Short of Breath: Poems in a Narrow Compass

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What is verse, after all, but rhythmic speech? The sentences we construct to express our ideas can usually be made rhythmic by means of a few adjustments. In general, but by no means always, the process involves arranging syllables so that those receiving more stress alternate with those receiving less. And lines are generally contrived to end at either grammatical junctures or rhetorical break-points. It happens that the typical phrase-lengths of much English literary prose match up quite well with tetrameter and pentameter lines of verse, so that little violence need be done to versify it. Here, for example, is the opening of John Banville’s sequel to James’s Portrait of a Lady, called Mrs. Osmond:

It had been a day of agitations and alarms, of smoke and steam and grit. Even yet she felt, did Mrs. Osmond, the awful surge and rhythm of the train’s wheels, beating on and on within her.

It’s not hard to turn this into:

A day of agitations and alarms, of smoke and steam and grit; and even yet she felt the surge and rhythm of the train still beating on and on inside her head.

The point here is not to make an exact duplicate, but to show that the iambic pentameter line readily accommodates the syntactic units of English literary prose. So easily is the transition accomplished, indeed, that even superb metrists may occasionally fall into a kind of discursive blank-verse rambling when the muse of pith and compression momentarily abandons them.

The situation is quite different in the case of very short meters such as dimeters, to which I want to devote my attention here. Poems in these meters can often be arresting, but they do not in general imitate the rhythms of literary prose – or even colloquial speech. Instead they often adopt a tone of urgency, characterized by the short clauses people tend to employ at critical moments. They mark off those clauses by line-endings and often by rhyme, as in Herrick’s “Upon a Delaying Lady”:

Come, come away, Or let me go; Must I here stay Because you’re slow, And will continue so? Troth, lady, no.1

The penultimate line is in trimeter; all the rest are in dimeter. They amount to an ingenious and convincingly short-tempered way of saying, “Just because you are tardy by nature I don’t see why I should have to wait for you.”

In a rare song of but two stresses per line, Thomas Campion likewise employs only short phrases whose ends match the line-ends, but does so using an exclusively trochaic meter:

Follow, follow, Though with mischief Arm’d, like whirlwind, Now she flies thee; Time can conquer Love’s unkindness; Love can alter Time’s disgraces; Till death faint not Then, but follow. Could I catch that Nimble traitor, Scornful Laura, Swift foot Laura, Soon then would I Seek avengement. What’s th’avengement? Even submissely Prostrate then to Beg for mercy.

A modern-day Laura might have called this sexual harassment. We do not know what music Campion might have set this poem to; it comes from his theoretical Observations on the Art of English Poesie, a treatise rightly called “cranky” by John Hollander.2 Having previously discussed longer lines, and at last coming to the dimeter, Campion comments: “If any shall demand the reason why this number, being in itself simple, is placed after so many compounded numbers, I answer, because I hold it a number too licentiate for a higher place, and in respect of the rest imperfect; yet is it passing graceful in our English tongue, and will excellently fit the subiect of a madrigal, or any other lofty or tragical matter.” The word licentiate, to Campion, evidently meant “free from rules,” or “unrestrained,” rather than “licentious.” This is curious, because many modern writers would find it anything but unrestrained. Yet as we shall see, there have been productive and ingenious dissents.

In the twentieth century, the brief flare of imagism encouraged the use of short meters, which suggested fragmentary moments of inspiration outside the domain of reason and logic. The poems of HD (Hilda Doolittle) capture this sensibility most successfully. Here is the first part of “Sea Iris”:

Weed, moss-weed, root tangled in sand, sea-iris, brittle flower, one petal like a shell is broken, and you print a shadow like a thin twig.

Fortunate one, scented and stinging, rigid myrrh-bud, camphor-flower, sweet and salt—you are wind in our nostrils.

It cannot be said that such poems adhere to a regular meter, but clearly no lines have more than three stresses, and most have two. HD’s characteristic sentence structure is well suited to the short-lined poem: a series of phrasal epithets followed at some point by a simple verb of direct address. The effect is chant-like, as if a priestess were invoking a deity.

It is evident that short meters can be written with considerable metrical variation, so that it often makes more sense to speak of a “two-beat line” than to characterize the poems as iambic dimeter. When T.S. Eliot turns to short lines in “The Waste Land,” the passages again show wide deflection from traditional iambics, even though their two-beat pulse, unpunctuated but cued by sporadic rhyme, is easily perceived.

Elizabeth and Leicester Beating oars The stern was formed A gilded shell Red and gold The brisk swell Rippled both shores Southwest wind Carried down stream The peal of bells White towers

Again we encounter broken syntax in which some sentences can be discerned (“The brisk swell rippled both shores.” “Southwest wind carried down stream the peal of bells.”) while other fragments hover about, lending atmosphere but not grammatical coherence.

It is only a small step down from the ecstatic raptures of HD to the visionary insights of Samuel Menashe. With almost no punctuation, a loose rhyme scheme, and a floating, sometimes indeterminate syntax, Menashe creates, in “Eyes,” an oracular poem with two stresses in each line:

Eyes have their day Before the tongue That slips to say What they see at once Without word play, Betraying no one

Be deaf, dumb, a dunce With cleft palate Bereft of speech Open eyes possess That wilderness No tongue can breach3

Don’t bother speaking, says the poet (using words), since the tongue will distort what the eyes see clearly. The first line in the second stanza has arguably three stresses, but the rhyme at the end marks it off clearly from the following line (which shakes up the iambic rhythm with the trochaic palate), after which the poem returns to the regular iambic dimeter pattern (save for an anapest at the start of the antepenultimate line). The poem demonstrates its point by its unstable grammar and uncertain references. (Who is addressed at the start of the second stanza? Does the phrase “Bereft of speech” belong to the one being enjoined there or to the eyes celebrated at the end?) The poet insists that vision is not prone to such ambiguities – though a psychologist or a detective might demur.

A virtuoso of short measures, Menashe is capable of paring his dimeter lines down to three syllables apiece, as he shows in “Anonymous”:

Truth to tell, Seldom told Under oath, We live lies And grow old Self disguised – Who are you I talk to?

Here again, rhyme, though irregular and not always pure, reinforces the line-end pauses to clarify the stripped-down syntax and enhance the rhetorical force of the final question. Still, the syntax is not unambiguous. One might paraphrase the poem thus: In truth (though truth is seldom told, even under oath), we live falsely (with false fronts? with false stories?) and grow old disguised from our selves. So baffling are these disguises, I am unsure who you (my interlocutor) are.

An even shorter poem in the same three-syllable mode, and also using rhyme, is one of Menashe’s most gnomic and most powerful:

Pity us by the sea on the sands so briefly

The extreme ellipsis and compression of the poem compel the reader to elaborate its implications. Its strength derives from the reader’s active engagement in realizing the fuller meanings behind the terse expression. A reading with a slight pause after each line will invest each phrase with a weight it would not have as part of a rapidly spoken sentence.

I have used the term “pause” as a convenience, but I do not wish to suggest that each line, when spoken, is to be followed by a noticeable interruption in sound of the sort we imply when we speak of a caesura. There are many degrees of pause, ranging from the emphatic down to the almost indiscernible. Experienced performers of poems or verse plays are capable of suggesting a juncture between two lines by tone of voice – for example, finishing one line on a high pitch, then starting the next on a lower one – while maintaining almost equal spacing between the words. There will always be tension between the rhythm suggested by the lines of a poem and the implied rhythms of idiomatic speech. That tension gives spoken verse its distinctive quality and tests the expertise of the person reciting it. For our purposes it is enough to recognize that even in unrhymed poems rife with enjambments one must assume the writers intended the line endings to be rhetorically meaningful, whether because the line endings coincide with syntactic junctures or because they counterpoint them. Performers are obliged to employ various strategies to meet the resulting challenge.

So far we have seen rhyme used to cue the line endings and thus help the listener parse the poem’s syntax. But as Menashe demonstrates in an untitled poem, brief hesitations quite unaided by rhyme can also work effectively to lay out the syntax of a perfectly idiomatic seventeen-word statement:

These stone steps beveled by feet endear the dead to me as I climb them every night

Here we have two stresses per line, with implied pauses of varying degrees between lines, like feet ascending steps, and the reader quickly perceives the poem’s rhythm. No cues of rhyme or punctuation are needed. Every line except the fourth has three words; the fourth, with five, replaces the second iamb with an anapest. The poem functions, in other words, just as blank verse does in the five-stress environment, although the words must be more carefully chosen. Multisyllabic words and complex subordinate clauses would be much harder to accommodate.

Not all twentieth-century poems in short meters come out of the imagist tradition. For a contrasting example of rhymed dimeter with a much more august and rational bearing in the moralizing plain style tradition of Walter Ralegh4, take “To the Reader,” an acid commentary on scholarship by J.V. Cunningham:

Time will assuage, Time’s verses bury Margin and page In commentary,

For gloss demands A gloss annexed Till busy hands Blot out the text,

And all’s coherent. Search in this gloss No text inherent: The text was loss.

The gain is gloss.

We are dealing here with a complex idea, but the meter forces compression, and the compression challenges the reader: What is assuaged by time? What are time’s verses? How does gloss blot out text, and what does it mean to say the text was loss? These questions surely have answers, but readers must dig into their own experience to discern them and in the process realize the poem. An ironist might say each reader is forced to provide his own gloss.

Even at this half-way point in our survey we can see that short meters do not constrain a poem’s subject matter. They do, however, affect tone, and they often impose on the reader the obligation to elaborate the implications of a tightly compressed (and therefore elliptical) expression. At the same time, by forcing the poet to express ideas in short clauses and to slow down the rate at which those clauses accost the reader, they create a field in which syllables must be chosen with extreme care and each must justify the prominence given it by the poem’s pacing.

Belle Turnbull, another poet partial to short meters and the visionary mode of HD and Menashe, hews more closely than either of them do to normal grammar in “Brother Juniper”:

Under the primrose cliffs Lives an old juniper, Claws like a hippogriff’s Fastened round a rock. Warworn his trunk is, Rigid his fiber, Ribboned his bark. For all his payment, Wrung as a tear is, Pale on his raiment Of ashen green: Four frosty berries, Issue of the ages, Juiceless and lean.

The first four lines can be read as trimeter (though the second is ambiguous), but thereafter the lines are clearly dimeter. And while the syntax is straightforward, it is also much simplified, consisting of a series of epithets applied to the juniper. After the first four lines the only verb is “is”; the remaining lines are thus freed to serve as serial descriptive elements.

Even more radical is “High Trail,” unpunctuated in the manner of Menashe and consisting mostly of one- or two-word lines, each with two stresses, and with a syntax sufficiently indeterminate that the poem can be read line by line from top to bottom or from bottom to top:

The ..trail thin….. dear loneliest the one road vein-strait the one road wheel-clear foot-wise celibate thin….. dear the ..trail

The extra spaces in the first two and last two lines are evidently deliberate and intended as instructions to the reader to slow these lines down in pronouncing them. The stream of words emulates its subject: this is a trail that must be carefully walked and can be traversed in either direction.

By contrast, Elizabeth Bishop positions “The Moose” in a much more matter-of-fact world, constructing it as a series of complex discursive sentences (the first one is six stanzas long), built on a largely two-beat measure, with rhyme marking her line endings and frequent assonance and alliteration throughout:

the sweet peas cling to their wet white string on the whitewashed fences; bumblebees creep inside the foxgloves, and evening commences.

From time to time the measure expands to admit three beats, but then returns to two:

One stop at Bass River. Then the Economies Lower, Middle, Upper; Five Islands, Five Houses, where a woman shakes a tablecloth out after supper.

As the poem demonstrates, it is possible to write an extended work in a short measure and keep the reader engaged throughout. (“The Moose” consists of 28 six-line stanzas.) The poem is also notable for its everyday language. It resorts to virtually none of the elliptical syntax or oracular pronouncements we saw in Eliot, Menashe, Cunningham, and Turnbull. The final stanza maintains that tone of voice while expanding its syntactic range:

by craning backward, the moose can be seen on the moonlit macadam; then there’s a dim smell of moose, an acrid smell of gasoline.

In contrast to the other lines (and the majority of lines in the poem), the fourth and fifth lines of this stanza break up larger clauses at unusual points (between an adjective and its noun); but the half-rhymes link them to other lines of the poem (macadam/dim, backward/acrid). The poem achieves closure with a final full rhyme on seen/gasoline.

Contemporary writers, often less beholden to metric niceties, still gravitate to the two-beat line (with allowances for three-beat rhetorical exceptions), still place signposts of rhyme at key junctures, and may allow additional words into the line, departing further from iambics but gaining syntactic solidity, as in Kevin Young’s “Hurricane Song” (a variation on “Baby It’s Cold Outside”) in which I have marked the stresses I would use:

Lády, won’t you wáit óut the húrricane

all níght at mý place — wé’ll take cóver like

the lámps & Í’ll lét you óil

my scálp. Pléase, I néeds a góod wóman’s hánds

cáught in my háir, túrning my knóts to bútter.

All níght we’ll chúrn. Dáwn

will léan in too sóon — you’ll léave out ínto

the wét world, wínded & alóne, knówing

the mé ónly mídnight sées.

Note the turning/churn rhyme, the half-rhymes of I’ll and oil, into and winded, the sequence of terminal n’s in churn/dawn/lean/soon, the alliterated w’s in wet world winded, and the assonance of alone/knowing/only. All these devices help to stabilize and structure a poem that the casual reader might initially take, because of its irregular distribution of stresses, to be in free verse.5

We have reached a point in the long debates between poets commited to formal structure and those deeply suspicious of it where we might usefully imagine a continuum. At one end are those who seek to fit all expression into a metric scheme, often one with a fixed rhyme pattern, and who believe that even the most recalcitrant ideas can with sufficient ingenuity be molded into the requisite shapes, thereby enhancing the associated emotions. At the other end are those who believe ideas and emotions lose their immediacy and force in being subjected to fixed forms; they renounce allegiance to meter though they still acknowledge that lineation plays a strong role in a poem’s effectiveness. Between those poles are various compromises, with meter becoming progressively less important as one moves along the scale from one side to the other.

Even poets who have abandoned metrical verse entirely still now and then find in short lines a useful discipline. A. R. Ammons famously wrote Tape for the Turn of the Year on adding machine tape, thus enforcing short lines even though no meter compelled them. Yet his extensive prologue indicates that he sees short lines as a guide to aesthetic rigor, calling for

clarity & simplicity! no muffled talk, fragments of phrases, linked without logical links, strung together in obscurities supposed to reflect density: it’s a wall to obscure emptiness, the talk of a posing man who must talk but who has nothing to say: let this song ….. make complex things salient saliences clear, so ….. there can be some ….. understanding:

If the poem is read aloud with pauses at the line ends, it sounds awkward and hesitant. Read silently, it moves along quickly enough, its ideas, as Ammons intended, seeming more translucent than they might if couched in dense paragraphs. But it’s a stretch to call it a song.

Near the same end of the spectrum is Robert Creeley, whose most famous poem, “I Know a Man,” is also in short lines whose stresses do not fall into discernible patterns:

As I sd to my friend, because I am always talking,—John, I

sd, which was not his name, the darkness sur- rounds us, what

can we do against it, or else, shall we & why not, buy a goddamn big car,

drive, he sd, for christ’s sake, look out where yr going.

Commenting on this poem, Lynn Keller remarks on its departure from standard speech patterns: “[M]ost of the line breaks in ‘I Know a Man,’ coming midphrase, create hesitations one would not find in relaxed conversation.” She adds, “Because of the asyntactic line breaks, the first syllable of each line receives extra emphasis.” This, I think, is incorrect. Such line breaks do not automatically confer emphasis. The second line of the third stanza, for example, does not begin with an emphasized syllable. Rather, Creeley has placed his line breaks so that most of them occur before a stressed syllable, and if we are counting stresses, we will note that most (but not all) lines contain two. The third line of the third stanza is an exception, of course. Because there is in fact so little relation between the poem’s syntax and its line endings, one can question whether the lineation serves any purpose for the ear.6 For the eye its primary function may well be simply to announce that this short piece of writing is in fact a poem.

Regarding the poem’s central dilemma – “what can we do / against [the darkness]” – Keller comments, “When the speaker hits upon a possible solution, the poem’s rhythms reflect his momentary confidence and sense of liberation; ‘buy a goddamn big car’ is the poem’s only phrase of any length that flows unimpeded.”7 This may be a bit circular – imputing meaning to the form of the line that happens to have that meaning – but it is certainly true that the line by its length, and the time it takes to say it, stands out from the rest of the poem.

What is undeniable is that the lineation of the poem cuts across the clauses at every point but one (the line ending “buy a goddamn big car”), forcing anyone reading it aloud either to ignore the line breaks or to introduce awkward hesitations at irregular intervals. This may have been a deliberate strategy on Creeley’s part, and it raises an interesting question: can a poet create a rhythm that violates a poem’s syntax while also enhancing its effect? Or to give it a more positive spin, is it possible to establish polyrhythms in which syntax is played off against lineation?

The answer is yes, and the locus classicus is not here but in Gwendolyn Brooks’s poem “The Pool Players”:

We real cool. We Left school. We

Lurk late. We Strike straight. We

Sing sin. We Thin gin. We

Jazz June. We Die soon.

The syntactic structure is very simple: Eight three-word sentences, each word a single syllable, each sentence beginning with “We.” The last words in each pair of sentences rhyme. Alliteration characterizes four of the sentences. Brooks’s innovation is to displace the initial “We” of each sentence after the first back to the end of the previous line. This means the first line has four words (and syllables), and the last has two. It also implies a pause after the subject of each sentence, thus drawing out a moment of expectancy before the verb that follows.8

It is vain, I believe, to analyze this poem in terms of traditional iambic patterns. What we have here is a series of lines each with a heavy stress at the end and a spondee of somewhat lesser stress at the start. None of the syllables are unstressed. If the poem were arranged with one complete sentence on each line, the words would receive virtually equal stress and the poem would be much less interesting. It gains a decisive meter and rhetorical force by the stress and the pause resulting from the displacement – and of course by its final isolated, stark two words.

A different kind of displacement is at work in the poems of Kay Ryan – poems with very short lines in which we often find rhyme embedded in unexpected places. It might surprise some readers to encounter, poring through Ryan’s work, an orthodox iambic tetrameter poem with a traditional rhyme scheme:

However carved up or pared down we get, we keep on making the best of it as though it doesn’t matter that our acre’s down to a square foot.

As though our garden could be one bean and we’d rejoice if it flourishes, as though one bean could nourish us.

The rhymes are not quite exact, but they are close enough to be unmistakable. I have little doubt that this is the way Ryan conceived the poem originally, but though she published it word for word, she did so only after rearranging it to give it the short lines that we associate with her work:

However carved up or pared down we get, we keep on making the best of it as though it doesn’t matter that our acre’s down to a square foot. As though our garden could be one bean and we’d rejoice if it flourishes, as though one bean could nourish us.

Note that the breaks Ryan introduces in this new pattern are often not the expected ones. The fourth line acquires an extra foot and thereby submerges its rhyme (get/it) and in the process throws off the pattern of breaks so that the next rhyme (that/foot) is also lost. Instead of a straightforward rhymed tetrameter poem, we have now a poem in two- and three-stress lines, not all of which can be comfortably scanned as iambic. It seems to be unrhymed, yet ghostly echoes can be heard now and then; bean is thrown into prominence as a self-rhyme, and the match between flourish and nourish, though the words occupy different positions, is unmistakable. The poem thus becomes a construction of irregular short lines that break at odd points and harbor submerged rhymes, through which an attentive reader can hear the faint strains of the original rhymed tetrameter poem.

Poems like this, along with the Brooks and Young poems discussed earlier, indicate something important about the perceptual aptitude of readers – something many poets, and most prosodists, do not make sufficient allowance for: readers are capable of hearing more than one rhythmic or metric scheme at a time. One can hear a four-beat rhythm behind a two-beat rhythm. One can hear a predominantly two-beat rhythm, as in the poems by Bishop and Young, even when it is temporarily superseded by a series of three-beat lines. One can readily hear rhythms, like those in the Brooks poem, that the standard nomenclature of iambs and anapests (adapted after all from classical measures of quantity) is ill-suited to describe.

And of course the word hear is too narrow to account for the totality of our response. For the perception of rhythmic verse is a matter of a thoroughgoing visceral embrace of certain sound patterns. I. A. Richards stated the matter well in an essay on rhythm and meter:

Metre adds to all the variously fated expectancies which make up rhythm a definite temporal pattern and its effect is not due to our perceiving a pattern in something outside us, but to our becoming patterned ourselves. With every beat of the metre a tide of anticipation in us turns and swings, setting up as it does so extraordinarily extensive sympathetic reverberations. We shall never understand metre so long as we ask, “Why does temporal pattern so excite us?” and fail to realise that the pattern itself is a vast cyclic agitation spreading all over the body, a tide of excitement pouring through the channels of the mind.9

I would add that the timing of sometimes minute pauses, their accelerated frequency in short meters, mimics the breathlessness we associate with excitement and haste and so conveys to us an added sense of urgency – not necessarily peril, but an awareness that the matter at hand has a direct and immediate claim on our attention. Poets who use such meters thus put themselves under an implicit obligation to justify that claim.


1 Despite initial appearances, I will not proceed chronologically in this paper. I do not wish to suggest that there is a historical progression in the techniques discussed here.

2 Introduction to Selected Songs of Thomas Campion (Boston: Godine, 1973).

3 All quotations of Menashe’s poems are from Samuel Menashe: New and Selected Poems, ed. Christopher Ricks (New York: Library of America, 2005). Punctuation and other minor details in this edition differ occasionally from corresponding details as originally published in the poet’s own books.

4 For an example, see Ralegh’s “Nymph’s Reply”:

Thy gowns, thy shoes, thy beds of roses, Thy cap, thy kirtle, and thy posies Soon break, soon wither, soon forgotten, In folly ripe, in reason rotten.

5 To those who object to my use of “free verse” to mean “nonmetrical, nonrhyming lines that closely follow the natural rhythms of speech” (Poetry Foundation): I am aware of the controversies but have long ago given up the search for a less negative, more rigorous and still defensible definition of the term.

6 At least two of the readings on YouTube do place pauses at line ends; the effect is like that produced by a slight speech impediment.

7 Lynn Keller, Re-making It New: Contemporary American Poetry and the Modernist Tradition (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987).

8 In every recording I have heard of Brooks reading this poem she places a heavy pause after each “We” at the end of a line. Listeners may debate whether those pauses contribute to meaning or are simply musical.

9 I. A. Richards, “Rhythm and Metre,” from Principles of Literary Criticism, reprinted in The Structure of Verse: Modern Essays on Prosody, ed. Harvey Gross (Greenwich: Fawcett, 1966).