poems, mostly metrical, and rants and raves on poets, poetry, and the po-biz (with 8-string stuff)
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Category — Technique

Breaking Lines

The January 30th issue of The New Yorker prints a poem (not available online to non-subscribers) called “Booty,” by Matthew Sweeney, which I rather liked on first reading. But when I listened to the recording of the author’s reading of the poem included in The New Yorker‘s iPad app’s presentation, things began to fall apart.

It’s a short poem, 20 lines averaging a little more than 4 words/line, and 10 of the lines are end-punctuated with either a comma or a period; the other 10 have only internal punctuation. When Sweeney reads, he pauses at each of the 10 line breaks with final punctuation. Of those line breaks without final punctuation, there are 6 which he doesn’t mark vocally at all, and 4 which he does mark with pauses every bit as long as those accompanying punctuated line breaks.

As it happens, those 4 all precede a prepositional phrase at the beginning of the next line. But so does one of the 6 unpunctuated line breaks without a pause, and there is one prepositional phrase internal to a line which does not receive a pause, so that’s not what’s happening.

On the page of The New Yorker, only 2 lines extend as much as 6 characters past any adjacent line, and those long lines have lots of the letter ‘i’. The right edge of the poem is genteelly ragged, with only line 2 having a whole word (“T-shirt”) beyond the lengths of its neighbors. Late in the poem, Sweeney breaks a line after “the”

so I slunk on, to the
market, where I half-lived,

and avoids a visually very short line, either “so I slunk on,” or “where I half-lived,” but he doesn’t read his line-breaks anyway, and, by the way, what’s with that comma after “on”? He’s also not concerned with syllables per line, which range from 4 to 7; he’s not counting words, which range from 2 to 6 per line; he certainly isn’t counting stresses, which range from 1 to 3 per line in his reading — just what is he doing?

It seems to me Sweeney wants his poem to sound a particular way, and so it does when he reads it; he wants it to look a particular way, and so it does when printed in an appropriate font. But either he doesn’t care how readers who haven’t heard him read the poem will read it to themselves, or he believes that his own sensibility is sufficiently representative of some more-or-less universal poetic sensibility that worthy readers will get it right by … well, somehow.

I guess I’m NOT a worthy reader.

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January 30, 2012   1 Comment

Lewis Turco’s The Book of Forms, 4th Ed.

The book’s been indispensable for me since the 1968 1st edition (which Lew was kind enough to sign for me a few years ago) and I am very proud to say the new edition is out and includes a form I devised for Twitter and originally called a twinnet. I now call it a twiplet, and that’s the name Lew used.

In related news, I posted about the publication in the UseNet group alt.arts.poetry.comments, where George Dance noticed it and was kind enough to add the form to his Penny’s Poetry Pages Wiki. He also wrote a twiplet and posted it on the page including my definition and examples. I’ve added a link under “Poetry, Mostly Blogs” to George’s site.

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January 9, 2012   2 Comments

I’ve Been Trying

but my laptop died June 9 (wah!) and my desktop has been dedicated to production of a video promo pack for Fractal Folk (yay!) and the computers at work are for, weIl, for work (sigh), and my handwriting’s gotten worse (wtf!), so I haven’t done any writing done this month: I’ve completely forgotten how to work with pen and paper.

It will be August before I can replace the laptop, but Krys should finish the promo pack in the next few days, and I’ll be back to work. I have been reading poetry I bought at West Chester, and I haven’t forgotten Julie Kane. But the most exciting thing I’ve been reading, at least in terms of something I might use in my own work and thinking about poetry, is Annie Finch‘s The Ghost of Meter. I feel the earth move.

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June 28, 2009   No Comments

Line Breaks & Free Verse — a Clarification

While I was attempting last weekend to till the garden (I broke the tiller about a third of the way through the job) I spent some time thinking about reader’s responses, in comments and email, to my control freak post — it seems I sowed confusion there as well — and I want to try to set things at least a little straighter than my garden rows. Please understand that I’m writing particularly about the performance of poems, and I know some poets don’t give a damn about performance. They may be wonderful poets, but not for me. I’m just not interested in poetry written purely for the page. If a poem can’t be read aloud to a competent, comprehending listener, I won’t read more than a few lines and you can’t make me. By the way, “comprehending” includes what happens when we hear “Jabberwocky.”

First, I’ll try to make clear what I mean by metrical versus free verse:

  • In metrical verse, some aurally distinguishable speech feature is counted to determine when the line breaks. Depending on language and custom, that feature could be stresses, syllables, patterns of stressed and unstressed syllables, syllables of a certain length, patterns of syllables of certain lengths, tones — it doesn’t matter, as long as native speakers of the language can hear it. They need not be able to identify what it is that’s counted to determine the line break.

  • If line length is determined by anything other than by counting aurally distinguishable features, then for my purposes here it’s free verse. The poem may be organized in some ferociously complicated manner, but however important such organization may be to the poet and to any students of the poem, if a listening native speaker of the language cannot hear the effects of that organization as the poem is performed aloud, the poem is indistinguishable from free verse in performance, and that’s all I care about here. Obviously that organization is very important in other contexts.

Whatever verse I write, whether free or metrical, I work damned hard to make it sound a certain way. I especially work hard to control the rhythm – the pace and the patterns of emphasis of the poem. And whatever verse I write, most of the tools work in pretty much the same way — length of clauses, kinds of subordination, syntactical jiggery-pokery, assonance and consonance, any rhyme (especially internal rhyme), passive or active verbs, almost everything. The great exception is the enjambed line break.

In metrical verse, enjambment speeds the pace of the poem – it jams the two lines together! In unrhymed metrical verse, particularly in longer lines such as the pentameter, excessive enjambment, just as excessive substitution, can blur the nature of the meter, as Johnson complained of Milton’s blank verse.

In free verse, on the other hand, enjambment slows the pace of the poem — or, if it doesn’t, then it can’t be heard and is imperceptible in performance. When a listener can hear it, it has great expressive potential. To take just one example, by emphasizing both the last phrase of the first of the paired lines and the first phrase of the second, it can cue the reader that the poet intends unusual emphasis on their juxtaposition — an effect difficult to achieve in metrical verse without some typographical cue such as an ellipsis or a dash or a sprinkling of ungrammatical commas.

My complaint with some practitioners of free verse is that they read their work as if it were prose, and all that wonderful suggestion for the eye is lost to the ear. Ironically, free verse is most like chopped up prose when readers ignore the chopping.

This distinction in the function of enjambment in free versus metrical verse is destabilizing to the performance of both kinds — poets working both ways lose some confidence in how someone else will speak the lines. On balance, though, it seems to me I’ve got a better chance of getting a reasonable reading (no such thing as a correct reading) with metrical verse, and that’s one reason I write mostly metrically.

This is not the first time I’ve nattered on about enjambment — I spent most of December 2004 writing about it, and my very last substantive post before moving from Radio to WordPress was on the subject. I don’t anymore agree with everything I wrote then, but it does seem still useful.

Unlike the borrowed tiller. I’ll rent next time.

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May 12, 2009   7 Comments

I’m a Control Freak

I took part in a mailing-list discussion of how some poem should/could be scanned, and it made clear to me why I choose to write in meter. It isn’t because I believe metrical verse is inherently superior to free verse: I believe no such thing. It’s because, in this regard, I am a control freak.

Natural-sounding speech, even a good imitation of very colloquial speech, can be written in fairly strict meter by any moderately intelligent person who’s worked hard enough, but it isn’t natural speech. In metrical verse there’s a dance between the rhythms of ordinary speech and the rhythm suggested by the meter, which is why we can speak of metrical promotion and demotion: in a metrical line, syllables unaccented in ordinary speech can be nudged by the meter to slightly greater prominence, and accented syllables can be nudged to slightly lesser prominence. The key words there are “nudged” and “slightly,” but they make a big difference in the music of the line.

In free verse, all bets are off. Some poets pause at the ends of their lines; some don’t. Some chant their verses; some speak plainly. Some acknowledge white space; some don’t. Some deliberately make oral
performance of their poems nearly impossible.

And that‘s actually the reason I choose to write in meter — I want to have at least a fighting chance of getting a reader to hear a poem the way I mean it to sound, to write so as to have the best chance of conveying the music I intended to put in the poem, and with free verse, unless the reader has heard the author read a particular poem, the odds ain’t good.

That is not a denigration of free verse. It just means that what I want to accomplish is unlikely to happen using free verse. The spoken performance of a free verse poem is underdetermined in comparison to that of a well-made metrical poem. Again, that is not a value judgement – it just means there will be more variance in a set of performances of a given free verse poem than in a set of performances of a given metrical poem. Of course there are variations even in my readings of my own poems, some of which depend on my mood, some on the reaction of any audience, some on the nature of the audience. I sometimes change words on the fly. It’s not the fact, but the degree of variance that matters to me.

Take a look at this poem in today’s Slate, by Lucas Howell, and then listen to him read it.

[ For those who don’t want navigate, here are the first few lines:

Out of the broad, open land they come.
Out of a coal seam’s
                                            hundred-thousand tons of overburden,

out of shit-reek barns
and shearing pens,
                                        or down from the powder blue

derrick platforms of howling Cyclone rigs
they rung by rung descend.

—————-

In his reading, there’s absolutely no audible indication of any break where there is no punctuation – no pause at all, for instance, between “seam’s” and “hundred-thousand tons.”]

Now I like this poem, especially when I hear him read it. But suppose I didn’t have that recording. How would I know that such visual violence should be completely undetectable in performance? Looking at that poem, a reasonable performer might very well try to respect the author’s intention by respecting the author’s layout of the poem.

This is a pretty extreme example, but it applies to almost all free verse – consider Sharon Olds’ tick of breaking lines after a definite article. That’s not in her performances. And then Jorie Graham, who does expect layout to affect performance.

Certainly people unfamiliar with the metrical tradition may bend metrical verse as they read aloud (mostly by banging on the beats and the rhymes), but the printed poem is not going to be so different from the spoken one as it is above.

See? I’m a control freak.

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May 5, 2009   10 Comments

“Such beauty as hurts to behold …”

The Wikipedia entry for Paul Goodman quotes from what, depending on mood and weather and the usually dreadful news, is sometimes — no — what is often my favorite poem:

FLAGS, 1967

How well they flew together side by side
the Stars and Stripes my red and white and blue
and my Black Flag the sovereignty of no
man or law! They were the flags of pride
and nature and advanced with equal stride
across the age when Jefferson long ago
saluted both and said, “Let Shays’ men go.
If you discourage mutiny and riot
what check is there on government?”
                                                                   Today
The gaudy flag is very grand on earth
and they have sewed on it a golden border,
but I will not salute it. At our rally
I see a small black rag of little worth
and touch it wistfully. Chaos is Order.

Just look at that thing! Everything about it is wrong! It’s a damned sonnet with an explicit moral message; the sentences meander as if they’d pushed around by the exigencies of rhyme and meter — except that “blue” is rhymed with “go” and “ago,” “side” with “riot,” and “Today” with “rally,” so clearly the poet didn’t much mind an off-rhyme, and besides, nearly every line is enjambed, and all but 2 commas are missing: the first introducing Jefferson’s statement ending at the turn, which happens two syllables from the end of line 9 and is marked with a carriage return and lloonngg indentation (exact and careful work, a Petrarchan sonnet written by an anarchist), the second emphasizing that Goodman, unlike Jefferson, will not today salute both flags.

But, oh, how he longs to! Poem after poem laments his alienation from a country and people he cannot help but love. One poem salutes the constitution — provided it is interpreted by Hugo Black; another celebrates how our spacemen on the moon look just as we imagined them; here’s the sestet from another sonnet, “The Americans Resume Bomb-Testing, April 1962″:

“Resign! Resign!” the word rings in my soul
—is it for me? or shall I make a sign
and picket the White House blindly in the rain,
or hold it up on Madison Avenue
a silent vigil, or trudge to and fro
gloomily in front of the public school?

(6 months earlier, the Russians had resumed testing first. That poem begins “My poisoned one, my world!”)

The personal is political, we used to say, and for Goodman it really was, or at least his passion was equal for both, and he did not keep them separate. “Easter 1968″ begins “When young proclaim Make Love Not War / I back them up, I back them up, / and some are brave as they can be. / But they don’t make love to me.” Again, the metrical/syntactic oddity: “When young proclaim” seems as if “the” was left out because the meter wanted it out, but the last line of the quatrain, the first that rhymes (!), abandons the regular tetrameter of the first three. The effect is quite startling, and the meter never reappears in the last two quatrains, which details how one particular young man disappointed him.

Goodman was openly bisexual (this was when even gay folk didn’t like bi folk), and his poems are frequently explicit, and often funny:

BUCOLIC

The dark armpits of my unwashed
honey taste acrid but her crotch
musky and delicious with
its primrose of the field
where in summer cows browse
in the hollow and bees buzz.
Her tiny lice, seen up close,
wildly wave their legs like spikes
of alfalfa in the gale.

SOLSTICE

Leaping my shadow and Prick my dog
I took to walk the park
the streets the bars the wooden dock
      all a hot afternoon.

My shadow had a lively run
and stretched out long he came back home,
but Prick had never a sniff or jump
      the twenty-first of June.

He was always, even in despair, in love with the world. The title of this post is the first line of a poem marked “(MANNER OF SAPPHO),” which ends

This lust that blooms like red the rose
is none of mine but as a song
is given to its author knows
not the next verse yet sings along.

You ask what I am muttering
stupefied, it is a prayer
of thanks that there is such a thing
as you in the world there.

I’ve often written about Goodman, starting way back in 1995, on UseNet. Many of his political books, his work on Gestalt Therapy and his general social commentary are still in print, but only a single ($99!) copy of his poems appears to be available. That is a great pity.

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April 29, 2009   2 Comments

Free Verse Is Not Easy, Either

I started to write this in reply to a comment, but it’s important enough that it should be in a post.

I meant it when I said the problem of a lack of working language to describe competence in free verse was greater for poets than for readers. It may be easier to bullshit your way through a poem in free verse than in meter because until you get the hang of meter it can really push you around. But writing a good poem, or god help you, a book of good poems in free verse seems to me to be much harder than it would be in meter, because you don’t have a partner to dance with. I have nothing but admiration — maybe a little wonder and envy — for poets like Denise Levertov, or Robert Creeley, or Stanley Kunitz, or Franz Wright, or Ted Kooser, or Louise Glück, or a dozen others who consistently produced very good poems without the aid of meter or rhyme.

Great poems — well, they’re a mystery however you work.

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March 27, 2009   10 Comments

Simple Competence

Zapruder was right about one thing: we don’t have a good vocabulary for talking about the choices most recent and contemporary poets make in getting from one line or one word to the next. The thing is, it’s a problem, not for readers, but for folks trying to learn to make poems.

It may be true that some study of technique enriches the experience of an art for a member of its audience, but most people I know have had the experience of falling head over heels in love with some new piece of music, some sculpture, some novel, and partly for its strangeness. Nobody I’ve ever heard of has ever just sat down, with no preparation, and made a significant work of art. Jazz players have to know harmony and modes in their bones; the difference between first and second chair in a major orchestra is several thousand hours of practice; orchestration requires years of difficult study; painters — well, painters, even Picasso, before we learned to love abstract art — painters spend long days all their lives drawing obsessively, studying the lines of their teachers and predecessors. The Beatles played 1200 live shows before their first hit song.

What on earth, besides cultural studies, do all those thousands of MFA students in poetry study?

That’s unfair, I know. But just what is the vocabulary we can use to discuss competence in making, say, line breaks in non-metrical poetry?

It’s not hard to define a competent English-language sonneteer — such a person can consistently manage pentameter and rhyme so as to present something coherent and interesting within the constraints of the form without doing violence to the patterns and rhythms of speech.

There’s nothing at all mysterious in that definition, nothing that itself cannot be clearly defined, except perhaps “interesting.” It’s a fairly low bar, I believe at about the same level intended by such faint praise as “competent landscape painter,” and subject to the same sneers from the School of Phlogiston and whatever is its equivalent in the visual arts. Still, it is something. Here’s J. V. Cunningham’s magnificent answer to those sneers:

For My Contemporaries

How time reverses
The proud in heart!
I now make verses
Who aimed at art.

But I sleep well.
Ambitious boys
Whose big lines swell
With spiritual noise,

Despise me not!
And be not queasy
To praise somewhat:
Verse is not easy.

But rage who will.
Time that procured me
Good sense and skill
Of madness cured me.

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March 26, 2009   3 Comments

Flow

From an excerpt of Book of Rhymes: The Poetics of Hip Hop, by Adam Bradley:

Part of the synergy of beats and rhymes is that they protect each other from their own potential excesses. Beats without voices soon become monotonous. Rhymes in isolation expose the frailty of the human voice and the fallibility of the rapper’s vocal rhythms. Together, however, beats and rhymes find strength: the voice gives the beat humanity and variety; the beat gives the rhyme a reason for being and a margin for error. This essential relationship is rap’s greatest contribution to the rhythm of poetry: the dual rhythmic relationship.

Of course I’m not the first to have done so, and Bradley himself quotes Paul Fussell, but that’s what I’ve been saying about metrical poetry for years! The meter — the beat — dancing with the rhythms of speech pointed by rhyme. That’s where the magic is. As Bradley quotes RZA of the Wu-Tang Clan, “we hear two and sometimes many more rhythms layered on top of one another. The central rhythmic relationship, though, is always between the beat and the voice.”

I’ve ordered the book.

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March 17, 2009   No Comments

I’ve Got To Read Martin Earl

His post at Harriet and Annie Finch‘s response are powerful evocations of the power of poetic form to create an awareness of other voices, other minds, of another human being embodied in language. “A man speaking to other men” said Wordsworth long ago, and we can forgive him his ignorance of social theory.

Earl invokes António Damásio‘s concept of the “embodied mind,” and this is precisely correct, and also the reason for my one disagreement (happily addressed by Annie Finch) with his essay. His penultimate paragraph:

Seen in the light of cognitive neuroscience it is easier, and less emotionally fraught, to begin to understand why poetry, and by extension, literature and erudite culture in general, is already well along the road to extinction. It is a question of stimulus; the world is changing how we feel about the world, and the aesthetic products which derive from the need to articulate those feelings are changing as a consequence. Since poetry is now written largely without rules (or written with self-invented rules), since the common craft of metrics, rhyming, quantifying are no longer taught, largely dispensed with by the community, the result is a less universal and a more personal poem, a poem that can no longer be “read”, except by the writer and the writer’s closest cohorts – those who know the language. There is nothing intrinsically wrong with this. There is simply no need in today’s world to write or to read epics composed in ottava rima which tell the life-stories of unlikely heroes.

The lack of “rules” he cites does indeed lead to the result he says it does, but there is something intrinsically wrong with that. I’m not saying there is something wrong with private poetry, or poetry only for one’s “closest cohorts,” but if that is all there is, then too much is lost. And Earl knows this:

Just to hold these books [an 1824 collection of Byron] in my hands delights my whole nervous system and, at times, there seems nothing more perfect in English than Byron’s making the Italian ottava rima his own.

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March 16, 2009   No Comments