Of rhyme & reason No1- both short & long feet skip the line
i recently sent a sample of my juvenilia to a blogger particularly interested in my poetry. For this reason i thought the person in question might be intrigued to read my early poems. i am not interested in any flattery for my old poems, they served a purpose at the time: my juvenilia is largely written in formal, traditional poetic meters. For this reason, aforementioned blogger in question, recommended i write something on traditional forms. i was hesitant at first, however, i started to coagulate thoughts & as they curdled more n’ more i figured why not take it as a challenge & plunge the mind into the idea utterly.
The majority, perhaps all of my juvenilia is essentially my working out of techniques, the mechanics of poetry. i’d liken it to showing how you calculated a sum in a margin. i had a conversation with a lecturer once after class which went something like
juvenile me: How should I go about becoming a good poet, like Berryman or Roethke?
lecturer: Well… you really need to understand the formalities & technicalities of poetry. The great poets didn’t break rules until they knew exactly what the rules were. You need to know the nuts & bolts of poems, you have to pick them apart & work your way from the inside out.
juvenile me: What do you recommend i do?
lecturer: Study the Princeton Encyclopaedia of Poetry & Poetics & read tons of poetry & anything else relevant.
So i went off & bought the Princeton Encyclopaedia of Poetry & Poetics, an old hardback published by McGraw Hill, i think. An austere looking text, gloomy & impenetrable, almost crenellate, with turrets & flags & armed patrols. i combed through it, read at random, wherever the page fell open when i flipped its pages. i slept with my favorite poets under my pillow hoping they’ll infiltrate my dreams with lessons or advice.
After i’d become acquainted with the chronology & feel of the goliath book, i started to pick forms & attempt them. my only themes came from learning back then, from the religious texts, philosophy, anthropology, poetry, psychology & sociology i saturated myself in trying to find some secret knowledge i believed existed, somewhere in the back beyond of my Self. i never wrote about my perceptions or experiences directly, which seemed too easy, to-hand. So i persisted in a naïve & pseudo-classical frame of reference, as if i contained a buried key that would unlock the cornucopia of the universe, somewhere in my head. Daft as i thought, it gave me plenty to be writing & at least some of the work to being a better poet was drafted out by my curiosity.
History lesson out the way, i want to crack on with examining one of these old poems of mine to hopefully illustrate what practical benefits learning traditional poetic forms has for the poet writing today.
First of all, i want to make a few things clear. i am no authority, i moreover have no authority on poetry other than a decade of reading & writing, which i believe stands for something. However, others from advanced academic backgrounds might think otherwise. i do not have a library to-hand, i live quite remote from such pleasures on an island thousands of miles from home & am at the mercy of my mind’s elasticity, about as pliable as a pair of swimming trunks. If anyone has a quarrel with my ideas, there is a comment section below, criticism is encouraged so i might learn something.
i have never read books on technique by an author with expertise & though i am sure there are many useful & well written texts out there, i personally cannot learn poetry from such a source; but that isn’t to say they are useless or that it is pointless if someone (such as myself) writes something on the subject. This is not a manifesto or an aim to have the final word but a semi-formal (maybe even quasi-formal) example of my ideas on the subject as best as i can articulate them. i don’t want to write an academic paper so i will not quote from anything, this is personal opining, experiential & potentially flawed- all too human.
Second, i have chosen to unravel a poem i wrote, because i know it, i know why i made certain choices & i think control is something the poet has to have when crafting a poem- i will speak more about this later. If i chose a famous poem, i can only conjecture reasons for something, whereas with my own poem, i am at liberty to explain in great detail the exact method & thought process; the fault lines & improvements.
Thirdly, the poem i am going to use is a poem i dislike, hate even, i hope i never write one like this again; a poem i would be embarrassed about were it of no use to me, fortunate for it, it has purpose.
Finally, this is going to be a series of essays as i think to dump one long essay on here may bore people to tears, or in the worst case scenario i have envisioned, the taking of their own lives.
The poem is called Vino in Veritas & i wrote it while engrossed in Ovid’s Metamorphosis about 6 years ago. i wrote it in the first year i came to Korea. At that time i was living alone in a remote, northern town, where an American army base is situated. In hindsight, i regret not grasping the opportunity to write about the troops’ behavior, their kicks from liquor & Filipino dancers on The Strip of dingy clubs, erected especially for their entertainment. i knew no one nor any Korean; so spent my time studying & writing, engaged in more enlightened themes.
Ovid has been a continual influence on poets. His description of transformation moment to moment, as a character becomes an object or animal, absorb us & if reaching for poet-hood you’ll probably, at some point, see it as a challenge to write about transformations of one thing into another. The alchemy of it is too inviting to ignore. We are obsessed with change, we may fear or embrace it; regardless our position, it is constantly happening to us & around us.
The poem is spoken by a narrator, an aged Bacchanal who speaks to us from the present & recounts the anecdote of how he first came to meet Bacchus in the remote, ancient past. It is implied that he has lived many thousands of years by faith alone in Bacchus & the daily habit of drinking the wine of life, a Merlot or Sauvignon perhaps. The one ambivalence of the poem is whether to believe he is an immortal or a quack, something unresolved.
Vino in Veritas! Vino in Veritas!
Vino in veritas! Vino in veritas!
The grapes of truth have launched me to this lonely age,
i’ve witnessed Bacchus’s blood blasphemed at Catholic mass.
Refuse I, lying horizontal in my cage,
to repent my servitude to him who held no sword
aloft to glean men’s praise, nor humoured himself doge.
As a young man, my chest plumed broad, I met with side
of swollen axe, the lofty hinds of ancient oaks;
brought them bashing down to ground with sole whimpered chord.
Inclemency he firmly kempt for those who crook
his Cithaeron of its bark treasure to smother kings,
with tailored furniture and libraries amok.
His revellers branching among us trumpeting with clang
of tambourines, bone-horns; drunken with a wide hurt
our hacking axes filled with birth; I began to beg
when I beheld his pulchritude: enamelled dart
distracted by his natural thoughts, swaddled in grapes
of life, love, music; unalloyed in his apt heart.
I warned we lumber plunderers: beyond those lips
a god’s blood glides, it would be sensible to pray
forgiveness for our ignorance, so our hearts don’t stop!
My humble-lumber-birth forbade formality,
he knew I knew my wrong, in that i had belief
& would forgive us long as we choired threnodies.
Hermetically he seals the O within itself:
the vivum argentum O psyches prize as high as gold;
one must unbuckle limp personae’s guise for proof.
Their aplomb pride wore like a charm and ailing greed
were gimleted into their magpie smirks. Tendrils
of thorn-edged-vine burst from his finger tips and sped
about their throats till their tough countenance did pall,
their mortal gain diverted to atone their shame:
his unshod feet pressed lightly upon hilts of gale
winds strewing dandelion children through his thumb
chub gamboling forest of hair, both sword and ghostly stair
that wind; the trust of creatures, by his love became.
His vine wrapped round their organs to the strum of lyre,
he changed their blood to sap, their muscular limbs to bark;
what waste they’d caused they now became, slaves to nature.
His ancientness concealed in-boy began to speak
within my chest without an uttered syllable;
my guilt I would un-wound as reveller of twin snakes.
For those with a trained ear & eye they will first of all note the poem is written in terza rima, an Italian form usually attributed to Dante. Next, the line scansion will be determined either by counting the syllables or if the reader’s sensitivity to meter is acute, feel the rhythm of the beats & discover it is written in hexameters, which is a single line composed of 6 beats or feet.
For those unacquainted with the poetic line it is made of beats or feet. Some people, i think, erroneously count the syllables, but this doesn’t account for trisyllablic beats such as the anapestic (da da dum) or dactylic (dum da da) measure. A hexameter is not necessarily composed of iambic (da dum) or trochaic (dum da) feet. As i will illustrate the line can be composed of these feet in innumerable variations depending on the poet’s intention for nuance & effect.
i chose terza rima as it seemed the obvious choice for a classical subject, of course Ovid being a Roman & the form being linked to Italian poetry, so it was a no brainer. The choice of hexameters is more complex & leads us into the nuances of traditional meter.
The hexameter is obviously a longer line than the pentameter, which is 5 beats. i required a longer line to reflect the train of Bacchanals accompanying Bacchus when they arrive to punish the lumberjacks. i could have gone for heptameter or 7 beats, but felt that not traditional enough, heptameter seldom used. The longer line also reflects the attack Bacchus uses to stop the men refusing to repent for felling the trees, which belong to his father, Zeus. & finally the long life the narrator has lived.
i did not choose to end the poem with the usual envoi of a couplet, as i wanted to convey the immortality of the narrator, the pattern of his habit that has brought him to the present from the remote past & will carry him into a distant future. The terza rima, being a pattern, with rhythms being carried over, suggestive to me of habit, pattern & motif.
So by choosing this line i have reinforced images, actions & consequences within the poem. Why is this important? You could & would have perfectly reasonable grounds to argue it doesn’t.
What it does is show artifice, a mark of the poet’s control over their craft that they have designed the architecture of the form to be in harmony with the function. In architecture balance is very important; the spirit level is an integral tool for the craftsman, without which, balance is difficult to achieve; without balance the building is liable to be wonky, the table crooked, the books end up sliding from the bookshelf. Balance is a matter of beauty as well as stability.
The subtlety can be taken further.
ReFUSE / i LY / ing HOR / iZON / tal IN / my CAGE
This line is written in iambic hexameter. It has a solid driving melody that moves the narrative forward. The next line
to rePENT / my SERV / iTUDE / to HIM / who HELD / no SWORD
is evidently slightly different: the first beat is three syllables, two unstressed & a stressed syllable (da da dum), an anapest & seems to skip, as if the narrator has tripped or perhaps dropped to his knees. my intention was to slow the pace, to bring the narrator to his knees, to separate him from the stubborn lumberjacks.
i don’t believe i did a very good job of expressing that nuance: i should have started the first beat with two spondees, two words each a long syllable (dum dum). That would have brought the pace of the line to standstill. i was & still do not possess skill enough to alter the line in this way. The 2nd line needs to begin with ‘to’ so it makes using a spondee difficult. i would have to completely rewrite the first clause to allow me to use a spondee in the second clause, which is burdensome . i could have disregarded this endeavor completely, it is superfluous & has little effect on the reader.
One line in the poem does successfully achieve harmony between form & function, it is
BROUGHT them / BASHing / DOWN to / GROUND with / SOLE whim / pered Chord
which is written using trochees, a stressed syllable followed by an unstressed syllable, which gives the line a quality of falling, & of course the line articulates the felling of trees. The final beat returns to an iamb, it rises like the sound of the tree crashing. Here the untrained ear may not realize that they are invited to read the fall as the natural way of reading it is descending. The line is spacious with only 2 disyllabic words each making a beat themselves, the rest mono syllabic so that the reader peaks & troughs like a sound wave.
These examples hopefully illustrate both an attempt to create harmony between form & function & a success. The line is pliable of course, especially now that free verse has become the dominant form for poets. i would say quite rightly so too: the nuances of free verse are multiple & more personal. The freedom of the line limits, in my opinion, such awkward mistakes as i made in the line beginning ‘to repent…’
To succeed in being ornate is wonderful, but like bad comedy, to get it wrong, though it may go unnoticed by the reader, as the writer you notice, it niggles you. You can’t unlearn your sensitivity to the rhythm of a metrical poem & you have to remedy it & if nothing appears to remedy the line, you sometimes need to move forward & be content with what you have, unsatisfied or no.
You may write metrically sound poetry, the artifice harmonious & ornate to the trained ear, but if abstract or abstruse to deeply you may end up alienating your poems from even the trained ear.
You take a risk: explaining the metrical nuances is like explaining a joke, it loses something from pointing out the punchline. Directness can be more effective & free verse offers this. It seems to be more suited to the modern ear, it invites them to be on charted ground rather than in an aloof & stuffy world of rigid forms.
Though metrical poetry isn’t instantly gratifying, knowing it does add to the enjoyment of reading & writing poetry. It adds dimensions to a poem. When it comes to freeing yourself from its constraints there is little stopping you, you know the exit as you came in through it; it is the same as the entrance. The techniques over time become unconscious & just as you never lose your rhythm if a musician, so you never lose it as a poet who understands traditional methods. A musician should know all the notes, the bum ones & the harmonious ones; you never know when you might need one or the other. You have to find a balance between surprise, creativity & readability.
At the time i wrote this i was pleased, this was the best i could do. i was proud to have written a poem in such a complicated form. Reading it many years later it looks stiff & awkward, because i can see exactly what i would write now, with a slacker line & less constrained by faux classical devotion to tradition & formality. In an up-coming post i will re-write the poem how i would approach it now & try to show how the traditional forms infiltrate or are naturally present even when i am not consciously intending to write with them.
In the next essay i will primarily focus on the rhyming words themselves, explain the reasons for them & how i approached rhyme to create harmony between form & function & most importantly tried to be creative with rhyme to challenge the expectation of the reader.
If you want to discuss anything, your experiences of studying poetics, successes or failures, reasons for their value of uselessness, your criticisms of my approach, absolutely anything, please don’t hesitate, i love talking about the more boring aspects of poetry.