Lines as Counterpoints
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Lines as Counterpoints Kevin Prufer The state of mind of the speaker in rhymed and metered verse is rarely tentative; the inevitability of the next line, the next weak or accented syllable, generally suggests to readers a voice that has figured out what it’s going to say, that leads us always (though, ideally, with other complexities) to its concluding words, to its envoi, to that one-hundred-and-fortieth syllable of the sonnet. The traditional ballad doesn’t often hem and haw, doesn’t grind its heel in the dust, pause, scratch its head, and revise itself. The villanelle and the sestina may be obsessive , but they’re rarely uncertain. The mind behind the limerick has worked out its punch line well in advance and delights in bringing us to it. And I admire Denise Levertov’s suggestion that much free-verse poetry, stripped of these formal inevitabilities, might be especially good at suggesting to readers a mind in flux. The freedom of free verse isn’t, after all, the freedom to toss words about the page willy-nilly; but it may be a freedom to use the pauses of the line-break, the quickness of the long line against the tentative slowness of the short line, the complexities of rhythms unevenly applied to create for the reader the illusion of a mind working out a problem, wrestling with difficulty, asking questions, reaching for (often unattainable) solutions. The interiority of modernist anxiety, one might say, is also the interiority of free verse. (Of course, these aren’t hard and fast rules; they are tendencies. Only a fool would fail to recognize in the free verse of Whitman a declamatory style; and one feels even in many of the most formally predictable of Emily Dickinson’s short poems a tentative mind at work on an unanswerable question.) What I have come to admire recently, however, are sole strange hybrids that live between these two styles, the suggestiveness of the metered line in the freeverse poem or, contrariwise, the single line of unpredictable metrical variation in the middle of the otherwise traditionally formal poem. Stevie Smith is, to my mind, one of the most underappreciated English- Prufer | 197 language poets of the twentieth century. Her often highly rhythmic free-verse poetry is versatile, disturbing, and complex—and generally falls neatly into that category described by Levertov, the short and long lines, the pauses at the breaks, creating the illusion of interiority, of the mind at work. But in the midst of this, Smith will often drop in a line of (superficially inappropriate) strictly metered verse, a ten- or twelve-syllable stretch of anapests, iambs, or dactyls, before returning to a more tentative mode in the next line. Take, for the sake of convenience, these two lines from her most famous poem, “Not Waving But Drowning,” in which she describes simultaneously the plight of a man trying to get a crowd’s attention as he drowns and, by extending the metaphor, the poem’s speaker worrying about her own overwhelming psychic isolation: It must have been too cold for him his heart gave way, they said. (67) The singular metrical playfulness of the first of these lines (and if you don’t hear it, try clapping along to the beat) seems grossly inappropriate to the poem’s subject matter. It’s too chipper, too happy. And, of course, this is deliberate, throwing the horror of the rest of the poem into a stark sort of relief, the rictus smile of the upbeat iambs (against the mostly anapestic and dactylic free verse of the rest of the poem) suggesting by counterexample (or failing entirely to conceal) the terrible sadness beneath, the awful emotional distance of the happy crowd. And the curt line that follows not only draws the rollicking line up short but distances us from it, taking no responsibility for it, but applying it to others. One sees something of the opposite approach in the work of Anne Bradstreet, who often interjects metrically looser lines into her otherwise strictly formal poetry. My favorite example comes at the end of her poem “In Memory of My Dear Grandchild, Elizabeth Bradstreet, Who Deceased August, 1665, Being a Year and a Half Old.” In that rhymed, iambic poem, the speaker meditates on the loss of her grandchild (her “heart’s too much content”), concluding, finally, that though she cannot escape her sadness, this very sadness is, in some ways, inappropriate . It is, after all, God...