Lowell was often criticized in her time for her free-flowing poetry, which went against the strict rules of traditional English poetic form. This form was based on regimented patterns of rhyme and cadence, or rhythm. Words at the ends of lines often rhymed with one another. Lines were written in uniform patterns of stressed and unstressed syllables. The rhythm of most traditional poetry was regular—could be heard like a systematic tapping of a pencil on the top of a table. Many poems were based on an iambic meter, in which one unstressed syllable was followed by one stressed syllable, over and over again. Most common was iambic pentameter, or five iambic feet (units that contain one unstressed syllable followed by one stressed syllable). The rhythm would sound something like the following: ta-dum, ta-dum, ta-dum, ta-dum, ta-dum. Such formal meters became so closely associated with poetry that any poem that did not follow such conventions was criticized for not being any different from regular prose. Unrhymed and loosely metered forms were definitely not poetry, according to these literary critics.
Lowell did not buy this assessment, and she was not alone. She was not the first to write poetry without rhyme and regular rhythm. In her introduction to her collection Sword Blades and Poppy Seed, in which her poem ‘‘The Taxi’’ was published, Lowell explains that she was influenced by French poets who came before her, including Charles Marie Rene´ Leconte de Lisle, Albert Samain, and Paul Fort. She states that despite the criticism she received, she believed herself to be a poet, a craftsman who studied poetry and invested much effort and discipline into her art. She understood the traditional poetic form, but she did not always feel that her sense of poetry fit into the confines of rhymed and strictly measured meter. So Lowell was attracted to a different (and more radical for her time) poetic form, what the French called vers libre, or free verse. Though rhyme and regular meter were not necessarily present in poems written in the form of vers libre, other poetic devices, such as images and metaphors, were.
Moreover, meter is often present in such poems; it is just irregular. The meter in free verse forms can be tapped out with a pencil, for example, but the beat might change from line to line, depending on the emotional content of the phrase the poem is focused on. In the preface to Sword Blades and Poppy Seed, Lowell refers to the meter of her poetry as unrhymed cadence. She explains that unrhymed cadence is not the same thing as the rhythm that might be present in a piece of prose, which is even more loose. She does, however, claim that the ‘‘organic rhythm’’ upon which she builds her poetry is drawn from the more natural rhythms of the spoken word. In other words, the rhythm is based on the words chosen, the meaning of the words, and the emotions behind them. Pauses, as signified by punctuation and breaks in the poem’s lines, also help to create the rhythm and are similar to the pauses the speaker would make to take a breath. These pauses also add drama to the poem, as the emotion builds, the poet states, ‘‘until it burns white-hot.’’
If the cadence of Lowell’s poem ‘‘The Taxi’’ were counted out, readers would see that the range of beats, or syllables, per line varies from four to thirteen. Some of these beats follow the unstressed/stressed pattern, but not consistently. For instance, the first line begins with two unstressed syllables before it gets into the unstressed/stressed rhythm. The same happens in lines 3 and 4. Line 2 changes this pattern.
Line 2 has four beats and an iambic rhythm that sounds like ta-dum, ta-dum. This ever-soslight change in rhythm between the second line and its other three companions makes the second line stand out. The second line is not only the shortest line of the first four, it is also the most dramatic. Its brevity and its subtle change in rhythm also provide the first hint of emotion. This beat that the speaker refers to is akin to the beat of the heart, a suggestion reinforced by the iambic rhythm of this line, which mimics the rhythm of a heartbeat. Without this beat, the world appears dead. Though the change in cadence is subtle in the second line, the poet has purposefully composed it to be different from what comes before and after it. The break from iambic meter in line 3 suggests the end of the heartbeat. The pause at the end of line 2 is also purposeful. By pausing there, the last word of the second line receives more attention. The world appears dead. The speaker feels dead. Lowell wants to make sure that the reader not only understands this but also feels this. So she uses both rhythm and pause to grab the reader’s attention.
Lines 6 and 7 provide another example of how Lowell uses organic rhythm. Line 6 could be read with an emphasis on the first syllable, followed by two unstressed syllables and ending with a stressed syllable. So the rhythm is dum, ta-ta dum. The rhythm in line 7 is related to the rhythm in line 6, but it also differs slightly. In line seven, the rhythm could be read as dum, ta-ta-ta dum-ta. Note that both of these lines are very short, with four beats in line 6 and six in line 7. These short lines imply speed. The quickness of the beats reflects the tempo that the speaker feels as the taxi races down the streets, pulling her away from her lover. As the speed of the beat increases, so too does the intensity of the speaker’s emotions. The distance between the speaker and her lover increases and builds a more powerful wedge between them. There is a sense that things are happening so quickly that the speaker has no power to stop them.
Also note that the poet has used only three words in line 6. She could have used the article ‘‘the’’ to start off the line and the verb ‘‘are,’’ thus creating a complete sentence: ‘‘The streets are coming fast.’’ One reason the poet might have chosen not to do this is that by paring down the sentence, she changes the rhythm. By using only the three words, the line begins with a stressed sound. This increases the sense of urgency. If she had used the complete sentence, with the extra article and verb, the rhythm would have been the more monotonous, less emotional iambic rhythm.
The last line offers another example of how the poet uses organic rhythm. The line begins with an unstressed syllable and continues in a rocking motion of iambic meter until it comes to the most important words in this line. There the rhythm dramatically changes. With the word ‘‘edges,’’ it becomes trochaic, consisting of a stressed followed by an unstressed syllable. This rhythm is aggressive, almost suggesting a stabbing motion, thus dramatizing the final image of the poem. It raises the heat of emotion. The speaker does not want to ever leave her lover again because leaving her lover is like inflicting an injury on herself. Lowell has used the organic rhythm of the words themselves to create an emotional sensation in the reader. The cadence of this final line enacts the last image, which is then indelibly impressed upon the reader’s mind.
Poetry for Students, Presenting Analysis, Context, and Criticism on Commonly Studied Poetry, Volume 30, Amy Lowell, Gale Cengage Learning, 2009
Joyce Hart, Critical Essay on ‘‘The Taxi,’’ in Poetry for Students, Gale, Cengage Learning, 2009.