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, though, it comes apart in my hands.

This is because for me it lacks the single most essential quality of living verse: a vital, mutually enhancing relationship between syntax and line.

In the first stanza all energy of speech seems to have run out at the end of the third line, and again at the end of lines four, five and six, but in each case the next line carries the sentence on, like a corpse trying to pick itself up off the floor.

Stanza two similarly peters out in a series of lines that dangle inertly because there’s no syntactical push behind them. This time, to make things worse, instead of letting the sentence out of its misery as the stanza itself comes to an end, O’Brien drapes the qualifying phrase “I would never be a part of” over the stanza break. This wouldn’t be a problem – might even be a strikingly expressive effect – if the syntactical drive were powerful enough to carry across such a deep divide, or if the impression of the sentence as flinging itself across a canyon, nearly falling into it and just clinging onto the other side by its fingernails were itself felt as an acting out of the idea or feeling of the poem. It doesn’t seem to me to work in either of those ways.

Other poems in The Beautiful Librarians use metre and syntax much more effectively. If I have time and can find a suitable one on the internet I’ll post a balancing discussion of one that does.

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