Living in the Song

Rhyme and meter are commonly understood today as technical constraints, as barriers to expression, standing between the poet and experience. But what if we were to turn the idea around and view them as vehicles of access, perhaps even a means of letting go, of getting closer to life?

A. E. Stallings plays with this question subtly in “Getting In.” She starts by making a distinction between people at the beach who dive right in and those who take a considered approach. The poem is on the side of patience, and its own formal organization makes the case. As the poem proceeds couplet by rhymed couplet, each pair suggests a foot put forward, followed and completed in the next line by a second step. Pause … for the length of a stanza break. Then we are ready to go forward in the same way, and head in deeper.

Or consider the meter, which conveys Stallings’s idea kinetically. “Some people jump, some people dive”: four plump iambs confidently splash, to begin the poem. Then a reversal of the stress pattern puts on the brakes: “Others inch by inch arrive.” In order to hear clearly the difference between those rhythms, add an unstressed filler word like while or the to the start of the second line. This will give the line the iambic pattern of the first and take the energy and interest out of it. The contrast between plunging forward and holding back is captured on still another level in the same couplet (this is phonology now, not meter)—in the difference between the pushy plosive p’s of “people jump” and the sharp, short intakes of breath required by the i’s in “inch by inch.”

Such effects are simultaneously minor and essential, almost beneath notice and what we are intimately attuned to when we respond to poetry. A poet creates them not by counting syllables and weighing stresses in a mechanical exercise of technique, but by employing a flexible working knowledge of language’s expressive properties and potential, which we might as well just call feeling. And feeling, feeling your way into an experience, “inch by inch” and line by line, is very much what “Getting In” is about. Going slow is a good way, maybe the best way, to go deep.

But “Getting In” is not a poem about poetry, or if it is, it functions like any poem that deeply engages its medium while also reflecting on it. No, “Getting In” is a poem about the awkward pleasure and tangy discomfort, indeed all the physical sensations, involved in wading into a lake or the ocean, until you are really in the alien medium and “out of your depth.”

Life and language—Stallings’s poetry loves them both and discovers each one in and through the other.  This is what happens in the triumphant wordplay of “Daylilies,” where the flower’s name becomes the name for lost time. Richard Wilbur might have written “Funeral of a Bumble Bee” and been satisfied with it. In the elegy “Song for Jacqueline,” the singer disappears in the song, and it preserves her when she is gone.

Permission required for reprinting, reproducing, or other uses.

Langdon Hammer, the Niel Gray Jr. Professor of English at Yale, is the poetry editor of the Scholar and the author of James Merrill: Life and Art.


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