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A site for exploration and discussion about verse, poetics, the aesthetic, and creative writing in general.

Because there is a profound difference between writing something to be read and writing something worth reading; and in that difference might beauty be found.



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Monday, March 4, 2013

"Glass of Water and Coffee Pot" by Robin Robertson, -- Poetry Daily, 3/4/13

from Hill of Doors (Picador)
poem found here
 

First lines:
These rooms of wood, of tongue-and-groove, open out
on a garden of white-washed walls and a maple tree,

 

meter and the poetic line

-- reformatted with some editing/rewriting 1/26/2014
 

I just want to explore, freely, line lengths and meter with this poem. And I mean explore: nothing here is being decisively stated: I am read out loud and here thinking out loud about what I hear.

 

Some hexameter in action, here – except for line 5. And then there’s line 7 (“and the pot’s”), which can be read as hexameter, but is more naturally read as a kind of 5-beat sprung rhythm. Line 11 also, can be read hexameter, but is more natural pentameter. And line 12. So maybe not hexameter; which is a shame to me, because that would have been so much fun to read. Especially with the many plays on iambic put on by Mr. Robertson.

But, I can't complain. I've played around with writing a long poem with the rule "lines between six and nine feet" rather than regularizing -- and it worked well. And I'm not saying it does not work well here; I'm just saying, "Oh, so close to straight hexameter. You couldn't squeeze that one out?"

 

Reading Shakespeare (to pick a name off the floor) demonstrates two elements of good, metered poetry. (1) Knowing that the text your are reading is in iambic pentameter will guide you in reading the lines (i.e., you will be nudged into reading it correctly when you know where you meant to go). (2) you need not at all maintain a very recognizable, iambic ba-DUMP ba-DUMP for it to remain iambic. Take line 13:

on this STONE SHELF, || HAPpiNESS of the HAND and HEART

The stress of the first four syllables ( ∪ ∪ ' ' ) is an often used substitute for two iambic feet. Then, after the caesura (which is strengthened by the difficulty in anunciating "shelf") you have an abbreviated foot ( ' ) before a normal iamb, an iamb with a lead-in unaccented syllable, and then two normal iambs:

on this STONE SHELF, / HAP / piNESS /of the HAND / and HEART

Note how the triple stress is aided in its reading by the pause at the comma. Though, that’s just one method, the next line has a straight string of stresses:

to KEEP its HEAT and STILL POUR CLEAN and TRUE.

You can read that line with an unstressed “pour,” but it changes the meaning of the line: the semantic emphasis moves from “pour” to “still.”[FN]

*********************
[FN] See note added at the bottom.
*********************

(Of course, #1 does have its dark side: you can not, as a writer, use your established rhythm to force a line where it is not normally willing to go.)

Which is an interesting little bit of firewood to add to the question of using straight hexameter: the question of emphasis would be solved if the meter was fixed. But, with the poem not being regularized line lengths, a variability is made permissible, and there is an ambiguity as to how to read the line. (Note: "ambiguity," not "problem.")

The first line also has a modified foot:

These ROOMS / of WOOD, / of TONGUE- / and-GROOVE, / O- /pen OUT

But I will be honest with you: I don’t must like that line at that point. I think it stumbles over itself. Though, not because of the short foot, but because of the sound of /groove/ being followed immediately by the sound of an accented /o/. Every time I read it I stall there; which is not a great thing, but possibly a worse thing for it being in the first line of the poem.

OK, but, then, Robin Robertson is Scottish. So in his own rhythms, it might be a wholly different matter: something else to think about. (I was reading recently about William Carlos Williams’s idea of using as a measure of line length the amount of time it took to say the line, rather than counting beats. Unfortunately, that length can rather vary from place to place in this English speaking world, so I’m not sure the usefulness of that one. (And, again, we see why you cannot write haiku -- meter wise -- in English.) Though, the idea is something to think about.)

 

My original thought in exploring this poem was to go to the relationship between line length and the use of meter. I would argue that the longer the lines, the more attention has to be paid to the line’s rhythms, as the longer the line, the easier it is for the line to become unwieldy or clumsy. But the more you read this poem, the more the lines congeal into very nice lines indeed. (Except for those couple of exceptions.)

It is worth noticing, however, that even with the longer lines, the poem was crafted with the lines rather being one thought per line, the thought using the whole of the line. At least that is how it runs until line 5. But the break there is good use of the established form and toward a greater making than merely one line being different from the form. Then line 6 is another unit idea. And, then, line seven, another break that uses the established form to positive ends, here to an even better degree, as the break is a full colon (which, in reading, can sometimes carry a greater aural pause than a period). You see what’s on either side of the colon?: “darkness” vs. “luminous.” So, the line is unified after all, eh?! (Even with a touch of rhyme to boot: “-ness” and “-nous.”) Great stuff that.

Similarly with the next line, where those last two syllables are not permitted to break away from the thought they are amplifying/modifying. Lines 10, 12, and 13 are similar, in that there is a comma break, but they are a part of an extended thought that ties the lines together. (I fear I am inadequately defending those lines. My hope is that you see how the lines have a sense of independent existence, even when they are broken by punctuation.)


Note:

I recenty picked back up with intent to finish Charles O. Hartman's Free Verse: An Essay on Prosody (after a shortened first start). Ultimately, I stopped reading it because I felt I was reading it mostly to develop arguments against Hartman rather than learn from him. Though, to understand that, most of what I found problematic with Hartman lay behind the arguments: things like unrecognized contradictions, or making a statement about the subject and then making another statement that seems to wholly forget the first was made.

One example of a statement made which didn't seem to deeply inform the rest of the book (insofar as I read it) was what may be the most intriquing and informing moment in the book:

[A]ll linguistic stress, in speech as well as verse, is relative stress. (36)

Which may sound obvious, but is actually quite profound in that it adds a depth to the fundamental observation about metered verse: There are two levels operating within verse: the abstract, measured pacing of the meter, and the sound of the text read as language. In any good verse the two operate in conjunction with each other to create the resonance and depth of sophisticated metered poetry.

Adding on the observation by Hartmann brings us to the realization that as such, the line in the poem refered to above

to KEEP its HEAT and STILL POUR CLEAN and TRUE.

Can still be read a iambic pentameter, even though the spoken stress on "pour" is stronger than on either "still" or "clean" -- so long as reader hears that the stress put on "pour" is wholly created out of the natural inflections of language, and hears that the word is also unstressed within the musical rhythm of the meter.

An observation with very fascinating possibilities. (Though for me still but an observation, yet to be tested to any great measure.)

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