John Hollander

John Hollander: On "The Red Wheelbarrow"

[I]n twentieth-century verse, an enjambment can occur without interest in shock or abruptness as a mimetic effect by itself. . . . A paradigmatic case is from William Carlos Williams in a well-known poem which uses the device almost as if in a manifesto. . . .

The rigorous metrical convention of the poem demands simply three words in the first line of each couplet and a disyllable in the second. But the line termini cut the words "wheelbarrow" and "rainwater" into their constituents, without the use of hyphenation to warn that the first noun is to be part of a compound, with the implication that they are phenomenological constituents as well. The wheel plus the barrow equals the wheelbarrow, and in the freshness of light after the rain (it is this kind of light which the poem is about, although never mentioned directly), things seem to lose their compounded properties. Instead of Milton's shifting back and forth from original to derived meanings of words, Williams "etymologizes" his compounds into their prior phenomena, and his verbal act represents, and makes the reader carry out, a meditative one. The formal device is no surface trick.

From "Vision and Resonance: Two Sense of Poetic Form". Copyright © 1975 by Oxford University Press.

John Hollander: On "Spring and All"

This is a poem of discovery, of the gradual emergence of the sense of spring from what looks otherwise like a disease of winter. The "contagious hospital" is both a colloquial usage, by doctors and patients, for the longer name, and a hospital that is itself contagious, that leaks its presence out onto the road. The cold wind will be revealed as a spring wind, but not before the poem's complex act of noticing has been completed. The meter here is a typographic strip about 30 ems wide with a general tendency to break syntax at tight points (lines 3 and 4 are normal, rather than exceptional); but notice the traditional use of discovery-enjambment in lines 2 and 3—"under the surge of the blue" because of its audible dactylic melody aims the syntax at a noun version of "blue," a metonymy for sky. But the next line discovers its mere adjectival use, appositively with "mottled," and the hopefulness of upward motion, the brief bit of visual and perhaps spiritual ascendancy is undercut by the bleakness of the wintry scene, and the totality of the non-greenness, even the exclusion of available blue. For the buds of spring do indeed look, at first, like tumorous nastinesses of the branch. But the poem moves toward the avowal of the discovery: "Now the grass, tomorrow / the stiff curl of wildcarrot leaf." Its real conclusion, however, is revealed in the final moralization: "One by one objects are defined-- / It quickens: clarity, outline of leaf." The action of the poem is specifically discovered to be one of focusing; as one rotates a knob on the consciousness, the objects are defined, both in the world of the poem and by the poem, by poems in general. In its moralization, the poem is like "The Red Wheelbarrow," a manifesto about poetry. It is full of light, too, which it does not directly confront, the light that, as a younger poet has put it "wipes each thing to what it is,'' the light that takes us past what Stevens called "the evasions of metaphor." This is as visual a poem in every sense as one could find, a soundless picture of a soundless world, its form shaped rather than incanted, its surface like that of so much Modern poetry, now reflecting, now revealing its depths and, as the conscious wind of attention blows over it, now displaying the wavy texture of its surface. Put together from fragments of assertion, it has virtually no rhetorical sound. But its shape has become a familiar one—particularly for contemporary poetry of the eye—about its possibilities, betrayals and rewards, about rediscoveries of the visionary in the visual.

[. . . .]

Williams employs an enjambment which is directly in the line of Milton's type of revisionary disclosure:

By the road to the contagious hospital 

under the surge of the blue 

mottled clouds driven from the


northeast—a cold wind. Beyond, the 

waste of broad, muddy fields 

brown with dried weeds, standing and fallen

"Blue" in the second line might be nominal, and the surge of azure sky might be a too-easily gained sign of spring; the enjambment pulls it back into adjectival status, paired with, and half-modifying, "mottled." The fairly hard but merely systematic enjambments of "the" in the next two lines tend to soften, in retrospect, the modulation of "blue," as if to suggest, perhaps, that closure is no norm, that linearity has no marked integrity other than the rough typographical width of somewhere around thirty ems.

From Vision and Resonance: Two Senses of Poetic Form. Copyright  1975 by Oxford University Press.

John Hollander: On "Never Again Would Birds' Song Be The Same

If a mythical starting point for the pastoral music of outdoor sound might be located in the Virgilian shepherd's liquid metronome, the more complex Romantic reading of nature demands a different sort of account. One poem by Robert Frost, harking back to Classical pastoral in one way, more directly invoking the biblical garden, may serve to illustrate this:

[. . . . ]

This is an uncharacteristically mythopoetic moment for Frost. The myth is that of the imprinting of consciousness onto nature, not a visual one of, say, double exposure, or overlay of transparency that might fulfill technologically a wholly imagined Romantic device, but an aural one—"Be that as may be, she was in their song," and surely only be- cause of the heightened power of eloquence in call or laughter, not weeping, the very sounds of which drop, like tears, into the ground. Hereafter, the poem says, nature would exist as a meaningful communicant—this is really a totally Emersonian poem—to be listened to because human meaning would always be in it. The final couplet of the sonnet is a blend of summation and inspired, crafty hedging: "Never again would birds' song be the same," says Frost, in the line that gives the poem its title. But then he withdraws, as if the point of the poem couldn't be the establishment of a major myth; the final line domesticates the story, turning into canny praise of Eve's beauty—"And to do that to birds was why she came." But of course the poem is not about Eve as woman at all, but, in an unavowedly Miltonic way, about a part of humanity.

"Her tone of meaning, but without the words"—undoubtedly what Frost had earlier formulated, in attempting to particularize the dimension of the music of speech to which his ear was most highly attuned, as "the sentence sound." He meant the delicate but crucial modulations of phrase-stress pattern, contrastive stress, the rhetorical suprasegmentals, that not only make oral communication what it is, but which a practitioner of classical accentual-syllabic verse must be aware of. It is the music of English verse in which syntax plays a necessarily important role. "Just so many sentence sounds belong to man as just so many vocal runs belong to one kind of bird," he writes to Sidney Cox in 1914. 'We come into the world with them and create none of them. What we feel as creation is only selection and grouping. We summon them from Heaven knows where under excitement with the audile imagination." The sound of sense: the music of speech, but of speech being watched, in its transcribed form, within a diagramming and punctuating and annotating grid of metrical pattern. To this degree, we all still dwell in the Romantic world of the ear, in which the song of birds is more like poetry than a Beethoven string quartet. Wordsworth's "Ode on the Power of Sound" is, of course, emphatically not about the power of music, but about the ear's larger, undomesticated vastnesses, those regions in which real poetry, rather than cultivated verse, is to be found, the realm of all the human and natural utterance, from cries of pain to shouts of discovery: the sounds of language and of the wind in trees. 

From Vision and Resonance: Two Senses of Poetic Form. Copyright © 1975 by Oxford UP.