Donald Justice, 1925-2004
In, si vous voulez, a tizzy of irrepentant half-vacancy, the moon beginning to cup out of half into its concavity, the cold just cold. Stuck amid junctures half-formed, going corpulent with reading’s sweet roughage and indisciplinarity. Djuna Barnes, out of The Antiphon:
See how the bind-weed hauls against the groundYow. I keep thinking about rhythm, its ability to carry distress. Or closure. Or rootlessness. Gaiety, impercipience; glee, sloth. Donald Justice, in “The Invention of Free Verse” (“I mean by the invention of free verse only its invention in the twentieth century and in English. It had been invented in the nineteenth century in English by Whitman, in French by Laforgue (I would argue), and here and there even earlier in Western culture by apparent accident. But before our time free verse had not taken hold and swept the world before it . . .”), claims that invention, succinctly, rather defiantly, for Pound, deftly positing an originary moment “in—unlikeliest of places—Crawfordsville, Indiana” in 1907. Justice:
And on the winch of autumn puts out hooks,
To clamber greatness down. How like the vine,
The female-vetch, that low perfidious crawl,
That winding thief with estuary mouth
That nibbles at the root, and topples boys,
And thinks by climbing to the privet of the head
To be the glory that she fattens on.
The poet was more or less improvising, we may suppose, in the character of one of the old poets whom he had recently studied with such fondness and aptitude.Skimmed, in an old “Homage to Ezra Pound” copy of The Iowa Review, whilst I downed my oatmeal. Put with the palpably astringent means of the Barnes, I sense a diffuse sluggardly negligence (the “era”’s): who attends so to precise rhythmic contrivance? And walked to work in an exemplary fury of experiment: “crows sailing bedraggledly off in undisciplined squads” become “crows sailing off bedraggledly in squads” become “unkempt crows sailing off bedraggledly in squads” become “crows sail off in squads, unkempt and bedraggledly” . . . Rhythmic blahs currying the tizzy. Pound: “A man’s rhythm must be interpretative, it will be, therefore, in the end, his own, uncounterfeiting, uncounterfeitable.”Bah! I have sung women in three cities,Free verse has perhaps already been invented in these opening lines, but it is hard to be certain. Whatever is happening remains as yet undefined and indefinite. And it is at just this point that the poet, still in the assumed character of Cino, contrives an unmistakable little rhythmical motif, scarcely if ever heard before in English verse. (See end note.*)
But it is all the same;
And I will sing of the sun.Lips, words, and you snare them,Note the two stresses brought together. This is the main point of the motif, after which comes the pair of slack syllables, as contrast perhaps or balance. What this arrangement of stressed and slack syllables resembles is the so-called ionic or double foot, as described by Ransom, among others, but it is not really quite the same, as Pound will prove only a moment later by way of variations played upon this base, variations extraordinarily difficult or impossible to arrange for in traditional practice, in anything outside of Hopkins’s sprung rhythm, for that matter—and Hopkins’s manuscripts were not to be published for yet another decade. No doubt that a cadence has here been found, beyond Tennyson, beyond Henley and Symons and Dowson, beyond Yeats. It may be taken as a test case of sorts. The proof will lie in whether the effect can be produced again, thus demonstrating that what has just taken place was not by chance.Lips, words, and you snare them,In theory it could be done; in practice it now has been done. The rest is mere elaboration and confirmation. For Pound himself the experience must have been like what the scientist undergoes in his laboratory, not altogether sure yet what he has or whether he has anything at all. The retorts, in any case, are bubbling. What joy in continuing, quite rapidly now, as I imagine.
Dreams, words, and they are as jewels.Lips, words, and you snare them,And if two stresses could be brought together, why not three? From “Ravens, nights, allurement” only let the slack syllables be dropped.
Dreams, words, and they are as jewels,
Strange spells of old deity,
Ravens, nights, allurement:
And they are not;
Having become the souls of song.Eyes, dreams, lips, and the night goes.The extension of “Lips, words” into “Eyes, dreams, lips” comes as the final confirmation that something has indeed happened.
Being upon the road once more,
They are not.
After the brilliance of this passage the poem lapses into a more typical early Pound pastiche, mannered and just barely post-nineties. The moment is finished. On the other hand, as we can see now, it was only a beginning.