Autumn Refrain

What do we mean when we say that a poem is “musical”? Of course, there are many answers posited to this question, most having to do with traditional formal devices like rhyme and iambic pentameter, or with the ancient kinship between song and lyric poem. Yet the simplest definition of form or structure, and therefore of the potential patterning of music, is that some element varyingly repeats itself, and this repetition may apply on any scale, from the smallest unit of the letter to whole lines or stanzas of refrain. In free verse, which, for better or worse, has become the normative practice of our time, our ears are poised to register variations in rhythm or tonality. (Louise Glück argues that we now hear subtleties of tone as keenly as other generations once heard those of rhyme.)  What we often mean by musical is simply that we hear the phantom embrace of alliteration, consonance and assonance. It seems to me that these sound effects are mostly identified as somehow graceful or beautiful or elegant—in other words, merely decorative, however enjoyable. Less has been said about their possibilities for strategic deployment within a poem’s overarching rhetorical pattern as a whole, still less about what these musical moments, however local, may perform in relation to the poem’s content. One of the most common assertions is that form supports function somehow or, by extension, that music upholds the meaning. And yet, if successful poems feature both elements of variation and elements of unity in constant tension, why should any one aspect maintain a singular, stable, fixed or static function throughout a piece? A more useful question may be to ask what occurs when the musical units of a poem undercut or even contradict the discursive argument, or when how a thing is being said ‘turns’ in relation to what is being said? Further, what do we feel, or hear, if that tension is later released or resolved?

Stevens’ poem, “Autumn Refrain” (which is not, strictly speaking, either free verse or a regularized sonnet, but contains elements of both) opens with one of the noisiest lines I know: “The skreak and skritter of evening gone”. While we are told of the grackles having left the speaker’s sunset scene, our intellects busy in their quick reaching after the poem’s initial who what where why when, our ears simultaneously hear Stevens’ deft, alliterative, approximation of the birds’ sound with its sibilants, fricatives and fully drawn out vowels. That sounding of skreak and skritter is relentlessly anti-elegant and hopelessly American, and in so saying the grackles are known to be absent from the scene even as they are felt to be noisily present. This kind of absent-presence is accomplished through a complex relationship between content and statement (“and grackles gone”), and the rough, grackle-y “music” of Stevens’ repetitions of the “sk,” long “e” and “r” sounds. In other words, the use of alliteration, assonance and consonance within the line, rather than being merely decorative or entirely comic, serves a larger function in the poem. That function here is in opposition rather than in agreement with the discursive meaning. If the statement is a stand, then the music is a counterpoint to it.

The result of this technique is an example what Eliot called felt thought. It’s also a rendering of loss as felt presence accomplished, I would argue, only through the tonal complexities added at the level of the poem’s sound. Often in Stevens’ poems, things are signs of words, and words carry the individuality of things. Words have a texture, a sonic boom, rattle, roar or scrape, from “Chieftain Iffucan of Azcan in caftan/ Of tan with henna hackles, halt!” to the heavenly labials that must be whispered in a world of gutturals governed by giants. Like a painter who piles on the paint in order to thicken the surface and thereby interrogate her own medium, in the richest of Stevens poems it’s the material nature of language that comes to the forefront, challenging our usual sense of words as passively transparent vehicles for ideas, emotions or information.

The emotional predicament facing the speaker in “Autumn Refrain” is one of arriving late to the scene of an utmost but always-elsewhere creativity, figured in the “yellow moon of words about the nightingale.” As an American writer, he inherits instead a vaporous glut of overused romantic imagery, and an inadequate hearing and naming apparatus for negotiating the age old schism between inner and outer, mind and nature. As the binary oppositions start to pile up–nature vs. artificial, American vs. European, grackle vs. nightingale, reality vs. imagination—so too do the “nevers” and “nots.” We are offered the apophatic, incessantly receding ghost of a would-be immediacy never had and never to be heard by our speaker. And though this backwards sonnet structure ends its opening sestet/ predicament in sincere loss, Stevens allows himself a “measure” of ironic high-handedness with “sorrows of sun, too, gone . . . the moon and moon;” in this woe-is-me quality, one can almost see a bent wrist’s theatrical touch to the hero’s brow. Nevertheless, the result of these predicaments is a mournful encounter with the muse of abandonment, a turning of the self merely more around itself, a self-pitying lack of experience, a lack of true hearing, amidst an avalanche of poetic tradition given in “measureless measures.”

Though I have focused here on local first line’s music, a related point may be more generally made concerning the global recurrence within the poem of the sameness, even lull, created through the simple high degree of lexical repetition, or the repetition of an exact word. Of the poem’s 120 words, 40 of these, or one third of the total, are exact repetitions such as “gone,” “sorrows,” “sun,” “moon,” etc. Overall, this sounding creates a sense of connection, unity, nearness, homogeneity throughout the poem. This level of sound also serves as counterpoint to the discursive meaning’s explicit large claims of disconnection, separation, loss, distance.

The major turn in the meaning occurs in line 7, with its sonnet-like phrasing of an argument’s rebuttal “And yet…” Again, Stevens’ observances of the traditional sonnet structure is minimal here, as the poem’s line endings are barely there (“gone” and “moon,” perhaps, or “beneath” and “me” are the extent of it), and as an additional challenge to tradition he seems to have foregone the usual first occurrence of the octave followed by the sestet. Nevertheless, the turn that occurs at the midway point is a substantial one that enacts multiple gestures of change and resolution, that most traditional of sonnet recoveries from the speaker’s initial predicament or problem.

Although the speaker laments his exclusion from the Keatsian “nightingale” in the past and in the future as a bird “I have never—shall never hear,” the stillness that is to be found in its absence provides a more poetically powerful present moment “beneath” the surface noises of both grackles and words.  The thinking at the turn is incremental in its careful, distinctly ritualistic stages, first an underneath that stems from the “stillness of everything gone,” referring to an external or environmental aspect, and then the second stage of “being still” oneself. Although this stillness of the self is perhaps initially as a response to external stilling, the next integral stage of the process is a purposive one, in the important but seemingly incremental revision from “being still” to “Being and sitting still.” It is through this last stillness of mind and body that the discovery, the gift  of the experience, presents itself, the “something” underneath that “resides,” a stillness of indwelling, of home, and indeed of residence rather than merely one habit being or existence. This humble sounding “something” is Stevens’ climatic moment in the poem’s staging of a new phase associated with intuition, feeling, belonging, stillness, a turn from the “thinky death”, as Berryman put it, away from the noisome burdens of poetic inheritance. Instead, we have the source, the home source, or an American sounding source, a kind of negative capability that the poem’s initial irritable reaching after has only been prattling about thus far in its jealous, egotistical location of inspiration in the always elsewhere. And the turn, the heart’s turn, continues:

Being and sitting still, something resides
Some skreaking and skrittering residuum

Though picked up from its earlier iteration, here the soundings, ever American, rough and new-made, are nevertheless unfettered by actual grackles now. Simultaneously, the brilliant revision of “resides” to “residuum” connotes this inevitably brief moment of feeling over thinking, of associating over knowing. It’s also a leftover, felt as over almost even as it has just begun. And yet the music of the poem begins to resolve itself here, not only as “reside” resolves into “residuum”, but also in the falling music of the odd sounding skreaking and skrittering muting their s sounds into d’s, u’s and m’s—a quieting of the poem’s once raucous mouth-feel into the lesser labials of the line’s close.

It is the nature of any true encounter that it cannot be sustained by human consciousness for long. In the next turning, a falling off, we move further from the major into the minor keys of emotion and a deep ambivalence before a last and final turning toward the true desolation of the closing couplet. The hinge line is “And grates these evasions of the nightingale.” In fact, through its ability to “grate,” the residuum itself is one of the few elements who perform an act in the poem. Meanwhile, “these” seems to intentionally carry a double meaning: a) the residuum grates, grackle-like in its reality against the more tuneful imaginary nightingale and/or b) the words of the poem itself comprise the collective noun of “these,” suggesting this poem is yet another evasion of the nightingale, another naming that merely adds to the dump heap of poems already composting in the real. Yet Stevens’ almost offhand description of poetic work elsewhere as the “intricate evasions of as,” implies that the making of likeness, that first work of writing equated with humankind’s relentlessly metaphor-making mind, is no small force of grating friction but carries in it the very mark of civilization.

As the mind encounters once again the name “nightingale,” however, what floods forth in the poem’s final turn is a return into temporal reality, where both past and future are defined by loss. The “key” of that loss is no longer the residing stillness of the indwelling mind, but the stasis that characterizes despair. What strikes the most poignant note here is less the statement of grief itself than the revisionary, near conversational, incremental furthering of what is already an utmost absence in the air, the addition and recognition that comes with the modifying phrase “all of it is” just before “The stillness is all in the key of that desolate sound.”

What each turn accomplishes, whether major or minor in sense or sound, is a simultaneous de-creation of what has come before and a creation of the next complex of meanings. If Stevens challenges the limitations of thought, of the much mediated pile up of language that embodies the restless mind, he does so with feeling rather than the glibness that has become, perhaps, the normative tonality of our moment. Such much the better.

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Pimone Triplett has published three books of poems, Rumor (2009), The Price of Light (2005) and Ruining the Picture (1998). She is also coeditor of the essay anthology, Poet’s Work, Poet’s Play (2008). Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in such journals as American Poetry Review, Iowa Review, Denver Quarterly, Ploughshares, Poetry, and many other journals. Her poems have also been featured in many anthologies, including Legitimate Dangers, Asian American Poets, The Next Generation, and W.W. Norton’s Contemporary Voices from the East. An Associate Professor at the University of Washington, she is the current director of the MFA Program in Creative Writing. She has also taught in the Warren Wilson MFA Program for Writers. She lives in Seattle with her husband and son.

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