Poetry Sunday: “On Marriage,” by Meghan O’Rourke

Commentary by Rebecca Foust, Poetry Editor

This week’s poem gives me the opportunity to discuss something not mentioned before in these columns—the Sapphic line. Like spoken English, our poetry relies heavily on a metrical system called “normative accentual-syllabic” that first counts the number of syllables in a line and then the number of stresses, or beats. In this system, stressed syllables alternate with unstressed syllables in patterns we call verse “feet,” of four main types: iamb ( ~ /), anapest (~ ~ /), trochee (/ ~), and dactyl (/ ~ ~). Iambic pentameter, used by Shakespeare, is the most common accentual-syllabic meter, with lines that use ten syllables and five stresses in five feet, often five iambs, in this scansion pattern: ~ /  ~ /  ~ /  ~ /  ~ /. Accentual-syllabic meters vary along two parameters: the number of feet in the line and the pattern of stress and unstress within those feet. Iambic tetrameter follows the unstress/stress foot pattern ( ~ /) of iambic pentameter, but has four instead of five beats per line. Trochaic pentameter has five beats in a line, but the feet are not iambs, but trochees: /~  /~  /~  /~  /~ . Within all these meters, variations are permissible, but any given meter is named for the feet that predominate.

Some English poetry derives from another metrical system called “accentual verse” that counts only stresses and not syllables in a line. A well-known example is the Anglo-Saxon line, discussed in a previous Poetry Sunday column featuring Laura Knowles Blake here; that is the meter of Beowulf, a medieval poem you may have read in high school. There are other metrical systems besides these two, some hearkening back to antiquity. Today’s poem seems to have been inspired by Sapphics, an example of “quantitative accentual-syllabics” in which meter is especially and strictly measured and prescribed. A classic Sapphic line always employs falling meter, always in this pattern: trochee trochee dactyl trochee trochee, or  / ~   / ~  / ~ ~ ~  / ~  / ~.  Sapphics have eleven syllables and five feet in a line, and they do not typically use rhyme. [Source: Lewis Turco, The Book of Forms (University Press of New England, 3rd ed., 2000), p.  45.]

In “On Marriage,” two of the four couplets (the first and third) do use end rhyme (“grass” / “compass” and “shrew” / “do”), and all feature internal rhyme, like  “stone” / “lone” in the first couplet, “vessel-vassal” and  “shrew / you / do” in the third, and  “tea” / “me” in the final couplet. So, why do I think of Sapphics when reading this poem? The main reason is its markedly falling meter, with every line consisting of trochees and dactyls, albeit not necessarily in precisely the order Sapphics prescribes.

The second reason is its markedly spare form. Sapphics are named after an ancient poet, Sappho, whose verse survives today only as fragments. Sappho, depicted to the left, was born in about 620 BC to an aristocratic family on the island of Lesbos, Greece. She is known for writing lyrical poems about romantic and erotic love between women, and the modern terms “Sapphic” and “lesbian” trace back to her work and home. But the passion in her poems, all its sturm und drang  and struggle and disillusionment, remind me of the subject  of today’s poem: the tension between individual and shared experience in human conjugal love.

Plato hailed Sappho as “the tenth muse,” and she was regarded as among the greatest of poets in her time. Much of her writing has been lost, at least partly due to censorship. Only about 650 lines survive, and many fragments contain only a single word. Sappho is most known for celebrating love between women, but an important contribution of her work was to the very idea of the lyric, writing poems that are “direct, impassioned, and simple and . . . addressed to a circle of close friends and lovers rather than being impersonal or directed at connoisseurs.” [Wikipedia] The Sapphic stanza was imitated in English by Algernon Charles Swinburne and others; Rudyard Kipling wrote a Sapphic tribute to William Shakespeare called “The Craftsman;” and even Allen Ginsburg used the form. Contemporary examples include “Sapphics for Patience” by Annie Finch, “Dusk: July” by Marilyn Hacker, and “Sapphics Against Anger” by Timothy Steele. [Source: Wikipedia]

I first saw Sappho’s fragments in a book edited by Anne Carson called Winter Is, and poets through the ages have been inspired by their hauntingly elusive and evocative quality. The existing papyrus fragment, below reminds me of the contemporary practice of erasure that strategically deletes sections of a given text in order to create a poem from what is left. [See this Poetry Sunday column featuring a poem by Janet Jennings.]

[By Sailko, source here]

One quality shared by Sappho’s fragments and contemporary erasure poems is porosity—an openness that expands the meanings of poems and their applicability to wider range of readers. It’s the art of—not saying too much. Some people confuse porosity with vagueness, a quality fatal to most poems. It is possible and indeed desirable to have clarity and specificity along with porosity, and that is where “On Marriage” really shines.

Images are delivered with lapidary precision—“stone by stone” and “body by body in the grass,” a “lone compass,” swans, glazed light, a lovers’ embrace, “footsteps in the thistles,” and so on—but what’s being described is universal and relatable to everyone. We’ve all seen those pairings in nature, all been one of those bodies in the grass. Also contributing to the porosity of this piece—its ability to have reference to a wide band of experience and readers—is the author’s interesting and innovative management of point of view. “On Marriage” opens in first-person plural: “we trade our lone compass.” The poem’s title encourages us to read that “we” as designating the speaker and her spouse, but I read it also as the “collective we,” a communal voice that allows the narrator to bring many readers into the fold. And if a reader has any doubts about belonging to that community, they are allayed by the poem’s shift to direct address, using the second-person point of view. “What would you do?” the speaker asks in line 6 [emphasis added], and then the rest of the poem uses the injunctive voice to answer the question, instructing readers to “listen,” “put the kettle on,” and “whisper it to me.” That “me,” the last word in the poem, is its only instance of first-person singular point of view. The layering of different points of view (I, we, communal we, and you) allows for an interplay that reminds me of a larger thematic tension in the poem, that between individuality and union in any marriage or human relationship.

“On Marriage” opens with two doublings: a stone with a stone and a body with another body “in the grass”—such pairings are why we relinquish our individual autonomy, our “lone compass,” to become swans instead, birds that mate for life. At first bathed in soft-focus romance (“glaze-light”), the image quickly resolves into something more complicated. Do such unions create a “vessel” to hold us, or do they make us into trapped “vassal[s]” and “shrew[s]”? Instead of answering the question, the poem directs it outward, back to readers: “What would you do? [emphasis added].” Next, it provides a series of instructions, in images that at first recall the natural images that opened the poem (“footsteps in the thistles”) and then evoke domesticity (“Put the kettle on for tea”) and intimacy (“whisper it to me”). The “it” in that phrase seems to refer to the answer to the question posed (“what would you do”), and the author wants the reader to fill in the blank.

We feel the yearning for union in those lines about stones by stones and bodies by bodies in the grass, and also a countervailing yearning for individualism in lines where the speaker expresses concern about becoming a “vassal” or “shrew.” “On Marriage” specifically addresses conjugal love, but its essential dilemma—identity versus union—occurs in any human relationship. In the end, the poem simply presents that dilemma without resolution or judgment, and allows the reader to make the choice.

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