Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Heavy Lines

I don't know if I thought of this myself or got it from Randall Jarrell - either way it's been interesting me recently.

The start of Robert Frost's 'Directive' (which Jarrell has a long appreciative essay on - hence my doubts) goes like this:

Back out of all this now too much for us

(the whole poem is here:

What I'm interested in here is metre. Its underlying pulse, confirmed by the rest f the poem, is iambic. I suppose you'd scan it, crudely, something like this:

Back OUT (or BACK out) of ALL this NOW too MUCH for US

Even on a first go, the first foot is causing problems. Neither Back OUT nor BACK out is quite right; in fact we want to read it as a spondee: BACK OUT of ALL this... But the same considerations apply throughout the line. In fact, there's a case for reading it as follows, with a whopping eight stressed syllables:


I'm no metrical expert, and I shan't introduce here notions like relative or graded stress. All I want to notice is the sheer heaviness, the stuffedness, of this line, which offers us only two syllables (of and for) which could be called slight or modest or recessive. The rhythmical density combines with the syntactic density (what does the line mean? or, since the meaning is fairly clear in context if not paraphrasable, how should it be parsed?) to give a puzzling, mesmerising, dreamlike effect. It sets the tone of the poem and also introduces us into its technical style, a kind of seat-of-your-pants pentameter. Contrast it with the first line of Tennyson's 'Tithonus', from the opposite extreme:

The woods decay, the woods decay and fall

(the whole poem is here:

Here the metre is strictly adhered to, and similarly, announces the poem which follows, a classical and classically beautiful piece of verse. It has none of the heaviness of Frost's line, and none of the syntactic forcing - indeed, the repetition makes the syntax still more lucid and Latinate, in contrast to 'Directive's Anglo-Saxon modernity.

Note that 'the woods decay' takes a subtly different meaning in its two occurences. The first time, it means what it says literally, and also expresses the idea of degeneration. The second time, it is part of a conjunction ('the woods decay and fall') which itself expresses the same idea; but the literal meaning ('the woods decay') is only a part of that conjunction: the thought is complicated. Specifically there is the suggestion of time passing (a major theme of the poem): at first the woods only decay, then they fall.

It's true that such an analysis is rather precious, but I think it's worth making because it spells out what I mean by talking of the Latinate syntax, which is lucid without being banal (the repetition isn't mere repetition). And that recognition of syntax as being a factor in the way metre is fulfilled brings me on towards thinking about lighter lines. If Frost's is heavy, with eight syllables bearing stress, and Tennyson's is standard, with five, what sort of line could bear fewer than five stresses and still fit in a passage of iambic pentameter?

I'll assume that a line of iambic pentameter that had only two or three stressed syllables would, in most cases, simply be a weak line of poetry, even if it could be constructed. But four seems more promising. Specifically (and this goes back to what I was saying about syntax above), I think Augustan satire makes use of the four-stress line, probably because the style requires the sense to be more or less contained in the line, or at least in the couplet, so syntactical constructions which allow this are brought in at the expense of the fifth stressed syllable. It doesn't matter, because the metre is so strongly established that the missed beat is accepted and even adds value through syncopation. Mainly I think it happens on the medial stressed syllable, where words like and, but and of are used to conjoin two ideas - here are some example, all drawn from the first canto of The Rape of the Lock:

The silver Token, and the Circled Green

The light Militia of the lower sky

When Music softens, and when Dancing fires

In each case, the conjoining syllable, though it does bear stress, recedes in the face of the much stronger sounds on either side.

Friday, June 06, 2008

Draft poem



Prison literature as poetry

Reading Dostoyevsky's Notes from the the House of the Dead, it strikes me that there's more than one structural principle at work. It has the form of a novel (though it's rather sketchy, and hardly justifies the blurb's claim that 'it is also a powerful novel of redemption, exploring one man's...etc etc'), and so has a certain, mainly chronological, development: it begins when the narrator enters prison and ends when he leaves. But it also has a documentary form, in which various aspects of prison life are detailed in turn, with the narrative jumping backwards and forwards in time accordingly.

The translator's introduction quotes Konstantin Mochulsky:

'The description of prison life and of the convicts' temperaments, the robbers' histories, the characteristics of individual criminals, the reflections regarding the psychology of crime, a picture of conditions in the gaol, journalism, philosophy and folklore - all this complex material is distributed freely, almost without order. Meanwhile all the details are calculated and the particulars subordinated to a general plan. The principle of composition in the Notes is not static, but dynamic.'

Note, for example, the fact that the account of the hated Major's exit from the prison comes near the end of the book, just as it comes near the end of the narrator's sentence, but that it is promptly followed by episodes that occur during, not after, his reign. Somehow the two principles support each other, to give an impression of sober documentary and individual narrative simultaneously. And in the penultimate chapter Dostoyevsky writes:

'Am I to describe the whole of that life, all of my years in prison? I think not. If I were to write down in ordered sequence everything that happened, everything I saw and experienced during those years, I would f course end up writing three or four times the number of chapters I have already written. In the end, such a description would become monstrous. All the events could come out sounding the same. This would be particularly so if the reader had already managed, from the chapters I have written so far, to form an even slightly realistic impression of what life was like in the second category of penal servitude. I have tried to depict the whole of our prison and everything I experienced during my years in it as one vivid, graphic picture.'

The sort of technique I have been talking about is familiar from other works of prison and camp literature, for example from Primo Levi's If This Is a Man. (For counterexamples, see Wladislaw Szpilman's The Pianist, which is mainly narrative, with the result that we never really feel we get to know about his day-to-day existence; and Solzhenitsyn's The Gulag Archipelago, which is all documentary, with the result that it does, borrowing Mochulsky's term, end up being rather static.)

A student of mine once pointed out something similar with All Quiet on the Western Front: though we are presented with a chronologcal narrative, there's a sense that we're being given a thorough picture of life at the Front, with Remarque ticking things off as he goes - here's tanks, here's gas, here's no-man's-land, and so on. Although it might not be realistic to parcel up experience in such a way, or to think that a single soldier might get such a range of experiences, what we get in return for abandoning that claim to realism is another sort of realism, analogous to the documentary or the general (general's?) view. Since the beginning of the twentieth century it has been fashionable to privilege the individual's view, and to distrust broader ones, possibly because Haig, for example, could only arrive at his view by not seeing individuals. But what Remarque does is to give a generalised view of individuals.

The use of two structural principles reminds me of poetry, where you also have two or more formal principles in tension with each other, most obviously syntax and lineation, but also, I suppose, the poem's 'narrative' and its 'effect(s)' inasmuch as these two can be separated.

Lastly, it's striking how Notes from the House of the Dead contains originals for so many of Dostoyevsky's characters and sources for his concerns. It's not a great novel, but it illuminates the extent to which even his most lurid excesses were, for him, a matter of realism.

Tuesday, June 03, 2008

How many?

I'm in that period when I have lots of ideas for poems but (or should that be so) I can't actually write any.

Tempted by Roy Fisher's injunction to write two sequences: 'Dirty' (six poems) and 'Clean' (two poems only). I'm also interested in his '107 Poems (pentameters for Eric Mottram)', which plays with the idea of individual lines as discrete units which you only consider secondarily as a conjoined whole. I've seen this sort of thing done lots by (mainly) avant-garde poets, and have previously had no special beef or interest in it. I suppose one of the main points of interest is meant to be the way the units provoke unforeseen associations and relationships with each other. Then this led me on to thinking that this was just another way to approach a kind of rhetoric-led poetry that I've been thinking about over the last year or so - where, again, you're less concerned with filling in a particular narrative structure than with following the (er) flow of the poem; indulging the rhetoric, as Peter Didsbury once put it. Poets I think of as sometimes working in this vein include Swinburne and indeed many of the High Victorians, John Ashbery, Didsbury himself, lots of the early moderns and the Romantics (David Gervais's essays on simplicity in recent issues of PN Review are obliquely relevant here).

Identifying it in others and doing it yourself are two different things, of course. Scylla is writing a series of phrases which remain discrete (I do want some sort of narrative or coherence to emerge), Charybdis is keeping too tight a hold on the reins all along (trying to be rhetorical, but maintaining a conscious or half-conscious plan for meaning). All I can do is keep trying.