Literary reviews by Tim Love.
Warning: Rather than reviews, these are often notes in preparation for reviews that were never finished, or pleas for help with understanding pieces. See Litref Reviews - a rationale for details.

Friday, 20 January 2012

"William Carlos Williams and the Meanings of Measure" by Stephen Cushman (Yale, 1985)

In 1935, Frost wrote "Science put it into our heads that there must be new ways to be new. Those tried were largely by subtraction—elimination. Poetry, for example, was tried without punctuation. It was tried without capital letters. It was tried without metric frame on which to measure the rhythm. It was tried without any images but those to the eye". He had trouble accepting free verse, as in different ways did Eliot. WC Williams too thought that poetry couldn't be free of all constraints. He's a tempting subject when studying the conflicts at the birth of free verse because not only can one investigate his poetry, one can also try to understand his theorising which he conducted with "a persistance that sometimes borders on the monomaniacal"

  • "Williams crusaded on behalf of his theory of measure for nearly fifty years ... The larger measure grew, the harder it became to define ... many of Williams's readers and critics have had to lead double lives, admiring his poems while apologizing for his theory", p.1
  • "Why have I divided my lines as I have. I don't know", WCW, "Dartmouth College Talk", 1945
  • "How can lineation alone do the work of measuring verse? His many theoretical statements suggest that he never fully believed that it could", p.14
  • "Searching for the variable foot, Williams discovered instead the straggled leg [enjambment]", p.15

Antecedents are sought - Hopkins, Whitman, Wordsworth and Milton

  • "The radical indentations [in "Tintern Abbey"] let space into the verse column at irregular interval, signaling the abrupt discontinuities and shifts associated with the Romantic ode", p.57
  • "Milton's blank verse anticipates the 'effects' of free verse by abandoning rhyme and using the line ending to wreak havoc on the sentence", p.18

He considers the visual impact of line-breaks and ee cummings' influence. Enjambment becomes a key concept in the book - "The straddling of lines by sentences dramatizes 'the larger processes of the imagination' (I, p.123) as the poem disguises and reveals connections between words and objects", p.17. When WCW's lines (or stepped lines) shortened, the effect begins to dominate - "The short-line poem is in a state of constant enjambment", p.22. In sections like

But the stars
are round

(from "Composition") each line-break can unveil a surprise. And yet, "the word 'enjambment' appears nowhere in Williams's published writing", p.18

He studies stanza 2 of "To a poor old woman"

They taste good to her
They taste good
to her. They taste
good to her

"Without an accentual-syllabic norm, it is impossible to convert any of these redistributions into stress values. Does the first line of the second stanza ("They taste good to her") mean they taste good as opposed to bad? If so, we might say the second sentence ("They taste good/ to her") means they taste good to her", p.23. He also quotes the more successful "I saw a girl with one leg/ over the rail of a balcony" ("The Right of Way"), suggesting that "She is the emblem of enjambment, the straddler", p.50

The author looks at enjambments that are weak (break between clauses) or strong (break within word), and mimetic enjambments (e.g. "strain/ forward"), pointing out that "The problem with mimetic meaning is that we can easily make too much of it. Depending on the ingenuity of an individual reader, every enjambment can be interpreted mimetically", p.36. Then on p.42-45 he considers the scope of an enjambment's impact

  • "When we interpret a given instance of enjambment mimetically, tying it to a particular feature of thematic content, we justify it locally"
  • "When we interpret the pattern of enjambments throughout a poem prosodically, analysing the tendencies toward line-sentence alignment or nonalignment, we justify it generally. If we can tie this general pattern to the thematic content, so much the better; yet, like an accentual-syllabic design, the same pattern may appear in two poems which say different things."
  • "The third level of interpretation involves a[n] ... attempt to justify enjambment universally ... According to Lawler, enjambment is a gesture of freedom, the breaking of limits, transcendence, transformation and union (often sexual) ... . In poems such as 'to a poor old woman' or 'Seafarer' a sense of freedom and transcendence comes not with the fragmentation of enjambment, but with the release from these into the integration of line and sentence."

The importance of context (in the poem, in society) to the impact of a line-break is repeatedly highlighted. In the end it's still not clear what "measure" meant to Williams, important to him though it was.

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