Contributor’s Marginalia: Stephen Kampa on “Tower Scheherazade” by Austin Allen
I suspect that for many writers with formal inclinations, Kay Ryan has opened up new possibilities for short-lined verse. There have been other models, of course. Alan Shapiro uses short free verse lines with wit and panache when he writes,
. . . the very
air is shimmering
with the traces
of every other
place we had
to get to to
have gotten here . . .
Who doesn’t love the little stuttering triple-roll of a line that reads, “to get to to”? A line like that arises from pure delight in the idiosyncratic idioms and syntax of the English language. And here’s James Schuyler at the beginning of “Deep Winter”:
A starling drops
from branch to
branch, it’s cold
but not that cold:
the feel of cold-
ness is movement
on the skin so
walking in it
robs the air of
stillness . . .
The mimetic enjambment of “drops / from branch to / branch” is fine, of course, but there is much to admire in the triple repetition of the syllable “cold” in three different ways within three lines—first as an affirmation (“it’s cold”), then as a negation (“but not that cold”), and then as an entirely different part of speech, a noun rather than an adjective (“the feel of cold- / ness”)—and in the isolation of “skin” in a line otherwise filled with particles (“on,” “the,” “so”) so that skin achieves a weight we might more readily associate with words appearing at the ends of lines, not in their middles. (One of the great gifts of short-lined free verse is that it invites us to think as much about the middle of a line as about the beginning or end: after all, if the line is short enough, there is almost as much middle as there is beginning or end.) Standing behind these practitioners, naturally, are their modernist precursors, particularly H.D. and William Carlos Williams.
When I think of short-lined free verse that inspires meter-lovers, however, I think of Kay Ryan, and I suspect it is because in her work, one sees most clearly how free verse and metrical verse are not always as distinct as our criticism—or perhaps more accurately, our polemics—might imply. Even in the examples I’ve given, iambic movements—indeed, hoary old pentameters—lurk and reassert themselves: “the feel of coldness is movement on the skin” is pentameter with an anapest in the third foot, a common enough substitution, and “so walking in it robs the air of stillness” and “of every other place we had to get to” are even clearer pentameters if we are alert to the ways a pentameter might spill across several lines and if we are amenable to feminine endings. Moreover, “we had to get to to have gotten here” is not only a pentameter line, but an admirable and artificial pentameter line, what with the chiastic construction, the purposeful metrical promotion of a word that appears twice in a row, and the insistent alliteration.
Kay Ryan takes this technique—the insinuation of metrical lines into ostensibly free verse—further, using it more systematically and in conjunction with rhyme to achieve within the fluid movement of her free verse some of the effects formalists aim for in their metrical verse. In “Spiderweb,” for example, there is no easy way to resolve any of the lines or grammatical units into clear metrical units until the end of the poem:
. . . It’s
The first sentence here resists a metrical reading, but the second sentence is inarguably iambic pentameter: “It isn’t ever delicate to live.” That coincidence of final sentence with metrically comprehensible unit with concluding rhyme is not uncommon in Ryan’s work, and I imagine it is what makes her so attractive to formalists: from the chaos of free verse comes the order of a rhymed pentameter line, the clinch of a concluding couplet.
In “Bitter Pill,” Ryan takes it even further, making the whole poem a refinement of this single technique.
A bitter pill
to be swallowed
to work. Just
reading your name
on the bottle
does the trick.
As though there
were some anti-
As though the
self were eager
to be wrecked.
There are at least three prosodic systems potentially at work here. At the level of the line, Ryan is working with free verse:
∪ / ∪ /
A bitter pill
/ (?) ∪ /
∪ / (?) / ∪
to be swallowed
∪ / /
to work. Just . . .
These lines offer us no accentual-syllabic pattern to work with, no invitation to expectation. (We might be tempted to identify a two-beat accentual line here, but subsequent lines will not support that reading.) On a conceptual or visual level, there is the suggestion of a counted prosody system: eleven of the thirteen lines consist of three words. On the level of sound and syntax, however, the poem suggests an accentual syllabic reading:
∪ / ∪ / ∪ ∪ / ∪ ∪ / ∪ ∪ /
A bitter pill doesn’t need to be swallowed to work.
∪ / ∪ ∪ / ∪ ∪ / ∪ / ∪ /
Just reading your name on the bottle does the trick.
∪ / ∪ / ∪ / ∪ ∪ / ∪ ∪ /
As though there were some anti-placebo effect.
∪ / ∪ / ∪ / ∪ / ∪ /
As though the self were eager to be wrecked.
What we have here is a movement from irregular iambic pentameter lines (lots of metrical demotion and substitution in the first three lines, none of which are perfect pentameters) and slant rhyme (to work / trick) to metrical regularity and perfect rhyme: “As though the self were eager to be wrecked.” We might disagree about certain nuances of the scansion I’m giving—perhaps a reader might be less inclined to hear a metrical demotion of “does-” or “be” in the first line or a metrical promotion of “to” in the last line—but even so, the syllable count alone pushes the poem toward regularity: thirteen to twelve to twelve to ten, the number of a perfect iambic pentameter (or a pentameter that ends in a pyrrhic and a spondee if that’s how you hear that last line, though I don’t). That metrical movement suggests not a movement of the content toward coherence—after all, the poem is arguing toward dissolution, toward being wrecked—but rather an aesthetic or rhetorical coherence, a way of saying, “You see, here I’ve come to a conclusion, a rather sound one, as you can tell from the way the language found its shape.” It’s not a way of mimicking the point; it’s a way of making the point. It is a means of authorial consolidation.
It’s not that Kay Ryan is the only one who does this—Heather McHugh is an ace at it, as Greg Williamson has pointed out in print—but I have been struck by how contemporary short-lined poems, some free and some metrical, have made use of the hidden metrical gestures and clinching rhymes that appear so often in Ryan’s work: the poems of Todd Boss come to mind, as do some of the poems from Caki Wilkinson’s recent The Wynona Stone Poems. Is it any surprise, then, that I thought of Kay Ryan when I read Austin Allen’s superb “Tower Scheherazade”?
The poem invites us to imagine Scheherazade’s nightly storytelling as the construction of “a mind’s-eye tower / of unbound paper,” one that Scheherazade will “let fall / when she desires . . .” It reminds me of the work of Steven Millhauser, in which the imaginative space of fiction is rendered figuratively by the physical space of architecture: sprawling museums or city-sized hotels embody the ever-growing, ever-more-dazzling spaces that we construct through imagination, places we can inhabit until the moment comes when we, at last, must acknowledge the distinction between fiction and reality. (The last pages of Martin Dressler present one of the profoundest visions I know of the purpose of art: by allowing us to live outside the world for a while, it allows us to reenter the world and see it as the more awe-inspiring, most original masterpiece. Art gives the world back to us.) Allen’s choice of a tower for his imaginative space calls to mind fairy tales where a beautiful princess is locked inside one against her own volition; in the poem’s appropriation of that motif, our heroine herself constructs the tower in which she is not imprisoned but protected from the unnamed, un(en)titled “he” to whom she would otherwise be married for a night before her death.
Much as we might further consider the thematic connections and content of the poem, I want to look at the prosody of it. Allen chooses for his poem a flexible irregularly rhymed iambic dimeter, an apt choice for his subject. The brevity of the lines might remind us of the nightly cutting short of each tale, and indeed, the syntax reinforces this sense of suspension: the poem is all one long sentence that trails off into an ellipsis. In fact, the meter itself sometimes relies on units larger than the line to resolve itself into the iambic pattern that it is, a trick that should be familiar to us from the instances above; it is yet one more way of suggesting the story must be continued to be fully understood. Take the first two lines, for example:
∪ / ∪ / ∪
Again the death-plot
/ ∪ / ∪
∪ / ∪ / ∪ / ∪ / ∪
Again the death-plot has miscarried
What looks like trochaic dimeter in the second line is, in the context of the larger two-line unit, clearly the continuation of an iambic pattern. Breaking the lines where he does allows Allen not only to respect the integrity of the word “death-plot” (breaking on “death” would have been a rather cheap enjambment, if you ask me, and Allen wisely avoids it), but also to get his end rhyme with “cot” in line six and an internal rhyme with “hot” a few lines later. (That delight in half-buried rhymes, by the by, should call to mind the technique of “Bitter Pill.”) Although the rhymes come in no predictable pattern, all the lines in the poem rhyme, which again suggests a nice mimetic effect: in any story, we look for the tying up of loose ends, and one can imagine that as Scheherazade told her stories night after night, unpredictable connections and resolutions emerged even as the stories pushed past them into new narrative threads awaiting a proper resolution. It is this larger pattern of connection, suggested by the rhymes, that invites us to consider the possibility that Scheherazade’s stories might have been “one thousand stories / or just one . . .”
The metrical sure-footedness of the poem, as well as the insistence on all rhymes being present and accounted for even if occurring at unpredictable intervals, should remind us that there is a complementary metrical tradition of short-lined poems, one that could be traced back through J.V. Cunningham (whose “Acknowledgement” is, quite simply, one of the most beautiful dimeter poems I know) and the early Auden to their precursor in Skeltonics, which even now in the most recent edition of the Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics are described as being of debatable value according to scholars and critics. If Auden’s project at the time he was using them was a sort of rehabilitation of Skeltonics, perhaps we might consider a poem like Austin Allen’s “Tower Scheherazade” the continuation of that tradition: with its nimble rhythms and insistent but unpredictable rhymes, it demonstrates that a poem of serious wit, one that invokes imaginative power as a kind of political power, can be written in a measure more often associated with outrageous satire or light verse.
Of course, I could not hope to prove all of these familial connections; I offer them only as provocations. We see poetic family resemblances everywhere, and if they serve to remind us that for all the solitude required both to create and to enjoy poetry (Dean Young: “Who isn’t appalled to find someone else standing in the poetry section of a bookstore?”), poetry exists in a much larger transhistorical community, one composed of writers and readers who have shared our love of language and our faith in its potential to help us live richer lives, then I am glad to point out a few family resemblances.
More important than the lineage, however, is the line. Mr. Allen’s poem succeeds not because it participates in a contemporary enlargement of technique or because it partakes of a rich tradition, but because it is composed of smart lines finely rendered. It is a poem one wishes to say out loud, to contemplate, to offer as an example of why we must learn to have strong, agile, inexhaustible imaginations: one day they might save our lives.
Stephen Kampa’s books are Cracks in the Invisible and Bachelor Pad. He currently divides his time between teaching writing and working as a musician on the east coast of Florida. His harmonica work appears on Victor Wainwright’s Boom Town (Blind Pig Records).