Kenneth Lincoln

Kenneth Lincoln: On "Frau Bauman, Frau Schmidt, and Frau Schwartz"

Old, dark, working harpies haunt Roethke's early poetry. "Frau Bauman, Frau Schmidt, and Frau Schwartze" are revered as greenhouse earth goddesses, real women reified in myth who godmother Edenic flowers:

They teased out the seed that the cold kept asleep,—

All the coils, loops, and whorls.

They trellised the sun;

The tenacity of these midwifing muses hovers over the boy's first night sense of loss:

Now, when I'm alone and cold in my bed,

They still hover over me,

These ancient leathery crones,

With their bandannas stiffened with sweat,

And their thorn-bitten wrists,

And their snuff-laden breath blowing

lightly over me in my first sleep.

The hard Frauen life is lightly born, their feminine legacy elegized in the boy's coarse loving lines, no less than Dylan Thomas with his agrarian aunt in "After the Funeral." Young Roethke knew a calloused father, too, an unsettled mother, in the dancing trimeter of "My Papa's Waltz," from which the boy could never recover:

The whiskey on your breath

Could make a small boy dizzy;

But I held on like death:

Such waltzing was not easy.

Four trochees spring against the waltzing monosyllables of the iambic quatrain—whiskey, dizzy, waltzing, easy—and the slightly giddy rhymes, straining for reassurance, leave the sense of something celebrated, yet not quite right. An American mixture of violence and gaiety, a touch inebriate, tinges a moment when "mother's countenance / Could not unfrown itself." Something wrong, and can 't be righted with form or bonhomie. The third stanza records the small signs of brutality and love that trouble the poem:

The hand that held my wrist

Was battered on one knuckle;

At every step I missed

My right ear scraped a buckle.

Still absolutely iambic, the narrative is bruised from pain behind the father's belt, and a "battered" knuckle on the child's wrist imprints the young poet's ear, wounded by the hard-rhyming "buckle" of a man's labor. And then the rhythm breaks, troubling time, form, and memory: "You beat time on my head / With a palm caked hard by dirt." The boy addresses his dad directly in a whisper of anapestic spondees, a love-banged stutter-step hard to scan. Time is battered, knuckled into the boy's brain by his gaily obtuse, work-beaten father. We are left puzzling a drunken dad waltzing his son off to bed. Is this Adam's curse, to sweat and swear on the earth for bread, to come home drunk to a disapproving wife and bewildered son, "Still clinging to your shirt," who win record the genesis of his own broken time, wounded ear, and grief-joy of growing up inebriate to sleep? In America, the poet staggers under Adam's heritage.

Kenneth Lincoln: On "The Emperor of Ice-Cream"

This little nonsense ditty takes a serious turn at the stanza break. Someone and somethings are missing. The woman's dresser, where she "used to wear" lingerie, lacks "three glass knobs" (three-in-a-jar trinity?), and her bedding may be too short to cover both head and feet. Her prone body, mocking how the wench lived, lies flat in the indignity of death. "If her horny feet protrude," those limb ends tell us "how cold she is, and dumb."

So a wench is dead, stretched out cold at the ice cream party. The dresser deal "knobs" transpose to "horny" bunions, glass to skin calluses. No empty jar lies here, rounding the wild, but a woman's body in its cool opaque skin, thickened from walking the earth. Her "horny feet" index a prosaic, if bewitching reality, bunioned and "dumb" as the "slovenly wilderness": feet are the earthen root, nonetheless, the vulgate "base" of a poetic meter iambically shamanic. She embroidered "fantails" on her bedsheet, her tail-end art. Those curlicues may rover her face, if they cannot mask her feet, which grounded her in reality, finally in death. So, for a fourth and final call, "Let the lamp" of nature "affix its beam," the sun its sundown flame, as the seeing eye celebrates an inner light in mortal darkness, a comeback optics of imagining sunrise reborn at sunset. As elsewhere, the well dressed man with a beard finds,

After the final no there comes a yes 

And on that yes the future world depends. 

No was the night. Yes is this present sun.

Dreaming jouissance is critical. The imagination, Stevens said in his Letters, is "like light, it adds nothing, except itself." The "supreme fiction," lighting us to the end, is to believe in our world, "my green, my fluent mundo," as one lives and faces death in others (no less than Emily Dickinson a-wake or Sitting Bull the sash-wearer). Poetry is to imagine well what must be. "The final belief is to believe in a fiction," Stevens wrote in Adagia, "which you know to be a fiction, there being nothing else. The exquisite truth is to know that it is a fiction and that you believe in it willingly" (reflective chronotope turned precept).

With rhyming comic finality (come/dumb/beam/cream), the refrain rides on a boisterous iambic pentameter, "The only emperor is the emperor of ice-cream." The fourteen syllables curdle in a spondee (as with the twelve-syllable, shaggy last line of "The Snow Man"). There's a youthful break in the pace, a jump-rope skip completing the Falstaffian form. From bunioned foot to embroidered fantail, earthly base to fanciful end, this elegy resists loss by making art of what seems to be, seeing what is, delightfully. It is an act of the imagination at a wake; the final test, to return to childhood joy in "cream" made of "ice" (Carolina "aspic nipples" sweetened). A concupiscent summer is whipped up from winter's absence, the snow man's "nothing" curdled by sweet belief.

From Sing with the Heart of a Bear: Fusions of Native and American Poetry 1890-1999. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2000. Copyright © 2000 by the Board of Regents of the University of California.

Kenneth Lincoln: On "The Snow Man"

"The Snow Man" is one long sentence in five oddly rhymed tercets, crystallized as verse. Like Frost's image of ice melting on a stove, the poem reveals itself as it slides along, warmed dangerously by human touch. The lesson is clear: leave a snow man alone, and it exists for itself, unchanged; touch the snow, and the artifice goes away, as it goes along. An object measures differently in motion than at rest, variously cold and hot: watch it disappear. Instead of the expected iambic opening ("I placed a jar"), the poem begins impersonally, with a tentative trochee, almost spondaic, "One must have a mind of winter." Right away, reverse field, the poem catches us in metric crux ("the trochee's heave," Pound said). A leveling cold serves to brace entry and numb stresses into anapests, even spondaic trochees: "and the boughs / Of the pine-trees crusted with snow." The lines keep rocking with phonemic upheavals, "junipers-shagged with ice," and "distant glit ter / Of the January sun." A falling dactyl bridges the stanza break, "glitter / Of the," down to the iambic spondee, "same bare place" that leans across the gap "For the listener," who finally "beholds / Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is." The last dazed line, twelve syllables shagged tetramically like rime ice, or hoarfrost, arrives as the poem's ,"terrible crystal" of negation and rediscovery: an initial trochee, "Nothing," an anapestic spondee, "that is not there," an anapest falling trochaically, "and the nothing," to a final affirmative iamb, "that is." Form is intrinsic rhythmic function: the interruptive patterns of spoken American syntax shoulder against the iambic meter, with errant anapests and trochees stringing out the talk-song, Frost might say, against the more regular metric strictures. A verse line should spring from the resilient strength of natural form, Frost argued for keeping the metric net up, "The straight crookedness of a good walking stick." And what comes of these thick poetics?

"The Snow Man" is an ice-sketched landscape, like Frost's "Desert Places," but its lyrically graced, barren chill leads to more than personal despair. Only the snow man knows himself, the poem knows of itself. Anthropomorphic sentiment, creating a human effigy of snow, must be balanced with the objective knowledge that "misery" plays a fa1se part in this scene. Learn of winter from winter, Basho would say. Pine, juniper, spruce, and leaves rough or "shagged" with snow (that is, "bearded") are just what they are to "a mind of winter." The trees are, after all, evergreens, Vendler notes, and January the "new" year. Imposing summer's loss on the image, a human sense of misery, or worse, the listener feeling "nothing himself," could melt the snow man in elegiac sentiment. Here is where the Other, outside our perceiving self, must be respected as a projection that both is, and is not: ourselves perceiving, Adam on time's seesaw, and a native it as nothing that is. Is is was, time's fall dictates, just as we perceive it. Thus the primitive, or primal Id, literally "it," is never here, but over there—the not-me or Other as a dark Narcissus flitting in the lost, forbidden shadows of consciousness, the singing bear's heart in shadowy silence. In postmodernist alterity, the other brother, Baudelaire's hypocrite lecteur, mirrors the dream ghost of my libido, the me-I-fear, or not-me me at the heart of my perceived being.

So the snow man is our wintry opposite, here, out there. This anti-man translates culturally as the natural or primitive self artifacted, the wild or savage native, disowned, driven down under the veneer of civilization. This distorting sublimation is an autumnal tug on the modern mind, fall eulogist to spring lyricist, especially in Adamic America, where "the poverty of dirt" haunts a "World without Peculiarity." . . .

From Sing with the Heart of a Bear: Fusions of Native and American Poetry 1890-1999. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2000. Copyright © 2000 by the Board of Regents of the University of California.

Kenneth Lincoln: On "Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird"

In his Letters Stevens said of the blackbird sequence, "This group of poems is not meant to be a collection of epigrams or of ideas, but of sensations." In what senses? Among the Russian formalists, a theorist named Viktor Zhirmunski published a study of rhyme in 1923 when Stevens's first book, Harmnium, appeared beside Williams's Kora in Hell, Donald Wesling recounts in The Chances of Rhyme, specifically focusing on off-rhyme and what his Russian colleagues called "making it strange." The device of inexact rhyme calls self-reflexive attention to a literary text and language-as-medium, Zhirmunski said, through a sequencing effect: defamiliarizing a reader entering the text, defacilitating the interpreter with verbal intricacy, and retarding the critic's progress digressively. The effect is to slow down time, heighten awareness, and open radical interpretive possibilities, where assumption blocks intuition, or arrogance shuts down understanding. Similarly, inShakespeare's Meanings Sigurd Burkhardt writes of Shakespeare driving a verbal wedge between sound and meaning, in order to free his language from expectation and cliche. As with off-rhyme, so with slant images—beyond critical paraphrase, slightly gnomic—they throw the poem into what Yeats called "radical innocence," positions of witness and testament, less interpretation, the bear's heart all the more singing differénce. A poem must be, Auden noted, more than anyone can say about it. Just so with the blackbird sequence, a poem of optics and phonics, among other things, shattering reality into irregular facets of a mysterious jewel that reflects spectral colors, iridescent light from a black diamond. At least thirteen ways into this, each angle of refraction redefines the blackbird, as each moment shifts the image.

To begin, the trochaic title is strangely reverse of blank verse (the only pentameter in the poem): "Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird." The trochee's insistently reverse rocking, beginning with that superstitious surd, thirteen, an indivisible number with no stable root, sets up an inverse poetics, or radical set of "Ways"—that is, passages or mental journeys—of "looking at" (not so much seeing) a bird the color, all colors, of the night. This is trickster stuff, as Ted Hughes darkly develops in Crow, the off-comic possibilities of god as Harlequin who tosses disappearing dice with reality. The poem shows us seeing a "black" bird as surd pronoun, it, treading syllabic night terrain, searching for winged focus on a disappearing, then reappearing radical. Call it the blackbird factor, the unpredictable quark of reality, the poem's decentering center. Disruptively patterned, this wild shadow is its own original being, in motion.

Oddly enough, the first tercet is a still scene, the minimalist quiet of Oriental landscape painting brushed with haiku delicacy. "Among twenty snowy mountains," the line opens, rising and falling reversely, "The only moving thing / Was the eyeof the blackbird." Can this be iambic meter, when six of the seven two-syllabled words are trochaic, and the second line enjambs a trochee spondaically, "thing / Was"? What are the metrics? Twenty-one syllables in three lines, 8/6/7 ,focus on "the eye" of a blackbird among "twenty" whitened mountains. The reader's eye and ear move back over the syllables, searching for clues to movement in the landscape, and fix, sideways, on the blackbird slanting at an angle. So the equation seems to be twenty mountains, plus one black eye (a perceptual pun?), in twenty-one micro-syllabics, or n + 1, as the blackbird factor to begin. We can always count on one radical in any given set, moving among counted numericals. Still more, while one blackbird eye moves visibly, the other remains hidden, we imagine (the back side of things), suggesting forces behind or beneath the surface visual image. (Not) see it new would be Stevens’s take on "Make it new," Pound's modernist formula from the Chinese. That which is beyond us remains irreducibly the Other, to be noted, respected, acknowledged, if not altogether seen. Like the other side of the globe, or the dark side of the moon, or the libido's reservoir in the id, we must also imagine it new, as this Other eye is always turned away, but always there. For Stevens, it must be imagined because it is, even if we can't quantify or touch it, as with an electron, a black hole, the square root of three, or a perfect human union. Shamanic riddles, the quizzical chill or slant truth of Dickinson's work, say, always lie hidden behind the mask, beneath the surface of ordinary things. There’s mystery in the old mundo, marvelous in the mundane, as ordinary things harbor extraordinary potential. This won't be an easy poem to track.

Through the rhyming acoustics of three, tree, and there, the second tercet toys with lingual, hence metaphoric triangulation: "I was of three minds, / Like a-tree / In which there are three blackbirds." Perhaps the optic reference is two eyes focusing on one tree, a + b = c, or in a folkloric vein, mortality witnessing the tree of life-and-death, the indivisible trinity completed on the cross (three is the first surd with no square root). Also note that it takes two eyes, focusing diagonally, to create one three-dimensional, in-depth image. Perceptual reality is complex, to say the least, and at its simplest, most mysterious (Leonardo spoke of "the vanishing point" in his three-dimension rendering of the Annunciation, Gabriel, Mary, and a distantly dissolving river). The meter of the third line is uncertain, "In which there are three blackbirds," perhaps, and the formal arc of the poem less and less calculable. Still, a unified diversity hovers there, one consciousness "of threeminds," like blackbirds three-in-one-tree. The poetics tilt dangerously off-center, just shy of nursery rhyme magic. Subtract an h, or add one and shift the r: the slightest change changes everything, three-treeee-there; yet the whole remains one cross-stitched homologue, an optic riddle and odd-sense rhyme.

The next couplet implies that the mind mimes the world it sees in motion, as a blackbird whirls in autumn winds. Nature shows itself a "pantomime" or dumb show without words, its essential action preceding language. The fourth section, all form lines starting with a, or alpha, hints that no anaphoral coupling, Adam to Eve, man to woman in the beginning, is complete without a decentering third radical, the blackbird factor. Union comes from disunion, as even turns on odd. The dark stranger—Pluto to Orpheus and Eurydice—thickens the plot radically, realistically. The unknown other to a given rhyme or couplet keeps the poem going (Pinsky's "pleasure of disturbance"). So far, the text is playing with parts-in-motion of a whole, jockeying for kinetic position to view the blackbird's collective facets.

The fifth stanza questions which tonal cadence most makes way for beauty, in-flec-tion or in-nu-en-do, "The blackbird whistling / Or just after." Is it accent, or afterthought, that suspends sense—the word spoken, or the reflective silence that follows? The plot is in the pause. Just so, shadow to caesura, the longer sixth section shows the triple remove of the blackbird's shadow, crossing icicles of "barbaric glass" outside a "long window." Here "barbaric" (from the Greek, ethnoi for foreigners who stutter bar-bar like sheep) modifies the scintillant dactyl, "icicles," and we sense how many optic removes the eye, a fluid sphere refracting light in a black pupil, must see through to catch a fleeting glimpse, a dark image of a darker flying object. Icicle, literally Old English "ice of snow," traces back through Frost's melting verse on a stove to the snow man's wintry Otherness, the "nothing that is" out there. The blackbird's shadow darts back and forth outside civilization's glassed house (again the empty jar's echo). The radicals of remove prove multiple, metrically tracing "in the shadow / An indecipherable cause," as Plath says pointillistically of the retreating horseman in "Words," those "indefatigable hoof taps." Window, shadow, to and fro, mood, and shadow come together as the first true rhymes of the poem: an echoing sense that we've reached an inner corridor, a winged truth.

In high rhyme now, the poet addresses those "thin men of Haddam" to ask why they follow Yeats to Byzantium after imagined "golden birds," when the real blackbird walks at the feet of their women, looking up. Not fantails, but fleshy feet give the physical downbeat of art ("let be be"), the "under"-standings that Poldy Bloom glimpses following a woman's skirt up the stairs, or admires on library chairs under reading women. High diction and formal metrics amount to little, lacking the ground sense and sensual counterstress of the blackbird's fetching antics, deconstructing all art that climbs too high. And so the bird flies off the page, over the horizon, "the edge / Of one of many circles," from viewer's eye to global curve; and just so quickly, it reappears in an Edenic green light, drawing bawdy cries of ecstasy. Recall the first poetic speech as interjection (Ah! or Ha!), here from "the bawds of euphony," those academic wenches of high art. Even critics can be moved from fustian to ecstasy by springing resurgence ("the green corn gleaming").

The eleventh set trips metrically uneven, the poet riding "over Connecticut / In a glass coach," again reminiscent of the artifice of the Tennessee jar. Through the rattling glass of a formal poetic (train) coach, a mistaking "fear pierced him"—the shadow of his carriage, that high-riding "equipage" of art, seems the steely shadow of the blackbird, a decreative omen sparking creative fear. And so, penultimately conclusive, the Heraclitean river flows ever onward, never to be stepped in twice the same, the blackbird still flying—and it is about to snow, that in-between "evening all afternoon," when slant light haunts the study, and the end anticipates a new beginning: "The blackbird sat / In the cedar-limbs." Cedar is the dream wood the world over, Lebanon to the Dakotas, the tree of seeing visions, and in it still sits the bird of all-colored night, shadow of shadows. In a world of radical unrest, he will momentarily close as the fixed radical, reality's shifting point-of-reference, just as the poem opened with one black eye among twenty snowy mountains. Poetry comes from a voice about to sing, Valery said, and Stevens's verse rises out of blackbirds soon to fly.

From Sing with the Heart of a Bear: Fusions of Native and American Poetry, 1890-1999. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2000. Copyright © 2000 by the Regents of the University of California.

Kenneth Lincoln: On "The Red Wheelbarrow"

Apart from Pound’s thunder abroad, so much depends on what back home, a red wheelbarrow? For a moment, peer through a knothole into Williams’s smallest poem, his most well-known ‘local assertion," broken off and loosened, as microcosmic emblem of the local American lyric: scan a sixteen-word poem stripped of filigree, unadorned, even anti-formalized. From the 1913 Armory Show on, Williams, Pound, Hartley, Demuth, Moore, and all the Others were "streaming through" a break in the old conventions: "—the poetic line, the way the image was to be on the page was our immediate concern."

Surely there’s more here than meets the eye. The ear, perhaps, picks up a stuttering iambic step, say, of a man (paternally English) trundling something across the barnyard (chicken manure?). But where, in this uncharted farmland, does the foot fall? The metric stress is ambiguously pitched: "so much" might make light of how much, and "so much" bears a trochaic heave that could overload the slight line. Yet together, iamb tilting against trochee, improvisationally and indeterminately metric, the opening catches us in the pitch of needing to know, and unknowing . "There’s a certain Slant of Light," Dickinson demurred with an anapest, and Frost churned the slurred line with trochees, "Something there is that doesn’t love a wall." This is measure freed to informal responsibilities of speech, poetry metrically loosened, American-formed.

Classically Western, this rolling sense of beginnings expresses the personal urgency, the rocking weight-in-motion, of not knowing where to put the "foot" as we shoulder the load in a new land. Thus, we must step (speak, think) carefully ... upon the second line. This preposition is a single verse unit, and as such, it’s the syntactic wheel of the machine, as it were—the rolling fulcrum of the line above it. By now we begin to see the game: a parodically imitative "wheel / barrow" couplet, rolling along, which leads into a second stanzaic movement, minimally precise, "a red wheel" (one syllable shorter than its corresponding tray of a line above). Barrow itself, nub of the poem, evolves from Old English bearwe, cognate with bear. This third line is composed of two spondees enjambed toward an inverted foot, a trochaic "barrow," which serves as the wheeling reverse pivot, indeed, of the second line (as with Pound’s "Petals"). And still it’s one continuous motion ("an unimpeded thrust," Williams wrote a friend in 1921, "right through a poem from the beginning to the end"). The poem trundles a wheel barrow along freshly, as barnyard metaphor of America (working man’s humor), to a trochaic "glazed," surreally highlighted by its own acoustics. Then, leaning iambically further, the line "with rain" tumbles toward a trochee, "water," into the third microcosmic couplet. All this to be completed in four syllables, trailing yet a third preposition, "beside," now normatively iambic, as a near rhyme within the line, "the white," drops with delicate trochaic twist to "chickens."

No title, without punctuation, minimal diction, tilling rhythm, and modestly internal rhyme (depends/upon, wheel/barrow, beside/white/chickens): it’s not much of a poem, an English formalist might object. What makes it tick? What catches in the eye, cocks the ear? Three modest prepositions—upon, with, beside--place these barnyard minims in visual apposition, or a kind of contingent spatial rhyme, as in Alexander Calder’s counter-gravity-balancing mobiles. Syllable to syllable the ear rolls (wheels) iamb upon trochee, the eye composes (glazes) red with white, as the mind centers (depends) on a barrow beside the chickens. It’s elemental—a figure / ground design scanned in twenty-two slim syllables. And perhaps it adds up to no more than a small comic lesson in the necessity of things in themselves, ideas in action, here the basics of a rudimentary machine (rediscovering the New World wheel, the rolling fulcrum of Western-moving-man). Work-ethic poetics, workman’s details, working-class humor. This artist gets the job done—scoops out the coop, fertilizes the turned ground, cleans the Augean stables as wry Hercules in minuscule. Williams’s first book of poems ("bad Keats, nothing else—oh well, bad Whitman too") was printed at his own expense in 1909 and sold four copies at the local stationery. A retired printer stored the remaining hundred copies on a rafter under the eaves of his old chicken coop, where they were accidentally burned ten years later. On through the red wheel barrow, Williams "scribbled" another fifty years, whether anyone noticed or not.

From Sing with the Heart of a Bear: Fusions of Native and American Poetry, 1890-1999. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1999. Ó 1999 by the Regents of the University of California.

Kenneth Lincoln: On "In a Station of the Metro"

How do we think about this? The first step, after hearing the poem—seeing and registering its lines—would be listening for the syllable, the opening phoneme "In" joined with the following "a." We have some forty phonemes or pure sounds to work with as English syllables—a scale of notes half the range of an ordinary piano—composed of consonants, vowels, and double vowels called diphthongs (nineteen English vowels in all, compared with seven in Italian). These are the building blocks of language, some languages using fewer than thirty phonemes (eleven in Polynesian), others more than eighty (141 in Khoisan or "Bushman").

With Pound's title, "In a Station of the Metro," the vowels hold sway. The inner sounds come forward along the roof of the mouth to peek: the first syllable seems to get more weight or stress, as we normally say "In a," so the phrase rocks down and forward, as might the rest of the title. This is not the way iambic English normally sways, but stress-slack trochaically, "In a Station of the Metro." Catchy as that close analysis may be, it's not poetic. Where's the dithyrambic variable? An alternative rhythm is set up through ordinary syntax in the sweep of the title—how we would normally phrase it, if asked directions, say, by an American tourist in Paris. "In a Station of the Metro," the vernacular cadence has it. Here syntax works through syllables gathered in sequence. These phrasings cadence minums, countering formal inclinations close-up with longer-range idiomatic patterns; and this cadencing leads quickly to a third variable, structure, in what versifiers call the poetic line (or sentence to a prose writer). Where the line ends is significant, at least where it seems to pause, visually, for beneath the voice the given course of the eye may be countered by the ear's vernacular norms. Syllable and syntax tense within structure, and a principle begins to emerge: stress and counterstress, form and usage, close look and perspective listening. This syncopation leads toward what we might call the periodicity of art, or patterned variation. Such internal sway makes it challenging and interesting and, for that matter, appealing.

So far we are still feeling for a drift in Pound's title, which seems to be approachable with at least two cadences: formally, a series of trochees falling in four beats, "In a Station of the Metro," and more informally, "In a Station of the Metro," two long anapestic phrasings that rise, cluster, and fall gracefully to the first line. The reverse cadences work with and against each other, creating a dynamic that makes for the tensile strength of the rhythmic line. As Boas speaks of literary style in all poetry, "repetition, particularly rhythmic repetition, is one of its fundamental, esthetic traits." Dithyrambic rhythm, stressed repetition with variation, holds sway, singing with a different heart.

Reversing metric tilt, the verse description thickens in the opening line: again, the syllables could group iambically in six-beat phrasings, "The apparition of these faces in the crowd," but this seems stiff, too formal. The idiomatic ear takes over to adjust the pattern to our liking, "The apparition of these faces in the crowd"—a lovely sprung rhythm, mysteriously cadenced, three extended anapestic phrasings with half the full stresses.

Is there an emerging fourth variable, one we could call style, everything from diction, to metrics, to shaped or formed structures, as well as the artist's personage in the wings? At first, with the title, the style seems neutral, even a bit flat: a place, underground, of public transport, in diction and rhythm no more elegant sounding than pedestrian directions. But as the title flows haiku-like into the first line, we come up, metrically and etymologically, against the Latinate "ap-par-i-tion," which seems to pick up the diction and rhythmic pace, to pop up phonemically with the double ps. The buried off rhyme between "i-tion" and "fac-es," set against the compact density of "crowd," complicates and gives texture to the lines, all the while remaining relatively ordinary in setting, language, and technique. So the style is normative, even vernacular, but capable of opening up, thickening, deepening, as long as style never calls attention to itself over the terms of the poem itself—its own being, apart from the maker.

So far, so good, perhaps, but halfway in the couplet blossoms: "Petals on a wet, black bough." The poem turns radically on the semicolon; the line pause, or break, seems to twist everything around and back on itself, structurally causing us to read the apparitional faces as an image or sign, a simile (faces like petals) or symbol (petals of faces). Here the sounds-as- syntactically-structured-signs begin to makesense; that is, they move toward meaning. "The image is itself the speech," Pound insists. "The image is the word beyond formulated language." If "faces" may suggest "petals," and a metro station in a French (not too foreign to Norman English) city may occasion a poetic vision, what does it all add up to? Be patient, test the ear and eye: Is the syntax of the first word iambic, as ordinarily spoken ("Petals"? never in a hundred years), or trochaic, " Petals on a wet, black bough"? That's better, but seems still a bit too regular, too monotonous. The ear must override the routine mind's-eye and vary the stress, to adjust a formal mishmash, as so, " Petals on a wet, black bough." That's at least more metrically engaging, with the trochee-become-dactyl giving way, somewhere in the cluster of unstressed syllables, to the reasserted iambs in the second and third phrases.

Something is still amiss, the pattern is not quite taut. What if the regular expectations of one pattern repeating another slough off, and we hear normative voice emphasis, against drilled image closure, weighting all three last syllables?—"Petals on a wet, black bough." It's irregular, but arresting, powerfully sprung into place. The line seems to hang petal-like, about to fall; on a syllabic or phonemic level, the last vowels moan, "eh" "ae" "ow" and the dental t clangs off the labial b as the plosive k cuts off before the second labial b. This is the musical equivalent of thirds, fourths, fifths, and diminished sevenths chorded into an arrhythmic cadence. The last word, "bough," hangs there, suspended, no consonant to nail it down, unforgettable. All this is achieved by reversing the iambic expectation with a trochee, "Petals," then reversing that with an anapest, "on a wet," trying to right the line's rhythm, then drilling the eidetic image to a close, " black bough." The imploded spondee fairly crackles at the edges and vowels out woefully in the middle of words. The syllables pace sequentially together through space, measured in the time it takes to read them, and at the same time the sounds radiate larger and smaller fields of energy, three-dimensionally, like tiny fireworks shooting off in the sky. It feels like connecting the dots of a child's coloring book, only to find Van Gogh's Starry Night bursting off the page. Minus the closing dental, "bough" almost rhymes with "crowd," positionally above it. This creates a couplet effect, an attempt to couple, at least, against the dissonant tension working the lines. Pound tries to explain by analogy, "my experience in Paris should have gone into paint. If instead of colour I had perceived sound or planes in relation, I should have expressed it in music or in sculpture."

Beyond a native poetics, there's something Eastern behind the Western surface of all this. Structurally, a proportional metric cadences the lines, beginning with the title, syllabically 8-12-7, supra-metrically 4-6-4, and metrically normative as 2-3-3. Haiku syllables run 5-7-5, more or less proportionate to Pound's freer construction. So Confucius complements Homer, The Analects adds to The Odyssey, something deeper in the human psyche circles the globe. The near couplet draws all poetry closer, aesthetically, in a manner of speaking, ethnic or our own. Pound stands somewhere in the middle as global translator. A Westerner born in Hailey, Idaho, graduate of Penn with Williams and Hilda Doolittle, expatriate back to the European classics, highbrow to the art of London, Paris, and Venice; then in the middle of his life, an alleged war subversive, convicted of lowly treason, imprisoned for twelve years in a Maryland mental institution, released to return to Italy, where he lived out his life twenty more years, writing cantos in silence. Such is the man behind the near couplet.

What can we say about early-twentieth-century American verse, by way of Pound's example, and ethnopoetics? "I think these examples demonstrate," Boas admits, "that it is not easy to discover from published material the stylistic pattern of primitive narrative. Sometimes the rendering is bald and dry owing to the difficulties of expression that the interpreter cannot overcome; sometimes elaborated in a superimposed literary style that does not belong to the original." Yes, the crossover difficulty is immense, but let's hazard some provisional guidelines about modernism, as Boas does about oral translations into print. Rejecting a "rather smarmy" Victorian aesthetics, the new American poetry is microsyllabically concise, even minimalist—cut in Fenollosa's term for ideogrammatic diction, sprung in Hopkins's term for meter, even thrust past conventional rhythm, as Pound argued the vortical trochee's heave against built-in iambic conventions—but still patterned in its own native poetics. Modernist verse is sometimes near-rhymed, as in Dickinson's "success in Circuit," slant telling; almost pairing, the near verse remains startling, arresting, thoughtful, though shy of "visionary" in the Romantic sense. Formally, Pound's two lines break into a hexameter-tetrameter couplet, neither heroic nor coupling, but appositional, the images of faces and petals working by analogy. "So we get mimesis without the cosmic designs that once made it meaningful," Donald Wesling concludes of modernist "organic vitalism" in The Chances of Rhyme. "The artist imitates that which is within the thing, not, as in a copy, in the spirit of idle rivalry, but, natura naturans, grasping the process of the thing through sympathetic identification. Thus the writer will convey to us his sense of order through the order of his syllables."

The six-four couplet structure tilts and rebalances, off and leaning back into pattern, completing the ten-stressed meter of an older, evenly accented and rhymed "heroic" couplet. Contrasts are key within the patterns. The artist places a natural, even classical, image of blossoms against obdurate urban modernity, a "station" of the "metro" (commuter station of the secular cross). Still, an ancient nature blossoms from the dank roots and rails of the city. The diction hovers in some middle range, not too fancy, never overstated, echoing voices of the people, yet concentrated into urgency, depth, intensity of feeling. Disillusion pitches against true illusion, skepticism against belief. Communal transcends personal. The upright lyric I is suspect: this is not the self-construct of Wordsworth, Emerson, Tennyson, or Hopkins, but dramatis personae or ironic mask (the dramatic monologues of Browning, Poe, and Hardy anticipate early modernists Frost, Eliot, and Stevens). The first-person eye dissolves into more inclusive consideration, an indirect, hard-worn aye, back to the masses, back to the common tribe.

"In a poem of this sort," Pound says, "one is trying to record the precise instant when a thing outward and objective transforms itself, or darts into a thing inward and subjective." What does the poet mean by this, what does the poem signify, finally what's its sense? Perhaps something about the ghosts of people in crowds, dim-lighted, massed in public transit, going somewhere, but really nowhere, given the mortal condition. A minor epiphany springs back with nature's petals in season—set against the unseen trunk of a massive, rooted blossomer whose rain-soaked limb, dark against the darkness, backgrounds the lights of petaled faces, commuting to work, on the brink of war, anonymously together, going home. The fine points are crucial. "An epic diffusiveness," Boas discovers among swirling particulars, "an insistence on details is characteristic of most free primitive narrative." As Two Shields sang with a bear's heart, "a wind from the north comes for me."

Pound may have been thinking of Eurydice in hell, Kora underground (as was his rival-friend Williams at the time) , and the Orphic mystery cults that sprang up around loss and recovery. Early Greeks saw the elegiac celebration of gain-in-loss through the stories of Orpheus, losing Eurydice looking back, tom apart by jealous would-be lovers and thrown into the river, where his head kept singing of his beloved and charmed all the plants and animals to come down to the waters: Perhaps. Pound may have been foreshadowing Yeats's "0 chestnut-tree, great rooted blossomer, / Are you the leaf, the blossom or the bole?" in "Among School Children." Or his moment may have been simply a vision of color, a preverbal insight, a visitation. That's one of the secrets of good literature: there's always more to be considered beyond the parsing, assumptions to be revised, mysteries.


From Sing with the Heart of a Bear: Fusions of Native and American Poetry, 1890-1999. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2000. Copyright © 2000 by the Board of Regents of the University of California.

Kenneth Lincoln: On Sherman Alexie

With Sherman Alexie, readers can throw formal questions out the smokehole (as in resistance to other modern verse innovators, Whitman, Williams, Sexton, or the Beats). Parodic antiformalism may account for some of Alexie's mass maverick appeal. This Indian gadfly jumps through all the hoops, sonnet, to villanelle, to heroic couplet, all tongue-in-cheeky.

Excerpted from a longer essay, "Futuristic Hip Indian: Alexie." From Sing With the Heart of a Bear: Fusions of Native and American Poetry, 1890-1999. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2000. Copyright © 2000 by The Board of Regents of the University of California.