Monday, February 13, 2006

My Manifesto, Part II

It Don’t Mean A Thing If It Ain’t Got That Swing

Back to the idea of rhythm. How does one create such? Traditional methods include rhyme, meter, and alliteration. (Alliteration isn’t used much in English verse any more, which is kind of a shame.) Repetition of key words, phrases, or lines is also common in many older verse forms.

Creating rhythm in free
verse is more challenging,
and unfortunately is
sometimes ignored: this
results in the kind of
“poetry” that sounds
more like left-justified

That was a trick, and cheap to boot;
perfectly serviceable prose,
crushed by a sliding right-hand marge, to make my point.
Reader, the difference is in your ear.

One way of creating rhythm in free verse is to use short sentences or phrases that express complete ideas, and can naturally form lines of verse. (In English-language poetry, most lines tend to be no longer than twelve to fourteen syllables.) A line that expresses a complete thought is usually referred to as end-stopped.

When a sentence or phrase’s natural length is split between two or more lines, we have what’s called enjambment. Enjambment used within a verse form can keep the form from seeming too rigid, allowing the reader’s attention to flow freely from one line to the next. On the other hand, poorly used enjambment can destroy the sense of rhythm altogether:

That was
a trick, and cheap to boot; perfectly
serviceable prose, crushed by a sliding
right-hand marge, to make my
point. Reader, the difference is
in your ear.

Here the visual line breaks perceived by a reader conflict with the aural ones perceived by a speaker or listener. The result is chaotic and murky. My tendency in reading something like this aloud would be to pause at the punctuation and ignore the line breaks altogether, making the piece sound more like the first version above.

One of the concepts emerging here is that in reading a poem, we engage it in three ways, visually, aurally and conceptually. Readers absorb and analyze a poem in chunks, and how they break it down depends on which modes of engagement are most active. Most readers probably respond in all three ways to some degree, but one may predominate; I find the sound rhythm and idea flow to be much more important in my response than the visual layout.

In strongly metered, end-stopped poetry, the visual, aural and conceptual breaks all coincide; this kind of poetry reads effortlessly, but can be boring. In strongly metered poetry with enjambment, the visual and aural breaks still line up, but conceptual breaks may fall in the middles of lines. This creates a tension that can make the reading experience much more interesting.

Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.
--from Ozymandias, Percy Shelley

Freedom of Expression and the Tyranny of Expectations

Some people feel that imposing an arbitrary structure on a poem interferes with freedom of expression, stifles creativity, etc. This argument always strikes me as being somewhat self-centered. If the goal of poetry is to communicate, then the important question is not “how can I best express what I’m feeling?” but “how can I make the reader understand and share what I’m feeling?” These are not necessarily the same thing.

Poetry at its best evokes more than it describes; it leads the reader out of his or her own head, to share the experience of the poem. Self-absorption on the poet’s part cripples this effect, no matter how valid the poem may be as a personal testament. Effective poetry, therefore, requires a combination of emotional honesty and detachment. The poet should remember that the poem exists for the reader’s sake, not for the poet’s. (Actually the poet should remember that the poem exists for God’s sake: more on this later.)

A preference for free verse is inarguably a matter of individual taste. Equally inarguably, being able to write structured verse is a useful skill even if one chooses not to use it. But when used intelligently, verse structure can enhance communication rather than constraining it. The trick is to choose the right structure for the content—including recognizing when the content demands free form.

Structured verse forms have an advantage that free verse doesn’t share: They can use pattern breaks to direct the reader’s attention. For example, the couplet at the end of a Shakespearean sonnet breaks the alternating rhyme scheme (abab) of the three previous stanzas, lending extra emotional force to the couplet’s content. Most formal definitions of a sonnet recognize this by specifying that the terminal couplet represent a change of emotional tone, a summing-up, or other strong conclusion.

A dorsimbra incorporates three distinct verse forms, with strong breaks between them. The challenge in writing a dorsimbra is to make the breaks seem an organic part of the story; the content of each short segment should match the mood imposed by the form.

It should be clear that a pattern break only works because the reader expects the existing pattern to continue. These expectations are very powerful; the human brain is a pattern-seeking machine.

Some verse forms also create expectations about mood and content. Iambic pentameter (see below) is perceived by modern English speakers as formal and possibly slightly archaic; a sonnet is often thought of as romantic and old-fashioned. Therefore, writing a romantic poem in the form of a sonnet can strengthen the overall effect. On the other hand, applying the sonnet form to completely different material could provide a refreshing surprise.

Use these generalizations with care. Shakespeare’s Sonnets’ commentator claims that iambic tetrameter (“Those lips that Love's own hand did make,”, Sonnet CXLV) is more suitable for comic verse than serious verse; this may have been a commonly accepted view at one time, but doesn’t particularly ring true to my ear.

Next: Some technical stuff

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