Welcome To Talking Verse

This blog is dedicated to discussion on poetry.

Poetry, on the European side of the Atlantic, has hardly progressed since the early 20th Century. Whilst in the USA poetry continues to evolve and present itself afresh.

Part of the reason for this is that the issue of poetry has been debated widely in the USA whereas in Britain, for example, you will be hard pressed to find anything that challenges the status quo of poetry.

There have been a few attempts: the Liverpool Beat poets made an short-lived impact during the early 1960s, but they could only offer a poor imitation of a style from the USA.

A handful of poets in the 20th century did make an impact. Basil Bunting and Tom Leonard shook up the established schools. But compared to the US the impact is small. Whilst other art forms have managed to progress over the years, poetry has stood still. Only the narrative has altered to keep abreast of the times.

Many people look to poetry to ‘tell’ them something; as if poetry were some form of journalism or propaganda. The laureateship of Carol Anne Duffy has only reinforced that view. But it is not simply a case of blaming the poets. Duffy is only responding to a demand that arises out of a society that pushes art for other ends, rather than simply art for the sake of it.

Today there is a wide awareness of poetry, the internet is weighted down with poetry sites that offer varying degrees of quality. Poetry is as valid as any other art form but only as long as it operates as an art form. Poets should not be seen as harbingers and the audience should look for meaning rather than rely on the poet or critic to provide answers.


This blog welcomes essays and book reviews about poetry. Please do not submit any poetry. If you wish to use a blog to submit poetry then I would recommend The Poets' Graves Workshop.

All submissions will be read and editing suggestions may be put to the author before being posted. Rejection by the author of any suggestion does not preclude it from being posted on the site.

Talking Verse follows no particular school of thought and has no other remit apart from the widest debate on matters of poetry.

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Friday, 22 April 2011

The Common Breath: a poetic tradition*

Essay by Tom Leonard
The politics of space on the page is a politics of democracy, of transference from world of text as “the” to that of reader-subject as “this”. It is the universalisation of the author-reader experience away from the world of passing-the-parcel to those fit to open the parcels of cultural referents of supposedly universal value (which opening of parcels has been the industry of literary-academic exegesis’s this past hundred years); towards the structuring of a system of common breath, integer of the universal human.

The basis of poetry is line, the basis of prose, paragraph—most of the time. Three types of basic poetry line: as unit of metre, as unit of meaning, as unit of articulation. The politics of space belongs to the last.

The preface to Williams’s 1946 Paterson: Book One begins colon, space.
: a local pride;

It is in little like the opening chords of Beethoven’s third symphony of 1806. Previous givens are at the outset dispensed, we are on different ground. In Williams, the punctuation of space has arrived, as he puts it in another context, naked into the world.

Pound in 1913 had had space between words and between word and period:
The apparition   of these faces   in the crowd
                    Petals   on a wet, black   bough .
This his first version of “In a Station of the Metro” was visual, painterly:
Three years ago in Paris I got out of a "metro" train at La Concorde, and saw suddenly a beautiful face, and then another and another, and then a beautiful child’s face, and then another beautiful woman, and I tried all that day to find words for what this had meant to me, and I could not find any words that seemed to me worthy, or as lovely as that sudden emotion. And that evening, as I went home along the Rue Raynouard, I was still trying and I found, suddenly, the expression. I do not mean that I found words, but there came an equation . . . not in speech, but in little splotches of colour. It was just that - a "pattern," or hardly a pattern, if by "pattern" you mean something with a "repeat" in it.
. . . And so, when I came to read Kandinsky’s chapter on the language of form and colour, I found little that was new to me. I only felt that someone else understood what I understood, and had written it out very clearly.
It was by analogy with painting Williams later remembered the advances in poetry of the time:
What were we seeking? No one knew consistently enough to formulate a “movement”. We were restless and constrained, closely allied with the painters. Impressionism, dadaism, surrealism applied to both painting and the poem. What a battle we made of it merely getting rid of capitals at the beginning of every line! The immediate image, which was impressionistic, sure enough, fascinated us all. We had followed Pound’s instructions, his famous “Don’ts,” eschewing inversions of the phrase, the putting down of what to our senses was tautological and so, uncalled for, merely to fill out a standard form. Literary allusions, save in very attenuated form, were unknown to us. Few had the necessary reading.
We were looked at askance by scholars and those who turned to scholarship for their norm. To my mind the thing that gave us most a semblance of a cause was not imagism, as some thought, but the line: the poetic line and our hopes of its recovery from stodginess.
But 1922 saw the publication of the Waste Land. It was pass-the-parcel time again with a vengeance.
Then out of the blue The Dial brought out The Waste Land and all our hilarity ended. It wiped out our world as if an atom bomb had been dropped upon it and our brave sallies into the unknown were turned to dust.
… the great catastrophe to our letters—the appearance of TS Eliot’s The Waste Land. There was heat in us, a core and a drive that was gathering headway upon the theme of a rediscovery of a primary impetus, the elementary principle of all art, in the local conditions. Our work staggered to a halt for a moment under the blast of Eliot’s genius which gave the poem back to the academics. We did not know how to answer him.
The Waste Land as it finally appeared owed much to the excisions and editing of Pound. This in part was a reflection of Pound’s work-in-progress of the time and succeeding decades, the Cantos. The difference between Pound of the Cantos and Eliot of “The Waste Land” can be seen as a difference of value accredited to fundamental voice. Both works are polyphonic and polyglottal, but Eliot’s implicitly sets out high register English as the natural carrier of high cultural value: low value is set side by side in terms of irony. Goonight Lou. Hurry up please it’s time. One listens to the British Council’s recording of Eliot reading his own poems and one hears a voice that is more primly high-register English than the voices of most Englishmen. When Pound went to London though, his voice was apparently not so affected. This is how it was described in that city:
Pound talks like no one else. His is almost a wholly original accent, the base of American mingled with a dozen assorted "English society" and Cockney accents inserted in mockery, French, Spanish and Greek exclamations, strange cries and catcalls, the whole very oddly inflected, with dramatic pauses and diminuendos. It takes time to get used to it, especially as the lively and audacious mind of Pound packs his speech - as well as his writing - with undertones and allusions.
This can reveal as much about the Cantos as An Annotated Index to the Cantos of Ezra Pound. The base American. Or as Williams again once put it:
I don't speak English, but the American idiom. I don't know how to write anything else, and I refuse to learn.
It’s in his letters that Pound’s variants of English are most spectacularly deployed, his typography most flamboyant with varied spelling bold capitals and lower case. These are the Cantos with his jacket off, mimicking outrage, giving advice and in-jokes and hot tips rather than formal history lessons. Pound here and in the Cantos could shift into nonstandard English as (sometimes humorous) instance of the spoken language spectrum, not as counterpoised “bad example”. Williams, in his collage of speculative prose and poems “Spring and All” of 1922 makes a riposte to the Waste Land proclaiming “the imagination” acting on the present instant as vital opposition to the suffocating weight of a static supposedly integral cultural past.
Our orchestra
is the cat’s nuts—

Banjo jazz
with a nickelplated

amplifier to

the savage beast—
Get the rhythm

That sheet stuff
‘s a lot a cheese.

gimme the key

and lemme loose—
I make ‘em crazy

with my harmonies—
Shoot it Jimmy

Nobody else

but me—
They can’t copy it
Ending without a period. Hanging in the air. Appropriate to the music, the variations of capitals and lowercase giving fluctuated rhythm and stress that elsewhere might have been lowercase throughout for tonal consistency. The vocal intimacy of an opening line might as it were literally branch into a poem essentially mimetic as sculpture:
I must tell you
this young tree
whose round and firm trunk
between the wet

pavement and the gutter
(where water
is trickling) rises

into the air with
one undulant
thrust half its height—
and then

dividing and waning
sending out
young branches on
all sides—

hung with cocoons—
it thins
till nothing is left
but two

eccentric knotted
bending forward
hornlike at the top
The downward thrust of the progressing meaning of this Williams poem presents in inverse the upward thrust of the sycamore growth. In the same year 1927, cummings makes eye and attempted articulation of word and sentence into a jumpy imitation of a difficult carclutch.
 she being Brand

-new;and you
know consequently a
little stiff i was
careful of her and(having

thoroughly oiled the universal
joint tested my gas felt of
her radiator made sure her springs were O.

K.)i went right to it flooded-the-carburettor cranked her

up,slipped the
clutch(and then somehow got into reverse she
kicked what
the hell)next
minute i was back in neutral tried and

again slo-wly;bare,ly nudg.    ing(my

lev-er Right-
oh and her gears being in
A 1 shape passed
from low through
second-in-to-high like
greasedlightning)just as we turned the corner of Divinity

avenue i touched the accelerator and give

her the juice,good
was the first ride and believe i we was
happy to see how nice she acted right up to
the last minute coming back down by the Public
Gardens i slammed on

brakes Bothatonce and

brought allofher tremB
to a:dead.

Zukofsky in 1930: “The devices of emphasising cadence by arrangement of line and typography have been those which clarify and render the meaning of the spoken word specific.”
It’s a further shift again into the kinesics of the actuating breath, the canvas on which the spoken word occurs. This is where Williams’ prosody was by 1946, and whereon Olson was to characterise procedure in his “Projective Verse” essay of 1950:
It is the advantage of the typewriter that, due to its rigidity and its space precisions, it can, for a poet, indicate exactly the breath, the pauses, the suspensions even of syllables, the juxtapositions even of parts of phrases, which he intends. For the first time the poet has the stave and the bar a musician has had. For the first time he can, without the convention of rime and meter, record the listening he has done to his own speech and by that one can indicate how he would want any reader, silently or otherwise, to voice his work.
It is time we picked the fruits of the experiments of Cummings, Pound, Williams, each of whom has, after his way, already used the machine as a scoring to his composing, as a script to its vocalisation. It is now only a matter of the recognition of the conventions of composition by field for us to bring into being an open verse as formal as the closed, with all its traditional advantages.
If a contemporary poet leaves a space as long as the phrase before it, he means that space to be held, by the breath, an equal length of time. If he suspends a word or syllable at the end of a line (this was most Cummings’ addition) he means that time to pass that it takes the eye—that hair of time suspended—to pick up the next line. If he wishes a pause so light it hardly separates the words, yet does not want a comma—which is an interruption of the meaning rather than the sounding of the line—follow him when he uses a symbol the typewriter has to hand:
               “What does not change / is the will to change”
Observe him when he takes advantage of the machine’s multiple margins…..
The quoted line is from Olson’s own “The Kingfishers” of 1949, a reply to the Waste Land of a different order. By that year Williams had published the first three books of his ongoing lyric epic Paterson. Space before period, word space period space in Book One
.  . combed into straight lines

               And clerks in the post-
office ungum rare stamps from
his packages and steal them for their
children’s albums  .


how much chief he may be, rather the more
because of it, to destroy him at home  .

.    .    Womanlike, a vague smile,
unattached, floating like a pigeon
after a long flight to his cote.
Through Book Two and Book Three the isolated period had become a regular aspect of Williams’s vocabulary of space, of typographic placement. There is variation in length of space between period and word.

               a world unsuspected
                              beckons to new places
and no whiteness (lost) is so white as the memory
of whiteness   .

With evening, love wakens
               though its shadows
                           which are alive by reason
of the sun shining—
   grow sleepy now and drop away
                                       from desire  .

The second isolated period is nearer the preceding word than the previous; and the next isolated period which occurs has more space before it than either of the previous two:

   For what we cannot accomplish, what
is denied to love,
   what we have lost in the anticipation—
                              a descent follows,
endless and indestructible      .

The spaced period can function to indicate page as canvas, score for the eye like a silent beat in music that taps the presence of rhythm even in the absence of lexical referrent. To an extent the precursor is the Chinese characters of Pound’s Cantos, albeit the latter are bodied as ideograms of instant meaning counterpoising meaning as sequential. But yet in counter-rhythm they function as pulse. In Williams, eye and breath become conjunctive; or as one of his late poems puts it:
undying accents
repeated till
the ear and the eye lie
down together in the same bed
Eye, ear, breath enact kinesis on page-as-canvas; Olson’s essay specifies the oral and articulated: it adds ear and lungs to the play-on-the-page of the eye.

It would be wrong to privilege simplistic narratives from the complex of prosodic progress and events in the first fifty years of the twentieth century. But it seems fair to say a dialogue was one of the threads taking place between the visual—the painterly-sculptural—and auditory—the spoken/heard—in the language. Such a dialogue occurred outside a “mainstream” that saw itself as universal narrative in which text, form and sound worked magically within natural “commonsensical” laws, referrent and referred integrally and centrally contiguous. This takes us to the basis of colonising narrative set against a polyphonic democracy of discrete components, which the multi-voiced Paterson stands for. The “local” here as in all of Williams’s philosophy, is to privilege the everywhere here-and-now of eye and subject-voice, as against a supposed pre-existing centre of focussed value existing culturally in a privileged space historically and/ or topographically in a world essentially elsewhere. Williams’s puts forward the realm of the imagination, which is a universal subject-centred property.

Variation of lefthand indent can challenge and undermine invisible (as all colonising narrative is invisible) pre-established tonal value. Likewise the challenge of lowercase. In each the focus is switched to the local, in Williams’s terms, or to put it another way, to the locale of the page—and the page-reader relationship. Varying the lefthand indent could also make the base lefthand margin a musical ground upon which the play of varying indent could take place in the eye-music of ear and lungs.

For Paul Blackburn in the poems composed in the twenty years before his death in 1971 music was central:
One of the most important things about a poem is that it is basically a musical structure and like any piece of music it needs resolution. It must tie together as a musical unit however irregular it looks upon the page.
He used regular staged indent as base, with freely varying indents, space between punctuation and word:
Procession with candles around the streets of that town:
hands raised and cupped to shield the tiny flames
                                                      a timeless gesture
                                                      as that slow walk
from church along the main street to the second store
                                                                       then turn
                                                                       left, downslope
                        to the lower street sinking past
                        Ca’n Font, down
                        past the lower line of houses.
Street rising gently to the road, back past
tailor’s house
                            the stairs
                                                    the stores
                                                                       dark suits and white shirts
the line of men, dark
dresses, dark shawls, veils, the line of
women’s heads down  .  watching their own feet moving
                        slowly   .   slowly   .   A-
                                                                       ve, a-ve’
                                                                       Ave Ma-ri-a,
                                                                       A-ve, a-ve,
                                                                       Ave Ma-ri-a
His world is always before the eye of the speaker, the kinetics before the eye of the reader. He could employ post-Poundian ideograms such as simply drawn geometric rhomboids and other shapes, silent bars / pulses stripped of all semantic referrent other than the musical beat. He was a master of a visual musicality and rightly if modestly acknowledged by Creeley, in his introduction to Blackburn’s Against the Silences as “a far more accomplished crafstman than I.”
in this case the Pieter Stuyvesant farm, well this square

                                       with  .  young  .  trees
                                       which in this case on

a minus-20 morning in February, are filled
                                                               with sparrows
as tho this snow were a spring rain somehow

                   Another day (same month) another
                   occurrence is clearer : off the Battery
                   against an ice-blue sky, some gulls
so soundlessly,
the sound of their wings is all, they
                                       glide above the backs of boats, stern,
                                       up, crying, or surrealisticly quiet .
in the body and wings of each bird . are . go —



                                                                        or else the snow  .

Blackburn’s poetic achievement has not yet been fully given its proper due. A couple of aspects have contributed. One is the casual observing heterosexual lust expressed by the central narrator in a deal of the poems, and lust amongst the straitlaced hypersensitive is conflated with sexism. It isn’t. His narrators aren’t sexist, though sometimes they might seem a bit “oversexed”—like Burns.

More to the point, Blackburn had no fingerwagging grand-scheme cultural parcels to pass on as fundement of his work, so the university departments have had lean pickings. And there’s been not much either in the schoolroom for the moral-governance unpickers of metaphor and figure of speech. The wandering eye, ear and breath of Blackburn’s narrator scores and adumbrates what it sees. And this is to be slighted as “notational”.

Yet when one looks at what Olson proclaimed in his essay, it is Paul Blackburn who most clearly subsequently carried on the principles in the succeeding twenty years. The centre of the argument, appropriately coming out of America, was a democratic one: a democracy of breath, actuated by eye and ear in the private agora of a page shared between reader and writer.

References: Pound “A Retrospect” (1917); Williams Autobiography 1951 pp 146, 148; letter of Iris Barry about Pound’s speech quoted in Ezra Pound: The Solitary Volcano (Tytell) 1987 p130; Zukofsky “American Poetry 1920-1930”; Paul Blackburn interview “The Sullen Art” Nomad 1962.

*This essay was previously published in Edinburgh Review autumn 2010.