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Tuesday, March 04, 2008

114. The Measure of Poetry - Howard Nemerov

Consider the breaking of waves on a shore. The measure
governing this movement is the product of a number of
forces, some constant or relatively constant, others which
vary somewhat, still others extremely variable or even, so
far as concerns their periodicity, accidental: the tides, the
length of travel of the waves, the angle and underwater
topography of the shore, and the winds, both the great winds
from far away and the local land and sea breezes.

The idea one gets from these waves, whether the sea is
rough or calm, is the idea of a great consistency coupled with
a great freakishness, absolute law consisting with absolute
rage. The tide, drawn mainly by the mass of the moon, is
slow and stable, a vast breathing-in-sleep, and yet, however,
eccentrically offset to the revolution of the earth by somewhat
more than an hour a day, in a long rhythmic cycle bringing
the ebb and the flood by times to every instant. The force
which generates the wave begins, perhaps, far away in
mid-ocean, but it is not that water which ultimately strikes
the shore; if you look at wave motion out at sea, where it is
not affected by the bottom, you notice that most of the water
going to the crest, if it is not torn off in spray up there,
slides back the way it came. It is the power, not the material,
which is transmitted. The wave begins to form, as a substantial
body with its own history and fate, when its base meets with
the slope of the shore; the resultant of the two opposed forces
produces the high and rolling form. Either the wave rises
until the unstable top curls forward and smashes down, or
it rises steadily until the breaker is extruded at mid-height of
the wave by pressure from above and below at once; this
latter sort, because it throws its force forward rather than
down, is less spectacular than the other, but it reaches further
up the shore. The sum of these conflicting, cooperating powers,
with the prevailing wind, generates individual forms and
moments of great charm too complex to be analysed except
in a general way, and as unpredictable in their particularity as
the rainbow which sometimes glimmers in the spray blown
from the falling crest.

The measure of poetry, too, begins far from the particular
conformation of the poem, far out in the sea of tradition and
the mind, even in the physiological deeps, where some empty,
echoing, abstract interval begins to beat; it is the angle of
incidence of this measure upon the materials of the poem
which produces in the first place what in the result will be
called "form." This tidal, surging element has to do with the
general shape of the poem, and is a prior musical imposition
upon its thought––musical, in that it exists at its beginning
independently of any identifiable content: it is the power, not
the material, which is transmitted. The poem is a quantity
of force expended, like any human action, and is therefore not
altogether formless even to begin with, but limited in its
cadence by the energies present at its generation.

The rise of the shore shapes the wave. The objects which
are to appear in the poem, as they begin to rise beneath
the empty periodicity of the pure rhythm, introduce into that
rhythm a new character, somewhat obstinate, angular, critical.
But in another sense, which technically may be the more
useful of the the two, the analogy represents the elements of
speech itself. The tidal impulse from far away, the wind's
generation of force without content, these are the vowels; the
consonants are rock and reed and sand, and the steep or
shallow slope which gives the wave its form while absorbing
the shock of its force, from strength bringing forth sweetness.

The laws of this measure are simple and large, so that in the
scope of their generality room may remain for moments of
freedom, moments of chaos; the complex conjunction itself
raising up iridescences and fantastic shapes, relations which
it may be that number alone could enrage into being.

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