Dec 13, 2007

A Valuable Stanza Form: Ten Lines Rhymed

Did you, as I did, happen upon Brad Leithauser’s striking poem in the New Yorker this fall entitled “Son”, which appeared in the October 23 issue (page 42)? Aside from its arresting subject matter (the death of an infant), the poem is remarkable because it employs a rare stanza form, 10 lines per stanza (almost always closed on a period) rhyming on five endings in a varying pattern. The form has no name that I am aware of. French poet Paul Valéry first employed, and I presume created, the form for a number of fine poems, including his great, “Ébauche d’un serpent,” which is composed of 31 10-line stanzas rhyming five times in different patterns within each stanza. Yvor Winters considered “Ébauche” to be the single greatest poem ever written[1]. I have mentioned this poem briefly several times on this blog, if you’d care to chase down my brief comments on it through the search box at the top of this page. I promise to give it a full consideration some time.

I have never seen another poem written in this form except for the poem I think might be the greatest in the English language, Winters’s own “To the Holy Spirit,” though Winters alters the form in an interesting way. His poem employs two 10-line stanzas, followed by a more regular 12-line stanza consisting of three quatrains and then a 14-line stanza, all in rhyme patterns as variable as Valéry’s. I consider this stanza form to be an important creation for modern literature, though, plainly, it has achieved little of its promise yet. The form offers possibilities for the resurrection of strongly formal, truly classical poems that take advantage of modernism’s penchant for associative rumination in the midst of rational argument. There’s a sentence that I should probably explain more fully, but I can’t take the time at present.

Leithauser has been classified as one of the New Formalists by various critics, and his commitment to poetic form is longstanding. I have been reading him for 30 years in various magazines in addition to the New Yorker. I can’t say that I can recall a single poem he has written, but this one might stick with me. The rhyme scheme is nicely managed. The meter is quite loose, probably far too loose for Yvor Winters. It seems to be iambic trimeter, but is so loose that Leithauser could have intended it as syllabic verse. That we cannot clearly discern the meter is a moderate flaw, I think (and this would be in keeping with Winters’s theories of meter).

The poem can be found as an excerpt from Leithauser’s latest book at the Borzoi Books web site:

Several of Leithauser’s loosely iambic lines are well composed. The strong iambs in the final line of the first stanza, “Of guilt’s imaginings,” are well struck in the context and quite moving and insightful. The fifth line of the second stanza “Even one whole day” is powerful in context, through the shortening of the line and the light spondee[2]. The final line of the second stanza also strikes me as well turned, because it repeats the regular iambic trimeter of the final line of Stanza 1 and rings that note of steadiness on an important insight.

The poem closes with two loose iambic lines that gain strength from their variations. The ninth line of Stanza 3, “In the end -- from animal to animal,” the longest line of the poem, gathers force from its nearly regular meter and emphatic length. The final line of the poem is twisted iambic trimeter, as far as I am able to discern, but it almost works perfectly as an expression of desperation, “Imploring, Please save my life.” The poem’s themes are vital: loss, memory, the fierce desire to live. I won’t consider them here. Upon several careful readings, I would rate this poem at 2 stars, “has redeeming facets.” It’s not great, yet it’s a fine formalist poem that adheres to the loose formal conventions of America’s New Formalists, descended principally, I would say, from Robert Frost.

I welcome all reflections and comments on this poem, of course.


[1] At least he thought so at one point in his career. Did he think so at the end? Does it matter whether he did so at the end? How many Wintersians think it’s the greatest poem? These are matters demanding careful consideration. No member of the Stanford School has given them ANY so far -- more’s the pity. I encourage anyone to write about “Ébauche” for this blog: in a comment, in an original post, or in a reference to a web link.

[2] This line strongly reminds me of and might be an allusion to Janet Lewis’s poem (which I intend to propose as an addition to the Winters Canon) “For the Father of Sandro Gulatta,” which I must discuss some day soon on this blog. Lewis wrote of a day lily:

All day and only one day
It drank the sunlit air.
In one long day
All that it needed to do in this world
It did....

The first and third lines in this quoted passage (from the second stanza) are the ones Leithauser might be alluding to. Of course, the similarities might be only coincidences; I have not read that Leithauser knows anything of Lewis’s work.

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