Analysis of Poetic Strategies in a Free Verse Poem by Rebecca Henry Lowndes
by Tina Blue
March 12, 2001
In my article "White Space and Broken Lines: Free Verse," I promised that my next article for this column would take a specific free verse poem, Rebecca Henry Lowndes' "Song for a Seeker," and use it to demonstrate some of the techniques a poet uses to make free verse poetry, rather than just prose arranged idiosyncratically on the page.
I have to warn you that this series of articles is not going to be an easy read. I am going to make some real demands on your attention and your imagination. In fact, I recommend that you print these articles out to read them, because they are not going to be skimmers.
If you are interested in following my analysis, you should first use the link to go to Lowndes' poem and print it off. You will need to have a copy in front of you to follow what I am going to say. You will also need to read the poem several times before we start. Read it through at least twice silently, to get the lay of the lay,* as it were.
Now read through it at least twice out loud. The first time you read it out loud, you will probably stumble over some parts, so that you won't get a true sense of the sound of the poem. It is only after we are familiar with a poem that we can actually read it out loud smoothly and comfortably, and it is terribly important to have a smooth oral reading of the poem in your ears if you are to follow what I am about to do.
An oral reading of a poem can be so definitive that often I can show my students why something means what it does simply by reading the puzzling passage out loud to them. In my poetry class I always read a poem out loud twice before we begin to analyze it. After we have worked our way through the poem, with several oral re-readings of key passages along the way, I then read the poem out loud to them once more, so that with their new understanding, they can respond to it in its entirety.
After you have done all this, we can begin.
*lay: a short narrative poem
We are a patterning species. We see patterns everywhere, even when there are none, as when we discern the outlines of animals in the random shapes of clouds, or Elvis in an inkblot, or the Virgin Mary in water stains on walls.
We don't just perceive pattern, either--we crave it, and we feel a frisson of pleasure when we discover it, especially when that discovery comes as an unexpected gift.
But some patterns are so simple, so obvious and predictable, that discovering them is about as exciting and satisfying as putting together a three-piece jigsaw puzzle. We want to work a little bit at recognizing and understanding a pattern.
On the other hand, an overly complex or obscure pattern might also turn us off. If the work required seems too great for the potential reward, then we are likely to abandon the effort before getting to the payoff.
The advantage of rhyme and meter in poetry is that it guarantees structural patterns. But if the rhyme is too obvious or predictable, then it is like that three-piece jigsaw puzzle. It isn't even worth a five-year-old's time and energy. In his poem "An Essay on Criticism," Alexander Pope mocks poets who grab at the cheapest, easiest rhymes:
. . . ten low words oft creep in one dull line:
While they ring round the same unvaried chimes,
With sure returns of still expected rhymes;
Wher'er you find "the cooling western breeze,"
In the next line, it "whispers through the trees";
If crystal streams "with pleasing murmurs creep,"
The reader's threatened (not in vain) with "sleep" . . .
It's rather like watching a highwire act. We don't really want the performer to fall, but the fact that he could is what lends meaning to his performance. But if the wire is only two inches off the ground, who cares whether the performer falls or not? Where's the risk?
In open form poetry (free verse), the poet is performing on a genuine highwire without a net. Robert Frost, who preferred to work within the confines of traditional form, once said, "Writing free verse is like playing tennis with the net down."
For some "poets" his dismissive assessment is true. They mistake the absence of rhyme and meter for complete freedom from form. But for real poets, the absence of the ready-made structure of rhyme and meter is more like the absence of that safety net beneath the highwire. They have nothing but their own skill and their own sense of balance to provide the pattern that will satisfy the discerning reader.
In "An Essay on Criticism" Pope also says, "True ease in writing comes from art, not chance, / As those move easiest who have learned to dance" (362-363), summing up in two sharp lines the point I labored over for an entire article in "A Poet Is Made, Not Born."
"SONG FOR A SEEKER"
One poet who clearly has "learned to dance" is Rebecca Henry Lowndes.
Reading "Song for a Seeker" out loud, you will begin to hear the patterns of sound and rhythm that distinguish an effective free verse poem from mere prose. As you read, notice how the arrangement of the lines guides us in creating appropriate pauses and emphasis.
One thing you will discover as you read the poem aloud is that it has an intensity of sound patterning that we simply do not find in prose or in normal speech.
Not excessively so, mind you. Overdone sound and rhythm patterns tend to strike us as silly after awhile. A true master, a Gerard Manley Hopkins, can pull off rhythmically and phonetically overpacked lines, but most of us can't, at least not very often. We need enough sound patterning to captivate the ear, enough rhythm to command the breathing rate and the heartbeat of the reader, but not enough to make him giggle.
Even Hopkins goes too far sometimes. His otherwise glorious sonnet "The Windhover" contains this unfortunate clunker: "My heart in hiding / Stirred for a bird" (7-8). And his nearly perfect, tightly packed "Spring and Fall: To a Young Child" is marred by the phonetically and rhythmically overwrought line "Nor mouth had, no nor mind, expressed" (12).
Lowndes' poem contains no such missteps. As you listen to the poem out loud, you will hear partial and exact rhymes that probably escaped your notice as you read silently--unless, of course, you have a very astute inner ear. Most of these sound echoes are internal rhymes rather than end-rhymes, and those that are end-rhymes are separated by enough lines to nearly disguise their pairing.
Let's look at some of the partial rhymes that subtly knit the poem together, barely brushing our conscious awareness, even as they work on us at a level just below consciousness.
In the first stanza, the isolated word set "one wet," which appears thus on the page
is echoed later in that same stanza by a similarly arranged word set
which also creates a contradictory image. The unpromising dampness of the day is precisely counterbalanced by the heat of the glance shared by two people brought together as if by fate.
Notice, too, that the words following these key word sets are also phonetically and thematically paired:
unheralded Friday I
descried . . .
and wary look we shared . . .
The phrase "unheralded Friday I" shares a preponderance of phonemes with "and wary look we," and the contrast between the alienated "I" of the earlier line and the "we" of the later one is reinforced by the fact that what is referred to is, in both cases, a look: "I descried"; "one . . . look we shared."
Another reverberating sound pattern is created in the first stanza with the combined partial and exact rhymes of smile, guileless, veil, Grail, toll, and soul. And the word string, followed closely by singing, in the metaphorical description "as though a slackened / string somewhere went snap, / pulled taut and singing," produces the "ping" of just such an effect. Of course, "taut" also rhymes with "hot," so the heat of their shared glance is transferred to the implicitly sexual tautness of that metaphorical string.
Another important sound effect in the first stanza is the dull rhythmic incrementalism of the following lines:
when I'd left off seeking,
disparaged adventure . . .
These lines describe the abandonment of a failed quest, a quest that has turned to hopeless drudgery. The Latinate ponderousness of the words--"eschewed involvement, / disparaged adventure"--creates a sense of heaviness, of a burden carried too far, too long.
Similarly intricate sound and rhythm patterns operate throughout the poem. I wish only to call your attention to a few more. (The rest you can discover on your own, now that you know what to look--or listen--for.)
Notice the breathless rush of the third stanza, reinforced by diction ("I flew the stairs" [italics mine]) and by punctuation. The stanza is one long, heart-fluttering thought--hurried through with dashes and ending with an exclamation point on the (to the persona) extraordinary notion that someone has been "unnerved, heart-plundered so, / as to declare me fetching!"
In the fourth stanza, the careful chiseling of a relationship is captured in the poised effect of internal rhyming and symmetrical phrasing:
. . . kindle-snug and
shrine-remote, we talked,
refined this mined, this treasured
--carefully . . .
In this same stanza, "regret" is reinforced by the partial rhyme of "bereft" and its exact rhyme with "cleft," while the "loveless trap" of the marriage is inverted in the exact end-rhyme of "in my lap," with its connotations of both nurturance and sexual completeness.
Needless to say, the "haughty wife" is cast as a standard villain, not only cold, but characterized by the serpent-like hiss and rattle of her form of expression: "[she] thissed and thatted."
I have much more to say about this poem, but I know that most of you do not want to read long dissertations in one sitting, so let's pretend this is a seminar and it is time for a break. I will post the rest of my analysis of this poem as separate articles: "Further Analysis of Rebecca Henry Lowndes' 'Song for a Seeker'"; "Why an Autobiographical Poem Is NOT Autobiography"; and "Literary Criticism Is About Analyzing and Understanding Literature, NOT About Criticizing It."
Some of the points I will cover are Lowndes' use of allusion to traditional narrative patterns, her use of the analogous themes of the quest, the hunt, and the treasure hunt, and also her ability to turn a line so striking that it sticks in your mind forever. (As an example of this skill, look at the lines "I'd never trusted the idea / of being loved before the chase . . ."; "the searing trek across / self-immolation land"; "one unnerved, heart-plundered so, / as to declare me fetching!") I also want to discuss the important critical principle that even in an autobiographical poem, the author is not the persona, and the poem is not autobiography!
I hope that what I have done with this wonderful poem thus far has captured your interest sufficiently to make you want to return for more, especially now that you know what kind of more is on the menu.
And as a denouement, I will tell you what I consider to be an actual flaw in this poem. (Not that I think this flaw undermines the overall excellence of the poem, mind you--but aren't you a little bit curious to find out what on earth I could complain about in this poem?)
~To read the next article in this series go to "Further Analysis of Rebecca Henry Lowndes' 'Song for a Seeker'"