The three writers whose postulations on the structure and purpose of free verse encouraged the most vociferous debates were Ezra Pound, Amy Lowell and Harriet Monroe. Monroe founded the
Chicago-based journal Poetry: A Magazine of Verse which from 1912 provided an outlet for innovative US poets and London-based Imagist groupings whose most prominent early members were Ezra Pound, Richard Aldington, F.S.Flint and T.E.Hulme— soon to be joined by T.S.Eliot and William Carlos Williams. Lowell moved from Boston to London in 1914 and went on to edit and write prefaces to three annual anthologies of Some Imagist Poets (1915-17)—though scholars are still uncertain about the relative contributions of Lowell and Pound to the ground-breaking assertions of these prefaces. The poets published in these volumes are often divided by conflicting personal and aesthetic affiliations, but it is possible to identify a number of recurrent questions and issues raised both by the poems themselves and in the critical debates that attended them.
In the ex cathedra writings of Pound, Lowell and Monroe the most consistent, unifying maxim is that the double pattern of regular verse operates as pure artifice and that it should be the objective of their generation to develop a method of writing which fuses both dimensions of the pattern into a single unitary sequence. Pound:
Rhythm—I believe in an 'absolute rhythm', a rhythm, that is, in poetry which corresponds exactly to the emotion or shade of emotion to be expressed. A man's rhythm must be interpretative, it will be, therefore, in the end, his own, uncounterfeiting, uncounterfeitable (in Faulkner, 1986, 64).
In short, the poetic function (particularly rhythm, metre and sound pattern) should be determined not by concessions to precedent but by a natural correspondence between pre-linguistic feeling and impression and poetic form. This recalls the Romantic programme, but the modernists translated theory into practice by rejecting the rules and precedents of metrical convention. Amy Lowell proposed that the primary unit of measurement for free verse should not be the foot or the line but the 'cadence' comprised of no particular number of syllables and comforming to no particular metrical rule. Instead this unit would reflect the natural pre-linguistic rhythm of physical and mental experience: 'a rhythmic curve.corresponding roughly to the necessity of breathing' (Lowell, 1920). Again we find echoes of the Romantic (and Hopkins's) ideal of spontaneity and transparency, but the modernists actually did with verse form what the Romantics, with the exception of Blake, found themselves unable or unwilling to attempt. But what did the former actually achieve?
We will begin with a much quoted and discussed poem that is often regarded as the archetype both for the Imagist movement and for Pound's later experiments in The Cantos: Ezra Pound's 'In a Station of the Metro':
The apparition of these faces in the crowd;
Petals on a wet, black bough.
(in Poetry, April 1913)
It is known that when this and a number of similarly clipped and enigmatic pieces were written Pound was deeply interested in the Chinese and Japanese ideogram (see Kenner, 1972, pp. 195-7). In 1913 Mary Fenollosa sent Pound the unpublished manuscript of her late husband Ernest's essay on the relation between Chinese and Western poetry, which Pound eventually edited and published in 1919 as The Chinese Written Character as a Medium for Poetry. Hugh Kenner has called this document 'the Ars Poetica of our time' and Donald Davie has compared its influence with that of Wordworth's Preface to Lyrical Ballads and Shelley's Defence of Poetry. Why? Fenollosa claims that the Chinese written sign, the ideogram, is capable of representing single images and relations between them in a way which by-passes the systematic, successive rules of Western language. For example, the three ideogrammic signs, roughly translated as 'man sees horse', consist of three visual figures, and in each of these the pictorial image of legs is represented: man is a thing with two legs, the movement of his eyes is (metaphorically) represented by moving legs and the horse is denoted as a figure with four legs. The attraction for Pound and others of this method of representation lay in its apparent ability to transcend the refractory nature of language (a persistent post-Romantic ideal). In the English version, 'man sees horse', the matrix of subject, verb and object is deterministic. We could transform the sentence into 'Horse is seen by man' but we will never be able to escape from the dominant function of the verb 'to see' in the relation between the two syntactic functionaries, man and horse. In the Chinese version the verbal structure of seeing actually blends into the existential condition of these functionaries. One element of the shared experiential continuum (legs) is shared by all three signs: thus the processes of witnessing (seeing) and existing (man on two legs, horse on four) become interdependent elements of a single multidimensional figure. Pound's problem (not unlike Words-worth's) was of how to make this ideal of transparency and immediacy correspond with the conditions of Western language. He could hardly abandon linguistic signifiers in favour of purely visual images. What he did was to transform the poetic line from its conventional function as a foregrounding of sound patterns into a unit whose means of signification could be accounted for neither in purely syntactic nor purely prosodic-poetic terms.
Consider 'In a Station of the Metro' with these extra-textual issues in mind. It is a sentence without a main verb or preposition. The two parts of the text (indicated by its division into lines) operate as the western linguistic counterparts to ideogrammic visual images, but how do we go about documenting and describing the effect of their juxtaposition? Harvey Gross (1964), in a respected study of modernist verse form, gives us an example of how to naturalise this poem, and in doing so provides an unsettling counterpoint to what we know or assume about Pound's intention.
No harm comes if we want to see this as vaguely analogous to
Chinese writing; the two images have spatial and emotional relationships. Grammar, however, is not missing; it is automatically supplied by the reader (162).
Gross claims that the cupola and relational word 'are like' are 'implied' by the syntactic and semantic constituents of the two lines. The problem, which Gross does not address, is that by 'automatically supplying' the missing grammatical components the reader is negating the effect that Pound was attempting to achieve. Gross's reading imposes a grammatical structure upon a juxtaposition of images which attempts to transcend such structures. For example it would be equally plausible to claim that Pound perceived the faces in the urban crowd as sadly and tragically 'unlike' the life-enhancing images of the petals on the bough. Perhaps we should not attempt to establish the 'correct' interpretation because Pound's intention was not to offer us a rational (i.e. grammatical) link between the two images but to recreate the original process by which these images register prior to the imposition of a single post-experiential analysis. Pound's enthusiasm for the multi-dimensional immediacy of the ideogram is echoed in the ex cathedra writings of his contemporaries.
T.E.Hulme called Imagist poetry 'the new visual art' consisting of 'the succession of visual images'. 'It builds up a plastic image which it hands over to the reader, whereas the old art endeavoured to influence him physically by the hypnotic effect of rhyme'. In practical terms the poetic line should be constructed as a 'method of recording visual images in distinct lines'. We will later examine a creative manifestation of this thesis in Hulme's poem 'Autumn'. There is a constant tension between the creative and interpretive thesis offered by Pound, Fenollosa and Hulme, and the condition of the competent reader: what the former envisage as a snapshot of pre-linguistic experience, uncontaminated by the complexities of conventional linguistic and literary rules, is relocated and normalised by the reader for whom the prerogatives of syntactic cohesion (see Chapter 3, 69-70) are attendant upon our encounters with any pattern of linguistic integers. This problematic relation between literary modernism and the practices and expectations of naturalisation reaches beyond free verse: for example by 'making sense' of Joyce's or Woof's use of stream of consciousness are we doing an injustice to their aesthetic intention?
The best anthology of early modernist poetic techniques is Jones's Imagist Poetry (Penguin, 1972). Dip into this and bear the following in mind. Can it be argued that the majority of poems in this anthology attempt to realise the ex cathedra Imagist objectives by deploying the poetic line as an alternative rather than a supplement to the traditional rules and conventions of language and literature? More significantly, do the line-syntax relationships in these poems create an intrinsic structure or do they demand the normative intervention of the reader?
One of the most widely discussed manifestations of Imagism was H.D.'s 'Oread':
Whirl your pointed pines,
Splash your great pines
On our rocks,
Hurl your green over us,
Conrad Aiken, in reviewing Some Imagist Poets 1915 in which 'Oread' appeared, observed that 'of organic movement there is practically none'. In short, the rules of extra-syntactic cohesion which normally govern texts seem to have been rejected. Apart from the opening line, which establishes the sea as a subject, it would be possible to rearrange the lineal order of the poem without doing much damage to its already tenuous framework of cohesion and continuity.
Not all early free verse poems deploy the line as a discrete discontinuous element. Consider the similarities between 'In A
Station of the Metro', 'Oread' and T.E.Hulme's more complex syntactic continuities in 'Autumn'.
A touch of cold in the Autumn night— I walked abroad,
And saw the ruddy moon lean over a hedge Like a red-faced farmer. I did not stop to speak, but nodded, And round about were the wistful stars With white faces like town children.
The question we should ask is how this text might be defended against the anti free-verse charge of lacking organic form. Do the lines operate as anything more than a support mechanism for prose punctuation? On the surface the interlineal pattern of active and perceptual verb phrases seems far more significant than the line divisions—'I walked', 'saw', 'did not stop', 'nodded'. But in fact the line structure operates as a form of metasyntax, tracing out the progress from impression to self-conscious metaphor. In line 3 the syntagm-paradigm relation is exploratory and tentative—human attributes and activities (ruddy and lean) are interposed with an image of the moon, but in the following line ('Like a red-faced farmer') this uncertain interplay between language and perception has become far more controlled. In lines 5 and 6 we are returned to a pattern of unselfconscious impressionism: the human moon becomes a condition of the speaker's verbal self-possession ('stop to speak', 'nod') and the 'wistful stars' are similarly embued with emotional life. Line 7 repeats the earlier progress from impression to contrived metaphoric enclosure: the human adjective 'wistful' is transformed into a self-conscious comparison, 'With white faces like town children'.
Hulme uses the free verse line as a means of recording the subtle shifts in balance between the visual, mental and linguistic registers of impression. As he states in his prose discussion, the 'hynotic' and progressive 'effect of rhythm' (the traditional double pattern) has been replaced by a 'building up' and 'handing over' of 'plastic images' in various states of construction.
The poems dealt with so far allow us to construct three separate models of free verse structure.
1 In the poems by Williams, Thribb and in the critical example by Culler, the syntagmatic patterns of prose construction maintain a hold over the textual structure. The line divisions function as a secondary pattern which foregrounds elements of the pre-existent structure that might appear insignificant in the normal typographic layout of non-poetic language. The poetic function is not, as in regular verse, intrinsic to the text; rather it serves to direct the interpretive faculties of the reader. The classic test case for this form of text-reader interplay was originally provided by Chomsky and was reexamined in a poetic/literary context by John Hollander (1975). The sentence, They don't know how good meat tastes', can be visually divided in six different ways and in each instance the thematic centre of its surface structure changes. The words remain the same but as our centre of interpretive attention is redirected their relation to one another is altered.
2 In Pound's 'In a Station of the Metro' and H.D.'s 'Oread' emphasis shifts towards the line as a discrete linguistic and signifying structure. In these texts the reader is allowed much more freedom in supplying the broader syntagmatic connections between the units of the text. We play out this role by choosing to foreground and trace correspondences between elements of the text (in Gross's analysis 'faces'-'crowd' are like 'petals'-'bough'), and in doing so we draw upon the examples of textual cohesion provided in regular verse (the progressive and transformational use of 'ties') and impose these upon the fragmentary, juxtaposed units of this particular free verse type.
3 Hulme's 'Autumn' offers the most intriguing example of how free verse might involve a new form of interplay between line and syntax that is intrinsic to the structure of the text. His line divisions constitute a metasyntax which at once reflects and controls the speaker's disposition of the syntagmatic and paradigmatic chains. Here the reader genuinely responds to, rather than provides, a valid poetic structure. In the following section we will examine how a number of other free verse poets have developed methods of deploying the line as a unit that discards prosodic regularity yet functions as a purposive formal and signifying element of the text.
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