Emaciated Poetry

Wyatt Prunty

Winter 1985

Since the early 1960s American poetry has constituted something quite different from the high modernist work of Eliot, Tate, the early Lowell, and others.  Two of the most prominent practitioners of this new poetry are Robert Creeley and A. R. Ammons.  The first characteristic you notice about the change to which Creeley and Ammons have contributed is a shrinkage in margins that has produced a stylish, highly marketable thinness.  For two decades one of the most publishable forms for poetry seems to have been the lyric broken into lines that would fit in a newspaper column.  Editors are always cramped for room to include everything they would like to publish, but more than a question of space is involved here.  At the same time its margins have narrowed, this poetry has been restricted in other ways.  It is thin in more senses than one.

The publication of Life Studies in 1959 announced that something drastic in American poetry had happened.  At a time when the influence of existentialism had led to a premium’s being placed upon authenticity, Lowell deserted the traditionalism of T. S.  Eliot for the immediacy of William Carlos Williams.  A general change in poetry was under way.  Haut bourgeois was out, declasse in.  The rigors of poetic form amounted, it was now thought, to an inauthentic treatment of experience that, understood existentially, had to stand outside conventions as a unique moment.  The isolated poet now set traditional categories of thought aside; the scales were removed from the shaman’s eyes, and poems about one’s return to origins (which, like victims, are always innocent and good) proliferated.  Moments from one’s formative childhood and from dreams were accompanied by primitive objects, stones, bones, caves, and other items that seemed irreducible and thus appeared as the indices of the unconscious, the essential man.  What could be less ordered there­ fore more existentially authentic than the unconscious? Like a caveman’s experience it was free of the clutterings of intellect and culture that stood between the eye and its object.  The primitive, representing the unconscious, became a means for projection downward to dramatize human meaning much as religious belief and the traditional use of allegory had been an upward projection for transcendent meaning.

A change in poetic style is always connected to a change in thought.  I have argued elsewhere that just as existentialism reached full stride Lowell’s personal experience seemed to parallel much that Sartre and others were saying.  Lowell’s disillusionment over the allied bombing of civilian targets during World War n, the loss of his parents, his own mental difficulties, his departure from the church, his divorce from Jean Stafford (who also was a Catholic), and his marriage to Elizabeth Hardwick (who was not religious)—all of these events contributed to a shift in Lowell’s thinking which in turn was reflected by a change in his poetic style.  From the 1940s until the end of his life Lowell was a highly celebrated poet, and the scaled-down poetry of Life Studies significantly affected other poets.  What Lowell’s example urged was that poets should cease using classical and Christian allusions to constitute meaning, especially through the use of allegory, and should turn instead to experience.  Having left the church and faced his own dark world of the unconscious, Lowell began writing out of personal experience, his family’s experience, and the history of New England.  The Christian myth, a basis for timeless meaning, had been replaced by mundane history and personal dislocation.

The urgency, however, to make experience intelligible in a time-ridden era (whether one should use myth, as Eliot suggested, reason, as Yvor Winters urged, or Jungian depth imagery) did not change with the shift in style that Lowell and others undertook.  On the surface the classroom virtues of irony, paradox, and ambiguity taught by Cleanth Brooks and other influential critics half a generation earlier seemed to have been set aside.  Beneath that surface, in fact, the problems the Brooksian categories addressed did not disappear; and poetry continued to respond to them.  Whether one was concerned with religious experience (as Eliot was), with “preternatural” experience (as Winters said at times he was), or with the unconscious mind, poetry’s task continued to be that of ferreting order out of apparent disorder.  What actually happened was that a poor man’s version of irony, paradox, and ambiguity sprouted as part of an excessive reliance upon enjambment.  An abbreviated version of the Brooksian virtues appeared as the result of the use of excessively short lines, and it did so in the poetry of those who had rejected the New Criticism.  We are familiar with the Brooks version; here is a variation on it:

As I sd to my
friend, because I am
always talking,—John, I
sd, which was not his
name, the darkness sur-
rounds us, what
can we do against
it, or else, shall we &
why not, buy a goddamn big car,
drive, he sd, for
christ’s sake, look
out where yr going.

This is Robert Creeley’s “I Know a Man.” It presents us with a speaker worrying about one’s movement through the dark, the unintelligible.   For Brooks and the New Critics words are linked with their particular bits of cultural baggage, and out of the various torsions that these words generate as a group a greater, more complex meaning is constructed.  Irony, paradox, and ambiguity are the results of a building up, of putting words in tension with one another.  In contrast Creeley’s method in “I Know a Man” is to break down.  Ambiguity is created because the poem’s foreshortened lines frustrate the reader’s syntactical expectations.  A mechanical substitution is offered for an intellectual problem.  The lines are so short they cannot function as run-on lines, only as syntactical interruptions.  The reader teeters between the end of one line and the beginning of another with the vague feeling that things are ambiguous, ironical, or paradoxical because the units of language to which he is accustomed have been interrupted.  Rather than irony, paradox, and ambiguity existing as a nexus of meaning, one is given the impression of these elements.  Being a physical disruption rather than an intellectual complication, the trick is similar to the surprise generated by the home movie that is reversed just after a child dives into a swimming pool.

Creeley’s excessive line breaks leave the reader struggling to get through the poem.  Line breaks separate subjects from their verbs, interrupt phrases, and split individual words into lesser parts.  The reader’s pace is slowed to such an extent that what would be recognized as a commonplace when confronted at ordinary mental speed sounds oracular  at this halting pace.  Robert Creeley speaks with as much facility as anyone—when he is not reading a poem.  Give him a poem, however, one of his poems, and he stammers as though so fraught with emotion he can barely get the words over his lower teeth.  Someone only casually familiar with poetry may think he has heard a great primal truth pulled from so deep within that the poet is barely capable of utterance.  Actually he has heard an affectation made possible by foreshortened lines.

Here is another poem by Creeley, “Quick-Step”:

More gaily, dance
with such ladies make
a circumstance  of dancing.
Let them lead
around and around, all
awkwardness apart.
There is
an easy grace gained
from falling forward
in time, in
simple time to
all their graces.

This poem might well never have been written had William Carlos Williams not already written “The Dance,” particularly the phrase “they go round and/ around.” There are some nice moments in “Quick-Step,” though it is at best a wistful lyric.  It creates the clear impression, however, of being much more than wistful.  As an individual’s exaggeration in dress and movement will hold our attention and suspend our ordinary goings-about-our-business, the truncated lines in this poem work against the forward pressure of what the poem says as it moves at an exaggeratedly halting pace.  We are briefly arrested, slowed, and charmed more by the slowing than by what we are told.  A major element in Creeley’s method is to call greater attention to what is visual in the poem than we would normally grant it.  Stumbling over line­ break after line-break, you tend only to picture things that have been named because so little is being said about them.  In “Quick-Step” the act of dancing seems more vivid because so little else is there to compete with it, not even the momentum of the poem’s own language.

Here is the same poem put into conventional lines:

More gaily, dance with such ladies
make a circumstance of dancing.
Let them lead around and around,
all awkwardness apart.
There is an easy grace gained
from falling forward in time,
in simple time to all their graces

Given breadth, the language in “Quick-Step” demonstrates the same accented-unaccented alternation that has been with us since “Beowulf.” Yet Greeley’s use of foreshortened lines means that he was not seeking this sort of rhythm when he wrote the poem.  The lines Greeley settled upon are too short for rhythm to work.  But it exists in the language, whether the poet hears it or not.

Though greater momentum is generated by the use of conventional line lengths in “Quick-Step,” the poem still produces a very ordinary event.  Nothing can be done about what Greeley’s enjambed method of composition did to the poem’s content, particularly its overreliance upon that which is visual.  There is a question as to how one should read the poem at the end of the first line because punctuation is needed there.  (Greeley would say the point is that punctuation should not be there.  He is interrupting our syntactical expectations with the absence of punctuation as well as with line-breaks.) Generally, however, the reader can move through the regularized version of the poem at a speed close to that at which we normally think.  Doing so demonstrates the poem’s essential slightness, in content as well as form.

Written with the oracular effect that excessive enjambment creates as an organizing principle, “Quick-Step” presents us with a characteristic trick in the first line; “such ladies” pretends to a specificity that does not exist.  In addition, the final word in the poem, “graces,” is made to carry more significance than it can bear.  The preceding words “awkwardness,” “grace,” and “falling” do not create a context for the ladies’ “graces” to close the poem with anything definite enough to be meaningful.  One is reminded of a vague, unrealistic, and high-handed male attitude that recent feminists have been so quick to identify.  Greeley’s poem is an unfocused wish directed toward an indefinite object.  It is sentimental.

Creeley’s use of enjambment disguises much that is objectionable in the poem because his line-breaks disturb the reader with a serious problem—the reliability of language to provide both a rational and truthful approximation of what is real.  Initially you may not feel that Creeley’s poem is simplistic because Creeley has skewed his writing so that the way he says things becomes the object of contention rather than what he says.  Often the way a poem says what it means is nearly as important as what it does say, but in such situations the manner of statement, or suggestion, does not take the place of meaning.  Creeley’s willingness to expose himself to linguistic chance in his poetry is a source not of strength but of weakness.  Too often what his truncated lines create is an unjustified multiplication of a passing wistful thought, an oracular leap from the commonplace to the commonplace squared.  He is a master of the emaciated poem.




Amidst many variations there are two distinguishing marks in poetry written since the late fifties: Assumed primitivism in style and content, and an overreliance on the image that results in abandoning poetry as an auditory art.  Much of the attraction these characteristics hold for poets stems from their desire to ferret meaning from the dreams of the unconscious mind.  The influence of psychology has led us to a new sort of allegory (though there are other instances of the allegorical impulse, science fiction and children’s literature for example).  Poems now bridge the gap between the conscious and unconscious mind rather than that between a physical and metaphysical world.  The world of dreams is generally a silent one, thus the exclusion of auditory concerns in poetry; it is primitive, and it is usually experienced visually-thus the excessive reliance upon imagery.

H. Auden’s lines from “In Praise of Limestone” provide an appropriate comment here: “The poet,/ Admired for his earnest habit of calling/The sun the sun, his mind Puzzle.”

Auden is acknowledging the openness and capacity for wonder that are essential if one is to write poetry, whether the poet be open to reason, belief, the unconscious, or all of these.  He is not urging ignorance as the basis for authenticity, however.  The worst result of the poetic shift being considered has been the shamanism of poets like Allen Ginsberg, Robert Bly, and (too often) Robert Creeley.  The best result of this shift has been the adjustments made by poets like Auden, who have stood ready on the one hand to exploit conventional poetic modes and ready on the other hand to accept the mind as “Puzzle” and to regard experience from a position outside accepted categories of thought, causality for example.  Anthony Hecht, Howard Nemerov, and Richard Wilbur have been the most successful at practicing this kind of poetry.

Yvor Winters faulted Allen Tate for an excessive use of enjambment.  Though he had accurately identified a departure from end-stopped lines that was soon to be taken to an extreme, Winters was too scrupulous where Tate was concerned.  As with Robert Lowell’s early work, Tate’s poetry grew out of a sustained rhetoric that overran the boundaries of end-stopped lines as a natural result of its own momentum.  The headlong pace of such rhetoric compounded meaning almost as quickly as a cluster of images might, though with one important difference.  Where an image conveys a nexus of meaning immediately, as with  Pound’s  “black bough” or Williams’s “red wheel/barrow,” the use of rhetoric in a poem requires time as meaning is built synthetically from moment to moment.

Rather than seeing the truth as though it were projected on a screen, the way Milton’s angels were supposed to have done, Tate, Lowell, and others generated meaning out of the ongoingness of their own language.  In part we have a distinction between poetry that generates meaning synchronically, with imagery, and poetry that operates diachronically, with rhetoric.  The latter uses images also, but they are only part of the recipe.  The rest of the formula includes statements, questions, all sorts of syntactical units.  It also exploits the rhythms inherent in our language in a way that is dis­ cussed most successfully with the aid of phonetics.

Another element in the synthetic poetry of Tate and Lowell should be mentioned.  The emotional thrust of the headlong pace of such poetry contributes greatly to the way that it affects the reader.  As Winters knew, the rhythm in a poem reinforces meaning on an emotional level.  What Winters saw toward the end of his life, however, was the growth of a poetry devoid of rhythm.  Thin, usually very brief poems populating the pages of various periodicals ignored the rhythmical possibilities in language, relying instead upon imagery.  Their lines were too short for effective movement to be established, the voice having no chance to gain momentum.  What these lines did establish was the dominance of enjambment.  End-stopped lines were the norm that gave significance to the reservation Winters made about Tate’s and, indirectly, Lowell’s use of enjambment, as they have been an essential part of poetry for centuries.  But with the general turn made by poets to foreshortened lines enjambment was taken to such an extreme that its use was no longer significant.  The rhythm to which it contributed could no longer be heard.

The momentum of language enables a poem’s ending to stand on the ground of immediate conviction.  The systematic disruption of that momentum by line-breaks, however, can leave a poem standing on the ground of immediate doubt.  For us doubt is a familiar condition.  But is the disruption of language that occurs in the poems discussed here a significant expression of doubt, or is it simply the incongruent exertion of an individual will? Showing that there are gaps in language is meaningful only if one’s over-all purpose is to close them in some way.  Language is self-sealing, and to a remarkable degree naming gaps seems to close them.  In contrast the excessive use of enjambment makes you feel there are empty spaces in language, but that feeling names nothing,  discloses nothing.  It is the result of contrivance rather than an honest attempt to articulate a linguistic short fall and correct it.

Irony, paradox, and ambiguity are intellectual answers to various linguistic shortfalls.  They do not provide a complete solution to the problem of meaning, but they contribute to one.  And they do so, finally, in an additive manner.  As modes of thought they depend upon the extensiveness of meaning contained in language.  The overuse of enjambed foreshortened lines for syntactical disruption is a physical response not grounded in the extensiveness of meaning but dependent upon the reader’s expectations and the writer’s will, the momentary surprise created by that will.  Both methods are skeptical responses to experience.  But the Brooksian formula proceeds additively on the assumption that language works, that it grasps what is really before us.  The second formula proceeds subalternately on the assumption that reasoned language is arbitrary and inauthentic.

Here is a poem by A.  R.  Ammons, “Loss”:

When the sun
falls behind the sumac
thicket the
yellow daisies
in diffuse evening shade
lose their
rigorous attention
half-wild with loss
any way the wind does
and lift their
petals up
to float
off their stems
and go

Though it is quite different from the poetry of Eliot, Tate, and early Lowell, the method used in this poem is not new.  On the one hand we are provided an example of the pathetic fallacy, a phrase invented by Ruskin; on the other hand “Loss” is reminiscent of what the Imagists were doing more than sixty years ago, and in some ways the Decadents before that.  In a Paterian mood Lionel Johnson would say what he said when defining English decadence in The Century Guild Hobby Horse—that Ammons is trying “to catch the precise aspect of a thing, as you see or feel it.” The most striking characteristic in Ammons’s poetry is that he restricts himself to literal imagery almost all the way through a poem, reserving only one or two moments when he breaks out into figurative imagery.  His previous restraint makes this shift all the more effective, though his reliance upon this method is one reason his poems are not successful when read aloud.  In fact, the shift from literal imagery to figurative imagery is a mode of thought that seems suited to painting, and Ammons has turned to painting in recent years.  Poetry’s affinity with painting is a matter of long standing.  If we look no farther than the pre-Raphaelites, “Loss” reminds us of Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s “The Woodspurge.” In other ways, however, it is much closer to an imagist poem, particularly in avoiding conventional rhythms through using foreshortened enjambed lines.

As in Creeley’s poems, the fragmentation of normal syntactical units in “Loss” gives priority to the poem’s imagery.

Greater amounts of time are created for smaller units of language as the reader is encouraged to meet experience visually with hierarchies, categories, or presuppositions set aside.

“Loss” is primarily an artistic exercise in nominalism.  Forcing us to focus on the particulars of nature more than on its patterns, the approach Ammons uses is skeptical, particularly because of its minimal expectations.  As part of this skeptical or minimal point of view sentimentality creeps in, “daisies . . . half-wild with loss.” In fact not much is being lost here.

Though in part we are provided a play on the daisies’ wildness mentioned earlier in the poem, the emotion of this statement outstrips its meaning.

Rather than finding a matrix for meaning in an image, “Loss” dramatizes the incoherence that will always result when we fix upon a thing subject to process.  In this circumstance Ammons has dramatized a few moments in an isolated consciousness that happens to be looking at daisies.  The poem generates a self-fulfilling prophecy for that consciousness: it uses imagery to give permanence within its own boundaries to daisies that, we are told, are nevertheless subject to time.  A sense of loss is inevitable if not trustworthy.

Eliot’s contention that the use of myth can make modern experience intelligible is based on assumptions about permanence similar to those made by Ammons and others when imagery is concerned.  In both cases a spatial priority is established for what is being said, but with an important difference.  We should not confuse the synchronic impulse to freeze predicaments spatially by using an image with a nevertheless similar tendency that occurs in the use of myth.  Freezing a temporal predicament through the use of myth is a different matter because myths are stories and thus have duration: they carry histories.  Images are often extensive, parts in networks of meaning, but characteristically their significance is not born of the past or of a supposed past.  When an allusion is made to a myth, the reader familiar with that myth suddenly recalls a chain of events: time is gathered.  When an image is used, relations rather than events are invoked.  The projection of a temporal predicament into an atemporal image, which is the method Ammons and many others use, voids the problem of time rather than addressing it.  The reader is offered a mechanical solution for an intellectual problem that is basic to our process-minded era.  In “Loss” the disruption of our syntactical expectations through enjambment and the overreliance upon imagery operate on the basis of the same trick in timing that one finds in Creeley’s “I Know a Man” and “Quick-Step.” These poems are written to be read much the way Burma Shave signs were placed to greet travelers along the highway.

A wide range of excellent poetry has been written over the last thirty years, some of the best of it in free verse.  Marvin Bell, William Matthews, W. S. Merwin, Linda Pastan, and Mark Strand come to mind as examples of the continuing vitality of free verse.

In the restrictiveness of its short lines, however, the emaciated poem is not free but rigid.  The lines are not long enough for rhythm to be established.  I suspect that Creeley and Ammons would say that their thin poems are honest and authentic and that Eliot, Tate, and company wrote poetry that was self-consciously learned and bulky, thus posed and inauthentic.  The question of authenticity, however, is predicated upon doubt, the same uncertainty about oneself and the world one inhabits that caused Robert Lowell’s poetic shift.  Though the most influential recent episode has been the existentialists’ alertness to the absurd, there is nothing new about doubt in our thought.  Using the cogito, we have hrrned our predicament into our method: uncertainty has become our most reliable means for certainty as we have learned to rely upon the self-sealing character of language, which by allowing us to name a problem allows us in some way to move beyond that problem.  Since we begin with uncertainty rather than belief, we must emphasize existence rather than essence.  Because of the self’s precarious position, as an entity standing in a world of process which dissolves entities, misshapen exertions of the will are inevitable, the most common of these being a very old and familiar exertion—sentimentality.



Writing an emaciated poem is not the only way to slow a reader and emphasize images.  Reversing the rhythm in a line or placing a caesura in a line or both—these are common ways to achieve the same effect and to do so without creating an interrupted surface that distracts the reader from what is being said.  Here is the first stanza of “Painting a Mountain Stream” by Howard Nemerov:

Running and standing still at once
is the whole truth.  Raveled or combed,
wrinkled or clear, it gets its force
from losing force.  Going it stays.

Opening with the bold statement of a paradox, rather than a vague feeling of contradiction created by truncated lines, this is an ambitious poem.  It entails the mutual dependence of apparent opposites.  We think of a stream as nominal; thus we try to paint it.  The real nature of that stream, however, is its ongoingness, which defies being fixed in a painting within a frame.  Nemerov’s answer to the intellectual problem of forcing something that is diachronic into synchronic terms in order to understand it is to say “paint this rhythm, not this thing.” In other words the narrow thingness of Dr.  Williams’s red wheelbarrow is quickly exhausted, and we must move up to a level of abstraction—namely to the process within which wheelbarrows, boughs, daisies, and streams exist, in order to understand what we see.  Having made such a move, we are capable of making more satisfactory statements.  Having made a statement, Nemerov succeeds where Ammons fails.  As a quiet part of what he is telling us, Nemerov sets up metrical reversals: they appear throughout the second line, in the first half of the third line, and in the second half of the fourth line.  Anyone who wishes can break this poem into truncated lines, but doing so is unnecessary and would be cumbersome.   Nemerov has already satisfied his poem’s need for reversals, and has done so in a way that directs you to the meaning he intends rather than distracting you with syntactical interruptions.

For those intent on other ways of creating pauses here is an even quieter use of the caesura, taken from Nemerov’s “The Blue Swallows”:

Across the millstream below the bridge
Seven blue swallows divide the air
In shapes invisible and evanescent,
Kaleidoscopic beyond the mind’s
Or memory’s power to keep them there.

The first, second, and fourth lines have an extra unstressed syllable each, placed after the second foot as a vestigial caesura.  An interruption or slowing occurs, but its force does not exceed the surprise created by what is being said.  Line breaks substituted for Nemerov’s caesuras not only would sacrifice the convincingness created by the poem’s rhythm: being heavy-handed, they would be the first step toward sentimentality, the emotional force given the statement exceeding the significance of that statement.  “The Blue Swallows” ends with a Kantian answer to the sort of position Pater took in the “Conclusion” to The Renaissance—that nothing external to the mind has any meaning other than what is provided it by the mind, because meaning is completely subjective, even imprisoning.  Rather than making experience the object of his poetry, as Creeley and Ammons do in a way resembling Pater and the Decadents, Nemerov has relation as his object.  Acknowledging external patterns (and their vast multiplicity) as well as internal ones, Nemerov is concerned finally with appropriateness—the appropriate relation between mind and thing, or things.  Consistent with this concern, his poem demonstrates an appropriate balance between perception and articulation.

With the exception of Lowell and Roethke the most talented (if not as a group the most influential) poets writing since World War II have continued to write poetry that takes advantage of traditional modes, a poetry that is successful auditorially as well as visually.  Consider Louise Bogan, Edgar Bowers, J. V.  Cunningham, Anthony Hecht, John Hollander, A. D.  Hope, Elizabeth Jennings, Donald Justice, Maxine Kumin, James Merrill, Howard Nemerov, Robert Pack, Mona Van Duyn, Derek Walcott, Margaret  Walker, Richard  Wilbur,  Reed  Whittemore, and  Judith  Wright.  Rather than using one poetic technique to the exclusion of others, these poets have been quick to exploit a wide range of tools traditionally available to poetry—rhyme, assonance, consonance, rhythm regular enough to function as rhythm, lines long enough to allow that rhythm to work, images, even symbols.  In addition, these poets have been likely to be interested more in ideas about relations than in the “precise aspect” or nominalistic detail of an isolated experience.

There are variations on the shift in poetry I have described.  Some poets write lines not shortened but elongated to the point that one seems to be reading prose—for example Whitman’s windy descendant Allen Ginsberg.  The existence of “poetic prose” is one truism among many that have been used to break down the altogether real distinction between poetry and prose.  The prose poem, the one-word poem (which is four words), the concrete poem, and the emaciated poem have all resulted from half-truths.  Though most often the image has been the basis, first one then another characteristic of poetry has been taken, to the exclusion of the rest of what constitutes poetry, and expanded to make a poetics.  Because the method is easy to use, its results are easy to find.

Linked with the role the image plays in these variations is a question of talent that partly originates in the influence painting has had on the poetry of this century.  In its silence and spatial fixity painting is vastly different from poetry, which is auditory and, like music, exists first in time.  Seeking a quantity of output that reminds one of manufacturing, many poets writing emaciated poems are geared to the visual in poetry because the image is easy to use, as a visit to the typical workshop will demonstrate.  At the same time poets writing overly thin poems have failed to employ some of the most effective poetic tools the language provides.  And their poetry has suffered accordingly.  Everyone recognizes the limitations of a painter who is color-blind.  What about a poet who is tone-deaf or who lacks a sense of rhythm? For too many poets publishing today, creating the kind of poetry that Nemerov, Wilbur, and the others have written is not a realistic possibility.  These poets will argue that what they are doing is the authentic thing to do.  For those who have no choice, of course it is.

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