Another Way of Breaking the Pentameter

Let’s examine a poem by Joshua Mehigan, one published in Accepting the Disaster, his most recent collection.


Aluminum tank
indifferent in its place

behind a glass door
in the passageway,

like a tea urn
in a museum case;

that dumbly spend each day

waiting for gas or smoke
or hands or heat,

positioned like beige land mines

sanguine on walls,
or posted on the street

like dwarf grandfather clocks
spray-painted red;

little gray hydrant
in its warlike stance;

old fire escape,
all-weather paint job peeling,

a shelf for mildewed rugs
and yellowing plants;

sprinkler heads,
blooming from the public ceiling;

all sitting
supernaturally still,

waiting for us to cry out.
And we will.

My first question about this poem: is it a sonnet? Let’s remodel the house a bit, shall we?

Aluminum tank indifferent in its place
behind a glass door in the passageway,
like a tea urn in a museum case;
screaming-machines that dumbly spend each day

waiting for gas or smoke or hands or heat,
positioned like beige land mines overhead,
sanguine on walls, or posted on the street
like dwarf grandfather clocks spray-painted red;

little gray hydrant in its warlike stance;
old fire escape, all-weather paint job peeling,
a shelf for mildewed rugs and yellowing plants;
sprinkler heads, blooming from the public ceiling;

all sitting supernaturally still,
waiting for us to cry out. And we will.

Mehigan has taken a perfectly straightforward Shakespearean sonnet, separated it into individual lines, broken each line in half to form a couplet, and presented the poem to us as something other than it is. I suppose the question becomes this: is it something other than it is? Is the poem a sonnet because it sounds and scans like a sonnet, is it a poem in short-lined free-verse couplets because it looks like one, or is it something else altogether?


Mehigan has done innovative things with sonnets elsewhere and before. In Accepting the Disaster, he writes a sonnet that ends with the kind of echo verse perhaps most famously associated with George Herbert:


Probing a hollow left by drugs or cancer,
or plain oblivion, where we all began,
they sound the space with questions someone can,
but most of us cannot, precisely answer,

and, hearing nothing, turn it inside out,
where—snubbing all we want the answers for,
missing how facts improve life, often more—
they stand beneath shared error, tired of doubt,
and, lost since their first, playact a second birth,
listening at the deep air, walls, and dust.

“What is our natural goodness worth?”
…………………………………………………… Earth.

“What earthly power can we trust?”

“Then life is nothing, more or less.”

“All we can do is acquiesce.”

This is clearly a sonnet—the rhyme scheme is a recognizable abbacddcefefgg despite the stanzaic divisions, and the volta arguably comes in the ninth line with the phrase “a second birth”—but it is also clearly a sort of hybrid sonnet, one that makes use of unsonnetary (if you will) conventions. It is worth noting that almost immediately after the volta, the poem shifts into the echo verse—which is to say, the volta here indicates not only a thematic or conceptual turn, but also a formal turn—and that the most recent edition of The Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics identifies both “religious poetry” and “political satire” as common uses for echo verse, both of which seem relevant in this instance. (Indeed, the poem may be engaged in a complicated dialogue with Herbert, through a poetic echo of him, with the aim either of providing a critique of his naïve version of heaven or of putting to shame the fanatical successors to Herbert’s gentler faith.)

This isn’t the only example of Mehigan’s impulse toward poetic hybridization. Here’s a poem from The Optimist, his first book:


Water seemed serenely self-justifying.
But it had such elegant urgency, as
all at once she found herself drowning in it,
sure the deepest mysteries must always deepen.

Water squeezed and squeezed with a changeless motion.
Water wasn’t easy to finish drinking.
Still, she felt herself to be something rare, some
delicate fern some six miles beneath the surface.

Partial sunlight breaking the ocean’s surface
fell in columns, columns that in collapsing
struck her ready eye with a tragic strangeness.

It was hard absorbing herself in dying.
But, at last, she proved to be one absorbed by
columns collapsing.

This poem’s stanzaic divisions—two quatrains followed by two tercets—suggest a sonnet, but there is no rhyme scheme, and when you scan a few lines, a different sort of poem emerges.

All but the last of these lines is a sapphic line; the last is an adonic, which concludes a sapphic stanza. Cleverly, at the moment of absorption in those columns collapsing, the line itself collapses from a sapphic line into the shorter adonic, a cue for readers who might not have noticed the idiosyncratic rhythm of the first thirteen lines. (We might also note the tradition wherein Sappho commits suicide by leaping from the Leucadian cliffs, as well as the description of her poetry as “columns of song” in an epigram by Posidippus.)

These sonnets are different, however, from “Fire Safety” in an important respect. Both poems are visually and audibly distinct from a traditional sonnet: the echoic effects of “Fanatics” are unmistakable to the ear, and by the end of “The Suicide,” a reader should be majorly suspicious of a sonnet-looking thing that sounds, and especially ends, so much like a sapphic. They are not presented, however, in a way that obscures their musical properties. These are poems that at a more integral level splice or recombine. “Fire Safety” is a poem that hides.


Other writers have done these sorts of things, and I want to look at them in a moment, but first I think it wise to identify what I don’t mean by disguised form. I am interested in when a poet obscures the nature of the poem, not when the poem contains buried formal principles or when the poem’s formal nature is so rare as to be hard to identify.

What I mean by “buried formal principles” is best embodied by rhyme. Sometimes rhymes can be difficult to detect because the rhyme has been put in an odd place in the line, because the variety of rhyme is uncommon or unclear, or because the rhyme is distant from its mate, but in such cases writers have simply worked in unusual traditions; they haven’t worked in a very common tradition and presented it in an uncommon way.

Although end rhyme is far more common in English-language poetry than head rhyme or internal rhyme, you can find all three in “A Carriage from Sweden” by Marianne Moore:

The puzzle-jugs and hand-spun rugs,
….. the root-legged kracken shaped like dogs,
….. the hanging buttons and the frogs
that edge the Sunday jackets! Sweden,
you have a runner called the Deer, who

when he’s won a race, likes to run
….. more; you have the sun-right gable
….. ends due east and west, the table
spread as for a banquet; and the put-
in twin vest-pleats with a fish-fin

effect when you need none.

I’ve identified the internal rhyme/end rhyme pair with boldface, the end rhyme pair with underlining, and the head rhyme/end rhyme pair with red type. This pattern holds for the poem as a whole. Such rhymes need not be limited to the same lines, of course; in what might be the most complicated rhyme scheme I’ve ever seen, Auden goes so far as to pair head rhymes with tail rhymes spanning the whole stanza, as well as rhyming in other elaborate ways and positions in a line, in the third section of “Ten Songs” from his Collected Poems:

Warm are the still and lucky [miles],
White shores of longing stretch away,
A light of recognition [fills]
….. The whole great day, and bright
The tiny world of lovers’ arms.

Silence invades the breathing [wood]
Where drowsy limbs a treasure keep,
Now greenly falls the learned [shade]
….. Across the sleeping brows
And stirs their secret to a smile.

Restored! Re turned! The lost are [borne]
On seas of shipwreck home at last:
See! In a fire of praising [burns]
….. The dry dumb past, and we
Our life-day long shall part no more.

Oh, Wystan. I haven’t even tried to take stock of patterns of assonance or alliteration, nor patterns that might be working across stanzas; it was exhausting enough to try to keep track of all these intrastanzaic rhymes. I would only note that the bracketed pairings are instances of consonance, not rhyme, but the final pair—borne and burns—makes clear, I think, that we are to see the other pairs (miles/fills, wood/shade) as exhibiting systematic musical intention.

This leads naturally into the second point: rhymes can feel hidden because they are not pure rhymes. To stay with Auden a moment longer, “Streams” rhymes subtly because of its apocopated rhymes:

Dear water, clear water, playful in all your streams,
as you dash or loiter through life who does not love
…..….. to sit beside you, to hear you and see you,
….. pure being, perfect in music and movement?

The rhyme of love and movement is not obvious, but the second and fourth lines of each subsequent quatrain will rhyme in just this way, sometimes clearly—sill/pilgrim, Beck/second—and sometimes more obscurely—apart/strata, is/this one. James Merrill uses the same type of rhyme in the reverse order in “The Octopus”:

There are many monsters that a glassen surface
Restrains. And none more sinister
Than vision asleep in the eye’s tight translucence.
Rarely it seeks now to unloose
Its diamonds. Having divined how drab a prison
The purest mortal tissue is,
Rarely it wakes.

At other times, the system of rhyme is deviously complex. Paul Muldoon, for example, has done more to amplify the possibilities of rhyme in English than any poet in years. His system is complex but consistent. Rather than quote whole stanzas or even lines, let me just give you a series of word pairs that the context of the poem makes clear are intended as rhymes: pianoforte/veered, plaids/boletus, cigarette/skirt, current/ground, cyanide/snout. (These all come from “Plan B,” published in Maggot, for those who want to read the poem itself.) At first glance, these rhymes may appear to be mere consonances; perhaps the words even appear to be at best haphazardly related. In Muldoon’s system, however, they are rhymes because they present related consonant pairs in the same order with disregard to vowels. Watch (and permit me the liberty of removing the piano from the forte):

forte / veered…… = frt / vrd
plaids / boletus = plds / blts
cigarette / skirt = cgrt / skrt
current / ground. = crnt / grnd
cyanide / snout = cnd / snt

You’d be right, in a sense, to argue that t doesn’t equal d, nor p equal b, nor k equal g, yet there is more to the story. T and d, p and b, and k and g are all consonantal pairs in their unvoiced and voiced forms: that is to say, t and d are much the same except that when saying d, one must vibrate the vocal chords. If we consider voiced and unvoiced consonants as equivalents and disregard the vowels altogether, these rhymes work perfectly well; they just derive from a system no one else in the language is using. I have wondered if Muldoon’s ideas about rhyme in part derive from Hebrew, in which only consonants are written (with diacritical signs used to indicate vowels, although not always), but that is only a suspicion, and it certainly doesn’t account for his decision to treat voiced and unvoiced consonant pairs as equivalents. Still, these rhymes aren’t disguised, per se; it’s merely that their principles are unique and must be inferred from what they have in common with each other and with other rhymes in Muldoon’s oeuvre.

(For a long time, I thought I was the only reader who had noticed the systematic rigor of Muldoon’s ostensibly loose, ludic rhyming—I reinforced my sense of uniqueness by not looking into the matter to see if anyone else had said anything about it—but recently I chanced across a detailed essay by Andrew Osborn, “Skirmishes on the Border: The Evolution of Paul Muldoon’s Fuzzy Rhyme,” that dealt with Muldoon’s practice in more substantial and more sophisticated forms than I could hope to. I offer here only two observations. First, I think the name “fuzzy rhyme” a poor choice: it suggests imprecision, and Muldoon’s rhymes are quite precise once his rules are understood. (The goal isn’t imprecision; it’s invention.) Osborn describes his preference for this term as being

because Muldoon’s unique variation, like fuzzy logic, spurns all-or-nothing dichotomies in favor of greater and lesser probabilities or, as I have been saying, greater and lesser security. The term “fuzzy” also appropriately combines suggestions of granularity and blur…. Fuzzy rhyme asks us to hear (and/or see the graphic signifiers of) a series of not necessarily contiguous units of sound—sequenced consonantal phonemes—instead of the rounded or canted but at any rate uninterrupted sound of full and half rhyme. This sequencing of anchored units is its granular aspect. But each of those units of sound has a range of tolerance within which some shifting—or, as I often say, phonetic proximation—changes nothing. That is fuzzy rhyme’s blurry aspect.

Perhaps acrobatic rhyme invites contortionist prose. I suspect the phrase “phonetic proximation” ignores that Muldoon doesn’t have “a range of tolerance” but rather works with acceptable pairs of voiced and unvoiced phonemes, which seems anything but “blurry” to me. In any case, I don’t have an alternative term to suggest. Second, Osborn more than once wonders about or remarks upon the larger implications of this technical choice. For example, he asks, “But what function, what utility, can we attribute to Muldoon’s fuzzy rhyme in general, as a set of principles, a consistently adopted departure from conventional rhyming? What are the peculiar aptitudes or suggestive attributes of fuzzy rhyme… ?” Osborn offers some ingenious answers while ignoring a technician’s answers: for one, English is so rhyme-poor that any rhymer would be glad to find systematic and aesthetically appreciable alternatives, and for another, poetry is as much about play as it is about “le lieu propre from which he [Muldoon] plots and plans his maneuvers, on prosodically determined borders between the conventionally recognized semantic units of his poetry.” When he credits Muldoon’s use of rhyme as “marking his own territory there and consistently inhabiting it,” however, I agree: it is no small thing to have codified one’s own system of rhyme, and that is substantial and enviable territory.)

Finally, sometimes rhymes are simply so distant from each other that it is easy to miss a rhyme’s mate. Albert Goldbarth’s “Toil,” with that comma being part of the title, ends:

…..…..…..…..….. … In an oil

painting by Jan Van Eyck from 1432, an angel
plays the organ. Note how we say “playing”; but
a similar scene in a French book 10 years earlier shows
the back side of a similar organ, with—as had to be,
then—one more angel, kneeling, working (note
how we say “working”) the hand-bellows that
enables the keys to “make” music. Praise is their major labor.
Why do we die? a joke soberly goes. Because we’re the angels’
abbreviation. Then: our labor is their praise-making
condensed to the limited human vessel, until it reaches boil,

pains us maybe, describes an intensity certainly, then
escapes and goes wherever anything acorporeal finally
goes… We must remember this. It’s
praise, of a kind, he’s building unit by unit up there.
His hair smells like the derrick by now, his spit does.
Wind wants his body. Oh but he’s saving it for
this laundress he knows, he’s going to give what’s left
by the end of a rig shift to that sweet pink
sugarslit inside her thatch. They’re going to jelly her roll,
then going to rest. Now he rivets. He watches the ocean roil.

Despite the pointing of the title, it would be easy to miss the fact that each stanza in the poem ends with a rhyme on -oil. In another example, Mary Jo Salter uses a rhyme scheme in “Morning Mirror” in which the first line rhymes with the last line, the second line with the penultimate line, the third with the antepenultimate, and so forth; that the poem rhymes at all only becomes clear at the center of it, where we encounter a couplet that, as we read, expands to an envelope quatrain and thereafter encompasses the whole poem. In a clever hybrid of approaches, Caki Wilkinson ends “Felix Culpa” this way:

…..…..…..…..….. Most sacrifice
control for speed and flout the good advice
of partygoers—careful!—who don’t know

a prank will overturn their evening plans:
they lean on the verisimilitude
of a table held with half its screws unscrewed,
the rest clinking like milk money with lint

inside the prankster’s pocket—she, a guest
of guests, who’s looking forward to the crash
and unicycles past with crack panache,
ecstatic that the ice cream maker churns.

We can see right away that the middle two lines of each stanza rhyme with each other, but it takes attention to realize that the outer two lines of each stanza rhyme mirror-wise with a corresponding stanza. The full rhyme scheme, then, looks like this:

Again, this isn’t a question of disguise: the poem is presented as clearly as possible, given the nature of mirror rhymes alternating with rhyme pairs within each quatrain, and given the length of the poem. It merely requires attentive reading to notice this formal feature. In even more elaborate examples of distant rhyme, Paul Muldoon has poems that rhyme not across stanzas but across whole poems: William Logan writes, “One critic noticed that several of his long poems use the same ninety rhyme sounds, in the same order—then sometimes repeated in reverse order,” and I’m going to take their word for it. I suppose at some point a critic will realize that Muldoon has used the same rhyme sounds in the same order as those of another poet’s poem, and we will have not an oeuvre-spanning rhyme scheme but a poet-spanning rhyme scheme. One wonders if some things are not so much poems as invitations to Adderall-fueled criticism.

The other major thing I don’t mean by disguised form are those cases where a poem’s formal nature is so rare as to seem hidden. I can imagine many a reader encountering “In Due Season” without realizing that Auden is writing in asclepiads, and there are other poets (I think of John Hollander, for example) who have explored the possibility of accentual-syllabic adaptations of classical meters with some success. In fact, Auden does it more than once in “Thanksgiving for a Habitat”—for instance, section IV, “Down There,” is written in choliambics (a.k.a., scazons), and section V, “Up There,” is written in phalaecean hendecasyllabics—which is what might make section IX, “For Friends Only,” so devious:

Ours yet not ours, being set apart
As a shrine to friendship,
Empty and silent most of the year,
This room awaits from you
What you alone, as visitor, can bring,
A week-end of personal life.

I leave it to the reader to count syllables or to attempt to parse feet in this stanza; suffice it to say, my attempts at both throughout the poem led me to believe this was simply free verse. Yet I should have been wary; this is Auden, after all, who was so prosodically precocious that it is never wise to assume he isn’t working metrically just because one can’t find a prosody that would account for the poem. In a letter, Auden writes,

I was reading a book on Chinese poetry, in which I discovered that though Chinese is mostly monosyllabic, it is not entirely so, and Chinese poetry is organized not by syllable but by word count. Since the theme [of “For Friends Only”] seemed rather “Confucian,” I thought it might be fun to write in English on the same principle. As you will see, the counting is in 7s and 5s (standard Chinese practice).

In An Exaltation of Forms, Paul Hoover calls this “counted verse,” and although it is rare, it pops up in surprising places. In 12 x 12: Conversations in 21st-Century Poetics, edited by Christina Mengert and Joshua Marie Wilkinson, I find excerpts from Jon Woodward’s Rain, published by Wave Books:

it’s not that he died
it’s that he won’t stop
dying and reemerging fully ordinarily
through ordinary doors saying in
his own voice hey brother

Not until I read the subsequent conversation did I realize the formality of Woodward’s poems: he identifies the formal constraints as “five words per line, five lines per stanza, three stanzas, and done,” and indeed, all three excerpts play by these rules. Only my inattention, and the relative prosodic rarity, prevented me from identifying the counted verse in both the Woodward and the Auden poems.

I hope it will not seem to the reader that I am making an arbitrary distinction by claiming some formal elements, like the many varieties of rhyme, can be buried while others can simply be rare or obscure, yet neither of these is disguised. What I mean is that head rhyme and internal rhyme by definition belong in the places they occur; the many varieties of rhyme have no way of announcing themselves other than to be placed at line ends where structurally they can call attention to themselves; and alternative prosodic systems, such as classical prosodic adaptations or counted verse, cannot be presented any more clearly than they are in the examples given. It is up to the reader to notice that there are apocopated rhymes, five words per line, or funky rhythms such as the choliambic’s  With disguised form, there is a clearer method of presentation of the form in question; there are line breaks that would better point up the organizing principles of the lines. “Fire Safety” could have been printed as I have above, as four quatrains with a couplet, or even as one fourteen-line stanza, and it would have made clear that it was a sonnet. That just isn’t what Joshua Mehigan did.


Other poets have done these sorts of things, and other writers have written intelligently about them. The poet Greg Williamson, in his brief but brilliant essay “On Form,” writes about Heather McHugh’s proclivity for iambs and her use of rhyme to clinch a poem. He examines “From 20,000 Feet” and argues,

In fact, if you broke the first line at four feet and occasionally hyphenated a word across a line-break, you could type the rest out as though it were indeed blank verse…. Moreover, the poem ends with a heroic couplet in disguise. Aurally, it’s as though it were:

and light and love—it clung. It didn’t care.
The future looked like death to it, from there.

Williamson goes on to point out that McHugh’s “Seal” ends with a “perfectly iambic Rubaiyat stanza,” one disguised by the line breaks on the page. He finishes the essay by asking about the ontological nature of such a poem: “Are these lines raw or cooked?”

Williamson’s essay first attuned me to the possibilities of the eye and ear being at odds, and not too long ago I wrote briefly about the way Kay Ryan disguises relatively formal poems as radically enjambed short-lined free verse. Rather than spend much time on those particular examples, which have been discussed already, I would prefer to zero in on another practitioner that might shed light on Mehigan’s modus operandi: John Burnside.

John Burnside is a Scottish poet less well known in the United States than he ought to be: although he is the author of fourteen collections of poetry, only one of them, Black Cat Bone, has been published in the U.S. by Graywolf Press. I want to concentrate on just one element in his work, the question of form. That he can write solid iambic pentameter, one cannot doubt. Here is the beginning of “Hôtel de Grave” from his latest collection, All One Breath:

Sometimes I am troubled by the light
that streams across the wall, then disappears,

since every car that passes might be yours:
you at the wheel, your body full of night

— cicada songs, the scent of marguerites,
the minor key of grace that runs for hours

on country roads, beneath a tide of stars
more felt than seen….

The poem proves to be a sonnet despite being broken up into couplets and despite the rhymes that shade into consonance: disappears/yours/hours/stars. (We also should not let the acephalic first line throw us.) I offer this specimen to make a specific point: Burnside can write straightforward iambic pentameter when he wants.

Now let’s take a look at a section of another poem, one titled “Alcools”:

III Passons passons puisque tout passe

I found a goldfinch
injured in the grass

and carried it into the house
for a moment’s shelter.

It didn’t live
and that was no surprise

but even as it faded
from the light

I felt its mercy,
something only half-

imagined, and more gift
than I can say,

grace being such a thing
as I find small

too readily, distracted from the light
of what there is

by what I thought
I wanted.

I’m less interested in this poem’s relationship to Apollinaire—indeed, less interested in it as a poem for the moment—than I am in its prosodic strategy, one that is nearly identical to Mehigan’s. For the most part, these couplets are all lines of iambic pentameter broken in half. In fact, only a few of them present any prosodic complications. The second couplet, for example, makes liberal use of the anapest:

(I recognize that one could also argue for “and carried it into the house” as four iambs with a stress on “it” and a promotional stress on “-to,” making the reconstituted line a hexameter, but I think the anapestic reading does better justice to the actual speech rhythm of the line, as well as to the general metrical context, which is elsewhere all iambic pentameter.) The final two couplets also present a significant variation in that the first line of the excerpt is, by itself, iambic pentameter, and the remaining three lines of the excerpt combine to form one iambic pentameter:

Again, one might defend another scansion, but it would be of the few lines in the passage that don’t recombine into solid iambic pentameter.

These broken-backed pentameters appear all over the place in Burnside’s work. Sometimes the lines are stanzaically distinct, as above, and other times they appear in larger stanzas or in stichic verse. The locus of the break varies:

of fishtanks for the missing scent
of river
….. [between fourth and fifth foot]

that nothing ever happens
for a reason
….. [middle of fourth foot]

to wish for what it brings,
to brighten it
….. [between third and fourth foot]

and every window
strung with coloured lights
….. [middle of third foot]

than how we’d look
in coloured lithographs
…… [between second and third foot]

no darker
than the figures in a book
….. [middle of second foot]

Most of these examples come from All One Breath, but you can find the technique elsewhere in Burnside. Moreover, as at the end of the third section of “Alcools,” it isn’t even always into a couplet that Burnside breaks the pentameter:

These last examples, from Black Cat Bone, invite some criticism of my analysis. First, my scansion, and consequently my argument, relies to a great extent on promotional stress, as in the “and” of the first example just quoted; to this, I can only respond, so does meter. Second, a critic might point out that you can scan passages from almost anything and find buried pentameters—indeed, “scan passages from almost anything” is iambic pentameter—so that Burnside’s method isn’t really a method but merely the byproduct of an analytic language that favors the iamb. To this, I would respond that the practice is too consistent to be accidental. Burnside doesn’t always do this, nor do the lines always resolve neatly into a series of pentameters as they do in the third section of “Alcools,” but the fact that Burnside presents those lines as a series of couplets, most of which can easily be scanned as pentameters, suggests that at least in certain contexts, the technique is quite purposeful. Furthermore, he does it often: read through Selected Poems, Black Cat Bone, and All One Breath and tell me how often you encounter iambic pentameter, either in its fully realized or broken-backed form. I find that most commonly it is a mixture of the two: the broken-backed pentameter provides variety in generally pentametric contexts. In any case, when something happens that often, we have every reason to suspect the poet is doing it on purpose.

This invites the more interesting question: what is the purpose? A Scottish Poetry Library website page identifies this technique as “flexible pentameters” and suggests it as a means of keeping technique an undercurrent, saying it might also be a means of “creating a looser visual effect, which can have the effect of speeding up one’s reading.” Maybe. It might be a way of experimenting with enjambment or heightening the importance of pentameter’s phrasal caesurae. It might be both a continuation and a critique of Pound’s “first heave,” which was to “break the pentameter.” It might be an attempt to play the visual against the aural. It might have a heuristic function: it is simply what Burnside needs to do to get the poem written. It might also be a disguise.

There are a few additional things to say here. First, Mehigan’s practice in “Fire Safety” is certainly analogous to Burnside’s general practice, but it could be that these are independently developed techniques rather than an indication of Burnside’s direct influence on Mehigan. Second, there is a precursor that might be relevant here, and it is once again Auden. The critic R. Victoria Arana points out in W.H. Auden’s Poetry: Mythos, Theory, and Practice that Auden organized later poems not around line-based syllable counts but around stanza-based syllable counts. Burnside and Mehigan are perhaps loosely adapting as an alternate unit of measurement the sum of several lines rather than individual lines themselves.

Finally, I want to say a brief word before returning to Mehigan. If I’ve leaned heavily on a few writers in considering hidden formal elements—particularly on Auden—it is perhaps an indication of my limited reading, but I suspect the more likely reason for this is that so few writers have the technical interest, or achieve the technical mastery, required for such feats. (This would put writers such as Burnside and Mehigan in very select company.) It may simply be a testament to how diverse and technically proficient his body of work is that at times it seems all roads lead back to Auden.


Let us finally return to “Fire Safety” and consider possible explanations for why Joshua Mehigan disguised his sonnet as a series of free-verse couplets. I can come up with seven:

1. It was pure whim.
2. It was an attempt at publication in a venue antagonistic to form.
3. It was an attempt to provoke this very conversation about the eye versus the ear and the free versus the formal.
4. It secures local effects.
5. It is semantic: it presents a variety of formal mimesis or thematic embellishment.
6. It was an attempt to expand the formal possibilities of English-language poetry.
7. It is a contract with the specific reader(s) whom Mehigan has in mind.

I believe we can dispense with the first two possibilities at the outset. Whim is less an explanation than a critical shrug, a way of saying that a poet’s decision has no meaning apart from the meta-meaning that whims are important, too, in which case we need not spend any more time on the decision. My tendency is to see even whimsical choices as purposeful ones. As for the venue, this poem was first published in POETRY, a journal that published a number of poems from Accepting the Disaster, including “Citation,” which consists of three abab iambic pentameter quatrains; “Cold Turkey” and “The Crossroads,” which are both triolets; and “Here” and “The Professor,” both more traditional sonnets. (This hardly exhausts the list.) Clearly POETRY has no problem publishing formal poems, so Mehigan needn’t have disguised it to get it published there.

If Mehigan’s goal was to provoke this very conversation, then obviously he has succeded. If the poem itself seems not to answer any questions about the eye versus the ear or free verse versus formal verse, it is perhaps because poetry is less a set of answers than a series of provocations. (I would add that if this essay seems not to answer any of these questions, it may be betraying the fact that I more often write poems than essays.)

Mehigan might have chosen to break each line into couplets to secure local effects, and there are a few ones worth noticing. Generally, the line breaks emphasize natural phrasal caesurae, ones not marked by punctuation, in each of the original pentameter lines. There are more specific discernible effects, as well. In the fifth couplet, for example, the line break emphasizes a musical property: dividing “waiting for gas or smoke / or hands or heat” emphasizes the alliteration of “hands” with “heat” by isolating them on a line in which they are the only nouns (or indeed the only words that aren’t “or”). Moreover, there is the subtle possibility for a productive misunderstanding: by pairing “hands” and “heat” in a counterpoint to the “gas or smoke” of the preceding line, the division reminds us that while gas and smoke are “unnatural” environmental warning signals of danger, hands are normal, as is heat by extension—after all, the human body generates it—until we remember that the hands in this line are pulling fire alarms and the heat of the line isn’t normal, safe body heat but the heat generated by a blaze. We have the potential to be taken aback by our realization that the heat that at first felt as nonthreatening as our own is in fact life-threatening—a realization that perhaps registers as startlingly as the realization that a room has suddenly grown too warm. Other line breaks play with visual spatial effects: the couplet “positioned like beige land mines / overhead” revels via line break in the unexpected revelation that the land mine in question, a smoke detector, is not underfoot but overhead, and “sprinkler heads, / blooming from the public ceiling” plays a similar game by turning sprinkler heads (which we associate with looking up) into flowers (which we associate with looking down) by way of the participle “blooming.” In each case, the separation between the overhead and underfoot elements by way of line break draws attention to the wit by pitting the elements against each other visually and spatially (one line above the other) in addition to conceptually and imagistically. Finally, the line break of the last couplet draws particular attention to the syntax and again allows for a suspenseful delay of meaning: “waiting for us to cry out. / And we will.” I have gone so far as to wonder if this final couplet, in which the syntax of the original pentameter line is emphasized as in no other couplet in the poem, might have been the inspiration for the procedure as a whole.

There is no debating that these additional line breaks secure some fine effects, and perhaps that is sufficient to justify Mehigan’s choice, but I’m intrigued by whether there are larger congruities of form and content here. For one, each of the items in this list of fire safety precautions is presented as something other than it is: the extinguisher is “like a tea urn / in a museum case,” the smoke detectors are land mines or “dwarf grandfather clocks / spray-painted red,” and the fire escape is “a shelf for mildewed rugs / and yellowing plants.” Part of the patterning of the poem is to depict these fire safety devices in terms of the passé—a museum piece, an old clock, a repurposed shelf—even though at some point they will become all too necessary again. We might, for a moment, go so far as to connect this sense of the passé with the notion of a traditional form like the sonnet, if we like, although I don’t believe formalists think of it that way. (The interesting ramification here is that if those fire safety devices only appear passé but are in fact vital to survival, the same might be said of the sonnet.) In any case, even those items that aren’t explicitly compared to something else—the fire hydrant and the sprinkler heads—are given additional attributes through their modifiers (“warlike stance” and “blooming,” respectively). I think the last couplet suggests a possible reason for this pattern. Although these are devices for fire safety, their ubiquity and figurative duplicity become almost an invitation: they are all “waiting for us to cry out,” and we must remember that one can cry out against or cry out for. The association of two of the devices—the smoke detectors like “beige land mines” and the “warlike” hydrant—with purposeful destruction also suggests that what we purport to offer as safeguards can perhaps be more like goads, taunts, reminders of the infinite potential for disaster. After all, not all fires are accidents. What I find interesting is that the poem’s disguise—another instance of something being presented as other than it is—operates similarly: whereas the free-verse couplets suggest a chaotic or unregulated embodiment of the poem, the sonnet suggests an ordered and fiercely regulated structure for containing such chaos. These qualities of danger-latent-in-safety and order-latent-in-chaos seem to me to encapsulate the conflict at the heart of Freud’s notion of the death drive, something of ever greater concern as whole societies (themselves orderly constructions) flirt with mutual annihilation by way of unimaginable—or perhaps all too imaginable—wars. Most frightening, then, would be Mehigan’s conclusion here about the inevitability of disaster: all of those emblems of precaution are “waiting for us to cry out. / And we will.”

Now, when it comes to the sixth reason listed above, expanding formal possibilities, I speak not as a reader but as a practitioner. There are times one consciously pursues the undone thing so that it may be done, times one attempts to expand on the work of a predecessor in order to increase the formal possibilities for oneself and for future writers, and it may be that Joshua Mehigan (and, for that matter, John Burnside) has written in broken-backed pentameters for this very reason. It gives writers in English another option for composing poems, an option that hovers between free verse (visually) and metrical verse (aurally) much as the poems of Kay Ryan or Heather McHugh do. Partly this is out of poetic hubris—one wishes to stake out territory as Muldoon does with his idiosyncratic rhyme—but partly it is out of the recognition that all poets are part of a grand project, poetry itself, and that we all contribute to its increase in range and possible reward through formal innovation as through rhetorical, musical, thematic, imagistic, syntactic, or lexical innovation. By such innovation, poetry itself grows a little bigger.

When I spoke to friends and colleagues about this meditation, they suggested I just email Joshua Mehigan and ask him about the poem. After all, they said, it’s 2017. We can do these things now. (How convenient that I recently read these sentences by Wimsatt and Beardsley: “Critical inquiries, unlike bets, are not settled in this way. Critical inquiries are not settled by consulting the oracle.”) I chose not to, and partly this was in light of the final possibility: it may be that Mehigan’s disguise is a form of contract with the type of reader he has in mind, a reader very much like the one Auden described as his “dream reader,” one who “keeps a lookout for curious prosodic fauna like bacchics and choriambs.” Perhaps one disguises a form in order to invite into a deeper poetic experience those readers who read past the words on the page and listen to the words singing in their inner ears. In a way, I rather like this final possibility, which has at its root a notion that one does the thing well regardless of whether the well-done thing will be noticed. In a fine essay titled “Don’t Worry, Baby: An Ode to Brian Wilson,” published in River Styx, Jeffrey Hammond writes, “The fact is, Beach Boys records were always better than they had to be—and what is the artistic impulse if not the compulsion to make a thing better than it has to be?” I very much like that idea: the artistic impulse is the compulsion to make a thing better than it has to be. A poem in free-verse couplets can be quite fine, but one must make the free-verse couplets with the same careful craftsmanship one uses for a sonnet, especially knowing that one could, in fact, make the free-verse couplets into a sonnet. David Kirby puts it this way:

.…..…. … I’ve always liked this quote
…..….. from Ted Solotaroff which says that writing
is often a writer’s “only way to organize
….. and to some extent comprehend
life’s fullness and perplexity,” and I think

….. a nice corollary to that is a remark
by Isaac Newton, who said he thought of himself,
…..….. not as a great man, but as a boy playing
on the seashore and looking for a smoother pebble
….. or a prettier shell than before.
Not that I’m like Isaac—more like Wayne Newton, say.

….. Or a Fig Newton. Though each of these—
Isaac, Wayne, Fig—is true to itself, much in the manner
…..….. of the thirteenth-century mason who is polishing
the foundation stones for Notre-Dame de Paris, and someone says,
….. “Don’t polish those things, no one will ever see them,”
and he shrugs and says, “Our Lady will.”

Perhaps one writes to the standard one does and the way one does simply as a manner of being true to oneself and to the intelligence, human or divine, that will notice what work went into the poem and how much in excess of the necessary that work is. In a ruminative mood on a rainy afternoon, I wonder if that very combination of integrity and excellence is something that can keep us human beings, for at least a little while longer, safe.

Stephen Kampa

Stephen Kampa

Stephen Kampa has two books of poems: Cracks in the Invisible (Ohio University Press, 2011) and Bachelor Pad (Waywiser Press, 2014). He teaches at Flagler College in St. Augustine, FL and works as a musician.
Stephen Kampa

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Author: Stephen Kampa

Stephen Kampa has two books of poems: Cracks in the Invisible (Ohio University Press, 2011) and Bachelor Pad (Waywiser Press, 2014). He teaches at Flagler College in St. Augustine, FL and works as a musician.