Edward Brunner: On "Sun and Rain"

At its most effective, the caesura allows a degree of movement simply unavailable in verse with only one kind of pause within it. It allows for levels of activity within the activity promised by the individual line. Moreover, the flexibility of the caesura allows for exchanges of position: midway through the line, when we anticipate a weak turn, we may experience a strong one, and the reverse can happen at the end of the line. The line can turn intense or grow slack, within itself, according to the poem as it is shaped.

The immense advantage of the variable caesura, then, is that it can orchestrate such a minor turn--not strong enough to deserve an entire line to itself yet indicating a distinct shift. Its inflection can be reserved for the turn that occurs within memory, the turn less active than the major turns unfolding as the poem develops. Although the caesura is exclusively associated with verse and related to the fundamental verse unit, the line break, it allows Merwin to borrow a feature from the spaciousness of prose: syntax can now be used adroitly, in the form of the prepositional phrase, to downplay turns, to render them less active.

One poem that draws on phrasings that might be considered weak, yet that serve to orchestrate the poet's feelings most precisely, is "Sun and Rain." In the first stanza, the last halves of the lines form around prepositional phrases, weak turns that present Merwin's movement back into the past "after five years." In general, active statements begin after the line break, honoring its greater authority ("I find that," "looking down," and "hearing the current") while the afterthoughts, the deepening downward pull towards the past, occur in prepositional phrases that follow the caesura. Merwin conveys the sudden downward spiral of being overtaken by a memory of sorrow; the softening into darkness is palpable as we move from "a bright window" to the image of his mother looking "at dusk into a river" and "hearing the current as hers."

Against this emerges the saving gesture of the second stanza-- hands held out for another and clinging to a long moment on the edge of death. The strength in the gesture is kept up in the forthright clauses that now begin to dominate and even spill over beyond the boundary of the caesura. This in turn leads back to the present, with the vivid movement of creatures that "turn uphill" in "a band of sunlight" and stand "as the dark rain touches them," as the hands of his mother and father once touched. It is a complex surrogate moment, in which Merwin's longing to reach out to his own mother is answered by this recollected moment in which his father had been able to overcome his own hesitancy to extend his hand to hers, and then comforted further by this encompassing vision of sun and rain mingling together. The vision is a gift much as his father's gesture was a gift to his mother: it keeps that gesture alive and recovers it for the present.

George Stavros: On "Gay Chaps at the Bar"

Q. Let me ask you about some of your poems that are in specific forms, however—sonnets . . . .

A. I like to refer to that series of soldier sonnets. 

Q. "Gay Chaps at the Bar." 

A. A sonnet series in off-rhyme, because I felt it was an off-rhyme situation—I did think of that. I first wrote the one sonnet, without thinking of extensions. I wrote it because of a letter I got from a soldier who included that title in what he was telling me; and then I said, there are other things to say about what's going on at the front and all, and I'll write more poems, some of them based on the stuff of letters that I was getting from several soldiers, and I felt it would be good to have them all in the same form, because it would serve my purposes throughout.

from "An Interview with Gwendolyn Brooks" in Contemporary Literature 11:1 (Winter 1970).

George Stavros: An Interview on "We Real Cool"

Q. How about the seven pool players in the poem "We Real Cool"? 

A. They have no pretensions to any glamor. They are supposedly dropouts, or at least they're in the poolroom when they should possibly be in school, since they're probably young enough, or at least those I saw were when I looked in a poolroom, and they. . . . First of all, let me tell you how that's supposed to be said, because there's a reason why I set it out as I did. These are people who are essentially saying, "Kilroy is here. We are." But they're a little uncertain of the strength of their identity. [Reads:]

We real cool. We  Left school. We 

Lurk late. We  Strike straight. We 

Sing sin. We  Thin gin. We 

Jazz June. We  Die soon.

The "We"—you're supposed to stop after the "We" and think about their validity, and of course there's no way for you to tell whether it should be said softly or not, I suppose, but I say it rather softly because I want to represent their basic uncertainty, which they don't bother to question every day, of course.

Q. Are you saying that the form of this poem, then, was determined by the colloquial rhythm you were trying to catch?

 A. No, determined by my feeling about these boys, these young men. 

Q. These short lines, then, are your own invention at this point? You don't have any literary model in mind; you're not thinking of Eliot or Pound or anybody in particular . . . ? 

A. My gosh, no! I don't even admire Pound, but I do like, for instance, Eliot's "Prufrock" and The Waste Land, "Portrait of a Lady," and some others of those earlier poems. But nothing of the sort ever entered my mind. When I start writing a poem, I don't think about models or about what anybody else in the world has done.

From "An Interview with Gwendolyn Brooks" in Contemporary Literature 11:1 (Winter 1970).