical units of the sentences, themselves fairly short. This gave the poems a choppy yet meditative cadence, I thought, imitating the effect of the Chinese poems in English translation I loved so much. I had been reading Kenneth Rexroth’s Tu Fu in the wonderful anthology Naked Poetry, my primer in those days, and had recently discovered the magnificent work of Rihaku, Li Po in Chinese, through a pocket-­ sized edition of Ezra Pound’s Selected Poems I’d bought at a book sale from a junior who was dropping out to join some commune up in the Santa Cruz mountains. I spent afternoons lying on my back, shirtless on the dormitory’s rear lawn, sounding out the rhythms and conjuring the images of this new and beautiful poetic language. I liked how definite the line was as the strongest unit of measure, how it ordered thought as well as phrase, gave the words and sentiments on the right-­ hand margin as much if not more emphasis as those 18 on the left. The line seemed to cadence the feeling as well as the sound. Here’s a famous stanza from Cathay, largely Pound’s Li Po, which appeared in the Selected Poems I’ve already...