Me and Marianne Moore
A consciously syllabic approach to English language poetry means having an odd relationship to one’s contemporaries. The resources for a syllabic approach are few. Most overviews of English poetry that I have read give a brief nod to a syllabic approach, but then quickly move on to other matters. Invariably in these brief discussions Marianne Moore is brought up as a significant poet whose approach was syllabic.
Oddly, Moore has had very little impact on me; I would say that the impact or influence has been non-existent. And I have been a little puzzled about that. This post explores my own feelings about the place Moore has in English syllabics.
I like Moore’s poetry; it’s humor, its objectivity, the way she will focus on the ordinary such as her poem on pigeons or the one on nectarines or ‘to a steamroller’. But Moore never inspired me to actually write poetry syllabically. And that has been my overall impression. I mean that Moore’s poetry does not lead others to adopt a syllabic approach.
Why is that so? My view is that although Moore often organized her poetry into syllabic stanzas, her poems nevertheless sound like free verse. I mean that the sound of her poetry, that what a listener hears, is indistinguishable from the sound, the sonic contours, of free verse. Critics have noted this. In the Wikipedia article on Syllabic Verse the author notes:
"No water so still as the
dead fountains of Versailles." No swan,
with swart blind look askance
and gondoliering legs, so fine
as the chintz china one with fawn-
brown eyes and toothed gold
collar on to show whose bird it was.
Lodged in the Louis Fifteenth
Candelabrum-tree of cockscomb-
tinted buttons, dahlias,
sea urchins, and everlastings,
it perches on the branching foam
of polished sculptured
flowers — at ease and tall. The king is dead.
Because these lines are longer, irregular, and frequently enjambed ("as the / dead fountains"), it is quite clear that the symmetry of syllables is not meant to be audible. Moore's use of end-rhyme is telling. Only 2 lines in each stanza are rhymed: these are emphasized for the reader by indentation, but hidden from the listener by radical enjambment ("fawn- / brown" and "coxcomb- / tinted").
(The full article can be found here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Syllabic_verse )
I believe it is the very frequent use of enjambment, run-on lines, that undermines Moore’s syllabic project. I mean that because the lineation is not audible, because it is only something observable on paper, and then only if the reader makes a conscious effort to count, the heard result is simply that we are hearing a free verse poem.
I find it instructive that none of Moore’s stanzaic poems have generated a following. I mean that other poets have not seen the syllabic stanzas as inspiring enough to formally copy and write their own poems in a similar shape. Poets have not chosen to mimic Moore’s stanzas. In contrast, Adelaide Crapsey’s Cinquain has been mimicked and copied and given rise to a lot of poetry; there is a sizable body now of Cinquain that follow the Crapsey pattern of 2-4-6-8-2 syllables.
Crapsey’s Cinquain, in contrast with Moore’s syllabic stanzas, have clearer lineation. Here are two examples:
Not these my hands
And yet I think there was
A woman like me once had hands
Listen . .
With faint dry sound,
Like steps of passing ghosts,
The leaves, frost-crisp’d, break from the trees
In both of these examples the lineation is clear; each phrase occupies a line. I believe this is why Crapsey’s Cinquain has inspired others. There is a match between the form on the paper and what the listener hears. There are times when Crapsey used run-ons in some of her Cinquain; but the enjambment is not as radical as in Moore. And these run-ons were often mitigated by rhyme and meter so that other factors than grammatical phrasing assisted the reader/listener in feeling the shape of the Cinquain. In Moore’s poetry, that is usually not the case.
In other words, I do not feel that Moore’s poetry inspires others to compose syllabic poetry. Moore’s example did not inspire me. For me it was the poetry of Richard Wright that clearly revealed the potential for syllabic verse. Like Crapsey’s Cinquain, Wright’s Haiku inspire others to compose using a similar approach. Like Crapsey’s Cinquain, Wright’s Haiku uses lineation that is clear, where there is a match between grammatical phrasing and syllabic shape. Enjambment is rare.
Because a syllabic approach to English language poetry is new, there is a paucity of examples for a syllabic poet to draw on. I mean this in comparison to the two other great traditions of English language poetry. The metrical poet can draw on the vast majority of English language poetry as a resource and teacher. The free verse poet has many models to learn from. The poet who chooses a syllabic approach has far fewer resources.
For this reason, I think, the syllabic poet, writing in English, has to learn to apply poetic techniques learned from non-syllabic contexts to syllabic poetry. I’ll give two examples from my own journey. The first, which I have previously posted about, is Emily Dickinson. Dickinson is a metrical poet; but I learned from Dickinson many important techniques that can be applied to syllabic poetry. In particular, I learned how efficacious rhyming is for clarifying lineation and was able to apply that to my own syllabic approach.
From the free verse tradition, I have been strongly influenced by Jane Reichhold; a well-known Haiku and Tanka poet. I learned from Reichhold ways of tersely shaping a line without the line becoming anorexic; clarity of lineation is one of Reichhold’s great strengths and she showed me, continues to show me, how clear lineation is done in a free verse context. It was Reichhold’s influence which opened for me how to shape the very short lines which begin a significant number of syllabic forms. I am referring here to lines shorter than four syllables which are found in the Cinquain, Lanterne, Tetractys, and Fibonacci. Reichhold’s example was pivotal for my own approach to these very short lines.
Drawing on these two poets, neither of whom uses a syllabic approach to poetry, has given me tools for the shaping of specifically syllabic forms. But, oddly, Moore’s poetry has not offered me such tools. In some ways I find this disappointing. On the other hand, I can appreciate Moore as a free verse poet who effectively used syllabic stanzas to organize her free verse. It’s just that I haven’t found her approach nourishing to my own explorations.