Whatever it is that I’ve been doing all morning

I have on several occasions already remarked on Mr Fry’s The Ode Less Travelled, through which my Novice Accomplice (who never ‘did’ poetry) and I are wending at glacial speed. We need a good two hours a session – one to read the chapter aloud (my task, as I’m the one who can reliably pronounce ‘anapaest’ correctly first go) and one to do the recommended exercise at the end of it. And finding two hours in which we are both at home, and neither of us tired, headachey, or rathering a G&T and some telly, is fraught. And when we’ve finished being fraught, we have wasted another two hours. Oh poetry, oh instrument of peace and harmony.

Nevertheless, I at least have got somewhere. Mr Fry spends rather a long (it’s necessary) time introducing a chap to good old iambic pentameter (notes on technical terms for those unfamiliar with them, at bottom of page), that workhorse and fiery steed of English prosody. He then demands that you write sixteen lines in iambic pentameter using enjambement, trochaic substitution, pyrrhic substitution, and weak endings (like I said, bottom of page) as often as possible, just to get the hang of how hard you can slam iambic pentameter around before it gives up and collapses into prose. No rhyme (haven’t got to that section yet), no attempt to write a poem as such, no need even to write all sixteen lines on the same subject. And this is what I came up with:

Describing weather takes a lot of courage:
Verse is but verse, and clichés have abounded
For centuries. The poet that first thought
‘Hurrah! the clouds are sheep-like, white and fleecy!’
No doubt ran home at once to find some paper, (5)
Record his triumph and impress his friends
With so apt and delicate a similie.
Now any child can churn it out in school
Only to have his homework marked in red
Unsympathetic ink, as trite, unworthy (10)
Of such a varied and immortal glory
As these white clouds against the sky.
What can I call them? What would capture them
These days that sheep are trite even to teachers
Who never saw a sheep? What metaphor (15)
Evokes the softness and the distant whiteness?

Blimey, thought I. It’s almost a poem (this did not earn me Brownie points with Novice Accomplice, who considered it cheating. Did the instructions say ‘write a poem’? No? Well then).

At this point I called in the Editor. Oh yes, she has a Proper Job. Griping and abuse is a mere sideline she adopts to keep her mill-wheels running smoothly when I fail to produce any grist. Editor, said I, here is an almost poem. Please deal with it, and see if it can be turned into an actual poem. And I skipped neatly out of the way and went off to make the several gallons of coffee this was bound to take.

[Right. Yes, this is the Editor, but it's a pain to read great swathes of italic on screen, so I am dropping the funny accent for today.

[I have numbered every fifth line, so we can quickly see which bit I mean. The first two lines do not really add anything to the poem. They're cute, especially that line about needing courage to describe the weather, but redundant. I've never been keen on poets that take the first few lines to tell you what point they'll be trying to make in the last few. Anyway 'clichés have abounded'? Erk. So, we'll remove the offending first two lines and the end of the sentence beginning line three. This leaves us three syllables, a foot and a half, short. Happily, a more interesting thought, that of someone who wasn't a poet having a poetic thought for the first time, presented itself. The 'And' beginning the line started out as an attempt to sort out a complete first foot, and stayed because I liked the poem beginning in the middle of something, some chap going about his business one pretty day, and who looks up at the sky...

[Fourth line. 'Hurrah!', while enthusiastic, sounded bonkers. I went with 'I see', partly because coming up with a simile is a way of seeing things afresh, and partly because I liked the echo with 'sheep' and 'fleecy'.

[Fifth, sixth and seventh line. Well, for a start, seven is metrically shot to buggery. I like the neat tripping pattern of 'apt and delicate', so I put that aside and scrubbed the rest. Lines five and six were rather snarky in tone. Hard as it may be for you to believe, I am not an unremitting snark-queen, and I decided they didn't suit the wistful tone the poem was developing. And anyway, most people prefer to point things out to other people. The urge to ferret everything away on paper comes with practice. I recalled Reed's habit of waving her hands and pointing at rainbows, flowering trees, and interesting squirrels, and prettied it up a bit so I could use 'apt and delicate' after all. And I also got to make the transition from pointing things out to friends, to recording them permanently, via the marking hands. I felt quite pleased with that.

[At this point Reed's brain had clearly kicked in, because I couldn't find anything much to do to the rest of the proto-poem. I am still not entirely sure about 'Of such a varied and immortal glory/ As these white clouds against the sky,' mind you. It seemed a little redundant and veering towards (oh dreadful!) trite. But I had already hacked the poem down to 14 lines, any more trimming and it would get a bit stump-like, and I felt, thematically, we needed to see the clouds again or the whole second part of the poem would merely be invective against modern educational methods. So I handed it back to Reed for titling and typing purposes and went back to my lair with the remains of the cold coffee.]

Clouds Like White Sheep

And someone – not a poet yet – first thought
‘I see! The clouds are sheep-like, white and fleecy!’
Did he at once look for his friends, his hands
Marking the apt and delicate resemblance
Both in the air and later then on paper?
Now any child can churn it out in school
Only to have his homework marked in red
Unsympathetic ink, as tired, unworthy
Of such a varied and immortal glory
As these white clouds against the sky.
What can I call them? What would capture them
These days that sheep are trite even to teachers
Who never saw a sheep? What metaphor
Evokes the softness and the distant whiteness?

This has turned into a jolly long post, and we still haven’t done the notes. I hope you all think it’s worth it. Or at least, not not worth it. I decided it was all worth it when I found this picture by the artist Peter Callesen (on this wonderful page of A4 papercuts):

Notes on technical terms, for those who didn’t spend years footling about with an English degree, or even those who did and wouldn’t dream of using up precious brain-cells remembering all that crap:

  • Iambic – the basic, two beat di-DUM of verse, pentameter – five feet, or five iambs. You know, what Shakespeare constructed entire plays out.
  • Foot – in musical terminology, you’d probably call this a bar. How you divide verse up by its metrical rhythm. Can be one, two, three or more beats or stressed syllables. English as she is spoke naturally has stressed and unstressed syllables. Other languages construct poetry differently – Ancient Greek for example (from which we get all these cute iambs and trochees and whatnot in the first place) had syllables of different length, rather than stress, and constructed patterns of l-o-o-ngs and shorts rather than dis and DUMS. The above poems have five feet to a line, with five stressed syllables.
  • Oh Lord, what have I begun? The notes’ll be longer than the post. Umm, enjambment is when the clause or sentence does not end with the line of verse (the most natural place for it to stop) but runs on into the next line, creating an impression of breathlessness or hurry or momentum.
  • Trochee. Right. Iambs go di-DUM, trochees go DUM-di, so a trochaic substitution gives you lines of verse starting DUM-di, di-DUM di-DUM etc., swapping the emphasis to the first syllable and making it thereby even more emphatic.
  • Pyrrhic substitution involves replacing a di-DUM with a di-di, two more or less unaccented syllables, so the line runs di-DUM di-di di-DUM. The verse speeds up, skips almost, and the next stressed syllable is sort of extra-stressed by contrast. Though there are many that argue that Pyrrhic substitution does not exist in English and we are all disappearing up our own backsides.
  • Weak, also known as feminine endings, are an extra unstressed syllable hanging about on the end of the line. Has distinct effect of softening and relaxing the rhythm of the verse. Also called a Hendecasyllabic ending, but only when applied to pentameters. Can make reader back up and re-read verse, counting feet as they go. Apply with caution. Unlike I did.
  • Please don’t make me now tell you all WHY you’d want to emphasize or not emphasize or speed up or slow down words and lines. Especially as I don’t really know if I did it to any worthy effect in the almost-poem anyway.
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13 Responses to Whatever it is that I’ve been doing all morning

  1. Titania says:

    Oh my goodness – this reminds me of a spot of bad conscience that I’ve been trying to ignore for years – a h2g2 university project on the Finnish national epic Kalevala.

    It was written in a meter known as Runometer or Kalevala meter, which is a trochaic tetrameter, including lavish use of alliteration, parallellism and onomatopoeia *head spins*.

    In addition, a one syllable word may never end a line, it should be ended with the longest word. A three syllable word may not be placed in the middle of a line *going cross-eyed*.

    Ernest J Moyne also said this about the Kalevala meter:

    “This meter is based partly on each of two systems, korko and laajuus, i.e., accent and quantity. Three degrees of accent are distinguished: primary, secondary and weak (unaccented). In the first system primary and secondary accents are used; the primary accent always falls upon the first syllable of the word. In the latter system the stress is determined by the quantity of the syllable, whether long, medium or short. The long syllables include long vowels and diphthongs; the medium syllable include short-voweled syllables ending in short vowels. The rhythm consists of regular alterations of strong and weak metrical elements, known as nousu and lasku, i.e., arsis and thesis”

    Quite impossible to translate correctly from Finnish to English, of course – not that people haven’t tried, but the meter really does get lost in translation…

    Oh dear – information overkill? A case of ‘me too only more’? Sorry…. *bites tongue*

  2. Reed says:

    Titania, this is fascinating, thank you very much. I can quite happily discuss poetical metre for hours on end and feel chuffed to bits when other people join in instead of glancing at their watches and shuffling off.

    I know Tolkien adored the Kalevala, and based his ‘elvish’ on Finnish as he thought it such a beautiful language. I kept meaning to find a good translation. But, as you say, the metre is untranslatable – can you imagine the poor poet (Lonrott?) composing the entire thing, counting endlessly on his fingers – makes blank verse seem such a piece of cake.

    I wonder how long it would take to learn Finnish? Along with Welsh, so I can read the Mabinogion, and Icelandic, so I can read the Eddas… (mind you I have always felt ambivalent about the Eddas, as they all fell on my head one day when I was reshelving in the Scandinavian section. Ow ow and ow).

  3. David B says:

    I must read the Mabinogion one day, but it will probably be in English, I’m afraid. I’m well aware that metre is an unbelievably important part of poetry, but to learn a language well enough to appreciate it properly is a ludicrously huge undertaking. However, I do keep intending to brush up my French (which is reasonable) and have a bash at reading Racine properly. His plays are fascinating in English, but apparently ‘lose something in translation’.

    Both the post and the comment are fascinating. I started waffling about students at the start of term in iambic pentameter, but got frustrated with my lack of sense-making ability and jettisoned it.

  4. David B says:

    Right, OK. Here is my effort, rescued from oblivion for general criticism. The rhyme scheme happened by accident, and once it had appeared once, I felt obliged to stick with it. And the fourth line refuses to behave itself and fit with the metrical pattern. Grr. Argh. This is why I’ve never been much of a person for writing poetry.

    All desperate to impress, the students come.
    Some wear the latest fashions others shun.
    Identities are changed like coats. Become
    An altered person, not just someone’s son.
    The cliques will ebb and flow and then dissolve
    As each one finds their place, if such there be.
    The sportsman, nerd and beauty all revolve
    Around the need for love, impatiently.
    But not until each one can say ‘I am’,
    And cease to care about the other’s view,
    Disposing of the first week’s face (a sham),
    Can new selves be revealed, a fresh debut

    And it gets rather too smushy at the end. Sorry! David

  5. Reed says:

    But David, having a metrical irregularity in the fourth line is perfect! Not that it’s a very huge one, but it works so well with the sense – you are using the word ‘altered’, and the whole line shifts and strains against the metre, just as the student is straining against being ‘just someone’s son’. So it illuminates what you are trying to say brilliantly.

    This is what all the devices of trochees, pyrrhic substitutions, weal endings and what have you are trying to do – make the very rhythm of the verse speak with the meaning. My own poem wasn’t really trying to do any of this as it was just a technical exercise, so I am very grateful to you for providing such a perfect illustration of the point.

    It’s an excellent little poem, and I think you should jolly well go and write some more.

  6. Meh – it’s a bit too obvious, though. No subtlety, or at least no originality! I shall definitely try some more experiments in form, though I shall ignore the sestina, methinks! I’m glad I can be an illustration, and I’m glad you like my little offering.

    Hmm, it seems I’ve decided to be David on my work PC, yet the Singng Librarian at home here at Out of Ideas. Most odd, and I hope you can cope with my multiple personalities.

  7. Don’t we all sort of suffer from this mutltiple identity personality disorder? I am so used to being Who I Am In Real Life that it is a struggle for me to remember the internet alter ego.

    I like your poem David, it reminds me of sitting at the registration desk for Library Science 101 (intro to the library, required for graduation), handing out class cards to returning studenst and newly matriculating freshmen at the Univ. of Alaska, Fairbanks.

    Reed, I had a similar experience with a book falling on my head while shelving books, but it was in the physics section (how ironic) and I don’t remember what teh title was. I never did that well in my physics class, though, maybe there is some connection.

  8. Titania says:

    Oh great, someone who isn\’t bored to bits when I start ranting about Kalevala!:D

    Actually, Lönnrot \’just\’ compiled the epic, gathering material from Runo singers in those parts of Finland where oral tradition was still valued highly (in his days). He added an introduction, and some stuff to bind the various parts together, but the major part of the epic is based on those old \’mouth-to-mouth\’ songs.

    That might be one of the reasons behind the meter – the Runes were usually sung rather than read out loud.

    I know that Tolkien actually studied Finnish to be able to read Kalevala in the original language, so I guess it must have made quite an impression on him. The Quenya language however, is said to be, by Tolkien himself, \”based on Latin, but with the added ‘phonaesthetic ingredients’ of Finnish and Greek.\”

    And then there was Longfellow, with his Hiawatha, who not only used the Kalevala meter (a Kalevala meter \’light\’ version, but still) but also used parts of the Kalevala story to fill out gaps in his \’Indian legends\’ material.

    As far as I\’ve been able to find out, Longfellow was at the time of the publishing of Hiawatha indeed accused of plagiarism, but neither denied nor confirmed it himself.

    But that\’s information I\’ve come across on the Internet, so I don\’t know how reliable those sources are.

    Beautiful David, I really enjoyed reading that!

  9. Reed says:

    I should have known I’d embarrass myself trying to discuss Quenya with a Scandinavian elf ; )

    That’s fascinating about Longfellow. I thought Haiwatha was written in trochees, and had always rather wondered why, but if he was doing his best to approximate Kalevala metre… And I hadn’t known he was swiping bits from the Kalevala to fill out Hiawatha. How odd. Again, Iroquois and Finnish, not the most obvious of mixes, you would have thought. But as Longfellow was cobbling scraps of Iroquois legend onto the name of a sixteenth century chief who had done none of the things L. attributes to him… Scandinavian epics! Why the hell not?

    David the Singing Librarian, hush now with the self-deprecation. Don’t you know I’m the only person allowed to self-deprecate around here? I order you to be pleased with yourself ; ).

  10. Right. No more self-deprecation. Um. How is such a thing possible?

    I love how much effort Tolkien put into inventing languages, cultures and artistic heritages for Middle Earth. Amazing!

  11. Lilian says:

    Well, I think you are all far too clever for your own goods! ( =

    [Hmm, not sure if 'for your own goods' is actually a legitimate phrase, but never mind!]

    Lovely poetry all round, and lots of interesting things to read. I’m glad I dropped by!

  12. Sol says:

    *Closes the mouth that has been hanging open in awe for the last few days with a snap.*

    I’m actually slightly embarrased I had no idea of the technique involved in a properly crafted poem.

  13. Sol, I echo you. I am feeling very diffident about my poetry at this point. I just did some stuff I liked, sort of proud of some of it. But in complete ignorance of form etc. I am resisting the urge to run to my site and erase the poetry page.

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