It’s only been 11 months since his last appearance in these pages, but it’s always a thrill to accidentally stumble across a new Greg Delanty poem in print. The poem below appears in this month’s Atlantic. Although it completely lacks a rhyme scheme or a meter, it’s strictly formal. Le’ts take a look at how. [And at this point I might recommend reading the poem first, before my exegesis ruins it for you.]
First off, just look at the dang thing. It’s 7 lines (a half-sonnet?), of roughly similar length. He’s indented each even-numbered line, and even they are slightly shortened word-wise to create a uniformity of size. The indentations themselves are kind of throw-backs to rigidly formal verse from the entire past of English letters. Appearance says a lot when we’re examining form, and here the lines look like a tightly-constructed, self-contained entirety.
Second, the sound of the words. Here Delanty has uncorked the whole bottle of traditional poetry tools, employing repetition (I know/I know), assonance (chimneys/mingle, brief/breeze), and alliteration (shooting/shawl/shoulders) to bind the lines and create internal coherence. In the absence of strict rhyme, poets often use these techniques to make the poem “sound” complete, to make it sound as if the distribution of syllables is at least somewhat ordered and harmonious. The placing of those words is thus important, which brings us to our final inquiry: rhythm.
Again, rhythm is kind of what works for the poet who’s working without a meter. How does one talk about rhythm? I don’t know. I guess it’s just the combination of what’s said and the alternating speeds at which it’s said. To think about that we use lots of clues: emotional clues in the words themselves, line length, punctuation of all sorts, and (particularly deviations from normal) syntax, among other things. This poem is four sentences long. The sentences vary in length; there’s essentially a long sentence, two short sentences, and another, longer sentence. The first sentence sets up a nice tempo for what’s going on in the poem, because it’s sort of a cascade of beats. When you read that first clause, you really can’t help but place the accents on the PLUMES and TWO CHIM syllables, and you’re hard-pressed to find another accent at all. That is: It’s descending, in a way, there’s a brief rev after the comma, but I think “become each other” is resolving and restful too, speed-wise. The next two sentences–stating knowledge and fact in an almost defensive tone–are brief and emphatic: look at all the monosyllables. When I look again, those two sentences are like the heavy beats at the very beginning: they set us up for a resolve. And so what we heard with the “become each other” of sentence one, we now crave for the poem in its entirety. What is the poem becoming? And then he just hits you with a lovely, slowly tumbling sentence, the line breaks tugging us deeper into the words (since two of them appear both natural AND as the place where a comma might have gone–that is, they “stop” us, in a good way), and the final metaphor of the poem (white shawl) giving the whole thing emotional weight. It strikes me as a very traditional lyric poem, with a simple observation and metaphor strategy. And it has a roundedness that I don’t think he could top evenhad he used iambic tetrameter and rhyming couplets. I hope you’ll agree that it’s no less beautiful for the rigidness of its construction. It’s free verse in name only! -ed.
Plumes from two chimneys opposite the café
mingle, become each other. I know
what the smoke says. I know that life is nothing
but a brief wisp. For now, we’re together
shooting the breeze, intermingling like the smoke
that is a white shawl over the shoulders
of the invisible goddess of the cold, keeping her warm.