Recording Mortal Sight: The Drama of Prosody

An Interview with Phillis Levin

August 30, 2010

Photo #15 (Color) of Phillis Levin - by Sigrid Estrada
Phillis Levin

Phillis Levin: The reason [Anthony Hecht’s] “The Transparent Man” seems so appropriate for this anthology is that the process of reading the poem yields profound insights into the creation of voice through prosody, as well as insights into the relation of pattern to meaning. It is one of the best poems for unfolding and illuminating the genius of blank verse, the ways in which one can embody meaning through prosodic variation. The poem contains lines of remarkable textural density and equally stunning moments of textural transparency. I’ve wanted to write about this poem for a long time, and every time I reread it I learn more about the radiating consequences of seemingly minor variations.

The Transparent Man

I’m mighty glad to see you, Mrs. Curtis,
And thank you very kindly for this visit—
Especially now when all the others here
Are having holiday visitors, and I feel
A little conspicuous and in the way.
It’s mainly because of Thanksgiving. All these mothers
And wives and husbands gaze at me soulfully
And feel they should break up their box of chocolates
For a donation, or hand me a chunk of fruitcake.
What they don’t understand and never guess
Is that it’s better for me without a family;
It’s a great blessing. Though I mean no harm.
And as for visitors, why, I have you,
All cheerful, brisk and punctual every Sunday,
Like church, even if the aisles smell of phenol.
And you always bring even better gifts than any
On your book-trolley. Though they mean only good,
Families can become a sort of burden.
I’ve only got my father, and he won’t come,
Poor man, because it would be too much for him.
And for me, too, so it’s best the way it is.
He knows, you see, that I will predecease him,
Which is hard enough. It would take a callous man
To come and stand around and watch me failing.
(Now don’t you fuss; we both know the plain facts.)
But for him it’s even harder. He loved my mother.
They say she looked like me; I suppose she may have.
Or rather, as I grew older I came to look
More and more like she must one time have looked,
And so the prospect for my father now
Of losing me is like having to lose her twice.
I know he frets about me. Dr. Frazer
Tells me he phones in every single day,
Hoping that things will take a turn for the better.
But with leukemia things don’t improve.
It’s like a sort of blizzard in the bloodstream,
A deep, severe, unseasonable winter,
Burying everything. The white blood cells
Multiply crazily and storm around,
Out of control. The chemotherapy
Hasn’t helped much, and it makes my hair fall out.
I know I look a sight, but I don’t care.
I care about fewer things; I’m more selective.
It’s got so I can’t even bring myself
To read through any of your books these days.
It’s partly weariness, and partly the fact
That I seem not to care much about the endings,
How things work out, or whether they even do.
What I do instead is sit here by this window
And look out at the trees across the way.
You wouldn’t think that was much, but let me tell you,
It keeps me quite intent and occupied.
Now all the leaves are down, you can see the spare,
Delicate structures of the sycamores,
The fine articulation of the beeches.
I have sat here for days studying them,
And I have only just begun to see
What it is that they resemble. One by one,
They stand there like magnificent enlargements
Of the vascular system of the human brain.
I see them there like huge discarnate minds,
Lost in their meditative silences.
The trunks, branches and twigs compose the vessels
That feed and nourish vast immortal thoughts.
So I’ve assigned them names. There, near the path,
Is the great brain of Beethoven, and Kepler
Haunts the wide spaces of that mountain ash.
This view, you see, has become my Hall of Fame.
It came to me one day when I remembered
Mary Beth Finley who used to play with me
When we were girls. One year her parents gave her
A birthday toy called “The Transparent Man.”
It was made of plastic, with different colored organs,
And the circulatory system all mapped out
In rivers of red and blue. She’d ask me over
And the two of us would sit and study him
Together, and do a powerful lot of giggling.
I figure he’s most likely the only man
Either of us would ever get to know
Intimately, because Mary Beth became
A Sister of Mercy when she was old enough.
She must be thirty-one; she was a year
Older than I, and about four inches taller.
I used to envy both those advantages
Back in those days. Anyway, I was struck
Right from the start by the sea-weed intricacy,
The fine-haired, silken-threaded filiations
That wove, like Belgian lace, throughout the head.
But this last week it seems I have found myself
Looking beyond, or through, individual trees
At the dense, clustered woodland just behind them,
Where those great, nameless crowds patiently stand.
It’s become a sort of complex, ultimate puzzle
And keeps me fascinated. My eyes are twenty-twenty,
Or used to be, but of course I can’t unravel
The tousled snarl of intersecting limbs,
That mackled, cinder grayness. It’s a riddle
Beyond the eye’s solution. Impenetrable.
If there is order in all that anarchy
Of granite mezzotint, that wilderness,
It takes a better eye than mine to see it.
It set me on to wondering how to deal
With such a thickness of particulars,
Deal with it faithfully, you understand,
Without blurring the issue. Of course I know
That within a month the sleeving snows will come
With cold, selective emphases, with massings
And arbitrary contrasts, rendering things
Deceptively simple, thickening the twigs
To frosty veins, bestowing epaulets
And decorations on every birch and aspen.
And the eye, self-satisfied, will be misled,
Thinking the puzzle solved, supposing at last
It can look forth and comprehend the world.
That’s when you have to really watch yourself.
So I hope that you won’t think me plain ungrateful
For not selecting one of your fine books,
And I take it very kindly that you came
And sat here and let me rattle on this way.1

Editors: Will you, please, begin by introducing the poem to us?

Phillis Levin: “The Transparent Man” by Anthony Hecht is a poem in blank verse, but it’s also a dramatic monologue, a poetic form that is often composed in blank verse. It’s a poem in the voice of a young woman, a woman in her early thirties who is lying in a hospital with leukemia. We discover that through what she reveals of herself.

Editors: How would you describe the persona of the poem?

Phillis Levin: Well, the persona unfolds over time, and that’s one of the reasons the poem is so compelling. The person speaking is modest; she is self-effacing, so the title, “The Transparent Man,” seems to be connected to her, because she sounds transparent. There’s a quality of transparency to her speaking; that is, she seems to reveal herself easily. It’s not as though she is revealing her emotions, but she doesn’t seem to have any guile. She’s not witty. Or let’s just say that if she’s witty, it’s more about her condition. She is not at all self-pitying.

We are discovering her through her interaction with Mrs. Curtis, a visitor who brings library books to the different patients. One of the curiosities of the poem is that the speaker, this young woman, is not interested in reading books any more. And I think that is one of the reasons the poem is so interesting: Anthony Hecht, a consummate master of poetry, a great reader, a great aesthete, a great lover of the arts—he knew a lot about music and painting, as well as literature—takes on the persona of a young woman who would rather look out the window at trees than read another book.

Editors: Why do you think blank verse is such an effective means of creating voice and, oddly here, an intimate kind of voice?

Phillis Levin: Again, one of the paradoxes of all art is how, when it’s working, you’re conscious of the artifice and conscious that it seems natural to be moving within the artifice, giving yourself over to the design. Say if you watch people dancing—you are aware that these are learned moves, patterns that become second nature, and there is the thrill of seeing people perform them. You see the exchange of energy, constant flow and flux, and you know that there is a formula and there is a transcendence of formula simultaneously.

When blank verse works, it’s often creating the illusion of the speaking voice, of authentic, vernacular speech. One of the things I’ve noticed reading this poem is that Hecht interweaves a lot of monosyllabic words with polysyllabic words, and that’s one of the ways I think he is able to modulate the voice, creating different textures of transparency and opacity. So both the speaker’s humility and her interior complexity are continuously projected through the prosody itself. She’ll say things that sound or seem more sophisticated because she’s using polysyllabic words. There’s actually one line in which she only utters monosyllables: “I know I look a sight, but I don’t care.” That’s completely natural speech, a statement of ten simple words easily forming a pattern of five iambic feet: “I know | I look | a sight, | but I | don’t care.” Those ten monosyllables occur a few lines after the word “chemotherapy,” which is a hard word to utter in a poem. And then there are intricately balanced passages such as this one: “Anyway, I was struck / right from the start by the sea-weed intricacy, / The fine-haired, silken-threaded filiations / That wove, like “Belgian lace, throughout the head.”

Anthony Hecht at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop (1947)

Weaving is one of the motifs in the poem, one of the overarching metaphors: how, looking through the trees, one sees the way nature weaves and unweaves patterns. So the leaves are full, and she can see the forest, and then she can’t see what’s there; you get the sense it’s a mystery, she can’t really see what’s there. She’s trying to see into and through the landscape. Then she tells us how, as winter comes on, as the leaves fall, things become clearer. But then you see even deeper into the forest, and then you see even more of what you don’t see, and then the snows come and they clarify everything, crystallize everything. It’s that point near the end of the poem when the speaker actually says, “That’s when you have to really watch yourself”—when you think you can see things. I think that’s also Hecht’s way of saying that, just when we think we see things, just when we think we are in control, we have mastery, that’s when we’re most likely to fall into a kind of deception, a self-deception or an illusion.

So it’s a way, I think, Hecht himself, as an artist, is exploring the limits of sight, the limits of insight and vision—and compassion. Hecht exposes the limits of his art and the limits of artifice, of creating and understanding a character other than himself.

But back to the issue of prosody and blank verse. The whole history of English prosody shows the blank verse line to be the most suitable measure for dramatic speech. It can be heightened heroic speech, but in this case it’s really this pretty “plain” person who happens to be lying in bed, dying of leukemia. She sounds “natural,” she’s an absolutely believable speaker. And that’s part of the mystery . . . for she becomes an enchanting, fascinating person that the reader falls in love with, but it’s hard to understand why.

Editors: How does the use of blank verse enhance our understanding of the speaker’s emotions or emotional stance?

Phillis Levin: Blank verse feels very natural, very flexible, when you work in it and if you read it a lot. But the thing about it is, it’s an extremely elastic line. Many of the lines in this poem have feminine endings—that is, they end with an unstressed syllable—and that creates a lilt; you hear that from the very beginning of the poem. The first line ends with the word “Curtis.” Then you have “visit.” So the first two lines have that softness at the end, which tends to push us onto the next line, eliciting enjambment. The third line is the first one that ends on a full stress, the word “here,” and then “feel,” and then “way,” and then you go “mothers,” “soulfully,” “chocolates,” “fruitcake.” Hecht modulates a lot between lines that end with a strong stress and end with a weaker stress; and he plays with where the stress falls at the beginning of the line, sometimes opening with a stressed rather than an unstressed syllable, with a word whose accent falls on the first syllable. Shakespeare does that frequently—so many poets do. It’s what makes a line dynamic and unpredictable, in counterpoint to the underlying pattern of regularity. This elasticity is one of the most common qualities of blank verse.

When I say elastic, I mean that you can have five different lines that all scan as iambic pentameter, yet all sound and behave very differently from each other. The question is why. It’s the sonic value of the word that contributes to the pace of the line, and the pace of previous lines will affect the rhythmic expression of that word in the line it inhabits. If you have a polysyllabic word (and every polysyllabic word in the English language has one predominant accent, though other syllables in that word may also be more strongly stressed than others), that word will be pronounced more quickly or more slowly, depending not only on the length of vowels and quality of consonants but on the overall environment of the line in which it lives. So if you have

I’m mighty glad to see you, Mrs. Curtis,
And thank you very kindly for this visit—
Especially now when all the others here
Are having holiday visitors, and I feel
A little conspicuous and in the way

it just sounds like authentic speech; it sounds idiomatic. You don’t say “con-SPIC-u-OUS,” you say “conSPICuous.” That’s part of the dialectic of any prosodic line. The dialectic results from the tension between the abstract pattern of the verse and the idiomatic speech stress pattern. So if you have a word like “conspicuous” that has four syllables, anyone would say the second and the fourth are stressed differently than the first and third. The second and the fourth are stressed more than the first and the third, and yet it’s the second that is stressed more than all four. So you have “con-SPIC-u-ous” and you have “con-SPIC-u-OUS,” and those two things are happening simultaneously.

The underlying metrical pattern, which is the frame, is an abstraction. Think of Mondrian. As Mondrian develops, his work grows more and more abstract; he formulates a geometry. But if you look at a landscape, or if you look at a painting by Cézanne, you see a landscape, and you see its geometry. You can say here you have this abstraction, which is the blank verse, and then you have the living speech pattern. But the poem slowly unveils a young woman who is dying, who is going to be a skeleton, and underneath it all is the skeleton of the blank verse: you have the abstraction, you have the pattern. Abstraction has a kind of eternity to it, but it’s also a kind of death because it’s separated from the organic, living, pulsing moment. And you have the pulsing moment in her speech patterns and in the variation, the deviation from the pattern.

Why would you want to write in blank verse, even today? Well, that’s because you are able to create these double realities, these polyphonies, where you have deviations from the norm, as is the case in any complex system. You can’t have deviation without a norm. The speaker of this poem is a person whose system is breaking down. And the whole poem is called “The Transparent Man.” By the middle of the poem, we discover that the transparent man is actually just a toy that this woman’s childhood friend received as a birthday present—not a toy to play with, but something to study– a model of the circulatory system. Here’s a poem that’s trying to look into a person’s soul, and inside of the poem we see this girl looking at, looking into, a transparent man. And what does it mean to be transparent, to be seen through, to be seen? The young woman is more and more interested in looking out the window at the trees—and while looking at them, what does she see? She imagines they are the brains of great thinkers. She’s projecting her experience of that toy, that anatomical model of the circulatory system, into the forest, and in seeing what she sees, we look inside of her.

It’s sort of endless; it’s like a fractal of geometry. She has created (Hecht has created) this metaphor: she sees the world through that transparent man, and then she begins to see Beethoven and Kepler, those great thinkers. And then there’s also that mystery—what does that mean, to be seeing these great minds? They’re not alive; they’re in her mind. She’s reading them; she’s reading the forest.

Editors: How does this poem work like or unlike Browning’s dramatic monologues?

Anthony Hecht at The University of Rochester

Phillis Levin: That’s a good question. Well, I think that there’s no way to avoid thinking about Browning because he developed the prototypical dramatic monologue as a separate entity that stands on its own, apart from a verse drama. Browning also wrote powerful verse dramas; but his remarkable innovation, the dramatic monologue, must disclose its own context. The difference is, I think, of course, a stylistic difference, but there’s a kinship there; that is, the mode is the same. And what Hecht is doing that he learned from Browning is to reveal character through diction and through detail: a character speaks and reveals something about himself or herself that he or she doesn’t know he or she is revealing, as in “My Last Duchess,” when the duke points out “that’s my last duchess painted on the wall.” So how are people revealed, how do they reveal themselves? Often through interaction with someone else. Here the young woman is speaking to Mrs. Curtis. It’s not a soliloquy. In other words, it’s not that this young woman is lying in bed, speaking out loud her final thoughts that we are overhearing. She is speaking to someone else, so we are seeing her in a dramatic exchange. That’s what Browning did. What Hecht must have learned from Browning is that you can reveal character this way, that people reveal things about themselves that they don’t know they are revealing. There’s a lot of pleasure in doing that. It’s a challenge.

Editors: Has your opinion of the poem changed over time? Do you discover new things each time you come to it?

Phillis Levin: Yes, actually, yes. I’m amazed at this poem because, more and more, I see it as connected to this issue of surrender and mastery that we confront as artists and in relationship to life. That is, the more we know, the more we don’t know, they say. The more we know, we don’t know. . . . Humility, I think, is very important, and because of this, I’m especially fascinated by Hecht. Hecht wrote a number of monologues. I think it’s not a coincidence that it’s much later in his career that he could identify with or at least create a persona of a young woman rather than a man. For example, it’s a woman he creates, a woman who is ill and who, according to whatever she says about herself, has never had any sexual experience; the closest she’ll ever get to a man is this transparent man, she reveals. Hecht has given voice to someone so other, and he has no animosity toward this female. I think it took him a long time to be able to identify with an ill, young, inexperienced woman who doesn’t want to read a book. It’s not the likely thing. But I also think he is exploring something troubling, something intriguing; it’s not an act of narcissism. And I think it’s like Faustus in a way, that Hecht is exploring the limits. But by the end of the poem I cannot help thinking of Prospero.

There’s actually a quotation I found pretty recently that made me rethink everything. It’s something that Francis Bacon says: “All depends on keeping the eye steadily fixed on the facts of nature and so receiving their images as they are. For God forbid that we should give out a dream of our own imagination for a pattern of the world.”2 I think all of us would have very mixed feelings about that. What’s wrong with giving out a dream of our own imagination for a pattern of the world? But to keep the eye fixed on the facts of nature and receive images as they are, well, we have a lot of skepticism about that; how is that even possible? And yet, that is partly what this poem is trying to do. The girl is trying to be fixed on nature, but she keeps projecting into nature. Hecht keeps trying to focus on her, though. I think he is trying to see what would she really be like—not me, but what would she really be like. And you know, this whole thing about not being a self-satisfied eye, e-y-e, or I, the end of that,

If there is order in all that anarchy
Of granite mezzotint, that wilderness,
It takes a better eye than mine to see it.
It set me on to wondering how to deal
With such a thickness of particulars.

That’s one of the most extraordinary phrases, “a thickness of particulars.” It’s a definition of texture, of the nature of poetry, and of the nature of experience. “Deal with it faithfully, you understand, / Without blurring the issue.” That’s it, right? How do you not blur the issue, how do you not project? How do you see without projecting? It’s almost like wanting to have a scientific vision. It’s as if this girl, as she’s dying, or this young woman, as she’s dying, wants to see things as they are; she wants to lay things bare without illusion. And Hecht is laying her bare. And death will lay her bare.

“Thickness of particulars” also seems to be a description of prosody: he creates a prosody where there are very dense lines musically, semantically, phonetically, syntactically, and then there are lines where everything just becomes clear and transparent again. I think one of the ways Hecht does this is through the counterpointing of polysyllabic and monosyllabic words.

Editors: You already briefly touched on your own work in blank verse. Could you tell us a little bit more about how this poem relates to your own work in blank verse? And also, has your reading of the poem directly influenced your own poetry? Is there a particular poem of yours that you think explores the same kind of strategies?

Phillis Levin: I can’t think of any particular poem. I wrote from a very early age; I was very seriously writing by the age of twelve, and my very early work was influenced by hearing a lot of poetry read out loud. And that was largely poetry that was traditional, say Shakespeare, Shelley, Dickinson, but a lot of it wasn’t so. For example, I was reading Ferlinghetti and Cummings and Sandburg as well as Dickinson, so I was writing in free verse, in what’s now called “open field.” I was writing things scattered all over the page between the age of twelve and twenty-one. I was also writing poems in blank verse, and I was writing poems in rhyme and meter. I was experimenting with all of those things from the very beginning. I think that when I returned to working with a line that had meter, what challenged me was the way the structure helped me get out of myself because there’s retention; there’s a physicality in prosody. For me, it’s more physical when there’s discipline in the prosody. I’m solving a problem and it makes me forget myself, and I can surrender to it.

I’ve always had a very strong interest in philosophy and science, and this poem is also about wanting to see such things. I don’t identify usually with people who are ill, and so this girl is very other to me also. But I was fascinated by her imagination, the depth of her imagination, and I was very moved by Hecht’s tribute to her, creating someone of such great imagination who is not “special,” who would rather look out the window than read. Maybe the relationship to the natural world is so primary for me; that might be one of the reasons the poem touches me. In nature, you always have patterns; you have occurrences of patterns that keep generating themselves and mutating. And so, for me, blank verse is organic. It can keep mutating if you think about it: it is self-generating. There are infinite mutations that are possible within the patterns, and often you have more variety when you have a pattern with deviation than if you have no pattern; that’s what I’ve discovered.

I still write a lot in free verse, but the rigorous underpinning of any metrical structure, I think, creates tensions that allow people to transcend their own limits. Everybody knows this from sports, from dance; for some reason, people don’t apply whatever they know about those other things to writing, as much. People think, “Oh, I want to be free.” But the thing is, you get on the dance floor, and people usually want to dance with somebody who has some sense of how to move in relation to the rhythm of the music. Spontaneity is not the opposite of that; spontaneity often comes from inhabiting a pattern, a design. There’s a degree to which certain things are given in a language. Meaning, if I grew up speaking French, probably the Alexandrine would seem a more natural line to me because, after all, the prosodic strategies and structures evolve from whatever linguistic propensities the language has, and English, because it is so accentual, has all the opportunities for playing with the modulations and sounds.

There are all different kinds of poets, and I think I happen to be very visual and very auditory. For me, these auditory effects, these subtle variations that are possible, give enormous pleasure to me, and I like giving pleasure to the reader. That’s why I do it and why I’m drawn to it, but I think there’s a degree to which there are certain things that are inexplicable, and one of them is how it is possible to make some things sound so natural. Once you look at it and break it down, at a certain point, the question is: how is it that artifice can seem natural? And yet that is usually how art behaves: when it’s working, it just seems like a given, it’s like, “Oh, it had to be.” “It’s like a sort of blizzard in the bloodstream”—that sounds like natural speech, doesn’t it? “A deep, severe, unseasonable winter,” but that line sounds so different, “Burying everything.” Before that there’s that flat line, “But with leukemia things don’t improve. / It’s like a sort of blizzard in the bloodstream.” “It’s like a sort of blizzard in the bloodstream” has a musicality to it because it’s so regular, but the regularity of that and the beauty of that are foregrounded by the line before it, “But with leukemia things don’t improve.” Inside the poem, he’s able to create all of these contrasts . . .

There’s a poem in my very first book, but it’s a longer poem, and it’s called “The Stairwell.” It’s actually, I think, the poem that wound up getting me hired at the University of Maryland because it’s a poem that Michael Collier had read that he liked a lot, and then he invited me to apply for the job. It’s an older poem, but it’s a visionary poem about a stairwell and this staircase that I used to imagine was a harp when I was a child. It’s in iambic pentameter, and it’s a meditative poem, a kind of Wordsworthian poem, I suppose, in terms of how childhood is the source of vision. It’s actually very autobiographical; as a child I really did believe that I could fly. Every night I dreamt that I climbed to the top of the stairwell and jumped and that I was floating throughout the house. And I persisted in believing in it because I dreamt it all the time. But I did literally sit at the bottom of the staircase and play with the banister as if it were a harp. So it offers sort of a poetic beginning, this poem. Somehow it has a kinship, probably because there is the constriction in physical space and there’s the vastness of imagination in this poem, and I think that probably speaks to this girl who’s even more constricted; she’s in a hospital bed, but she’s looking out and her imagination has endless freedom. “The Stairwell” is a kind of emancipation poem, as well as an ars poetica: it’s about the discovery of the boundlessness of one’s imagination, and so maybe in some way it’s very appropriate.

Oh, there was one very personal thing I didn’t say . . . you asked me why this poem means so much to me. Last summer, my aunt had heart surgery. She is a very vital, lively person. She’s doing very well now. Jack, my now fiancé, is a cardiac anesthesiologist, and he did the case (and when he agreed to take the case, he must have had a much better sense of what he was getting into than I did, that the experience would be charged with emotion), working with a top heart surgeon. I was seeing step by step the kinds of things involved, just what a patient has to go through. I was a witness to the conversation Jack had with my aunt the night before the operation, his interview with her as the patient. I listened to him speaking with my aunt; I could hear and see the exchange of words and gestures that led her to trust her life in someone else’s hands. And after the operation was over, I visited her every day and saw the humiliation and all of that—how vulnerable people are. Watching Jack in his daily interactions with my aunt, from the day before the operation to the period of critical care and then recovery, made me understand “The Transparent Man” in a whole new way. He happens to be someone of great humility. A lot of people in medicine are egocentric; he happens to have a lot of humility. And watching him day to day dealing with managing moment to moment somebody’s life and realizing it took enormous detachment and control, somehow it became an analogy for what happens in art. There’s an enormous amount of healing, and then you have to have all this other control. . . . It just hit me that, especially in medicine, very high-level medicine, you are dealing with unbelievable sophistication, and yet there is a degree beyond which you have no control: you don’t know what is going to happen. You have all of the equipment, you have the great minds, etc., and something can go wrong that you can’t explain. I was in the hospital every single day watching this, and I was watching him. And I was watching how he interacted with her, the respect he had for her as a person. It’s very hard for me to articulate, but it really affected me because it made me understand that human touch that’s needed no matter how much control you have. And I somehow felt that the poem, for Hecht, was a very mature moment for him because it was this exploration of a non-heroic subject, of a subject who wouldn’t be remembered, who was ordinary, and showing something absolutely extraordinary in that person. Somehow the experience of this life and death thing, it has to do with technique and pathos. You act as if you don’t have any feeling. These doctors, they just—they have so much feeling when you talk to them, but they can’t show it.

You have to have enormous detachment in order to function, and maybe that’s what it is; maybe that’s what I’m attracted to as an artist and why I loved the sciences always. There’s a part of me that loves dealing with a problem, solving a problem in language. And that’s so different from the realm of feeling. You know how it is: when you work on a poem, it can be about the greatest heartbreak, and there you are wondering where the line break should be. And you’re like, “Wait a minute.” It’s not just a distraction; there’s a pleasure in the heightened relationship to the craft, and at the same time there’s all this feeling and you’re juggling all these things simultaneously. So I guess somehow I’ve just been spared that. I’ve had very little experience in life with illness or with people being ill. It was the first time I had spent a lot of time in the hospital. So probably it did bring back the poem because “The Transparent Man” is set in a hospital ward, and its speaker is someone who can’t really do much more than look out the window.

What I do instead is sit here by this window
And look out at the trees across the way.
You wouldn’t think that was much, but let me tell you,
It keeps me quite intent and occupied.

I love that, “It keeps me quite intent and occupied.” And then she goes further, “Now all the leaves are down, you can see the spare, / Delicate structures of the sycamores, / The fine articulation of the beeches.” That’s an incredible articulation articulating the nature of blank verse, “The fine ar-ti-cu-la-tion-of-the-beech-es,”—you don’t say it that way, you say, “The fine articulation of the beeches,” but it’s this absolutely mellifluous line articulating the nature of blank verse—you hear the beauty of it, it just sings . . .

Hecht has created somebody who has such a vivid imagination; we get lost in her imagination. We become part of her imaginative projection. He’s created a world in a world in a world. Now what that has to do with blank verse, it doesn’t go without saying. It doesn’t have to be in blank verse. But I think the weaving of the spell has to do with the relationships between regularity of pattern, which is calming, which is soothing, which is enchanting, which creates a lull, you just sort of relax, you trust him, you’re with him. And after all, this is somebody who is breathing. To be alive means you have regular repetitive rhythms continuing. And yet what it means to be alive isn’t just inhale, exhale; it’s what we’re doing while we’re doing that. It’s as if the prosody itself is the metaphor, is the frame for the baseline of living.

Writing Prompts

One idea is to read different lines of blank verse out loud and see how differently they behave, and try to figure out why. Why does one line of blank verse sound so different from another? What is that? A lot of it has to do with syntax, as with every other metrical line. Also, what’s happening is that it affects the way you handle syntax because, in a metrical line, the line ends when the meter runs out, or where the meter runs out; maybe there’s one less or one more syllable. You actually are enhancing your enjambments, but the enjambments feel more natural than they would in free verse because in free verse you are making a decision every time you break a line, whereas in a metrical verse, the line has to break. So there’s the feeling of inevitability. The paradox is that you can have a more dramatic enjambment that seems more natural.

Also, to play with the values of words, that’s a lot of fun. For example, try to write a blank verse line with as few words as possible, and then try to write one with as many words as possible. So with ten monosyllables you could have a blank verse line, but it’s possible, as well, to compose a blank verse line with only two words. And then you can see what happens when you say it out loud, and then you can talk about relative speed. Speed is so important in a poem. And you control speed through the modulation of the length of words. If you have a series of lines with predominantly short words, and then you introduce a line with longer words, you’re going to pronounce that line the same way. If you have five lines in a row that seem to take the same amount of time, you’ll tend to give the sixth line the same amount of time. So, if it’s a line with fewer words, suddenly you’ll be pronouncing that line more slowly. Do you see what I’m saying? With blank verse, another fun thing is once you have the pattern, the environment of blank verse, then you can see the effect of introducing a longer or shorter line into that environment; for example, a shorter metrical line, a very short line, just one or two stresses, and then you see, oh, you’ve come up short, and there’s a sort of thrill or shock there.

“The Transparent Man” is also so compelling because Hecht deploys a very broad range of diction. That would be an interesting prompt: write a poem in which you can have a technical term like “chemotherapy,” and then you can have a phrase like “Belgian lace.” Part of the reason the poem is so rich is that it includes all of these different realities: Kepler and Beethoven, a toy, the word “plastic” is in here. Even the syntax—the word “impenetrable” is a single word sentence. You know, “And the eye, self-satisfied, will be misled”—to me that’s the key to the poem. “And the eye, self-satisfied, will be misled, / Thinking the puzzle solved, supposing at last / It can look forth and comprehend the world.” This is really a poem in which Hecht is saying we really can never comprehend the world. That’s pretty amazing. It’s a vision. And though this poem bears no real resemblance to “The Hill,” an earlier visionary poem of Hecht’s, both of those poems are visions that occur in unassuming, bland, uninspiring places. That would be maybe another sort of prompt, emphasizing something separate from the prosodic element, for instance a poem in which you develop a way of seeing that then could be applied to something else, say as an analogue. It’s also a dramatic monologue, so it’s a poem showing the opportunities possible to explore in a mode.

Another prompt could be to write a poem in which you imagine yourself as someone you could never imagine being. Also, I think it’s very important that poems be heard aloud. I think it is really interesting to take someone like Frost or somebody like Elizabeth Bishop or a lot of different poets who have written in blank verse and to look at the way their blank verse sounds, and you look at Stevens and you ask, What is the value of these sounds? What makes one line sound slow and one sound fast? Because once you have the constant of a pattern, you can see the difference. That’s one reason I think the poem is very suited for teaching, because it’s long enough, it develops a vision, it has many layers of language and imagination, and you can compare all these different kinds of lines and say, “Oh, this line is so different from that line.”

One of the things I’ve found useful with teaching on any level—people get so confused about stress and accent and all of that—is just to ask people to write their names down and look at their names and ask them how they pronounce them. Everybody knows that if somebody mispronounces their name, it often has to do with putting too much weight or stress on the wrong stress, accenting the wrong syllable. You may not respond or even recognize the name as your own when you hear it pronounced; if it doesn’t sound like you then, it isn’t you. Your fundamental sense of identity is connected with where that syllable is weighted. And in a word like “Elizabeth,” the second syllable is stressed, but it’s “Eliza-beth.” If it were in an iambic pentameter line, you would go “Eliza-beth,” right? And “-beth” would also get a stress, too, though somewhat less so. We know that the second of these four syllables is the strongest, and so just by looking at a name, one discovers the music of the name—how it is made up of four syllables, one of which is more strongly accented than the others, and yet how two of the four are more weighted than the other two. If one experiments with pronouncing names aloud, the power of accent and stress pattern comes to the foreground. We learn what we take for granted about how integral those accents are to identity. Everyone knows this, but most people don’t think about it, aren’t conscious of it, until someone mispronounces their name.

The Stairwell

Phillis Levin

The deepening glissando of steps
Where the banister spokes became a harp
On which my untuned song was played,
At night became the shrine of my unfolding,
A meeting place for dreams on the sublime.
In the dark, I rose from my bed
And moved across the threshold of my door
Into the hall, where the stairwell
Shone in the glow of the night-light.
At the top of the staircase I posed
Like a diver, held my breath and jumped
The full flight, hitting the landing,
Then gliding and floating through the house,
Lifted by the flare and fission
Of a thousand thoughts.
The stairwell
Was my night garden, where I returned,
By day, to bask in the light
And shadow of the spokes, considering
Generations of cloud shapes
Recurring like rhythms I strummed on the harp
While I sat at the bottom of the stairs,
Chin on the railing’s lustrous wood,
Fingers flying swiftly on resistant strings,
Making music hollow as an echo.
There I plucked the fruits of isolation
And reason, for there logic took its turns,
A philosophy was born, and the disobedience
To a life which seemed the pale shadow
Of my dreams.
But the world that moves
All worlds imagined was shifting and teeming
Outside, where a tall pine grew,
Knocking against the second-story window
By the time I was ten. By then
I was done with hunting for treasure
In dirt and dead needles under that tree
And instead, in the heat of summer,
Descended to the basement, where thick-bodied
Books with thin, fine pages cooled
The spaces between my fingers; and upstairs,
In autumn and winter and spring, reading
In the parlor by the light of the bronze
Torch lamp, alone in the embrace
Of grandfather’s armchair, I’d turn
To face its old, broad back—tracing,
In the network of cracked leather,
A faded map whose veins
Led through wavering tributaries
To countries and cities
Where I was the explorer and ruler, unaware
That my world was unpeopled
And bare.
So children are brought
From the womb into various lights
And darks, barely distinguishing
The forms and terms of their imprisonment,
But imagining, wherever there is a space
Resembling the mind (or a simple thing
Well-wrought), a new world—that does not
Breed and bury what should be cleared
And uncovered. For the way of growth
Is wound in a spring
Of information and viscera
Invisibly weaving patterns
The loving and watchful beholder
Divines. Looking into the mirror,
The child sees the beautiful petal
Of its face, reaches with the hands,
And begins to search the planet
For something that will match
This consciousness: first in the mirror,
Then in the window, the winding walkway,
The opus of light and air.
So to live
In a world shutting out
The danger at every turn of being
Alive is to rent a room doomed
To destruction by collapse or explosion.
The mind finds the analogue
For implosion in itself, for expansion
In itself; and soon the imagination
Sketches and fills in
A design that seems the blueprint
Of a memory—and thus, unwittingly,
Engineers the ruin of the prison
Before it has even been named.
The roof creaks open and folds back
Like an antique book, leaving the house
Utterly exposed to earth and sky.
Now the skull must cover
What the brain recovers, the heart
Regulate the rhythm of its rage
Inside its scaffolding of labor and desire—
Less a function of traffic and dread,
More the correlative of body and head.
Root systems: cosmology of coils and knots
That, in time, unravel and untwine,
Raying upward, where stars tangle
In the moonlit twigs, limbs bow
Under changing leaves, death visits
And departs, sunlight always casting shadows
In the mind’s corridors, its beckoning
Branches and abysmal mines.
The self unwinds
To let the world be wound in all its ways;
The body reclaims the valley of the soul,
And from its rich well of darkness
Seeks the blue uncharted regions of day.3



The editors—Blas Falconer, Beth Martinelli, and Helena Mesa—conducted this interview on October 2, 2007.

  1. Anthony Hecht, The Transparent Man (New York: Knopf-Random House, 1990), 69–72.
  2. Francis Bacon, “The Great Insaturation,” in Collected Works, ed. James Spedding, (London: Routledge 1996) 32.
  3. Phillis Levin, Temples and Fields: Poems (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1988), 43–46.


Phillis Levin, “The Stairwell” from Temples and Fields: Poems ©1988. Appears with permission of the author. All rights reserved.

Photo credit for Phillis Levin’s photo: Sigrid Estrada. Photo credit for Anthony Hecht at Iowa Writers’ Workshop: Charles Cameron Macauley; and photo credit for Hecht giving a lecture: The University of Rochester’s Department of Rare Books, Special Collections, and Preservation.

Phillis Levin

Phillis Levin is a poet, essayist, and editor. Her newest book, Mr. Memory & Other Poems (Penguin, 2016), was selected by Library Journal as one of their Top Picks in poetry for spring 2016. She is the author of four other poetry collections, Temples and Fields (The University of Georgia Press, 1988), The Afterimage (Copper Beech Press, 1995), Mercury (Penguin, 2001), and May Day (Penguin, 2008), and is the editor of The Penguin Book of theSonnet (Penguin, 2001). Her honors include the Poetry Society of America’s Norma Farber First Book Award, a Fulbright Scholar Award to Slovenia, the Amy Lowell Poetry Travelling Scholarship, a Bogliasco Fellowship, and grants from the Ingram Merrill Foundation, the Guggenheim Foundation, and the National Endowment for the Arts. Her work has appeared in AGNI,The Atlantic,Kenyon Review, The Nation, The New Yorker, The New York Times Sunday Magazine, The New Republic, Paris Review, Ploughshares, Plume, PN Review, Poetry magazine, Poetry London, Poetry Review, Southwest Review, The Yale Review, The Best American Poetry, and many other magazines and anthologies. Levin has served as an editor of Boulevardand an Elector of the American Poets Corner of The Cathedral Church of Saint John the Divine. She has taught at the University of Maryland, the Johns Hopkins University, The Unterberg Poetry Center, New York University, and The New School, and currently is a professor of English and the poet-in-residence at Hofstra University. She lives with her husband in New York City.