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Auditory Imagination in Yeats’ ‘The Wild Swans at Coole’ (stanza 1).

‘The Wild Swans at Coole’ begins

The trees are in their autumn beauty,
The woodland paths are dry,
Under the October twilight the water
Mirrors a still sky;
Upon the brimming water among the stones
Are nine-and-fifty swans.

I’ve loved it since school days, when I used to carry Norman Jeffares’ Selected Poetry by Yeats around with me and read it repeatedly. I can’t remember just what I liked about this particular poem then but my feeling for it now crystallises around the beauty of its sound, especially in this first stanza, and around the strange way some of its words and phrases seem to … Continue Reading

Prufrock – metre?

I’ve been banging my head against a wall trying to get some kind of grasp on why the metre of ‘Prufrock’ works so well and just can’t do it. Perhaps if I just try to describe it in the poem’s first few lines I’ll get to some kind of conclusion.

First, what general impression does it give? Though what’s described is a mood of futility, frustration and failure of will, the opening sentence unfolds with a supple, sinewy forward momentum that can sound almost buoyant:

Let us go then, you and I,
When the evening is spread out against the sky
Like … Continue Reading

Inspiring form

I was very struck by this passage from an interview with Thom Gunn, quoted by Lisa McCabe on Twitter. It’s the most complete statement I’ve seen of something that I imagine will be dimly felt by everyone who tries to write seriously in a technically challenging way. Asked what the constriction of a pre-determined form pressed him (or one) to do, Gunn answered


It presses you to explore the subject. That’s the simple answer. It presses you to explore everything: the subject itself, your reactions to it, to explore language. There’s a fascinating thing that happens with the need … Continue Reading

Picture Poetry

For me, one of the keenest sensuous pleasures in poetry is the active sense that patterns of sound and syntax and rhythm are emerging as I read, solidifying into what Ezra Pound called “a shape cut into time” (in longer poems it may be more like a series of shapes melting into each other). I’ve just realised that this is why most so-called shape poetry or picture poetry or concrete poetry does so little for me.

Sensing a shape cut into time involves a kind of mental shift that I’d guess depends on the coming together of different parts of the … Continue Reading

Rhythm and syntax: my problem with “The Beautiful Librarians”

You can read both Sean O’Brien’s “The Beautiful Librarians” and Carol Rumens’ enthusiastic commentary in The Guardian by clicking here.

It’s a poem that falls curiously dead for me. It’s not that it lacks beauty and vigour of phrasing, that I don’t see the subtleties of thought and implication that Rumens describes, or that I’m out of sympathy with its attitudes and feelings. If I let my eyes drift over it, letting odd phrases come into focus in a fragmentary way, I feel a kind of prickling of incipient pleasure and excitement. As soon as I actually read it, … Continue Reading

Musical glimpses – Hugo, Stevens, Baudelaire

I stumbled on this bit of Victor Hugo in a book on nineteenth century French poetry[1]:

Sara, belle d’indolence
……….Se balance
Dans un hamac, au-dessus
Du bassin d’une fontaine
……….Toute pleine
D’eau puisée à l’Ilyssus ;

Et la frêle escarpolette
……….Se reflète
Dans le transparent miroir
Avec la baigneuse blanche
……….Qui se penche,
Qui se penche pour se voir …

My first thought was simply how lovely this is; it makes you wish English could dance in rhyme as easily as French can. My second was how like a lot of Wallace Stevens it is – the Wallace Stevens of … Continue Reading

A tiny metrical detail in “The Idea of Order at Key West”

The detail that struck me is me in the second stanza of this poem:

The sea was not a mask. No more was she.
The song and water were not medleyed sound
Even if what she sang was what she heard
Since what she sang was uttered word by word.
It may be that in all she sang there stirred
The grinding water and the gasping wind;
But it was she and not the sea we heard.

Expressing the iambic rhythm in your reading necessitates almost unnaturally heavy stresses on the first syllable of “Even” in line 3 of the stanza and on “may” and “all” … Continue Reading

“The Red Wheelbarrow” – such beautifully ordinary nouns

You can find the poem here.

I’ve just heard Ruth Padel’s broadcast of the Wordsworth Trust poetry workshop meeting on Radio 4. She talked about the importance of line breaks and used William Carlos Williams’s “The Red Wheel Barrow” to illustrate how unexpected they could be. What strikes me is how much emphasis these breaks throw on nouns. Three of the four breaks within stanzas come between nouns and their modifiers. Cumulatively this is highly unnatural. Moreover, it leaves each noun forming a one-word line poised on the edge of the gap between stanzas – a gap that itself … Continue Reading

The Power of Form: W B Yeats, “On a Political Prisoner”

I’ve just been looking again at Yeats’s “On a Political Prisoner”. What a beautiful and endlessly rereadable poem it is. Like so many older poems, it makes me wish I had enough formal skill myself to use set stanza structures properly.

Dogmatic opponents of traditional forms talk as if they were automatically cold, mechanical and external. Rubbish, as this poem among so many others amply demonstrates. Of course metrical and stanzaic forms can be applied in a cold, mechanical and external way, but then free verse can be limp and vacuous.

Yeats’s own famous statement about his style emphasises the link he … Continue Reading

Sylvia Plath, “Mushrooms”

We were given Sylvia Plath’s “Mushrooms” in an excellent writing class I’m going to and we discussed how Plath avoids the potentially monotonous effect of using a two-beat line over this length. What we talked about was the poem’s richness in alliteration and assonance. I think that in this poem such devices on the one hand, and syntax and metre on the other, play largely complementary roles. You can read the poem here to check my theory:


One of the main effects of the syntax is to keep things driving forward. The first four lines all end with strong enjambements, … Continue Reading