Waiting for the Other Shoe to Drop: Notes on Pattern and Variation

Waiting for the Other Shoe to Drop: Notes on Pattern and Variation


In a crowded New York City tenement building, late in the 19th century, an old lady lives under the apartment of an old man, his bedroom directly over hers. Every day after work, without fail, the old man stops at a local bar, gets plastered, and staggers home at midnight. Every night the old lady is awakened by the old man’s heavy footsteps thumping up the stairs. Every night for twenty years she lies there listening to him untie one shoe and drop it on the floor, and then untie the other shoe and drop it on the floor, after which he passes out, and the old lady goes back to sleep. This is their nightly inadvertent ritual, or ritualistic disturbance: the pair of thudding shoes re-establishing more strongly the order they’ve disturbed, allowing the old lady to fall back into a (let’s hope) deeper sleep. The disturbance, one might say, has become a necessary precondition of a freshly restored sense of peace and quiet. But one night the old drunk is drunker than usual, he takes off the first shoe and lets it thuds against the floor, but then he passes out before he can take off the second. The old lady meanwhile is left lying there wide awake, stranded, tense, angry, waiting for the other shoe to drop.

I don’t know if this is the origin of that expression. But I bet something like it is. The expression (as well as the scenario I’ve constructed for it) illustrates for me how interrelated repetition and surprise can be, how a sense of disruption depends on an expectation of recurrence, which is why, for instance, we’re startled when someone runs a red light, whereas when they stop just as expected, we hardly notice. The old lady can’t fall back to sleep without hearing that second thud, without the completion of the pattern she’s been habituated to. The pattern that fails to complete itself keeps her wide awake.


In 1964, eighteen-year old Marianne Faithful recorded “As Tears Go By,” a song written for her by her boyfriend at the time, Mick Jagger, of the Rolling Stones. Her voice is a young girl’s voice, high, sweet, clear, adhering without modulation to the melody, without much in the way of feeling, unscathed by pain despite the melancholy of the words. A pretty voice but not terribly expressive. In 1994, she re-records the song. In the intervening decades, she has struggled with anorexia, homelessness and drug addiction. Her voice now is, in the words of one critic, “whiskey soaked,” raspy, cracked, and several octaves deeper than it used to be. There’s no trace of the girl inside the middle-aged woman. They are two completely different people with two completely different voices. Yet what dramatizes the vocal/emotional transformation, what highlights the stark difference between now and then, is what hasn’t changed at all, which is the song itself, the melody. It is the repetition of the same notes, same words, in the same order, that best expresses her metamorphosis from teenage ingenue into soulful artist.



We experience and come to understand the nature of difference always in relation to what remains the same. Our faces possess the same properties, two eyes, nose, lips and chin, and by those common features we distinguish how one person differs from another, thin or thick lips, petite or bulbous nose, eyes blue green gray or brown, beady or big. Moreover, how we read and respond to faces depends on what we’re used to seeing there. The smile on the face of someone who is always happy isn’t as striking as the smile on a face that’s always glum.

Consider this thought experiment: imagine a picture taken of every single moment of your life, from birth to death. Imagine the pictures laid out in a single row, divided up in overlapping groups of three, group one being one through three, group two being two through four, group three being three through five, and so on from start to finish. The face in the middle would be identical to the face on either side of it, all the way from birth to death. Even as you develop from baby to toddler, toddler to child, child to teen, your face would not appear to change even while it does. The change is constant but too gradual from moment to moment to be perceived. But compare the face of the baby to the face of the old man, and you’ll see little if any resemblance. They may as well be different people. That it’s the same face is what makes the difference between the two so stark, so eerie.



Likewise, in poetry, the sensation of variation, of a felt change of consciousness, depends on an established pattern, a sensation of expectedness. You can’t vary unless there’s something already in place to vary from. Repetition is a necessary, if insufficient, condition of surprise. In an accentual syllabic poem, the synonym for surprise or variation is rhythm, the expressive modifications one generates around a metrical scheme such that our visceral experience of sonic (and emotional) meaning is felt in relation to alternating light and heavy syllables. Pattern, though, involves more than just the variation of degrees of stress; it is also inextricably entwined with, among other things, our experience of the sentence, the grammatical patterns our past experience of sentences conditions us to expect. Sentence structure (like all conventions, or norms of expectation) is built from grammatical patterns, which you can upend, modify or adhere to in varying degrees at every point in order to vocalize or enact emotion.

Every sentence is a form in and of itself, a kind of syntactical narrative—one that arouses grammatical expectations, that promises certain directions and outcomes which are either realized or disappointed. A loose sentence, which begins with a main clause and then tacks on a series of dependent clauses in apposition, can create an expectation of open-endedness: depending on context, it could enact a feeling of indeterminacy, or a feeling of excited or oppressive abundance, ecstatic noticing or crushing boredom. The antithesis of a loose sentence, a periodic sentence whose dependent clauses come at the beginning, its main clause at the end, seems more conducive to increasing degrees of anticipation, to the build-up and release of tension, since the longer you defer or suspend a main clause the more we’ll long for it and the greater sense of fulfilment (or at least relief) we’ll experience when it finally comes. Likewise, complete sentences potentially intensify the effect of sentence fragments, just as a passage comprised of fragments will make whatever full sentence follows them that much more surprising or emphatic. In a poem grammatical structures overlay the structure of lines and stanzas; how the sentence interacts with the line is another source of pattern and variation, whether the sentence agrees or is aligned with the line or played off against the line, and of course there are varying degrees of agreement and misalignment, depending on the part of speech the line ends on and the sentence in which it appears.

A poem is like a matryoshka doll of patterns inside patterns, whose variations large and small infuse the whole with visceral energy, with meaning we can feel along our nerves.



This dynamic inter-animation of form and freedom, repetition and change, sameness and difference, is essential to free verse too. Like a sonnet or an iambic pentameter line, free verse relies on pattern, primarily on the patterning of sentences in relation to the line. There are two extreme types of free verse lines: a phrasal line, in which lines coincide with grammatical phrases, and an enjambed line, in which lines interrupt the phrase (some refer to this as annotated, because the line breaks serve as a kind of gloss or interpretation or vocalization of emotional conflict). There are varieties of phrasal lines, and varieties of enjambed lines, depending on the length of the clauses, and the part of speech that the line ends on. A phrasal line that ends where the sentence does will have a greater degree of closure than a line that ends after a clause but in the middle of a sentence. Compare, for instance, the twenty third psalm (“The Lord is my Shepard, I shall not want./He maketh me lie down in green pastures./He leads me beside the still water./he restoreth my soul…”) with the opening lines of Marie Howe’s “From My Father’s Side of the Bed” (“When he had fallen asleep and was snoring/and I had moved out slowly from under his heavy arm,/I would sometimes nudge him a little,/not to wake him–…”). Like degrees of stress in iambic feet, degrees of pause will vary as the grammar varies. And as with variations against a metrical norm, turning from phrasal to enjambed or enjambed to phrasal can enact some felt change of consciousness or capture nuances of shifting perception.

In a phrasal poem, the challenge is to maximize variety within the limits of lines that pause or stop where the sentence does. Consider James Wright’s poem, “Autumn Begins in Martins Ferry, Ohio,” a poem in which all the lines but one end with commas or periods:

In the Shreve High football stadium,
I think of Polacks nursing long beers in Tiltonsville,
And gray faces of Negroes in the blast furnace at Benwood,
And the ruptured night watchman of Wheeling Steel,
Dreaming of heroes.

All the proud fathers are ashamed to go home,
Their women cluck like starved pullets,
Dying for love.

Their sons grow suicidally beautiful
At the beginning of October,
And gallop terribly against each other’s bodies.

Look down the right-hand margin of the poem; each line concludes where the clause does. Every line in the first stanza ends with a comma until the final short line which ends with a period. The lines read almost as if they’re stacked one on top of the other. The recurrence of nouns at the end of the lines conveys a feeling of stability or predictability: stadium, Tiltonsville, Benwood, Steel, heroes. The movement of the sentence through the lines reinforces the idea that this yearly ritual of high school football is as inevitable as the turn from summer to autumn. So the pyscho-social cycle continues with the seasons: like their fathers before them, these boys play football before eventually becoming the broken fathers married to love-starved mothers, locked in delimiting ethnic and sexual categories, all living vicariously through their own suicidally beautiful children fighting each other for what ephemeral glory their world allows.

These aren’t the only patterns in the poem. The first stanza is a 5-line sentence, a loose sentence whose main clause (“I think of Polacks…”) comes in the second line. The diction is concrete until the last short line of the stanza, which is comprised of abstractions: “dreaming of heroes.” The second stanza is three lines, composed of two independent clauses; the first two lines are long like the long four lines of the first, and like the last line of the first the last line of the second stanza is short, and it too changes from concrete diction to abstract, “dying for love.” So while it’s a shorter stanza, it follows the form of the first in terms of line length and diction. But notice what happens in the final stanza. Now the first line is the shortest, the logical hinge (“therefore”) by which the poem turns from cause (sexual frustration and economic exploitation) to effect (violent children who in turn will become the next generation of damaged parents). The reversal both reflects and alludes to the pattern of the previous stanzas even as it modifies it.

The syntax of “Autumn Begins in Martins Ferry, Ohio” is uncomplicated, paratactic, with little subordination. The first sentence is loose; the second and third are simple and declarative. And the fourth and final sentence is declarative with a compound verb (“…their sons grow…and gallop”). The images are simply juxtaposed without grammatical articulation until “therefore” in the final stanza, but what follows “therefore” is another image not an abstract thought.

C.K. Williams’ poem, “Hooks,” is also phrasal, but the eight line sentence that comprises it is hypotactic, complex and full of essayistic markers, closer to Henry James than the psalms in the King James Bible:

Possibly because she’s already so striking—tall, well-dressed very clear
                 pure skin—
when the girl gets on the subway at Lafayette Street everyone notices
                 her artificial hand
but we also manage, as we almost always do, not to be noticed noticing,
                 except one sleeping woman,
who hasn’t budged since Brooklyn but who lifts her head now, opens
                 up, forgets herself,
and frankly stares at those intimidating twists of steel, the homely
                 leather sock and laces,
so that the girl, as she comes through the door, has to do in turn now
                 what is to be done,
which is to look down at it, too, a bit askance, with an air of tolerant,
                 bemused annoyance,
the way someone would glance at their unruly, apparently ferocious
                 but really quite friendly dog.

In a sense the entire poem grows out of the first two words: “Possibly because.” “Because” reflects a mind that believes in causation and seeks reliable knowledge about the world, the outer world shared with others and the inner world of the self. And “possibly” connotes a degree of skepticism or doubt, a healthy distrust of appearances, the speaker’s reminder to himself and his readers that knowing is partial (in all senses of the word), tentative, provisional and in need of constant revision. The desire to know makes him look, the skepticism about knowledge makes him look again, look closer, and keep looking—it acknowledges that no matter how close he looks his knowledge of other lives is never absolute. In “Hooks” this tension between these different but complementary predispositions inflects the 8-line sentence with qualifications and reversals, building trust in his readers as it migrates through three different points of view toward an ultimate destination of empathic intimate understanding of the perspective of the woman with a prosthetic hand that everyone on the subway car is noticing while pretending not to. Think of the conventionally pretty woman (“well-dressed, clear pure skin”) with a hook for a hand as a living example of interrupted regularity, of a kind of normative anatomical meter against which the prothesis stands out all the more conspicuously, a bodily enactment of repetition with modification. Each point of view defines itself by the way it sees the same object in a different light. The first point of view is the “public” one, the perspective the speaker shares with the other passengers (aside from the sleeping woman and the woman with the prothesis). These passengers are too polite to be caught staring at the woman. On behalf of “everyone” in the car the speaker simply mentions the prosthesis; that is, the prosthesis, from this perspective, at this point in the poem, is just a detail, just a name, not an image, something noticed, glanced at but not truly looked at. But when he shifts from the collective, socially constrained, well-mannered perspective to that of the woman who’s been sleeping since Brooklyn and now awakens (but not enough to be fully aware of where she is and what’s appropriate or not), the speaker through her eyes can safely describe the artificial hand, its “homely leather sock and laces” and “those intimidating twists of steel,” without violating any social norms, since this is what the woman sees, though everyone is taking advantage of her faux pas, hiding behind it so they can get away with freely gawking. On the hinge of “so that”—a kind of semantic rhyme with “because,” in that it posits a causality (notice that there’s no question of “possibly” now, a variation which the pattern allows us to notice)—the woman with the artificial hand looks down at the object of everyone’s attention and as the speaker projects himself into her point of view, her subjectivity, the language modulates into a kind of homely lyricism as he resorts to simile, a qualified comparison, the hand as ferocious looking but really quite friendly dog.

As we move in a single sentence from the glance that merely names the object, to the indecorous gawking that describes its literal features, to the figurative image expressing the young woman’s imagined feeling, we move from a distant to a more intimate vantage point, from the woman as object to the woman as fellow passenger, a fellow subject, from reportage, in other words, to poetry. The poem’s single sentence, holding before us the momentary intersection of these various points of view, embodies and enacts an inclusive vision that is both moral and aesthetic. The shifting points of view and the syntactical complexity are all the more remarkable when you consider that the poem is just as phrasal as Wright’s poem. Like “Autumn Begins…” The lines are closed pretty much to the same degree (all but one concludes with a comma), but the number of clauses or phrases within each line is constantly varied. Line one consists of two phrases; line two consist of one long phrase; line three contains three, and so on. While the line itself adheres to the phrasal norm, the number of phrases changes as the drama unfolds. The recurring phrasal lines in a sense highlight the continual variation of the clauses within them.

There’s a similar combination of closed lines and syntactic variation in the following section of Theodore Roethke’s long poem, “The Far Field.” But whereas in “Hooks” the line length never varies, the lines in the “Far Field” are constantly expanding and contracting. And that together with the increase or decrease of clauses per line keep the verse from becoming monotonous. In fact, within this very consistent prosody, there’s tremendous variety of pace. These are richly textured lines, lines that utilize the resources of poetry—alliteration, assonance, rhyme, different metrical feet (though not with any regularity)—all in the interest of preparing for and then performing the ecstatic vision of the closing lines:

At the field’s end, in the corner missed by the mower,
Where the turf drops off into a grass-hidden culvert,
Haunt of the cat-bird, nesting-place of the field-mouse,
Not too far away from the ever-changing flower-dump,
Among the tin cans, tires, rusted pipes, broken machinery,
one learned of the eternal;
And in the shrunken face of a dead rat, eaten by rain and ground-beetles
(I found it lying among the rubble of an old coal bin)
And the tom-cat, caught near the pheasant-run,
Its entrails strewn over the half-grown flowers,
Blasted to death by the night watchman.

I suffered for young birds, for young rabbits caught in the mower,
My grief was not excessive.
For to come upon warblers in early May
Was to forget time and death:
How they filled the oriole’s elm, a twittering restless cloud, all one morning,
And I watched and watched till my eyes blurred from the bird shapes, —
Cape May, Blackburnian, Cerulean, —
Moving, elusive as fish, fearless,
Hanging, bunched like young fruit, bending the end branches,
Still for a moment,
Then pitching away in half-flight,
Lighter than finches,
While the wrens bickered and sang in the half-green hedgerows,
And the flicker drummed from his dead tree in the chicken-yard.

Look at the first stanza, which consists of a compound sentence, the first half of which has a periodic feel, the clauses building to a final main clause (“one learned of the eternal”) that he defers until the next stanza, where it stands alone. The second, which is just a continuation of that list of busted and decaying things, feels like a loose sentence, I think because of the conjunction “and,” even though there’s no main clause anywhere outside the parenthesis. So you have that grand abstract statement, “One learned of the eternal,” wedged between a list of discarded and broken things, things that connote death and disintegration. The layout of that sentence is an illustration of the main concern or argument of the poem—that any transcendence of time and death can only be found in the midst of death. The proliferation/repetition of prepositional phrases (“at the field’s end,” “in the corner,” “not too far from,” “among,” “near”…) registers the speaker’s need to attach or locate carefully the eternal within the temporal, the immutable within the ever-changing, ever-dying world. This stanza is mostly descriptive. Things aren’t turned into symbols; it’s just itemizing all the broken rusted dead objects that comprise this carefully presented scene. But look what happens to the language in the second stanza when the speaker has that ecstatic vision of those birds: the lines move differently, more emphatically; there’s a sense of elevation to the rhythm along with lyrical/figurative intensification of diction: you can hear the incantatory intensity: and I watched and watched till my eyes blurred from the bird shapes….bending the end branches…pitching away in half-flight/lighter than finches…. Listen to the alternating iambs and anapests, the alliteration, assonance, even rhyme (“flight”/”light”) (“bending”/”end branches”), (“blurred”/”bird”), never mind the gorgeous metaphors and similes (“Moving, elusive as fish,” “bunched like young fruit, bending the end branches”), the resources of poetry brought to bear on the evocation of this epiphanic moment. Again, what makes all this heightening and shifting speed and lyrical music so remarkable is that they all take place within the same phrasal line as the very different more literal description of the previous stanza. Think of the pattern as the prosodic symbol of the eternal, of what remains unchanging, and the shifting lines and varying length and number of clauses as the mutable textures of lived experience through which and by means of which we apprehend what lies beyond them.



“This is Just to Say,” by William Carlos Williams is a very different kind of free verse poem, one that employs a cut or enjambed line:

I have eaten
the plums
that were in
the icebox

and which
you were probably
for breakfast

Forgive me
they were delicious
so sweet
and so cold

Here is the same poem written out as prose:

This is just to say that I have eaten the plums that were in the icebox and which you were probably saving for breakfast. Forgive me they were delicious so sweet and so cold.

As prose the poem has no voice, no emotional or tonal inflection. It is a Siri voice, neutral, toneless, flat. But when Williams breaks it into three quatrains of short lines, we’re forced to hesitate even over words we normally think of as merely instrumental, lacking expressive power (prepositions, relative or non-relative pronouns like “which”). As the unvarying short lines break into the sentence at different places, highlighting different words, words which in actual speech we’d normally glide over, or ignore, a voice emerges that’s initially diffident, as if unsure of how these words will be received, which then modulates into an affectionately mocking or teasing tone, the verbal equivalent of what we used to call a shit-eating grin. The poem is an apology after all. The speaker (presumably the husband) is apologizing for having eaten plums his wife was saving. Now I don’t know about you, but if I had ever done that with any of my three former wives I’d have gone out of my way to tell her that the plums weren’t all that good, she didn’t miss anything; in fact I did her a favor, I saved her from a big disappointment. But what does this guy do? He goes out of his way to tell her these were the greatest plums god ever created, these were Ur-plums, Platonic plums, there will never be plums like this ever again. Can’t you hear the teasing in the voice, in the slow savoring way he isolates “and which” “you were probably” “saving” “for breakfast.” By the time you get to “forgive me,” forgiveness is the last thing on your mind. By then I’d be infuriated. So this is a kind of mock apology, and the needling, cajoling nah nahanah na nahnah tone is conveyed primarily from the way this little sentence is broken across the lines. The relation between sentence and line is dramatic, it vocalizes the emotion driving the language. The line breaks slow us down so as to make us savor the merely functional words (“and which”) (“you were probably”), as we often do when we’re in the midst of a conflict or argument and want to tease or gently mock someone by exaggerating emphasis. And, of course, in addition to the line breaks we have the repeated very formal even dignified looking four line stanzas, which the sentence both acknowledges and resists by running over, as if on the formal level to mimic on the semantic level the minor violation or transgression the speaker is “admitting” to. I don’t think it’s too much of a stretch to think of the well-behaved quatrains as analogous to the social norm the speaker is playfully testing.

In Williams’ “Poem,” a similar lineation ends up creating a very different effect. What had evoked a tone of affectionate teasing now serves to imitate the cautious movement of a cat across a jam closet:

As the cat
climbed over
the top of
the jamcloset

first the right
then the hind

stepped down
into the pit of
the empty

The single sentence is divided into short lines which in turn are divided into quatrains: the poem is free but has a kind of formality about it; it works within formal limits. Each line raises questions or arouses tension which the next line both satisfies and intensifies or continues: “as the cat”—what?—“climbed over”—oh good at least now we know the cat is climbing but where and what—“the top of”—at least we’re looking up at something even though we don’t know what it is—“the jam closet”—okay, now we’re getting somewhere, we know we’re inside in a confined space; and now the poem zeroes into the discrete slow careful progress—“first the right forefoot/carefully//then the hind/”—notice the misplacement of “carefully”: we’d expect that adverb to come before or after the verb: “the cat stepped down carefully first the right forefoot then the hind into the pit of…”: the odd placement stops us or at least slows us down so that we move as warily as the cat. The poem isn’t trying to do anything but bring the movement of the cat alive in the movement of the poem, so as we read we get some sensation of the cat’s slow deliberate cautious journey across the jam closet. What doesn’t move are the lines and the quatrains, the fixity of which foregrounds the movement of the sentence as it warily steps, so to speak, through the lines from quatrain to quatrain. The fixed backdrop brings the cat’s movement into sharper focus. What doesn’t vary enhances our sensation of what does.

Here’s a poem by Lucille Clifton about race and the way someone from a marginalized, historically oppressed group both internalizes and liberates herself from that oppression. Using similarly short lines and stark enjambments turns out to be effective scaffolding for that, too:

my dream about being white

hey music and
only white,
hair a flutter of
fall leaves
circling my perfect
line of a nose,
no lips,
no behind, hey
white me
and i’m wearing
white history
but there’s no future
in those clothes
so i take them off and
wake up

I love the combination of whimsy and dead seriousness in this poem, the way Clifton acknowledges how deeply her psyche has internalized an oppressive history, white images of beauty arising up out of her sleeping mind—and yet how easily she can free herself, removing them like old-fashioned clothes (“there’s no future / in those clothes”), so she can wake up dancing. I love too the familiar and wholly original apostrophe “hey”: it’s a traditional gesture, for a poet to address some entity (think of Sir Philip Sydney’s sonnet, “With how sad steps, o moon, thou climbst the skies”); but this address is thoroughly American and contemporary, a kind of slang even, “hey”: she’s trying to catch the attention of this music playing inside her and this aspect of her inner self that wants to be or dreams itself to be white. She then addresses that self again, “hey/white me….” It’s like this self is a good friend who needs an affectionate reminder, a gentle push, to get itself free of this delusion—her lips aren’t thin, nose isn’t a “perfect / line,” hair isn’t fluttering like fall leaves, leaves about to die, all of which of course is another kind of pattern that equates whiteness with beauty, a pattern which the poet is joyfully breaking: “hey / white me” the poem says it’s time to wake up dancing. The first part of the poem is a sentence fragment—“hey music and / me / only white, / hair a flutter / of fall leaves / circling my perfect / line of nose, / no lips, / no behind….” These images of whiteness just float there in a dream void she tries to shake herself out of by calling out to herself again, “hey / white me,” at which point the syntax wakes, so to speak, into a full sentence, embodies in its fullness a realization, “i’m wearing / white history,” which once realized she can then refuse, “but there’s no future / in those clothes.” And this further understanding frees her to wake up dancing. There are roughly two beats to every line except the second line, “me,” and the final line, “dancing.” So there’s a kind of regularity which in turn highlights how unbound the lineation is as the poem unwinds toward a final liberating wakefulness, or awareness. That is, the pattern or structure of two beats per line is broken by the two words, “me,” and “dancing,” which in effect is a precis of the transformation that takes place, an enactment of the freedom the speaker wakes to. “Dancing” finishes off both the sentence and the poem, intensifying our sense of closure, of a newly attained completeness which is all the more satisfying for the enjambed lines and sentence fragments preceding it.

We’ve looked at two phrasal poems and two poems predominantly enjambed. Ross Gay’s poem “Learning to Speak” is a mixture of both, shifting from one mode to the other as the poem unfolds. Gay also shifts from no punctuation in the first half to hyper-punctuation in the second, to further dramatize the temporal and emotional turn from remembered violence to present day restraint.

I’ve never told you
about my old man’s last day
watching his mom’s jaw get rattled
when something almost snapped
the way he leaned the steak knife
into the man’s throat and held his head
like a baby the way you hold a baby
and whisper it to sleep with songs
it will never stop hearing
my father the boy watching his mother
cracked every which way and the boy

almost snaps
by every calculation and probability
the boy grows up to be a man
whose thousand broken hearts
and tongue of lead can only say
I hurt or I am scared
with his knuckles in some smaller thing’s mouth
by every calculation my mother
my brother

you know we are at every turn—laundromat, subway,
courtroom, ball game—shoulder to shoulder
face to face with someone who didn’t
shoot the dog or burn the kid,
who didn’t fist his rage against someone’s face—
at every turn we are in the midst of these small
lanterns lighting a road away
from the grooved and dank one—
whether we know it or not—each one of them
day after day after day after day
teaching and re-teaching the stories
of their hands this new language
which their hands in turn,
teach to us.

Ross Gay is one of our best poets of intimate speech, of speech between friends or lovers. His poems often feel as though they open in the middle of pillow talk, just before or after love making. Paradoxically, what he often speaks of at such times are distance, estrangement and isolation in a context of systemic racism—the obstacles to intimacy born of trauma that intimacy might articulate and lessen. In “Learning to Speak,” the speaker tells the friend/lover/reader a story from his father’s childhood, a story of abuse and the legacies of pain that followed.

The difficulty of learning to speak of trauma and of breaking cycles of abuse is reflected in the absence of punctuation in the first verse paragraph, the absence of linguistic symbols, so to speak, of restraint or control. Only when he’s turned from the damaged father to those unnamed someones who somehow learn to control their anger does Gay resort to conventional punctuation, to dashes and commas that don’t so much slow down the pace as they convey both rage and the heroic effort to restrain it, the increasing intensity of impulse in and through the struggle to hold it back.

The scariest moment in the poem is also the most intimate—the way the father as boy, keeping a knife to the man’s throat, holds him the way you might hold a baby—the conflation of violence with maternal tenderness, with human interaction at its most nurturing, implying that for victims of abuse intimacy and violence, love and menace become inextricably entwined. Violence as warped tenderness, speech intimately twisted, this disquietingly tender simile for rage—a mother whispering her baby to sleep with songs the baby “will never stop hearing” —is mirrored in the antithetical negatives that dominate the second half of the poem where tenderness and care take the form of rage that isn’t fisted, dog that isn’t shot, child who isn’t burned.

If you look back at the lineation of the poem you’ll notice that the first stanza where there’s no punctuation is comprised of mostly phrasal lines—the line breaks into the sentence at relatively stable places—whereas in the second half, where the restraint of punctuation mirrors the restraint of someone trying not to repeat the cycle of abuse, the lines breaks are more unstable; the lines cut into the sentences often in the middle of clauses (“who didn’t/shoot…/…we are in the midst of these small/lanterns lighting a road away/from the grooved and dank one…”). That road of abuse is so grooved on and in the body that it doesn’t need the control of punctuation to make itself known or felt, whereas breaking from that grooved road, that pattern of violence, requires an ever vigilant control, because at every moment that control (that punctuation) is challenged by the legacy of violence suggested by the more unstable lineation.

By every calculation and probability the speaker should have become an abuser himself. That he doesn’t, that he’s presumably among those who learn to speak differently, may have something to do with the very I and thou intimacy the poem itself presupposes—for to speak implies someone to speak to, to speak with (I’ve never told you, have I…). To relate a story is to be already intimately related, enmeshed in social life. To speak intimately is to be aware of how perishable intimacy is, to speak of both love and rage—love that day after day after day is continually menaced by its opposite, by rage that’s barely held in check but held in check by learning and relearning what it in turn teaches to us—ramifying outward through the whole dense web of personal relations (son, father, lover) that make us who we are, from past to present, parent to child, impulse to act, I to you, repairing, guarding, deepening and sustaining the ties that violence so easily at any moment can destroy. In the subtle changes of line and syntax, Gay makes all of that tangible and knowable.

Like “Learning to Speak,” Thom Gunn’s “Donohue’s Sister” combines enjambed and phrasal lines. As you read it over to yourself, compare the sentence/line relation in the second stanza to the sentence/line relation of the final stanza:

She comes level with him at
the head of the stairs
with a slight, arrogant smile
and an inward look, muttering
some injunction to her private world.
Drunk for four days now.

He’s unable to get through.
She’s not there to get through to.
When he does get through,
next week, it will all sound
exaggerated. She will apologize as if
all too humanly she has caused him
a minute inconvenience.

That sudden tirade last night,
such conviction and logic
–had she always hated him or
was it the zombie speaking?

Scotch for breakfast,
beer all morning.
Fuelling her private world, in which
she builds her case against the public.
Catching at ends of phrases
in themselves meaningless,
as if to demonstrate how well
she keeps abreast.
                                A zombie,
inaccessible and sodden replacement.

He glances at her, her
body stands light and meatless,
and estimates how high he would have
to lift it to launch it
into a perfect trajectory over
the narrow dark staircase
so that it would land on its head
on the apartment-house mosaic of the hallway
and its skull would break in two
–an eggshell full of alcohol–
leaving, at last, his sister
lying like the garbage by the front door
in a pool of Scotch and beer,
understandably, this time, inaccessible.

This is essentially a poem about impotence. The brother, who is tasked with caring for his sister but can do nothing at all to help her overcome her addiction, confronts the sister in the opening line, then everything that follows takes place in his head. The narrator is looking through Donohue’s eyes throughout, but he doesn’t quote him directly; rather he lets Donohue’s voice inflect his voice. He, the narrator, is adopting the kind of language and idiom Donohue would use if he were speaking. Remember, this is a poem about being balked, thwarted, frustrated, unable to effect any positive change at every turn. Look how emphatically end stopped the first few lines of the second stanza are. Not only do the first two sentences coincide with the first two lines, the sentences/lines end on prepositions! Prepositions are designed not just to locate you somewhere but to also get you somewhere, to move you from point A to point B. But what if you can’t move, are prevented from moving: “He’s unable to get through./She’s not there to get through to.” The second line is doubly blocked with two end-line prepositions! That excessive closure makes the next line seem positively liberating, at least for a moment: “When he does get through,/ next week, it will all sound/….” There’s a sudden release just from the sentence not ending at the end of the line, though there is a pause, and it too ends on a preposition, but there’s hope for actually getting somewhere, which as the sentence continues is immediately undercut, withdrawn, so the brief release ends up only reinforcing the claustrophobic helplessness the brother feels.

Now look at the concluding stanza. Notice the long sentence, and the looser lineation, the sudden excitement as the brother entertains a fantasy of hurling his sister down the stairs. The way the lines cut into the sentence suggests the freedom the brother would feel were he to do what he’s imagining. By means of the deferred grammatical promises and parentheticals, we feel what he feels. The irony is of course that this is all in his head; he isn’t acting at all; he’s still just standing there. The conditional tense enables Gunn to have it both ways-—to show us violence and to keep it from happening so the very fantasy itself becomes another manifestation of the brother’s impotence.



The line is only “a line” in relation to a sentence or a phrase it either reinforces or interrupts. And the line itself will vary to the degree it either reinforces or interrupts that phrase or sentence. And the effect of those various interruptions and/or reinforcements will depend on the lines before and after them, on the larger patterns of relation they either depart from or approach. Again, it all comes down to pattern and variation, variation that depends on pattern for its significance.

Same holds true of a prose poem, or for expressive prose of any kind. Even without the line, you still have to establish some kind of pattern that suggests its own completion, some expectation of recurrence you can upend, modify or adhere to in varying degrees at every point in order to vocalize or enact a felt change of consciousness. You can’t set up an effect without setting it off from something else—a long sentence can give rhetorical force to the short sentence that follows it, a beautiful example of which is the following passage from James Baldwin’s great essay, “Growing Up in Harlem.” (I need to quote a lot of this so you can see how the rhythm of those long heart- wrenching sentences describing the gradual onset of his father’s paranoid psychosis prepares us for the devastating power of the short declaration that follows.)

His illness was beyond all hope of healing before anyone realized he was ill. He had always been so strange and had lived, like a prophet, in close communion with the Lord that his long silences which were punctuated by moans and hallelujahs and snatches of songs while he sat at the living-room window never seemed odd to us. It was not until he refused to eat because, he said, his family was trying to poison him that my mother was forced to accept as a fact what had, until then, been only an unwilling suspicion. When he was committed, it was discovered that he had tuberculosis and, as it turned out, the disease of his mind allowed the disease of his body to destroy him. For the doctors could not force him to eat, either, and, though he was fed intravenously, it was clear from the beginning that there was no hope for him.

In my mind’s eye I could see him, sitting at the window, locked up in his terrors; hating and fearing every living soul including his children who had betrayed him, too, by reaching towards the world which had despised him. There were nine of us.

Only after his developing fear of his family is vividly described are we told how many children lived in that small apartment, each child a tormenting reminder of the old man’s failure as a father, each another person who, he believed, “despised him.” The short sentence gains it power from the pattern of longer sentences it breaks. At that moment we see those hungry and deprived children as the father must have seen them and feel more viscerally the lethal burden of caring for so many children in such a hostile world.

Likewise, the closed lines of “Donohue’s Sister” make the run of open lines of the final stanza more emotionally charged. And the movement of syntax in “Poem” and “This Is Just to Say” is made more expressive by the recurrinng stanzas: something has to stay the same for us to feel the tangible effects of something changing.



Instead of poem as matryoshka doll of patterns within patterns, think of pattern in and of itself as a wooden Pinnochio: and the sonic and semantic variations that pattern generates as the vitalizing magic that turns the lifeless marionette into a living child.



We can measure the vitality of a literary tradition by how creatively it adjusts to change. Tradition is a kind of ecosystem of disappearing and emerging norms of expectation, patterns, conventions, forms that arise in response to larger encompassing ever-changing social and cultural environments, which older established conventions, forms, patterns no longer capture. Like living species, literary norms adapt to changing circumstances in order to survive and flourish, so as to reflect the present moment and at the same time give the present depth and meaning by connecting it to what came before. When tradition ceases to change, when it hardens into orthodoxy, it goes extinct. It is the background tradition of formal apostrophe, a convention as old as poetry itself, that makes Lucille Clifton’s demotic apostrophe (“hey music…”) so delightful. The traditional gesture puts the poem in defiant yet playful conversation with the epic and lyric roots of poetry, affirms a liberated new reality by defining itself against, as well as in relation to, an oppressive history.

By way of concluding, let’s compare Clifton’s poem “If I Stand in my Window” with the poem it adapts, “Danse Russe,” by William Carlos Williams. How the two poems differ precisely in the use each makes of the formal and stylistic qualities they share wonderfully exemplifies my sense of tradition as dynamic interplay of pattern and variation:

Danse Russe

If I when my wife is sleeping
and the baby and Kathleen
are sleeping
and the sun is a flame-white disc
in silken mists
above shining trees,—
if I in my north room
dance naked, grotesquely
before my mirror
waving my shirt round my head
and singing softly to myself:
“I am lonely, lonely.
I was born to be lonely,
I am best so!”
If I admire my arms, my face,
my shoulders, flanks, buttocks
against the yellow drawn shades,—

Who shall say I am not
the happy genius of my household?


if i stand in my window
naked in my own house
and press my breasts
against the windowpane
like black birds pushing against glass
because i am somebody
in a New Thing

and if the man come to stop me
in my own house
naked in my own window
saying i have offended him
i have offended his


let him watch my black body
push against my own glass
let him discover self
let him run naked through the streets
praying in tongues

Just as Williams himself plays with cultural and moral norms (experiential patterns), setting poetic self-absorption off against social and familial obligation, poet as liberated naked dancer versus his civilized role as father and husband, so Clifton sets her female African American body against the moral policing of an outside white male world. Both poets employ the conditional tense but to very different effect. In “Danse Russe,” the conditional lends a tone of wistfulness to the madcap, self-indulgent fantasy. In order for him to feel safe enough to freely express himself, certain specific conditions have to be met: he has to be alone; the wife, baby and nanny all have to be sleeping; the sun has to look a certain way in silken mists at the precise moment when it’s above the shining trees. The more those antecedent if-clauses pile up (there are four in the poem), the less chance there is the freedom they describe will ever be attained. Which is to say that “Danse Russe” is wish, not fact, less an affirmation of the body than description of the obstacles that keep him from being the happy naked genius he imagines. Clifton repurposes both the situation of poet as exhibitionist and the conditional syntax in order to confront a more complicated psycho-social political moment. She repeats ‘if’ only twice; and her poem ends not with a question, but three imperative statements describing the way the speaker’s bodily self-expression will ramify outward, from private interior into public space, enabling even the most hostile authority to discover, whether he wants to or not, what it means for her to own her own body (which is the kind of body the man has claimed ownership over) and her own house (which is a resource the man has consistently denied to Black people). The speaker of Williams’ poem is happily isolated in a safe place where no one can say he is anything but what he imagines himself to be. Clifton’s speaker doesn’t have the luxury of a room far removed from a hostile public. It’s as if for her there is no safe interior, or won’t be, until the transformative power of her black female body is witnessed by “the man” her body offends. “if i stand at my window” is a kind of angry and ecstatic homage to Williams. She modifies what she takes from “Danse Russe” in order to address racial and sexual dangers and injustices, as well as to declare her own freedom and authority. What the two poems share highlights the differences between them. Repetition with modification. That’s how tradition thrives.



Darwin’s definition of biological evolution as descent with modification applies I think to literary forms and practices just as much as the inextricability of sameness and difference, pattern and variation is essential to poetry of any kind. In a Darwinian sense, literary practices survive by changing, adapting; they are never fixed, never finished, always emergent, always reinventing out of old forms new expressive possibilities to meet the needs of ever changing individuals in an ever-changing language, and an ever-changing world.

Alan Shapiro, has published many poetry collections (including Reel to Reel, finalist for the Pulitzer Prize, and Night of the Republic, finalist for both the National Book Award and the International Griffin Prize), 4 books of prose, including The Last Happy Occasion, finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award. Winner of the Kingsley Tufts Award, LA Times Book Prize, an award in literature from The American Academy of Arts and Letters, and The William Carlos Williams Award from the Poetry Society of America, he is also a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. His latest book of poems, Against Translation, was published in 2019.

You can read more of his writing here.


Recent writing

E Read More

PoetryMay 19, 2024

“Everything only connected by ‘and’ and ‘and’”: On Elizabeth Bishop and Disappointment

In prose that’s erudite and accessible, former Editor-in-Chief of At Length, Jonathan Farmer, explores why “[s]o many of Elizabeth Bishop’s poems end with something audibly, willfully unsatisfying.” Covering Bishop’s career from “The Map” (1946) to her late elegy for Robert Lowell, “North Haven” (1977), Farmer’s claim will send you back to Bishop’s poems with new eyes.

W Read More

PoetryFebruary 16, 2024


“[W]hat am I to do / about beauty, about / my fear that beauty // has made me arrange / every experience in a word / and image too neatly // for them to bear / much semblance to life,” Paisley Rekdal asks in this confessional, ekphrastic poem written in response to George Stubb’s famed painting of an Arabian thoroughbred, “Whistlejacket” (1762), on view at the National Gallery in London.

S Read More

PoetryFebruary 9, 2024


“[H]ow do they bear this heat Who / knows who can say what will change,” Joanna Klink writes of this poem’s eponymous plant, also known as trumpet pitchers, as she explores our climate crisis and her relationship with her father in language that is both colloquial and catastrophic, meditative and urgent.

T Read More

PoetryApril 11, 2023

Three Weeks

“I am going to try to write / A little. // I have nothing at stake but my life.” In Dawn Potter‘s sequence, a 19th century woman alternates between diary entries and poems, trying to make sense of her life, her obligations, her hunger for holiness, and a feeling of disaster or deliverance just out of view.

Begin typing your search above and press return to search. Press Esc to cancel.