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Thursday, April 11, 2013

"[but the rain is full of ghosts tonight]" by Dawn Lonsinger -- Verse Daily, 4/11/2013

from Whelm (Lost Horse Press, 2013)
poem found here

First lines:
and it has taken something from me,
driven my feet from the earth,


the masculine and feminine line

— edited May 18, 2012
— reformatted Mar. 14, 2015


One line in this poem caught my ear: lines 7. Let me give you both lines 6-7:

up by filling. Each droplet glints like the eyes
I have consented to and then let go of.

I hate that line. Read the stanza through, and listen what happens with that line. The primary stress of the line lies in "consented," and after that word the stress just trails off into a blasé, two letter, aurally undistinguished "of." Something I personally would never do. Or, I should say, never be able to let stand.[FN1] Not only do I hate the sound of a line of poetry ending in a preposition (it is rare that it works; which means, of course, when it does, it's fabulous; but . . . ), but the whole line is a descent into mumbling.[FN2]

[FN1] To what degree this is ideomatic, personal taste, and to what degree this is an issue of poetics, might be an interesting debate.

[FN2] To note, I do see that there is an aural echo in the line: that between "have consented to" and "then let go of." But it is weak. And combining that with both the weakness of the words "then let go of" and that the line ends on "of," I don't think you can justifty the construction.

So let's look about for solutions. Moving the preposition creates

I have consented to and then of it let go.

Which does not work at all. And then there are synonyms: relinquish, drop, release, each with their own nuance. Any, I think, would be better. (How about "unhand"? or a quasi-neologistic "unhold" or "ungrasp"?)

Really, though, what the line brought to my head is the idea of the masculine and feminine line. The terms technically refer to formally metered lines, but can apply to free verse as well. (This idea developed primarily through the French poetic tradition and moved out from there. Of course, as it moves into English, there is some modification. So I am, admittedly, simplifying here just a touch, since we are concerned only with English prosody. If you want more, see the Princeton Encyclopedia or Poetry and Poetics article on "Masculine and Feminine.")

Simply, a masculine ends with an stressed syllable; an feminine line ends with an unstressed syllable. Most of the time, it is an unstressed syllable tagged on to the end of the line: as with a quadrametric ba DA ba DA ba DA ba DA ba. A line of made of dactyls and ending on a dactyl is not called feminine. At least not that I've ever seen. And there I am creating a confusion. What I have seen in discussions of prosody is a distinction between a m/f line and an m/f ending. If I remember it right, a line of trochees has a feminine ending, but would not be called a feminine line, because of the meter.

Manipulation of line endings was (and still is) very important to French poetry, with great reason: it hugely effects the sound and reading of a poem. Indeed, part of mastery of poetry was mastery of the use of the two lines. You can create very interesting effects by alternating between them. (Here arises again the basic principle: all energy comes from difference. Where there's difference, there's energy. And where there's energy, there's energy to be played with, manipulated, controlled. But, keep in mind before you start rationalizing your inattentiveness, for there to ba difference, there must also be repetition.)

Let's take a free verse example. Since one of the reviews on the Amazon page for Whelm compares Ms. Lonsinger's work to Whitman's, let's go there. Song of Myself, the first part. (Forgive me for the long quotation, but this time I want you slide right into reading.)

I CELEBRATE myself, and sing myself,
And what I assume you shall assume,
For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.

I loafe and invite my soul,
I lean and loafe at my ease observing a spear of summer grass.

My tongue, every atom of my blood, form'd from this soil, this air,
Born here of parents born here from parents the same, and their parents the same,
I, now thirty-seven years old in perfect health begin,
Hoping to cease not till death.

Creeds and schools in abeyance,
Retiring back a while sufficed at what they are, but never forgotten,
I harbor for good or bad, I permit to speak at every hazard,
Nature without check with original energy.

All masculine endings up to "Creeds and schools in abeyance." And notice the effect. The poems opens with declarations, and those declarations are given strength through attention to their iambic rhythm and through ending on the stress. You should be able to hear the difference when "abeyance" arrives on the scene. The very tone of the reading changes.

Line endings are important; as important as the place of the breaks. Why I so dislike line seven is because its aural energy trails off into a mumbling nothing. Did you notice also how the words of the sentence themselves trail off, starting with "Each droplet glints" (Yay!) and ending with "and then let go of" (Snooze)?

Line endings are yet another example of why a poet needs to master formal verse before they attempt to master free verse: you learn things in formal that you can convince yourself are unimportant in free, like line endings, and how they sound. Read some French formal verse. (If you can, read it in French. You don't even have to be able to understand it to hear of what I am speaking.) Read some Housman. Or Browning. (Both masters of prosody.) Give attention to what's going on with the sound – because, the question is not, as a writer, "is the rhythmic sound important to this poem?" The answer to that is always yes. The question, rather, is "are you paying attention?"[FN]

[FN] Or, are you failing your craft (and your poem)?


A griping aside: It astounds me how many so-called students of poetry and MFAers do not know what masculine and feminine lines are; and how often that lack of knowledge also reveals how little attention they pay to the rhythms in their own poetry.

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