- Choosing Music: On Assigning Blank-Verse Imitations of “Birches” or “Sunday Morning”
It’s blank because it doesn’t rhyme, I tell my students. Think of other terms we’ve seen that render poems corporeal: the lines with missing heads or broken backs, three taps of a triple-jointed finger to make a foot . . . If you can trace the body of a sonnet by its rhymes’ schematics and affinities, or a ballad’s limbs by abxb bones, segmented as a caterpillar, then blank verse gives us a slate, a canvas, plentiful and stretchable, a roll of papyrus meant to be unrolled until you fix its length. I balance these ideas against the crux of necessary definitions, right as rain: “the meter deemed appropriate to serious topics, elevated and canonical in a national prosody.”1 Such elevation can intimidate, and now, next Tuesday, after Paradise Lost and Tintern Abbey, after the balcony where he and she made dialogic love, their pentameters as twisted together as sheets, after Aurora fantasized the phantoms of her mother’s posthumously painted face, after Ulysses has become a part of all he claims he met—now it’s their turn, their blank verse will be due. For this assignment they must go back and study Frost’s “Birches” and Stevens’ “Sunday Morning,” then choose one to imitate:
an undercover form. What is an imitation? It is not [End Page 117] a copy that retells. It is to weld your sentences and style into the mold of someone else’s syntax, but it’s your design: a rig you set, and strike the arc. A signature you forge just to practice calligraphy. A musical score you place on a tracing table underneath your own in the brightly lit back glow. It is your poem, directed by a cardinal direction you alone would not have taken it. (All poems are imitations, in a way, I almost always say. But that’s a thing it’s best to come to know, not to be told.)
Just look at the first sentences to start deciding what’s imitable. Frost’s tone, plainspoken from the get-go, sets a stage of simple observation, unadorned for now. Then little metaphors begin and suddenly some janitor—implied, supernal—appears to sweep those shards of ice away, beneath a heaven that’s been shattered. The metaphysical gets introduced by rising temperatures and a result clause, in everyday language, a conversational music: “you must have seen them”; “after a rain”; “years afterwards”; “But I was going to say”; “you’d think.”
Stevens does not converse so much as court then spurn conversion, lusciously elusive through his diction, operating so differently from Frost’s: contemplative, dramatic and insistent on its drama in which a robe, a fruit, a mug, a rug can replicate the body and the blood in this communion feast of solitude.
Frost’s anecdotal notes are slower to reveal their dramaturgy: he is walking in the woods and losing trains of thought, taking his time and many lines before that operatic union of humanity with earth. But Stevens quickly maps his territory in section one, starting with lingerie [End Page 118] and stopping at the tomb of Christ: bookends of bodies, dreams, and doubts, human or not.
They’ve so been wanting to say something big, these students: some true thing regarding truth, a beautiful line saluting beauty, a deathless token of mortality. And both these poems teach them to say something big by staying small at first. Digress upon an ice-storm, set breakfast on a patio. So Ella wrote about a broken mug at the moment of its breaking, and Jess began by sitting on a couch and sorting M&Ms into piles according to color.2 Their imitations reflected different scopes:
Frost talks as if he’s standing in one place, one grove, and roots all memory and meditation there, while Stevens’ gaze surveys, at birds-eye heights, the world in all its history and seasons. The movement of “Bikini Bod” never leaves that couch, as Jess imagines fiberglass crumbling inside the beams behind framed art, and turns a Frostian pragmatic claim— “A cold wall will ruin a...