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Thursday, July 4, 2013

"Weight Gain" by Moira Egan -- Poetry Daily, 6/28/2013

from Hot Flash Sonnets (Passager Books)
poem found here

first lines:

Whose body is this, anyway? I glance
in Mirror, Mirror at these fleshly parts


the play between the poetic line and its internal structure

This poem was put up on Poetry Daily a week ago, but it's been in my head since. Or, at least, the thoughts this put into my head has been in my head since.

Specifically, it has had me thinking about the play between the line as an aural unit and the breaking up of that unit with internal punctuation. Even more specifically, how that breaking up affects the oral readings of the line, especially when the lines in the poem are regular and rhymed, as with here. How does breaking up the lines of a rhymed poem effect the rhymed sounds?

And so, this post, whose point is mostly to point out the issue, to give some demonstration to the elements involved, to bring it to mind that it does in fact have an effect. Or, perhaps I should say, will have an effect if poorly executed.

Now, in part, this poem is feeding into thoughts that have been playing in my mind from reading through Mary Kinzie's A Poet's Guide to Poetry -- which, admittedly, I am doing very slowly, picking it up only every once in a while. Though, I will say, this may be the first book on poetics written for a classroom that I would actually use in the classroom. Most others I have looked at either are far too dependent on the examples and far too weak in their discussion of poetics (as with Frances Mayes's The Discovery of Poetry), or bad to the point of misleading, or far too expensive (as with Helen Vendler's Poems • Poets • Poetry and Brooks and Warren's Understanding Poetry, which is still very worth the while but is absurdly priced).

In the opening chapters Kinzie talks about the identity of the poetic line, and the play between the "half-meaning" generated by a line and the whole meaning of the syntactic unit spanning beyone the line. But here, I'm looking primarily at rhyme and sound. I pulled out Millay's Collected Sonnets to look for examples of interrupted lines: if there is one thing Millay's sonnets are it is smooth in sound. I'll give you a couple moments -- but will have to give large-ish quotations so as to preserve the sound (and establish rhythms and rhymes in your head). These are from two different poems.

This be our solace: that it was not said
When we were young and warm and in our prime,
Upon our couch we lay as lie the dead,
Sleeping away the unreturning time.
O sweet, O heavy-lidded, O my love,
When morning strikes her spear upon the land
And we must rise and arm us and reprove

Only that weason which is no man's friend,
You, surly Winter, in this wood be found;
Freeze up the year; with sleet these branches bend
Though rasps the locust in the fields around.
Now darken, sky! Now shrieking blizzard blow!--
Farewell, sweet bank; be blotted out with snow.

Perhaps that is enough for the demonstration. It's dificult at best to discuss out of success because success eliminates the talking points that error creates. But I think it is rather easy to see how, even with the breaks within the line, the lines nonetheless flow quite smoothly and keep their pentametric identity. I would say the success lies greatly in that the punctuation and, as importantly, the phrases being set off by punctuation are not allowed to upset the nearly strict meter. I think the most exemplary line is in the first excerpt:

O sweet, O heavy-lidded, O my love,

Look how two of the "O"s are unaccented, but the last is. That is half controlled by the expectation of the reader for iambic pentameter. But it is also controlled by the words that follow each "O": "sweet" and "heavy" force the unaccented (or, less accented) "O"s, while the minor "my" gives permission and prompt for its "O" to step forward and be heard.

Today's poem, "Weight Gain," does not hold nearly as closely to accentual-syllabic rhythm. And for me it causes problems with the reading. For example, the off-set phrase in line 4 does not naturally fit the iambic scheme:

and foremothers, god help me, jiggly arms,

The phrase "God help me" seems most naturally spoken as either "GOD HELP me" or "god HELP me" depending on where it is in the sentence. If it opens the sentence, it is easier to put accent on the initial syllable. But in the middle of a sentence, where it is a soft voiced insertion, the accent lies solely upon the middle syllable.[FN] As such, every time I read the line, I come up with only four accents:

tout-à-coup-morphosed into those of aunts
and FOREmothers, god HELP me, JIGgly ARMS,
tummy and butt full-throttle adiposed

Now, it is important that context within the poem is necessary: when I read the line by itself I am far more willing to read "GOD HELP me" than I am in the flow of the poem as a whole. For me, the poem relies too strongly on the expectation of iambic pentameter to establish the rythm of the lines, rather than having the lines re-affirm, work within, and sing along with the expected meter. In fact, I find it very interesting how the comma leading off the insertion makes a very natural string of three unstressed syllables. I have no need to force a stress into that triplet -- which is something on its own quite worth noting.

[FN] Now, many of you are probably here saying that you naturally hear it as "GOD HELP me." To that, I would say, that the reason you are hearing it such is you are unconsciously correcting the grammar of the line from a comma to a colon:
tout-à-coup-morphosed into those of aunts
and FOREmothers: GOD HELP me, JIGgly ARMS,
tummy and butt full-throttle adiposed

But, interestingly, the issue with meter doesn't effect the sound of the rhymes at the ends of the lines. That, I believe, is because the lines themselves have a natural aural identity: the rhymes at the end of the lines are given natural emphasis, and so that aural aspect of the sonnet structure rings clearly. This remains true, I would say, even if you read the poem against the iambic pentameter, with lines having varying lengths.

Let's look a couple bits by Ciaran Carson, from a poem written in rhymed, iambic octameter. (The poem is "Second Language," from First Language; though, I am using the Collected.) Let me put up the opening lines to establish the rhythm in your head:

English not being yet a language, I wrapped my lubber lips around my thumb;
Brain-deaf as an embryo, I was snuggled in my comfort-blanket dumb.

Notice how, even though the lines have internal punctuation, they are not broken. The lines form complete, eight beat units, the rhyme doubly marked by the semi-colon and the period. Now look at these two, which occur in sequence later on:

Then echoed from the East: gantry-clank and rivet ranks, Six-Country hexametric
Brackets, bulkheads, girds, beams, and stanchions; convocated and Titanic.

Leviathans of rope snarled out from ropeworks: disgorged hawsers, unkinkable lay,
Ratlines, S-twists, plaited halyards, Z-twists, catlines; all had their say.

There are both lists and colon-marked phrases introducing the lists, and then a semi-colon marked phrase closing the end of each couplet. The parallel structures help to maintain the sense of rhymed couplets within the poem. There are five natural pauses in the fourth line: and yet the structure pulls the aural disintegration from lines into elements in a list started in the line previous together, and folds them right back into the base structure of rhymed, octameter couplets. It is, actually, quite effective a method of keeping a list (a list of words of differing sounds) from getting out of control and disrupting the identity of the lines.

But what about these, just farther on:

The dim bronze noise of midnight-noon and Angelus then boomed and clinked in Latin
Conjugations; statues wore their shrouds of amaranth; the thurible chinked out its smoky patina.

You have a couple changes: first, the rhyme is slanted, the second word having an extra syllable. Also, the word patina in the U.S. is most commonly pronounced pa-TEE-na. (Of course, PA-ti-na is an accepted pronounciation, and, in Ireland, probably the standard pronunciation. But let's, for the sake of demonstration, leave it with pa-TEE-na.) Beyond the slant rhyme, you have the enjambment of the lines. Now, this is something idiomatic of Carson, where the second line has only a word or two coming out of the first line before reaching the end of the syntactic unit. With the use of "conjugations" -- a very heavy word -- coupled with the feminine "Latin," however, the end of the first line is very hidden. It isn't easy to read the line outloud, attempting to preserve the end of the line with a soft pause, without "conjugations" coming out awkard or, alternatively, muddled. Then, you have the pause after "amaranth," which sounds a closer rhyme to "Latin" than does "patina."

Do all the issues bring the couplet to the point of dissolution? Perhaps if the couplet is examined wholly on its own. But, of course, the couplet sits in the context of the poem, which does a excellent job of establishing in the ear of the reader the identity of eight beat lines: itself not the easiest of feats. That lead-off "Conjugations" however, still feels awkward, especially with its semi-colon bringing it to such a strong close. But, that particular form of enjambment is (by this point in Carson's works) fully established as particular to Carson's idiom. As such, it is easy to accept that the aural effects the enjambment -- and, enjambment with that particular word -- are very much calculated, and not the result of carelessness. So we can accept the disruption of the couplet as intended effect. Part of the play of the poetic line is the disruption of the poetic line. But, realize, if that iambic pentameter was not through-out the poem so firmly established, the poet would not be able to get away with it being idiom. it would look more like error. (Also, read in an Irish accent, the difficulty I hear may not be so pronounced.)

I have seen it argued that, with the English language, the five-stress line is the largest the ear can naturally hear without wanting to break the line up into smaller units. (Thus the prevalence and music of pentameter.) I can very much see the source of such an idea. It is very natural to break longer units down. This is often seen in music, where the ear naturally wants to hear a long chain as broken down into parts: to hear, for example, a 5/4 measure as broken into two sub-units of 3-2 or 2-3. (A particular example, most people naturally break the bass in Pink Floyd's "Money," a song primarily in 7/4, into a 3-4 count.) So, while I can see the impetus that would lead to the idea, I do not wholly agree with it. Though, I will say that it is very likely that that measured lines larger than five stresses are more difficult to hear as units the less the individual has trained their poetic ear.

I have heard it said with music -- and from my own observations and conversations do agree with this -- that the more sophisticated the musician, the more they will hear the music as a chain of individual notes. For example, given a run of sixty-four sixteenth-notes, a less sophisticate musician will naturally break it down -- and hear it and play it -- as a run made up, say, of eight 8-note sub-runs. A more sophisticated musician will hear it as a run of sixteen 4-note strings. Finally, a musician of high sophistication will hear it and play it as a run of 64 independent notes: which is the point where the 64-note run finds its true, coherent identity. I believe the same applies in poetry. In fact, I can still remember the difficulty I had hearing the lines of Tennyson's "Locksley Hall," also written in iambic octameter, the first time I came upon it many years ago. (It was the first poem of such long lines I had yet come across.) And it is worth noting, both with "Locksley Hall" and with "Second Language" how breaking up the eight beat lines with punctuation and phrasing is used in both to help establish the unity (in sound and function) of the eight beat line within the poem.

So, in sum, the above is but a little exploration of how sound, punctuation, phrasing, even enjambment affects the sound of a line both as regards rhythm and end-rhyme. It can rather be said that the aural unity of a line needs be defended against its own construction -- and I would say this applies to free verse as much as measured. It is far easier than you might realize for the sound of the phrases within a line to disrupt the identity of the line as a whole, as well as the line's interaction with other lines.


For those interested: The two Millay sonnets are XXVIII "When we are old and these rejoicing veins" and XLIII "Summer, be seen no more within this wood" (as numbered in Collected Sonnets, rev. and expanded, Harper & Row, 1988).

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