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13 - Talking and Singing: Anne Stevenson's Variations on a Rhythmical Theme

Carol Rumens
Affiliation:
Universities of Bangor and Hull
Angela Leighton
Affiliation:
University of Cambridge
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Summary

During an interview with the Cortland Review Anne Stevenson declared ‘poetry has to either sing or talk’. That poetry may ‘talk’ rather than ‘sing’ might seem a surprising concession from a poet whose work is distinguished by its exceptional musicality. In much of her commentary, too, Stevenson emphasises the importance she assigns to the rhythmic and auditory qualities of language. However, it has always struck me as over-simple to define her work as exclusively lyrical. Certainly to regard her as a formalist, ‘new’ or otherwise, implying a poet with narrow, metrical criteria of poetic rhythm, is wide of the mark. For all the eloquence with which Stevenson depicts herself as a somewhat beleaguered defender of the melodic tradition against the tin-eared gabbling of the Zeitgeist, close reading often reveals a subtle mediation between the kind of poetry that talks and the kind that sings.

Of course, we are most likely to remember those of her poems that are straightforwardly song-like: the ballads, sonnets, villanelles, and other forays into the ‘fixed’ forms whose distant origins lie in music and dance. Their very design on us is mnemonic. Far more characteristically, in fact, Stevenson works in stanzaic structures not dictated by a particular form. These stanzas are usually, but by no means invariably, symmetrical. They may be rhymed or para-rhymed, and they may rhyme across the stanza break, but they frequently avoid predictable or seemingly pre-set rhyme schemes. It is not unusual for Stevenson to interrupt the rhyming pattern she has established, or otherwise to blur its outline.

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Voyages over Voices
Critical Essays on Anne Stevenson
, pp. 191 - 205
Publisher: Liverpool University Press
Print publication year: 2010

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