It’s never too early to slight a recent dream,
never too late to step one-strided to the heights.
The earth and its catastrophes cannot restrain
a man from slurring silence into Speech.

And razor Light eviscerates the multitude,
and Music spires through the middle ear,
and eloquence is balanced drunk with Dance,
and Memory, that traveled tide, comes back.

by Ryan Dowling

Yeats on Love and Age and Rhetoric


When You Are Old

When you are old and grey and full of sleep,
And nodding by the fire, take down this book,
And slowly read, and dream of the soft look
Your eyes had once, and of their shadows deep;

How many loved your moments of glad grace,
And loved your beauty with love false or true,
But one man loved the pilgrim soul in you,
And loved the sorrows of your changing face;

And bending down beside the glowing bars,
Murmur, a little sadly, how Love fled
And paced upon the mountains overhead
And hid his face amid a crowd of stars.

by William Butler Yeats (1865-1939)


Polysyndeton is a rhetorical device consisting of the repetition of conjuctions such as “and,” “but” and “or.” The obvious function of polysyndeton is to join units of language (words, clauses, etc.) together, but it is also a stylistic feature that can affect the rhythm and pace of both poetry and prose.

This poem by Yeats—the first stanza in particular—is rife with polysyndeton. Note that the poem is written in iambic pentameter, and that the conjunctions always serve as unaccented syllables to aid in the rhythm.

Next, look closely at the poem’s punctuation: the only period occurs at the end of the poem. This makes it read as though it were one uninterrupted succession of thoughts and actions. Alongside his punctuation choices, Yeat’s use of polysyndeton helps him achieve this effect.

Finally, polysyndeton works to speed up the pace of the poem, giving the reader less of a breath between pauses.


Why Is This Age Worse?


This is my response poem to another poem by Anna Akhmatova. I chose to keep her first line, which is a question, and came up with my own answer.

But first, Akhmatova’s original poem:

Why Is This Age Worse…? (translation by Stanley Kunitz)

Why is this age worse than earlier ages?
In a stupor of grief and dread
have we not fingered the foulest wounds
and left them unhealed by our hands?

In the west the falling light still glows,
and the clustered housetops glitter in the sun,
but here Death is already chalking the doors with crosses,
and calling the ravens, and the ravens are flying in.


Now here’s my response:

Why is this Age Worse?

Why is this age worse than earlier ages?
We’re all working each other to death,
slugging our production like a flurry of blows
into the rawhide of human connection.

In the east, the traffic of brake lights burns on,
a glowing stream into the low sun—
by the millions, we flock to the inferno.
Each burns out on the way in.

by Ryan Dowling

Akhmatova on Looking Back


Lot’s Wife (translation by Stanley Kunitz)

And the just man trailed God’s shining agent,
over a black mountain, in his giant track,
while a restless voice kept harrying his woman:
“It’s not too late, you can still look back

at the red towers of your native Sodom,
the square where once you sang, the spinning-shed,
at the empty windows set in the tall house
where sons and daughters blessed your marriage-bed.”

A single glance: a sudden dart of pain
stitching her eyes before she made a sound…
Her body flaked into transparent salt,
and her swift legs rooted to the ground.

Who will grieve for this woman? Does she not seem
too insignificant for our concern?
Yet in my heart I never will deny her,
who suffered death because she chose to turn.

by Anna Akhmatova (1889-1966)

Response Poem

A response poem is any poem that directly responds to another work of literature (not to be confused with ekphrastic poetry, which is poetry that responds to non-literary art). Responses can range from a reply to a disagreement to an outsider’s opinion. What matters most is that the response poem engages another work of literature in a meaningful way.

The Biblical Account of Lot’s Wife

According the bible, Lot was informed that God was going to burn his native city Sodom and all of its people to the ground. He was given instructions by two angels to flee the city with his family and to never look back. However, when his wife looked back, she was punished by being turned into a pillar of salt.

Akhmatova’s Response

Akhmatova opens the poem by dramatizing the punishment of Lot’s wife and adding details not present in the biblical account. Notice how Akhmatova emphasizes Lot’s wife’s sentimental attachments to Sodom when a voice beckons her to look back at “the square where you once sang, the spinning-shed,/ at the empty windows set in the tall house/ where sons and daughters blessed your marriage bed.” Akhmatova is drawing a parallel between Lot’s wife and herself.

In Lot’s wife’s decision to look back at the ravaged Sodom, Akhmatova sees her own decision to look back on her beloved St. Petersburg, whose culture and vitality was similarly ravaged by the Great Purges. Her identification with Lot’s wife is solidified in the final two lines: “Yet in my heart I never will deny her,/ who suffered death because she chose to turn.” Thus, the story of Lot’s wife becomes, by extension, a convenient and meaningful way for Akhmatova to defend her decision to remain in Soviet Russia, despite its immediate dangers.


Practice Verse


Here are some excerpts of the scrap verse I produced in iambic pentameter. It’s just practice, but I thought I’d share it anyway.

A murk-doomed day, its fleet of astral smog,
its subterranean earthworm exposed.
The cigarette, unashed, burnt to her lips,
and lit the fuse that burst within her breast.
The void was such a gentle place to be
in harsher times, the rose had three regrets.
All smothered in a business suit, the boy
outbet the men, like stars outburn the sun.
I’m seeing where I don’t belong, and why.
Behold the hour, no sweeter than its year,
at which we trash our calendars and clocks.

He holds his fate between his lips and smiles.
She fought a bird beneath a broken sky.
The wheel of doubt has struck me down again.
I turned the wheels inside her circus mind.
Those wheels burned against the painted clowns.
Sunk in a doom of birds, who won’t rejoice?
Tonight the stars say grace, and fall to snow.

We wore our hoods and slipped beneath the stars.
All sex is measured by its eloquence.
Made in the dark, what do decisions do?
Be serious, the song of you begins.
Be mad as ducks, shred rivers with your wings.
Be someone else, be anyone but me.
Believe in beauty, be the femme fatale.
Be death, transfigured, ghost of the ocean,
the fiery reef of the chief’s sea-tossed wife,
One bullet’s in the barrel of the gun.
The cabin slanted in the winter storm.
The tree picked at its bark with jagged sticks.
The guillotine is strung by tiny thread;
a cat plays with the knot beside the head.
Those eyes of easel grease and glassy ice.
A glistening of thorns broke from those eyes.
I’m melted in a maelstrom of selves,
Make the muck hum, toad of a tickled throat.
The royal skeleton upon his bone.

by Ryan Dowling

Frost And Natural Rhythm

Acquainted with the Night

I have been one acquainted with the night.
I have walked out in rain—and back in rain.
I have outwalked the furthest city light.

I have looked down the saddest city lane.
I have passed by the watchman on his beat
And dropped my eyes, unwilling to explain.

I have stood still and stopped the sound of feet
When far away an interrupted cry
Came over houses from another street,

But not to call me back or say goodbye;
And further still at an unearthly height,
One luminary clock against the sky

Proclaimed the time was neither wrong nor right.
I have been one acquainted with the night.

by Robert Frost (1874-1963)

Iambic Pentameter

Iambic pentameter is a metrical line in poetry that has been used since the beginning of the English language. Many have argued that it is the most naturally-occurring meter in the English language, and several famous epic poems have employed it.

Pentameter refers to the 5 feet that occur in the line. In poetry, a foot is a term used to delineate the units of rhythm in every line. Iambic refers to the type of foot that is being used: An iamb is a unit of rhythm with one unaccented syllable followed by an accented syllable. In the first line from Frost’s poem reproduced below, I have separated the five feet with vertical bars and marked the accented syllables with underscores.

I – have | been – one | ac – quain | ted – with | the – night.

The line should have a galloping rhythm that sounds like da-DA-da-DA-da-DA-da-DA-da-DA. When forced, such a line may sound wooden and strained. However, when executed skilfully, iambic pentameter can have a very natural grace. Take the lines, “I have stood still and stopped the sound of feet/ When far away an interrupted cry/ Came over houses from another street.” Here Frost sounds quite conversational. Though in fact, each of these lines is written in near-perfect iambic pentameter.


The Dark Side Of Dawn



The Dark Side Of Dawn

I saw the stars expire in light of dawn.
Each bulb plucked from the sky as if by thieves.
I sought my lover’s eyes, but they were gone.

We drew a fleece over the dew-faced lawn
and laid until the sun had blazed the leaves.
I saw the stars expire in light of dawn.

A beacon forms the far east horizon
to prove the evening sly: The view deceives.
I sought my lover’s eyes, but they were gone.

We’d traced the constellation of a swan
and trimmed it out, and swung it from the eaves.
I saw the stars expire in light of dawn.

The widow wakes her bones without a yawn,
then steals into the grave in which she grieves.
I sought my lover’s eyes, but they were gone.

We dreamt in peace, like prophylactic pawns
the king has killed. One does what one believes.
I saw the stars expire in light of dawn.

The morning’s queen of all the land whereon
night set to fleeing Satan’s feet, not Eve’s.
I saw the stars expire in light of dawn.
I sought my lover’s eyes, but they were gone.

by Ryan Dowling