FREE VERSE LYRIC

analyzing the free verse lyricOverview

Free verse comes in many forms, but the focus in this exercise is rhythmic invention, how a poem is shaped, and its meaning controlled, by rhythms that do not aim for a metrical regularity.

Homage to Sextus Propertius

We start with one of the best of modern poems on the carpe diem theme. {1}

 

Homage to Sextus Propertius

1. When when, and whenever death closes our eyelids,
2. Moving naked over Acheron
3.              Upon the one raft, victor and conquered together,
4. Marius and Jugurtha together,
5.                                            one tangle of shadows.

6. Caesar plots against India,
7. Tigris and Euphrates shall, from now on, flow at his bidding,
8. Tibet shall be full of Roman policemen,
9. And the Parthians shall get used to our statuary
10.                                             and acquire a Roman religion;

11. One raft on the veiled flood of Acheron,
12.                    Marius and Jagurtha together.
13. Nor at my funeral either will there be any long trail,
14.                                                bearing ancestral lares and images;
15. No trumpets filled with my emptiness,
16. Nor shall it be on an Atalic bed;
17.                                  The perfumed cloths shall be absent.
18. A small plebeian procession.
19.        Enough, enough and in plenty
20. There will be three books at my obsequies
21. Which I take, my not unworthy gift, to Persephone.

From Homage to Sextus Propertius, Canto VI by Ezra Pound

Pound has annoying mannerisms: anaphora (When when and whenever), an over-Latinate English at times, a debunking of scholarship, and an irony that passes into self-mockery. But what is abundantly achieved is a real voice, a genuine and moving affection for Cynthia, and the poet's acceptance that he will not be understood by his contemporaries, and even less by his mistress.

Rhythmic Concerns

Homage to Sextus Propertius is far too long for its shapings to be wholly described — it is not a tidy poem — and academic books and articles will have to be sought {2} for the many problems it throws up, {3} {4} — as do other translations. {5} {6} {7} {8} {9} Our concern is the verse, why the long rhythms should be so appealing, and what they do.

Lines in the section above are laid out as they appear in the Collected Shorter Poems (second edition, 1968) {1} though the numbering is mine. Segmentation is partly to meet the exigencies of space, to fit such long lines onto the page, but they also mark changes in attack. If we mark the stressed syllables by bold type, and show the patterns of unstressed syllables at the line ends, we get:

1. When when, and whenever death closes our eyelids, 0 2 1 0 2 1
2. Moving naked over Acheron 1 1 1 1
3.              Upon the one raft, victor and conquered together, 1 1 0 0 2 2 1
4. Marius and Jugurtha together, 2 2
5.                                            one tangle of shadows. 1 2 1

6. Caesar plots against India, 1 1 0 1
7. Tigris and Euphrates shall, from now on, flow at his bidding, 1 1 1 1 1 2 1
8. Tibet shall be full of Roman policemen, 1 2 1 2 1
9. And the Parthians shall get used to our statuary 2 3 2 2
10.                                             And acquire a Roman religion; 1 1 2 1

11. One raft on the veiled flood of Acheron, 0 2 0 1 1
12.                    Marius and Jagurtha together. 3 2 2
13. Nor at my funeral either will there be any long trail, 2 2 1 2 0 1 0
14.                                                Bearing ancestral lares and images; 2 1 2 2
15. No trumpets filled with my emptiness, 1 1 2 1
16. Nor shall it be on an Atalic bed; 1 1 2 1
17.                                  The perfumed cloths shall be absent. 1 1 2 1
18. A small plebeian procession. 1 1 2 1
19.        Enough, enough and in plenty 1 1 2 1
20. There will be three books at my obsequies 1 1 0 2 2
21. Which I take, my not unworthy gift, to Persephone. 2 1 1 1 2 2

The notation is simplistic, and no doubt other readings are possible, but in general we see:

1. A continual return to regular metre, or to lines that are not far from regular metre. Line 1, for example, appears very irregular but line two is almost a pure trochaic.

2. Many lines are not far from regular metre. Placing stresses as they fall in normal delivery I have read lines 13 and 14 as

Nor at my funeral either will there be any long trail, 2 2 1 2 0 1 0
.                                                bearing ancestral lares and images; 2 1 2 2

But underneath lies the iambic:

Nor at | my fu | neral ei | ther will | there be |
any | long trail | bearing | ances |tral la |
res and | ima ges ||

3. Many of the irregular lines are not irregular at all, but creatures of their own patterns.

When when | and when | ev | er death | clos es | our eye | lids

Marius and Ju | gurtha to | gether one | tangle of | sha | dows.

Tigris and Euphra | tes | shall from now on | flow at his bid | ding |

A small | plebei | an pro ces | sion.
       E | nough | e nough | and in plen | ty

There | will be three | books at my | ob se quies

Often the lines defy simple analysis and exhibit the wavering metre common to Nineties poets, {4} which Pound has developed into the shaping fabric of the poem.

3. Pound's lines are slow moving, and do not use polysyllabic words in the manner of the Augustan writers: a different tradition.

Rhetorical Devices

Repetition or parallelism one sort or another is common: {10}

Marius and Jagurtha together. Nor. . No. . Nor. .
When when and whenever / Enough, enough and in plenty
Upon the one raft / One raft on the veiled

But the structure otherwise is simple: no metaphor or simile, no rhyme, little alliteration or assonance. By these means, or rather the lack of them, Pound escaped the cadences of nineteenth century verse, and freed himself to use the wider vocabulary of the Cantos.

Lacunae

Propertius sometimes illustrated personal feeling by alluding to Greek myth, {11} a device which had largely fallen out of use until Pound realized its potential. Lines 1 to 5 end in a tangle of shadows, for the reader as much as speaker. Then comes the not-immediately-relevant section on Roman achievements. Marius and Jugurtha appear again, and the reader stumbles into Propertius's musing on his funeral.

But the general drift is clear. After death (raft on a river of Hades) all our achievements (whether successful consul and defeated Numidian ruler) are as naught. Current Roman successes will be no more important. That being the case, it matters not that my funeral will pass unnoticed. The Cantos will see more of this device, proceeding by fits and starts, with frequent lacunae where images reverberate into nothing, the last also interesting deconstructionist critics concerned with textual aporias.

A Victorian Interlude

Does the above have relevance to poetry written today? A very great deal, particularly the non sequiturs and the sparse rhetoric. But my interest is more in rhythmic structures, where, rather than plot the stages in which Pound's lines metamorphosed into the piece below, I will simply point out some common devices. The poem, a long one, is spoken by three main characters, and a narrator, who opens the poem:


Narrator:

1. Whatever it was they'd sought for
2.                                        on those dream-encrusted shores
3. faded on arrival.

4. When put down they were as ciphers of themselves —
5.            still purposed on their plans,
6.                            loud with their hopes singing,
7.                                                                as with tribulations —
8.                                                   but also distanced,
9.                                shadowed as with journey,
10.                cast upon a landscape that was not ingrained by days
11. that they could enter into.

12.         In rock or tree or river
13.                   or in the trailing clouds
14.                              they sensed primeval Eden:
15.                                          nugatory, other, not of their descent.

16. They chartered wagons, went deep into the interior,
17.           found only that the red dust excoriated,
18.                        long twisters of the wind tore at their face and hair,
19.                                                             fire crested in the clouds.

20.                                                    Perplexed, they travelled back,
21.                               built homesteads near the coast,
22. settling there more thickly as the mirages took root.

The poem is in fact written in hexameters, but I have set it out here in the manner of Pound's work so that the structure is clearer. Its rhythm is fairly regular, not far from metre, but the lines form self-contained entities, and it is on their arrangement that the poem is built. Not by rhythm alone as Pound attempted, but by units of meaning given individuality by the rhythm.

The problem, as I saw it, with Pound's work, which he may himself have realized, as Homage was followed by the tight forms of Mauberley, is the open form of the composition, which goes off on its own as previous rhythms suggest, without much restraint by stanza shape or narrative. Many passages in Homage are superbly beautiful and memorable, but we do not remember their sequence. The inevitability necessary to poetry — or I think necessary: others may not — each word and line appearing in a natural succession, picking up, developing and passing on the themes, is not easily achieved with Pound's approach, and may explain why open forms generally have problems, the more so in contemporary work when there is no compensating facility of phrasing that Pound learnt from Nineties poets. {12} {13} {14}

So, a brief analysis:

Opening lines 1 to 3, really one sentence, foreshadow the complete poem, striding out with an increasingly firm tread: Whatever it was they'd sought for on those dream-encrusted shores before being quickly cut back: faded on arrival. Not only assonance in aw, but first preceded by e and o, and then by the longer ee and u. The opening hesitant Whatever is mirrored in the final arrival.

Lines 4 to 10, a longer sentence, follows the same eddy out and back, the forward movement ending in tribulations, a rather Biblical word that introduces the poem's theme, which is the experience of early settlers in Australia. The forward movement is extended in sections, each progressively shorter, and then the line regresses into saying how strange that world was. Little rhetoric, the sentence being largely held together, as Pound's were, by the rhythmic energy.

The forward and back movement is expanded over the remaining section of this stanza. Lines 12 to 15 take the settlers out, leaving them in a bewilderingly strange world in which they stagger to a halt: nu gat o ry| o ther || not of their descent. An assonance in n, picked up from Eden in the line above, and a spacing action from the o's.

Again the settlers go out in lines 16 to 19, but are now defeated by the country, returning in lines 20 to 22, where the mythic nature of their experience is stressed with mirages, the unrealistic dreams of the outback entertained by coastal settlers. Root is a key word, reappearing the last stanza, where the two survivors, Bill and Kate, decide to make a go of the farm. Note how lines 16 and 19 are built, the rhythm becoming more urgent and less regular:

They chartered wagons, went deep into the interior, 1 1 2 1 2 2
          found only that the red dust excoriated, 0 3 0 1 3
                       long twisters of the wind tore at their face and hair, 0 3 0 2 1
                                                             fire crested in the clouds. 0 3

Though, of course, just as in Pound's verse, an iambic can be sensed beneath:

They chartered wagons, went deep into the interior,
          found only that the red dust excoriated,
                        long twisters of the wind tore at their face and hair,
                                                             fire crested in the clouds.

The completed poem can be found in the author's free pdf collection published by the Ocaso Press.

A 568-page free pdf ebook on practical verse writing is available from Ocaso Press. Click here for the download page.

References

1. T.S. Eliot (Ed.), Collected Shorter Poems of Ezra Pound. (Faber and Faber, 1968).
2. J. P. Sullivan, Ezra Pound and Sextus Propertius: A Study in Creative Translation, (Univ. Texas Press, 1964). One example of many studies.
3. Michael Alexander, The Poetic Achievement of Ezra Pound (Faber and Faber, 1979), 108-114.
4. Pound's Life and Career. Clive Wilber. http://www.english.uiuc.edu/maps/poets/m_r/pound/bio.htm. Excerpt from The Oxford Companion to Twentieth-century Poetry in English, (O.U.P., 1994).
5. Vincent Katz (trans.), The Complete Elegies of Sextus Propertius, (Princeton Univ. Press, 2004) Review by J.L. Butrica.
6. Propertius. http://www.artsci.wustl.edu/~cwconrad/docs/Propertius4.7.PDF NNA Parallel text and translation of sections of the Elegies by C.W. Conrad.
7. Propertius, The Elegies. A.S. Kline. http://www.tonykline.co.uk/klineaspropertius.htm. Complete modern translation.
8. Translations from Propertius by Franklin P. Adams presented by Michael Gilleland. http://www.mgilleland.com/fpaprop.htm NNA.
9. Sexti Properti Elegiae. http://www.thelatinlibrary.com/prop.html. Complete Latin text.
10. A Handbook of Rhetoric. Robert Harris. 2002. http://www.virtualsalt.com/rhetoric.htm.
11. Poems (The Elegies) Propertius. Michael Sympson. Sep. 2001. http://www.readliterature.com/R_propertius.htm.
12. A Lume Spento (1908) http://www.litencyc.com/php/sworks.php?rec=true&UID=7091. Short article on Pound''s volume, noting the Nineties influences.
13. A "Little World" in Decadence: Marjorie Pickthall’s Poems on Nature and on Religion. Anne Compton. http://www.uwo.ca/english/canadianpoetry/cpjrn/vol43/compton.htm. No mention of Pound in this long and thoughtful essay, but many examples of Nineties techniques applied to a "religion of beauty".
14. Harriet Monroe's Poetry and Canadian Poetry. James Doyle. http://www.uwo.ca/English/canadianpoetry/cpjrn/vol25/doyle.htm. On the slow emergence of Modernism, but some passing reference to Nineties poets.

 

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