• Katharine Coles


William Carlos Williams’ story about his visit to the famous 1913 Armory show says he ‘laughed out loud’ in response to DuChamp’s now-iconic Nude, ‘happily, with relief’ (1967: 134). The show has achieved almost mythic status in the development not only of modern art in the United States but also of literary modernism. As Shelley Staples notes on the University of Virginia’s Armory Show web site in her excellent introduction, As Avant-garde as the Rest of Them, that we now know from Flossie Williams and others that this account is apocryphal – Williams did not attend the 1913 show, but rather a later one in 1917 – is almost irrelevant. ‘These biographical debates merely secure the status of the exhibition in the history of American modernism,’ Staples says. ‘So strong was the Armory Show’s clout that Williams aligned his own history with this epic event.’ 

Or rather, he ‘aligned his [narrative]’. What matters is the story, the chain of cause-and-effect, that joins Williams’ own writing to the avant garde and so places it in context, though as Staples also points out he was already writing like a painter. I’ve argued elsewhere, in specific reference to ‘The Red Wheelbarrow’, that it is impossible to produce an immediately apprehensible image in writing as one might on canvas, simply because a poetic image unfolds in syntax and so over time (Coles 2014: 53-56), but it’s worth remarking here that, even as Williams, Pound, and their fellows were coopting the gestures of visual art in language, such paintings as DuChamp’s Nude were doing just the opposite, presenting static images as if they could be experienced as unfolding in time, like narratives, or, as in Picasso’s Cubist paintings of the same period, opening them to be examined from all sides, the way Keats did with his urn.

To Williams, the show represented an artistic rupture that illuminated his own departures from tradition. Pound and Eliot (and others) also work with and from this rupture, though these two, especially Eliot as I read him, reacted to the cultural disunities that followed the brutalities of World War One with hand-wringing, sorrow, and a kind of moral panic, not with glee. Of course, the idea of rupture is exaggerated in literary as in artistic revolutions: the roots of what seems new grow from seeds sown in previous seasons. Even Pound’s oft-quoted exhortation to ‘make it new’ referred to his efforts to use and remake old materials (in this case Japanese and Chinese forms) in a way that was relevant in and to the present. According to Michael North, writing in 2013 for Guernica Magazine, the slogan itself probably originated with the neo-Confucian scholar Chu Hsi during the 12th Century. Likewise, trying to extend the expressive capacity of one art form or, as I will discuss later, one genre, by coopting the techniques of another may serve as much to reveal the expressive limits of the art as it does to extend them.

On the level of literary history, my understanding not only of the emergence of modernism but also of literary movements in general reflects how a specific poem locates itself within poetry’s long tradition. Like modernism, like romanticism (which I can’t quite shake), like any school that designate itself as ‘neo-’ or ‘post-’ anything, each new movement gestures backward and forward at the same time, positioning itself always in reaction and relation to the old, to a more (Eliot, Pound) or less (Williams) overt extent recycling its materials, even while pretending to turn its back. As Wallace Stevens portrays in ‘The Idea of Order at Key West’ (2015: 136-8), strong poets, including those writing not overtly revolutionary works within not particularly revolutionary times, reflect this relationship to tradition. Further, if poetry is Janus-faced indeed, not just glancing over its shoulder but able to look in both directions at once, the poem reflects this relationship to literary history not only in its pronouncements, in its larger loyalties and rejections, but also in its enactments of its own forms, of figures in which similitude illuminates difference. Such enactments demonstrate the poem’s need to distinguish itself by perpetually creating newness out of existing materials, and generate anxieties that play out (one hopes through the creation of pleasures) in the poems and writing lives of most poets, who are constantly and busily at work refining and redeploying old tools to address and express changing realities both outside the poem and within it. 


As a young poet, I was often told that I had ‘more than one poem’ on whatever piece of paper was before my workshop.  The trending poem of the US academy in the seventies and eighties was free-verse, plainspoken, and direct, in the tradition of Williams more than Eliot, and also overtly autobiographical and narrative in the sense that it tended to present, if tersely, a series of tightly related and focused events unfolding in their order of occurrence.  

Perhaps not unsurprisingly in retrospect, this was a moment in American letters when a gender shift was not quite acknowledged but well underway, from a literature dominated by men to one that is today arguably dominated, or about to be, by women[1]. This shift had already contributed to what I see as the necessary emergence of the narrative poem to which I refer, with Adrienne Rich as a pioneer and extraordinary exemplar; alongside it, as a kind of counterweight, had emerged what became known as ‘deep image’ poetry, practised almost entirely by men. Some, like W.S. Merwin and Mark Strand, were heavily influenced by Latin American surrealism; others, like James Wright and Robert Bly[2], relied on terse narration, usually in present tense, often in their poems leading to an arresting image or cryptic observation (‘Driving Toward Lac Qui Parle River’, the paradigmatic Bly poem whose opening stanza I quote in note 2, ends, ‘When I reach the river, the full moon covers it./ A few people are talking, low in a boat’ (Bly 1962: 20)). I called such poems Clint Eastwood poems, which relayed, in as few words as possible, what happened, and asked the reader to guess what the speaker thought and felt about it.

Both Rich and Merwin began as fifties American formalists. Rich won the Yale Prize in 1951 for A Change of World, about which the judge, W.H. Auden, said the poems are ‘neatly and modestly dressed, speak quietly but do not mumble, respect their elders but are not cowed by them, and do not tell fibs’ (Auden 2016: 11). The following year, Auden gave the prize to Merwin for A Mask for Janus, which, like Rich’s book, wore tradition on its sleeve, if less modestly. In 1963, the year after Bly’s seminal Silence in the Snowy Fields came out, both broke out into free verse, Merwin with the deeply mysterious poems of The Moving Target, Rich in her for the time shockingly frank Snapshots of a Daughter-in-Law, with its ‘female pills, [and] terrible breasts,’ its protagonist who has ‘let the tapstream scald her arm,/ a match burn to her thumbnail’[3] (Rich 1963: 21). As exemplified by Rich here and with increasing explicitness in such later poems as ‘Virginia 1906’ (‘What if at five years old/ she was old to his fingers splaying her vulva open’ (Rich 1993: 41-43)), the deployment of apparently simple narrative details within lyric permitted female poets to bring previously repressed subject matter, including traumas, into poems in a way that was tightly controlled against accusations of hysteria – not that these accusations weren’t nonetheless made.  

Under the pressure of these dominant and powerful modes, during the following two decades students and professors in mainstream classrooms urged each other to resist attraction to the superfluous, marginal, and above all the abstract or sentimental, and especially to quash any natural discursiveness, which in my case lent itself to all of the above. The flaw, alas, was not in my stars, but in myself. I did learn, more or less, to turn out a concentrated, one-thing-at-a-time, narrative lyric. But gender injustice and trauma were not my subjects, and my life as expressed by the narration of what had happened to me didn’t feel urgent to me, so that poem never felt mine. It couldn’t express my sense of the actual, by which I mean the way the world operated and my mind navigated it. Straight-line narration tended in my hands, and in those of many of my peers, to fall into the flattening movement of cause-and-effect. I was more interested in negotiating relationships of ideas, things, events, emotions, natural and human-made objects as they co-existed not through time but across and within it. 

Fortunately, as feminism progressed and female poets of my own generation began to look beyond personal narrative and narrated trauma, a space opened for the emergence of yet another kind of poem, closer to the one I was seeking for myself, which allowed for a more digressive and dispersed (and to my mind more formally feminised) vocalisation[4], one that embraced, among other things, complicated questions like the poet’s own complicity in his or her story. If intuition told me that the US government’s nuclear tests in the southwestern desert, the resulting fallout from which I spent my childhood under; science on radioactivity, half-life, and genes; the human drive, including mine, toward violence; my frank jealousy of the (male) American poets of previous generations freely if not palely loitering in the alleys of Rome and Florence; and Italian Renaissance painting, especially putti, belonged in the same love poem, which needed, however implausibly, to occur simultaneously in Italy and the American west and during the Renaissance, the 1950s, and the then-present 1980s, and to comprise (mostly) Petrarchan sonnets bridged by free-verse sections—well, you can see the problem.

I’ve just described ‘Love Poem for the Nuclear Age’, the poem that completed my first collection, The One Right Touch (1992: 49-53), in which most of the poems held mostly to the discipline I had studied to acquire. I remember, during ‘Love Poem’s’ writing, imagining my male poetry professors, those erstwhile fortunate fifties loiterers, now arrayed in a tweedy, grizzled row on my windowsill, clicking their tongues, as, with a sense of exhilaration I (not necessarily plausibly) finished a sonnet between a verb and its object and hit double-return to pick up the sentence across white space in trimeter, occasionally rhymed. The poem was big for the time (five pages), rangy, uneven, often abstract, frankly thinky, frankly, like its companion poem called ‘Sentimental’ (38-40), emotional, not at all narrative, committed to velocity. I finished the manuscript, and so my PhD, and found I had no idea how to write the next poem, the one this one meant to lead me to.

Instead I wrote short stories, of greater and greater length, that felt their ways in chunks of lyric prose not toward narrative inevitability but toward emotional and lyric closure. I assumed I would eventually, magically, bootstrap my way into a novel. I hadn’t yet read Calvino’s Cosmicomics (1976) and especially the story ‘All at One Point’ (43-51), which offers a vision of the expanding universe as beginning in pure possibility, then, as the chain of cause-and-effect begins to bind events in a unidirectional and irreparable time, closing down, solidifing. Everything that happens limits what can happen next; the future can only narrow. This is the bliss and trouble with narrative. It may be the trouble with human time.

Of course, the stories I loved then and still love in many ways operated more like poems than narrative prose, relying on Barthes’ l’espace dilatoire (1975: 84-86) and on what Peter Brooks in Reading for the Plot calls ‘the space of retard, postponement, error, and partial revelation’, which is also ‘the space of transformation’ (1972: 96) and which, like any seduction or poem, relies on deferral and delay as much as cause-and-effect for its building. As a poet, I have found Brooks, and Barthes too, extremely useful. Around this time, short fiction writers like Janet Kaufman, Deborah Eisenberg, Kate Haake, Lorrie Moore, and especially Alice Munro, about whom I will say more later, were explicitly bringing recursive play and other poetic techniques into short fiction. When I failed to write a novel accidentally and decided to start one on purpose, then, I thought I was ready.  But playful writers and theorists who explain narrative in lyric terms notwithstanding, a novel is not a poem, nor even a short story. Beyond the retard and dilation it may share with or steal from poems, its strength lies in elements for which a poem simply cannot make space inside it, just as the lyric’s strength lies in its refusal to accommodate those elements.

By which I suppose I mean nobody has once praised my novels for their plots, for how cause-and-effect play out within them in events across time, a genius Calvino’s wonderful story illustrates even in its critique. As a writer of fiction, I was too distracted by how my characters internalised and experienced events to care about how the events were causally connected. One editor who kindly read but rejected both of my novels commented, ‘Your characters have such intense inner lives.’ This, it turned out, was not a compliment, and it generated a significant revelation of my young adulthood: apparently, not everybody leads a distracting inner life. Both novels were published by small presses and faintly praised for lyricism, imagery, evocation of place, and attention to detail and the inner lives of their characters: ‘virtues’ that routinely prevent poets from writing bestsellers.


As a reader, I too engage the inexorable chain of cause-and-effect with joy, however I may eschew it as a writer. And yes, writers as early as Virginia Woolf, in whose work I find not only diversion but deep aesthetic resonance and purpose, explored inner lives in part by mucking with time, even with explicit formal reference to Einsteinian time dilation[5], and also by playing with cause-and-effect within a flexible temporal framework. Just consider how slippery she can be in deploying tenses and pronouns, say at the end of To the Lighthouse (a technique that has, I think, instructed poets like John Ashbery[6], directly or not):

‘He has landed,’ she said aloud. ‘It is finished.’ Then, surging up, puffing slightly, old Mr. Carmichael stood beside her, looking like an old pagan god, shaggy, with weeds in his hair and the trident (it was only a French novel) in his hand. He stood by her on the edge of the lawn, swaying a little in his bulk and said, shading his eyes with his hand: ‘They will have landed,’ and she felt that she had been right. (Woolf 1989: 208)

He has landed.’ ‘It is finished.’ ‘They will have landed.’ ‘She had been right’ [all emphases mine]. Here, even beyond the passage’s explicit metaphor (‘it was only a French novel’), Woolf’s shifting tenses and fungible pronouns confuse basic issues such as who or what the subject under consideration might actually be and elide and elude cause-and-effect and thus even the provisional temporal premises on which the novel, as novel, has been predicated. From here unfolds that famous last passage, in which Lily Briscoe finishes the painting that comes to stand in for the novel itself,

with all its greens and blues, its lines running up and across, its attempt at something. It would be hung in the attics, she thought; it would be destroyed. But what did that matter? she asked herself, taking up her brush again. She looked at the steps; they were empty; she looked at her canvas; it was blurred. With a sudden intensity, as if she saw it clear for a second, she drew a line there, in the centre. It was done; it was finished. Yes, she thought, laying down her brush in extreme fatigue, I have had my vision. (209)

Future, presence, past all occupy the same simultaneous space – demarcated by semi-colons – which is small but expands to include all time, in which temporal cause-effect doesn’t ‘matter’ in the context of a single clear gesture. The novel’s flash of clarity famously occurs as a lyric moment, even, I would argue, as a prose poem, hemmed in like all lyrics by narrative necessities with which Woolf grapples even as she engages the temporal slippages of Lily’s rich inner experience of her triumph and her simultaneous apprehension of the likelihood that its expression will fail and ‘be hung in the attics,’ even ‘destroyed.’ Unlike in a lyric, however, the narrative that places pressure on this a-temporal experience plays out within the boundaries of the novel.  

In a way, Woolf, in pressing generic limits, shows us precisely the difference between lyric and narrative not only by creating the little poem but also by creating and shaping the larger conditions that pressure its coming into being. If poetry is the art form that connects our inchoate inner and equally nonsensical outer realities without actually explaining either, describing the boundary between them in a way that, as Mark Strand puts it, tells us ‘in so many words, exactly where we are’ (2000: 51), then even lyric fiction shapes the outer reality to which its lyric moments connect the character’s inner lives. As Amit Majmudar says in an interview on the Poetry Off the Shelf podcast, a good poem ‘creates an aesthetic experience that is outside of time and through which the reader can . . . exit time into a moment of aesthetic encounter,’ even when it ‘creates that timelessness by using the timely’ (2017).

If a poet like Adrienne Rich uses ‘the timely’ to ‘create an aesthetic experience that is outside time,’ Woolf, conversely, uses the frame of narrative time to illuminate internal reality by linking it to that frame. My external reality arrives in real time disorganised, requiring me to make constant sense of it in the not-yet apprehensible moment; the external reality Lily Briscoe inhabits has been created, organised, and managed for her, and by a literary genius, in a way that contextualises and gives meaning to her responses. Even in Woolf, then, event and consequence become, as is conventional, the business of the novel, not only because that intense moment in time connects through cause-and-effect to other moments across time, but also because of how we are led to that moment, and what it implies for the future beyond the novel. She uses narrative as a frame to help us understand how to read the lyric within it, to explain, as a lyric doesn’t, why the lyric confusions she enacts are necessary.

Which brings me back to the idea of l’espace dilatoire, that place of loitering. I want to examine for a moment the word ‘dilatory’ as Barthes uses it and the word ‘dilate’ as I understand Brooks to use it. The two words in both English and French arise from two different Latin roots (differe, by way of dilator or ‘delayer,’ for the first; dilatare or ‘spread out’ for the second). Having had only a couple of years of Latin, and those long ago, I had convinced myself until I got around to checking (and rechecking, when I didn’t at first get the answer I sought) various on-line dictionaries as well as my old OED that they had the same roots. The words don’t only sound and look alike; they have, for me, intuitive relationship.  Indeed, via another route, according to dictionary.com, an obsolete meaning of ‘dilation’ is ‘delay,’ a definition on which Einstein surely relies as he imagines time’s spread; according to Wiktionary, ‘dilatation’ can mean ‘prolixity,’ or ‘diffuse discourse.’ From their diverse routes, then, the words travel interweaving paths.

The ‘dilatory space’ of a certain kind of enacted desire not only allows the reader to retard, but also creates a space of constant dilation, a space she at once internalises and occupies, holds inside her head and traverses, keeping still even as her mind expands at the speed of thought. It is as if she has become both of Einstein’s observers, their clocks ticking at different rates, at once. The word suggests to me simultaneous stasis and dizzying velocity within a bounded space, precisely like the dilating pupil of an eye. As Brooks conceives it, this dilation (which, if Brooks doesn’t mean me to relate it to Barthes’ idea of the ‘dilatory space, I misread entirely to my advantage) can occur in the middle of a narrative, which Brooks values over the end, calling it ‘a highly charged field of force’ (1972: xiv). For me, it occurs even more powerfully when I meet a lyric’s end, where the meeting of end and beginning in closure creates a bounded space that in its outward resonance nonetheless becomes, like our expanding universe, larger inside.

Brooks, narrative theorist though he is, still wants to describe this narrative action in what I insist are lyric terms. I won’t go so far as to say that narrative is irrelevant (in fact, as far as generic distinctions go, however fuzzy they may be where the genres blur into each other, it is crucial), but the dilation as he describes it occurs not so much as a result of a chain of cause-and-effect pressured by an ending as of a chain of repression and substitution, an action of metaphor, that moves both forward and backward across the text and so is the natural (though hardly the sole) province of the poem. As Brooks puts it, metaphor is the ‘substitution... of a present signifier for an absent one’ (59). [7]

The best example I know in prose occurs in Alice Munro’s brilliant story, ‘Carried Away’ (1995: 3-51). Being carried away, of course, is a form of losing one’s head – and Munro takes advantage of the fact that both of these metaphors have become clichés, evacuated of their original literal meanings. ‘Carried Away’ re-literalises them by making them metaphors not only for the story’s love affair in its inevitable consequences but also for an actual beheading that arguably marks the story’s climax, or one of its climaxes. The chain of repression and substitution leads inexorably from the title to the accident and decapitation in the sawmill; it deploys narrative cause-and-effect, but the necessity that drives it, that makes the beheading not only plausible but necessary, is linguistic, metaphorical and so recursive and obsessively emotional, not linear and practical. The event doesn’t propel us forward, but keeps on sending us back, all the way to the story’s title page. If Woolf constructs pressured prose poems inside a larger cause-effect inexorablility, Munro deploys metaphor that operates in tandem with such inexorability to work forward and backward across the entire narrative space.

It is not necessarily a coincidence that both of these prose writers, among many others whose work drew me to emulate it in my own prose, however unsatisfactorily, are female. One of the commitments of women’s writing, not only over the last century but as early as Jane Austen, indeed as early as Sappho, has been precisely to reflect on the inner life as it comes into being and emerges into consciousness and articulation under external pressure. It is when that emergence enacts itself within the understood context of but free of the articulation of those pressures, and in the simultaneous stasis and motion of the dilatory space we experience as part of our inner lives, that its movement belongs fundamentally if not exclusively to the lyric. In a sense, then, the emergence of female voices in poetry that I describe as having occurred during the 1960s and 70s in the US required two steps to occur: first, the creation of narrative conditions that allowed a previously untold and so invisible external reality to emerge and become narratable; and second, the expression in lyric of what lived reality feels like to the person who lives it, what Antonio Damasio calls ‘the feeling off what happens’ and ascribes in his book of that title to consciousness itself (2000)[8]. In other words, the early devotees of narrative order in poetry freed later practitioners back into lyric.


Which returns me to the question I carried with me back into poetry all those years ago: if time equals space and the mind works across both in texts as in the world, how is it that a poem in the mereness of its space creates a sense of dilation as exhilarating as the one I experience in reading To the Lighthouse or the 51-page ‘Carried Away,’ if not more so?  True lyric voluntarily works without a narrative net, even by eschewing narrative, whether as pressure on a lyric moment or as frame for repression and substitution, altogether. The fundamental difference between lyric poetry and narrative prose lies in how they use syntax and their specific conventions (and how they flout those conventions) to navigate their temporality. If a narrative’s formal action organises reality, unfolding it through the sentence marching its syntax forward in time, the trouble with those late-century free-verse poems, at least with mine and other lesser examples, was that by allowing narrative not to press at but to occupy their lyric spaces, trying to represent experience as a line of events in which every internal effect has an external cause, if/then, if/then unfolding inexorably across their lines, they allowed that narrative inevitability to occupy them at their centres, and so allowed experience to be expressed at the cost of flattening and finally reducing it. Conversely, unlike many stripped-down narratives of the time, including my own, those being written out of a poetic practised at the highest level where Rich, Merwin, and the other poets I have named were working to deploy simple narrative’s temporal structure (first this, then this) as lyric substitution without explicitly invoking, or even while evading, narrative’s organising cause-and-effect (if/then, if/then). Bly’s poem ends not in consequence but in mystery; in spite of the poem’s simple narrations, the title and section titles of Rich’s ‘Snapshots’ are explicitly anti-narrative, and her ‘Virginia 1906’ not only rejects but eschews cause-and-effect, saying about claims that might arise from one’s own victimisation, ‘I am tired of innocence and its uselessness’ (1993: 41).


A lyric by this definition, then, works (and has worked since Sappho) by exiling cause-effect narrative, keeping it outside the poem’s delineated formal space. The narrative toward which it gestures, if it does, is simple, and it does so without looking. Rather than positioning itself vis-à-vis a narrative frame, the lyric works through syntax to complete a formal gesture that returns the poem to itself, as the mind too must always fall back on itself, through recursion and folding, necessitated by the pressure our drive toward explanation exerts from the outside, an infinite space into which the lyric moment expands as it enacts, say, rhyme’s constant recovery and reconfiguration of sound, or a sonnet’s turn, or contemporary gestures of conflation and elision or confusion of syntax. When I talk about ‘lyric moment’, then, I don’t mean a persistent present in a particular place; I mean presence, the inclusion of all possible times in all necessary spaces.


Much of this inclusion happens through substitution, not of one kind or another but more intensely of one kind and another. Here is Dickinson’s #315: 

He fumbles at your Soul
As Players at the Keys
Before they drop full Music on —
He stuns you by degrees —

Prepares your brittle Nature
For the Etherial Blow
By fainter Hammers — further heard —
Then nearer — Then so slow

Your Breath has time to straighten —
Your Brain — to bubble Cool —
Deals — One — imperial — Thunderbolt —
That scalps your naked Soul —

When Winds take Forests in their Paws —
The Universe — is still —      (496)

I’ve written and spoken about this poem elsewhere, mostly in discussing Poemage, a visualisation tool I developed with Julie Gonnering Lein, Nina McCurdy, and Miriah Meyer (Sounding, Poemage, RhymeDesign), which visualises sonic relationships in poems. If the user loads #315 into the tool and hovers over the word ‘soul,’ the result looks like this:


Fig. 1:  Visualisation of ‘He Fumbles at your Soul.’ Standard layout.


I’ve given painstaking accounts (Show Ambiguity) of this poem’s sonic complex, noting among other things how the poem seems to rhyme even when it doesn’t, intensifying the way rhyme simultaneously represses and recalls the word it substitutes. As I have continued to read this poem and others, I have also begun to consider how sonic changes can suggest and even create the conditions for metaphor to evolve within and shape lyric time through change in repetition. I won’t rehearse my rhyme-by-rhyme reading of the poem here, but will point out a few places where sound gives vivid rise to metaphor.

The machine shows at a glance how the exact rhyme of ‘soul’ anchors the body of the sonnet across almost the entire poem space, ending both the first line of the opening quatrain and the last line of the last quatrain. Otherwise, the only indisputable and uncomplicated full end rhyme is ‘blow’ with ‘slow,’ which has the same phonemes as ‘soul’ in different order and creates an equivalency while at the same time providing both a sonic and metaphoric bridge between ‘soul’ and ‘blow’. On a slightly more complicated level, ‘degrees’ rhymes not only with ‘keys’ but in a tongue-in-cheek way with ‘the keys’, and suggests the inherent connection between the operations of the musical scale, with which ‘he stuns you by degrees’, and the nuances of difference in tone produced by ‘the keys’, while also evoking the subtle steps and half-steps in which sound is evolving in the poem itself.  

Dickinson further uses syntactic structure and internal rhythm and assonance to get ‘He stuns you’ at the beginning of line three to sound as if it rhymes with ‘He fumbles’ at the beginning of line one. Here again, the poem’s semantic and sonic equation is a logical and metaphoric one, in which the act of ‘fumbl[ing]’ and the resulting ‘stun[ning]’ are equated, not, I would argue, through cause-and-effect, but through conflation and equivalence: the two actions occur simultaneously and reciprocally, so one can fully substitute for the other. ‘Fumble’ looks not at all like ‘soul’ but nearly rhymes with it, providing through sonic suggestion a logical bridge between ‘soul’ and ‘stun’.

Ear and eye track ‘fainter/straighten/nature’ and ‘further/thunder’ with ‘heard’. The vibrato consonance of ‘straight’ and ‘bolt’ (vibrato because the two ‘t’ sounds in straight create additional resonance) and also consonance in ‘ten’ and ‘thun’ create a kind of chiasmatic off-rhyme that carries us to the final couplet, which, since this is a sonnet, if an eccentric one, should rhyme—and to me the poem insists, through both its sonic and its metaphoric development, that ‘paws’ and ‘still’ actually do so. The tool shows that the word ‘paws’ speaks to ‘still’ sonically through words that reach all the way up through the poem (soul, thunderbolt, cool, straighten) to ‘players’ and also right back through the first occurrence  of ‘soul’ to ‘fumbles’, so that we have between the hands suggested, though not named, in the poem’s opening ‘fumbles’ and the ‘paws’ at the end a relationship constructed, ‘by degrees’, entirely through sound. Beyond the expectation raised by the form, and the small sonic echo created by the ‘s’ that begins one word and ends the other, the homophone forces us to hear ‘paws’ also as ‘p-a-u-s-e’, creating a sense rhyme with ‘still’.

The poem’s final startling metaphor reminds us that if Dickinson’s poems seem to maintain a strict, even ladylike, relationship with poetic form as expressed by rhyme and meter, their appearance of being ‘neatly and modestly dressed’ can be deceptive. On closer examination, #315, like many others, reveals the ways in which Dickinson was, through the very devices to which she seemed to give herself over, constantly overturning tradition. 

Another US poet usually considered to be formally conservative is Theodore Roethke. Like so many poems of Dickinson’s, his ‘I Knew a Woman’ uses rhyme not only to indicate but actually to give rise to surprising metaphorical relationships across the poem:

I Knew a Woman

I knew a woman, lovely in her bones,
When small birds sighed, she would sigh back at them;   
Ah, when she moved, she moved more ways than one:   
The shapes a bright container can contain!
Of her choice virtues only gods should speak,
Or English poets who grew up on Greek
(I’d have them sing in chorus, cheek to cheek).

How well her wishes went! She stroked my chin,   
She taught me Turn, and Counter-turn, and Stand;   
She taught me Touch, that undulant white skin;   
I nibbled meekly from her proffered hand;   
She was the sickle; I, poor I, the rake,
Coming behind her for her pretty sake
(But what prodigious mowing we did make).

Love likes a gander, and adores a goose:
Her full lips pursed, the errant note to seize;
She played it quick, she played it light and loose;   
My eyes, they dazzled at her flowing knees;   
Her several parts could keep a pure repose,   
Or one hip quiver with a mobile nose
(She moved in circles, and those circles moved).

Let seed be grass, and grass turn into hay:   
I’m martyr to a motion not my own;
What’s freedom for? To know eternity.
I swear she cast a shadow white as stone.   
But who would count eternity in days?
These old bones live to learn her wanton ways:   
(I measure time by how a body sways).

(1974: 122)

Roethke achieves the appearance of rhyming exactly throughout the poem even when he doesn’t, not like Dickinson by diffusion and distraction but by using exact rhymes at the end of almost every line, assonance and consonance across lines in the two-to-four syllables preceding the final rhymes, and strict meter to absorb and obscure deviations. The first of these comes as early as line two, where the ear hears ‘them’ as rhyming with ‘contain’, though it doesn’t, simply because it already expects it to. In this figure, the bodies of the birds stand in for the ‘bright container’ that substitutes for the body of the woman. Through both rhyme (‘bones’, ‘than one’, ‘can contain’) and metaphorical confusion, the ‘bright container’ replaces the ‘bones’ the poem tells us she is ‘in’, making of her skeleton its own urn and ossuary.

But we don’t know that until the poem’s end sends us back to the beginning, because we don’t yet know how time is figured in the poem (across ‘eternity’) or how the poem’s serious themes work with and against its many cheeky (or cheeky-to-cheeky) moments. The poem’s first explicit invocation of poetry is a comic one, in the shape of ‘English poets who grew up on Greek’, but by the time the woman teaches the speaker ‘Turn, and Counter-turn, and Stand’, she is not only lover but muse, and time within the poem is elongating toward the ‘eternity’ that will be explicitly invoked in the final stanza. Here, already, she comes to represent mortality, the ‘sickle’ that cuts down the grass for which the speaker serves as ‘the rake,/ Coming behind her for her pretty sake.’ Just here, the poem offers in close succession two tongue-in-cheek figures, which merge into an ingenious metaphor based entirely on the puns in which both ‘rake’ and ‘coming’ express two entirely different meanings simultaneously, and thus marry the poem’s high seriousness with its comic content. Still, the poem’s temporal movement, at once linear unto death and cyclically returning the poem to life, inexorably continues, as ‘seed be[comes] grass and grass turn[s] into hay’. ‘What’s freedom for?’ the poem asks from within its freely assumed formal constraints, and then, ‘but who would count eternity in days?’

His bones, now ‘old’, substitute for her ‘lovely’ ones as the poem winds down to its penultimate line. She remains ageless, her body ‘wanton’ even to a conclusion where ‘learn her wanton ways’ echoes ‘count eternity in days’ across a little complex of sounds. Not only the sonic but also the metaphoric changes become embodied in nature as the now-mature seed, in ‘hay’, grows ready for harvest and so, via a not-quite-rhyme that should be exact for ‘eternity’, then pick up both ‘hay’ and ‘eternity’ (noting the additional sonic resonance both assume when we include the preceding words: ‘turn into hay’ and ‘to know eternity’) with the temporally enumerable ‘days’.  If ‘ways’ means both habits and directions or paths, the final ‘sways’ doesn’t so much repress as include, reiterate, even enfold ‘ways’ within it, bringing ‘ways’ forward in the way of both rhyme and metaphor as it reaches back to do so. Through sonic and metaphoric substitution, the tongue-in-cheek love poem becomes a poem that both makes fun of and lionises the classic, enduring if clichéd sub-genre of love poems about poetry and mortality, with a serious beauty that the comic measure, to which Roethke adheres to the end, cannot undermine but rather makes emphatic.

Though these two poems both appear at least to use rhyme in the most conventional possible ways, their temporality requires that rhyme, like metaphor, constantly undercut in order to reveal itself. In this way, both poets use rhyme to position themselves firmly within their poetic tradition and at the same time to undercut that tradition by flagrantly pressing at rhyme’s regulations. In doing so, they may cause us to question how something as basic to poetry as metaphor actually operates temporally within the poem, not to mention across the poetic traditions it engages and invokes. If metaphor above all gains its power not from where it succeeds in showing us similitude but rather at exactly the point where it fails in difference, moving us simultaneously back and forth across the poem in order to accommodate not only two meanings but an evolving complex of meaning, so sound works through a similar pleasure, creating a temporal space that constantly expands from within. Likewise, the poem itself succeeds at the point where it simultaneously enacts and disrupts its own relationship, both with itself and with tradition.

I’d like to finish my discussion of poetic sound and metaphor with one more reference to the Poemage tool and a visualisation of Louise Bogan’s ‘Night’ (1968: 130). The screen shot below deploys the ‘show uncertainty’ feature, which allows the tool to tell us where alternative possibilities exist to the sound the tool has identified for a particular word. These are usually alternate pronunciations of a word but, as in the case I am about to describe, may be words that can be pronounced in different ways to mean different things. 


Fig. 2:  Visualisation of ‘Night’. Standard layout.


Here, ‘wind’ is marked as a word with an alternate pronunciation, and also (based on the colour and strength of the blue circle) as rhyming not with the ‘in’ of ‘inlets’ but with ‘Night’, giving it the long rather than the short ‘i’. Statistically, the machine made the right choice (consider all the four-letter ‘-ind’ words you can think of), though no other native speaker of English would make the same ‘error’ in context.

Nonetheless, the error reveals through sound as early as line three the physical metaphor that doesn’t emerge fully until the final line of the poem. Long-i ‘wind’ suggests the anatomical winding of the human circulatory system and lays that winding, at this point subtly, over the geography being evoked and developed. Short-i ‘wind’, of course, is also associated here with the body, explicitly in its ‘breath[ing]’. That this single word contains two words that look identical but sound different allows a complex set of anatomical connections to begin to unfold, based on the life-sustaining functions of breath and pulse. Already, we see emerging the physical body that we will in the last stanza ‘remember’, by which I read not only recall but re-embody, in the ‘narrowing dark hours’, where, explicitly, ‘more things move/ than blood in the heart’.

This free-verse poem enacts a musicality as intense as that in most formal verse, one we can see in stanza one by tracing (using the tool if we wish) the shifting sounds that, in one instance, connect ‘estuaries’, ‘restless’, and ‘inlets’ down to ‘westward’, ‘reflects’, and ‘setting’. Within these sonic movements that connect words, the metaphor of the poem, too, develops. This poem shows us that sound and its metaphorical generation can operate as effectively outside as within the space of the metrical poem, an observation I would extend also to the prose poem, another departure from tradition that creates new necessities and opportunities for marking itself as lyric through sound. Like free verse but more so, the prose poem bears the almost impossible burden of creating its own sonic conditions, speaking through its sonic and other recursions to the larger tradition that may mark it as lyric rather than narrative. Though the line in a sense represents the constant pressure of return, and so gives us a clear way to measure lyric force as it plays out in sonic action, as we’ve seen in Woolf and even Munro it isn’t necessary. The prose poem too navigates time and retards its own syntax through lyric rather than narrative motion, through sonic and figurative recursion and retard rather than propulsion, even when it appears to move headlong across and down the page, and it does so without regard to an explicit cause-effect frame.  Inside it, as in an image, everything happens at once, though syntax, proceeding one word at a time, wants it not to.  Thus, the prose poem’s revolutionary move of jettisoning the line binds it even more firmly to other devices that might, traditionally, identify it as lyric.


If my discussion of the differences between narrative and lyric also recognises and even celebrates the ways in which the two communicate with and confuse each other, no more do I mean to suggest that narrative does not, like lyric, undergo change over time, or that it isn’t subject to literary movements. On the contrary, in its forms especially it may change more radically over time than lyric as it responds to the sometimes radically changing demands and challenges of the external realities it organises and explains. Early narratives we still have from Homer and others come to us because they were preserved through the mnemonic devices of verse before new technology permitted them to be committed to the page. Likewise, as societies and power structures changed and reorganised themselves, so did the lived realities that needed to be organised through narration, and as our narrative attention shifted from epic heroes to royals and the upper classes to the striving middle and finally the struggling classes, the forms and techniques required to reflect these realities changed as well. The psychic lives enacted in lyric, on the other hand, are constrained by the bodies that contain them, so perhaps subject less to the pressures of technological and social progress (to which of course they are hardly immune) than to the longer and shallower arc of biological evolution. The smallest rearrangement of the same figures may represent large disruptions across the formal and psychic field. 

One could argue, then, that Homer and his audience wouldn’t have any idea what to do with Woolf and Munro in their explicit creations of ‘timeliness’, even while the lyrics of Sappho and Dickinson can feel as immediate and contemporary as anything being written today that would fall under the category of ‘lyric’. The poem as a poem marks its own boundaries, then expands not beyond them but within them. Though it unfolds in syntax, in time, its relationship both to its own internal time and to the longer time of literary history is inherently unruly. Over time, its time is not an external force but an internal phenomenon; we conceive and navigate it rather than succumbing to it. From Sappho to Dickinson to Jorie Graham, the lyric moment isn’t singular or static; it isn’t even a moment. It is so expansive that it contains us even as we contain it. If ever we ‘see it clear’, we do so ‘only for a second’, and even then only ‘as if’. Its finishing is gestural, a form of abandonment – never ours of the poem, but perhaps, in time, the poem’s of us. 


[1] Not quite half of the students in my PhD program when I was a student were female, and I had exactly one female creative writing professor through my entire undergraduate and graduate careers. About three-quarters of the student poets in the PhD program where I now teach are female, as are all of the professors. Presumably, the young men who might once have become poets are all over in computer science learning game design.

[2] I am driving; it is dusk; Minnesota.
The stubble field catches the last growth of sun.   
The soybeans are breathing on all sides.
Old men are sitting before their houses on car seats   
In the small towns. I am happy,
The moon rising above the turkey sheds. (1962: 20)

[3] Merwin published three additional books during the fifties; Rich published only The Diamond Cutters in 1955 before following another eight years later with Snapshots of a Daughter in Law, which she subtitled Poems, 1954-63, as if to indicate a clear break.

[4] Some of the male poets I’ve listed, in particular Mark Strand and Robert Bly, as well as many somewhat younger like Robert Hass (‘Meditation at Lagunitas’ (Praise, 4-5)) and Larry Levis (‘The Poet at Seventeen’ (Winter Stars, 3-4)), also sooner or later embraced the vocal flexibility enabled by this poetic movement, which suggests that they too experienced a straitening effect in the earlier modes. My argument is not that a specific poetic technique is limited to poets of one gender or another, but rather that an increase in female poets might have allowed certain techniques to emerge or be redeployed more powerfully or at a different time than they otherwise would have, in response to emerging expressive needs.

[5] ‘In the theory of relativity, time dilation is a difference of elapsed time between two events as measured by observers either moving relative to each other or differently situated from a gravitational mass or masses.’  (Wikipedia)

[6] I am aware that poets like Ashbery and O’Hara, whose sexuality may play into both their discursiveness and their elusiveness as marked by such formal gestures as pronoun confusion, further complicate my arguments on gender.

[7] And often a past –

[8] Rich thinks of the ongoing bringing into focus of such context as being about finding language, and describes it in ‘Origins and History of Consciousness’ like this:

No one lives in this room
without confronting the whiteness of the wall
behind the poems, planks of books,
photographs of dead heroines,

and later,

I can’t call it life until we start to move
beyond this secret circle of fire
where our bodies are giant shadows flung on a wall
where the night becomes our inner darkness, and sleeps
like a dumb beast, head on her paws, in the corner. (2016: 446-8)


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