20 Poetic Tools:  Important Innovations Whitman to Present


by David Cope


1.  Whitman:  freeing the long prophetic line and showing how it might be used in exuberant & yet relaxed manner in a way that conveys calm presence:  Smart & Blake had experimented with long line earlier, though one relied too much on anaphoric phrasings (e.g. "For My Cat Jeoffrey") & the other seemed almost obsessive in building lines like brick houses, impregnable & seemingly cut in stone like a mannerist fortress.  Their methods of course still have specific applications, but as a continuously dominant style I find them tedious.


2.  Whitman:  close observation of actual events & freeing sentences from strict construction.  Both of these innovations are connected to calm presence.  Patience with emotionally laden detail is prerequisite to creating a space for more complex psychological grasp of the material.  Freedom from strict construction—coordinating clauses according to where subject leads rather than simply following a rule—opens possibilities for Kerouac's later "spontaneity"—see Dickinson (#7) for another prerequisite for Kerouacian syntactical variation.


3.  Whitman:  eliminating strictly patterned rime & allowing rime, alliteration, & assonance to occur as spontaneous adornments & not as sequentially planned.  Because one is free of need to follow a pattern, occurrences of such patterns are often far more convincing.  There are, of course, exceptions:  the best of Shakespeare's sonnets or Smart's "Song to David" come to mind, but I think that as a general practice, Whitmanic occasional rime is more appropriate to American and English usage, where rime is not a commonplace, as it is in the romance languages.


4.  Whitman:  the idea of a continuously evolving single work, lifelong—again, predating Kerouac's idea of "Duluoz legend."  This innovation allows for variations in individual works thruout one's career, but also gives poet access to idea of life's work as being like an organically growing thing. 


5.  Whitman:  honesty—open discussion of sexuality in a way not clearly explored since Aphra Behn & the erotic masterpieces of the renaissance before her; undisguised engagement of specifically homoerotic impulses with a clarity not seen since Catullus—a  modus later expanded by Allen Ginsberg; plus honesty about the nature of war—refusing to flinch from cinematic recording of horrifying details, both in his poetry and in prose from the period.


6.  Dickinson:  development of personal small-form in which observable data function as emblems of inner psychology, and often simultaneously mask & explore sexual personae.


7.  Dickinson:  use of dashes to connect phrases, allowing for more variations from standard sentence patterns (and more complex connecting of seemingly disparate details).  This innovation, if handled carefully, contributes to "electric" supercharging of lines, in which dashes function as intensifiers—focusing nervous energy inherent in the phrasings. 


8.  Pound, HD, Richard Aldington:  Imagist manifesto, especially "use no word that doesn't contribute."  Whitman had already practiced "direct treatment" and freed the ear from the "metronome," though Pound was needed to drive Victorian tin-ears into the thickets (though the popularity of Frost has kept that kind of thing alive in academies—"whose woods these are"  clunk-clunk, clunk-clunk, clunk-clunk, clunk-clunk until you're ready to swat him in the ass with a board just to wake him up).  At any rate, the imagist recommendation to "use no word that doesn't contribute" was later echoed by WCW when he insisted that "a poem is a machine made of words" in which there was no extraneous part:  this principle is absolutely necessary if one is to maintain poetry as concentrated speech:  as Allen has reiterated in a gentler way, "syntax condensed, sound is solid."


9.  Pound:  juxtaposition as a principle of poetic form (derived from Fenollosa).  This principle allows that simply placing two properly constructed images side-by-side creates a nexus implying a third meaning derived from the placement of these two.  In Reznikoff's poem beginning "the young fellow has just lost his job," the juxtaposition of the boy's anger and insistence that he'll be "hard" with his deliberate generosity re his last cigarettes generates a meaning that transcends both "hardness" and "generosity."  The principle was explored in a different way as "paratactic construction without closure" by Pound (The Cantos), Eliot (The Wasteland), Williams (Paterson) and Hayden (Middle Passage), among others, and while Anne Waldman seems to be employing it successfully in her longer work, the style is otherwise largely exhausted as contemporary practice.  Juxtaposition itself, however, still seems a valid way of exploring psychology through images and the relationships of meaning and implication.


10.  Gertrude Stein:  development of an associative sentence / image network in which there is no subordination:  sentences, images, voices, and sound values resonate with each other in a calm, open-ended discursive network which breaks down linear thought, asking one to enter language as a kind of dance which involves not progression toward resolution, but the pleasure of flowing as resolution. Stein has been cited as the premier model of a woman's poetics which continues in the work of Anne Waldman, Bernadette Mayer, and various poets of the "Language" school, among others.


11.  Williams:  insistence on listening to real street lingo—"the speech of Polish mothers"—and finding subject matter in the lives of plain people.  This innovation was in a sense a further exploration of Whitman's focus on ordinary people, & perhaps rediscovery of a concept important to Chaucer's Canterbury Tales, central in the city comedies of the English renaissance and in the work of Wordsworth.  Williams maintained this principle against the withering blast of overweening classicism in the barnacle allusions of Eliot and Pound, whose influence was perhaps the centrally crippling fact of twentieth century American & English poetry—sidetracking it from the vitality of actual lives into a kind of educated game for intellectuals. 

            Re allusion, I feel such a device functions well only when it is seamlessly integrated into the matter, functional and without being obvious:  this seamless intertextuality is characteristic of Dante's Commedia, where one may "get" the story without knowing all the sources, and yet where the educated reader may pick up on the allusions and find a deeper understanding—there's something for everybody & all readers are allowed their dignity.


12.  Williams:  the variable foot.  Williams' experiments with typography and its relationship to phrasing from nearly the beginning of his career—and his later experiments in which a multisyllabic phrase might involve equal duration with a one or two-syllable phrase (as per the experiments of Pictures from Breughel, e.g. "For Eleanor and Bill Monahan")—prefigure and surpass Olson's "field" and Kerouac's and Ginsberg's "spontaneity"—providing far more various ways of using the line as with instrumental solo.  Stylistically, I believe this is the single most important contribution to renovating the poetic line in 20th century.  One should also note that e.e. cummings was simultaneously working in a similar, if far less comprehensive fashion in this area; later explorations by Paul Blackburn and Philip Whalen extend WCW's explorations of the poetic space available on the page. 


13.  Langston Hughes:  introduction of blues and gospel stanzaic forms, African American dialect and slang, jazz rhythms, etc., into poetic mainstream.  Whitman had earlier insisted that slang was one of the key fountains of language growth, and Shakespeare, Jonson, and other renaissance playwrights had employed contemporary slang as important elements in their plays, and among African American writers, Paul Laurence Dunbar predated and Zora Neale Hurston worked at the same time as Hughes, but his practice was the most varied.  Williams and Reznikoff, of course, were trying to work with variations on ordinary speech as well; Amiri Baraka and others would dramatically expand the variety of phrasings, line forms, and dialect usage available. 


14.  Reznikoff:  variation on the Whitmanic long line which was eminently adaptable to the anecdotal vignette.  Within this context, the line retains its conversational tone, but because the poem is focused on the minute particulars of a brief narrative, it may sustain higher levels of intensity with greater ease.


15.  Anne Sexton, Sylvia Plath, Robert Lowell:  "confessional" poetry involving personal and private exploration based on closely observed autobiographical data explored in a naturalistic way, without the disguise of symbolic or emblematic treatment.  This naked honesty is at times almost painful to read & can be unsettling:  Lowell in particular was taken to task for exposing not only his own inner life, but that of his wife and daughter.  Frank O'Hara would raise "personal poetry" to a kind of credo and Ginsberg would advocate exposing the "secret mind," using "first thought" to bypass the tendency to refine embarrassing or private details out of one's perceptions (and thus distorting actual flow of the mind), but few have approached these three in unsparing honesty of self-interrogation.


16.  Kerouac, Ginsberg, Olson, Creeley, etc.:  notions of "spontaneity" and "composition by field" or "form as extension of content" involve following the subject wherever it leads, of improvising the line and the sentence, of exploring "secret mind" without self-censorship.  I personally feel that all the innovations of the Beats and the Black Mountain School are refinements or variations of the theory and practice already perfected by Williams and others of his generation. 


17.  Ginsberg:  gallimaufry immense variety of styles as exercise of mastery, perhaps an extension of Williams' great variety of styles; i.e. a refusal to be limited to only a few styles—ranging from sapphic lyric, buddhist sutra, aborigine prayer, blues, to Whitmanic chant, medieval ballade, renaissance ayre, etc. ad infinitum.  Such practice hearkens back to the medieval insistence that no matter how enjoyable a given style may be, it becomes boring when unrelieved by variation.  The same principle is at work in dantescan rhetorical variation in cantos, in scenes of comic relief employed by Shakespeare to modulate an audience's emotional reception, or in the variety of artistic styles mastered by Picasso.  Such stylistic variation must be functional, however, to be effective:  as with Pound's notion of "absolute rhythm" underscoring emotional content, effective stylistic variation is the means by which the formal matrix of the subject's energy field is distributed.


18.  Ginsberg, Kerouac, Snyder, Rothenberg:  insistence on a world poetic connecting a wide variety of traditions / modes of thought and expression.  Following Rexroth's lead, perhaps,  beats gave us access to Chinese and Japanese poetic forms, and to explorations of Buddhist psychology and practice as ways to further free the inspired mind from undue attachment to form for its own sake.  As editor, Rothenberg's ethnopoetic explorations (Technicians of the Sacred, Shaking the Pumpkin, A Big Jewish Book) laid the groundwork for later generations to develop associative links to cultures more in tune with earth rhythms and the sense of sacred / communally shared presence in the poetic space.


19.  Allen Ginsberg: Syllable Jamming.  Removing punctuation from phrasings which would normally have them, done as a way of eliminating pauses in the phrase.  This practice ranges from Allen’s long unpunctuated anaphoric lines in Howl to my own phrasings, especially in my ghazals.  Punctuation and line stops serve primarily as cues to the reader, indicating a pause.  Eliminating punctuation can speed up the line, allow for quick succession of images as in filmic photo montage, emphasize sound echoes in successive phrasings, or mimic actual sounds in the world, as in Allen’s “boxcars boxcars boxcars,” which sounds remarkably like the racket made by train wheels as the cars pass one on the side of the tracks.


20.  Burroughs, Ted Berrigan:  the cut-up as a form.  The principle at work here is similar to Reznikoff's practice in that the selection of subject matter is at least partially determined by chance. Reznikoff allowed whatever happened to him on his walks around NYC to determine his subject matter and determined the style of work once the subject appeared; Burroughs and Berrigan predetermined content and allowed chance selection to determine the ordering of details & how the final product would flow. 




Revised 3-14-97 / thanks to Jim Cohn

Revised 3-18-97 / thanks to Sharon Wynkoop

Revised 7-20-10