A Climbing Poem

In previous posts, I discussed the possibility of interpreting poems in terms of their poeticity (i.e. as their own integral units) and not reducing them to their references or their relations to speakers and listeners.  I also considered how this would lend itself to an object-oriented linguistics, for which poeticity does not happen only in poems but in all sentences, phrases, words, morphemes, and phonemes.  Linguistic objects have references and they have relations to speakers and listeners, but they are also alien substances radically different than those references and relations.
When you affirm the poeticity of a linguistic object, you can discuss the capacities harbored within the object itself.  Consider an example: William Carlos Williams’ poem, Poem


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 poem is “about” a climbing cat, but the poem is not reducible to its referential relationship to actual cats.  The poem itself harbors cat-like capacities of climbing.  The cat-like climbing of the poem is not evident merely from the description of the cat’s adventure, but also from the patterns of sound that are manifest in the poem itself.  For instance, the climbing of voiceless plosives: [t] climbs from its place with [k] in ‘cat’ to its place with [p] in “the pit of/ the empty/ flowerpot.”  Furthermore, [t] climbs from [k] to [p] in three stages, each with four lines.  Therefore, the stanzas of the poem also appear to be in a state of climbing (or Gestalt shifting) from four three-line stanzas to three four-line stanzas.  Similarly, the voiced interdental fricatives in each stanza climb to new positions within each subsequent stanza.  Every climbing that takes place in the poem bears the cat-like movement of climbing over given obstacles and stepping carefully into an empty clearing.  Thus, the dental [t] climbs over the given backness of the velar [k] and fills in the empty frontness of the labial [p].  Climbing is the emptying of the full and the filling of the empty.  There are many other patterns in the poem that resemble the climbing of the cat. 

Twenty of the twenty-seven words in the poem (approximately ¾) are monosyllabic.  Four words in the poem are disyllabic: over2, forefoot6, into10, and empty11.  The other three words in the poem are trisyllabic: jamcloset4, carefully7, and flowerpot12 (the subscript numbers represent line numbers from the poem).  Five of the twelve lines in the poem are composed only of monosyllabic words.  No line has more than one polysyllabic word.  A closer look at the way these words are arranged in the poem will reveal a climbing of words from lines with only monosyllabic words to lines with a polysyllabic word, specifically a trisyllabic word.  There is only one polysyllabic word in the first stanza (stanza A), and it is the disyllabic over2.  Moreover, stanza A is the only stanza without a trisyllabic word.  Stanza B has two polysyllabic words, the trisyllabic jamcloset4 and the disyllabic forefoot6.  The trisyllabic word carefully7 appears at the beginning of stanza C immediately after forefoot6 at the end of stanza B.  Stanza D has the most polysyllabic words with one in each of its three lines: into10, empty11, and flowerpot12.  Along the same line, stanza D is the only stanza that does not have at least one line composed entirely of monosyllabic words.  Stanza A has two lines of only monosyllabic words (1 and 3), stanza B has one such line (5), and stanza C has two such lines (8 and 9).

The climbing from monosyllables to polysyllables does not occur as a consistent increase in polysyllabic words throughout the course of the poem.  The main climb occurs through a series of smaller climbs.  The disyllabic over2 in stanza A is the first movement out of pure monosyllabicity.  In stanza B, the movement out of monosyllabicity progresses, with only one line (5) not bearing a polysyllabic word.  This movement progresses through the first word of stanza C, carefully7.  However, at this point the careful climbers move back down to base camp out of the thin air of polysyllabic words.  The two lines after carefully7 are the only two consecutive monosyllabic lines in the poem.  With five consecutive monosyllabic words, these two lines have more consecutive monosyllabic words than any others in the poem.  Thus, the final ascent to polysyllabicity, which will take place in the last stanza, is prefaced by a long stay in monosyllabicity.  Finally, the lines of stanza D each bear a polysyllabic word.  (The first line of stanza D appears sore-thumbed because, with four words and five syllables, it has the more words and syllables than any other line.)   The poem ends with two consecutive polysyllabic words (empty11 and flowerpot12).  This pinnacle of polysyllabicity was foreshadowed in the part of the climb that culminated in the only other pair of consecutive polysyllabic words, forefoot6 and  carefully7, which were separated by a stanza break.

Just as the cat climbed over the jamcloset into the flowerpot, so did [t] climb from [k] to [p] (i.e., back to front), and so do the words of the poem climb from monosyllabicity to polysyllabicity.  There are a few other ways through which the passage from stanza A to stanza D can be seen as a climb that culminates in the “empty flowerpot” being stepped into.

1. I said that carefullyand flowerpot12 are related as the only two polysyllables to follow consecutively.  These two words also bear the sound-pattern of climbing.  The last [k] of poem (from which [t] steps down to [p]) happens in carefully7, along with an [r], [f], and [l], none of which appear again until flowerpot12, wherein [r] climbs to the right of the consonantal line as [f], [l], and [r].

2. There is also somewhat of a climbing with the labiodental fricatives, wherein [v] (voiced) in line-final position climbs to [f] (voiceless) at word initial positions.  Out of the three voiced labiodental fricatives, two are line final (line 3 and 10) and one is the onset of a line-final syllable (line 2).  Out of the five voiceless labiodental fricatives, three are line-initial (line 5, 6, and 12) and two are at the onset of the second syllables in line 6 and line 7.  Thus, [v] climbs away from voice at the end of the lines 1 and 2 toward voiceless at the beginning of the lines 5, 6, and 7, back to voice at the end of line 10, finally stopping at the voiceless beginning of line 12.

3. Another interesting pattern might be more of a mirroring than a climbing, over maybe both.  The words per line in stanza B mirror the words per line in stanza C.  Lines 4, 5, and 6 have 2, 3, and 1 word(s) per line respectively.  Lines 7, 8, and 9 have 1, 3, and 2 word(s) per line respectively.  Thus, the pattern is 2, 3, 1, 1, 3, 2, and between the pair of one-word lines is the stanza break marking the middle of the poem.

In short, virtual capacities of climbing are at work in the poem itself.  The more that you lay out the patterns in the poem, the more you can feel the pull of the poem’s poeticity, its attraction and its withdrawal from all references and relations.  I’ve been looking over Williams’ Poem off and on for almost a decade now, and although the poem and I are becoming companions, I have not gotten any closer to touching its unfathomable depth.


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