Statement of Philosophy

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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Friday, July 12, 2013

"Nimium Minus Solus Quam Solus" by Daryl Hine -- Poetry Daily, 7/6/2013

from A Reliquary and Other Poems (Fitzhenry & Whiteside)
poem found here


The days were delightful and the hours were light,
Particularly when one was on one's own

I've been rather busy these days -- it's amazing how disruptive relatives can be (in all their varieties). The weather's also been a bit overhead. And, there's some other projects I'm needing to put away: like finishing reading Moby-Dick. So I'm going to be jumping back to a poem or two I passed by and still want to turn 'round and see again. For those of you anticipating the essay post on U.S. poetry culture, that project has suffered the most of the inconveniencing. But, soon enough it will come.


a bar for poetic ability?

There is much to be said for this poem, and I want to cover some points of it -- as is the norm, primarily in exploration. But the primary reason this poem has been in my head these last days is that it has been feeding energies brewing over the "Poetry Slam" essay (and the responses of myself and others), certain discussions, and questions of basic poetic competence. As such, directly or indirectly, the following points will be leading to this question: Is there a "bar" in poetry?

1 → Let's talk about the structure, and the use of a chorus -- here, having the fourth line of each stanza be (more or less) the same. Very under-used device, and not as easy a thing to use as you might think to pull off successfully. A chorus, by its repetition, creates a character of its own. But, for a successful poem, that character must yet be part of the character of the poem as a whole. It is very easy for there to be a kind of clash between the body of the stanzas and the chorus. The reason lies in that once the chorus is first written, the repetitions of the chorus write themselves. The poet errs when they then go about writing the non-chorus lines without integrating the repeated lines into the stanza (as though writing them, with each appearance, as though for the first time). That is to say, if a poet were writing a poem of the same form as this poem, they establish the choral line, and then go about writing lines 1-3, 5-7, 9-11, etc., when, what they need to be doing is to be still writing each stanza wholly: 1-4, 5-8, 9-12.

It's very easy to stop writing full stanzas and let the repeated lines wander off to do their own thing. Be careful of it. And notice how no such thing occurs here. Even though the lines are essentially repeating the same words, they are still each, very much, independent lines, each, wholly a part of its own stanza. And yet, still acting, in the nature of a chorus, toward running an aural and ideational thread through the whole of the poem. (As it should be: every line should be its own line, every stanza its own stanza, yet all coming together to create an organic whole.)

2 → It might be arguable that one of the reasons why the choral line works so well is the vowel sounds: the only tense vowel is the o sound, all the rest are soft, lax vowels (and mostly e's). The result of the vowel sounds is that the choral line does not aurally stand out from the rest of the poem: it does its work in an unobtrusive manner; though, a very present manner what with those repeated, somber "alone"s.

3 → However, the verses have no difficulty with brighter sounds. That's rather obvious in that one of the end-line, rhyming sounds of the poem is "-ite." Indeed, in line 11 there is a very interesting moment, aurally speaking:

Promised the gorgeous sights of trite daylight,

Reading that line you might be the feeling that the line has been overweighted at its end with the i-sound, which is an occasional danger with a line. The repeated sounds at the end give very strong emphasis, yes. But with a rhymed poem, the ear is already anticipating the sound. So, when it appears early, there is the threat that the line sounds like it is ending early. And then, when it is repeated, the line can, simply, sound aurally over-weighted to one side.

Here, however, I think the line is not so much "saved," as it were, as set up by the first line of the stanza, which also repeats the rhyming -ite:

Mornings which dawned dim but not quite white,
If paler than paper, ivory or bone,
Promised the gorgeous sights of trite daylight,
Never less alone than when alone.

Now, it can also be said that the setting of the weighty ends of the lines is made all the smoother in that "no quite white" is so very close to "not quite right," a phrase everyone is familiar with. (And that might be no small thing.) Nonetheless, let's rewrite the stanza:

Mornings which dawned dim but not so much white,
If paler than paper, ivory or bone,
Promised the gorgeous sights of trite daylight,
Never less alone than when alone.

Do you hear in that version how the end of the third line is a bit weightier? Now, I think part of the effect lies in that there is an ambiguity inherent in the reading of the line -- perhaps the only major flaw in the poem. The natural rhythm of the phrase is "GORgeous SIGHTS of TRITE DAYlight": but that sets up a rhyme between a masculine and feminine ending, which every developed ear will hear as offputting. So, the reader is simultaneously trying to read the poem as both "of TRITE DAYlight" and "of TRITE day LIGHT." It creates a little awkwardness in the line I can not myself make go away (without the line becoming inadvertantly comical). That awkwardness also gives artificial weight to the end of the line, exacerbating the triplet-i.

4 → Very important to the success of the poem is the wording of the poem. It is dense in wording: and I don't mean dense in ideas. There is very few idle moments in the poem; the phrases of the poem have been written with little (if anything) that is unnecessary, excess, or superfluous. To give an idea of what I am talking about, compare the lines of this poem to the line in the poem that appeared the next day on Poetry Daily: "Cold Tea" (by Sarah Pemberton Strong). I am looking primarily at the third line here (line 8 in the poem):

She was standing on the lip

of the whole river with her plan
when the current called her and she had to

go: answer the knocking

Nine words in that line, and only two of them are substantive (and those not terribly). And then the final word of the phrase stolen from it and put on the next line (which fails miserably). It makes for a very empty line. Indeed, the whole of the sentence -- indeed the majority of the poem -- is written in such language, which makes for a rather empty sounding poem. Some my counter by saying that it is a style of diction -- which is true. But just because it is a style of diction does not make it a terribly interesting line . . . or poem. It is inescabable that "when the current called her and she had to" is an astoundingly uninteresting line of verse. As a reader it speaks to me that the poem is mostly mere "words on a page," and lacking both in idea and, more importantly, poetic attentiveness or play.

Not so "Nimium Minus": the lines are dense, and vibrant, with barely a moment of dead air (as said in radio). I would argue this aspect above all others is what gives strength to the poem as a poem. It is not casually written: it is crafted. The fat and excess has been trimmed away.

5 → And not because the poem is written in formal meter. Rather, it is so because the poet was capable of writing formal meter such as this. It is not writing in formal meter that makes a poem full and vibrant in the manner of this poem. Rather, learning to write formal meter teaches the poet how to write with an economy of words that creates poems of such body as has this one. It is an incredibly important point to understand. A sophsiticated reader can usually tell, with free verse, whether the author has trained themselves first with a study of and practice in formal verse: the learned sophistication speaks through the free verse just as it does through the formal. (Of course, that's not a scientific practice: it is something one says to present an idea, not to test through accuracy of scientific method. Though, far more often than not, the reader will be correct.)

Here is the truth of it: and it is nothing that is new. Pound and Eliot (and many others) were screaming it when the aesthetic development within the arts and literature that became modernism was coming to its full, when free verse was becoming more and more popular. Free verse is not free: it is still verse being made out of the English language, which is a medium, just as much as is oil paints, or chalk, or marble, or a violin. And every medium has its own natures, its own characteristics, its own Being. Poetry is the creating of things out of the medium of language (in our case, the English language). Formal poetry is an exploration of the manipulation of the nature of the English language to the ends of heightening that language in a certain manner. Free verse, while not formal, must still be that very same exploration of the manipulation of the nature of the English language to the ends of heightening that language, if in a different manner. (And if it's not to the ends of the experience of "heightened" language, then why the hell are you expecting me to read it? For the its philosophical value? Most poets are far less versed in philosophy than they are poetics, unfortunately. And poetry as political statement? an exercise in cultural exclamation that, in the end, is no different in modality or result than the utterances of any other bobble-headed podium-pundit looking to keep hold of their 15 minutes. Somehow people think that because its broken into line breaks it makes the politics special. I think the last Inaugural poem pretty much shut that argument down permanently. But I digress.)

You see, I would be willing to wager that in fair fights this poem would kick the crap out of book after book of poetry by free-verse-only poets: and, as I said, not because this one poem is in formal verse. Rather, because it's author could write damn good formal verse. The free verse of a poet who cannot write formal verse is invariably weaker than that of a poet who can, often to the point of uninterest: because the former never learned the lessons of crafting and control that formal verse brings.

I just finished re-reading Paul Fussell's Poetic Meter & Poetic Form (it was decades ago I first read it).[FN] It should be required reading for all poets, primarily because the principles that he sets up behind his analysis of formal poetry apply to all poetry across the board. Easily 85% of the book applies also to free verse, even though the subject is formal verse -- figuring out how is the learning curve. In fact, it's the learning curve for formal verse as well.

[FN] I have Charles O. Hartman's Free Verse: An Essay on Prosody on deck. I've heard it held up as what would be a partner to Fussell. I will let you know what I think. As of now, all I can say is that the opening pages were great.

So: is there a "bar" in poetry? The question points to two different addresses. First, is there a natural, "inherent" bar in writing that is evidenced by the works of the poets? (To say it another way, is there a natural point where a poet stops speaking their inabilities and starts speaking their abilities?) ? And second, should there be a bar in formal education in writing (and what would it be)?

With both of these questions I stand in the affirmative. Yes, I believe there is a point where a person begins to understand poetry as an aesthetic endeavor, poetry as the creation of experiences through the medium of language (just as Rodin's The Kiss is an experience created out of the medium of marble). It is not a light switch, however. It is a constant struggle -- and I have seen people drop below just as I have seen people rise above. Plus, while it may be easier to some than it is to others, I do not believe a person can accomplish that bar of sophistication without study. So also do I believe a poet -- just as with any artist in any other medium -- cannot develop sophistication without study. And that study, in the medium of language, orginates in formal verse. This is just as an artist has to learn to draw from life, even though direct representation is the lowest form of art. When you look at the lines of the figures in Matisse's Joie de Vivre (here's an image), they may look haphazard. But to a sophisticated eye, they speak the years of training that preceded them. And when you paint, when you write, you should be painting for the sophisticated viewer, writing for the sophsiticated reader. (If not, again, why are you bothering me with work that strives for nothing?)

As such, when it comes to it, in the arena of formal academic education, I believe there should be a bar in the teaching -- and learning -- of creative writing. There should be a skill set that every poet should be able to demonstrate. Which isn't to say every poet should be able to write a great sonnet. Sonnets are difficult things to make. They are a specific, complex poetic form. They are not a simple stanza form. But, that said, ballad measure is everywhere in the cultures of the English speaking world -- and it has been for centuries. It is, arguably, the most natural poetic stanza form to the English language. A poet should be able to roll out ballad stanza with little effort. And, honestly, if a person can't tell a story through ballad stanza, the rest of their poetry will speak that inability. A poet should be able to write blank verse, and rhymed pentameter. They should be able to write poetry in meters other than iambic. They should read and study the masters: from Chaucer to Shakespeare to Pope to the Romantics to the Pre-Raphaelites (including Christina) to Tennyson and Browning and Whitman to Yeats to Pound and Eliot to H.D. and Auden and Williams and Zukofsky all those inbetween who demonstrated not that they wrote poetry but that they wrote brilliant poetry. And I could go on.

And some of you may be saying "why should a student be made to write such if that's not the kind of poetry in which they are interested?" The answer is because if a violist does not learn how to play a violin, they are a poor violinist indeed. So also a poet should learn how to be a poet. If they don't their poetry speaks the lack of their ability. And, as I say throughout this project, that is much of the problem of contemporary poetry. Perhaps something pointed at as the substitution of expressing oneself for the creating out of a medium.

So let's formalize this, in the way of the internet, with center justification and capitalized words, poster style and all, and with just enough silly to make it memorable:

If You Can't Write a Ballad
'Bout a Buxom and a Drunk,
You Are No Poet, Indeed.

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