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Picture Poetry

For me, one of the keenest sensuous pleasures in poetry is the active sense that patterns of sound and syntax and rhythm are emerging as I read, solidifying into what Ezra Pound called “a shape cut into time” (in longer poems it may be more like a series of shapes melting into each other). I’ve just realised that this is why most so-called shape poetry or picture poetry or concrete poetry does so little for me.

Sensing a shape cut into time involves a kind of mental shift that I’d guess depends on the coming together of different parts of the … Continue Reading

Rhythm and syntax: my problem with “The Beautiful Librarians”

You can read both Sean O’Brien’s “The Beautiful Librarians” and Carol Rumens’ enthusiastic commentary in The Guardian by clicking here.

It’s a poem that falls curiously dead for me. It’s not that it lacks beauty and vigour of phrasing, that I don’t see the subtleties of thought and implication that Rumens describes, or that I’m out of sympathy with its attitudes and feelings. If I let my eyes drift over it, letting odd phrases come into focus in a fragmentary way, I feel a kind of prickling of incipient pleasure and excitement. As soon as I actually read it, … Continue Reading

Musical glimpses – Hugo, Stevens, Baudelaire

I stumbled on this bit of Victor Hugo in a book on nineteenth century French poetry[1]:

Sara, belle d’indolence
……….Se balance
Dans un hamac, au-dessus
Du bassin d’une fontaine
……….Toute pleine
D’eau puisée à l’Ilyssus ;

Et la frêle escarpolette
……….Se reflète
Dans le transparent miroir
Avec la baigneuse blanche
……….Qui se penche,
Qui se penche pour se voir …

My first thought was simply how lovely this is; it makes you wish English could dance in rhyme as easily as French can. My second was how like a lot of Wallace Stevens it is – the Wallace Stevens of … Continue Reading

A tiny metrical detail in “The Idea of Order at Key West”

The detail that struck me is me in the second stanza of this poem:

The sea was not a mask. No more was she.
The song and water were not medleyed sound
Even if what she sang was what she heard
Since what she sang was uttered word by word.
It may be that in all she sang there stirred
The grinding water and the gasping wind;
But it was she and not the sea we heard.

Expressing the iambic rhythm in your reading necessitates almost unnaturally heavy stresses on the first syllable of “Even” in line 3 of the stanza and on “may” and “all” … Continue Reading

“The Red Wheelbarrow” – such beautifully ordinary nouns

You can find the poem here.

I’ve just heard Ruth Padel’s broadcast of the Wordsworth Trust poetry workshop meeting on Radio 4. She talked about the importance of line breaks and used William Carlos Williams’s “The Red Wheel Barrow” to illustrate how unexpected they could be. What strikes me is how much emphasis these breaks throw on nouns. Three of the four breaks within stanzas come between nouns and their modifiers. Cumulatively this is highly unnatural. Moreover, it leaves each noun forming a one-word line poised on the edge of the gap between stanzas – a gap that itself … Continue Reading

The Power of Form: W B Yeats, “On a Political Prisoner”

I’ve just been looking again at Yeats’s “On a Political Prisoner”. What a beautiful and endlessly rereadable poem it is. Like so many older poems, it makes me wish I had enough formal skill myself to use set stanza structures properly.

Dogmatic opponents of traditional forms talk as if they were automatically cold, mechanical and external. Rubbish, as this poem among so many others amply demonstrates. Of course metrical and stanzaic forms can be applied in a cold, mechanical and external way, but then free verse can be limp and vacuous.

Yeats’s own famous statement about his style emphasises the link he … Continue Reading

Sylvia Plath, “Mushrooms”

We were given Sylvia Plath’s “Mushrooms” in an excellent writing class I’m going to and we discussed how Plath avoids the potentially monotonous effect of using a two-beat line over this length. What we talked about was the poem’s richness in alliteration and assonance. I think that in this poem such devices on the one hand, and syntax and metre on the other, play largely complementary roles. You can read the poem here to check my theory:

http://www.poemhunter.com/best-poems/sylvia-plath/mushrooms

One of the main effects of the syntax is to keep things driving forward. The first four lines all end with strong enjambements, … Continue Reading

Elizabeth Bishop, “The Armadillo”

You can link to the poem here:

http://homepages.wmich.edu/~cooneys/poems/bishop.armadillo.html

I’ve never been quite satisfied with the ending of this poem. What a delight the rest is though! Throughout, there’s an extraordinary sensitivity of movement. Take the way the first two stanzas expand and contract metrically. This surely echoes the expansion and contraction of the beating heart, subliminally embedding a feeling of the heart’s life in the very texture of the verse even before the heart itself is mentioned. Even more, though, it suggests the pulsations of feeling and thought, the swelling of enthusiasm, the hesitations of doubt and discouragement . The swelling … Continue Reading

W B Yeats: “Memory”

Yeats’ poem “Memory” has been floating around in my mind over the last few days. I’m not sure why it’s been surfacing now in particular, but it’s a lovely little piece:

MEMORY

One had a lovely face,
And two or three had charm,
But charm and face were in vain
Because the mountain grass
Cannot but keep the form
Where the mountain hare has lain.

You barely notice its formal devices as you read but it has a remarkably satisfying shape that becomes apparent when the fully rhyming “lain” makes you notice the ABCABC structure of the whole.

The shape is satisfying because it’s so … Continue Reading

Derek Walcott’s Sea Grapes – 2 Metre

You can find the text of Sea Grapes at
http://nobelprize.org/nobel_prizes/literature/laureates/1992/walcott-poetry-seagrapes.html

Talking about imagery is relatively easy because you can discuss it in isolation from everything else. Discussing rhythm and form in a free verse poem like this is almost impossibly difficult because they’re so intimately bound up with the whole dynamic of thought and feeling that makes the poem what it is. And yet to ignore them is to ignore the things most essential to the poem’s life. For example, the impact of the opening line is determined as much by its buoyantly singing iambic rhythm as by the visual information … Continue Reading