May 26, 2014 The Oven Bird & The Red Wheelbarrow

Well, Monday was a holiday, and yesterday was a helliday, so here we are still claiming that this is May 26th’s poem of the week.

Lauren asked 2 straightforward and fundamental questions last week. Let’s attack question 2 so that this message doesn’t get too long.

Why did Larry Levis break the line after “Someday, weeks” and not after the word “thinner?” Here’s the poem in its entirety, for reference:




I told no one, but the snows came, anyway.

They weren’t even serious about it, at first.

Then, they seemed to say, if nothing happened,

Snow could say that, & almost perfectly.


The village slept in the gunmetal of its evening.

And there, through a thin dress once, I touched

A body so alive & eager I thought it must be

Someone else’s soul. And though I was mistaken,


And though we parted, & the roads kept thawing between snows

In the first spring sun, & it was all, like spring,

Irrevocable, irony has made me thinner. Someday, weeks


From now, I will wake alone. My fate, I will think,

Will have to be no fate. I will feel suddenly hungry.


The morning will be bright, & wrong.

So one answer is, we don’t exactly know. I’m not trying to be glib, just something to keep in mind. Writing poems is about making choices–a boggling possibility of limitless choices.

Another answer is that the way a poem looks matters. Line breaks get a little tricky in free verse, absolutely. But remember I asked what kind of poem this is? It’s a sonnet. And yes, he’s screwing with the form a little, from a traditional point of view. So, no end rhyme that I could see. No strict meter. Some traditional sonnets end with 2 tercets, some with a rhyming couplet, and here he’s used neither. BUT. He is keeping basically within the parameters by using what I’d maybe call an “innocuous” line length. Lauren read the punctuation and capitalization and natural sentence rhythm of line 11, and it drew her attention. For me, the fact that most of the lines here are of the same length visually had the opposite effect–my eyes passed right over that. If the line broke at thinner, then line 12 would be quite long indeed, matching “And though we parted, & the roads kept thawing between snows.” And though I can’t explain why that shouldn’t happen, maybe Levis didn’t want it to happen.

Levis is using enjambment, which is where a poet breaks a line within the natural rhythmic flow of a phrase, or sentence, or what have you, rather than only when it ends, pauses, rhymes, or concludes a specific section of meaning. And yeah, Arwen’s reply points out that technique in general terms, when she asks whether Muldoon’s translation of “Myself and Pangur” doesn’t answer Lauren’s question. I’m glad Arwen made that comment, since I wouldn’t even have thought of that illustration. And here it is that I’ll ask if anyone wants to stand up for Flower’s translation, since I will not. Robin Flowers uses what sound to me like really brutal stops and rhymes in his translation. He has to shoehorn in awkward syntax in order to manage the job. “So in peace our task we ply?” “‘Tis a like task we are at?” I’m not saying it’s bad, and it probably gets the job done, in terms of making quite a direct and literal translation. But Muldoon’s writing a modern poem, and he’s gonna have fun with it–he’s added the “Georgics” just out of his sense of play and allusion, where the medieval text just mentions latin. But to me, it reads like a modern poem, in a modern conversational rhythm. Both translators there make really different choices about line break.

Levis is writing a very “modern” sonnet, too, where the meaning is never quite clear. The snow is talking? Who is talking? What village? Fate and no fate? Some deep, intimate remembrance, that has no clear connection to the “topic,” surfaces? His choice of the line break mid-sentence, just mixes things up further, as what might have seemed a coherent thought, or at least a coherent syntactical unit, now drapes across 2 stanzas. So generally, we can see a technique, and we can say a little about how the technique (the choice) is appropriate to the type of poem Levis is writing, but I don’t think we’re ever going to get a specific answer as to why there, in this poem. After all, he could have split the line before, and not after, “weeks,” and everything I’ve said above would still be the case, and we’d be no closer to knowing why right there was the final decision. Admittedly, with Shakespeare’s sonnets, this investigation is easier–and Shakespeare used his line endings not only for rhyme and meter, but for meaning: his ending couplets typically wrap up or point out the theme of the sonnet, or make some kind of point (willing to be corrected on that claim by those more familiar with all his sonnets).

For my money, no one did modern syntax with strict rhyme better than Robert Frost. No one speaks like his poems, exactly, but he succeeds at making the poems talk plainly. His near-exact contemporary, William Carlos Williams, was highly experimental and his free verse work does draw attention to its shape and the line breaks. Compare the 2 below, and see if we can answer the same question for these familiar pieces. To paraphrase Beckett, I could go on; I’ll not go on. -ed.

The Oven Bird


There is a singer everyone has heard,

Loud, a mid-summer and a mid-wood bird,

Who makes the solid tree trunks sound again.

He says that leaves are old and that for flowers

Mid-summer is to spring as one to ten.

He says the early petal-fall is past

When pear and cherry bloom went down in showers

On sunny days a moment overcast;

And comes that other fall we name the fall.

He says the highway dust is over all.

The bird would cease and be as other birds

But that he knows in singing not to sing.

The question that he frames in all but words

Is what to make of a diminished thing.

The Red Wheelbarrow

so much depends



a red wheel



glazed with rain



beside the white


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