Prose from Poetry Magazine

Lyric Knowledge

Ideas of order in poetry.

The impulse to be lyrical is driven by the need to be no longer constrained by oneself. As poems have testified for centuries, we become lyrical when we suffer, when we love. But like poems themselves, we exist because of constraints — cultural and linguistic ways of organizing experience that allow us to imagine we know who we are. Why, when we’re driven to be lyrical, are we gratified by familiar patterns, formal patterns made by breaking words into syllables, structural patterns made by conjoining words with other words? Why do we imagine we may be liberated by unfamiliar patterns, patterns whose novelty depends on patterns we already know? Why, having experienced the pleasure of a lyric poem, do we bother experiencing it again? Why, when we’re in love, can the repetition of an experience feel more fulfilling than the discovery of it?

In Plato’s Phaedrus, Socrates asks his interlocutors to consider a well-known epigram inscribed on Midas’s tomb. “You notice,” he says, “that it is of no consequence what order these lines are spoken in,” implying that the poem offers merely the illusion of rigorous thought.

A girl of bronze on Midas’s tomb I stand
As long as water flows and trees grow tall.
Remaining here on his lamented tomb,
I’ll tell to all who pass “Here Midas lies.”

What Socrates says about this epigram is half true. For while it is not organized by the inevitable unfolding of a narrative or an argument, and while its lines may consequently be rearranged with no damage to the poem’s information as such, a great deal depends on the particular way in which the information is ordered.

Remaining here on his lamented tomb
As long as water flows and trees grow tall,
I’ll tell to all who pass “Here Midas lies.”
A girl of bronze on Midas’s tomb I stand.

In this version we discover in the final line that the poem is spoken by a bronze statue of a girl, eerily similar to any girl who might have received Midas’s amorous attentions; in the original version our experience of the poem is predicated on this knowledge. What does the fact that one can alter significantly the effect of a poem without changing a single word tell us about the power of structure? What did Socrates not want to recognize about that power?

The anonymous lyric known as “Western Wind” first appeared in a songbook probably owned by a musician in the court of Henry VIII. I quote it here in a modern edition, in which spelling and punctuation have been regularized.

Western wind, when will you blow?
The small rain down can rain.
Christ, if my love were in my arms
And I in my bed again.

This quatrain is cast in ballad measure, alternating tetrameter (“Western wind, when will you blow”) and trimeter lines (“The small rain down can rain”), the two trimeters rhyming with each other (“rain” and “again”). The regularity of this form plays against the irregularity of the poem’s syntax, which consists of a one-line interrogative (“Western wind, when will you blow?”), followed by a one-line declarative (“The small rain down can rain”) and a two-
line exclamation (“Christ, if my love were in my arms / And I in my bed again”).

But like the lines of the Midas epigram, the lines of “Western Wind” may easily be reordered; not a word needs to be changed, and the poem will make clear sense.

Christ, if my love were in my arms
And I in my bed again.
Western wind, when will you blow?
The small rain down can rain.

“Did you ever read one of her Poems backward,” asked Emily Dickinson of an unknown interlocutor about an unidentified poet, “because the plunge from the front overturned you? I sometimes (often have, many times) have — A something overtakes the Mind.” The “something” that overtakes the mind when reading “Western Wind” backwards is different from the “something” produced by the plunge from the front, for while the form of the poem is unchanged (alternating tetrameter and trimeter lines, rhymed xaxa), its structure has been radically altered. Here, we turn from an experience of longing to the weather, an external drama that confirms the emotional turmoil. Something happens in this shift from interiority to exteriority, for we feel in both arenas the power of absence, the desire for change, but something more momentous happens in the original structure, in which our expectations are not confirmed but shattered.

“Western Wind” begins by looking out, asking in the first one-line sentence for the exterior world to change: “Western wind, when will you blow?” The second one-line sentence makes an observation about that world: “The small rain down can rain.” At this point in our experience of these lines, the poem is about nothing but weather — 
a wish that the weather were different, a wish registered most poignantly in the phrase “small rain”; would that we were getting a downpour, a deluge. Then the poem slaps us with new information, reinforcing the slap with the unexpected blasphemy (“Christ”) and then, more potently, with a sentence that disrupts the established pattern of containment, the syntax suddenly refusing to be constrained by the line: “Christ, if my love were in my arms / And I in my bed again.” So while the poem’s greatest desire is to repeat the routine of daily life (“I in my bed again”), the poem’s structure makes the discovery of that desire permanently surprising. Again, as every child knows, is one of the most powerful words in the language, and the act of knowing in a lyric poem is an act of coming to know again, the repeatable action of the language on the page having become more thrilling than the original action described.

In ideal but rare conditions, such pleasure may be derived from daily experiences like setting the table or brushing one’s teeth. Many people listen to pop songs they love day after day — not because they can’t remember the words or the tune; they know the song by heart, and more pleasurable than rehearsing it in the mind is the act of experiencing it again as a temporal event. Most songs contain perhaps forty words, and reading the same forty-word paragraph from a blog or a parking ticket as often as one has listened to “Blowin’ in the Wind” would bore anyone silly — except in that rare instance when the pleasure of the paragraph depends not on its information as such but on how the sentences deliver us into the discovery of that 

People who read the ode “To Autumn” again and again don’t do so because they need to be reminded that in temperate zones of the northern hemisphere, leaves begin to turn colors and fall off the trees in September. Seasonal change, diurnal change, waking up, falling asleep — the vast majority of our daily experiences are repetitions of prior experiences. It’s harrowingly easy to become oppressed by a life of routine, and while we remember more easily the exceptions, we maintain a quietly vigorous relationship to our lives when we’re able to look forward to learning again what we already know, transforming it in the process.

But if such pleasure is precarious in the best of circumstances, it is to be had more reliably from reading a poem than from reading a blog because poems exist to foreground the event of their language over the event they happen to narrate or describe. We don’t think of memorizing parking tickets, but the practice of memorizing poems feels unremarkable, whether we do it or not, because we recognize that poems exist to be re-experienced as a temporal event.

Consider the conclusion to another lyric, a longer one, its eleven sentences cast in twelve two-line stanzas.

The stalks are firmly rooted in ice.
It is deep January. The sky is hard.

The leaves hop, scraping on the ground,
Like seeing fallen brightly away.

Snow sparkling like eyesight falling to earth
Is merely the moving of a tongue.

They have heads in which a captive cry
Without legs or, for that, without heads,

Has arms without hands. They have trunks
In this bleak air, the broken stalks.

Bad is final in this light.
The field is frozen. The leaves are dry,

As absent as if we were asleep.
He is not here, the old sun.

What you have just read is actually the beginning of Wallace Stevens’s “No Possum, No Sop, No Taters,” a poem about the deprivations of wartime rationing in the early forties, except that you have read it backwards, concluding with the poem’s first line. Though the original ordering of this passage also contains eleven sentences, I have altered the punctuation, recombining the constituent pieces of the poem’s syntax into new grammatical shapes. In doing so, I have needed to alter just two words (sparkles to sparkling and have to has) to keep the syntax coherent.

But while none of the poem’s information has changed, the reordering of the information once again alters the structure of the poem radically. To conclude the poem with the act of personifying the sun (“He is not here”) makes that figure, though it records an absence, feel like a brazened wish to find human companionship in the starkly inhuman natural world.

The field is frozen. The leaves are dry,

As absent as if we were asleep.
He is not here, the old sun.

To begin with the personification makes it feel like a passingly familiar trope, hardly worth noticing.

He is not here, the old sun,
As absent as if we were asleep.

The field is frozen. The leaves are dry.

Why, if the effect of these two ways of ordering the poem are so different, are these sentences so amenable to rearrangement? What does the fact that one can so easily change our experience of lyric poems without changing their language tell us not only about the structure of lyric poems but about the syntax that undergirds their structure?

In contrast to “No Possum, No Sop, No Taters,” a poem whose structure depends on the causal relations of narrative will not be so plausibly reordered, though the result may be in its own way delightful.

In the darkest evening of the year,
Between the woods and frozen lake,
To stop without a farmhouse near — 
My little horse must think it queer

To watch his woods fill up with snow.
He will not see me stopping here;
His house is in the village though.
Whose woods these are I think I know.

Neither will a poem whose structure depends on the causal relations of an argument be so amenable to reordering.

Lilies that fester smell far worse than weeds,
For sweetest things turn sourest by their deeds.
The basest weed outbraves his dignity,
But if that flower with base infection meet,
Though to itself it only live and die,
The summer’s flower is to the summer sweet,
Others but stewards of their excellence.
They are the lords and owners of their faces,
And husband nature’s riches from expense.
They rightly do inherit heaven’s graces.

The narrative of Robert Frost’s “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening” would seem hardly to resemble the argument of Shakespeare’s 94th sonnet, but they both rely on hypotactic syntax, the kind of syntax toward which we naturally gravitate in order to generate relationships between causes and effects in narratives or between evidence and conclusion in arguments. Not “I came, I saw, I conquered” but “Because I came, I conquered.” Not “They have the power to hurt and will do none. They do inherit heaven’s graces” but “They that have the power to hurt and will do none do inherit heaven’s graces.” In “No Possum, No Sop, No Taters,” which is structured by association and juxtaposition rather than narrative or argument, the syntax is often egregiously paratactic, avoiding causal relationships between clauses and therefore allowing the pieces of the poem’s syntax often to make as much sense when arranged backward as when arranged forward: “The leaves hop, scraping on the ground. It is deep January. The sky is hard. The stalks are firmly rooted in ice” or “The stalks are firmly rooted in ice. The sky is hard. It is deep January. The leaves hop, scraping on the ground.”

An observation about art ceases to be provocative when it is transformed into a principle, and I wouldn’t want to generalize too freely from the observations I’ve made so far. So while paratactic syntax distinguishes Stevens’s lyric poem, and while hypotactic syntax is foregrounded in Frost’s narrative poem, paratactic syntax certainly occurs in narratives, just as hypotactic syntax occurs in lyrics; the first sentence of “No Possum, No Sop, No Taters” is after all hypotactic (“He is not here, the old sun, / As absent as if we were asleep”). Neither would I want to suggest that poets would necessarily do better to read their poems backwards, though at certain times they have profitably done so. John Koethe actually wrote his 207-line poem “The Constructor” backwards, moving from its final sentence — 

Why do I feel so happy?

— to its penultimate sentence — 

                                 How could this quiet feeling
Actually exist?

— and so on, until he wrote what became the first sentence: “They strike me less as actual persons than as abstract / Ghosts of an idea.” The poem might have been perpetuated in the order in which Koethe actually wrote its sentences, but one can sense immediately the attraction of moving backwards: what was originally a governing thesis, a question to be explored (“Why do I feel so happy?”), becomes in the reordering a revelation that is extruded from the experience of the poem, not a stolid given but an unforeseen gift. The simple flatness of the question feels in the final position revelatory, driven into existence by unforeseen forces, just as, on a much smaller scale, the final two-line sentence of “Western Wind” does.

Having written a poem in this way, Koethe did not repeat the experiment, for the experiment could easily become a predictable method, just as my rearrangements of “Western Wind” or “No Possum, No Sop, No Taters” might seem merely clever. But the experiment nonetheless provokes telling observations about the workings of lyric structure. The fact that a predominantly paratactic syntax enables the possibility of plausible rearrangement does not undermine a poem’s plunge from the front, as Dickinson called it, but highlights its inevitability: the repeatable pleasure of the poem depends not simply on what kinds of sentences the poem contains but on the particular order in which those sentences appear.

This is the first of the ten sections of Wallace Stevens’s “The Auroras of Autumn,” a lyric sequence that dramatizes, through multiple interpretations of the aurora borealis, the way in which the 
human mind may or may not find itself at home in the universe.

This is where the serpent lives, the bodiless.
His head is air. Beneath his tip at night
Eyes open and fix on us in every sky.

Or is this another wriggling out of the egg,
Another image at the end of the cave,
Another bodiless for the body’s slough?

This is where the serpent lives. This is his nest,
These fields, these hills, these tinted distances,
And the pines above and along and beside the sea.

This is form gulping after formlessness,
Skin flashing to wished-for disappearances
And the serpent body flashing without the skin.

This is the height emerging and its base ...
These lights may finally attain a pole
In the midmost midnight and find the serpent there,

In another nest, the master of the maze
Of body and air and forms and images,
Relentlessly in possession of happiness.

This is his poison: that we should disbelieve
Even that. His meditations in the ferns,
When he moved so slightly to make sure of sun,

Made us no less as sure. We saw in his head,
Black beaded on the rock, the flecked animal,
The moving grass, the Indian in his glade.

This opening lyric, in which the sky seems perilously threatening to the mind that reads it symbolically, contains twelve sentences, two of which contain hypotactic syntax: “This is his poison: that we should disbelieve / Even that” and “His meditations in the ferns, / When he moved so slightly to make sure of sun, / Made us no less as sure.” These two sentences come next-to-last, when the poem is moving toward closure; the long runway for this just slightly revved-up syntactical energy is comprised of nine often egregiously paratactic sentences. Copulative verbs dominate eight of these sentences — “This is where the serpent lives” — “This is his nest” — “This is form” — “This is the height” — “This is his poison” — and as if this repetition of this least active of predicates weren’t enough, seven of these eight verbs are conjoined to the same demonstrative pronoun (“this”), the resulting syntactical pattern suggesting with each repetition that, while our discovery of information moves forward (from nest to form to height), we have also been standing still (this is ... this is ... this is).

This uncanny sense of movement in stasis is reinforced by another pattern, the repeated addition of a catalogue of appositions: not merely “This is his nest” but “This is his nest, / These fields, these hills, these tinted distances”; not just “This is form gulping after formlessness” but “This is form gulping after formlessness, / Skin flashing to wished-for disappearances / And the serpent body flashing without the skin.” These hovering participles smother the already weak predication, so that when we finally arrive at the first piece of hypotactic syntax in the poem, it hits us with the power of the unexpected blasphemy in “Western Wind,” despite the fact that the 
sentence begins with the same inexorably repeated syntax we’ve come to expect: “This is his poison: that we should disbelieve / Even that.” This is the first sentence that thrusts our thinking forward by suggesting that one thing follows from another not merely by chance, association, or accretion but by necessity (“His poison is that we should disbelieve even in happiness”).

It is not surprising that, without altering a single word, this lyric reads as elegantly backward as it reads forward, the form unchanged (iambic pentameter lines arranged in tercets) but the structure radically different: “The moving grass, the Indian in his glade, / Black beaded on the rock, the flecked animal / Made us no less sure.” But deft as this rearrangement may be, its structure sacrifices the crucially delayed turn from parataxis to hypotaxis, a turn that makes the figure of the Indian, when it finally appears at the end of the poem, feel simultaneously unprecedented and inevitable. The poem is a 
dramatization of the thinking mind in the process of discovering that thought itself is the mind’s most indomitable foe. “Here are too many mirrors for misery,” says the final lyric in the sequence, and the work of “The Auroras of Autumn” is to make this simple remark feel authentic, to allow us to exist in the temporal process of discovering it again.

It is folly, says Socrates in Plato’s Phaedrus, to suppose “that written words can do more than remind the reader of what he already knows,” but this is precisely the power and the pleasure of lyric knowledge. No reader is forever immune to that pleasure, not even the skeptical Socrates, who as he awaited his execution felt compelled to write poems. But while the imminent threat of mortality might make anyone embrace the pleasure of repetition, anyone familiar with that pleasure also knows what it’s like to feel immune. Even when we’re in love, repetition may threaten to degenerate from rapture to routine; the feelings we point to with a word like rapture wouldn’t feel authentic if they weren’t so poignantly contingent, and, as Freud suggests, the adult psyche may fall too easily into an unproductive repetition of what matters to it most. This is why poets, like lovers, must continually reinvent ways of doing the same thing over again, no matter how forceful the achievement of previous poems.

“I have seen it over and over, the same sea, the same,” laments Elizabeth Bishop in “At the Fishhouses,” the water swinging icily “above the stones and then the world” — as if the stultifying sameness of the water were a psychic condition that could swallow us, turning us all into stones. But then Bishop finds a way not to transform the dark water (that’s after all not possible) but to transform the repeated experience of it, so that the water no longer functions as a mirror for misery: rather than dipping her hand into the water, rather than tasting it, she wonders what such experience of water would be like — she makes a metaphor.

It is like what we imagine knowledge to be:
dark, salt, clear, moving, utterly free,
drawn from the cold hard mouth
of the world, derived from the rocky breasts
forever, flowing and drawn, and since
our knowledge is historical, flowing, and flown.

What does it mean to say that knowledge is free but forever derived? How could knowledge be flowing, happening in the moment of its discovery, but at the same time flown, always having existed prior to the moment of discovery, waiting to happen again? Every lyric poem answers these questions, not with what it says but with its transformative act of saying. This knowledge, lyric knowledge, comes to us in language that is flowing because it has flown.

Originally Published: February 1st, 2016

A poet as well as an influential literary critic and a professor of English at the University of Rochester, James Longenbach writes primarily on modernist and contemporary poetry. He is the author of the critical works Stone Cottage: Pound, Yeats, and Modernism (1988), Wallace Stevens: The Plain Sense of Things...

  1. February 5, 2016
     G Morris

    Much of poetic syntax is shared by like minded sharing of the
    subconscious of study, conscript work as success, most of what we do
    is unconscious putting it to order more idiosyncratic but asymmetrical
    in its beginnings.

  2. February 6, 2016

    This is a beautiful essay. Illuminating.

  3. February 9, 2016
     P Gillespie

    Having read the essay more than once, I can't help thinking that the essay has shot a canon to kill a mouse. That the order of sentences in a given poem can alter a poem's meaning was safely established at the outset.

    Your argument would have been better directed at translations, where issues like these take on a real pertinence. Translators of Hiaku, such as W.S. Merwin, regularly invert the order of the original without the least awareness, or so it seems, of the considerable alteration in meaning their translations produce. It's in the work of translators that Socrates' assertion is alive and well.

  4. February 9, 2016
     Steven Withrow

    James Longenbach keeps speaking sense. His The Virtues of Poetry is also excellent. It's wonderful to read someone who approaches formality and ambiguity with something more substantial than mere rhapsodies of vagueness. This is an important read for every writer.

  5. February 20, 2016
     R Balogh

    Thank you for a very helpful article
    which I will use throughout the
    next year in order to improve my

  6. February 26, 2016
     Maren O. Mitchell

    Although I prefer to write and read poems, not dissect or read what others think about them, thank you, James Longenbach, for giving voice to the not-so-obvious and difficult-to-pinpoint beauty of lyricism.