Elaine Equi’s Sound “Prescription”
(A blog, I guess, is a good spot to place homeless texts: and what follows certainly qualifies. I queried Arc about submitting it there, but the editors never responded, twice; then I submitted it to rob mclennan’s Seventeen Seconds, which apparently rejected it by (silently) not including it in the latest on-line issue. The piece, a study of the sounds in a six-line poem by Elaine Equi, is perverse, very seriously so, which goes to explain, I guess, its reception…)
In a recent review of James Langer’s Gun Dogs (Globe and Mail, Thursday 18 June 2009) Carmine Starnino lauds Langer’s work for being “musically alert, with marvellous rhythmic and tonal variety” and the poet himself for his “knack for finding words that, placed together, crackle and pop.” Starnino goes on to lament where Langer overdoes it, citing Langer as an example of “what Newfoundland poet Patrick Warner calls ‘the School of Stacked Vowels and Clustered Consonants'”. That poets are paying attention to their vowels and consonants, and other matters of what Starnino refers to in the same review as “poetic form”, he credits to “a group of tyros who have made it impossible to talk about anything else”. Starnino’s somewhat self-congratulatory tone concerning how “poetic form has become a hot button issue” thanks to that “group of tyros” to which he himself no doubt belongs is what prompts me to join in that talk. To be fair, let me say at the outset that I am very consciously using Starnino’s and Warner’s remarks here as stalking horses (not, hopefully, as straw men) for my argument with a critical tendency that strikes me as being as narrow as it is vocal.
Patrick Warner introduces his School of Stacked Vowels and Clustered Consonants in a review of Steven Price’s Anatomy of Keys (Books in Canada, December 2006), wherein he identifies Ken Babstock, Carmine Starnino, Joe Denham, and Zach Wells as members, a class-list to which I would add Tim Bowling, among others. Warner writes that “[a]ll of these writers, at various times and to varying degrees, can be said to have fallen under the spell of Seamus Heaney”; equally all might be said to write in what August Kleinzahler has dubbed “Nobel-ese”, the mannerisms of, precisely, Heaney and, for example, Derek Walcott. Among various features that mark this kind of poetry—the feature I want to focus on here—is how it sounds. Starnino cites Langer’s “sandstone grit that girders the barrens” as an example of “sense-heightening description”, a phrase that exemplifies how Nobelese sounds, as well, with its near-Anglo-Saxon alliteration of s’s and g’s, and the n’s, t’s, and r’s that, as it were, girder the phrase’s music. In his review, Starnino praises such “formal sophistication.”
What would the like-minded make of Elaine Equi’s poem “Prescription” published in The 2008 Griffin Poetry Prize Anthology?
Here is a poem remarkably lacking in kennings, “sense-heightening descriptions”, overt metaphor, indeed, every mannerism of Nobelese. It is understated and wry, evoking the everyday context and instrumental language of the consulting room. Nor does it possess any of that sonority characteristic of the Englishes of a Heaney or Walcott. For all that, Equi’s poem is remarkably prosodically accomplished, all the more so for its limited means, a mere eight words. A reading of what and how the poem might mean, that would identify and develop the conceit that structures it, falls outside my concern here, which is merely the poem’s prosody, the discernible and demonstrable patterns of syllabic and phonemic elements, what is traditionally called schemes (figures of arrangement) as distinct from tropes (figures of replacement).
By prosody I mean “the articulation of the total sound of the poem” (Pound 421), a description, first, of the patterns of rhythm and rhyme, patterns of repetition at the level of the phoneme, the syllable, or even the word, line, or stanza, as these patterns occur throughout and structure and develop the poem. To facilitate my description, I have appended a transcription of the poem in the International Phonetic Alphabet. I have transcribed the poem as I hear it, following the conventions of pronunciation of Standard Canadian English. Other actualizations of the poem’s music are possible, including that of the poet herself, who resides in New York.
Equi’s poem exhibits a deft structure even before we attend to its sound. Lexically, of the eight words in the poem, only one is a finite verb, the imperative ‘take’, with six substantives (three proper and three common nouns), and the preposition ‘for’. The grammatical parallelism of the poem’s three prescriptive statements is reinforced by the poem’s versification: each statement is a couplet, each line of each couplet possessing a substantive according to a regular pattern, where the proper noun precedes the common, each on its own line. The parallelism is further reinforced by each second line’s beginning “for”. Nor should the function of the number three—three statements, three couplets, three proper and three common nouns, three instances of ‘for’—be overlooked as evidence of the poem’s rigorous if underplayed artifice.
Turning to the poem’s rhythm or metre, we note that the first line of each couplet is three (!) syllables and the second line of each decreases from five to four to two syllables. If we agree that the first lines of the first and last couplet are amphibrachic, i.e., of three syllables with the primary stress on the middle syllable, then one is tempted to hear in the relative weights of the syllables in ‘Niedecker’ a cretic rather than a dactyl, i.e., the middle of the name’s three syllables being unstressed balanced by two relatively stressed syllables, lending these three lines a metrical symmetry, i.e., a cretic bound by two amphibrachs. However debatable the rhythm of the couplets’ first lines (one might hear, for example, a dactyl framed by two palimbacchii), it seems more certain that each couplet’s second line invariably contains two stresses. The poem as whole, then, is rhythmically regular with stressed and unstressed syllables alternating on each line until the final spondee. From beginning to end, the metre becomes increasingly emphatic, with the ratio of stressed to unstressed syllables in the couplets’ second lines being two: three, two: two, and two: zero, respectively.
For such a short poem, “Prescription” is remarkably rich in syllables sharing (i.e., “rhyming”) one or more identical or similar phonemes. The second and fourth lines rhyme ‘melancholy’ and ‘clarity’, two words that share three phonemes over and above the end rhyme /li/ and /ti/, namely /ɛ/, /l/, and /k/ (melancholy, clarity), phonemes whose order is, moreover, reversed in each word. There are several internal rhymes, as well. ‘Herrick’, ‘clarity’, and ‘O’Hara’ all share the phonic cluster /ɛr/, with ‘Herrick’ and ‘O’Hara’ framing ‘clarity’, highlighted by the /h/ in each. The shared cluster /ɛr/ in these three words is echoed by the /ər/, an off-rhyme between ‘Niedecker‘ and ‘nerve’, which, in turn, share the initial phoneme /n/. Of the poem’s ten individual words, only one does not obviously rhyme with at least one other, ‘Take’, a word that, nevertheless, shares two of its three phonemes with at least one other word (/t/ with clarity and /k/ with Herrick, melancholy, Neidecker, and clarity) and whose vowel arguably off-rhymes with /ɛr/ in Herrick, clarity, and O’Hara, a trio linked also, with the pair ‘Niedecker’ and ‘nerve’, to the three instances of ‘for’ via the cluster /ɔr/, an off-rhyme with /ɛr/ and /әr/. In the progression from ‘take’ to ‘Herrick’, through ‘for’, ‘Niedecker’, ‘for’, ‘clarity’, ‘O’Hara’, ‘for’, and ‘nerve’ we might detect an instance of what Pound called “the tone leading of the vowels.” Such tonal virtuosity is underwritten by the poem’s phonic economy. Of twenty syllables, only one (/ow/ in ‘O‘Hara’) does not rhyme with at least one other phoneme in at least one other syllable; and of the remaining syllables, only one shares only one phoneme with only one other syllable, /dә/ in Niedecker, whose /ә/ rhymes with that in melancholy. All the remaining syllables share at least two phonemes with at least two other syllables.
The phonemes /f/, /n/, /r/, /ɛ/, and /ɔ/ are found in every couplet. The first two couplets share, in addition, the consonants /k/, /l/, /t/ and the vowels /i/, /ɪ/, and /ə/, i.e., in these first four lines, eleven of eighteen different phonemes are repeated (or “rhyme”) at least once. Strictly, of the whole poem’s total of nineteen different phonemes, seven are not repeated, /ei/ in ‘take’ (no orphan, either, as shown above), /m/ and /ɑ/ in ‘melancholy’, /d/ in ‘Niedecker’, /ow/ and /a/ in ‘O’Hara’, and /v/ in ‘nerve’ (arguably, however, a near-rhyme with its unvoiced labiodental other, /f/, in ‘for’). That is to say that the phonemes compose a densely complex pattern that at the same time constitutes a nearly subliminal euphony. One could trace the way these rhymes structure and develop the poem, relating its words, lines, and stanzas. Nevertheless, it seems undeniable that the remarkable phonic parsimony discernible at the level of the syllables extends to the phonemes, too, though I would wager that connoisseurs of the prosody of Nobelese would be unlikely to bother attending to music as self-effacing as that of “Prescription”.
Equi’s formal sophistication continues the efforts of English-language Modernist poets to clarify poetic discourse by eschewing precisely that Victorian sonority that persists in the accents of Nobelese. This effort is at its best underwritten by what Louis Zukofsky called the test for poetry, namely, the quality discernible in a poem’s sound, sense, and intellection (vii). In the addendum to canto C in Pound’s Cantos, an unidentified voice says “A pity that poets have used symbol and metaphor / and no man learned anything from them / for their speaking in figures” (ll. 34-36). One hears a not unrelated sentiment in William Carlos Williams’ call for “No ideas but in things!” (55) or the epigraph to Allen Ginsberg’s Collected Poems 1947-1980 “Things are symbols of themselves!” This shift from the metaphorical to the metonymic at the level of the trope goes hand in hand with equal respect for the spontaneous genius of “the language really spoken,” its diction and its movement, a respect, ironically, with roots deep in nineteenth century philology and Romanticism, as anyone who recognizes the truncated quotation from Wordsworth will know (736). The notion is perhaps best expressed by Carlyle who exclaims “all speech, even the commonest speech, has something of song in it: not a parish in the world but has its parish accent; —the rhythm or tune to which the people there sing what they have to say!” (10). The primacy of music to language is attested by disciplines from developmental and evolutionary linguistics to philosophy. Whatever difference there is between discerning (and exploiting) the music in everyday speech and appreciating or composing the more artificial prosody of a poem, an ear for the former is more sensitive to finesses in the latter. Equi’s poem does not “crackle and pop”, sung, as it is, to a melody at once more cultured and subtle, rising, as if spontaneously, from the language as it is really spoken. An old handbook of poetics puts it best: “Here lies the skill, the genius of the poet; and no rules can take the place of a poetic ear” (163).
Carlyle, Thomas. Of Great Men. New York: Penguin, 1995.
Equi, Elaine, “Prescription” in The 2008 Griffin Poetry Prize Anthology, ed. Michael Redhill. Toronto: Anansi, 2008.
Ginsberg, Allen. Collected Poems 1947-1980. New York: Harper and Row, 1984.
Gummere, Francis. Handbook of Poetics. New York: Ginn and Company, 1895.
Pound, Ezra. Literary Essays of Ezra Pound, ed. T. S. Eliot. New York: New Directions, 1968.
—The Cantos of Ezra Pound. New York: New Directions, 1970.
Starnino, Carmine. “A Spectacular Mouthful.” The Globe and Mail Daily Review, 18 June 2009. http://www.theglobeandmail.com/books/a-spectacular-mouthful/article1186921/.
Warner, Patrick. “Stacked Vowels and Clustered Consonants.” Books in Canada, December 2006. http://www.booksincanada.com/article_view.asp?id=4653.
Williams, Williams Carlos. The Collected Poems of William Carlos Williams, Volume II. New York: New Directions, 1991.
Wordsworth, William. The Poetical Works of Wordsworth. London: Oxford University Press, 1951.
Zukofsky, Louis. A Test of Poetry. New York: Jargon, 1964.