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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Monday, November 10, 2014

"Journey of the Magi" by T.S. Eliot

poem can be found here

 

line construction, and sham or genuine poetics

– minor editing, Jan. 20, 2015
 
This post has been added to the Hatter's Cabinet site via its Best of the Poetry Daily Critique page
 

Perhaps it is not as often the case as once might have been, with pop-poetry being so inundated with bad free verse, if not defined by bad free verse, that the question of enjambement is one of the first, major, creative explorations in poetics for novices. Though, in truth, that statement does not fit my own experience with younger explorers of poetry. That experience points to that the natural tendency is to write in defined lines and explore through defined lines, even if not formal lines, and enjambement is a complexity added much later to that base idea. But then again, looking at poetry posting sites online, that individual experience may not be telling of the statistical norm. Irrespective, I know I am not the first person to say that free styling culture of poetry of the last half century has had a detrimental effect on the ability to read and hear poetic structure.

You would have to work to convince me that even a substantial minority of pop-poets have any real, organic idea of the line, or write their poetry through any such idea. There is far too much bad prose with line breaks being published in books and chapbooks and mags. This goes for formal poets as well, who to most appearances defer the considerations of writing lines (couplets, stanzas) to the mechanical procedure of rhythms and rhymes.

In my own introductions to writing poetry the idea of enjambement was something counter – contrapuntal – to the beginning want to write lines; it was an idea that was at the start not wholly trusted, something that had to be explored, justified, before being implemented. It was (for me) introduced through what I am sure are familiar phrases: a means to have the flow of the poem cross lines; a means to create importance or energy by varying from a norm within a poem of end-stopped lines. Given such justifications, my fellow, novice writers would merrily introduce enjambement into their writing – or increase its frequency if already present. They would then learn how to defend the use of the running lines through the same or similar phrasings: "It creates a more natural flow" or "It creates an interesting moment in its variation." And you will hear the same and similar justifications by poets higher up the learning curve, even for poetry that exhibits a dearth of end stopped lines. Lest I forget, there is also that most important one: "that is how contemporary poetry is written."

Which is the slogan printed in copperplate on the calling card of sham poets:

 
Jane Q. Poet
--------------------
Writing Poetry the Way
Contemporary Poetry Is Written.
 

Interesting how that phrase sounds so very commercial. So very official. So very affirmative.

Except that writing that way is but mimicry. It is sham poetry: justifying the choices of style and construction by external sources, whether it be "that is how contemporary poetry is written" or "that is what is getting published in the mags" or "by using enjambement I create energy through the variation away from the norm of the end-stopped lines." Writing from such only ever creates surface effects. It is not writing out of the poem itself, not finding the one justification that is genuine: the depth energies of the engagement with the poem by the reader. When a sophisticated reader reads a poem written in a style mimicked because "that is how contemporary poetry is written," they can see that the tropes and effects of the poem are but surface decoration; they can see that the poet did not engage the medium that is a written text. It is so marked because the tropes and effects are simply present, like cinematic special effects added to a thin script to spice up the viewing.

 

One of the more interesting ways that a poem reveals the nature of its writing is in exploring variations in the writing. That is, in asking the poem not "why are you this way?" but "why are you not some other way?" A shallowly written poem can bear great changes without changing substantially the reception of the poem itself. A depth written poem will reveal that the event in line A exists in connection with other events in the poem, and changing the line creates disruptions throughout the poem (or at least throughout the immediate area of the poem). But I am drifting too far into the abstract, so let me give you a simple thought demonstration. Consider the idea of a "tight" poem. I believe most everyone can understand that the idea of the tight text is that it has eliminated anything (be it elements of the text or structural considerations) unnecessary to the text. In turn, I believe it is as easy to see how a tight text cannot be changed easily, cannot be changed without having to account for the effects created by the change in other parts of the text. A loose text, however, can readily be changed, because there is not the intensity of interaction between the various aspects and elements of the text.

Perhaps still too abstract. So let me get to "Journey of the Magi," a great – and fairly simple – example I came a cross by happenstance when flipping through the new/used Complete Poems and Plays what the mail gal just brought to me.[FN]

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[FN] So, the story on the purchase is that the binding on my Complete Poems is splitting. I had recognized it was a bad binding not long after I purchased it for a class, however long ago. But now it is reaching the point where pages will start to free themselves. So I bought a new one, this time the Complete P&P, used, as I usually do, for financial considerations, yes, though I probably always will to some degree as I like the interconnectivity of libraries. In my recent purchases of books about Coleridge I have come to possess two books from the libraries of two major Coleridge/Wordsworth scholars (one dedicated by the author to the scholar). Library geeking, yes. But, there is something wonderfully organic, energic, even mythical about personal libraries being connected to other libraries ‐ personal and public – from about the world. (I have a small collection of books on chess that apparently belonged to someone in the Navy, and were purchased mostly in the orient. But now I digress.)

So, the book was described as "very good condition." And it is in very nice condition, except that, behind the first page, the binding is split. So it goes.

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These are the opening lines of "Journey of the Magi" (about the first half of the first stanza). My point will focus upon the second and third line. I will here go farther than I need to go.

'A cold coming we had of it,
Just the worst time of the year
For a journey, and such a long journey:
The ways deep and the weather sharp,
The very dead of winter.'
And the camels galled, sore-footed, refractory,
Lying down in the melting snow.
There were times we regretted
The summer palaces on slopes, the terraces,
And the silken girls bringing sherbet.

The poem is free verse. It is however attentive to rhythm: the first stanza is built primarily upon four-stress lines. The variations in the excerpt are three-stress lines. Except for line two, the lines are end-stopped, if not by punctuation then by semantics:

"there were times we regretted"
regretted what?
"the summer palaces"

It might be argued that the same can be said for lines 2 and 3. My counter to that – albeit a subtle counter – is that line 1 starts the sentence, establishes the idea, and creates an expectation in the reader that pushes the reader through the next two lines.

"A cold coming we had of it,"
Why?

It is there that the sentence holds its bating pause, and once released, the reader runs through to the end of the thought.

"A cold coming we had of it,"
Why?
"Just the worst time of the year for a journey, and such a long journey."

 

Now, we already have one justification for the enjambement: it maintains the four-stress line. But that is a surface justification only. It is not organically integral to the piece. After all, the stanza is not written in strict formal verse. This is free verse, though utilizing a four-stress rhythm to the ends of the sound of the work. The justification for the enjambement lies not within the external rule of the four-stress line, but within the poem itself. To reveal that justification, I will make a simple modification to the lines. The modification will be organize – and justified, in pop-poetic manner – by a new external rule: end-stopping all the lines.

'A cold coming we had of it,
Just the worst time of the year for a journey,
And such a long journey:
The ways deep and the weather sharp,
The very dead of winter.'
And the camels galled, sore-footed, refractory,
Lying down in the melting snow.
There were times we regretted
The summer palaces on slopes, the terraces,
And the silken girls bringing sherbet.

As I said above, however, looking at a text organically, if the original was internally justified, we would be able see what effects that change has had on the reading of the poem: "reading" must include the aural effects, for an aesthetic poem is first and foremost an experience of the medium. In that language is both ideational and aural, both are to be considered.

Notice how with line 2 completing the thought, the poem comes to a strong stop at its end. The idea that opens the poem is aurally finished: line 3 has been hung out to dry. The comma at the end of line 2 is now a surface, visual cue to tell the reader "don't stop, there's more to come." But it is a cue that is forcing the reader to ignore the flow of the syntax created by the lines: a syntax that asks for the reader to think 'period':

'A cold coming we had of it,
Just the worst time of the year for a journey.
And such a long journey:

There are two negative effects. First, you have a strong stop on the second line of the poem. It makes the poem stutter. Second, the new line three now feels repetitive because it has to re-crank the poem's engine to get the flow going again, and it is re-cranking by backing up and repeating itself. In the original composition[FN], "and such a long journey" modifies and is tied to the preceding phrase "for a journey" by it being part of the same line. In the modified version, isolated from the "for a journey" by the line break, it is a new thought. Not only aurally but also ideationally the poem stutters and stalls.

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[FN] Think the word composition in the manner that a painter would use the word – something that has been lost (or shed aside) in writing.
**********************************

On the surface, the enjambement on line 2 pulls the reader directly into line 3. But that is a surface effect, the kind of effect that is but mimicry of what is seen in other poem. If that was the whole of the justification for the enjambement, then the poem would read like a sham poem. But it is not. The enjambement has two deeper effects that extends beyond the mere flow from 2 to 3.

The first – that described above – is that the enjambement creates an energy that leads the reader not just into line three but through them. The one enjambement unifies the flow through the first five lines. I am going to try to lead you through it:

'A cold coming we had of it,

A complete thought on the first line, but being a first line the reader is expecting explanation, and the comma and the end assures the reader that the thought is not actually closed. There is more to come.

'A cold coming we had of it,
Just the worst time of the year

The explanation is begun, and the open end of the line carries the reader forward yet.

'A cold coming we had of it,
Just the worst time of the year
For a journey

But we have two, four-stressed lines, in a stanza that is aurally anchored in four-stress lines. The reader is pushed by the comma and the rhythm into recognizing that while the thought could be ending there, it is not.

'A cold coming we had of it,
Just the worst time of the year
For a journey, and such a long journey:

Let's a take a quick look at the rhythms:

'A COLD COming we HAD of IT,
JUST the WORST TIME of the YEAR
For a JOURney, and SUCH a LONG JOURney:

Notice that while both lines 2 and 3 begin with two minor words, the comma at the end of line 1 (as well as the line's syntax) prompts line 2 to be read as beginning with a stress (if not a very powerful one), while the enjambement at line 2 (as well as the aural length of the word year) prompts line 3 to be read opening without a stress. This shows how punctuation is being organically used in tandem with the lines not only to guide idea-generation but also to guide the aural aspect of the poem. Continuing:

'A COLD COming we HAD of IT,
JUST the WORST TIME of the YEAR
For a JOURney, and SUCH a LONG JOURney:
The WAYS DEEP and the WEAther SHARP;

It's worth pointing also the repetition of the stress structure / ' ' - - /, which also works to unify the lines and pull the reader through the opening of the poem. It is also worth noticing how the repeated rhythm lies one per semantic element:

'A COLD COming we HAD of IT,
JUST the WORST TIME of the YEAR ror a JOURney,
and SUCH a LONG JOURney: / The
WAYS DEEP and the WEAther SHARP;

Finally, we get to line 5

'A cold coming we had of it,
Just the worst time of the year
For a journey, and such a long journey:
The ways deep and the weather sharp,
The very dead of winter.'

and the first break from the four-stress rhythm, occurring at the line that does, finally, close the opening thought, and closes it, appropriately, in "the very dead of winter." The line not only stands out aurally by its shortened length, but also in that it falls into simple rhythm. The / ' ' - - / is also gone.

The VEry DEAD of WINter.'

Thus the second effect created by the enjambement: the unity within the first four lines that both sets up the differing fifth and keeps the fifth within the one complex of thought.

Let's bring back the passage rewritten.

'A cold coming we had of it,
Just the worst time of the year for a journey.
And such a long journey:
The ways deep and the weather sharp,
The very dead of winter.'

The aural build up in the original text, the build up to the effect created by the simple and shortened final line, a line dominated by the slack e's and i; a build up which cannot ignore the blunt meaning of the phrase "the very dead of winter"; that aural build up is now absent from the text. First, there is no established rhythms off of which the final line can play. Second, the aural flow is also disrupted by the uneven lines, and the reader is no longer guided through the whole of the five lines to that potent ending. Third, the semantic flow is now fragmented and choppy: in stead of "the very dead of winter" being the final closing idea of a long, unified passage, it is now the third (if not the fourth) independent (if inter-related) idea of the poem. By simply moving the phrase "for a journey" up one line, even though that move can be justified by the surface effects of the poem, the passage has lost its organic unity and has fallen apart into what is now a rather clumsy narration.

 

Closing thoughts. First, demonstrations like this are always hit and miss, especially when typed. Either you see it, or you do not. There is no positive or negative conclusion with either result as concerns the reader of this. Sophistication is always individual sophistication. What one person sees, the other may not. Though, really, the governing situation here is not sophistication as much as that this is written text. What I myself see in a poem only goes so far, and only thrives in its engagement with what other people see in the same poem. The governing issue here is whether I have been able to convey to you, successfully, or successfully enough, what I see in the poem: not for you to accept it as fact, but for you to engage on your own.

And not only what I see in the poem, but also the why of what I see in the poem, and also the what that is the thesis of this exploration: the difference between a poetic event that is surface effect only and an event that functions to the organic being of the poem. And, how exploration of a poem – by asking "why not another way?" – can sometimes reveal whether the "poetics" of a poem are surface or depth, mimicry or creating, sham or genuine.

2 comments:

  1. I consciously think like this with every line of verse I compose in my epic of philosophers.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. It seems the necessary to success. This issue is not a path, but finding the best of all possible paths, no?

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