Long Live the Sonnet!

LOOKING AT THE SONNET
 
What is it with the sonnet? What’s so important about fourteen lines? What has kept it alive and thriving for eight hundred years?
 
Since Petrarch’s day notable sonnets have been written by Shakespeare, Milton, Donne, Wordsworth, Shelley, Keats, Hopkins, Yeats, innumerable others and a host of modern writers.
 
There must be something about fourteen lines, for a start. Whether the fourteen lines obey rules from Petrarch’s canon, or from Shakespeare, or from nobody at all, the length seems to be a favourite.
 
Some of the greatest, certainly some of the best-known poems of our literature, are sonnets. Without quoting at length, consider the sonnets beginning; “One day I wrote her name upon the strand” (Spenser), “Quand vous serez bien vieille, au soir, à la chandelle” (Ronsard), “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?” “Let me not to the marriage of true minds” (both Shakespeare, together with any number of your favourites), “At the round earths imagin’d corners blow” (Donne), “When I consider how my light is spent” (Milton), “Earth has not anything to show more fair” (Wordsworth), “I met a traveler from an antique land” (Shelley), “Bright star, would I were steadfast as thou art” (Keats), “The world is charged with the grandeur of God.” (Hopkins), “A sudden blow, the great wings beating still” (Yeats), “Move him into the sun” (Owen), “ ‘Next to of course god America i” (E. E. Cummings) – oh, these and so many more, first lines only and I could list so many famous last lines too, but best you read the sonnets and get the full picture.
 
I should, too, refer to many more examples in French and Italian poetry, in German also if only I knew enough of them.
 
 Even those LANGUAGE poets, or are they Farfists, or sometimes fabulists (so many names!) who appear to deny any possibility of meaning to the reader, like to shape their poems as sonnets – like Michael Farrell, Dirty Harry is Scorpio, from The Age, October 2012 and Fiona Hile, Agency, from The Age, October 13, 2012.
 
Across The Best Australian Poems 2011 and 2012, (Black Inc 2011, 2012) there are probably a dozen poems, of varying styles, that could be or are labeled sonnets.
 
12 or 16 lines are also common, sometimes 15 – perhaps they’re all sonnets. Perhaps it’s what poets perceive as the desirable length for publication, especially in newspapers. In which case I’m clearly tarred with the same brush.
 
As for me, yes, close to half my poems are of about or are exactly, fourteen lines. Sometimes they are deliberately shaped as sonnets, like this one from The Australian, September 2012:
 
Remembering Ireland and Celebrating Molly of the Knitting
 
The last time I saw her she was knitting me a jumper,
bawneen, Aran-knit as always, in Killaloe
in her granny flat behind Mickey Maloney’s pub
and butcher shop. This she could do
 
in a few days easy, arthritis allowing,
but before this one was finished I had gone
beyond to Dublin which in the west in those days
was thought to be far enough away to be foreign.
 
I don’t know what happened to that gansey,
I never did get back to claim it. I heard                       
later, that Molly had cast off finally below,
going, I liked to think, with needles held
 
in knobby hand, another tribute to the Galway  
fishermen and their myth-making wives under way.
 
The above, with some licence in terms especially of rhyme, uses the Shakespearean pattern, ending with the couplet and emphasizing its structure with breaks within the poem. At other times, the poem hides its sonnet connections.
 
APPLE ORCHARD
 
Imagine, if you will, that we walk
in an apple orchard and I tell you
of a poem of Rilke’s, likening
the burden borne by apple boughs
to how life should be lived,
patiently to bear your fruit. Don’t,
you’ll say, write a poem like that, write
about the joy among those branches
when the blossoms break in spring,
the pink-white awakening of the whole
orchard, the drift of petals
like confetti in a soft wind. Write,
you would say, of that season
before the bending and the bearing.
 
Again, with much more licence, I have gone for fourteen lines and, more or less, a couplet ‘summary’ at the close.
 
Now, a good friend asked me to explain why I like to use the sonnet form. I’ll try.
 
It seems a good length to do what I often find myself wanting to do – to say what I want to say economically and to build towards a strong conclusion. It is the right frame in which to build many of the things I find myself wanting to say.
 
And it has, as a great writer might once have said about a famous lady, “infinite variety”.
 
For instance, Shakespeare’s end couplets are theatrical in their effect, as are the closing lines of many a Yeats poem. I suppose I’m influenced by that, but more subtle and from the Petrarchan sonnet tradition, is the way Milton winds his sonnets to their conclusion:
                                        . . .  God doth not need
either man’s work or his own gifts, who best
bear his milde yoak, they serve him best, his State
is Kingly. Thousands at his bidding speed
and post o’re land and ocean without rest:
they also serve who only stand and waite.
 
Or Paul Verlaine, with what seems to be a unique rhyme pattern sestet for L’Espoire Luit,,, (Hope Shines…), a pattern which is aab cbc.
 
In fact, not only is the octave (eight line) sestet  (six line) structure of the Petrarchan sonnet sometimes merged into the unified fourteen line structure (though often with an 8-6 thematic structure) of the Shakesperean sonnet but all sorts of liberties are taken with the form, in both rhythm and rhyme, so that the sonnet form has become more a notion than a fixed pattern.
 
(I slipped into some technicality there, but mainly to show that the sonnet, even when approached fairly strictly, offers a wide variety of rhymes and rhythms.)
 
It also offers what is usually a discipline. It would be fairly rare for me to start with a poem that plays itself out in, say, twelve lines and turn it into a sonnet, but it is not unusual for me to cut from fifteen or sixteen or seventeen lines to arrive at sonnet length. A similar discipline is, of course, offered by choosing to use rhyme or part-rhyme, or by letting a poem divide itself into three line verses, or four line (ballad) style, or whatever.
 
Also, just as I like to give myself a task to write a villanelle or a pantoum, because I like the forms and the way they shape the poem, or four line stanzas or iambic pentameter or free verse of varied line lengths because that’s how the words emerge, so I also like to write sonnets that work.
 
Given its popularity, perhaps the sonnet length is simply an appropriate unit of thought or utterance for poets historically and in the present. Also, as Mark Strand and Eavan Boland say, in The Making of a Poem (W. W. Norton and Co., 2000): “it has kept pace with some of the most important developments in modern poetry.”
 
Long live the sonnet!
 
Cheers – Barry Breen
 
 
 
                                                                       
 
 

 

NARRATIVE POETRY

The Narrative in Poetry
 
It’s easy to imagine that the first narratives were the dances or mimes that returning hunters might have put on to boast about their success, to impress the womenfolk and the children and to entertain the tribe. Perhaps there was also an element of education – this is how it is done – but I would imagine that direct observation would have been a far more effective means adopted.
 
At its most basic, narrative consists of someone telling someone that something has happened, whether that telling be in words or music or pictures or dance.
 
One very common form of narrative throughout the ages has been the narrative verse, the best known form of which is, of course, the ballad, originally a form that best suited short, memorable tales of love and loss, or the hunt and the mystery of the folk.
 
Another form, weightier and more literary, would be the epic, grander in scale and subject, meat for Homer and Milton.
 
But there is another branch of narrative poetry, exemplified for me by poets like Robinson Jeffers and William Everson, American poets of the mid 20th century, but a form also not unknown to T. S. Eliot and W. H. Auden in England, in Australia maybe Les Murray, John Forbes and John Kinsella.
 
There are deep and devious discussions that could go on in relation to narrative, discussions that would bring in Derrida and Eco, Kermode and Saussure, question reality and discover deconstruction, but not
 
Some other time, perhaps, but today I want to simply focus on one poem, by William Everson, that tells a story, tells it well and, presumably, expects someone to be interested.
 
The poem is The Jay Breed, which I’m sure you can find on the web, since it is too long to print here.
 
The Jay Breed, by the way, seems to be a west coast expression for a flock of jaybirds. For Australian readers, think something very like Indian Minas, those cheeky, raucous immigrants who haunt and harass our suburbs.
 
The poem begins with a brief description of the flock of jays and provides some physical setting as well.

The new brood, fledged early and growing apace, 

Took over the canyon, a stellar triumph.

Bright, black-crested, sporting the razor-sharp profile,

They probed every cranny.  Whatever accosted

Must pass inspection else suffer abuse.

Scolding, truculent, cunning, vindictive,

They strutted about the canyon …
 
This is the opening to a story and it is worth noting that, where story-telling involves animals (birds) then human qualities are given – “scolding, truculent, cunning, vindictive” but if well done then this sort of metaphorical treatment is unobtrusive.
 
The locals don’t seem to like these birds, but the poet has,

. . . . . . in fact, gone so far in complicity

As to scatter crumbs on an old stump to lure them in,

which establishes something of his naturalist philosophy.
 
But it’s not only the local humans who don’t like the jaybirds, there’s also a significant group in Everson’s household who are not enamoured – “the cats are not amused”.

Skulking the yard they endure that umbrage

Nastily.  Dive-bombed from behind

They crouch flat-eared and bare their fangs.

Often they scan the sky, the trees, the hedging thickets,

Possessed of a throttled rage, a passion

Apparently hopeless, given the jays’

Treetop immunity . . .
 
The jays are safe to continue to harass the cats, as long as they stay off the ground, but one day a young jay comes down to catch and play with a grasshopper, and
 
all unnoticed

In the wide summer day the black tom

Got his wits together.  Aslink under the hibachi stand

He inched stealthily forward, tail twitching.

Suddenly the jay sensed him:  one electric spring of those long legs

And he lit out, the cricket still foiling his beak.

Too late.  Too late.  Lightning unleashed, the black tom caught him.
 
So on it goes, other cats entering the fray, the jaybird killed and the poet left to mourn and philosophise.

            Whatever death is

The jaybird learned it.  But the black tom

Demurs, coiled in contradiction, the infinite

Satisfaction of life. 
 
Not much of a story? Butchered like this, no, it’s not. A cat catches and kills a bird.
 
But the narrative is rich in minute and very finely observed details, of wry and rich descriptions, like this, for example, of the jaybirds’ attempts to rescue their fellow.

Wheeling above the crouched pair

They danced like blue devils.

The black tom grinned up at them,

His neck craned, his white teeth

Gleaming behind stretched lips,

His eyes yellow fire.  Under his feet

The caught prey implored, piteously, the long lament,

The life-going.

                  
 
This is a narrative that depends less on the appeal of story-telling as on the nature of that telling. Everyone knows the difference between a good and a hopeless story-teller. The hopeless one bores you in an instant, the expert can keep you hanging on every word, even if the tale is trivial.
 
And the best story-teller always keeps a moral tucked into the story, a lesson when we don’t realize we are getting a lesson.
 
The Jay Breed is like that – look it up and enjoy.
 
Cheers – Barry Breen
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

Favourite Ballads

Favourite poets: the Balladists
 
Banjo Paterson was my favourite poet at one particular time in my reading journey. Or Henry Lawson. Or the latest balladist I had come across.
 
Before I was ten I lived in a town that had an annual rodeo. I revered the cowboys and cowboy heroes go along with ballad writers if they go along with any poetry at all.
 
By the time I was fourteen or so, The Man from Snowy River, perhaps still the best-loved poem in Australian literature, certainly among non-poetry readers, was a favourite.
 
I knew it well, at least the first verse:

There was movement at the station for the word had passed around
That the colt from Old Regret had got away
And had joined the wild bush horses, he was worth a thousand pound
So all the cracks had gathered to the fray.
 
And, of course, for a scrawny little fourteen-year-old, the scrawny little pony of the man from Snowy River, and the shy and slight man himself, were instantly attractive.
 
And Lawson:

Our Andy’s gone with cattle now
Our hearts are out of order
With drought he’s gone to battle now
Across the Queensland border.
 
Never mind that, on mature reflection, the out of order line seems so contrived – ‘Now, let’s see, what can I find to rhyme with “border”?’ Or, with Paterson, that:
 
I had written him a letter, which I had for want of better
Knowledge . . .
 
has to be one of the worst enjambments ever, I revelled in these blokes and their bush poetry.
 
I know I was writing imitations of Hood’s whimsical verses at the time and probably of the bush balladists as well. In fact, years later, the first poem I ever had published, apart from bits in the school magazine, was a parody of the popular Australian ballad, A Pub with No Beer, written by Gordon Parsons and made famous by Slim Dusty.
 
Mine was called A Town with No Power, and commemorated the breaking-down of the generator that was the only power source in the little mountain town I was teaching in.
 
It was published (sent by someone else) in The SEC News, or whatever the publication was of the power company.
 
I was still about nine or ten when we inherited a gramophone from a great uncle, along with two Bakelite records. One was The Road to Gundagai with Where the Dog Sits on the Tuckerbox. One began: “There’s a track winding back to an old-fashioned shack/Along the road to Gundagai” and the other one “My Mabel waits for me underneath a bright blue sky/Where the dog sits on the tuckerbox/Five miles from Gundagai” though I learned a bit later that it wasn’t sitting that the dog did on the tuckerbox.
 
Both songs were by songwriter singer Jack O’Hagan, though the tuckerbox one was a version (cleaned-up) of a traditional song, the second verse of which went:
 
‘Twas getting’ dark, the team got bogged
The axle snapped in two;
I lost me matches an’ me pipe,
So what was I to do?
The rain came on, ‘twas bitter cold,
And hungry too was I
And the dog he shat in the tuckerbox
Five miles from Gundagai.
 
The other disc had a ballad called Abdul the Bulbul Amir, or a name to that effect.
 
Oh the sons of the prophet are brave men and bold
And quite unaccustomed to fear
But the bravest by far, in the ranks of the Shah,
Was Abdul the Bulbul Amir.
 
This is a cheerful ballad about a fight to the death between two exotic heroes – Abdul and a Cossack named Ivan Skavinsky Skavar. Both men get killed and the last verse goes:
 
A Muscovite maiden her long vigil keeps
By the light of the cold polar star
And the name that she murmurs so oft as she weeps
Is Ivan Skavinsky Skavar.
 
Checking on this song, I found it was written by Percy French, an Irish songwriter and artist of the late 19th century. It was written for a concert at Trinity College, Dublin, as a recitation, and French later added the music for performance as he toured Ireland as a very popular entertainer. He wrote plenty of other songs too – perhaps I’ll leave more for a future blog.
 
There were many other ballads in those early and mid-teen years (before I went to university and encountered T. S. Eliot, Gerard Manley Hopkins et al). I remember Barcroft Boake’s Where the Dead Men Lie as well as the Thomas Hood ballads that I wrote about in my last blog.
 
Also big on my popularity list were the Irish, or American Irish ballads that Mum played on the piano. I can well remember singing The Rose of Tralee and The Minstrel Boy (from Allan’s Book of Irish Songs) as well as, for a school singing competition, a pseudo-French song that started off: “In September when the grapes are purple/Marguerite picks the grapes with me/She has silver bells upon her fingers/All the little birds come out to see”. Ah, yes, it was called Ma Belle Marguerite I remember now, and I didn’t win the singing prize.
 
I’m sure I tried a few ballad-style poems myself, certainly writing four-line stanzas about school friends and whatever else might be entertaining while I was at school. Already I saw poetry as a means of entertainment, maybe a way to show off.
 
As an aside, some thirty-five years and more later, I wrote ‘linking verses’ for outdoor Shakespeare productions, like this introduction to The Tempest presented in Loch Ard Gorge by Ozact.
 
As our ship was sailing out to sea
A strange power to our dread
Drove us here upon these rocks
And down she went like lead.
 
And so on – a ballad form that was designed for oral presentation and to be immediately accessible.
 
That’s what the ballad is all about and that’s, no doubt, why it appealed to me so much as I was growing up. It’s also an appeal that I have not entirely lost.
 
Poems designed to tell a story, and derived from a tradition of oral story telling, ballads and songs, pantoums and the works of the bush poets, even rap, are ballad forms still to be found, often among the works of the very best poets of this and the previous century.
 
A short list of favourites (at various times):
 
The Cherry-tree Carol – anon
And the Band Played Waltzing Matilda – Eric Bogle
The Ballad of Reading Gaol – Oscar Wilde
The Wild Colonial Boy – anon
Waltzing Matilda – A. B. Paterson
The Host of the Air – W. B. Yeats
As I Walked Out One Evening – W. H. Auden
 
Later I went through a folk song phase, but that too is another story.
 
Cheers – Barry Breen
 

 

 

Thomas Hood: A Favourite Poet

Of Favourite poets: Thomas Hood.
 
Occasionally I’m asked who is my favourite poet. It’s almost a silly question – how can you measure? – but has the virtue of making you think about the qualities of various poets. Also it leads you analyse your tastes at various times in your life.
 
My first favourite poet, when I was in my early teens, was Thomas Hood. Who? What? Why? I hear you say all these things but I can explain. At that time a great aunt died and, in the course of throwing out anything unsaleable from her house in St Arnaud, some books that had belonged to her late husband were rescued and given to my older brother. He kept the scientific tomes on metallurgy, and later became a metallurgist before turning to linguistics, and gave me the one lonely book of poetry – The Poetical Works of Thomas Hood.
 
Come to think of it, that great uncle, a miner, who we had never met, had a great influence on the lives of two of his great nephews, of whom he had never heard.
 
This book, bound in maroon leather, was published by Henry Froude of London at the Oxford University Press Warehouse and printed by Morrison and Gibb of Edinburgh. There is no date, but it is probably late 19th century, perhaps around 1880. It has had a library sticker torn from its inside cover, and an owner’s name over-written long ago by my own name.
 
Hood was, according to the introduction to this collection, revered by the English public in the early and mid part of the 19th century. He was born in 1799 and died in 1845. He wrote topical poetry, usually with clear sympathy for the poor and oppressed  – his best-known poem was “The Song of the Shirt”, which highlighted the plight of seamstresses in industrial England. Many other poems deal with people treated unfairly in the society of the time.
 
But he also wrote with considerable wit and humour, certainly the sort of humour that appealed to a teenager who loved words. I still have: “He went and told the sexton/And the sexton toll’d the bell” firmly in my head, and probably owe the curse of enthusiastic punning to Hood’s appeal.
 
Consider this:
                        There people bought Dutch cheeses round,
                                    And single Glos’ter flat, -
                        And English butter in a lump,
                                    And Irish – in a pat.
 
It’s the poet’s italics, by the way, in case the reader misses the pun. This is from a poem called “The Epping Hunt”, a poem of 122 four-line verses, with nearly each one containing a pun. A hundred-odd puns in a single poem ought to be in the Guinness Book of Records!
 
The “Moral”, the 122nd verse, reads:
 
                        Thus pleasure oft eludes our grasp,
                                    Just when we think to grip her;
                        And hunting after happiness,
                                    We only hunt the slipper.
 
Given that the book is over 600 pages long, you can imagine what a lifetime work it would be to catalogue all the puns. As a student wrote once, “the mind toggles”.
 
At the same time I was coming under the first, at first sentimental, influence of romanticism, and Hood was just the man for me. Here is the sort of soft, sweet poem I tried to imitate when it came to wanting to impress a girl, though I don’t actually remember being brave enough to give such an imitation to any girl.
 
                        SONG.
 
                        For Music.
 
A lake and a fairy boat
To sail in the moonlight clear, -
And merrily we would float
From the dragons that watch us here!
 
Thy gown should be snow-white silk,
And strings of orient pearls,
Like gossamers dipped in milk,
Should twine with thy raven curls!
 
Red rubies should deck thy hands,
And diamonds should deck thy dower –
But fairies have broke their wands’
And wishing has lost its power!
 
Notice, not a single pun! But plenty of exclamation marks! Or this –
 
                        BALLAD
 
It was not in the winter
            Our loving lot was cast!
It was the time of roses,
            We plucked them as we passed.
 
That churlish season never passed
            On early lovers yet!
Oh no – the world was newly crowned
            With flowers, when first we met.
 
‘Twas twilight, and I bade you go,
            But still you held me fast;
It was the time of roses, -
            We plucked them as we passed!
 
What else could peer my glowing cheek
            That tears began to stud?
And when I asked the like of Love
            You snatched a damask bud, -
 
And oped it to the dainty core
            Still glowing to the last:
It was the time of roses,
            We plucked them as we passed.
 
I’m not sure that this is actually a ballad, but never mind. In fact Hood wrote many ballads, like the wonderfully titled “Miss Kilmansegg and Her Precious Leg”, “The Dream of Eugene Aram” and “John Jones. A Pathetic Ballad”, as well as sonnets, odes and addresses.
 
He was, like the traditional sad clown, a humourist who suffered much in his life, from ill health and poverty, and died at 45.
 
He wrote at the same time as Keats, Shelley, Byron and the rustic poet, John Clare, though I’m not sure whether he referred to any of them in his verse. He did give titles like “Ode to Melancholy” and “On a Distant Prospect of Clapham Academy” and “Ode for St. Cecilia’s Eve” which indicated that he was well aware of what his contemporaries were writing about, and, probably, they of him.
 
He did pay homage to the Greeks – “Ode. Imitation from Horace” – and referred directly to another very popular wordsmith of the time, the Irish songwriter, Tom Moore.
 
I like to think of Thomas Hood now as a sort of poetic journalist, a writer of verse that was intended to appeal to a wide audience. In this he was like the popular songwriters of his and every other age, a bit like our bush poets (if far more sophisticated and technically able), comparable to English poets like John Betjeman and, goodness me, Pam Ayres.
 
I love the idea of poetry for the people – even our greatest poets, like Yeats and Eliot, arguably did not deliberately exclude anyone from their verse, even if they could not be described as writers of mainly occasional verse.
 
By way of contrast, today I turned to the poem in a leading literary supplement and read the first two lines: “Not having seen a face in the figure, the taxi rank/auto-annihilates. Fires start about tar not dry thus inflammable.”
 
I’ll go back to Thomas Hood, probably not one of the greats, but certainly a poet who wrote to amuse, to entertain, to influence and to inform.
 
I’ll write later about favourite poets of mine from other times in my life – poets like . . . no, you’ll have to wait.
 
Cheers – Barry Breen

 

One and a half villanelles

I wrote a villanelle
 
I wrote a villanelle; it went like this:
 
Villanelle for All the Poets
 
I worry the poem till it disappears
I should have left it alone I’m sure                       
It’s midnight, this will end in tears.
 
Hours ago my words were spears
Piercing my theme to the very core
I worry the poem till it disappears.
 
I gave it the rhythm of my fears
I gave it the wisdom of my lore                       
It’s midnight, this will end in tears.
 
I take it and shake it by the ears
It rattles right out of the clothes it wore           
I worry the poem till it disappears.
 
For a while I could almost hear the cheers
Imagine what I’d be famous for
It’s midnight, this will end in tears.
 
I’ve seen it all before, my dears,
I’ve seen it a hundred times before
I worry the poem till it disappears
It’s midnight, this will end in tears.
 
It is obviously light-hearted, even if heartfelt. I allowed myself a bit of cheekiness, especially with the “I’ve seen it all before, my dears” line.
 
I sent it off to a leading poetry editor and she was nice enough, in rejecting it, to comment. She said: ‘It is admirable to write a villanelle – but I feel some of the rhymes sound pretty forced eg :”to the very core”, and “my dears”, and these also make the rhythm too thumping.  Elizabeth Bishop’s famous villanelle “One Art” is a great example that seems to “casually” take many lines across to the next while retaining strict rhyme.’
 
Here is Elizabeth Bishop’s Villanelle:
 
One Art
 
The art of losing isn’t hard to master;
so many things seem filled with the intent
to be lost that their loss is no disaster.
 
Lose something every day. Accept the fluster
of lost door keys, the hour badly spent.
The art of losing isn’t hard to master.
 
Then practice losing farther, losing faster:
places, and names and where it was you meant
to travel. None of these will bring disaster.
 
I lost my mother’s watch. And look! My last, or
next-to-last, of three loved houses went.
The art of losing isn’t hard to master;
 
I lost two cities, lovely ones. And vaster,
some realms I owned, two rivers, a continent.
I miss them, but it wasn’t a disaster.
 
- Even losing you (the joking voice, a gesture
I love) I shan’t have lied. It’s evident
the art of losing’s not too hard to master
though it may look like (Write it!) like disaster.
 
                                           Elizabeth Bishop (from The Complete Poems 1927-79)
 
Now, let’s take the “thumping rhythm” comment. It’s true, so why is Bishop’s poem different?
 
Firstly, because she uses a great deal of enjambment – in fact, in every verse this run-on technique is used and this clearly softens any suggestion of clunky rhythm. There is obviously more flow if you don’t stop dead at the end of every line.
 
Secondly, the judicious use of half rhyme, like fluster/master, gesture/master and one very cheeky last, or/master, further removes the sense of repetition of rhyme sounds, such a strong element of rhythm.
 
Lastly, the flexibility that the poet allows herself with the repeated lines, especially with the various versions of line 3, contributes to the flexibility of flow of the poem.
 
Rhyming can interfere with the flow – once it draws attention to itself it stands out. While it is invisible, or at least unobtrusive, it is part of the music, but if it becomes a constant discordant note, then the poem is ruined.
 
As for “forced” – well, if a rhyme comes over as forced then the eye is pulled to it, the mind stops on it and clunkiness is inevitable.
 
Unless you use a forced rhyme that is so obvious as to be a joke (think of Ogden Nash) and therefore means to pull you up – “I’ve seen it all before, my dears”. Didn’t work? OK. I do wonder about “last, or” in Bishop’s poem though.
 
While we are making comparisons, my villanelle is a bit of a romp, a bit of a light-hearted grumble, while Elizabeth Bishop’s is, for all its lovely quirkiness and whimsicality, a way of saying something deeply felt by the poet. The flow of the development of the theme, through to the real point of it all in the final verse, contributes its flow to the music of the poem.
 
I suppose a lesson would be – Don’t be facetious. But I don’t mind the idea of facetious poetry, or fun poetry. I often write it and hardly, if ever, present it for publication.
 
Now, if I’ve decided that my villanelle (remember?) is OK for tone and lightness, then I should stick to it, but try to incorporate some of the lessons I can get from Elizabeth Bishop’s master class of a poem.
 
Villanelle for all the poets
 
I pick at the poem till it disappears                       
I should have left it alone, I’m sure.
It’s midnight, this will end in tears.
 
Just hours ago I was close it appears
To finding what I was striving for.
So why pick at the poem till it disappears?
 
I gave it the rhythm of my fears
I gave it the wisdom of my lore
It’s midnight, this will end in tears.
 
I take it and shake it by the ears
It rattles right out of the clothes it wore
As I pick at the poem till it disappears.
 
I’d have been the envy of all my peers
Honours heaping, prizes galore.
It’s midnight. This will end in tears.
 
For a while I could almost hear the cheers 
Telling me what I was famous for                       
But I pick at the poem till it disappears    
At midnight. This will end in tears.
 
No, it’s gone. Dead. Disappeared. It clanks and clunks in too many parts and doesn’t have enough to hold it together anyway. I’ll discard this one, but I will get another idea for a villanelle some day and I should have learned a few things by then.
 
If you want to know what I wrote about the villanelle some months ago, see my blog of June 26.
 

Cheers – Barry Breen

Poetry, Food and Drink

Food-related Poetry and Prose

A few years ago I was MC for a Literary Breakfast and put together this little anthology for the entertainment of the breakfasters.
 
Anon: from An Ode to Black Pudding
Black pudding made us what we are
It gave us wit and wisdom
For the blood of pigs runs through our veins
Or at least our digestive system
The blood of pigs in a sausage case
As black as a man from the Burren
Black pudding, black pudding. I give this ode
To you all, be you Irish or foreign.

 
Dylan Thomas: from Under Milk Wood
Narrator:  From Beynon Butchers in Coronation Street the smell of fried liver sidles out with onions on its breath.
 
John Millington Synge: from The Playboy of the Western World
Sara: My thousand welcomes to you, and I’ve run up with a brace of duck’s eggs for your food today.  Pegeen’s ducks is no use, but these are the real rich sort.  Hold out your hand and you’ll see its no lie I’m telling you.
Christy:  They’re a great and weighty size.
Susan: And I run up with a pat of butter, for it’d be a poor thing to have you eating your spuds dry, and after running a great way since you did destroy your da.
Christy: Thank you kindly.
Honor: And I brought you a little cut of cake, for you should have a thin stomach on you, and you that length walking the world.
Nelly: And I brought you a little laying pullet – boiled and all she is – was crushed at the fall of night by the curate’s car. Feel the fat of that breast, mister.
Christy: It’s bursting, surely.
 
Shakespeare: from King Lear III.iv
Edgar:  Poor Tom; that eats the swimming frog, the toad, the tadpole, the wall-newt, and the water; that in the fury of his heart, when the foul fiend rages, eats cow-dung for sallets; swallows the old rat and the ditch-dog; drinks the green mantle of the standing pool . . . .
            But mice and rats and such small deer,
            Have been Tom’s food for many a year.
 
Anon: Ode to the Egg
Oh egg you are round, almost
And go very well on toast
With your taste I’m entirely besotten
The exception is when you’re rotten!
 
 
Dylan Thomas:  from Under Milk Wood
Narrator:  Alone in the hissing laboratory of his wishes, Mr Pugh minces among bad vats and jeroboams, tiptoes through spinneys of murdering herbs, agony dancing in his crucibles, and mixes especially for Mrs Pugh a venomous porridge (pudding) unknown to toxicologists which will scald and viper through her until her ears fall off like figs, her toes grow big and black as balloons, and steam comes screaming out of her navel.
 
David Martin: from Bush Christmas
            Stuffed with pudding to his gizzard,
            Uncle James lets out a snore,
            Auntie Flo sprawls like a lizard
            On the back verandah floor.
 
Christopher Morley:  from Smells
            The smell of coffee freshly ground;
            Or rich plum pudding, holly crowned;
            Or onions fried and deeply browned.
 
Amy Lowell: from The Dinner Party
                        Coffee
            They sat in a circle with their coffee cups,
            One dropped in a lump of sugar,
            One stirred with a spoon.
            I saw them as a circle of ghosts
            Sipping blackness out of beautiful china,
            And mildly protesting against my coarseness
            In being alive.
 
Epitaph, Notts
            She drank good Ale, good Punch, good Wine,
            And lived to the age of ninety-nine.
 
Epitaph, New Mexico
            Here lies John Yeast.
            Pardon me for not rising.
 
Epitaph, Nantucket
            Under the sod and under the trees
            Lies the body of Jonathan Pease.
            He’s not here, but only the pod,
            For pease shelled out and went to God.
 
Epitaph, Kent
            Here in the dust, the mouldy old crust
            Of Nell Bachelor lately was shoven,
            Who was skilled in the arts of pies, custard and tarts,
            And knew well every use of the oven.
            When she lived long enough, she made her last puff,
            A puff by her husband much praised,
            Now here she doth lie, to make a dirt pie
            In hopes that her crust will be raised.
 
Shakespeare: from Twelth Night
And if music be the food of love, play on.
 
W B Yeats: A Drinking Song
Wine comes in at the mouth
And love comes in at the eye;
That’s all we shall know for truth
Before we grow old and die.
I lift the glass to my mouth,
I look at you and I sigh.
 
Trad: The Big Rock Candy Mountain
 
There’s a lake of stew
And of whiskey too
You can paddle all around it
In a big canoe
In the Big Rock Candy Mountains
 
Glyn Hughes: from Whiskey on a Sunday
Come day, go day
Wish in my heart it were Sunday
Drinking buttermilk thru the week
Whiskey on a Sunday
 
Enough for now.
 
Cheers – Barry Breen
 
 

Botanical Art and Poetry

ON BOTANICAL ART AND POETRY
 
As readers of this blog will know, I am very interested in the processes of translation, the ways of moving a text from one language (and culture) to another language and culture, without doing grave disservice to the original but making of the translation a worthy entity itself.
 
So, it is a matter of moving from one space to another, from one frame to another. The concept is clear enough in moving from a poem in French to a version of that poem in English, but what if we expand the idea to cover other forms of art?
 
Our local Art gallery (the Ballarat Art Gallery) has currently an exhibition of Botanical Art (Capturing Flora, on until December 2)) and, in conjunction with that, I based my regular talk at the Gallery on Australian nature poetry.
 
I started off with the proposition that botanical art was almost entirely objective; that is, that the artist sought simply to make a ‘correct’ version on paper of the actual plant. There is something to be said for this, of course, especially if you think of the art as serving a scientific function.
 
However, after speaking to a practicing botanical artist, and especially after even a quick look at the exhibition, I realized that I was a long way from doing justice to this form of art. I had previously formed the thesis that, while botanical art allowed for no expression of individuality or emotion, nature poetry rarely avoided both.
 
I developed the idea by comparing two poems by leading Australian poets of different (though close) generations – The Blue Mountains by Henry Lawson (1867 – 1922) and South Country, by Kenneth Slessor (1901 – 1971). Here are the two poems:
 
The Blue Mountains
                            By Henry Lawson

Above the ashes straight and tall,
Through ferns with moisture dripping,
I climb beneath the sandstone wall,
My feet on mosses slipping.
 
Like ramparts round the valley’s edge
The tinted cliffs are standing,
With many a broken wall and ledge,
And many a rocky landing.
 
And round about their rugged feet
Deep ferny dells are hidden
In shadowed depths, whence dust and heat
Are banished and forbidden.
 
The stream that, crooning to itself,
Comes down a tireless rover,
Flows calmly to the rocky shelf,
And there leaps bravely over.
 
Now pouring down, now lost in spray
When mountain breezes sally,
The water strikes the rock midway,
And leaps into the valley.
 
Now in the west the colours change,
The blue with crimson blending;
Behind the far Dividing Range
The sun is fast descending.
 
And mellowed day comes o’er the place,
And softens ragged edges;
The rising moon’s great placid face
Looks gravely o’er the ledges.
 
 
South Country
                  By Kenneth Slessor
After the whey-faced anonymity
Of river-gums and scribbly-gums and bush,   
After the rubbing and the hit of brush,   
You come to the South Country
 
As if the argument of trees were done,
The doubts and quarrelling, the plots and pains,   
All ended by these clear and gliding planes   
Like an abrupt solution.
 
And over the flat earth of empty farms   
The monstrous continent of air floats back   
Coloured with rotting sunlight and the black,   
Bruised flesh of thunderstorms:
 
Air arched, enormous, pounding the bony ridge,   
Ditches and hutches, with a drench of light,   
So huge, from such infinities of height,
You walk on the sky’s beach
 
While even the dwindled hills are small and bare,   
As if, rebellious, buried, pitiful,
Something below pushed up a knob of skull,   
Feeling its way to air.
 
Though the two landscapes described are certainly different, more different still is the attitude to the country, the tone of the descriptions and the style of imagery.
 
Lawson paints a stylized picture of strength and composure (if a countryside can be said to have composure) while Slessor writes of conflict and decay, of barren despair.
 
Lawson has “ashes great and tall”. Ramparts, rugged feet, calm flows and brave leaps, breezes that sally and the moon great and placid. Slessor has arguments of scribbly gums, he has rotting sunlight, black, bruised flesh (and what an image that is!), a drench of light, dwindled hills and the last bleak image of hills pushing up like “a knob of skull”.
 
So it was not hard to establish my point about the subjectivity of poetry about nature (there are plenty of other examples that I called on), but what about the other side of the coin? And what has this to do with my opening idea of translating from one frame to another.
 
First of all, any study of the art on display in the Ballarat Art gallery’s exhibition would soon show how the approach to subject could be very different between artists and how the temperament of the artist could translate into the art without distorting the representation.
 
A good example could be found in a section devoted to field drawings, preparatory work and final presentation of art by leading botanical artist, Celia Rosser. The field drawings could display a spirit, a flamboyance almost, that might gradually be pulled into line but which still managed to underlie the beautiful finished painting.
 
So I was obviously wrong. But where does the idea of translation come in here?
 
Well, is all art perhaps a form of translation – “translation can be cast in terms of a stitching together of two mental spaces that have many points in common and many differences”? Translation is about taking something from one frame and presenting it in another.
 
A botanical artist takes from the frame of an actual natural object, a plant, and transfers/translates it to a representation on a piece of flat paper or a canvas perhaps. The result is often remarkably accurate and, just as remarkably, the artist’s feelings about that plant, or mood on that day, or ongoing temperament is subsumed into the depiction. But it is not irrelevant to that depiction.
 
In the case of a landscape artist, the same process applies, but now there has been a broadening (not just a physical one) and there is more room for the emotion and attitude of the artist – compare Constable and Turner, for instance, or see how much cultural reference is present in Dutch landscapes painting of the 17th century.
 
A student of art could write more about this, but I want to jump to poetry, because isn’t poetry in some way the same thing?
 
A poet is translating from one frame to another. Just as I try to make a faithful version of, say, a Jacques Prévert poem, so I am making a more-or-less faithful translation of a moment in time or a series of events (a story) or an emotion or a personality or a mood when I write a poem.
 
In doing that my efforts to ‘translate accurately’ will include the desire to have someone else see what I am seeing, recognize what I am thinking, empathise with or at least feel familiar with what I am feeling or maybe even agree with what I am arguing.
 
All of this, even if crudely summarized and incomplete, means that I am concerned for the faithfulness of what I produce, my translation needs to be accurate and not a betrayal of the original, which is the genesis or seed of the poem.
 
Two discussions could grow from this. The first would be the application of the above thinking to all forms of creative art – how does it apply? The second would be the whole debate about meaning and the conveying of meaning, about clarity and obscurity, about ‘translating’ for a reader as against refusing to supply a coherent ‘product’ in writing a poem.
 
(Please note that, in order to escape the world of blog response crazies, I have had to disable comment except from people registered with this blog. BUT it is easy to register so please do so and have your say!)
 
Cheers – Barry Breen
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Prose Poem, Prose or Poem?

The Prose Poem – Prose or Poetry or Both?
 

NB> This post got mangled when I posted it yesterday – I hope the layout works this time!

According to Tom Shapcott, a prose poem is a piece of writing that has escaped “the ghostly train of the measured cadence.” I’m not sure whether this train is of the locomotive variety or simply a sequence, but either way it’s an interesting concept.
 
Is an articulate Irishman, famous for his flow of words, free from this “ghostly train”? I think not – witness the depiction of this dialogue in The Playboy of the Western World by J M Synge. Would Patrick White see himself as being freed from the train? Probably not. Am I asking questions just so I can answer them? Yes. Should I stop doing this? Yes.
 
Perhaps it’s better than Nabokov’s description of translators “shackling themselves with trivial and treacherous rhyme.”
 
Someone, in fact the son of one of my nieces, wanted to talk to me about the prose poem and I found myself admitting that I didn’t know all that much about it, so here I am, thinking aloud.
 
I’ll skip the history and deeper analysis – look it up; in fact the article by Tom Shapcott that I quoted from above is as good a place to start as any if it’s Australian prose poetry you want to learn about (at www.textjournal.com.au/oct02/letters.htm) – and I’ll cut right to the chase.
 
Here’s a prose poem:
 
A Letter/In Lieu of a Get Well Card
 
As I came home yesterday a child offered me the soft cauliflower clouds to give away or keep but I might have been obliged to take the south wind too, so cold and uncompromising that sharp day. Later our ring-tailed possum friend came right into the kitchen looking for apple pieces. Perhaps he’d visit you too in the gentle corner of your mind where treats are stored for small shy animals. On Saturday I stood at early morning watching kangaroos in the Eltham Hills as they watched me. I send you now their morning air of curiosity. This afternoon an invasion of grass-green parrots, shrilling and flashing red bellies among the Japanese cherry buds outside. I hope this early Spring sunshine will bring crimson rosellas again to your garden.
 
Well, is it? In fact it’s an old unpublished poem of mine, written to a friend in this form:
 
A Letter/In Lieu of a Get Well Card
 
As I came home yesterday a child
offered me the soft cauliflower clouds
to give away or keep
but I might have been obliged to take
the south wind too, so cold
and uncompromising that sharp day.
Later our ring-tailed possum friend
came right into the kitchen looking
for apple pieces. Perhaps he’d visit
you too in the gentle corner of your mind
where treats are stored for small shy animals.
On Saturday I stood at early morning
watching kangaroos in the Eltham
Hills as they watched me. I send you now
their morning air of curiosity.
This afternoon an invasion of grass-green
parrots, shrilling and flashing red
bellies among the Japanese cherry buds
outside.
I hope this early
Spring sunshine will bring
crimson rosellas again to your garden.
 
I don’t know how to begin analysing the difference between the two. Certainly the short lines impose a different rhythm to the words, though I doubt that it is a “ghostly cadence”. The rhythm ‘imposed’ by the line cuts is a matter for the poet to work on in the working and re-working of a poem and it is not unusual for changes to be made – for example lines 5 and 6 could read “the south wind too so cold and uncompromising/that sharp day”.
 
This would have the effect of sharpening the “sharp day” as well as maybe over lengthening the first of the two lines. But this could lead us away from prose poetry because I don’t think it’s merely a matter of where the line endings come, but of what happens when you abandon the idea of line length and concentrate on some other shape of expression?
 
Or, what happens when a prose poem is written on a differently shaped piece of paper – wider perhaps, or narrower than the piece on which it was originally written?  Are the rhythms changed or is there a fixed prose rhythm? Or the prose poem is composed in longhand and then typed on another piece of paper.
 
Perhaps there is a steady line of progression from concrete poetry (which might consist of one word) right through to prose poetry, with no implied value judgment in putting them in that order, nor any way of throwing a blanket over just a section of this line and saying ‘Only this is poetry’.
 
For instance, a few of the entries in The Best Australian Poems 2011, edited by John Tranter and published by Black Inc are prose poems and a few others are what you might call long line poems.
 
Peter Boyle’s The Clarity of the Word is in prose form; Brook Emery’s ‘You Know the way . . . ‘ is written in very long lines, but is clearly intended to be printed with those particular line lengths. Motherlogue by Michael Farrell is more like a short short story, but printed in a book of poetry, presumably is to be regarded as a prose poem.
 
Ah, my head is starting to ache – and the constant question at the back of my thinking – “What does it matter what we call a piece of writing?” – is becoming insistent.
 
Tom Shapcott (see above) has listed an impressive cast of Australian poets who have published individual prose poems or whole books of them – they include old established hands like Shapcott himself, Judith Rodriguez, Chris Wallace-Crabbe, David Malouf and the late Bruce Beaver all contemporaries or near-contemporaries of mine and all fine poets as well as more recent poets like John Kinsella, Pamela Brown and Joanna Burns.
 
So there are plenty of good examples for you to look up to make your own judgement.
 
Cheers – Barry Breen
 
 
 

Prose Poem, Prose or Poem?

The Prose Poem – Prose or Poetry or Both?   According to Tom Shapcott, a prose poem is a piece of writing that has escaped “the ghostly train of the measured cadence.” I’m not sure whether this train is of the locomotive variety or simply a sequence, but either way it’s an interesting concept.   Is an articulate Irishman, famous for his flow of words, free from this “ghostly train”? I think not – witness the depiction of this dialogue in The Playboy of the Western World by J M Synge. Would Patrick White see himself as being freed from the train? Probably not. Am I asking questions just so I can answer them? Yes. Should I stop doing this? Yes.   Perhaps it’s better than Nabokov’s description of translators “shackling themselves with trivial and treacherous rhyme.”   Someone, in fact the son of one of my nieces, wanted to talk to me about the prose poem and I found myself admitting that I didn’t know all that much about it, so here I am, thinking aloud.   I’ll skip the history and deeper analysis – look it up; in fact the article by Tom Shapcott that I quoted from above is as good a place to start as any if it’s Australian prose poetry you want to learn about (at www.textjournal.com.au/oct02/letters.htm) – and I’ll cut right to the chase.   Here’s a prose poem:   A Letter/In Lieu of a Get Well Card   As I came home yesterday a child offered me the soft cauliflower clouds to give away or keep but I might have been obliged to take the south wind too, so cold and uncompromising that sharp day. Later our ring-tailed possum friend came right into the kitchen looking for apple pieces. Perhaps he’d visit you too in the gentle corner of your mind where treats are stored for small shy animals. On Saturday I stood at early morning watching kangaroos in the Eltham Hills as they watched me. I send you now their morning air of curiosity. This afternoon an invasion of grass-green parrots, shrilling and flashing red bellies among the Japanese cherry buds outside. I hope this early Spring sunshine will bring crimson rosellas again to your garden.   Well, is it? In fact it’s an old unpublished poem of mine, written to a friend in this form:   A Letter/In Lieu of a Get Well Card   As I came home yesterday a child offered me the soft cauliflower clouds to give away or keep but I might have been obliged to take the south wind too, so cold and uncompromising that sharp day. Later our ring-tailed possum friend came right into the kitchen looking for apple pieces. Perhaps he’d visit you too in the gentle corner of your mind where treats are stored for small shy animals. On Saturday I stood at early morning watching kangaroos in the Eltham Hills as they watched me. I send you now their morning air of curiosity. This afternoon an invasion of grass-green parrots, shrilling and flashing red bellies among the Japanese cherry buds outside. I hope this early Spring sunshine will bring crimson rosellas again to your garden.   I don’t know how to begin analysing the difference between the two. Certainly the short lines impose a different rhythm to the words, though I doubt that it is a “ghostly cadence”. The rhythm ‘imposed’ by the line cuts is a matter for the poet to work on in the working and re-working of a poem and it is not unusual for changes to be made – for example lines 5 and 6 could read “the south wind too so cold and uncompromising/that sharp day”.   This would have the effect of sharpening the “sharp day” as well as maybe over lengthening the first of the two lines. But this could lead us away from prose poetry because I don’t think it’s merely a matter of where the line endings come, but of what happens when you abandon the idea of line length and concentrate on some other shape of expression?   Or, what happens when a prose poem is written on a differently shaped piece of paper – wider perhaps, or narrower than the piece on which it was originally written?  Are the rhythms changed or is there a fixed prose rhythm? Or the prose poem is composed in longhand and then typed on another piece of paper.   Perhaps there is a steady line of progression from concrete poetry (which might consist of one word) right through to prose poetry, with no implied value judgment in putting them in that order, nor any way of throwing a blanket over just a section of this line and saying ‘Only this is poetry’.   For instance, a few of the entries in The Best Australian Poems 2011, edited by John Tranter and published by Black Inc are prose poems and a few others are what you might call long line poems.   Peter Boyle’s The Clarity of the Word is in prose form; Brook Emery’s ‘You Know the way . . . ‘ is written in very long lines, but is clearly intended to be printed with those particular line lengths. Motherlogue by Michael Farrell is more like a short short story, but printed in a book of poetry, presumably is to be regarded as a prose poem.   Ah, my head is starting to ache – and the constant question at the back of my thinking – “What does it matter what we call a piece of writing?” – is becoming insistent.   Tom Shapcott (see above) has listed an impressive cast of Australian poets who have published individual prose poems or whole books of them – they include old established hands like Shapcott himself, Judith Rodriguez, Chris Wallace-Crabbe, David Malouf and the late Bruce Beaver all contemporaries or near-contemporaries of mine and all fine poets as well as more recent poets like John Kinsella, Pamela Brown and Joanna Burns.   So there are plenty of good examples for you to look up to make your own judgement.   Cheers – Barry Breen      

Poetry, syntax, meaning

Poetry, Grammar and Meaning
 
Though the use of standard syntax and spelling in poetry is a subject good for the fiercest of arguments, it’s very hard to define the rules, even if you want to. For a start you would dispense with: “Never end a sentence with a preposition”, after which you would find that any rule you might like to defend has been broken by someone significant at some time or other, or any rule you might like to ignore can be seen as civilization’s last bastion.
 
Then you don’t try?
 
Well, no. There is a worthwhile conversation to be had about spelling and grammar, syntax and structure.
 
Spelling, for starters, is almost negligible in published poetry, as long as you have a competent sub-editor who can correct your words, or know when the misspelling might be deliberate. Shakespeare was notoriously bad at spelling, probably because it was not seen to matter in his day. Now it becomes a difficult task for editors to decide whether to spell in modern style or to keep the “quaint” original – if an original spelling can be ascertained anyway.
 
“For thy sweet love remembered such wealth brings
That then I scorn to change my state with kings.”
                                    (Sonnet 29, from a book published in 1970)
 
“For thy sweet love remembred such welth brings,
That then I skorne to change my state with Kinges.”
                                    (from a version in 1987)
 
So? Even, in some cases, scholars can happily argue for spellings that, in fact, could change the meaning. In Marvell’s two lines: “So therefore, while the youthful hue/Sits on thy skin like morning dew,” it is possible to find arguments for “hew/glew” (a 1681 reading) or “glew/dew” (as long as “glew” can be argued to mean “glow”) or for “hue/dew” as above and nobody knows what Marvell actually wrote anyway.
 
Let them argue. The main reason I would have for being concerned about spelling at all would be a) that bad spelling can sometimes make meaning unnecessarily obscure and b) for some readers at least, bad spelling is an unwanted distraction.
 
Punctuation is another thing, entirely. Or not quite entirely. Again bad punctuation can be both a distraction and a hindrance to understanding, but again it sometimes depends on what is currently expected rather than what is “correct”. Does the second sentence of this paragraph (above) represent bad punctuation?
 
Emily Dickinson didn’t have a clue. Here are just four lines, but typical:
 
It’s such a common – Glory –
A Fisherman’s – Degree –
Redemption – Brittle Lady –
Be so – ashamed of Thee –
 
That’s it, that’s the end of a poem. Not only was Ms Dickinson unaware of the existence of full stops, commas etcetera, but also she was enamoured of capital letters used almost at random. And dashes went everywhere, like spots on a measles sufferer.
 
So, as a result, has Dickinson been shunned? Not a bit of it, she is a much-loved poet and there is every reason to suspect that her idiosyncratic punctuation is seen as part of her charm.
 
But don’t do this at home, children!
 
Now syntax can be more problematic. It has possibly become one of the ways that poets in recent years, or not so recent, have sought to dramatise their impact by creating obscurity.
 
In 1934, Dylan Thomas wrote:
 
So, ‘planing-heeled, I flew along my man
And dropped on dreaming and the upward sky.
                                                (from I Fellowed Sleep)
 
Not a matter of syntax, but of meaning? Well spotted – syntactically Thomas was impeccable; it was in the overturning of the expected images that he found his impact. “Happy as the grass was green”, “happy as the heart was long”, “To eat your heart in the house in the rosy wood”. Almost any line of Thomas’s poetry can produce an example.
 
T. S. Eliot was described as the first of the Modernists, and can be notoriously difficult, but grammatically or syntactically careless? Highly unlikely.
 
Twit twit twit
Jug jug jug jug jug jug
So rudely forc’d.
Tereu
                        (from The Waste Land)
 
Well, only when it suited his purposes, or when he was under the influence of good sherry or Ezra Pound.
 
What about Gerard Manley Hopkins, famous for his ‘sprung rhythms’?
 
I caught this morning morning’s minion, king-
            dom of daylight’s dauphin, dapple-dawn-drawn Falcon, in his riding
            Of the rolling level underneath him steady air . . .
                                                (from The Windhover)
 
So again, it’s all a matter of unusual expressions and unusual rhythms rather than any departure from normal spelling or syntax.
 
But in recent years a movement has gathered pace which seems to validate or even mandate deliberate obscurity. It seems to me to be skating on the edge of some sort of abyss to refuse, as some do, to be dictated to by the received meaning of words. Spelling and grammar are simply servants of communication, but meaning is at the centre of it all.
 
If this is the case, it is hard to avoid a certain conservatism – there may be no rules, but I would like to know what you are saying to me. I’ve never regarded myself as a conservative, but I find myself, these days, aiming for clarity in my poetry.
 
However, I have read some poems recently that absolutely defied my attempts to make sense of even isolated phrases and others where the combinations of words were at best obscure, at worst gibberish.
 
Obscurity is no new thing, as we have seen, but total intransigence seems to me self-defeating. While readers continue to want to be delighted, enlightened, amused, teased, pleasantly puzzled, changed and/or otherwise affected by poems, they will continue to be deterred by any poem which offers nothing but a refusal to mean anything.
 
Enough for the moment – I won’t give examples and I would love to be proved wrong.
 
Cheers – Barry Breen