| First of all, it should be
that we do expect to see the poem. Unlike earlier or present-day
oral forms, we would not expect to hear it performed (though it
might benefit from such performance). Furthermore, we would expect
it to have an appearance on the page that differs from the
appearance of prose. It is this appearance, in fact, that triggers
the rest of our response.
For example, something like the following sentence recently appeared as a local news item: "Neighbors reported that a seeing eye dog was attacked by a pit bull terrier as her blind owner screamed for help." Suppose, however, that we came across these words arranged on the page in this manner:
We would no longer think of this as a statement of specific historical fact (a news item). Because of its appearance, we would assume it was a "poem," and we would bring to it other expectations. We would expect it to carry some significant theme. We would assume that it was unified, that we could "make sense" of it, because all its elements were aligned to suggest this theme. For example, we might assume that there was a purpose to the unusual line breaks--perhaps to emphasize (by isolating them) the single words "neighbors," "reported," and "help." Because of this emphasis, we might also assume a significant relationship between these words and the situation described. Do the opposing connotations of the words "help" and "reported" suggest an uncaring relationship between supposedly friendly "neighbor" and blind person? And what about the speaker of the poem? What is his or her attitude about this incident?
Furthermore, beyond the very dramatic technique of isolating a single word on a line, just by placing a word or a phrase at the end of a line, a poet gives it some degree of emphasis--because in reading we would usually pause slightly there. Thus when the phrases "pit bull terrier" and "seeing eye dog" are placed at the end of their lines, is the contrast between the two kinds of dogs subtly emphasized? Is our sense of horror enhanced by the climactic position of the phrase "screamed for"? Through some rather simple changes, the newspaper statement has become considerably more intense.
This brief example illustrates an important principle--that how we read is conditioned by our assumptions and expectations, by the conventions and codes we apply. And it seems we do possess the most basic coding of lyric poems. In this case, there were three assumptions and expectations, the first one triggering the others: (1) the physical appearance--the line breaks, with their suggestion of a "verse" or "stanzaic" as opposed to a "continuous" prose form- -triggered the assumption that this was a "poem," and thus set up (2) the expectation of some significant theme, thought to be conveyed through (3) a short, but coherent (i.e., unified) structure. How we pursue the structure may vary. (Here, we postulated a functional "verse" form, with functional word choices, functional word placement, and an appropriate speaker/situation complex.) But basically we know what we must do. Let us see what else we already "know" about reading lyric poetry, especially about "stanza" form, and about the relationship between "speaker" and theme.
For example, without ever having to name the verse form, we will find Walt Whitman's long flowing lines typically evoking in us feelings of freedom, of breaking out of boundaries. Consider the lengthened third line in the following:
Facing west, from California's shores,The expanded third line helps to evoke the theme of expansiveness. In another example of this technique, Whitman's speaker watches a "noiseless patient spider" send and then thinks of his own soul, separate, yet reaching out--
Surrounded, detached, in measureless oceans of space,By contrast with Whitman, an earlier lyric form such as the traditional fourteen-line sonnet is much more controlled, evoking in us the feeling of a more confined, more regular, and more ordered universe. We perceive that each line is the same length. A carefully controlled rhyme scheme seems to circumscribe the emotion. Yet this constriction may promote in us other kinds of valuable feeling, different from those of the Whitman lines. "Nuns fret not at their convent's narrow room," wrote Wordsworth in his sonnet about the rewards of sonnet-writing, because "In truth the prison, unto which we doom / Ourselves, no prison is." Instead, a comforting sense of a graceful, ordered world often seems implicit--particularly perhaps in the traditional "English" sonnet.
In this form, an argument or situation may be divided up by its rhyme scheme: there are three four-line sections (abab cdcd efef), and then a couplet--two consecutively rhymed lines (gg). By contrast with the alternating rhymes of the first three sections, the concluding couplet gives a feeling of rounding off, of completion. For example, Shakespearian sonnet "arguments" often feel wonderfully comforting. A confident speaker addresses his beloved with graceful exaggeration, in an exquisitely ordered compliment (both to his love and to himself), arguing that because of his sonnet, the beloved's memory will be preserved forever ("Not marble, nor the gilded monuments / Of princes, shall outlive this powerful rhyme"). Another sonnet's speaker may argue (in the first and second four-line sections), that when everything worldly seems to be going wrong, when he is "in disgrace with fortune and men's eyes," he merely has to think (in the third four-line section) of his beloved, and his state, like that of the morning lark, rises and "sings hymns at heaven's gate." The couplet (gg) neatly "finishes" with:This ability of a couplet to evoke a feeling of conclusiveness, of "closure," is frequently exploited by Shakespeare in his plays. After using blank verse (which is unrhymed) or prose for most of a scene, he will end it with one or more couplets.
Whitman's free verse and Shakespeare's sonnets seem to represent opposite thrusts among verse forms. But they demonstrate in a simple way that given what we have already acquired, our sense of various possibilities in using language, we can respond immediately to the spatial and sound groupings we lump together under the name of "stanzaic" form.
Adapted from A Guide to the Study of Literature: A Companion Text for Core Studies 6, Landmarks of Literature, ©English Department, Brooklyn College.
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