Earl Gray

Earl Gray
"You can argue with me but, in the end, you'll have to face that fact that you're arguing with a squirrel." - Earl Gray

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Poetry Genres: Part IV - The Essence of Pose Poetry

"...ninety percent of [everything] is crud."

- Sturgeon's Revelation (1958)

We don't know exactly what dark matter is or does but, according to Fritz Zwicky's 1934 postulations, we need it to complete the universe. Think of it as filler, comprising 5/6ths (83%) of all matter, but quite apart and different from normal, visible stuff. Think of it as matter that, for most of us, doesn't really matter.

Now consider any of your favorite endeavors. Many sporting events take three hours to show you one hour of action, and much of that "action" is jostling for position. In his day, Shakespeare's plays took five hours for less than two hours of theatre, the rest of the time being consumed with commentary and commerce. Thus, in addition to Sturgeon's Revelation, we have Zwicky's Constant, one that is literally universal: "83% of everything is fluff."

It is worth interjecting that, while crud pleases no one, fluff is designed to interest us. Those Superbowl commercials attempt to catch our eye and entertain us. Ditto the jugglers, mimes and prostitutes in Shakespeare's theatres. Ditto the announcers.

Let's do the math. Of course, the order in which we apply Sturgeon's Revelation and Zwicky's Constant doesn't affect the bottom line.

Sturgeon first: 100% - 90% - (83% of the remaining 10%) = 1.7%

Zwicky first: 100% - 83% - (90% of the remaining 17%) = 1.7%

This means that we get a return of 1.7 cents on our entertainment dollar. It means that in a three hour sporting event our heart rate will rise for only 3.06 minutes. It means that only 17% of any newspaper is news and only 1.7% is headline news. It means that 98.3% of any poetry magazine or collection will be jetsam. Is it bad poetry or is it non-poetry? Crud or fluff?

Who knows?

Who cares?

The bottom line is that a typical monthly poetry 'zine that accepts 10 submissions per issue will produce 20 poems, only two of which are downright good, each year. Before we rush off to demand refunds, though, let's remember that Sturgeon's and Zwicky's percentages have applied since the dawn of humankind and the universe, respectively. Art and sports survive in spite of these numbers...or, dare I suggest, in part because of them? Does the valley not make the mountain?

"Vanessa Place is taking legal briefs that she writes during the day in the law field. And she doesn't do anything to them, she just represents those as poetry."
- Kenneth Goldsmith

No doubt you've noticed that very little of what is published in poetry books and 'zines today qualifies as metrical or free verse, or as prose poetry. Rather, it is prose posing as poetry. "Pose poetry".

Pose poems may be distractions, I suppose, but like Shakespeare's hawkers and Superbowl commercials, they are designed to please, no less so than the main event. As with any form of communication, pose poetry can be every bit as profound, funny or provocative as actual poetry. It serves the same function as a newspaper's editorials, funny pages, horoscopes and crossword puzzles. Most importantly, pose poetry serves as filler. Who would subscribe to a 'zine that prints 20 submissions per year, only (.017 x 120 = 2.1) two of which are any good? Who would buy "Best American Poetry" if it included only (.017 x 75 = 1.275) one poem?

It's like Catholic penance viewed in rewind mode. You have to suffer through 25 Charles Bukowskis and, say, 24 Mary Olivers before you can fully enjoy a Margaret A. Griffiths. You have to endure 25 Thomas Tussers and 24 William McGonnagalls before you can truly appreciate a John Donne. You have to slog through 25 Lawrence Ferlinghettis and 24 Billy Collins before you can measure a D.P. Kristalo.

If every poem in every book and 'zine were half as good as A. E. Stallings' "Antiblurb" we'd have a "Watermelons Gone Wild" problem: without chaff we'd be less able to discern great from good, good from mediocre. We'd be spoiled. Ergo, as readers or writers we needn't be too concerned that ubiquitous brain droppings, meanderings, cryptocrap, heart farts, navel bombardments and other forms of verbal styrofoam aren't poetry. Very little is and, as the seconds pass, fewer and fewer will care.

Friday, July 22, 2011

Poetry Genres: Part III - The Essence of Prose Poetry

"The difference between rhetoric and poetry is the difference between a command and its echo."
- Dr. A. W. Niloc

"...a rose by any other name..."
- William Shakespeare (Romeo and Juliet)

"...there must be great audiences."
- Walt Whitman

"...when I see a bird that walks like a duck and swims like a duck and quacks like a duck, I call that bird a duck."
- James Whitcomb Riley

Prose poetry is not some mongrelization of prose and poetry. Like a blind person relying on other "heightened" senses, the lack of meter or rhythm explains why prose poems are so replete with other poetic elements. Just as the stich and rhythm string define verse and free verse, respectively, prose poetry is distinguished by density. This is expressed at the verbal level as concision and, if a longer poem, at the technical level through mnemonics. Allow me to demonstrate:

Christmas Tsunami 2004

on treetops.

In three words the poet has captured the devastation and one of its tragic ironies. Short pieces like this derive their power and memorability from their depth and size. In addition to concision, longer poems will need to use a density of technique. The standard prose poem example is Louis Simpson's translated of Charles Baudelaire's "Be Drunk":

You have to be always drunk. That's all there is to it—it's the only way. So as not to feel the horrible burden of time that breaks your back and bends you to the earth, you have to be continually drunk.

But on what? Wine, poetry or virtue, as you wish. But be drunk.

And if sometimes, on the steps of a palace or the green grass of a ditch, in the mournful solitude of your room, you wake again, drunkenness already diminishing or gone, ask the wind, the wave, the star, the bird, the clock, everything that is flying, everything that is groaning, everything that is rolling, everything that is singing, everything that is speaking. . .ask what time it is and wind, wave, star, bird, clock will answer you: "It is time to be drunk! So as not to be the martyred slaves of time, be drunk, be continually drunk! On wine, on poetry or on virtue as you wish."

While the repetitions of words survive translation, I'd like to see more sonic reiterations (e.g. consonance, assonance, alliteration) than this. Prose poetry should be stuffed with a broader range of technique. More fundamentally, "Be Drunk" lacks Whitman's requirement: an audience.

To survive, any platform needs a "killer application". Those who insist that poetry has to have rhythm may be surprised to learn that the best and best known poem of the last 400 years was neither metrical nor free verse. Like the latter, the prose poem that I have in mind does use rhythm--prominently so in places--but breaks that cadence with deliberate effect.

I speak of a poem recognized by every anglophone on the planet. Its author produced and performed a number of such compositions, many under very similar circumstances, but this is the one we remember. In terms of device density, it exhibits more poetry techniques per sentence than anything Shakespeare ever wrote. (No, that's not hyperbole. Count 'em.) Its poetic, logical, grammatical and rhetorical constructs are used as examples in almost every technical manual and aesthetic dictionary written in the last century. By any rational, objective measure it is the greatest poem written in the last four hundred years. Contemporary descriptions of it included the phrase "speech for the ages". In my view, that is as accurate a definition of great poety as we'll find.

The Gettysburg Address

Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.

Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battle-field of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.

But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate -- we can not consecrate -- we can not hallow -- this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us -- that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion -- that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain -- that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom -- and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.

Monday, July 18, 2011

Poetry Genres: Part II - The Essence of Free Verse

Got 60 seconds that may change your view of poetry forever? Take this test.

If you failed that test or wish to confirm your understanding of meter consider investing another 20 minutes in learning the rudiments of meter.

How might this "change your view of poetry forever"?

  • It allows you to appreciate the objective, quantifiable certainties that do exist in poetry.

    An iamb is an iamb. Period.

  • It increases the chances of your contributions being of interest to those who do understand verse.

    To informed readers our ignorance of the basics is immediately apparent in our commentary, criticism and poetry.

  • It facilitates your participation in serious workshopping.

    If we don't understand meter we almost certainly don't understand rhythm as it applies to speech. Of what use are we to a workshop if we don't comprehend rhythm, the lengua franca of verse and free verse?

  • It expands our conversations beyond lifestyles and subject matter.

    Without a technical grounding we'll have little choice but to remain as Content Regents and gadflies whose contributions amount to little more than celebrity gossip.

  • It immunizes you against nonsensical "theories" about, among other things, the rhythms of speech paralleling those of music.

    "Vanessa Place is taking legal briefs that she writes during the day in the law field. And she doesn't do anything to them, she just represents those as poetry."
    - Kenneth Goldsmith

    Shenanigans like this would be far less likely if more of us understood rhythm and its defining role in free verse.

  • You will understand why certain poets have gained popularity since the study of scansion disappeared from curriculae in the 1940s and 1950s.

    For example, you won't need to wonder why, unlike a number of his contemporaries, Edgar Allan Poe couldn't make a living as a poet.

  • It will dramatically increase the number of forms you can use or appreciate.

    Does having one form utterly dominate a milieu benefit an art form? P.K. Page's "Hologram: A Book of Glosas" is a fascinating effort but would you want 80+% of English poems to be gloses? Or sonnets? Or rondeaux? Or free verse? Or prose poems? Or prose with linebreaks?

  • It makes you more conscious of educational standards.

    How do you feel about public monies being spent on teachers who don't know the elements of the craft?

  • It is essential to understanding the differences that separate verse, free verse, prose poetry and prose (with or without linebreaks).

    In particular, it is vital to an understanding of free verse.

Insofar as English language poetry is concerned, the only difference between verse and free verse is that the latter's rhythmic units--iambs, trochees, dactyls, amphibrachs or anapests--are not quantified into stichs. Take Ezra Pound's monorhythmic "In a Station of the Metro", for example:

The ap|parit|ion of | these fac|es in | the crowd;
[x] Pet|als on | a wet, | black bough.

These are simple iambs with a missing ("[x]" marks the spot) syllable ("acephaly" or a "lame foot") after the semicolon. Why isn't this considered metrical? The poem is too short; we would normally want to see a pattern of stichs of identical length. To wit, change the linebreak and we'd have iambic pentameter:

The ap|parit|ion of | these fac|es in
the crowd; | [x] Pet|als on | a wet, | black bough.

Were the poem longer, though, the paucity of substitutions would grate. This is an example of a free verse poem that would be too rhythmic for meter! Believe it or not, that is the rule, not the exception, for well-written free verse. Yes, you read that right: free verse is more rhythmic than metered poetry.

For starters, meter as a whole doesn't necessarily involve rhythm at all. Beats ("accentual") and feet ("accentual-syllabic") are only two of the things that meter can quantify. We could create meter simply by putting the same number of words ("lexometric") or syllables ("syllabic meter") in each line. The 5-7-5 "syllable" structure of many a haiku often won't sound rhythmic to English ears. W. C. Williams' "The Red Wheelbarrow" is rhythmic, but not solely because of the 3-and-1-word line lengths or the fact that the poem is, in fact, accentual heterometer (i.e. alternating between dimeter and monometer).

so much depends
a red wheel

glazed with rain

beside the white

Rather, its rhythm comes from the fact that the first half is [hypercatalectic] iambic pentameter:

So much | depends | upon | a red | wheel bar|[row]

...and the second is [hypercatalectic] trochaic pentameter:

Glazed with | rain wat|er, be|side the | white chick|[ens.]

Note how these polyrhythms are buttressed by words that embody that cadence. To wit, the first two disyllabic words in the first half, "depends upon", are iambic while the first and last disyllabic words in the second half, "water" and "chickens", are trochaic. Metrical poems tend to reserve such words for the end of a phrase, sentence or stanza. This illustrates the opposing goals of the verser and free verser: the latter is trying to establish an easily discernible rhythm immediately while the metrist, having done so, spends most of the poem trying to avoid overwhelming the listener with rhythm. Thus, a rhythm string is likely to contain far fewer substitutions than a stich will.

By using both binary rhythms, iambs and trochees, in the same small poem WCW anticipated the polyrhythmic poetry of the 1930s. Indeed, the 21st century DATIA (i.e. verse that changes meter and rhythm between stanzas) can trace its origins to this poem.

Would we be able to spot and appreciate these facets without a firm grounding in meter and rhythm? Color me skeptical.

The essence of free verse, then, is the rhythm string which, unlike the stich, can be of differing cadences (e.g. "The Red Wheelbarrow" had iambs and trochees) and can be unique in length (e.g. "In a Station of the Metro"). Of course, the string has to be long enough to establish itself rhythmically but that length may vary from one authority to another and even from one poem to another. As a rule of thumb, seven syllables seems a reasonable minimum.

Here is an experiment you may enjoy: Take a moment to write down your favorite lines from as many canonical free verse poems as you can bring to mind. Once you're done, please scroll down.

Scan the lines you've remembered. Note how rhythmic--usually iambic--they are as compared to other lines, often including those in that same poem. This illustrates the fact that when writers or speakers succeed at implanting words in our minds they usually do so via rhythm.

Prose poetry (with or without linebreaks) and prose posing as poetry replaced free verse in the middle of the 20th century. Less than 5% of the poetry published today is free verse.

Next: "Poetry Genres: Part III - The Essence of Prose Poetry"

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Friday, July 1, 2011

Poetry Genres: Part I - The Essence of Verse

Poetry Genres: Part I - The Essence of Verse

Before we categorize poetry let's take a moment to define it. IMHO, there are, at most, two views of poetry worthy of consideration:

  1. "Poetry is rhythmic speech."

  2. "Poetry is verbatim" (Kaltica, 2008) or, if you prefer, "memorable speech" (Auden, 1935).

If you are ever engage in a discussion of poetry genres pick #1. It saves time by excluding prose poetry, treating it as a hybrid. Now you just have to distinguish verse from free verse. That shouldn't pose a problem, should it? (Hee-hee!)

We squirrels never take the easy way out. For the purposes of this series I'll adopt the second definition and will use less arbitrary means to distinguish prose poetry from verse and free verse. In fact, I'm going to start by designating Definition #1 as:

Myth #1: "Poetry is rhythmic speech."

There was poetry long before there were accented languages, let alone accentual or accentual-syllabic verse. Even ignoring this fact and the concept of prose poetry, we have syllabic verse, which is deliberately arrhythmic. Whole paragraphs of "Moby Dick" are in perfect iambs. Are these sections [embedded] poetry? No. Why not? Because they aren't meant to be [read aloud or] memorized.

What is the essence of verse?

Consider this passage from "Beowulf":

So. The Spear-Danes in days gone by
and the kings who ruled them had courage and greatness.

There was Shield Sheafson, scourge of many tribes,
a wrecker of mead-benches, rampaging among foes.

A foundling to start with, he would flourish later on.

In the end each clan on the outlying coasts
beyond the whale-road had to yield to him
and begin to pay tribute. That was one good king.

Et cetera.

Note that each "line" of "Beowulf" has four beats, making this accentual tetrameter. However, this wasn't how the poem was written. Rather, it was recorded in one long string of words without so much as a single paragraph break. Essentially, it was in the form of ticker tape text. Even if we were to include the punctuation and capitalizations that you see "Beowulf" would look like this:

So. The Spear-Danes in days gone by and the kings who ruled them had courage and greatness. There was Shield Sheafson, scourge of many tribes, a wrecker of mead-benches, rampaging among foes. A foundling to start with, he would flourish later on. In the end each clan on the outlying coasts beyond the whale-road had to yield to him and begin to pay tribute. That was one good king.
Et cetera.

Without rhymes and with even less formatting than prose, how could a listener tell "Beowulf" is poetry rather than prose? Did it require a knowledge of accentual poetry? Not really. A listener could, after a while, discern the pattern of four beats per phrase/sentence. What the audience detects, though, are not "lines"--"Beowulf" has neither lines nor stanzas--but stichs: segments determined by the meter.

Nota bene: Yes, the speaker would pause at the end of each stich but only because it was the end of a sentence or phrase.

Flash forward more than an eon and we see corata, where verse is presented in paragraphs, not lines. Similarly, we have curginas, where verse is presented as lineated free verse, without regard to meters. The most famous example is "We Real Cool" by Gwendolyn Brooks:

We real cool. We
Left school. We

Lurk late. We
Strike straight. We
...et cetera.

These are, in fact, rhyming bacchic monometer couplets:

We real cool.
We left school.

We lurk late.
We strike straight.

...et cetera.

Myth #2: "The line defines verse."

No. The stich does. This is as tautological as saying that meters define meter. To be precise, what defines verse is not the stich but the listener's ability to discern it at a subconscious level, at least.

In "Beowulf" we saw how [more or less] complete thoughts in the form of end-stopping (roughly: punctuation) and phrases cut the text into stichs. Compare these to where a line might end in mid-phrase, such as the fully enjambed second line in this passage from Shakespeare's "Julius Caesar":

I wish we may: but yet have I a mind
That fears him much; and my misgiving still
Falls shrewdly to the purpose.

Myth #3: "Performers pause after every line of poetry."

Not so, as anyone who has seen a professional Shakespearean performance can attest.

Hearing the predominant de-DUM pattern allows us to recognize the cadence but, without pauses and rhyme, how does the poet help the audience recognize the meter? That is, how does the mind see that these feet are grouped into stichs of five? The answer is in an ever-expanding bag of tricks.

The authors of "Beowulf" used grammatical constructs: phrases and sentences. Shakespeare relies on these, too, especially at the beginning of his blank verse. In essence, he's training the ear to anticipate a break after each five feet; once he's established this expectation he can skip such pauses, as he does with the Cassius excerpt above. Another, more subtle tool had arrived with the advent of accentual-syllabic verse. The tendency of stichs to "find their rhythm" as they proceed alerts the ear to the meter length. Consider this line from "Hamlet":

Whether | 'tis nob|ler in | the mind | to suf|fer

1 trochaic inversion, 4 iambs within the stich and a hypercatalectic semisyllable, "fer", outside it. After a few hours--yes, Shakespeare's plays took hours--of this the ear ignores the "noise" at the beginning and end of the line to focus on the iambs, "'tis nob|ler in | the mind | to suf-". This resolution marks the meter length and explains why substitutions in general and inversions in particular occur far more often at the beginnings of lines than their endings. Indeed, in all of English prosody not a single stich ends with an inverted foot...and inversions are extremely rare in the penultimate foot.

To be, | or not | to be: | that is | the quest|ion,

The late inversion, "that is", stands out as the only fourth foot inversion in the entire production. It draws attention to itself for a reason, this being the pivotal point of the play.

Other ways to signal the end of a stich [or stanza] range from the subtlety of diaeresis to the garishness of perfect rhyme. I could go on and on about the technical aspects of meter but I find that such discussions tend to bore today's poets. That being the case, I'll end with this:

Not one canonical poem has been written by anyone who wasn't a very competent verser. Don't expect that trend to change.

Next: "Poetry Genres: Part II - The Essence of Free Verse"