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Little Low Heavens

A talented verse mechanic cracks open the hood to illuminate the structure and ignition points that make a poem rev up and roar forever.
"English is so rhyme-poor that the same few pairs are always trying to get back in. Keeping them out is part of the ingenuity."

Any poem that does not just slide past us like all those thousands of others usually has an ignition point for our attention. To take the most startling possible example, think of “Spring,” by Gerard Manley Hopkins. Everyone knows the first line because everyone knows the poem. “Nothing is so beautiful as Spring” is a line that hundreds of poets could have written, and was probably designed to sound that way: designed, that is, to be merely unexceptionable, or even flat. Only two lines further on, however, we get “Thrush’s eggs look little low heavens” and we are electrified. I can confidently say “we” because nobody capable of reading poetry at all could read those few words and not feel the wattage. Eventually we see that the complete poem is fitting, in its every part, for its task of living up to the standards of thought and perception set by that single flash of illumination.

But we wouldn’t even be checking up if we had not been put on the alert by a lightning strike of an idea that goes beyond thought and perception and into the area of metaphorical transformation that a poem demands. A poem can do without satisfying that demand, but it had better have plenty of other qualities to make up for the omission, even if the omission is deliberate, and really I wonder if there can be any successful poem, even the one disguised as an unadorned prose argument, which is not dependent on this ability to project you into a reality so drastically rearranged that it makes your hair fizz even when it looks exactly like itself.

It’s possible that Shakespeare spoiled us. It was Shakespeare who made such dazzlements a seeming requirement, and indeed Hopkins’s picture of eggs like little low heavens might well be attributed to Shakespeare by any practical criticism class going in cold, even if its brighter members have read enough of him to know that he hardly ever actually says that things “look” like something when he says that they look like something. Considering the readiness with which Shakespeare’s metaphorical pinpoints come back to memory (“the morn, in russet mantle clad,” etc), there is a temptation to identify the metaphorical pinpoint as the building block of his poetry and consequently of anybody else’s who came after him. In my weak moments as a critic I envy the nuclear physicists of old, and would dearly like to have a few building blocks to work with: some hulking protons and electrons you could get between with a chisel. But the criticism of a poem, to the very limited extent that it is like science at all, is much more like particle physics, in which new and smaller entities keep on proliferating the bigger that the accelerators and colliders get. Yes, there is often at least one pinpoint metaphorical moment in any poem, but there are some successful poems without any moments at all, and there are also, bewilderingly, moments that disintegrate their poem of residence instead of encouraging it to form a unity.

Previously in this magazine I mentioned the Amy Clampitt poem with the exquisite few lines about the cheetah whose coat, when she ran, turned from a petalled garden into a sandstorm. Nobody who has ever read that poem can possibly have forgotten the moment. But I bet that almost everybody has forgotten the poem. In the other direction, there is the moment that seems to stop a poem growing at all. A good instance of that would be the line that turned up in one of Philip Larkin’s composition books after his death: “Dead leaves desert in thousands.” He kept the line for about thirty years but could never find a poem to go with it. Such an example certainly knocks on the head any assumption that a metaphorical breakthrough is necessarily a source of life. It could be a death blow. The ignition point for attention is not necessarily the ignition point for invention.

* * *

As it happens, most of Shakespeare’s metaphorical creativity, his Olympian playfulness, is in the poetry of the plays, and not in the poems; and especially not in the sonnets, which tend to get their most arresting effects from syntactical structure (“Had, having, and in quest to have, extreme”) and in some cases, from start to finish, consist, or seem to consist, of nothing except argument that can be paraphrased into prose. Yet in English literature the Shakespeare sonnets are at the apex of what I think has to be called the poem, rather than poetry. A Shakespeare sonnet is the essence and exemplar of the poem as the separable, standalone thing. Even when a Shakespeare sonnet is part of a sequence, it is there for itself. It will be said that the whole corpus of the sonnets is a sequence, and there will always be room for interpreters to say what the story of that sequence is. My own favorite interpretation is that of Auden, whose long essay about the sonnets first appeared as the introduction to a Signet pocketbook that I once carried with me everywhere. Qualified scholars would nowadays no doubt decry Auden’s opinions on the subject, let alone mine, but he had two advantages as an interpreter. First, he was gay, and second, he was a great poetic technician.

The first qualification surely helped him to grapple with the multiple sexual orientations of what was going on in the apparently stable creation before his eyes. But powerful as that qualification was, it was trumped by the second. There was almost nothing Auden couldn’t do in the writing of a poem, and he was thus, in the reading of Shakespeare’s most intricately wrought achievements, well qualified to assess what Shakespeare was up to at the level of technical performance. During WWII, the British and the Americans carefully studied captured enemy aircraft. The engineers learned a lot by taking them to pieces, but finally the judgments that mattered came from the test pilots. Auden was a test pilot, and we must try to take the same attitude, measuring the thing as a mechanism by the way it performs. Sonnet 129, for example, the perfectly self-contained poem that begins with the line “The expense of spirit in a waste of shame,” consists almost entirely of syntactical tricks worked to compress and energize plain prose statement. The foreign student would need to be told that the “waste” is a desert and not merely a prodigality of expenditure, but otherwise, apart from the similes about hunting and the poisoned bait, there is nothing metaphorical in the whole fourteen lines. Anyone who tries to get the poem by heart from moment to moment will find that most of the moments are based on verbal echoes, correspondences, and oppositions (“to make the taker mad;/Mad in pursuit”). If one has ever built a sonnet oneself, however unremarkable or clumsy the result, the experience must be a help in assessing the prodigious flexibility of Shakespeare’s craft within a set form, and thus in broaching the subject of whether a poem’s structure might be not just a source of astonishment in itself, but an example of metaphorical transformation in which an argument is so cleanly articulated that it transcends the real by modeling the balance of its interior forces, as the surface of a DVD generates halos by being, apparently, so clean and true. That would get us into an area a long way from the thirties, when most poets—and their critics along with them—started taking it for granted that a straight statement could only be banal.

Geoffrey Grigson, the most irascible of London’s young literary arbiters in that era, hated the assumption that was supposed to be its mark: the assumption that no plain statement could be poetically interesting. In thrall to Auden, he nevertheless had no hankerings for the willfully meaningless, and when the Art Deco modernism of that decade gave way to the surrealism of the next, he was ready with a pressure hose of cold water. In his hard-to-find but treasurable A Poetry Notebook, Grigson repeatedly insists that only a poet could have useful critical opinions about poetry. Much as I always liked his approach, I also always thought that he was overdoing it. Though Grigson was an excellent editor and an unrivaled anthologist, his own poetry, nervously echoing Auden’s oratorical verve, was never distinctive enough to establish his credentials for such an ex cathedra confidence. Grigson was able to reach the correct estimation of most of the “apocalyptic” poets of the forties—i.e. that they were writing junk—without analyzing anything except their hopelessly arbitrary diction, and anyway there are always critics who are not poets but whose opinions we find fully adequate to the level of what they are examining.

Frank Kermode has consistently been a fine instance, especially in his later phase, when he has had less time to waste tolerating the theorists, and when he has allowed the weight of his accumulated experience as a reader to push him to the point where he can argue, about the later Shakespeare, that the metaphors probably seemed impenetrably mixed even to listeners at the time they were first spoken. That judgment is as good as any by a poet, although we have to remember that Kermode himself was a poet when young, and might even have gone on being one if he had not lost his composition book on his way home from the war. Usually you find that a critic who talks sense about poetry gave it a try early on. But it would be foolish to rule out the possibility that somebody incapable of writing a single convincing line could still say something pertinent about someone else’s poem as a whole. Just because Dr. Leavis, for example, who never wrote a poem, rarely said anything interesting about one either, does not prove a case. But with all that considered, and in all fairness, it still seems legitimate to contend that for once, in a way, it’s a case of those who can, teach.

* * *

Must we, however, resurrect Samuel Johnson’s reputation as a poet just so that we can give him more weight as a critic? Let’s hope not. Argued in verse, Johnson’s moral points are worth noting, but not remembering: he put them better in prose. Beside Goldsmith, Johnson is in the same area, and yet he is nowhere. Johnson not only didn’t write The Deserted Village, he couldn’t have. And yet the craft of Johnson’s couplets gave him the knowledge to spot a serious recurring flaw in Pope. The real strength of Johnson’s Lives of the Poets is in his kitchen criticism. It was the term that the Elizabethans once used for the analysis of poetic technique: when to invert the foot, how to get a spondee by dropping a trochee into an iamb’s slot, and things like that. Kitchen criticism is a term that should be revived, because its unlovely first word might have the merit of persuading the fastidious to make themselves scarce until they can accept that there is an initial level of manufacture at which the potatoes have to be peeled. Johnson had a feel for the practical in the making of verses. He had constructed enough couplets of his own to see that the form, when used in a narrative, must continually present the problem of the same pair of rhyme-sounds cropping up too early.

English is so rhyme-poor that the same few pairs are always trying to get back in. Keeping them out is part of the ingenuity. Johnson knew that Pope could be wonderfully ingenious in loading and balancing the interior of a line, or pair of lines, or even four of them. But Johnson was right to say that Pope was too often not diligent enough at reading back to see how long ago he had used the same terminal sound as in the pair of rhymes he was currently putting together, and that the effect of inadvertent repetition undermined the intended air of inexhaustible virtuosity. Johnson’s strictures on this point have the large implication that Pope was better in the brief passage than in the grand sweep, and any critic today who wants to write about the meaning of the word “form” when it comes to Pope could profitably start from where Johnson left off. (He might even find a hard-news reason for contending that the “Essay on Man” is badly argued: its author chose a bad form to argue in.) It would not have been impossible for a non-poet to have noticed what Johnson noticed about Pope, but it would have been far less likely.

* * *

Christopher Reid’s recently published selection of the letters of Ted Hughes shows that Hughes was well aware of how his wife Sylvia Plath, in her last phase, was working miracles. I remember the time well. In London during the same cold winter of her death, I was reading over and over a batch of her poems in the London Magazine. One of them was “Cut,” the poem that bleeds from a sliced thumb. (Since 1965 it has been one of the most immediately thrilling things in her key book Ariel.) Without trying to, I memorized several moments from that poem, most conspicuously the lines that start with the “Kamikaze man.” I was already wondering why Hughes himself was showing signs of no longer finding such specific vividness desirable in his own poetry. I thought, and still think, that his early poems were his best, and that the very best was the one about the jaguar in the zoo, especially in its last line, “Over the cage floor the horizons come.” If he could do that once, why didn’t he do it again? (The admiring reader is always potentially censorious, because the enjoyment is so childish: do it again.) And here was Plath, getting into that same wizardly area of concrete perception generating the purely poetic. For many years I prided myself on the fact that I didn’t have to read the cut thumb poem to remember everything that went on in it.

Recently I read the actual text again and found that I had remembered too much. I had remembered something that wasn’t there. In my memory, the kamikaze man had worn a “Gray gauze Ku Klux Klan/Babushka.” But Plath never included the word “gray.” That word had leaked in from my own memory, where gauze tends to be gray because when I was very young I was always cutting myself up somehow, getting the wounds bandaged, and wearing the bandages until they were dirty. The same sort of personal memory association has given Plath what amounts to the punch line of the poem: its vocative penultimate line, a two-word sentence addressing the bloody wound: “Dirty girl.” How brilliant, and how it tempts us to believe that this is the atomic stuff of poetry, fit material for the catastrophic expansion of a career into a supernova of publicity.

But what about all the poets since her death—and especially the women poets—who have delved into their traumas to dig up the same sort of stuff, and yet have produced poems more boring than somebody telling you their dream? The answer is not just in what Plath said, but in the suave swing with which she said it. The lines about the kamikaze man, terrible in their content, coast blissfully along like cool jazz: you can practically see Milt Jackson’s hammers bouncing on the silver leaves of the vibraphone. In Australia, Gwen Harwood (whom I didn’t find out about until later) shared Plath’s gift for placing a phrase on the music like Blossom Dearie singing in a cocktail bar. Hardly anybody can do it. When you think of the few poets who can, and of how what a jazz musician would call their “feel” unites them, surely you are getting close to another kind of building block that is set apart from the semantic even if never getting beyond it—the building block constituted by the propulsion of a line.

There is an elementary way of propelling a line of iambic pentameter which almost anyone can do. (How would we know, without further evidence, that “Nothing is so beautiful as Spring,” even with the novelty of its truncated first foot, hadn't been written by Mrs. Hemans, as famous in her day as Sylvia Plath, but no more dangerously exciting than a pile of clean napkins?) Kitchen criticism tells us that non-elementary ways, or variations, were being looked for well before Shakespeare was born. Throughout the history of English poetry, the tightly packed line that tells you it is tightly packed has been a way of sharpening up the basic pentameter. It is even there in Chaucer, and by the time of Shakespeare’s sonnets it is already getting near the limit. The penultimate line of our already adduced Sonnet 129 is a supreme example: “All this the world well knows; yet none knows well.” Reversing the two words “well knows” so as to wind the spring at the end of the line gives a reserve of energy to launch the last line like a crossbow bolt: “To shun the heaven that leads men to this hell.” But even standing on its own, the penultimate line is arresting for its effect of being packed with energy.

Part of that effect comes from the way the iambs are morphed into spondees as the conversational accents are played off against the meter. In everyday speech, the word “well” would get at least as much emphasis as “knows.” In the meter, the stress gives it less. The combination gives both words equal weight. The same thing happens at the end of the line, so that the three words “none knows well” seem to be stressed equally, in a monotone on a falling cadence. Put it all together and the effect is far from being tum-ti-tum. (The iambic pentameter is always being called tum-ti-tum by people who couldn’t write even the tum-ti-tum version if their lives depended on it.) The effect of the packed line is to reinforce expectation by defeating it. The elaboration on the underlying structure spells out the structure: spells it out by outplaying it.

All depends, however, on the reader’s knowing what to expect. George Herbert, in his showpiece poem “Providence,” could depend on his readers being able to place the conversational phrasing of “want of heed” against the strict iambic meter when he asked “Should creatures want, for want of heed, their due?” Shelley could depend on the reader’s awareness that he was playing passion against law when he wrote “Stay yet awhile! Speak to me once again.” The expectation is still there underneath. Far into the twentieth century, poets in English could still depend on the reader’s knowing that there was a simple rhythm under the complex one and that the simple was what made the complex possible. Empson’s poems almost entirely depended on the reader’s knowing that. (“Stars how much further from me fill my night.”) Empson further stoked the packed line, to such a pressure that an effect which had begun before Shakespeare came to be called Empsonian. In Geoffrey Hill’s sonnet “The Eve of St. Mark” there is a line which I am sure deliberately echoes Empson (“Along the mantelpiece veined lustres trill”), and which I suspect is trying to hitch a ride on the Empsonian wagon that collected the echoes of packed sonorities—especially in religious poetry—from a five or six hundred year tradition of poets writing stanzas that could not easily be set as songs or hymns: the by-product of a trade-union demarcation dispute half a millennium long.

But once again, the trick demands that the underlying frame should not be broken. When Samuel Johnson called Donne’s numbers “rough,” he meant that Donne was not keeping count while he worked his distortions. Quite often, Johnson was right. Donne’s jawbreakers, often coming at the knotty point of a conceit, are always fascinating, but they are still jawbreakers. Poets write jawbreakers when, usually through enthusiasm, they lose touch with the meter they are presuming to supersede. Johnson disapproved of enthusiasm. What even he could never anticipate, however, was a condition in which hardly any reader knew the difference between a procedure varied and a procedure violated. We are in that condition now.

* * *

A critic today, I think, should be able to see that Tony Harrison, famous for composing in couplets, mangles them almost as often as he gets them right. (By academics who can’t count even on their fingers, the wreckage is called vigor, spontaneity, bold reenergizing of a convention, etc.) The same critic should be able to see—it is the same perception, redirected—that Peter Redgrove, say, maintains an unswerving strictness under his seeming freedoms. These three lines from his poem “Travelogue” are based on an elementary iambic pentameter with nothing but lexical brilliance to disguise it:

La Place de Jeunesse is portcullised shut,
dust rests on skiing tanned shop-window dummies,
board pavements echo, you can’t get a drink.

Since I myself try not to write anything that can’t be read aloud, I would have covered the possibility that “board” could be heard the wrong way, but in all other respects I found those lines, when I first read them, as naturally sayable as if they were handwritten in the Tower of London by Sir Walter Raleigh, wrapped in his muddied velvet cloak, and warming his hands at the blaze of his own vocabulary. I don’t believe, however, that smoothness of recitative in itself is enough to make poetry, let alone a poem. Early on, Conrad Aiken had a reputation nudging that of T.S. Eliot as a poet who could narrate in iambic meter. Today Aiken looks empty, and he should have looked that way at the time. His torrential mellifluousness fooled almost everybody, and eventually it fooled the Oxford University Press (American branch) into publishing a complete Collected Poems more than eight hundred pages long. On page 457 appears a poem called “Sea Holly” which has its charm, and on page 797 “The Lady in Pink Pyjamas” would be almost not bad if only a) some of its bravura could be removed and b) he had never written anything else in his life.

I mention Aiken because there is an upside to the fact that the beginning reader in poetry no longer knows much about meter. All the dull poetry that was ever praised for its technique is effectively no longer in existence. Churned out by hundreds of poets, published in thousands of volumes, there was a whole stretch of correctly genteel English poetry composed in the British Empire from the late Victorian era onward until the Georgians were invaded by Modernism. It was fully matched by an American equivalent that was far less influenced by Whitman than we might retrospectively wish. All of it—comprising millions of lines impeccably turned—is gone as if it had never been. A student who took John Drinkwater down from the shelf now would scarcely even recognize that he was nothing. Once, he was famous: and not just as the author of a quite good play about Abraham Lincoln. He was a famous poet.

So the idea that a poem can be made poetic by its structure alone is open to question, at the very least. I would still like to contend, however, that any poem which comes to exist without having first been built might be destined for the same pit of oblivion that all the well-wrought dross went into. Such a fate seems especially likely when the poem without form has nothing else to grab your attention either: no little low heavens, no gauze babushkas, nothing to see or even hear. Today’s deliberately empty poetry can get a reputation for a time: there will always be a residency for J.H. Prynne. But it will never be as interesting as the question of how it got there. Some would hold Charles Olson personally responsible, but I fear—fear because of the size and volume of the scuffle I might get into—that the culprit was William Carlos Williams. When he realized, correctly, that everything was absent from Whitman’s poetry except arresting observations, Williams, instead of asking himself how he could put back what was missing, asked himself how he could get rid of the arresting observations. The result was a red wheelbarrow: no doubt intensely significant, but a long way short of those little low heavens.

More from this issue

This poem originally appeared in the September 2008 issue of Poetry magazine

  • Critic, author, poet, and lyricist Clive James was born in Sydney, Australia, and educated at Sydney University and Cambridge University. James is the author of several collections of poetry, including Opal Sunset: Selected Poems 1958–2008, Angels over Elsinore: Collected Verse 20032008, and the satirical verse epic Peregrine Prykke’s Pilgrimage Through the...

Prose from Poetry Magazine

Little Low Heavens

A talented verse mechanic cracks open the hood to illuminate the structure and ignition points that make a poem rev up and roar forever.
  • Critic, author, poet, and lyricist Clive James was born in Sydney, Australia, and educated at Sydney University and Cambridge University. James is the author of several collections of poetry, including Opal Sunset: Selected Poems 1958–2008, Angels over Elsinore: Collected Verse 20032008, and the satirical verse epic Peregrine Prykke’s Pilgrimage Through the...

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