Exquisite Tension

(on metrical variation in Julia Randall‘s “For A Going-Out”)

Julia Randall was the author of seven books of poetry and life-long advocate for the environment.  She received the Poetry Center Book Award for her final book The Path to Fairview New and Selected  Poems; the American Poetry Society awarded her the Percy Bysshe Shelley Award in recognition of her oeuvre.  She died at her home in Vermont in May, 2005.

I first discovered Randall’s work at the poetry conference at West Chester University.  I fell in love with the breadth of her thought, shown in her allusions, and her musicality, shown in her earlier poems through meter and rhyme.   Her poem, “For a Going-Out,” was published as part of her collection The Puritan Carpenter in 1965 and still resounds with a carefully-constructed tension between the lines with regular alternation of stressed/unstressed syllables and the lines with pairs of unstressed syllables.  

The majority of lines in the poem are trimeter, with the regularly metric lines being iambic trimeter.  This three-beat line reassures the reader. The comfortability of sound adds confidence to the speaker’s voice while at the same time manifesting the inevitability of the poem’s subject, death.  This almost-contradiction works because of the speaker’s two separate voices of certainty, as shown below.  

The poem begins:  

Because you will soon be gone,

And our busy hearts will lie

About the year’s return,

And our busy fingers weave

A seemly dress for love,

Let us count peacefully

All we are masters of.  

Although there are very few regular lines in this passage (only lines 3 and 5), all the lines exude a certainty.  In the irregular lines, that certainty speaks about inevitability and the otherworldly aspects of life.   The lines with pairs of unstressed syllables are first heard as a difference, to be compared aurally with the regular meter.  The pairs of unstressed syllables add a lilt, an unexpectedness (since they do not always appear to substitute for the same foot), a knowledge of something beyond the physical world. The repeated use of these pairs in multiple lines builds the pattern into a voice.  

Only the measured, proper, realistic images are paired with iambic trimeter:  the year’s end, the workmanlike aspects of a partnership. This association shows the reader that realism is represented by regular meter, but also leaves open the exact correspondence of the irregular lines.  

Randall continues this alternative use of her two certainties—one of the realistic world, one of a world the speaker must guess at—throughout the poem.  In the middle of the poem, she writes,  

I live in this belief:

Archaic prayers prevail—

Faith in a cut stone,

Dancing for rainfall,

Goings-out, comings-in.

My loves, I cannot spell

Your passwords up or down,

Your songs in hell,

Your honor, or changed face.  

which I feel is the clearest use of these alternate voices.  The first line is a statement about the real world.  From there, the speaker steps into a personal consciousness, “Archaic prayers prevail / Faith in a cut stone”.  The line “Goings-out, comings-in” is irregular, breaches the  three-beat pattern by giving the reader four stresses.   This explosion of  stress is used twice more, later in the poem, as both the end of the poem and the end of the “you” come closer.  

But the reader is pulled back into the everyday:  “My loves, I cannot spell / Your passwords up or down”.  While Randall probably did not intend the modern connotations of “passwords” (although she did write on contemporary subjects, see “Video Games” from Moving in Memory) since this poem appears in an early  book, today it grounds the reader in technology, the external world.  

In the closing lines following this excerpt, the speaker strays into the voice of the irregular lines as they discuss old happiness, memory,  knowledge by acquaintance.  However, the end of the poem returns to iambic trimeter and regularity as the passage of time takes its toll.  

The two voices of certainty move the poem from solely a commentary about death and the courage of the speaker, and modifies the duality of realism and  otherworld to futher represent shared existence and the internal.  

Of course, the meter and these two voices are effects of the words Randall chose, which speak the poem.  The meter has its subconscious effect, non-negligible, but do not neglect what Randall’s poetry has to say:  

That made the seasons burn

In love’s consuming name.         

(Listen to the poem)