I’m not a great fan of literary criticism; I don’t oppose it in theory, but I consider it automatically subsidiary to actual literature (which of course places me firmly in the reactionary camp, sorry about that), and in general I’d rather be reading actual literature. I have less than no interest in criticism that purports to show that a poem gives aid and comfort to colonialist patriarchy or the like. However, I have a weakness for criticism that addresses and illuminates the working materials of literature: in the case of poetry, rhyme, meter, length of lines, enjambment, and the other tools in the poet’s kit. Barry Scherr has written just such an article, “False Starts: A Note on Brodsky’s Poetics” in Toronto Slavic Quarterly No. 5. Brodsky is quoted only in Russian, but I think the analysis is sufficiently interesting that even if you don’t know Russian you may find it worth reading. An excerpt:

The link between rhythmic breaks and the endings of poems turns out to be a special case within a larger phenomenon, which was first described by Barbara Herrnstein Smith in her now classic study, Poetic Closure. She noted that repetition is an “anti-closural” force; thus the rhymed couplet that appears at the end of the English sonnet helps achieve a sense of closure in significant degree by its sharp distinction from the series of quatrains that precedes it. Beginning, like Kholshevnikov, with a study of stanzaic structure, she goes on to examine numerous features that help impart a sense of closure – thematic, structural, and formal. Her point is not just that poets can and do employ a wide variety of devices to create closure, but that the failure to establish that sense leaves a poem unresolved and ultimately less successful.

For all the influence of her book, and despite the almost parallel appearance of Kholshevnikov’s article, studies of closure have been far less common in the Russian tradition than they have in the West. Not surprisingly, therefore, Western scholars have contributed most to the recent examination of closure in Russian poetry. Ian Lilly, in a study devoted to two-quatrain lyric verse from the Russian, German and English traditions, has analyzed the dual role of the second stanza in these short works. As in longer poems, the second quatrain needs to establish the repetition that distinguishes stanzaic verse. However, it is also the final stanza and therefore at the same time has to create a sense of closure, a task that it carries out through the methods of imbalance and contrast.

(Via PF.)


  1. Quite an interesting piece, but I’m glad it focuses on poems I’m rather indifferent to. The analysis of closure and opening confirms an old truth that the first and last lines matter more than others; it’s no wonder poets invest a lot of time in the first line, and sometimes make the last one metrically different so it stands out. An anecdote has it that Tsvetaeva once asked Mikhail Kuzmin, referring to his Inscription on a Book (Manon Lescaut, to Gumilev): “Admit it, Mikhail Alekseevich, this poem was written for the sake of the last line.” “Of course, Marina Ivanovna,” replied Kuzmin, “like all poems — for the very last line.” That is, Была зарыта шпагой, не лопатой // Манон Леско.
    This was the first poem (actually, two fragments) by Kuzmin I had read, at an age of 10 or 12, without knowing who the author was. It sounded quite different from the poetry I was used to then.

  2. Neat. Somewhere in the back of my mind I keep remembering that terms like dactyl are obviously Greek and not English in origin, but there’s something exciting about being able to follow prosodic observations in poetry of a language I can’t even begin to decipher. I’ve got to get my Armenian roommate to read those lines aloud for me.

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