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This item is taken from PN Review 126, Volume 25 Number 4, March - April 1999.

Letter from Peter Robinson

In 'On Ignorance' (PNR 123), his excellent and moving essay on the necessity of poetic structure, Clive Wilmer decribes Ezra Pound's 'In a Station of the Metro' as the locus classicus of 'the essence of free verse'. It's a pity that he misquotes the first line, having 'a crowd' in stead of 'the', which spoils the contrast between the visually vague but definite-articled first line, and the indefinite-articled but vivid second. That first line ('The apparition of these faces in the crowd;') is made of 12 syllables, an alexandrine (the standard metre of French verse before the mid-nineteenth century: apt enough for a poem about the Paris Metro), with a metrical tendancy towards 6 beats of iambic pattern; the second line ('Petals on a wet, black bough.') is 7 syllables with 4 beats (a tetrameter) tending towards the trochaic as instigated by 'Petals'. It looks on the page like an English epigram, and, like those of e.g. Ben Jonson formed from a pentameter rhyming couplet, Pound's poem has 10 main beats (though in a 6-4 arrangement) and, with precisely the same terminal vowel on each line, almost rhymes: crow[d]/ bough.

Or look at it another way. Noting the light caesura after 'apparition' in the first line, the two parts thus formed have syllable counts of 5 and 7. As already noted, the second line has 7 syllables. 5-7-7 is the syllable count for the last three parts of a Japanese tanka. The indebtedness to classical Japanese poetry of Pound's Imagist verse needs no rehearsing in this journal. The great originality and staying power of his little poem resides in its ability to combine a structural (and thematic) patterning derived from the traditions of English, European, and Japanese poetry.

Wilmer's essay suggests how falsely absolute distinctions (that have bedeviled discussion of poetry for almost a century) between metred and free verse, or between closed and open forms, may be bypassed and left behind through the recognition of their interdependent affinities. I draw attention to ways in which Pound's supposed locus classicus of 'free verse' is an exercise in the combining of traditional forms to underline the important and timely thrust of 'On Ignorance'.

It was also heartening to read Chris McCully's related essay 'Against Transcendental Gossip: The Symbolic Language of Rhythm', not least because the quality of poetry in English depends upon poets having both intimately instinctive, and consciously knowledgable, acquaintance with the nature of their medium - and where better to find such matters aired than in a poetry journal (though how rare such airings are!). The fact that we call the units of metre 'feet' and the eye's movement from line end to left margin 'enjambment', or that the word 'verse' derives from ploughing and 'text' from weaving suggests that the role of rhythm in cognition and memory is dependent upon such understanding and remembering being felt 'on the pulses' (as Keats needed to feel it), in the physical movement of the human body.

It did, however, strike me as unnecessarily theoretical, and practically useless, to be told that in the standard ballad quatrain (which alternates a pair of tetrameters with a pair of trimeters), the trimeters are 'four beats, one silent'. The characteristic tensions and releases (in the body and mind) of this stanza are effected by the shortening line, which is then heard as, precisely, not as long as the previous one. If the trimeters are endstopped but the tetrameters not, then there will be variation in the timing of the enjambments, line-ends, and stanza breaks, but that kind of pause-timing is not the same work as counting beats. Then again, perhaps I'm missing this fourth beat because it's silent! My advice to poets attempting to write the stanza would be that if there is a silence, there's no beat, and if there's no beat, don't worry about it. In fact, forget to remember what was never there.

Sendai, Japan

This item is taken from PN Review 126, Volume 25 Number 4, March - April 1999.

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