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Lucent and Inescapable Rhythms



-- No good poetry is ever written in a manner twenty years old.

-- Ezra Pound, "A Retrospect"

What place does "prose"--or what looks like "prose"--have in late twentieth-century poetry? In his recent Poet's Prose: The Crisis in American Verse, Stephen Fredman declares: "I have felt for a number of years that the most talented poets of my own postwar generation and an increasing number from previous generations have turned to prose as a form somehow most consonant with a creative figuration of our time." Fredman proceeds to study the special kind of prose used by Williams in Kora in Hell, by Creeley in Presences, by Ashbery in Three Poems, and finally by such experimental contemporaries as David Antin and the younger Language poets. At the same time, others have dismissed what we might call "the prose phenomenon" as merely beside the point. Denise Levertov, for example, sees the prose texts of certain Language poets as no more than "re-hashed Gertrude Stein veneered with seventies semantics."

In his Free Verse: An Essay on Prosody (1980), Charles O. Hartman takes what is surely the sensible position: he adopts Jeremy Bentham's practical definition that "when the lines run all the way to the right margin it is prose; when this fails to happen it is [verse]." Who can object to such good common sense? "Verse," says Hartman, "is language in lines. This distinguishes it from prose. . . . This is not really a satisfying distinction, as it stands, but it is the only one that works absolutely. The fact that we can tell verse from prose on sight, with very few errors . . . indicates that the basic perceptual difference must be very simple. Only lineation fits the requirements."

This definition is adequate enough if we bear in mind that it distinguishes prose and verse, not prose and poetry. But although Hartman himself does recognize that "'Prose-poems' exist," most critics take the next step and equate poetry with verse, as Hartman defines it. Here is Richard A. Lanham's account in Analyzing Prose (1983):

To print utterances as prose amounts, in our time, to a fundamental stylistic decision. In prose we expect not only a particular range of topics but a transparent style to express them clearly. . . . But with poetry, just the opposite-- all the poetic virtues. The poet need not be grammatically correct, he'll talk about feeling not fact and he'll do so in a self-conscious metaphorical way. We expect to look through prose, to the subject beneath, but at poetry where the language forms part of the subject.

Lanham very sensibly points out that, as readers, we respond differently to the print format of "prose" than to that of "verse." But notice that the word verse is now, quite simply, replaced by the word poetry, the implication being that the two are identical. It seems that in a century in which "free verse" has largely superseded all the traditional metrical forms, we must hold onto something to give us a sense that poetry as a mode of discourse survives. Lineation, the creation of discourse that does not run all the way to the right margin, is the saving grace. Not that all lineated texts are good poems, but it is their status as lineated texts that allows them to be considered as poems in the first place.

So much for the common wisdom. A very different view is presented in Henri Meschonnic's monumental study, Critique du rythme: Anthropologie historique du langage. "Historically, poetically, and linguistically," declares Meschonnic, "there are differences of degree, not of kind, between the proses and the verses," and that, accordingly, all binary models (verse / prose; image-full language / non-image-full language; poetry as ordered language / prose as the absence of order, and so on) are wholly reductive. Even Bakhtin's famous distinction between lyric poetry as monologic and prose fiction as potentially dialogic crumbles, so Meschonnic argues, when applied to say, Ezra Pound's Cantos.

Meschonnic gives countless examples from around the world of discourse that may be construed as "prose" or "poetry," as the case may be. In the ninth century, the word prose was used to refer to a liturgical prose sequence structured by the assonance of a's so as to prolong the sonority of the Allelulia. Eventually this recitative was lineated and passed into the realm of "poetry." Or again, Boris Eikhenbaum, studying the "prose" of Gogol's The Overcoat, discovered that the ratio of accented syllables to total number of syllables was precisely that of contemporary iambic meter, as found in the poems of Mayakovsky (HM 461).

Indeed, free verse à la Mayakovsky (a poet who echoed Pound in his declaration that "one must make verses with all of one's life and not by fishing for trochees and iambs") must, so Meschonnic argues, be construed historically. "Free verse is just a passage, a moment, not only of a cultural situation, but of the unity of discourse which contains it and which is the poem." For "it is the poem that makes the free-verse line, not the line that makes the poem" (HM 605). further, the prominence of free verse must be understood as part of the modernist destabilization of the notion of the poem as object. But the poet is no more "free" vis-à-vis the alexandrine. These forms are, after all, inscribed in a particular culture; they are givens. As Anthony Easthope puts it, "Just as poetry is always a specific poetic discourse, so line organization [or non-linear organization] always takes a specific historical form, and so is ideological."

These are, I think, important reminders, for we tend to forget that the poet is, as Meschonnic puts it, inevitably "ventriloquized by his or her tradition." In this context, metrical choice becomes an important indicator of the historical and cultural formation in which it takes place. The question for us, as readers of contemporary poetry, is then not, "Is it a good thing, for, say, Lyn Hejinian to have written My Life in prose?" but rather, "What does it mean that she chose to do so?"

What I propose to do here is to historicize this question by examining the status of four texts, each of which represent a particular moment in the history, or, so to speak, the geography of poetic form: (1) Goethe's early Romantic lyric, "Wandrers Nachtlied" ("Wanderer's Nightsong") of 1780, (2) Arthur Rimbaud's prose poem "Les Ponts" ("The Bridges") of c. 1873, (3) William Carlos Williams's 1916 free verse poem, "Good Night," and (4) Samuel Beckett's 1972 composition called "Still." All four refer to what is roughly the same subject matter: a moment of silent contemplation when all the elements of the scene stand out in sudden sharp relief. But between Goethe's "Ruh" and Beckett's "Still," two centuries have intervened: by 1972, when Beckett was composing his text, the poet could not, in John Ashbery's words, "say it that way any more." How and why this is the case is my subject.

"Natural" Metrics

Goethe's "Wandrers Nachtlied ("Wanderer's Nightsong") was written on the night of 6 September 1780 in the mountains at Ilmenau above Weimar, where Goethe had accompanied his master, the young Duke Karl August. It was first recorded, evidently in a moment of inspiration, in pencil on the wall of the mountain hut on the Gickelhahn, where the poet spent the night. The same evening, Goethe wrote one of his nightly letters to his mistress Charlotte von Stein:

On the Gickelhahn, the highest peak of the range . . . I have taken refuge, so as to escape from the turmoil of the town, the complaints, the demands, the hopeless confusion of mankind. If I could only record all the thoughts I have had today there would be worthwhile things among them.

My dearest, I descended into the Hermmansteiner Cave, to the place where you accompanied me, and found the S, which stands out as sharply as if it had been carved yesterday; I kissed it and kissed it so often that the prophyry seemed to give breath to the scent of the whole earth as if in response. I prayed to the hundred-headed god who has so greatly advanced and changed me and yet has preserved your love and this cliff for me, to let me continue to grow and to make me more worthy of your love.

The sky is quite clear and I am going out to enjoy the sunset. The view is extensive but plain.

The sun has set. It is the landscape of which I made a drawing for you when it was covered with rising mist. Now it is as clear and quiet as a large and beautiful Soul, at its calmest and most satisfied.

If there weren't, here and there, some mists rising from the mines, the whole scene would be motionless.

I shall come back to some key motifs in this letter in a moment. But first a few words about Goethe's situation in 1780. The poet was twenty-six when he came to weimar in 1775 at the invitation of the then eighteen-year-old Duke Karl August. His attendance at the small court was a means of escape from the narrowly constricting life of Frankfurt and from his impending--and dreaded--legal career. The Weimar of the pre-Industrial period was a small walled Lutheran city of some seven thousand inhabitants, surrounded by the Thuringian Forests and beyond these, the Harz Mountains. The city itself had neither modern amenities nor means of communication. The unpaved roads were unlit at night, there were no sewers, and coach travel was so precarious that Goethe and his friends generally traveled on horseback. When Frederick the Great died, the news did not reach his niece, the Dowager Duchess Amalia, until a week later. The court circle in what was a strictly stratified society spent its time in theatricals, skating parties, and balls; the model was the French rococo court even though the Weimar version was much cruder, less sophisticated. In the evenings the writers-in-residence, like von Knebel, Herder, and Goethe himself, might read to the company or entertain them with dramatic pieces.

In his early Weimar years, Goethe spent much time with the young duke on hunting trips and wild evening parties in the Harz Mountains. The pleasure-loving duke also had a real concern for his people, and one of his accomplishments was the reopening of the stagnant Ilmenau mines, to which the poet refers in his letter to Charlotte von Stein. The Harz expeditions thus gave Goethe a chance to escape the social routine of Weimar and to dwell in what was still an unspoiled natural world. Yet even in the mountains there were difficult human problems to be encountered: the "turmoil of the town" to which Goethe refers in the letter is not that of Weimar but of the village of Ilmenau, where Goethe had to help the duke in various juridicial and financial matters. The mountain retreat, moreover, kept the poet away from his adored mistress at a time when their affair was at its most intense: in this particular week he often wrote her two or three times a day.

This is the setting of the poem called "Wandrers Nachtlied":

Über allen Gipfeln

Ist Ruh,

In allen Wipfeln

Spürest du

Kaum einen Hauch;

Die Vögelein schweigen im Walde.

Warte nur, balde

Ruhest du auch.

Above all the peaks

There is quiet,

In all the treetops

You feel

Hardly a breath;

The little birds keep silent in the forest.

Just wait, soon

You too shall rest.

In this seemingly simple little song, which German schoolchildren learn by heart, the rhythm of recurrence is obviously predominant: the short, principally trochaic lines alternate masculine and feminine rhymes and the vowel harmony of ü, a, I, u, and the dipthongs au and ei create an intricate echo structure, which is supported by the alliteration of liquids and nasals. "The Wanderer's Nightsong" might almost be a folk song.

But not quite. Goethe's poem presents a harmony marked by difference. The very rhyme scheme is irregular, the pattern of the first quatrain, abab, not being repeated by the second, cddc. More important, the lines are uneven:

Über allen Gipfeln

Ist Ruh

where the falling rhythm of the first suspended line receives an answer from the single iamb of the second, the u sound being thus prolonged. The third line, "In allen Wipfeln," would be parallel to the first were it not foreshortened, and the fourth, "Spürest du," begins with a stress and surprisingly rhymes a pronoun with the noun "Ruh," the line being enjambed so that the reader must take a short breath before pronouncing the word "Kaum." The fifth line, "Kaum einen Hauch," is an amphibrach as is the eighth, "Ruhest du auch," which rhymes with it, although again the rhyming partners are different parts of speech. But the most peculiar echo effect is reserved for lines 6-7:

Die Vögelein schweigen im Walde.

Warte nur, balde

A nine-syllable line, predominantly dactyllic, is complemented by the broken five-syllable line, the chiming "Walde" / "balde" being again suspended since meaning is deferred (what is it that will happen soon ["balde"]?) until the final line.

The "nightsong" thus consists of a series of metrical suspensions and vocalic echoes that move toward the resolution of the final rhyme in one extended breath unit. The key to this echo structure is found, I think, in the use of the familiar second person: substitute "Spüre ich" for the fourth line or "Ruhe ich" in the eighth and the difference becomes clear. The "song" is the poet-wanderer's and he addresses himself, or is it nature that addresses him, nature that tells him, "Warte nur, balde / Ruhest du auch"? Or again, the use of "du" may imply that the wanderer's song is for everyone, for all those who find themselves, as he does, alone in the mountains preparing for the night's rest. The very birds are silent: "schweigen," a verb more properly applied to persons, suggests that the birds are part of the wanderer's world. And further the syntax points to a moment of future rest for mankind in general, perhaps to the final resting place.

Now consider the role in the poem of the speaking subject. The account of what the unnamed "I" sees and feels is presented as reliable, indeed authoritative, the implication being that it is possible to record such sensations as breathlessness and the absence of bird song. Further the second-person address suggests that what is true for the poet is true in general ("you" = "one"), that he is himself at one with the natural world. Nature, for Goethe, always wears the colors of the spirit, or, in this case, imprint of the hundred-headed god (Vishnu) to whom Goethe refers in the letter to his mistress. We do not need to inform ourselves about Goethe's botanic or anatomic studies, his gradually evolving nature philosophy, to see that here, as in the other poems of the period, the poet is positing the relation of the One to the Many, of microcosm to macrocosm, of the "I" to the "other." In the letter, we recall, Goethe speaks of kissing the porphyry stone in the cave until it seemed to give off the very breath of the earth; just so, the poet feels ("Spürest du") the slightest breath that emanates from the treetops. Again, in the letter, Goethe describes the landscape as a "large beautiful soul at harmony with itself," an image conveyed in the poem by the very verse structure with its vowel harmonies and echoes.

Yet Goethe's is not an innocent vision of a harmonious universe. The cautionary imperative "Warte nur" ("Just wait") suggests that "Ruh" ("rest," "peace," "quiet") is not always possible, that the "Wanderer" is not always alone in his mountain retreat, that the silence is welcome precisely because it is not the norm, On the other side of the forest are the mines at Ilmenau and, beyond the mines, the descent into Weimar. Three days after writing "Wandrers Nachtlied" and still in his mountain retreat near Ilmenau, Goethe writes Charlotte von Stein: "This morning we had all the murderers, thieves, and smugglers brought forward and we questioned and confronted them all. At first I didn't want to go, since I shun that which is unclean" (Briefe 317). In this context the "Wanderer's Nightsong" can be read as something of a prayer, a song of longing for escape from that which is unclean.

All these tensions are expressed in the sound structure of the poem. Goethe's central conviction that the landscape is man's natural habitat, his sense of himself as at once unique and yet representative, his view of poetry as the fruit of a particular experience, an experience to be "objectified" and universalized by purging it of the merely personal and by recreating it in accord with fixed metrical laws-- all these come together to create a text that calls attention attention it to itself as a "poem," specifically a "song," by foregrounding sound repetition and stanzaic structure. The stress on the natural is an indirect comment on the artificialities of German rococo poetry of the mid-eighteenth century; at the same time, Goethe's own lyric is, as I have argued, a sophisticated poem that reflects its author's social role and his manifold literary and scientific interests. The rhythm of recurrence is defamiliarized even as the very title, "Wandrer's Nachtlied," is self-conscious in its assumption of rusticity. For, despite its eventual popularity, Goethe's poem is hardly intended as a folk song to be recited or sung by the miners and peasants of Ilmenau. Rather, in what will be a characteristically romantic gesture, "the natural" is transformed into "the poetic" by the equation of the "du" with the poem's reader and by the creation of a formal structure that enacts the "Ruh" of the opening line.

Prose Poem

My second text, Rimbaud's prose poem "Les Ponts" ("The Bridges"), which appeared in Les Illuminations, was written in the early 1870s. We have no hard information about the circumstances of composition of the Illuminations, but Rimbaud's editors suggest that "Les Ponts" was inspired by a vision of London, which the poet had visited with Verlaine in the autumn of 1872 and again in the spring of 1873, before the tragic quarrel that led to Verlaine's shooting of Rimbaud (and two-year imprisonment) and to Rimbaud's famous renunciation of poetry at the age of nineteen.

The landscape of "Les Ponts" inevitably reflects a very different world from that of Goethe's Harz Mountains. For one thing, the relation of nature to the city had markedly changed. Charleville, Rimbaud's birthplace near the Belgian border (and hence a battleground during the Franco-Prussian War), was a provincial, unattractive village. The child of small propriétaires, mean-spirited, narrow-minded, and pious Catholics, Rimbaud could hardly wait to escape to the City of Light. Yet the Paris of mid-century had become a locus of industrialization, poverty, and pollution as well as of art and culture. In one of his Maxims, Goethe writes, "Nature: we are surrounded and wrapped about by her-- unable to break loose from her"; by the time of the Paris Commune in 1871 (an event in which the seventeen-year-old Rimbaud participated), nature had withdrawn in the face of what Engels called, with reference to London, "this colossal centralization, this heaping together of two and a half million human beings at one point . . . The hundreds of thousands of all classes and ranks crowding past each other. . . . The brutal indifference, the unfeeling isolation of each in his private interest."

The dialect of the urban and the natural is one of Baudelaire's great themes; for Rimbaud, however, the city becomes unreal, at once beautiful and ugly, mysterious and terrifying, a created world whose "reality" exists only in the self-sufficient language field of the poem. It does not really matter, then, whether the site of "Les Ponts" is London Bridge, whether Rimbaud's "domes" include the dome of St. Paul's, or whether the body of water, "as wide as an arm of the sea," is the Thames. For in the semiabstract verbal composition which is "Les Ponts," all these locales shed their "realistic" identity. Here is the prose poem:

Des ciels gris de cristal. Un bizarre dessin de ponts, ceux-ci droits, ceux-là bombés, d'autres descendant ou obliquant en angles sur les premiers, et ces figures se renouvelant dans les autres circuits éclairés du dômes, s'abaissent et s'amoindrissent.

Quelques-uns de ces point sont encore chargés de masures. D'autres soutiennent des mats, des signaux, de frêles parapets. Des accords mineurs se croisent et filent, des cordes montent des berges. On distingue une veste rouge, peut-être d'autres costumes et des instruments de musique. Sont-ce des airs populaires, des bouts de concerts seigneuriaux, des restant d'hymnes publics? L'eau est grise et bleue, large comme un bras de mer.-- Un rayon blanc, tombant du haut du ciel, anéantit cette comédie.

Crystal gray skies. A bizarre design of bridges, some straight, some arched, others descending or obliquing at angles to the first ones, and these figures renewed in the other lighted circuits of the canal, but all so long and light that the banks, laden with domes, sink and diminish. Some of these bridges are still encumbered with hovels. Others support masts, signals, frail parapets. Minor chords criss-cross and flow away, ropes rise from the banks. One makes out a red jacket, perhaps other costumes and musical instruments. Are these popular airs, scraps of manorial concerts, remnants of public hymns? The water is gray and blue, wide as an arm of the sea.-- A white ray, falling from the top of the sky, annihilates this comedy.

I have discussed in The Poetics of Indeterminacy, the semantic undecidability of Rimbaud's prose poems, the contradictory connotations of images and word groups that make it all but impossible to specify what it is that is being described. Here, therefore, let me merely point to such particulars as the instability of the angle of vision from which the scene is recorded. Such phrases as "on distingue" ("one makes out") or "peut-être" ("perhaps") imply that the speaker is trying to report faithfully what he sees. But the "bizarre design of bridges," at once advancing and receding, is all but impossible to locate in space. The reference to "masures" ("hovels"), for example, suggests that the observer is close to a particular bridge; yet the references to crystal gray skies, the "design" of arches and angles, and to the "rives, chargées de dômes" ("banks, laden with domes"), place him at a great distance. The landscape, for that matter, is less that of reality than of a work of art, a protocubist painting, say, by John Marin, even as phrases like "accords mineurs" ("minor chords") suggest a musical composition. The theatrical scene, in any case, dissolves when "un rayon blanc, tombant du haut du ciel, anéantit cette comédie." A white magical landscape of curves and domes, frail parapets and hovels, collapses in a lightning flash";; the vision or waking dream is over.

But why did Rimbaud choose to present these visions, these "Illuminations," in the form of the prose poem? Again, the verse form must be understood intertextually. If the rules of French versification were not as rigid as they were, the nineteenth-century prose poem, whose first great exemplar is found in Baudelaire's Spleen du Paris, might not have come into being. As stress-languages, English and German allow for great flexibility in the formation of lines; the French alexandrine however is based on syllable count, and so effective versification becomes a matter of observing certain norms: the caesura dividing the two hemistichs, the avoidance of hiatus, the alternation of masculine and feminine rhymes, and so on.

In his early poetry, Rimbaud, like Baudelaire before him, observed these rules carefully. LeRoy Breunig cites the lines from "Les Etrennes des Orphelins":

La chambre est pleine d'ombre; on entend vaguement

De deux enfants le triste et doux chuchotement. (SBAR 35)

Here the first-line caesura follows "ombre" and the twelve-syllable count includes the mute é's of "pleine" and "vaguement" but not of "ombre," which is followed by a vowel. Beginning with "Le Dormeur du val," however, Rimbaud, as Breunig has shown, began to dismember the alexandrine by introducing repeated enjambments and misplaced caesuras and by ignoring the prescribed alternation of rhymes. By the time of "Mémoire" and "O Saisons, ô châteaux," his poems were barely recognizable as verse so that the "leap into prose" was a logical, indeed, almost an imperceptible step.

Rimbaud's prose poems should not, however, be construed as emblematic of the poet's renunciation of lyric. If the poet substitutes linear progression for the rhythm of recurrence provided by meter and rhyme, his formal structure is nevertheless "free" only vis-à-vis "les premiers romantiques" like Lamartine and especially Musset, whose work is dismissed in Rimbaud's "Lettres du Voyant" of 1871: "Musset is fourteen times loathsome to us. . . . Of the insipid tales and proverbs! O the Nuits! O Rolla . . . it is all French, namely detestable to the highest degree; French, not Parisian." Not Parisian, which is to say not like the first great Parisian poet, Baudelaire, "the first seer, king of poets, a real god!" And yet Baudelaire too is criticized for having lived in "too artistic a milieu" and for lacking the courage to invent new forms.

The "Lettres du Voyant" were written by a provincial seventeen-year-old "paysan" who fought to clear a poetic space for himself, to escape from the anxiety of influence by being more Parisian than the sophisticated Parisian dandy, Baudelaire. "Trouver une langue" ("To find a language") in this context meant to write a prose poem, not narrative or parabolic like Baudelaire's, but visionary. "Prose" was, moreover, in Rimbaud's day the vehicle for patient and "realistic" description--one thinks immediately of the prose of Flaubert. To present the visionary, the magical, the artificial in prose was thus to explode the medium in a way that suited the young poet's need to shock, to be outrageous. And indeed one starts to read a text like "Les Ponts" with the expectations that it will provide a "picture" of something. "Des ciels gris de cristal"-- the noun phrase promises a kind of exposition, a coherent visual image, that the text will purposely deflate. Not that the syntax is unusual; the typical unit is the simple declarative sentence: "D'autres soutiennent des mâts, des signaux, de frêles parapets" ("Others support masts, signals, frail parapets"). But within these "normal" syntactic slots, we find references that make no sense: what river-banks, for example, are "laden with domes"?

Yet--and this is the curious aspect of Rimbaud's prosody-- the Illuminations don't really violate the norms of nineteenth-century lyric. As Albert Sonnenfeld puts it:

It would be plausible and tempting to deduce that the prose poem would, as the enactment of freedom from the formal constraints of prosody, aver itself as resolutely anti-teleological or anti-closural. . . . But . . . the prose poem, though it may have thrown off the shackles of a caducous tradition of rhyme and meter, is formally a profoundly conservative and traditional structure in its ceremonials of entrance and exit; no matter how radical its content, how relentless its striving for apparent or real incoherence, the prose poem undergoes the secondary elaboration of syntactical coherence and its boundaries most often are clearly defined and marked.

This is an important point. The meaning of the poet's vision in "Les Ponts" may be undecidable, but formally the syntactically ordered series of sentences ends with the strongly closural statement: "Un rayon blanc, tombant du haut du ciel, anéantit cette comédie" ("A white ray, falling from the top of the sky, annihilates this comedy"). Those who know the Illuminations will recognize this as a typical ending: "Aube" ("Dawn") ends with the sentence, "Au reveil il était midi" ("At waking, it was noon"); "Nocturne vulgaire," with "Un souffle disperse les limites du foyer" ("One breath disperses the limits of the hearth"); and "Parade," with the assertion, "J'ai seul la clef de cette parade sauvage" ("I alone have the key for this wild show").

What does the drive toward syntactical coherence and closure tell us? The Rimbaud prose poem, we might say, is still governed by romantic and symbolist norms in that it posits (1) that poetic language is inherently different from "ordinary" language; (2) that a poem is the site of lyric vision, of the sacred moment; and (3) that a "poem," whether in verse or in prose, is a framed discourse, an object separable and distinct from the encroaching discourses that surround it. In Michel Beaujour's words, "A prose poem is a text where the verse density approaches that of regular metrical forms, while eschewing the anaphoric servitudes of prosody." Its insistence on "an absolute distinction between journalistic cacography and artful writing is purely ideological and does not stand up to linguistic and rhetorical scrutiny: it is all a question of taste, and should ideology so decree, bad taste might become axiological king of the castle."

Both Sonnenfeld and Beaujour suggest that the nineteenth-century French prose poem was thus a more conservative form, at least, when read in the light of such later developments as Dada. Perhaps it would be fair to say that Rimbaud's brilliant prose poetry, revolutionary as it conceives itself to be, and as it is with respect to its ways of signifying, also bears the inscription of the culture in which it was created, a culture that no longer looks to nature as the guardian of its soul, and for whom "Art" is, accordingly, as distinct from "Life" as possible. The poem, in other words, is regarded as an artifact, whether it is written in the dense verse of the Symbolists or in prose. It was the free verse poetry of Apollinaire and Cendrars, of Pound and Williams, of Mayakovsky and Khlebnikov, that was to challenge this "object" status.

Free Verse

Williams was thirty years old when he began, primarily under the influence of Pound, to write in free verse, but he seems never to have quite understood his own composing processes. In 1913, when the Imagist movement was at its height, he wrote an essay called "Speech Rhythm," in which he insisted:

I do not believe in vers libre, this contradiction in terms. Either the motion continues or it does not continue, either there is rhythm or no rhythm. Vers libre is prose. In the hands of Whitman it was a good tool. . . . {He] did all that was necessary with it. . . .

Each piece of work, rhythmic in whole, is then in essence an assembly of tides, waves, ripples. . . .for me the unit is of a convenient length, such as may be appreciated at one stroke of the attention. . . .

The rhythm unit is simply any repeated sequence of lengths and heights. Upon this ether the sounds are strung in their variety.

Here we must read between the lines or, I should say, the sentences. Vers libre was a term first used by Gustave Kahn and his Symbolist cenacle in the 1880s; the early vers librists, such as Kahn himself, Jules Laforgue, Jean Moréas, and Henri de Regnier, wrote a slow, stately verse, characterized by phrasal and clausal repetition and heavily end-stopped lines. It is this form of "free verse" that was adopted by the British Imagists of the 1910s, a form undoubtedly too formal, too restrained, and too "foreign" for a poet like Williams, whose verse was to be more fluid, its "waves" and "ripples" being less a matter of sound repetition or even of speech rhythm than of sight. "Stanzas you can't quite hear," as Hugh Kenner has put it. Here is the first such stanza of a poem called "Good Night," originally published in the New York magazine Others in 1916:

In brilliant gas light

I turn the kitchen spigot

and watch the water plash

into the clean white sink.

On the grooved drain-board

to one side is

a glass filled with parsley--

crisped green.


for the water to freshen--

I glance at the spotless floor--:

a pair of rubber sandals

lie side by side

under the wall-table

all is in order for the night.

Since this poem is paradigmatic of so much that is to come in American poetry, its verse form demands careful attention. First, there is no rhyme scheme or stanzaic structure, no fixed stress or syllable count. The stresses range between one ("Waíting") and four ("ínto the cleán whíte sínk"), the syllables between two ("Waiting," "crisped green") and eight ("All is in order for the night"). By definition, then, "Good Night" is written in free verse, however much Williams may have protested against the term.

What is the ideology embodied in Williams's choice of free verse? Commenting on "Good Night," Allen Ginsberg remarks:

The mundaneness is interesting to me, because it sees so clearly that it becomes crisp in meaning, still and shining. The water glass suddenly is a totemic object. It becomes a symbol of itself, of his investment in his attention in that object. . . . Because he sees it so clearly, he notices . . . what's particular about the object that could be written down in a word-- he sees the object without association. That's characteristic of visionary moments. . . . You are not super-imposing another idea of another idea or another image on the image that's already there.

Direct treatment of the thing, the absence of imposed symbolism, the act of attention that perceives the radiance in even the most mundane of objects--these are qualities everyone has noted in Williams's poetry, but an account like Ginsberg's does not tell the whole story. As a genuinely democratic American poet, a physician in contact with the daily life of a lower-class ethnic community, Williams obviously focuses, as no poet had since Whitman, on the everyday, the seemingly trivial, the communal, and as such, the argument usually goes, he had to cast off the shackles of conventional metrical forms--forms he himself used in his earliest poetry--and invent a form that would be "free," "natural," and capacious.

The problem with this argument is that Williams's poetry is not, in fact, "natural" and lifelike. Try, for example, to imagine an occasion when someone would say:

In brilliant gas light I turn the kitchen spigot and watch the water plash into the clean white sink. On the grooved drain-board to one side is a glass filled with parsley, crisped green.

To whom would one say this and in what voice? Hugh Kenner is surely right when he says, of the related poem, "The Red Wheelbarrow," "Not only is what the sentence says banal, if you heard someone say it, you'd wince. But hammered on the typewriter into a thing made, and this without displacing a single word except typographically, the . . . words exist in a different zone" (HK 60).

"Hammered on the typewriter"--this is, I think, is the key to Williams's prosody: "A poem," as he puts it in the introduction to The Wedge, is "a small (or large) machine made of words." Here Williams gives voice to a poetic tht owes much to the avant-garde artists, many of them expatriates, who came to New York during World War I. I have suggested elsewhere (MPPI 86) that Picabia's "machine drawings" for Camera Work and 291-- for example, his witty homage to Stieglitz (Ici C'est Ici Stieglitz / Foi et Amour), are in many ways the visual counterparts of Williams's poems, in that ordinary objects like cameras and spark plugs are transformed into semiabstract, simplified geometric forms having an erotic life of their own. Again, Williams's minimal poems like "The Red Wheelbarrow" and the later "Between Walls" have much in common with Duchamp's ready-mades: in both cases it is a matter of lifting the saying out of the zone of things said, of framing the given object, glass of water or snow shovel, rubber sandals or bird cage, in a new way.

Such "framing" or re-presenting has everything to do with the technology of the early century: Williams is one of the first poets to have composed directly on the typewriter (often in moments snatched between patients); but the typewriter is only a small part of the technology that includes the automobile (which figures in so many of Williams's poems), the airplane, the telephone ("They call me and I go"), the billboard, the newspaper headline. That technology was a threat to the environment--a frequent theme of Williams-- doesn't change the fact that the actual composition and dissemination of the poetic text itself could now become technologized, a process that has gone much further in our own time as a result of tape recordings, copying machines, computer printouts, video screens, and so on.

The immediate impact of technology on the Williams of 1916, in any case, was a new form of typography and lineation. In the case of "Good Night," it is lineation rather than the pattern of stresses that guides the reader's eyes so that objects stand out, one by one, as in a series of film shots: first the gas light, then the spigot, then the plash of water, and finally the "clean white sink" itself. The eye moves slowly so as to take in each monosyllable (all but four of the nineteen words in the first four lines, all but twelve of the sixty-seven words in the whole verse paragraph): "in," "gas," "light," "turn," "the," "and," "watch". . . . The sixth line is suspended: it asks, what is it that is located "to one side"? But what does the parsley look and feel like? Again a new line:

crisped green.

Next there is a wait as the water runs from the tap, and so "Waiting" gets a line to itself and a prominent line at that because it is moved over toward the jagged right margin of the poem. Notice that the poem would sound exactly the same if "Waiting" were aligned with "crisped" and "for" at the left margin; the effect, in other words, is entirely visual. And again, the ensuing lines are characterized by suspension: a "pair of rubber sandals" (line 12) do what? They "lie side by side" (line 13). But where?

under the wall-table

As in Picabia's drawings, everyday objects are here granted a curious sexual power: the "pair of rubber sandals / under the wall-table" anticipating the final line of the poem, "I am ready for bed." And yet the poet's separateness is stressed: he does not participate in the life of the young girls seen earlier that evening at the opera, the girls described in stanza 2 are "full of smells and / the rustling sounds of / cloth rubbing on cloth and / little slippers on carpet." Rather, like the "Parsley in a glass, / still and shining," he "yawn[s] deliciously" to himself, knowing that he will be alone in bed.

Indeed, there is nothing inherently "free" about this natural "free verse" poem, which is less a vision of the mundane-turned-radiant than the creation of a field of force, set in motion by the poet's desire. Thus the sounds of the poem do not quite chime: "light" in line 1 receives what is almost a response from "spigot" in the next line, and when the full response comes in the "white" of line 4, the rhyme is internal, its harmony offset by the next word, "sink." Again, vowel repetition is something of a tease, visual chiming not always being matched by aural equivalence. The letter I, for example, appears ten times in the nineteen words of the first sentence, but the phoneme may be /I/ or /ay/ or even a /y/ glide as as in the second syllable of "brilliant." Still, if one waits long enough, the "brilliant gas light" of the opening line is greeted by the rhyme of "night" in line 15. Each line, for that matter, waits for its fulfillment from the next, with "Waiting," coming, as it does, after "crisped green," exerting the central pull. When, at the end of the poem, the parsley image recurs--

Parsley in a glass,

still and shining,

brings me back--

it is treated to characteristic Williams deflation: being "brought back" is one thing, but life goes on:

I take a drink

and yawn deliciously.

I am ready for bed.

And of course that's what the title has told us to begin with. "It isn't what [the poet] says that counts as a work of art, it's what he makes, with such intensity of perception . . ." (WCWE 257). "Good Night" is, in the best sense, a small machine made of words.

The Third Rhythm

Williams's poetry did not gain a wide readership until the last decade or so of his life. Since then, it has become increasingly popular even as, ironically enough, the drive that brought into being Williams's marvelous "suspension-systems" had lost much of its force. A second world war, a growing distrust of technology, as well as the public acceptance of free verse as, quite simply the poetic form of the dominant culture, meant that defamiliarization had to come from new sources. In the later nineteenth century, the chief source of renewal was, I have argued, prose--the prose of novelists like Stendhal and Flaubert--that modernists from Rimbaud to Robert Lowell called upon as a source of inspiration. A hundred years later, a similar turn toward prose has occurred, but the "prose" in question is less that of the novel (a form also put in question) than that of philosophy. By the early seventies, American students were eagerly citing Heidegger's definition of poetic speech: "The more poetic a poet is--the freer (that is the more open and ready for the unforeseen) his saying--the greater is the purity with which he submits what he says to an ever more painstaking listening, and the further what he says is from the mere propositional statement that is dealt with solely in regard to its correctness or incorrectness." In equating the "poetic" with a mode of receptive listening and active speaking, rather than with any formal features, Heidegger paves the way for a notion of "poeticalness" that regards genre and, by extension, the question of meter and lineation, as irrelevancies. From the standpoint of poststructuralist theory, poetry is no longer any one thing (the lyric, the language of tropes, metered language, and so on) but rather that species of writing that foregrounds upon the materiality of the signifier, the coincidence between enunciation and enounced.

Such coincidence cannot be achieved, so the argument goes, by imposing on language an abstract pattern like the iambic pentameter. But since free verse has itself become conventionalized and subject to a number of abstract paradigms, the "rhythm of recurrence" has reared its head in new guises. Consider Beckett's short texts, known as "residua" (his own term), or "lyrics of fiction" (Ruby Cohn's), or "monologues," or, perhaps most commonly, "pieces." Here is the opening page of Still, written in 1974 for William Hayter, who illustrated it with a series of etchings (see figure 5.1) and printed the verbal-visual text in his celebrated Atelier 17 in Paris.

Bright at last close of a dark day the sun shines out at last and goes down. Sitting quite still at valley window normally turn head now and see it the sun low in the southwest sinking. Even get up certain moods and go stand by western window quite still watching it sink and then the afterglow. Always quite still some reason some time past this hour at open window facing south in small upright wicker chair armrests. Eyes stare out unseeing till first movement some time past close though unseeing still while still light. Quite still again then all quite quiet apparently till eyes open again while still light though less. Normally turn head now ninety degrees to watch sun which if already gone then fading afterglow. Even get up certain moods and go stand by western window till quite dark and even some evenings some reason long after. Eyes then open again while still light and close again in what if not quite a single movement almost. Quite still again then at open window facing south over the valley in this wicker chair though actually close inspection not still at all but trembling all over. Close inspection namely detail by detail all over to add up finally to this whole not still at all but trembling all over.

This is approximately a third of the single seamless paragraph which is Still, a paragraph that culminates with the sentence, "Leave it so all quite still or try listening to the sounds all quite still head in hand listening for a sound" (51). From "still" to "sound"--how does Beckett's text proceed and how shall we characterize it?

We may note, to begin with, that Beckett's syntactic units are not, proper "sentences" at all. Practically speaking, we associate the sentence with a model of wholeness and completeness. The typical sentence, so to speak, enacts a plot: "Pass the sugar, please!" or "We were in class when the headmaster came in, followed by a new boy, not wearing the school uniform, and a school servant carrying a large desk" (Madame Bovary). The sentence, says Stephen Fredman common-sensically, "is a primary unit of writing whose purpose is to organize language and thought upon a page. . . . The period posits closure to a string of words; it asks us to regard the words between itself and the preceding period as a unit" (SFPP 29-30). Thus the opening sentence of Madame Bovary, which I cited above, is followed by the second sentence, "Those who had been asleep woke up, and everyone rose as if just surprsied at his work." Indeed a unit.

But now look at the first two sentences of Still:

Bright at last close of a dark day the sun shines out at last and goes down. Sitting quite still at valley window normally turn head now and see it the sun low in the southwest sinking.

When this is read aloud (and I have heard it read by the actor Alec McGowran), it sounds like this:

Bríght at lást

clóse of a dárk dáy

the sún shînes oút at lást and gôes dówn.

Sítting quîte stíll at válley wíndôw

nórmally túrn heád nôw and sée ît

the sún lów in the soúthwêst sínking.

The unit of rhythm here and throughout Still is a short phrase of irregular length and primitive syntax ("nórmally túrn heád nôw and sée ît"), a phrase heavily accented, discontinuous, and repetitive--a kind of shorthand by means of which the human consciousness tries to articulate what it perceives and remembers. Indeed, this version of what Henri Meschonni calls the "third rhythm" is no closer to prose than to verse: "The prose of the poem moves in a direction that is, despite all appearances, the opposite of the prose poem. The prose of the poem . . . is the mise à nu of the subjective character of rhythm, the rapport between the rhythm of discourse and the speaking subject" (HM 610-11).

This is not to say that the "third rhythm" is another name for the stream of consciousness. In the twenty-one line unit before us, the word "still" appears eleven times in a complex series of permutations: "quite still" (three times), then "unseeing still while still light" (where the monosyllabic word can be adjective ["silent," "motionless"] or adverb ["yet"]), then "Quite still again," and so on. At the same time the words modifying "still" gradually become nodal points, as when "Quite still again" modulates into "quite quiet apparently," or when "Eyes that open again while still light" becomes "Quite still again then at open window."

But further, Still is, in Enoch Brater's words, "a verbal journey in disorienting repetition highlighting inversion, opposition, and indeterminacy." That which is "still" is "not still at all" or "trembling all over." Or again, we meet the oppositions "see"/ "unseeing," "rise"/ "fall," "far"/ "near," "western / eastern," "sunrise" / "sunset," "quite" / "not quite," and so on. Verbal slippage is likely to turn "quite" into "quiet," "end of rests" into "rest on ends," "quite still" into "till quite." "Stillness," in other words, is anything but "still": everything in this texts moves, shifts, changes before our very eyes and ears.

But Still is by no means an exercise in abstraction. It is "about" a person sitting at a window, who watches the sun set. Although the figure's gender is not specified, there are references to eyes, a skull, head, cheekbone, nape, breast, forearms, arms, elbow, hands, thumb, index, fingers, trunk, knees, and legs. But there is no indication as to how these "spare parts" relate to one another or to the body in the "small upright wicker chair armrests" to which they presumably belong. As in Hayter's illustration, the figure's position is viewed mathematically rather than in human, let alone individual terms. We know only that, in the course of the narrative, it is becoming darker (though not dark) and that the "right hand" is finally raised in a motion that seems to mimic the circle of the sun "till elbow meeting armrest brings this last movement to an end and all still once more."

But whose is the voice that tells us these things? The text gives us contradictory signals. "Bright at last close of a dark day the sun shines out at last and goes down": the voice that utters these words is not identifiable; it could be that of the figure in the wicker chair or that of a companion or again of an impersonal narrator. In the next sentence, "normally turn head now" suggests that the speaker is the person in the chair, but "Always quite still some reason" (sentence 3) implies the opposite in that the reason is not known. In sentence 4, the phrase "Eyes stare out unseeing till first movement" positions the observer outside the subject of the discourse, as does "quite quiet apparently" in the next sentence. But the angle of vision continues to shift: there is, in fact, no identifiable narrator who can bring these disparate references together for us.

In Goethe's "Wandrers Nachtlied," we find an "I" aware of itself and of its feelings, a coherent "I" in control of the situation. When the poet declares "Die Vögelein schweigen im Walde," the reader accepts the statement as valid, given the particular context of the speech. In Rimbaud's "Les Ponts," the relationship between the "I" and the "other" becomes more problematic: it is not clear, say, whether the minor chords that criss-cross and flow away are outside the self or are part of its mental landscape. This disappearance of the distinction between subject and object is equally marked in Williams's "Good night," in whose field of copresence the "I" and the sprig of parsley in the glass become one. But in Beckett's Still, the question of copresence gives way to a doubt as to the very existence of a unitary represented speaker. The inflections of the speaking voice, coming to us in short repetitive phrases, each permutating what has come before, give us no hint as to a controlling presence. To whom, for example, do we attribute the words "Arms likewise broken right angles at the elbows"? To the narrator? The person in the chair? Or are these one and the same? Under such circumstances, the subject position, no longer granted to an identifiable or consistent speaker, can only be assumed by the reader.

In this context, we can see more clearly the function of the "third rhythm" in this and related texts. Still is a single paragraph because for Beckett there is no separation between different voices or different levels of discourse. Beckett's composition cannot avail itself of such imposed patterns as meter or stanzaic structure; even lineation may seem too restrictive a device, although the fact is that many poems that make use of the associative of third rhythm are lineated: the "prosaic" rhythms of John Ashbery, not essentially different from the rhythms of his prose work Three Poems, are a case in point. Consider the following examples:

(1) It was only much later that the qualities of the incadescent period became apparent, and by then it had been dead for many years. But in recalling itself it assumed its first real life. That time was for living without the reflection that gives things and objects a certain relief, or weight; one drank the rapture of unlived moments and it blinded one to how it looked from outside . . .

(2) All that we see is penetrated by it--

The distant treetops with their steeple (so

Innocent), the stair, the windows' fixed flashing--

Pierced full of holes by the evil that is not evil,

The romance that is not mysterious, the life that

is not life,

A present that is elsewhere.

The first passage comes from Ashbery's Three Poems; the second is the opening stanza of the title poem of As We Know. Both deal with the nameless "it" that haunts our experience, the privileged moment that we await even as we doubt that it exists. The first passage is in prose, the second in a purposely "prosaic" free verse, the rhythms almost coalescing into blank verse in line 2, only to be dispersed, by the time we reach line 5, into a kind of poulter's rhythm carried through sixteen syllables. Indeed, the "verse" of "As We Know" is surely closer to the "prose" of Three Poems than it is, say, to the verse of Williams's "Good Night," not to mention Goethe's "Wandrers Nachtlied." To articulate a line like "All that we sée is pénetráted by ít," with its clumsy shift, in the sixth syllable from iamb to trochee and then back again, is to imply that a larger harmony is no longer a meaningful possibility. The same "point" is made in Charles Bernstein's "That Klupzy Girl":

Poetry is like a swoon, with this difference:

it brings you to your senses. Yet his

parables are not singular. The smoke from

the boat causes the men to joke. Not

gymnastic: pyrotechnic.

Not pretty, we might paraphrase this, ugly, with the line being a yardstick produced only to violate it.

It is one of the ironies of contemporary poetic discourse that the associative rhythm, the rhythm derived from speech, should become pervasive at the very moment when poets like Beckett and Ashbery, and especially Language poets like Bernstein, are positing what we might call the absence of the pronoun, at the moment when it is often impossible to decide whether the speaker is a "he" or an "I" or "you," much less what the "I" or "you" might be like. Perhaps it is the poet's sense that at a time when the spoken and written word are more pervasive than ever, when our visual fields are bombarded by billboards and manuals, and our aural fields by overheard snatches of conversation and catchy television jingles, the individual voice can no longer be In Charge. Rather, the text gives the impression that the story is telling itself, that it is available for communal use--a kind of score that we endow with meaning by "speaking it" ourselves.

Here an anecdote is apposite. In October 1969, when the Nobel Committee awarded Beckett that year's prize, the writer and his wife were vacationing in the tiny Tunisian village of Nabeul. Before they could be located, the frantic editor of a Norwegian newspaper contacted the Irish Times and tried to get information about the writer, but since Beckett had not lived in Dublin for years and was a resident of Paris, the editor got nowhere. The situation was not much better in Paris, where many reporters could not even find Beckett's address. While this scramble for news was going on, heavy rainstorms in Tunisia cut off the ocean village from the desert mainland. In the French press, Beckett was accordingly dubbed "un inconnu célèbre."

"Un inconnu célèbre." The Unnameable is a far cry from the Goethe of 1780 who explains to Charlotte von Stein the precise thoughts and feelings that animate his poems, poems that will be read, in Weimar and beyond, as versions of his own life. Yet just as Goethean lyric gives expression to a particular view of natural process, so Beckett's Still employs a rigorous structure of sound repetitions and permutations that convey the tension between "still" and "trembling all over," between silence and the awaited sound, between the short I of Still and the long I of "light" as in the construction "unseeing still while still light." Or consider the following sound chiming found in the first five sentences alone:

bright--shines--quite--upright--eyes--while--light--last--still-- stand-- still--past--armrests--stare--past--close--goes--go--low--afterglow--open- -close--sitting--still--it--window--still--it--still--in--window--wicker-- till--still--still.

This chiming continues throughout the text. Indeed, at the climactic moment when the hand of the unknown person is raised in the air, Beckett introduces what can be transcribed as two lines of blank verse:

till mídway tó the heád it hésitátes

and hángs hálf ópen trémbling ín mîd aír.

But no sooner are we lulled by the familiar meter, than it is replaced by the choppy rhythms of:

Hángs thêre

as if hálf inclíned to retúrn

thát îs

sínk bâck slówly

and then by the sober scientific discourse of "thumb on outer edge of right socket index ditto left and middle on left cheekbone." Only when we come to the end of the text do we realize that we have all along been "listening ["list" is an anagram for "still"] for a sound"--a sound we can only imagine because none has been described in the text.

Beckett's principle of exclusion is thus rigorous: no colors, no dialogue, no specifiers, no identifiable sounds. Perhaps for that very reason, the final statement of desire comes across as deeply poignant:

Leáve it só

áll quíte stíll

or try lístening to the soúnds

áll quíte stíll

heád in hánd

lístening for a soúnd.

"The same sound," in Wallace Stevens's words, "in the same bare place." Isn't Beckett's "song," after all, a late twentieth-century version of

Die Vögelein schweigen im Walde.

Warte nur, balde

Ruhest du auch?

Yes and no. Yes, in the sense that there is, of course, no new subject matter, only the old subject matter rendered in new ways. But to call a poem a new "version" of an earlier one is also to admit that has become something else. In the late twentieth century, to write, for example, a straightforward "Ubi sunt" poem on the medieval model is hardly an available option, even as poets will continue to spin ironic and parodic fantasies on this time-honored topos.

By the same token, we must realize that the choice of verse form is not just a matter of individual preference, a personal decision to render a particular experience as a sonnet rather than a ballad, a prose poem rather than a free verse lyric, and so on. For the pool of verse and prose alternatives available to the poet at any given time has already been determined, at least in part, by historical and ideological considerations. "A mythology," as Stevens put it, "reflects its region."

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1. Stephen Fredman, Poet's Prose: The Crisis in American Verse ( Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1983), p. 1. Subsequently cited as SFPP. A second expanded edition of this book was published by Cambridge. in 1990 after this essay was written.

2 Unpublished letter to the members of the Stanford University English Department, Stanford, California, March 1984.

3 Charles O. Hartman, Free Verse: An Essay on Prosody (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1980), p. 11. Subsequently cited in the text as COH.

4 Richard Lanham, Analyzing Prose (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1983), p. 79.

5 "Historiquement, poétiquement, linguistiquement, il y a des différences de degré, non de nature, entre les proses et les vers." See Henri Meschonnic, Critique du rythme: Anthropologie historique du langage. Paris: Editions Verdier, 1982, p. 458 and see Chapter IX, "Prose, Poésie," , 393-518 passim. The book is subsequently cited as HM. Translations are my own.

6 Anthony Easthope, Poetry as Discourse (London: Methuen, 1983), p. 24. Subsequently cited as AE.

7 J. W. von Goethe, Briefe, Hamburger Ausgabe, ed. Karl Robert Mandelkow, 4 vols. (Hamburg: Christian Wegner, 1962-67), Vol. 1, pp. 314-15. Translations here and of the poetry are mine. Of the countless Goethe biographies, the English-speaking reader may find especially interesting the classic Life of Goethe by George Henry Lewis, 3d. ed. (London: Smith, Edler & Co., 1875).

8 Goethe, Werke. 6 vols. (Wiesbaden: Insel, 1949-52), Vol. 1, p. 59. Note that this is the second of two short lyrics by the same title. The earlier one (1776) has the opening line, "Der du von dem Himmel bist."

9 Bernard, Susanne (ed.), Arthur Rimbaud, Oeuvres (Paris: Garnier, 1966), pp. liv-lxii. This edition is subsequently cited as SBAR.

10 Friedrich Engels, The Condition of the Working Class in England, cited in Edward J. Ahearn, Rimbaud, Visions and Habitations (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1983), p. 239. Subsequently cited as RV.

11 SBAR 273. The translation used is Edward J. Ahearn's; see RV 322 as well as the interesting commentary on p. 323.

12 See Marjorie Perloff: The Poetics of Indeterminacy: Rimbaud to Cage (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1981; Evanston, Illinois: Northwestern University Press, 1983), Chapter 2 passim. Subsequently cited as MPPI.

13 See LeRoy Breunig, "Why France?", in The Prose Poem in France: Theory and Practice, ed. Mary Ann Caws and Hermine Riffaterre, pp. 3-20. New York: Columbia University Press, 1983, pp. 7-11. The volume is subsequently cited as PPF.

14 The so-called "Lettres du Voyant" are (1) a letter to Georges Izambard, 13 May 18971; and (2) a letter to Paul Démeny, 15 May 1871. They appear with facing English trnslations in Arthur Rimbaud, Complete Works, ed. Wallace Fowlie (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1966), pp. 302-11.

15 Albert Sonnenfeld, "L'Adieu suprème and Ultimate Composure: The Boundaries of the prose Poem," in PPF 198-214; see pp. 200-201.

16 Michel Beaujour, "Short Epiphanies: Two Contextual Approaches to the French Prose Poem," in PPF 39-59, see pp. 55-56.

17 The essay was submitted to Poetry in 1913 but Harriet Monroe returned it as incomprehensible. The text is cited in Mike Weaver, William Carlos Williams, The American Background (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1971), pp. 82-83.

18 See Hugh Kenner, The Pound Era (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1971), p. 58. Subsequently cited as HK.

19 The Collected Poems of William Carlos Williams, Vol. 1, 1909-39 ed. A. Walton Litz & Cristopher MacGowan (New York: New Directions, 1986), pp. 85-86.

20 Allen Ginsberg, "Williams in a World of Objects," in William Carlos Williams, Man and Poet, ed. Carroll F. Terrell (Orono, ME.: National Poetry Foundation, 1983), pp. 33-39, see p. 36.

21 Williams, "Author's Introduction to The Wedge" (1944), in Selected Essays of William Carlos Williams (New York: Random House, 1954), pp.256. Subsequently cited as WCWE.

22 Martin Heidegger, Poetry, Language, Thought. Trans. Albert Hofstadter (New York: Haper & Row, 1971), p. 216.

23 See, on this point, AE 13-18. Easthope provides here a convenient summary of Derridean-Lacanian theory as it might be applied to the question of lyric form.

24 Still was first published in 1974, in a limited edition of 160 copies with original etchings by Stanley William Hayter (Milan: M'Arte Edizioni, 1974). It was translated into French as Immobile and published in Paris by Les Editions de Minuit in 1976. The English version is included in Fizzles (New York: Grove Press, 1976), where it appears as #7, pp. 47-51. All references in my text are to this edition. For the publishing history, see Carlton Lake, No Symbols Where None Intended. A Catalogue of Books, Manuscripts and Other Material Relating to Samuel Beckett in the Collections of the Humanities Research Center (Austin, Texas: Humanities Research Center, 1984), pp. 160-62.

25 Enoch Brater, "Still / Beckett: The Essential and the Incidental," Journal of Modern Literature, Samuel Beckett Special Number, ed. Enoch Brater, 6 (Feb. 1977): 8.

26 On the concept of "copresence" in Williams's work, see J. Hillis Miller, Poets of Reality: Six Twentieth Century Writers (1965; rpt. New York: Atheneum, 1969), pp. 285-359, esp. 287-92.

27 John Ashbery, Three Poems (New York: Viking Press, 1972), p. 38 ; As We Know (New York: Viking Press, 1979), p. 74.

28 Charles Bernstein, Islands / Irritations (New York: Jordan Davies, 1983), p.47.

29 See Deirdre Bair, Samuel Beckett: A Biography (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1978), pp. 606-607.

30 Wallace Stevens, "The Snow Man," The Palm at the End of the Mind: Selected Poems and a Play, ed. Holly Stevens (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1984), p. 54. Subsequently cited as WS.

31 Wallace Stevens, "A Mythology Reflects its Region," WS 398.

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