Why Is a Poem a
325 Lecture, October 8, 2003
Here are the texts I'll refer to, and a few notes on them. The poems by
Williams, Scully, and Niedecker appear on this page. The other links
lead to their own pages. Please read each poem aloud, and spend a
time thinking about the questions I've asked. If these poems are not in
textbook, please print them out and bring them along on the 8th.
The poems on this page are short, 20th c. free verse poems. The sonnet,
by contrast, is one of the tightest and most complex poetic forms ever
devised. I've included two from Shakespeare and three from 20th c.
poets. The Auden
poem (also 20th c.) is probably best described as free verse, though it
some characteristics with more formally traditional poems. I suggest
read it last.
W.C. Williams: Poem / James Scully: Golden Mean / Lorine Niedecker: Untitled
4 sonnets / W.H. Auden's "Musée des Beaux Arts"
Here are two 20th c. free
verse poems in which the action of the line breaks is just about the
definition of what makes a certain collection of words a
is entirely concrete, the other entirely abstract. Both are by poets
who believe/d that a poem should enact its message, rather
than simply deliver it.
< style="font-weight: bold;">Italicized
remarks at the right represent the sort of questions that might hover
in a reader's mind at the end of each line. They are not part of
Williams' poem. Why do you think Williams called this poem "Poem?">
William Carlos Williams
As the cat
climbed over what?
the top of
the top of what?
first the right
then? we might ask,
but Williams wants us to ask how?
then the hind
into the pit of
doesn’t sound good! pit of what?
For this poem, read first
what its author, James Scully, calls the "deversed" version, then the
poem itself. In his book Line Break: Poetry as Social Practice
(Seattle: Bay Press, 1988) he said of this little exercise: "Whereas
the prose withheld a final disposition, the verse does not. It sides.
Accuses."(p.132) And more: "The prose sentence had implied the
inadequacy of the golden mean... In the verse the golden mean acts in
complicity with what it 'opposes.' " (134)
How do the line breaks make
that reading emerge from what are, after all, the same words we see in
They call the rage of the oppressed extremist. Evenhanded censure, from
the hypothetical center of the slaughter, they call impartial,
They call the rage of the oppressed
from the hypothetical center of
the slaughter, they call impartial, objective.
this poem by Lorine
Niedecker, lineation again plays the most important role in creating a
of reading the words. In this case, however, most readers find it
to limit the interpretive possibilities, partly because of language we
paraphrase and partly because the lines and line breaks cluster and
words, allowing multiple, perhaps contradictory readings to rise out of
As you read this poem, identify rhymes and other sound relationships,
well places where multiple meanings seem possible. What might all this
to do with the poem's subject?
in the world’s black night
if not repose
At the close—
I hid with him
from the long range guns.
We lay leg
A slit of light
at no bird dawn—