by JON SILKIN (Macmillan)

It could be argued that the last thirty years have seen free verse collapse
into a quasi prosiness, whose logic must be either a new formalism by way
of reaction, or the treatment of poetry as an adjunct of prose. Very timely
therefore this new study by Jon Silkin of the formal patterns of the
earlier twentieth century. It covers in some detail Imagism with particular
reference to Lawrence, Pound, Read, Eliot and to some extent H.D.., Pound,
Lawrence in toto, Dylan Thomas, the Bunting of Briggflatts, and a chapter
of brief essays/notes on such contemporaries of Silkin as Tomlinson, Roy
Fisher, Geoffrey Hill, Elizabeth Jennings, Redgrove etc.

I list the subjects in detail because  I think it is indicative of the
books' strengths and weaknesses. The latter are real. I cannot help feeling
that the poets who have most effectively  overcome the challenge of
incorporating the rhythms of prose into verse without being overwhelmed by
them are Williams  and Zukofsky,and their fellow Objectivists Oppen,
Reznikoff and Rakosi, and perhaps (but more imperfectly) Charles Olson.
Take this from a seminal forties poem by Williams (who is treated rather as
if he did not write after 1920)

The descent beckons
	as the ascent beckoned.
		  Memory is a kind

of accomplishment,
	 a sort of renewal
an initiation, since the spaces it opens are new places
	 inhabited by hordes
		   heretofore unrealized,
of new kinds -
	 since their movements
		    are towards new objectives
(even though formerly they were abandoned).

Here we see a coherent scansion by breath and eye that gives (once one is
used to it) a movement as formal and satisfying as a sonnet, and is not
related to any stress pattern. However equally one could argue one of the
magics of this piece is the way it also retains a sort of two or three
syllable foot pattern. The descent/beckons/as the/ascent/beckoned etc. the
foot is as it were liberated from the traditional line. One could argue
that this is equally the secret of Howl (Ginsberg was more or less
Williams' pupil for a considerable time) or Plath (who everyone seems to
have forgotten was in Lowell's writing class at the time he was revamping
his own style via Williams). So why are we now stuck thirty years after
Plath with so much prosodic incoherence?

The answer may in part at least be implicit in Silkin's choice of subjects.
The great achievements of Williams and the Objectivists were little
understood in their own land, and have simply been ignored in this.

Another reason, which may be more fundamental, is the replacement of the
idea of the foot with that of stress. Assuming that in general the rhythm of
free verse is 'sprung' in Hopkins' sense  it is curious how rarely his
description is quoted. "Sprung rhythm measured by feet of from one
to four syllables, regularly, and for particular effects any number of weak
or slack syllables may be used. It has one stress which falls on the only
syllable, if there is only one,or, if there are more, then ...on the first
...". Personally I question whether the stress always falls on the first
syllable. In Whitman for example it is easy to find similar syllable groups
e.g. "When lilacs/last in the/courtyard bloomed // And the great star/early
drooped/in the western sky/ in the night, // I mourned/and yet shall
mourn/with ever/returning spring". This is equally true of say Eliot e.g.
"April/is the/cruelest month,/breeding //Lilacs/out of/ the dead
land/mixing // memory/and/desire, /stirring //dull/ roots/ with
spring/rain." or "What seas/what shores/what grey rocks/and what islands
// What water/lapping the bow //And scent of pine/and the
wood thrush/singing/through the fog".It is equally the principle of much
Objectivist line division e.g. the opening of Lorine Niedecker's Darwin

	      His holy
			mulled over

	      not all 'delirium
		    of delight'
			  as were the forests
		of Brazil

The alternative is to scan (as Silkin usually and very competently does by
stress). This does however cause constant problems to this reader, because
it seems much more important to establish the position of feet than that of
stresses. E.g. Eliot's lines from the Waste Land

		I can connect
		nothing with nothing
		the broken finger nails of dirty hands.

Silkin scans this
		 /         /
		 I can connect
		  /            /
		 Nothing with nothing
		       /     /     /        /     /
		 The broken fingernails of dirty hands

I would prefer

		  I can/ connect //
		  Nothing/with nothing //
		  The broken/fingernails/of dirty/hands //

Undoubtedly reflected in Silkin's scansion is an obsession with the
iambic.It is basically the only foot he constantly refers to, and yet the
nature of free and sprung forms is to move away from that. In particular he
constantly ignores the movement away from the five foot line to the four
foot in so much twentieth century verse. Thus by ignoring that 'your ship
of death' is a four syllable foot in Lawrence's

		   Have you built your ship of death, O have you

he ends up with a five stress line
			     /           /      /     /       /
		   Have you built your ship of death, O have you

In fact I think the whole of the opening of the Ship of Death  scans as
four foot lines, and Silkin's attempts to introduce an irregularity by
mixing four and five stress lines is a confusion based on ignoring groups
of four syllables e.g.

		  Have you built/your ship of death,/O/ have you

His method is much more effective in discussing the genuinely irregular
structures of H.D. It would be hard to quarrel with his scansion of Oread.
		    /        /
		  Whirl up, sea -
		    _         /       /
		  Whirl your pointed pines,
		     /          /    /
		  Splash your great pines
		  On our rocks,
		   -          -   /
		  Hurl your green over us,
		   /                  /        /
		  Cover us with your pools of fir.

This analysis subtly sets off the exceptionally long syllables e.g. "Hurl
your green" against the pure stresses.

It is a pity however that Silkin ignores the prosodic problems posed by the
triads of late H.D.. Personally I suspect they make each line a breath
movement, but the lines are longer than in say Williams of the same period
e.g.from her last long sequence Esperance

		   The golden apples of the Hesperides,
		   The brushed-bloom of the pollen
		   on the wing of ravishing butterfly or plundering bee;

This family of the genuinely irregular should I think include Pound much of
the time. At any rate I personally find it difficult to scan most of the
Cantos other than as interactions of movements of breath and lines on the

Dylan Thomas is prosodically speaking one of the intriguing moments of the
twentieth century, for he fused something of the motion of the new free
verse with more fixed forms. These may possibly have been based on the
number of syllables in the line, which may have owed something to his early
reading of Blake's Prophetic Books, which often seem to be irregular
syllabics (though did Thomas have at least the idea of the classical scansion
by length of syllable at the back of his head?). Silkin has the courage to
deal with Thomas at length, despite Thomas' current critical unpopularity.
On the whole this is one of the better chapters in a good book, but I must
take mild issue with the discussion of Fern Hill. This poem does not seem
to me a stress based structure at all. It is composed of lines of 14, 9, or
6 syllables. Structurally the poem turns on the possibilities of three and
two syllable feet. The nine syllable lines have to have three syllable feet
e.g. "In the sun/born over/ and over". The six syllable are ambiguous, but
are usually three feet of two e.g. "Time held/me green/and dying". The
fourteeners are a mixture of the two  e.g "Nothing/ I cared/, in the
lamb/white days/, that time/would take me". The rhythm seems partly at
least out of the old ballads, which also regularly mix two and three syllable
feet. Analysis by standard stress pattern seems inappropriate.

Finally I must say, that despite the rather grumbling dialogue above, I do
think this is an outstanding book. It does address the whole way we have
written verse over the last hundred or so years as I think no one else has
ever done on this scale. It is easy to quarrel with particular analyses as
I have already demonstrated, but this book provides so much detailed
prosodic discussion. Provided it is used as a starting point and not made
into a body of dogma it will be invaluable.

Because it is chiefly what interests me, I have concentrated on the very
considerable element of prosody. However there is much more to this book
than this. The long and detailed discussion of Pound takes in his ideas as
well as his forms, and includes much good sense, and is virtually a short
book in its own right. One comes up though against the old problem. Why, if
Pound was such an anti semitic bastard  were so many of his most devoted
followers Jewish? Oppen, Reznikoff, Rakosi, above all Zukofksy?

However this seems the point to bow out and say that though this book is
endlessly provoking, it is also very worth reading, which is more than can
be said of most recent criticism.