Prosody and the Outside:
This essay was originally published in Carl Rakosi: Man and Poet, edited by Michael Heller, National Poetry Foundation, 1993.
Carl Rakosi’s 1983 collection Spiritus I carries, as back cover note, an excerpt from a letter written to him three decades earlier by Wallace Stevens, a poet for whom he has frequently expressed admiration.
My guess about you is that what excites you most of all is real things and that your allusions to other things are merely to accentuate actual objects and people...if I am right about this, you have exactly the kind of mind that appears to be required in contemporary poetry.
Stevens’s comment is perceptive, but somewhat perplexing at the same time; for what he seems to praise in Rakosi — a focused attention to “actual objects and people” — can hardly be seen as a vital quality of his own work.
In fact, the idealist paradigm that overlays Stevens’s verse, with its binary counterpositions of the “mundo” of the imagination and “reality” (and its marked propensity to privilege the former over the latter), provides little space in his poetry within which the “actual” may become articulated. As Stevens himself puts it, speaking, if ironically, of the “Platonic resolution” of his work, “The primitivism disappears...The world is not an extraneous object, full of other extraneous objects, but an image. In the last analysis, it is with this image of the world that we are vitally concerned (NA 151). Or as he instructs elsewhere, and perhaps even more pointedly, the “imagination” is nothing less than “a violence from within that protects us from a violence without” (NA 36).
Rakosi: Now symbolism, of course, is more in contrast with objectivism. It seems to me that the subject of symbolism is a poetic state of feeling and its aim is to reproduce it. It really didn’t matter what you started with — whether it was a flower or the moon. All the poet was concerned with was his own feeling. And for the subject, symbolism is suitable, but it’s a very narrow subject...
Of course, Stevens’s work is much too complex to be generalized as a reproduction of “poetic states of feeling.” But if his idealism — as a good deal of criticism on Stevens has concurred — does predispose him toward an “a priori” contextualization of the experiential world,
how might that stance be manifested in the formal qualities of the work? It bears noting that Stevens himself offers little help on such a question, seeming to deny, in an often-quoted statement, that we should find any connection at all:
Let me divide modern poetry into two classes, one that is modern in respect to what it says, the other that is modern in respect to form. ...The first kind is interested in form but it accepts a banality of form as incidental to its language. Its justification is that in expressing thought or feeling in poetry the purpose of the poet must be to subordinate the mode of expression, that, while the value of the poem as a poem depends on expression, it depends primarily on what is expressed. Whether the poet is modern or ancient, living or dead, is, in the last analysis, a question of what he is talking about...(NA 167–68)
Stevens, of course, is primarily “modern in respect to what [he] says,” and inasmuch as the modernist project is centrally concerned with the abilities of the imagination’s powers to make a troubling reality cohere, Stevens’s iterated theme of the “imagination pressing back against the pressure of reality,” (NA 36) may be seen as emblematic. And, in one sense, such a devaluation of form is congruent with his allegiances to Kantian and Coleridgean epistemology
: Clearly, if time and space are conceived as “categories of mind,” articulated by its forces, it is pointless to seek out modalities of form that speak to an immanence of perception, nature and language. Nevertheless, Stevens’s suggestion that his verse is among that which holds “form as incidental to its language” can’t really be taken at face value. In fact, throughout his work, patterns of versification and stanza manifest themselves not as secondary aspects, or framed displays of “craft,” but as both semantically consequent from, and generative of, those vectors of “saying” that Stevens would have us take as privileged and autonomous of form.
metapoetry presents a highly grammatical drama, for it consists of concepts about poetic language itself of which grammar makes up a large part of the story. (Hammond 179–185).
The imagination and the rhythms of its composition, one might say, enfold one another in the search for a redemptive, self-sufficient realm. Thus, in the absence of any ontological support beyond the mind, the poetic act becomes invested not only with the “defensive” task of deflecting the chaotic intrusions of the “outside,” but also with the positive one of giving aesthetic coherence to those internal categories of thought and being through which value is projected onto the world. As Mutlu Konuk Blasing has put it, in an essay that is, with Hammond’s, an exception to the paucity of formal investigation mentioned above,
...Stevens accepts blank verse unquestioningly because its very conventionality serves his purposes. The conventionality of Stevens’s form underlines its “unnaturalness”; nevertheless, the composing and experiencing of the conventional rhythm are temporal processes and have historical resonance, thereby locating the experience of time in poetic form rather than in nature. In other words, time appears as a conventional human construct, and we need poetry to restore time to nature (97).
A prosody imbued with the “banal” but reconciling auras of the traditional, then, can be seen as a perfectly natural extension of the making of fictions: In face of the unpatterned chronicities of lived temporality, the imagination counters with the fictive time of kairos,
scored through measures of rhythmic recurrence that propose a space of lyrical assurance and autotelic closure. If composition remains insistently within conventional parameters, it is precisely because its task is to supersede the assymetries and dissonances that the real time of perception bring on. In this regard, Charles Altieri’s description of prosodic strategies employed toward very different ends by “immanentist” writers also befits Stevens: His is a composition which has “a theory of rhythm stressing its absolute qualities as a dimension of the experience, not its artificial functions...” (Altieri 36).
As Stevens himself argues, “It [the imagination] seems, in the last analysis, to have something to do with our self-preservation, and that, no doubt, is why the expression of it, the sound of its words, helps us to live our lives.” (NA 36, my emphasis)
LITTLE OBSERVATIONS AT YADDO
“Little Observations at Yaddo” is exemplary of Rakosi’s gift for interweaving precise looking and meditative thought, and, more specifically, an example of the “grammetric”
versification that characterizes much of his late work. As distinct from Stevens, where prosody is focused in accentual pulse, Rakosi projects the line as full unit of measure, the compressions or extensions of which aim to trace the interplays of phenomena and reflective thought. Composition in this mode, in that it grounds itself, in Zukofsky’s famous phrase, in a “thinking with things as they exist,” operates — and must — outside any paradigmatic metrical structure. As opposed to the rhythmic, one might even say melodic, expectations that Stevens’s verse fulfills, the indeterminate patterns of meter
and enjambment in Rakosi’s work map, with the objectivist maxim of “sincerity,” the confluence of dissonances and harmonies brought on by the open engagement of a mind with its given world. The text stands as if between the “subjective” and the “real” — a mediating grid or lattice upon which thinking and outer fact entwine as they seek their way into form.
No one here
Stevens’s impatient remark late in his career about Williams’s poems exhibiting “verbal conglomerates” and a “mobile-like arrangement of line” (LWS 800-801) would apply equally well to this poem, as it would to much of Rakosi’s work. As in Williams (and opposed to the horizontal pull of Stevens’s metaphorical discursiveness) acts of seeing and thinking in Rakosi manifest themselves metonymically; the pressurings of the text’s lineation against the expectations of syntax de-conventionalize the poem’s reception, and open its reading to combinational possibilities outside its larger narrative flow. The particulars of attention, whether subjective or objective, are unshackled through form, and offered as a relational matrix that is open and, in the end, non-determined. One could take, for example, the opening passage from “Little Observations at Yaddo,” and reconstitute the lines into the following-fairly random couplings:
Thus, to the “dismantling of contexts” that characterize Stevens’s verse, Rakosi offers the alternative of a construction of contexts, proposing a fluid and creative exchange between the subject and that which it is given to live by. In this sense, the poem does not seek to insist its value or order into the world (or reader), but rather to be an object through which the “values” of human agency and objective world can interact on non-heirarchical and interpenetrating terms. Laszlo Gefin’s characterization of ideogrammic approaches applies well to Rakosi here: “The form extends from an attitude which does not seek to appropriate nature, but to explore it, which sees the human being as a participant in natural processes rather than some kind of corona naturae” (Gefin 21).
IN WHAT SENSE I AM I
Such form is at a great remove from those “a priori” dispositions of Stevens’s metric; rather than being projected as an alternative to ontological uncertainty, Rakosi’s form aims to “situate itself as a question” (Heller 106), inviting in, and seeking sustenance from, the answerings of the “outside”.  That the subject of the poem quoted from above is a painting only deepens that proposition. The frame, so to speak, of representation has vanished here, and the boundaries between illusion and fact, the mythological and actual, object and self, open to a non-differentiated flow of “inner” and “outer.” As Michael Palmer has put it, commenting on Rakosi’s poetry, “the work faces the world,” (121) and it does so with such certainty because it holds mind and language — whatever their mediations — to be inextricably in it. One of Rakosi’s best known poems, “Associations with a View from the House” is instructive in this regard:
ASSOCIATIONS WITH A VIEW FROM THE HOUSE
Clearly, this is a “view” that is deeply at odds with Stevens’s dictum that “From this the poem springs: that we live in a place / That is not our own, and much more not ourselves...” (CP 383). What is proposed to us here, rather, is that the “otherness” of the real is our true and only home. The world we behold and require, Rakosi implies, can stand as a “fiction” only insofar as we fail to see how it may open into us as benediction. There are certainly few recent poets who have spoken of that possible reciprocity with comparable humility and technical grace. To the extent that we’ve begun to realize our common need for such reconnection, Stevens’s curious comment about Rakosi revealing “exactly the kind of mind that appears to be required in contemporary poetry,” rings as timely as ever, and with a good deal of prescience.
 Gerald Bruns has explored the radically monologic nature of Stevens’s writing in an important essay, “Stevens Without Epistemology,” in Wallace Stevens: The Poetics of Modernism.
 Michael Davidson discusses this connection in his impressive essay “Notes Beyond the Notes: Wallace Stevens and Contemporary Poetics,” in Wallace Stevens: The Poetics of Modernism.
 The term is used by Laszlo Gefin to describe what he regards as the most significant current in 20th century American poetry. See his excellent study, Ideogram: History of a Poetic Method.
 See Albert Gelpi, A Coherent Splendor: The American Poetic Renaissance, 1910 — 1950. Cambridge: Cambridge, 1987, and Marjorie Perloff’s important “Pound/ Stevens: Whose Era?,” in her The Dance of the Intellect: Studies in the Poetry of the Pound Tradition. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1985. For thought-provoking studies that propose to qualify such distinctions, see Michael Davidson’s “Notes Beyond the Notes: Wallace Stevens and Contemporary Poetics,” and Alan Golding’s “The ‘Community of Elements’ in Wallace Stevens and Louis Zukofsky,” in Wallace Stevens: The Poetics of Modernism.
 Evident, in particular, in some of the early poems included in Amulet. New York: New Directions, 1967.
 Frank Lentricchia, for example, who regards Stevens as the seminal figure of a dominant “conservative fictionalist tradition” in 20th century American literature and criticism, sees “nonlinguistic” reality in the poet’s work “generally represented...as everywhere and always hostile to human being.” (After the New Criticism. Chicago: Chicago UP, 1980. 32.) While critics more sympathetic to Stevens’s project are not so categorical, there seems at least implicit general agreement in Stevens criticism that his bracketing of “reality as such” is a central element in the dynamic of his thought.
 The most important philosophical genealogy of Stevens’s work is Margaret Peterson’s Wallace Stevens and the Idealist Tradition. Ann Arbor: UMI Research Press, 1983.
 Though the term can be very normatively applied to a number of poems or major passages in Stevens’s oeuvre, “blank verse” here is not meant, necessarily, in the strict sense of “unrhymed iambic pentameter,” but as a term encompassing a range of metrical strategies that place iambic pulse in vivid relief. Roy Harvey Pearce argues that starting with Transport to Summer, the later poems begin to move away from a coherent, unified idealism, and toward an equivocation between two “dialectically opposed tendencies.” Those poems like “The Rock,” which celebrate “the power of the subject,” and those like “Not Ideas about the Thing, but the Thing Itself,” which give primacy to “the givenness of the object, the reality which is... perdurably out there.” (“Wallace Stevens: The Last Lesson of the Master,” in The Act of the Mind, 121 — 143.) Neither one of these poles, it should be pointed out, in any way resolves the ontological antinomies that inform Stevens’s corpus, but it is relevant to my argument in this paper that as his philosophical paradigm begins to oscillate in the late poems, his meter — as Judd demonstrates — exhibits increasing variability.
 The most commonly made analogy has been with Wordsworth’s blank verse. See, for example, J.V. Cunningham, “The Poetry of Wallace Stevens,” Poetry (December, 1949): 162 — 3, and Randall Jarrell, “The Collected Poems of Wallace Stevens,” Yale Review (March, 1955): 348. Donald Davie sees Stevens’s measure as most closely resembling that of Keats. See “Essential Gaudiness: The Poems of Wallace Stevens,” in The Poet in the Imaginary Museum.. Essays of Two Decades. Ed. Barry Alpert. Manchester, 1977. 72 — 74.
 See Frank Lentricchia’s discussion of Frank Kermode’s treatment of kairos in After The New Criticism, 38—39.
 While Altieri’s use of “immanentist” encompasses various poetic currents, he includes objectivist writing within it, and proposes the term in contradistinction to “symbolist” modalities of form and thought.
 “Yaddo,” an expanded version of this poem, appears in Spiritus, I. I have quoted the earlier version for purposes of space.
 I am indebted in my discussion of Rakosi’s poetics to Eniko Bollobas’s fine study, “Measures of Attention: On the Grammetrics of Lineation in William Carlos Williams’s Poetry,” in Poetry and Epistemology: Turning Points in the History of Poetic Knowledge. Ed. Roland Hagenbuchle and Laura Skandera. Regensburg: Pustet, 1986.
 While the stress count in each hemistich ranges from one to three (with the exception of the line in bold-face) there is no dominant foot or syllabic pattern.
 In this regard, Randolph Chilton has argued a fundamental connection between basic principles in Heidegger’s thought and the poetry of George Oppen. I believe that analogous connections may be found with Rakosi. See “The Place of Being in the Poetry of George Oppen,” in George Oppen: Man and Poet. Orono: National Poetry Foundation, 1981. Whitehead would be another, perhaps even closer, affinity.
 For Rakosi, being fully participant in that mystery of the “outer,” also implies a need to regard the subject’s desires and speculations with a sense of modesty. While meditations on the nature of cognition and knowledge in our poetry have often been a province for melancholic seriousness, if not outright existential angst, Rakosi — and with remarkable frequency — makes them into occasions for self-effacement and an easy acceptance of the unknown. In poems like “The Menage” or “How to Be with a Rock” (which may well be a take-off on Stevens’s solemn and celebrated poem), he shows himself to be our happiest — and sometimes funniest — philosophical poet.
Altieri, Charles. Enlarging the Temple: New Directions in American Poetry During the 1960s. Lewisburg: Bucknell UP, 1979.
Blasing, Mutlu Konuk. American Poetry: The Rhetoric of Its Forms. New Haven: Yale UP, 1987.
Dembo, L.S. “Interview with Carl Rakosi.” Contemporary Literature 10. 2 (1969).
Duncan, Robert. “Ideas of the Meaning of Form.” The Poetics of the New American Poetry. Ed. Donald Allen and Warren Tallman, New York: Grove, 1973.
Gefin, Laszlo. Ideogram: History of a Poetic Method. Austin: U of Texas P, 1982.
Gelpi, Albert. “Stevens and Williams: The Epistemology of Modernism.” Wallace Stevens: The Poetics of Modernism. Ed. Albert Gelpi. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1985.
Hammond, Mac. “On the Grammar of Wallace Stevens.” The Act of the Mind. Ed. Roy Harvey Pearce and J. Hillis Miller. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins, 1965.
Heller, Michael. Conviction’s Net of Branches: Essays on the Objectivist Poets and Poetry. Carbondale: Southern Illinois, 1985.
Jakobson, Roman. “Linguistics and Poetics.” Conference on Style and Language. Ed. Thomas Sebeok. New York: John Wiley and MIT, 1960.
Judd, William. “The Metric of Wallace Stevens.” Unpublished Dissertation. Columbia University, 1973.
Palmer, Michael. “On Objectivism.” Sulfur 26 (1990)
Rakosi, Carl. Collected Poems. Orono: National Poetry Foundation, 1986. Cited in the text as CP.
———. Ex Cranium, Night. Santa Barbara: Black Sparrow Press, 1975. Cited in the text as EX.
———. Spiritus, I. Durham: Pig Press, 1983.
Stevens, Wallace. The Collected Poems of Wallace Stevens. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1974. Cited in the text as WS.
———. The Letters of Wallace Stevens. Ed. Holly Stevens. New York: Knopf, 1966. Cited in the text as LWS.
———. The Necessary Angel: Essays on Reality and the Imagination. London: Faber and Faber, 1951. Cited in the text as NA.
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