In various ways modernist poetry makes concessions to the registers and patterns of regular verse: Williams often foregrounds the interface between the line and syntax while disrupting conventional expectations of how the line is formed. Eliot and Thomas draw upon familiar patterns of sound and metre as a counterpoint to syntactic and referential discontinuities.
The most intriguing instance of modernist variation juxtaposed with pre-modernist structure occurs in the sonnet. Read the following sonnets.
(i) e. e. cummings's number 4, from 'Sonnets Realities'. What effect is created by cummings's foregrounding of the sonnet structure—the most potent symbol of the codes, devices and expectations of traditional form—while maintaining the half punctuated, barely grammatical pattern of non-literary discourse?
when you rang at Dick Mid's Place the madam was a bulb stuck in the door a fang of wincing gas showed how hair, in two fists of shrill colour clutched the dull volume of her tumbling face scribbled with a big grin, her sow-
eyes clicking mischief from thick lids, the chunklike nose on which always the four tablets of perspiration erectly sitting.
—If they knew you at Dick Mid's the three trickling chins began to traipse into the cheeks 'eet smeestaire steevensun kum een, dare ease Bet, an Leelee, an dee beeg wun'
her handless wrists did gooey severe shapes.
(ii) Number 2 from the 'Funeral Music' sequence of Geoffrey Hill's King Log.
The sonnet is unrhymed. Does Hill substitute the contre-rejet (tension between the pause at the line ending and syntactic progress) for the conventional rhyme scheme?
For whom do we scrape our tribute of pain—
For none but the ritual King? We meditate
A rueful mystery; we are dying
To satisfy fat Caritas, those
Wiped jaws of stone. (Suppose all reconciled
By silent music; imagine the future Flashed back at us, like steel against sun, Ultimate recompense.) Recall the cold Of Towton on Palm Sunday before dawn, Wakefield, Tewkesbury; fastidious trumpets Shrilling into the ruck; some trampled Acres, parched, sodden or blanched by sleet, Struck with strange-postured dead. Recall the wind's Flurrying, darkness over the human mire.
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