Stephen Cushman

Stephen Cushman: On 613 ("They shut me up in Prose--")

The first line of this poem endows "Prose" with figurative possibilities; it could function as a metaphor for some dreary domestic or familial situation, a "Captivity" imposed on the speaker. But the comparison with a bird, one of Dickinson's familiar images for the poet, suggests that the speaker is also using "Prose" to mean a mode of writing. "They" have attempted, unsuccessfully, to confine her attention to prose. The final stanza could mean that the speaker can escape from prose into verse as easily as a bird can fly from the pound. As soon as her captors turn their backs, she can read or write poetry. But the lines "Still! Could themself have peeped-- / And seen my Brain--go round—" show that the speaker's liberation is an interior one, a liberation managed within the limits of her captivity. In other words, as shutting a child in a closet will not necessarily "still" that child, so confinement to prose will not necessarily shut out the structures of verse.

Pointing to Dickinson's mannerism of turning her prose "abruptly into metered expression" in her early letters to Higginson, Porter comments that she seems to be trying to demonstrate to him that the rhythms of verse "so pervade her consciousness that she cannot make the distinction between them and unmetered prose." Discussing the three "Master" letters, Gelpi remarks that their "diction and imagery are so much an extension of the poetry that these letters are best read (as are many of Dickinson's letters) as prose poems or free verse." Often, however, not only the diction and imagery of her letters but also their formal structures overlap with those of her verse. Some letters are far too metrical to be considered prose poems or free verse. For Dickinson, writing cannot be broken down into two separate modes, the unmetered language of prose and the metered language of verse. Instead, the metricality of her prose insists on the continuity and likeness of the two modes.

From Fictions of Form in American Poetry. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1993. Copyright © 1993 by Princeton UP.

Stephen Cushman: On "Corsons Inlet"

. . . from the late fifties or early sixties on, Ammons's work demonstrates an awareness of Williams, whether in its use of the rigorously enjambed, short-line stanza, which is one of Williams's trademarks, or in its deepening commitment to the minimally noted fact--what Bloom calls "Ammonsian literalness"--or in direct quotation and allusion, as in this passage from "Corsons Inlet":

the possibility of rule as the sum of rulelessness:

the "field" of action

with moving, incalculable center:


in the smaller view, order tight with shape:

blue tiny flowers on a leafless weed: carapace of crab:

snail shell:

    pulsations of order

    in the bellies of minnows: orders swallowed,

broken down, transferred through membranes

to strengthen larger orders: but in the large view, no

lines or changeless shapes: the working in and out, together

    and against, of millions of events: this,

        so that I make

        no form [of]


Commenting that "in a difficult transitional passage, the poet associates the phrasal fields of his metric with the 'field' of action on every side of him," Bloom either ignores or does not recognize Ammons's direct reference, signaled by his use of quotation marks, to the title of Williams's important essay "The Poem as a Field of Action" (1948). Among other relevant remarks, that essay argues that "our prosodic values should rightly be seen as only relatively true." Furthermore, if in doubt about the presence of Williams in "Corsons Inlet" and in the period of Ammons’s life from which it comes, one has only to look to the piece that precedes it in the chronologically arranged Collected Poems. Titled "WCW," this short poem exults: "What a / way to read / Williams!" Even the most skeptical antagonist of influence theory, let alone its chief formulator, would have a difficult time ignoring these signs.

The transitional passage from "Corsons Inlet" is difficult, but it bears directly on "The Ridge Farm" and on a larger discussion of form. In the lines "this, / so that I make / no form of / formlessness," the antecedent of "this" appears to be "the working in and out," recalling "the coming and going," "of millions of events," each reflecting some degree of order. This working in and out, then, reveals itself to the "I" of the poem, informing and instructing his poetic procedure ("so that I make"). The question is, What do these lines mean? Do they mean that having been instructed by the events of Corsons Inlet, the "I" will not attempt to impose a form on an overall, subsuming formlessness, a kind of undifferentiated plenitude that transcends the polarities of form and no form?

At least one statement from Sphere could be enlisted in support of this reading: "The shapes nearest shapelessness awe us most, suggest / the god." Formlessness, then, is an attribute of what is too large and remote to be trapped into shape, call it the god, the Most High, the One, or Unity. But although this reading may persuade locally, it presents two problems for "Corsons Inlet." First, Ammons admits quite explicitly, in terms that suggest his differences with Emerson, that "Overall is beyond me," and "Scope eludes my grasp." In other words, the working in and out of millions of events does not lead Ammons toward the apprehension of transcendent formlessness, even though forms nearest an ideal formlessness may awe him most. Instead, they reveal to him the contours of form in a natural landscape where "terror pervades" because a controlling form appears to be missing. But he refuses to fasten himself to the limited forms he can recognize ("I ... will / not run to that easy victory"), vowing instead to extrapolate from limited forms to larger, more inclusive ones. Meanwhile, he knows and celebrates the knowledge that no form he discovers can be all-inclusive.

Second, if it is true that for Ammons formlessness is an attribute of overall Unity, then there must be two kinds of formlessness with which he concerns himself. Like Stevens's two versions of nothing in "The Snow Man," Ammons's versions of formlessness imply both a condition to be aspired to and a condition to be escaped from. When he explains in "The Ridge Farm" that "one hugs form because / he fears dissolution, openness," he cannot mean that formlessness offers him order or stasis, which some would consider attributes of Unity. He means that form defends him against extreme randomness, chaos, and disintegration. The declaration of mental independence in "Corsons Inlet," "I was released from forms," is deceptive. It does not mean that the speaker now enjoys an Emersonian transparency, as he becomes one with formless Unity. It means that having shed preemptive, a priori forms of thought, he must discover or invent new forms to ward off the terror of dissolution. The search for new form is every bit as urgent as the flight from old, and it is this urgency, and the preoccupation with form it engenders, that links Ammons so closely with Williams.

From Fictions of Form in American Poetry. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1993. Copyright © 1993 by Princeton UP.

Stephen Cushman: On "The Fish"

[T]he familiar poem "The Fish" can be reread profitably as a configuration of simple parallels and more complex subordinations, culminating in the paratactic connection reminiscent of biblical syntax: "And I let the fish go." The careful avoidance of subordination, as in "so I let the fish go," reveals the speaker’s reluctance, even refusal, to impose a more obvious moral closure on her narrative. Instead, Bishop reserves subordination for the shift from the speaker’s simple narration of her fish story to an imaginative identification with the fish she catches. Through the first 21 lines the only conjunction is ‘and" and several statements are linked without conjunctions at all. Then, as the first-person speaker shifts from "I caught" to "I thought," comes hypotaxis:

While his gills were breathing in the terrible oxygen -- the frightening gills, fresh and crisp with blood, that can cut so badly – I thought of the coarse white flesh packed in like feathers.

In this poem, with its paratactic skeleton of "I caught," "I thought," "I looked," "I admired," "I stared and stared," "And I let the fish go," hypotaxis signals the journey to the interior, as the mere recounting of events yields to personal reflection on, and appreciation of, those events. As in "the Map," in which hypotaxis accompanies the printer’s excitement "as when emotion too far exceeds its cause," parataxis in "the Fish" governs emotion, whereas hypotaxis releases it, even in the vision of a "pool of bilge / where oil had spread rainbow."

From Stephen Cushman, "Elizabeth Bishop’s Winding Path," Chapter 5 in Fictions of Form in American Poetry (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1993), 131.