ROBERT FROST'S DICTUM that writing free verse is like playing tennis with the net down provides a familiar but only partial basis to begin thinking about what is essential to a poem. On the level of secondary form, Frost was one for boundaries; he wanted the net up, the form nailed down. But Frost knew a poem's primary form resists all boundaries other than its own. Limit (and form is a limit) is necessary for meaning--as the net, the baseline, and other restrictions are necessary if hitting a tennis ball is to be meaningful. But poetry's limits, its locutionary nets, balls, and baselines, are myriad and protean, going far beyond the rulers and chalk lines of Frost's tennis analogy, or of stanza, rhyme, and meter.
Form elevates utterance, but discussing stanza, rhyme, and meter can be like reading the map and ignoring the road. It does not address the primary element that makes a poem what it is. Recent discussions of form make this mistake by failing to distinguish between what one could call "innate" and "mechanic" form, to borrow from Coleridge, or "deep structure" and "surface structure," to borrow from Noam Chomsky, or what now can be termed primary and secondary form. So, to recast things a bit, form elevates utterance, but the primary formal problem for poetry is meaning, which transcends secondary issues such as stanza, rhyme, and meter.
Robert Lowell distinguished between "raw" and "cooked" poetry, the raw being open and the cooked formal. Which, you may ask, did Lowell or Frost write? In terms of composition, the answer is both--raw first; cooked later. The early altered or discarded images, lines, and half-lines of a poem are written for meaning more than effect and more in the spirit of discovery than conclusion. As a poem emerges, form is as generative as it is governing. Or as Frost's fellow New Englander William James writes in "Great Men and Their Environment," "To be fertile in hypotheses is the first requisite, and to be willing to throw them away ... is the next." So maybe we can say that a poem's primary form is generative, if rawly so, and its secondary form takes shape around those elements that are not thrown away.
Lowell's raw/cooked analogy, incidentally, has an intriguing history. The cooked, Lowell explained in the address he made before receiving the National Book Award on March 23, 1960, was "expert and remote," a "mechanical or catnip mouse for graduate seminars," while the raw was "like an unscored libretto by some bearded but vegetarian Castro." Editing a successful Norton anthology, Richard Ellmann and Robert O'Clair followed this line of reasoning, matching Lowell's "raw" with Robert Olson's "open field composition" and the "cooked" with what Olson considered a "closed" approach.
Some may associate Lowell's analogy with Claude Levi-Strauss's The Raw and the Cooked, published in France in 1964 and in translation in 1969, but Lowell was interested in the virtues of the raw years earlier. Long before his 1960 address, Lowell cited the strength of the raw in a 1948 discussion of William Carlos Williams. Acting on the skepticism he garnered from the aftermath of World War II, Lowell abandoned his New Critic mentors' faith in language, meaning, and the tradition and placed personal experience first. Being a sort of Everyman, Williams, Lowell argued, wrote a powerful and daring poetry "able to digest" experience "in the raw." For Lowell, the "symbolic [cooked] poems" of Williams's traditionalist phase rang hollow in comparison to poems he found "more powerful because more experienced."
Lowell's turn to confessional poetry was a response to the "tranquillized Fifties," a time when skepticism about meaning was silently replacing belief in objective truth. Poetry had undergone a leveling of authority: No longer able to deduce meaning from the hierarchies of a received tradition, as T. S. Eliot had enjoined, Lowell and the many who followed him proceeded inductively, writing poems whose truth claims were restricted to the near horizons of the self. Meanwhile, though Lowell's raw/cooked analogy reiterated a division descending from Whitman and Dickinson, it is worth remembering that some of the strongest poems in the American tradition continued to be those served both raw and cooked at once--horseradish and roast together.
If the material retained in secondary form reminds us of tennis with the net up or a dinner with the tablecloth down, what then precedes the net or the cooking? I do not mean to suggest that a poem is defined by the kind of "Platonism" Frost cautioned against; in fact, the essential core that defines poetry derives from competing concerns, the dynamics of which are as evident in A. R. Ammons's free verse "Corsons Inlet" as in Philip Larkin's "To the Sea," or as evident in the rhetoric of Philip Levine's "They Feed They Lion" as in the formal focus of "The Poet Orders His Tomb" by Edgar Bowers or "John," Bowers's very powerful account of the poet John Finlay dying of AIDS. Telling us that poetry goes with plot, the last line of Donald Justice's "Pantoum of the Great Depression" reads, "And there is no plot in that; it is devoid of poetry," and this statement summarizes a significant portion of what is to be said about competing elements in primary form. But a look at two versions of one poem by Frost tells even more.
First, there is "In White," written in 1912, at a point when, as Richard Poirier notes, Frost was reading William James's Pragmatism and his discussion of Darwin. Second, there is Frost's finished version of the poem, retitled "Design" and published in 1936. A comparison argues that the two are essentially one, but they do have marked differences. "In White" reads:
A dented spider like a snowdrop white On a white Heal-all, holding up a moth Like a white piece of lifeless satin cloth-- Saw ever curious eye so strange a sight? Portent in little, assorted death and blight Like the ingredients of a witches' broth? The beady spider, the flower like a froth, And the moth carried like a paper kite. What had that flower to do with being white, The blue Brunella every child's delight? What brought the kindred spider to that height? (Make we no thesis of the miller's plight.) What but design of darkness and of night? Design, design! Do I use the word aright?
By "miller's plight" Frost means "millermoth's plight." Here is the final version as we have known it since 1936:
I found a dimpled spider, fat and white, On a white heal-all, holding up a moth Like a white piece of rigid satin cloth-- Assorted characters of death and blight Mixed ready to begin the morning right, Like the ingredients of a witches' broth-- A snow-drop spider, a flower like froth, And dead wings carried like a paper kite. What had that flower to do with being white, The wayside blue and innocent heal-all? What brought the kindred spider to that height, Then steered the white moth thither in the night? What but design of darkness to appall?-- If design govern in a thing so small.
Frost's revisions seem particularly important in three places, even as the poem's primary form remains effectively unchanged. First:
1912: A dented spider like a snowdrop white On a white Heal-all, holding up a moth Like a white piece of lifeless satin cloth-- Saw ever curious eye so strange a sight? Portent in little, assorted death and blight ... 1936: I found a dimpled spider, fat and white, On a white heal-all, holding up a moth Like a white piece of rigid satin cloth-- Assorted characters of death and blight Mixed ready to begin the morning right ...
There are striking differences between the two openings. "I found a dimpled spider" is more direct than "A dented spider like a snowdrop white," which has the feeling of someone groping for the right words. Lines four and five of the two versions are very different, the earlier fourth line ("Saw ever curious eye so strange a sight?") being a marvel of syntactic awkwardness. As James might say of the great man Frost ruminating in his New England woods, Frost was "fertile in hypotheses," but then when he revised "In White" he realized he needed to "throw" some things "away." Still, what Frost discarded--the exchange of the rhyme "sight/blight" for "blight/right," for example--did not alter the poem's primary form.
Here is a second revision, and with it we see where the tennis analogy reaches its limit and Frost's larger understanding of form takes over.
1912: What had that flower to do with being white, The blue Brunella every child's delight? 1936: What had that flower to do with being white, The wayside blue and innocent heal-all?
The removal of the "white/delight" rhyme represents a noticeable alteration, but the poem's essence remains intact. "Brunella" is a variant of "prunella"--prunella, heal-all, and self-heal are three names for one flower. Frost's question is mindful of Emerson's statements (in "Nature," Essays: Second Series, 1844) that "All over the wide fields of earth grows the prunella or self-heal," and "[W]e bring with us to every experiment the innate universal laws." Frost's "Brunella" and "heal-all" are Emerson's "prunella or self-heal." But Frost--wary of "universal laws," self-healing, and the promise of "design"--uses the death of a moth on a flower that he ironically revises to "heal-all" to challenge Emerson's assurance. The excision of the false-sounding "every child's delight" from the later version is, obviously, part of a change in rhyme scheme, but its main purpose is to strengthen Frost's stubborn question about "design"--just how much "delight" can be derived from what here are the lethal properties of "white"?
"What brought the kindred spider to that height?" Frost asks, as his skepticism about nature's kinships and forms for order gathers force. Here, in a final comparison of changes made between "In White" and "Design," is his riddling response:
1912: What but design of darkness and of night? Design, design! Do I use the word aright? 1936: What but design of darkness to appall?--If design govern in a thing so small.
Frost's provisional answer in the first line of the 1936 version and the torsions he applies to it in the second match him with something else Emerson said in "Nature": "The world is mind precipitated, and the volatile essence is forever escaping again into the state of free thought." Frost's "free thought" occurs when he poses a question in order to attack the presuppositions behind that question. The dynamic of this pose and counterpose in argument is part of the form shared by both incarnations of the poem. Frost is operating in the spirit of what William James said in "Great Men and Their Environment"--that for "the highest order of minds ... the unexpected seems the only law." In Frost's New England woods, contradictory conclusions can be drawn with equal authority, as out of the play of James's "unexpected" Frost dramatizes the teetering character of a concept such as Emerson's "universal laws."
Frost's later version represents a much clearer poem, but what has been clarified? Elements in "Design" existed long before 1912, and these are the competing and generative ideas Frost encountered in Emerson, James, Darwin, plus Frost's own experience as a farmer. So in a way James would applaud, the primary form of Frost's poem includes past ideas made present again in the chilling play of his narrative. This is a process that cannot be grasped by usual discussions of verse, yet it is at the heart of any meaningful notion of form.
Frost debates the Emerson-James modes for understanding the world, concluding with what looks like a Darwinian extension added to the late-afternoon, elongated shadow of James. Viewed Emerson's way, the world operates by design, implying a thinking and intentional maker whose laws are "universal," while from another angle the world operates in Darwinian terms of "survival of the fittest," where adaptation to the Jamesian "unexpected" is vital. As Frost demonstrates, predacity too is a kind of design, appalling as it is--but most appalling of all is the suggestion that no "design govern in a thing so small" and that the expectations we bring to the moth's death break down as soon as Frost magnifies our focus. At that point the only principle left is the "unexpected" that James instructed us to expect.
One way to describe the primary form (the plot that is poetry, as Donald Justice would say) of the two versions of Frost's poem is to follow Justice's observation and return to the action, the speaker's discovery of a stark little drama occurring between a moth and a spider. Frost represents the predatory event he has observed so readers see the convergence of a white spider and a white moth on a white flower, all being the same color; disguise for the spider vies with protection for the moth. We too, Frost implies, may confuse repetition (here in color and action) with the higher principle of design. But the plot in that is no plot at all.
The event Frost describes dramatizes the fact that principles such as design and Darwinism exist not only in themselves but in their negations as well, much the way the misleading "heal-all" is a flower whose synaposematism can offer both protection and disguise by attracting prey as readily as predator. On first reading "Design," one is directed by the poem's secondary form, its rhythm and rhyme, which urge the reader's immediate conviction. But then there is Frost, who, despite his dictum about the polite arrangement for one kind of contest, tennis, is in the business of quite another as he goes about matching whiteness against darkness, order against chaos.
Once we abandon our assumptions about whiteness and a name like "heal-all," we realize that Frost has moved us from plot to predicament. Is the primary form of "Design" its fictional plot, its insight into the torsions of order and chaos, its curative power for the melancholy poet who writes the poem, or its stubborn resistance to resolution? The answer is all of these. The primary form of "Design" eclipses our assumptions about order, including, when the subject requires, those about the repetitive patterns found in stanza, rhyme scheme, and meter.
But what of the poem's secondary form, which is easier to summarize than to duplicate? The lines are iambic pentameter, and the rhyme-scheme is abbaabba for the octave and acaacc for the sestet--an arrangement that matches the Italian sonnet for eight lines, then strikes out independently, a freedom the Italian sonnet allows and rewards as good behavior. What else to say? That it is a sonnet, yet even here its primary form comes into play, as the poem participates in a tradition that dates back to the early Renaissance and the court of Frederick II in Sicily, where Giacomo da Lentino introduced a new way of writing that Paul Oppenheimer argues was "intended not for music or performance but for silent reading," as now there was a "lyric of self-consciousness, or of the self in conflict" (in Frost's instance, a conflict over order and chaos found in the meaning of predacity in the New England woods), that departed from the closures enjoyed by the courtly-love tradition.
Beyond meter, rhyme, and a history of the Italian sonnet, further summary of secondary form would lead to a phonetic description that identified the voiced and voiceless stops, liquids, long vowels, and numerous other elements contributing to the poem's auditory patterns and rhythms. Among the stops, a reader might begin with those in the first line--the voiced d of "found," "dimpled," "spider"; plus the voiceless p of "dimpled" and "spider" and the voiceless t of "fat" and "white"--all of which add to the line's emphatic character. But a detailed reading of this sort quickly bogs down, proving again the distinction between primary and secondary form: A description of ancillary elements in a poem might be accurate enough in its way, but it is not up to the task of defining the poem's meaning. Drivers who limit their attention to the map as they pass through this part of Frost's imaginary landscape are apt to run off the road.
The scholar, critic, and editor Lewis Simpson once described Frost as playing hide-and-seek with God in the New England forest. If this is so, then plot-as-primary-form begins to look like play-as-primary-question. Frost's forest creates boundaries for his interpretation of nature and its maker, even as his poem forces the reader to interpret beyond its regional setting. However we receive Frost's riddling eye, commentary, and erasing conclusion, we need the whole geography, not just the cartography, in order to make our way reliably. We need more than a map to get us through the deflections created by Frost's narrator, who, as his speaker tells us in "Directive," "only has at heart [our] getting lost." We need to see the intricacies of the primary form of Frost's poem, not analogies made with tennis and cooking or discussions of stanza, rhyme, and meter.
Turning to a southern forest where myth appears to replace skepticism (though which leaves us more dubious, finally, skepticism or an unreliable myth?), another illustration of the workings of primary form is provided by James Dickey's "The Heaven of Animals." Written in free verse (though there is alternation between stressed and unstressed syllables), this poem diverges from Frost's in its secondary elements but is similar on the primary level.
"The Heaven of Animals" describes predators and their prey locked in a forever-reoccurring moment of attack--predators descending in what Dickey calls "a sovereign floating of joy," their prey "torn" but then rising to "walk again" so the process repeats. Once past the surprise created by the violence of Dickey's poem, the reader faces the irreconcilable differences between two explanations we commonly use for the world, two blinding little whitenesses.
Coupling the popular notions of heaven as a perfected state and predacity as the means for survival by which the fittest approach perfection, Dickey's poem extends Frost's debate by dramatizing a familiar confusion in contemporary thought: the tendency to regard process as the evolutionary path to perfection, when in fact process and perfection have no necessary ties. Frost's "Design" yokes conflicting ideas of order, while Dickey's "The Heaven of Animals" yokes conflicting ideas of perfection. The primary forms of both poems share a defiant riddling stance toward the orderly fire drill of conventional thought that we impose on our underlying panic.
But the contradictions that structure Frost's and Dickey's poems offer only two instances of primary form. What about some others? At one point for Ezra Pound the image served, and before Pound there was Schopenhauer's Idea. W. H. Auden might boil primary form down to a sense of "awe," Heidegger call it "the will as venture." Donald Justice says "plot," while John Hollander opts for "fiction." T. S. Eliot suggested the "objective correlative," echoing a term Washington Allston introduced in 1850 and, before that, Schopenhauer's "necessary correlative" of 1819. Plus there was Schopenhauer's chemistry/poetry analogy, which Eliot also seems to have adopted, though unlike his predecessor, Eliot upgraded the poet-commodity to platinum.
Five years after Frost read James on Darwin and wrote "In White," Eliot said the poet surrenders himself as a "catalyst" to something more valuable--to the primary form of a poem, one assumes, though what has the poet-catalyst actually surrendered if, like a catalyst, he remains unchanged? But here is Schopenhauer's 1819 description of the process:
As the chemist obtains solid precipitates by combining perfectly clear and transparent fluids; the poet understands how to precipitate, as it were, the concrete, the individual, the perceptible idea, out of the abstract and transparent universality of the concepts by the manner in which he combines them.
And here is Eliot's 1917 formulation:
The poet's mind is in fact a receptacle for seizing and storing up numberless feelings, phrases, images, which remain there until all the particles which can unite to form a new compound are present together.
The processes described are different, but as analogies for poetry they are almost identical. Schopenhauer has his eye on ideation rising above will, and Eliot desires the "surrender of" the poet "to something ... more valuable" than the self that wills.
Each of the above formulations--image, Idea, awe, venture, plot, fiction, objective correlative, necessary correlative--contains an understanding of essentialism that enables us to think of Frost's "In White" and "Design" as nearly a single poem, just as the antinomies of Frost's "design of darkness" and Dickey's death-heaven share a crucial element. But there are other instances of the workings of primary form.
For some, primary form might mean a poem's epiphanic moment, for others its constitutive moment. Allen Tate embraced both views, and his sometime disputant Yvor Winters developed the constitutive notion when he championed discovery through form. Relying on irony to separate the competing interests of ideas and experience, Robert Penn Warren wrote, "Poetry wants to be pure, but poems do not." Taking an objectivist stance, William Carlos Williams said, "No ideas but in things." Sounding like Bishop Berkeley, A. R. Ammons reversed this, saying, "No things but in ideas." And then there remain Coleridge's "innate" form and Chomsky's "deep structure."
Disparate as they are, these examples suggest there is something essential about a poem, even when its argument opposes essentialism. Certainly there is more than stanza, rhyme, and meter. Important as they can be, questions about secondary form tend to remain just that, secondary, at least until they are made one with the poem's primary form. Here are two final examples.
In "Leda," Mona Van Duyn responds to the question Yeats poses in closing "Leda and the Swan": "Did she put on his knowledge with his power/ Before the indifferent beak could let her drop?" Van Duyn's answer? "Not even for a moment," she writes. "Later, with the children in school," Leda has become the suburban housewife who lives not by gyres but by carpools, as in "her own openness" she bats about town. She is not "abstract enough" for Yeats's notion of great beginnings and endings. Or, as Van Duyn says of her,
She tried for a while to understand what it was that had happened, and then decided to let it drop. She married a smaller man with a beaky nose, and melted away in the storm of everyday life.
Yeats wrote a sonnet; Van Duyn wrote a four-quatrain poem. Van Duyn's use of slant rhyme appears less formal than Yeats's pattern but is equally complicated if not as readily heard. Yeats's lines are in iambic pentameter, while Van Duyn's mostly run longer than that and are not regular. Such a summary covers some, certainly not all, of the two poems' secondary forms and pursues mechanical concerns rather than essential ones. So what of the primary form of Van Duyn's "Leda"?
The core of the poem is its continuation of Yeats's famous question, which in Van Duyn's hands proceeds in offbeat commentary from irregular swatches of myth and literature--Zeus, Helen, Troy, The Iliad, The Odyssey, and The Aeneid. As the crux of Frost's "Design" is its dialogue with Emerson, James, and Darwin, so the primary form of Van Duyn's poem recollects and revises elements from Yeats and the classical milieu that his "Leda and the Swan" inhabits. Van Duyn's skepticism about the truth claims available through the tradition, incidentally, places her in league with Lowell and the changes he thought necessary for poetry in the late '50s. But Van Duyn does something more than Lowell suggests, as does Anthony Hecht.
Another example of the way primary form leads by being at once generative and regenerative of ideas occurs in the response Hecht's "The Dover Bitch: A Criticism of Life" makes to Matthew Arnold's "Dover Beach." The plot for Hecht's poem is a continuation of the predicament presented both in Arnold's poem and in his critical writing. Hecht provides a wry response to Arnold's high seriousness, yet the substance of "The Dover Bitch" is "The eternal note of sadness"--mourned in the first poem, mocked in the second, but sadness just the same and just as certain as in other poems where Hecht says, "As if all history were deciduous" ("A Birthday Poem"), or "I was scared by the plain bitterness of what I had seen" ("A Hill"), or "He catches a brief glimpse of bloodied hair/And hears an unintelligible prayer" ("The Feast of Stephen").
What Van Duyn, Hecht, Justice, and others have done with the postwar increase in doubt that led Lowell from the tradition to confessionalism is to treat it with wit in order to restore some objective truth claims, a subtly brave project. Meanwhile, from the delicacy of the "design" Frost describes to his discovery of its underlying horror, to Dickey's dramatization of our confusion over process and perfection, to the contrast between Yeats's grand event for Leda and Van Duyn's ordinary "storm of everyday life," to the contrast between Arnold's vast "Beach" and Hecht's wry "Bitch," the later poem's high spirits occasioned by the earlier poem's high seriousness--certainly in each of these examples the poem's plot ravels between competing concerns, and the poem's primary form exists both inside and outside the text in ways that make its extensive role visible. Rhyme, meter, and stanza play an important part as well, so primary form does not exist to the exclusion of secondary. The two cohabit. Whatever the cross-stitch-backstitch weave by which they coexist, primary and secondary form are mutually constitutive, each incomplete without the other, though one primary in a way the other can never be.
WYATT PRUNTY's Unarmed and Dangerous: New & Selected Poems was issued last year by Johns Hopkins University Press. He teaches at the University of the South, where he also directs the Sewanee Writer's Conference.