Not all the essays in my stack are from my essay class. This one was given to me by a classmate named Teresa and her note says “Mary: Essay on Music from Teresa.” This essay, "What Do I Like?" by Theodore Roethke is from Conversation on the Craft of Poetry, edited by Cleanth Brooks and Robert Penn Warren (1961).
Teresa had been talking to me about the rhythm in my free verse poems and this is an essay all about rhythm and music in lines, the power of meter even in free verse, which Roethke calls “a denial in terms…the ghost of some other form, often blank verse.”
Roethke takes apart his favorite stanzas by these poets (some listed only by last name, others by full names): Auden, Samuel Johnson, himself, George Peck, Elinor Wylie, (Louise) Bogan, Charlotte Mew, Donne, W.H. Davies, Blake, Janet Lewis, Robert Frost, Stevens, Ransom, Whitman, Lawrence, Christopher Smart, and Robert Lowell.
Roethke talks about iambs, sprung lines, base line, alliteration, logic, feminine endings and velocity, spondees, propulsion, repetition, psychological pacing, tone, stress, the “bounding line” or the nervousness in a line, the tension, the energy, the psychic energy, rhetorical devices, enumeration, successive shortening of line length, line length variation, modulation, the natural pause, and the breath unit.
Here are some of the most interesting quotes:
“To question and to affirm, I suppose are among the supreme duties of a poet.”
“We must keep in mind that rhythm is the entire movement, the flow, the recurrence of stress and unstress that is related to the rhythms of the blood, the rhythms of nature. It involves certainly stress, time, pitch, the texture of the words, the total meaning of the poem.”
“We all know that poetry is shot through with appeals to the unconscious, to the fears and desires that go far back into our childhood, into the imagination of the race... [which is why] "some words….are drenched with human association...”
“We must realize, I think, that the writer in freer forms must have an even greater fidelity to his subject matter than the poet who has the support of form. He must keep his eye on the object, and his rhythm must move as a mind moves, must be imaginatively right, or he is lost.”