Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Cross with acrostics

One feature of the graphomaniac sequence I've been writing is that the graphomaniac is characteristically fascinated by form for its own sake - formal ornament as an end in itself, not as an element in the overall aesthetic effect.

As a result I've been indulging various formal tricks - well, showboating - including the acrostic. The acrostic is a particularly pertinent example because, unlike features like rhyme which contribute something to the poem as experienced by the reader (who hears the rhyme), the acrostic even if perfectly achieved remains 'outside' the poem - it makes no real contribution to sound; and its contribution to meaning is only articulated in a separate act of reading, not in the 'primary' reading that proceeds in the normal way. It's an afterthought, comment or other intrusion on the text on the writer's part; and the whiff of secrecy and collusion that it involves makes it useful in my sequence, where the texts are artefact, and moreover artefacts of an embattled mind.

But poetic technique is habit-forming, and I've found myself being temted to use the acrostic as an organising formal principle in other poems, despite the fact that as an organising principle it is basically spurious - arbitrary, like rhyme, without bringing any of the benefits. Consider the following draft of a poem in which I was interested in writing about a late- or post-imperial civilisation. Note how the acrostic which names the theme - Das Narrenschyff, the Ship of Fools - ends up bullying the poem's content into what it always risked becoming, a flat pastiche of Auden's 'The Fall of Rome':

Mosaic for All the Emperors

Dead Jonah’s curled inside the whale, a small
Addition to the sums of homicide,
Salted and shrivelled by our livid dreams—

Nervous, narcotic, fevered things that float
Across the bows of recently enamelled yachts.
Romantic decency and funds
Recede towards ancestral lands, where foreign
Exiles entertain such as they can.
Names mean for a while longer; strangers
Sue for spoliation of their arts.
Candles on such a vessel swing their blades,
Heraldic palace guards grown
Yeasty and villainous. A showering salesman
Feels the Hotel Euxine heave, the old earth swell.
Fountains run brown, then dry; as do the parables.

Yet I am very much interested in writing about the late Roman world as an implicit analogue of contemporary England. That's why my to-write list a few posts back included 'a poem about an ailing Byzantine emperor'. Later I wondered if the focus of the poem should be not the emperor but some symbol of imperial power - maybe some ragged old Barbary lions in the court of the late Western Empire. I've been working on a draft, which I may post later; the idea is that it will be a loose blank verse, cataloguing the variously glamorous and decrepit elements of the scene. It isn't working, yet.



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