In observance of National Poetry Month, every Friday of April Micah Mattix will be examining one great line of verse. -Ed.
You cannot have poetry without form, just as you cannot have prose fiction without narrative structure or drama without dialogue or action. And what creates form in poetry, after the constraint of a central idea, event, or image, is sound.
The way that sound shapes poetry has generally become less evident as poets have discarded regular meter and end rhyme, turning to typography or formal devices such as the arbitrary constraints of technology to shape poems (this is not necessarily a bad thing). But regular meter and end rhyme are not the only sources of sound in poetry. Repetition of words or phrases, assonance, alliteration, internal rhyme, pauses created by line spacing of punctuation or even diction all contribute to the length and pace of the lines and stanzas of a poem.
Wallace Stevens was preoccupied with the sound of poetry, evident in part in the alliteration and assonance of this week’s line from “The Idea of Order at Key West.” In his 1936 essay “The Irrational Element in Poetry,” Stevens remarks that the poet uses his intuition both in the selection of the subject of a poem and in his selection of the right words or sounds: “You have somehow to know the sound that is the exact sound; and you do in fact know, without knowing how.”
The “exact” sound for Stevens is that phoneme that has just the right variation with respect to the rest of the sounds in the poem to produce (coupled with the meaning of the word) a moment of “exhilaration.”
In his famous poem “Delight in Disorder” (1648), Robert Herrick associates the surprise of variation in poetry with the errant ribbons and suggestively untied shoe strings (!) in the dress of a beautiful woman. He concludes that such “distractions” “do more bewitch me than when art / is too precise in every part.” Herrick playfully suggests that variation is an expression of “wantonness,” and, of course, it can be when it is a perversion that undermines rather than adds to the nuance and complexity of the order of things.
But Stevens, like most poets, sees something else in the pleasure of variation. Stevens—it here becomes relevant to note—did not believe in God. In a 1935 letter (Frank Doggett reminds us in Wallace Stevens: The Making of the Poem), Stevens wrote that he found “most attractive” the idea that “we are all the merest biological mechanisms,” remarking that a poem embodies the complex mechanisms of the universe. This idea is expressed in the first stanza of “The Idea of Order at Key West” in the sea’s “mimic motion” that both “made constant cry” and “caused constantly a cry.”
At the same time, Stevens believed that a poem also transforms the material world by an agency (the imagination) that is both part of and distinct from matter. We see this in the opening line of the poem and in the second stanza. The voice sings “beyond” the sea. It is distinct from the sea’s sound but indebted in some way to the sea’s “genius,” its originality, for its own originality (and embodied in the irregular alliteration). In the second stanza, Stevens writes:
The sea was not a mask. No more was she.
The song and water were not medleyed sound
Even if what she sang was what she heard,
Since what she sang was uttered word by word.
It may be that in all her phrases stirred
The grinding water and the gasping wind;
But it was she and not the sea we heard.
The voice, then, both indebted to the sea and distinct from it, transforms the sea itself in the ears of her listeners: “And when she sang, the sea / Whatever self it had, became the self / That was her song, for she was the maker.” The woman’s transformation of the sea by varying its unchanging “inhuman” repetition creates a moment of “exhilaration” for her audience: “It was her voice,” Stevens writes, “that made / The sky acutest at its vanishing.”
Variation points us to a creative force or agent distinct from the material world—a great “Comedian” or, as Stevens suggested in his letters and essays, a collective unconscious or “infinite extension of personality.” Or one could simply follow Gerard Manley Hopkins who says what Stevens was unwilling to say: That variation points to God himself, the great poetic “I am.”
Micah Mattix is an assistant professor of literature at Houston Baptist University.
“Great Lines: ‘April is the cruellest month,’” Micah Mattix
“Great Lines: ‘Where are the snows of yesteryear?,’” Micah Mattix