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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Saturday, May 10, 2014

Poetry that Writers of Poetry Have No Excuse Not Reading 3

Poetry that Writers of Poetry Have No Excuse Not Reading, Studying, and Reading Again, Parts 3

 

Developing the Poetic Ear

 

The bare truth of the matter:

Most of the people I have met who write poetry and write primarily if not wholly free verse are unable to give reason why they do not also write more formally rhythmic verse beyond comments that can always be reduced to "because I don't want to" or "I don't like to."

Granted, a writer should be writing toward where one's mind wants to explore and develop. But a writer developing their sophistication should also be writing and exploring where they need to develop. In that language is an aural event, that means also developing aural skills.

Let me be clear: the writing of people who have never taken the time and effort to develop their aural skills speaks that deficiency in their development. There will always be found the clunkiness, the absence of control, the jerky melodicism that one hears in the work of a poor musician. But more importantly, there will also be the absence of creating with sound. The whole point of the creative endeavor is to make beautiful things out of the chosen medium. So explain to me how one would willingly ignore one of the key aspects of the medium of language: the sound of the text.

I say this half-humorously but also honestly; I say this half as accusation, but mostly as prompt and prod. Usually, when a person refuses the idea that a writer of language must study the sound of the language through writing formally rhythmic verse, they are acting out of one of two motivations:

  1. They are too lazy to do it — to which my thought is why then should I care about your work?
  2. They are not good at it, most likely because they are poetically tone deaf; to which my though it perhaps, then, you are working in the wrong medium?

No, no, no, I am not saying that people should be forbidden from writing poetry. I may here and there be caught using Bob Ross as tool for humor and criticism, but I will never begrudge the followers of the Bob Rosses of the world the pleasure of painting he brings to them, nor put down Mr. Ross himself. Yes, Bob Ross very much simplified painting to certain techniques; but he never conventionalized those techniques. He was a disciple of the aesthetic life, and a promotor of aesthetic engagement. There needs to be more of him in this world — and, perhaps, more of him in writing.

But that does not mean the living room-artist paintings of the disciples of Ross should be hung in galleries. That's all I'm saying. What are the words of Poe I read not a day or two ago? "Write much — publish little." It's a touch out of context, yes; but it is only applicable generally out of that context (which is that of a letter, of words spoken to a particular individual). But it is to the point: the aesthetic enterprise is not about publishing; it is about the engagement with writing, and the effort to develop sophistication therein.

Which is the point of this small collection of texts which every poet should read. Three poets and three texts offered here solely with thought to the development of the ear. Each offers much more for learning, yes. But I want to limit it here to the sound of poetry.

 

When I first decided it was time to give serious effort to developing my ear for reading (and writing poetry) my immediate first direction was for me obvious: John Keats. I have yet to come across a more melodic writer in English literature, and I have no doubt I am not alone in saying this. One cannot go wrong learning from him.

Mostly one comes across Keats in anthologies or various small collections of his works. I myself have the Modern Library Complete Poems and Selected Letters (if you were interesting in buying such a book, this is the one I would recommend). But to limit the entry here, I will put the third of the three works he published in his lifetime:

 

John Keats. Lamia, Isabella, the Eve of St. Agnes, and Other Poems
Which contains in addition to the above the well known Odes and "Hyperion." Though, missing from that small collection is "La belle dame sans merci", so let me throw that in as well. I could add others, of course.

 

Now, what do I mean in how to use these poems to develop your ear? Very simply, read them. You want to read them over and over, out loud, as though you were learning how to sing them. Learn their rhythms. Learn their syntax, their structure. Learn the flow of the stories and ideations. And learn to read them out loud!

Do not read them with poetry voice! There is no greater abomination to the aural nature of poetry than poetry voice! I recently was brought to this wonderful tidbit by Ford Maddox Ford, describing when, as a child, he would hear reading by Browning and Tennyson and the Rosettis:

[T]he most horrible changes came over these normally nice people. They had, all, always, on these occasions the aspects and voices, not only to awful High Priests before Drawing Room altars — but they held their heads at unnatural angles and appeared to be suffering the tortures of agonizing souls. It was their voices that did that. [. . .]
    And it went on and on — and on! a long, rolling stream, [. . .] to endless monotonous, polysyllabic, unchanging rhythms, in which rhymes went unmeaningly by like the telegraph posts, every fifty yards, of a railway journey. (Critical Writings of Ford Madox Ford, Frank McShane, ed., 157)

A wonderful description both of "poetry voice" and of it opposite, lively, flowing reading that is attentive to the text.

Do not pound out the rhythms; do not over emphasize the rhymes. A listener should be able to hear the rhyming and rhythmic structure of the poems, yes. But primarily they should be hearing a text musically spoken, with elegance and grace, and to the nature of the text. "Hyperion" is telling a story. You should be able to read it as though telling a story, with all the inflections the text cues.

This is how you develop your ear: by reading aurally structured and controlled works out loud, by reading the works of the masters out loud. You do not learn how to sing by writing songs. However, songs written by someone who knows how to sing (and I mean knowledged in voice as a medium, not "I sang in the church choir") [FN] will reveal the intuitive learning and abilities gained from that knowledge.

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[FN] Note, that does not mean you actually have to be able to physically sing. A composer writing a symphony does not have to be able to play all the instruments. But they do have to have the knowledge of how the instruments are played, of what they can do, of what can be done with them musically, and of how to bring them to their brilliance.
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I have two others to offer you: one early in time, one more recent in time. (I am intentionally limiting myself.) Moving backwards first:

 

John Donne. Songs and Sonnets
Songs and Sonnets is not the title of a collection published by Donne. It was, to quote the Everyman's Library edition of his complete English works, "first specified as a category in the 1635 edition of Donne's Poems." But it will do, as, with Keats, you mostly purchase Donne in a collected; and, if you buy a smaller selected edition, most of the contents would probably come from that category.

 

Donne is my go to guy for palette cleansing. Whenever I get stuck in one author's poetics, or when I can't read the tv guide without pounding out iambs, or when I get lost for reading too much bad poetry, I turn to Donne to find my way back.

Finally, one more contemporary; a free verse work:

 

Lawrence Ferlinghetti. A Coney Island of the Mind
The current New Directions edition has it published with other poems. I mean only the title work. I should say the first couple of times I picked up this book it would not open up for me, so do not be surprised if it doesn't for you.

 

This book offers not only a text from which to learn to read poetry (which one might expect being of the Beats, whose poetry was very aural), but also a text, once it can be read, that offers much to learn with writing poetry. While it is free verse, it is most assuredly an aurally controlled work. The lines are irregularly formatted on the page, and yet both the lines and their positioning contribute to the sound structure of the poem. Of course, a listener could not possibly hear the irregular visual structure, but you, in reading it to yourself, should be able to find guidance therefrom, and should be exploring how to read the poem with recognition of the structure.

There is much about this work to talk about as regards non-formal poetry, and perhaps one day I'll pick up the challenge. But it is very worthwhile a text for this small grouping aimed at developing the poetic ear.

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