Friday, May 21, 2010

Nice Change for a Change

Poetry and the Making of Language: How Verse Forms Create Something New

William Carlos Williams

October 30, 1955 | 11:00 pm

The New Republic, October 31, 1955

The American language has had one strike on it from the start: it is a language entirely separate from that which is taught us in our schools, namely the King's English.

How can we Americans be proud, as the English are of their magnificent language, concerning a language we cannot even name. In fact one of our most illustrious poets has been quoted recently, as denying the very existence of such a language as ours. To fight for it all these years has been an up-hill battle.

We have not been looking in the right place for the evidence we require to establish that there is an American language of unguessed importance to us and to the world, hidden in every phrase we utter.

We have had our Noah Websters with their redefinition of terms after American models but the English could only laugh at that, saying that if we want to speak incorrectly it will only brand us as yokels which we thus reveal ourselves to be. Even a cultured poet Ezra Pound in a recent translation from Sophocles felt himself moved to adopt a Cockney accent to show that the speaker was a vulgar person.

Lowell in his Bigelow Papers was similarly disturbed.

But lists of words had nothing to do with it, even a study such as Mr. Mencken made of our speech, comprehensive and revealing as it proved to be. It was truly amazing how much our language had strayed from the course of the language of Shakespeare but what of that? Could you look for a people separated from the "mother country" by an ocean and the intimate habits of several centuries to do anything else? The Greeks had their modes of speeches which differed when their cities were no more than a few miles from each other but something far more fundamental has happened this time.

The English language had come long since to a point of stasis as far, especially, as the structure of its verse is concerned. The very magnificence of the tradition which reached its peak in Shakespeare, finally reaffirmed that.

The practice of the poem has been the determining factor in determining the character that any language has taken. The whole character of any people has been fixed there. It will be the same today. Whatever America has to say that is new emotionally and intellectually will be found after the passage, of time, if Americans are to be of any importance in the world, by what they have marked upon the poems. Since the poem is formally the place where language most carries the mark of any race that uses it, the poem is most important for us to note.

In language which we know, for lack of a better term, as the American, though the structure of the poem may seem to have nothing to do with the matter, what we do with our poetic opportunities nevertheless will determine how our language is to be formed.

A new age is dawning with its opportunities and temptations but the English face it with tools they rely on because they have used them and found them trustworthy and fully able to meet any situation before this which has arisen. The language of this people is among the first of their tools. When America began consciously to form itself, it adopted as a matter of course this foreign language and taught it in its schools. It was a language, a beautiful language, of which, unfortunately we could not know the antecedents by any direct observation.

It was a mark of our ignorance to talk incorrectly by British standards. As a consequence our wealthy and marriageable women slighted us, and who can blame them?—to gain foreign, preferably British, titles. Following suit, our writers and our painters abandoned us.

There were certain wrong-headed writers who persisted in habits which marked them of the local breed but knew, for the most part, no more than the rest of us what they were doing. That it was the use of a new language, the dawn of a new way of speaking was slow to make itself felt.

That was because a language based on the intellectual, as well as a physical conception, formerly had never been conceived. All languages had merely grown by accretion from the language which had preceded it. But upon a language stock with which we are familiar, we imagine a new principle of its physical organization, we come to something which promises much that is novel.

It was a language of heroic proportions we were abandoning, comparable to the deeds of its kings and queens of the long yellow locks. The men when they died were consigned to the flames ahorseback on ships which were towed to sea to burn until they foundered.

The American language is much more importantly a modern language facing an old, than its name indicates. It is moreover a modern language facing a deeply entrenched language of great beauty which because of that is loved in the word. To attack in view of those circumstances is difficult, and yet where except in the rigidity of its established rules is a language such as the English to be attacked.

A variable poetic foot is aimed right at the bowels of English verse. Theoretically, such an attack is correct, if correctly used, would make it appear, as it is, mediaeval. The measurement of the poetic line of the future has to be expanded so as to take a larger grip of its material.

The grammar of the term, variable foot, is simply what it describes itself to be: a poetic foot that is not fixed but varies with the demands of the language, keeping the measured emphasis as it may occur in the line. Its characteristic, where it differs from the fixed foot with which we are familiar, is that it ignores the counting of the number of syllables in the line, which is the mark of the usual scansion, for a measure more of the ear, a more sensory counting. As in counting the breaths of a phrase, following speech in any language, they occur, keeping the same rhythmic structure, whatever it may be, dactylic, anapestic, amphibrachic, to which they have been dedicated.

The advantage of this practice over the old mode of measuring is that without inversion it permits the poet to use the language he naturally speaks, provided he has it well under control and does not lose the measured order of the words.

The older poets, using the fixed foot, were able to make it fill the same or at least a similar purpose with outstanding effectiveness and still keep the chosen meter. This means, of the variable foot, gives them another weapon. Shakespeare's later practice of dividing his line shows a tendency toward prose rhythms which gives him some of his most impressive effects which may be interpreted as presaging the advent of the variable foot.

The point of all this is that the dominance of the old, for Americans, the old English verse, has at last been broken by a verse-form of new dimensions. It opens a realm of structural possibilities to the poets, a new concept of the poetic foot which lays the whole field wide open. Thus a new idea of measurement is asserted in the forms of the verse itself. This has not been the case heretofore when deadly blank verse, echo of an echo, has been the only acceptable style of composition.

A new language stemming conjointly and without prejudice from all the old and the more recent is what is called for. It seems an impossible demand. It is only by a new and hitherto neglected because virtually unknown measure, that it can be accomplished. A measure that all languages can recognize, a common denominator according to whose terms by which no matter how diverse they will have at least that term in common.

The whole course of a prosody such as that of the English language was locally self determined. It has finally crystallized and in its present form can be seen now to be a wholly adventitious occurrence by no means to be thought of as final, once the incentive and means to change it can be discovered.

The only measured form of language, I think I have made clear, is its poetry. Therefore ineffective as it may appear to be as a weapon, in the public eye, it is only by attacking there, as Pound has correctly surmised, that our actions can have a lasting effect.

On that basis alone will a new language, let us presume it to be the American language, be fit to trust its organization. A relatively stable meter escapes the confining strictures of a merely regional application of, let us say, English. At the same time it liberates each language it faces to its own particulars, its specific meanings but not to an exclusive degree.

The variable foot is quite the ideal measure for poetry written for the stage in our day. It continues where Shakespeare himself left off, escaping the present cultish trend and, without sacrifice, his vigor, humor and beauty of line. It is a real opportunity which the modern dramatist faces. Let us see how his imagination measures up to it.

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