May 2004

Dale Smith

marsupial inquirer

Line and Rhythm

Ron Silliman, a few months ago on his blog, made an unusual comment about "the line" in poetry. Often challenging and of keen interest, Silliman's address that day (and he is a prolific blogger) seemed particularly limited.

"And I sense... my own frustration here," he wrote, "that we find ourselves at the end of 2003 with so few choices available as to the line -- either the metrically closed verse of premodernism, ranging from the hokey to the merely embarrassing, or the untheorized (& too often too slack ...) 'free verse' marriage of convenience, with maybe theories along the line of Austin's or Olson's to haunt us with their inadequate alternatives. Indeed, the absence of a good answer here sometimes has been used by critics to argue that poetry is, if not, certainly on the wane as a medium."

Mary Austin had an unusual instinct, that American poetry was somehow informed by experience within the particular geographies of North America. In her classic study, The American Rhythm (1923) -- recently republished in issue 2 of No: a journal of the arts -- she makes a strong case for the ways in which our specific environments influence the language we use. By extension, the line in poetry becomes a measure of that environment, a glyph of some greater, prolonged movement revealed by the poem. Her study opens thus: "In this connection we begin at once to think of rhythm as experience."

However speculative and, certainly, anthropologically Dated -- ("Personally," she says, "I don't mind admitting that I have netted nothing but the air...") -- her work is far too provocative, careful and fundamentally inquisitive to dismiss as an "inadequate alternative." Part of Silliman's own "frustration" is an unwillingness to integrate, rather than resist, the influence of environmental stimuli in his thinking about the poem. Rhythm in poetry is a tug-of-war between conscious and unconscious patterns, artificial and personal structures deployed according to the occasion of writing itself.

I want to rag on Silliman for a moment for being so quick here to dismiss Austin and Charles Olson (who I'll get to in a minute). His "New Sentence," compared to Austin's rhythm and Olson's line, is a weak extension, derived from literary and linguistic models rather than the anthropological kinetics of human relations to external forms. For some reason it's hokey or simplistic to suggest that rhythm and form should be located in experience of the body and its environments. But literary approaches to language fail to extend the deeper kinesis involved. Silliman's problem with the line is that he can't see relations beyond a specifically literary sense of it. He has to be able to dissect it with his knowledge, poke pins in it, press it up against some map of literary alternatives and compare it to what's come before, draining the life from it. Rather than showing a process of becoming and vital transformations, he seeks a comparative literary model based within the historical antecedents of Modernism. Particularly, his on-going war with New Formalist poetics binds him to rather incomplete binary constructions, where he confuses bad, uninformed writing with Renaissance or Romantic verse models, as if premodernism represents a childish experience of language, "ranging from the hokey to the merely embarrassing." What might Chaucer or Coleridge say to that! In the end, it's not premodern forms that excite us, but individual energy released through the poems of a given period. The task of a poet in the present is to find the best possible means of releasing energy in language, finding art in the tension of personal expression and cultural receptions of it.

"Rhythmic forms are constantly presenting themselves to our perceptional experience," wrote Austin, "but before they can be reckoned with they must initiate the factor of movement. Such movement arises subconsciously in us in response to recurrent series of homogeneous stimuli. But the mere intellectual appreciation of such sequences is not enough." Basing her work on anthropology, psychology and human physiology, she puts forward the valuable idea that rhythm "is located in the dimension of appreciable stress. Its measure is the measure of the capacity of opposing organic strains."

Austin's depth and persistence is rewarding. She considers traditional influences on English poetry from Greek, Roman and Hebraic sources. Then she looks at where the studied use of metric forms comes into conflict with daily usage, with occasional energetic upsurges through the formal devices. The Elizabethans, for instance, made great poetry in part because of this contrast and tension between accepted forms and daily speech. "Thus in the times of Chaucer and of Shakespeare there was an emergence of the national spirit," Austin writes, "and a fusion of the speech-streams which fed the Island tongue, energetic enough to overflow the classic molds and make new patterns of literary form, recognizably English."

Conscious of archaic practices, geography and human migration, Austin presents a necessary view of rhythm's transformation according to people's uses and placement on the globe. Speculative, sure, but accurate too, she says: "Poignancy is of the poet's soul, perhaps, but rhythmic sights and sounds flowed in upon the becoming race of Americans from every natural feature." Her articulation of what is new in American poetics is essential for our own historical awareness now in our divers 21st century practices. To dismiss the body of work she advances is ridiculous, just as it's beside the point to posit some fundamental problem with the line, as if each approach to it didn't bring with it something fundamentally new.

The line, when you get down to it, is a measure of energy, a syllabic circuit by which the tone and intensity of a poem are revealed. Charles Olson's 1956 essay, "Quantity in Verse, and Shakespeare's Late Plays," seems informative still. "Form is now as much an invention as it always is," he wrote. "What is missed is, that it is. Verse and thoughts are vernacular. Who would have thought it! The absolute, in all its guises, even the smallest--notion opinion self-assertion--has slunk away. A huge difference has come about, something previously unknown about the real and the natural has been disclosed: that the artificial (paradis n'est pas artificiel) the mechanical the arbitrary whatever you want to call the aesthetic, is not separate from them. It is what the felicity in these plays leads to, it does not lead to its own pursuit (this is the pathetic fallacy of humanism) it goes directly back to the real but in so doing a real and natural which are themselves transposed."

Olson wrestles the question of form here down into its gritty molecules. In a sense he's saying that we work with the materials at hand. Our own language in the context of our culture and past forms composing it all enter along with the tea pot's whistle, the sound of a child's blocks cracking on a wood floor and a distant low jet rumble through the roof above. Our own processes of attention are at stake in the line of the poem, as our own language also comes into being. This process of attention works with and against our assumptions of experience because definite units of speech bind us. A break comes when the line can hold no more--when the attention passes into its next stage. What the line retains in that mysterious movement--limit and boundary--is the surprise and shift of perceived limits toward the next unknown rush. Whether it's by chance, or by method, the unknown always in an instant gives a hesitation to our writing. That hesitant, instantaneous break is the poem's own means of registration, accepting, of course, that the poem is an unknown entity our own language appropriates from a day as mundane as this one--and as mysterious.

Olson again:

"If the intensity of the attention is equal to it, innocence ought to yield what it is made up of; and when it does, like water in a controlled vacuum, it is enormously more than it was in its apparent state."

It's a quantitative pressure even in the iambic pentameter of Shakespeare that Olson recognizes as an energized fixture. He continues:

"I am suggesting that some such understanding as this is what Shakespeare has reached, and the verse capable of, in these plays. He isn't picking up his objects (words), despite one hand is tied behind his back, either for their music or image. He gets both by going in further to the word as meaning and thing, and, mixing the governing human title and experience (which prompts him to bother with words at all), his effect is the equivalent of his act: the power, instead of peeling off, of being peeled off (as verse and plays had), without being disturbed from its place, twisted into turbulence and action (each not the condition of an element but weather from outside), suddenly moves as one has known it does of its own nature, without using any means or matter other than those local and implicit to it. It is molecular, how this power is, why it all multiplies from itself and from the element proper to its being. We are in the presence of the only truth which the real can have, its own undisclosed because not apparent character. Get that out with no exterior means or materials, no mechanics except those hidden in the thing itself, and we are in the hands of the mystery."

The "molecular" or syllabic range -- "going in further to the word as meaning and thing" -- is the essence of quantitative verse. The hesitant withdrawal and simultaneous conscious momentum out through "the hands of mystery", i.e., the unknown -- just assuming I don't possess it all here and now -- contribute to the dispersal of energy to create a system of weights and balances perceptible by each individual ear.

By showing how Shakespeare writes quantitatively, "despite one hand is tied behind his back" by iambic pentameter, Olson reveals how our own approach to the poem is less about outer conveniences than inner tracking of each moment in words. So Silliman's conflation of outer form with inner reduces the scale of the problem. The problem isn't with New Formalists or exhausted New American projective forms. It's not only a problem of younger writers--though we don't have forty years of experience to call on to support our march through the word wilderness. The problem is an individual thing for which there doesn't seem to be any answers, only evocative pursuits and challenges. The vividness of our experience in words and out seems essential somehow. Perhaps another 10 or 20 years will lapse before present practice in verse is fully apparent. Hesitation marks our limits, throws us out into space before being drawn quickly back onto a track that leads where? It's when you think you know what you're doing you fail. The line is the reflexive instinct of a given person's ear and, if you agree with Mary Austin, its rhythms are passed on by our adaptation and close listening within the divers landscapes of our experience.

No: a journal of the arts, issue 2, 2003
Distributed by Small Press Distribution (
ISBN: 0972745319
265 pp.

Chales Olson: Selected Writings
ISBN: 0811201287
280 pp.