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

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Cheap Prosody Parlor Tricks - Part I

Magic is the intersection of science and wonder.

Given that wonder is the politest form of ignorance, magic is nothing more than someone who understands a trick performing for someone who doesn't. At least in this sense, poetry is magic. Indeed, with fewer and fewer people studying its elements in grade school, this might be more true today than ever! The catch is that we need a skilled magician at both the design and performance levels.

Let me show you an old poetry parlor trick based on how Wystan Hugh Auden, in 1935, defined poetry as "memorable speech". That is very close to the more precise anthropologicial definition: "Poetry is verbatim." Can we use this science, prosody, to predict what will not be recalled word-for-word?

I'm sure you're familiar with the pop song "Hands" by Jewel Kilcher. Please take a moment to reacquaint yourself with it:

Okay, now you're going to want a little privacy. Either kick everyone else out of the house or go take a shower. Once you're alone, try singing this song to yourself, starting at its beginning ("If I could tell the world..."). Do not scroll down until you've done this. Also, don't worry about forgetting a line or two; indeed, this trick won't work on those with perfect memories. When finished singing please continue on past these photos:

"Hands" by Jewel Kilcher

If I could tell the world just one thing
It would be that we're all okay
And not to worry 'cause worry is wasteful
And useless in times like these
I won't be made useless
I won't be idle with despair
I will gather myself around my faith
For light does the darkness most fear

My hands are small, I know
But they're not yours, they are my own
But they're not yours, they are my own
And I am never broken
Poverty stole your golden shoes
It didn't steal your laughter
And heartache came to visit me
But I knew it wasn't ever after
We'll fight, not out of spite
For someone must stand up for what's right

'Cause where there's a man who has no voice
There ours shall go singing

My hands are small I know
But they're not yours, they are my own
But they're not yours, they are my own
I am never broken
In the end only kindness matters
In the end only kindness matters
I will get down on my knees, and I will pray

et cetera

The ability to recall the lryics in black will vary widely from singer to singer. Almost everyone remembers the text in blue. One key is repetition: at the sentence level, as with the repetends and choruses at the end; at the word and syllable level (e.g. as with rhymes like "fight"/"spite"/"right"); and, at the sonic level, as with assonance (e.g. "times like"), consonance and alliteration. Rhythm helps: within the accentual backdrop of such lyrics the more accessible phrases tend to be those which are accentual-syllabic (e.g. the iambic "My hands are small I know").

The text in red is the most commonly omitted. The reasons are many, among them the absence of the features mentioned above as well as awkward phrasing (e.g. as "light does the darkness most fear") and an inability to make out the words in the first place due to poor elocution, loud music, tongue-twisters and problems arising from dialects, elisions, homonyms, et cetera.

Try this trick on your friends. If they're too shy to sing in front of you have them write down the lyrics to their favorite song. Beforehand, you will download a full listing from the internet and highlight the verses they will and won't remember. Hey, the first time I saw this done my editor accurately predicted which lines I'd forget from a song written in Spanish--a song he'd never heard, in a language he didn't speak at all!

Friday, March 18, 2011

Premises and Recommendations

Premises and Recommendations

The opposite of popular poetry is literary (aka "academic", "aesthetic", "non-commercial" or "poets'") poetry. If we conceptualize fellow performers ("us") as being distinct from audience members ("them"), we can say that aesthetic poetry is not written with an audience in mind. Indeed, no such audience exists.

It follows logically that in order to write for an audience we need to observe those who eschew one and do the exact opposite. To wit:

  1. Premise: Scansion is no longer taught in school. To no one's surprise, verse is now a minority of the poetry published in lit mags. Free verse is rarer still, simply because writers who cannot handle one rhythm can hardly be expected to juggle five. The vast majority of the academic poetry being published today is, at best, prose poetry (with or without linebreaks). N.B.: Acccentual-syllabic verse is quantified and rhythmic. Free verse is rhythmic but not quantified. Prose poetry is neither.

    Recommendation: Learn the basics of scansion. Write nothing but verse, at least until your next-door-neighbour can name a single prose poem.

  2. Premise: Little, if any, academic poetry qualifies as "memorable speech". This is evidenced not only by no one quoting it but by the fact that the authors themselves don't bother to memorize it. Enter the poetry reading. Exit the poetry audience.

    If a poem isn't worth memorizing it probably isn't worth reading. You wouldn't watch a play or movie where the actors read from scripts. Why accept such a lack of professionalism from poets?

    Recommendation: Don't just recite poems from memory. Perform them.

  3. Premise: Academic poets seek notice by publishing books.

    Recommendation: Use books to capitalize on fame, not to achieve it. Consider the stage, magazines (literary or not) and the internet instead.

  4. Premise: Literary poets ignore performance.

    Recommendation: Every moment alone and every captive audience is a chance to practice performance. Use these.

  5. Premise: Literary poets study other poets.

    Recommendation: Study poets and audiences.

  6. Premise: Literary poets avoid objective pre-publication critique.

    Recommendation: Seek out critique.

  7. Premise: Literary poets write about themselves, individually and collectively.

    Recommendation: Surely there is something more interesting to write about than poets' navels.

  8. Premise: Literary poets abide by the maxim "if you can't be deep, be vague".

    Recommendation: Try to be understood too quickly.

  9. Premise: Literary poets blame the audience's lack of sophistication.

    Recommendation: Respect your audience. "The customer is always right."

  10. Premise: Literary poets aspire to teach.

    Recommendation: Popular poets: aspire to learn.

So you see, you really can learn a lot from academic poetry.