January 5, 2013
Dad is rallying.Â Heâ€™s getting a little more alert and lucid every day.Â The antibiotics are still engaged in a titanic struggle with the pneumonia.Â His congestive heart failure may just be a matter of the extra stress from the pneumonia and may improve when the pneumonia does.Â So heâ€™s not out of the woods, but there is cause for optimism.Â When the doctor was talking about where Dad goes from here, he was talking about rehab, not hospice.
Two days ago I developed bronchitis, which I presumably caught from Mom.Â This morning, it hit Carol like a ton of feathers (which is just as heavy as a ton of bricks, if you think about it.)Â That stuffâ€™s virulent as hell.Â I dragged myself out of my sick bed this morning at 8 a.m. to meet Mom and siblings at the hospital, intercept the doctor, and sign a form specifying end-of-life protocols.Â I had some time alone with Dad, which he greatly appreciated, then Phil came, then left again to get coffee.Â Finally, Christy and Mom showed up about 9.Â Then the doctor came byâ€¦perfect timing.
So Iâ€™d been there about an hour and a half, done my duty, engaged Dad, when I excused myself, pleading faintness, which was true.Â Then I had to make two trips to Walgreens in the bitter cold to get Carol her antibiotics for her bronchitis.Â Three hours later Iâ€™m finally back in bed, trying to get warm.
Itâ€™s Poetics Week at SunWinks! Each week we alternate between a topic on prose style and a topic on poetic technique.Â This week, Iâ€™ve got a fun challenge for you:Â Syllabic Verse.
Iâ€™m newly in possession of a wonderful little book: A Poetry Handbook by Mary Oliver Â .Â Whereas Babette Deutschâ€™s Poetry Handbook , which Iâ€™ve cited frequently here, is structured as a glossary of terms, Oliverâ€™s book is a kind of poetry-reading method, an affectionate, wise, and methodical journey through the pleasures and subtleties of reading and writing poetry.
There is a great deal to be said for practicing in strict metric forms, and some very surprising (to me) people recommend it highly, including Mary Oliver, Damon Knight (Creating Short Fiction), and Mark Strand (The Making Of A Poem: A Norton Anthology of Poetic Forms).Â I dabble in form poetry from time to time, but I also have a deep ambivalence about it.Â My objection is that amateur poets tend to think that if theyâ€™ve met the structural requirements (14 lines of iambic pentameter, e.g.), their job is done, when in fact their job has just begun.Â For those folks, the requirements of the structure justifies awkward compromises such as hyperbation--reversing the normal grammatical word order for the sake of the rhyme.
Another objection I have to metric poetry is that choosing a time-honored form, or even a friendâ€™s user-defined one, often leads to exercises in shoving a square peg into a round hole, unless you give a great deal of thought to questions of what sort of diction does this form lend itself to, and how will the meaning of the poem dovetail and interact with the structure.
All that said, working in metric forms is very good practice.Â I myself, besides the aforementioned forays into metric form, have written hundreds of song lyrics.Â Song lyrics are an excellent way to practice working inside the limitations of formal structure.
When I begin a song, I have an idea what style of music Iâ€™m writing in, a vague idea of the structure, and I will go back and forth testing lyric fragments against the melody, testing the melody, refining the lyrics for grammatical sense and singability and does-this-sound-like-something-somebody-would-sing-in-a-song.Â Eventually, Iâ€™ve got a first verse.Â Iâ€™ve established the structure of the lyric, as well as the premise of the song.Â Now I have to write at least two more verses in the exact same structure* which advance the plot, if you will, and finish it off with some sort of flourish or payoff.
*(There are some tricks of the trade, like cramming two syllables onto one note.)
Syllabic Verse offers very much the same sort of challenge.Â The only requirement of syllabic verse is that each stanza must contain the same number of lines and the same number of syllables in a particular line from one stanza to the next. Hereâ€™s an example:
Lord, who createdst man in wealth and store,
Though foolishly he lost the same,
Decaying more and more,
Till he became
O let me rise
As larks, harmoniously,
And sing this day thy victories:
Then shall the fall further the flight in me.
My tender age in sorrow did beginne
And still with sicknesses and shame.
Thou didst so punish sinne,
That I became
Let me combine,
And feel thy victorie:
For, if I imp my wing on thine,
Affliction shall advance the flight in me.
This example does have a rhyme scheme, but in syllabic verse, rhyme is strictly optional, as is meter, and Iâ€™d rather you work without it.
Hereâ€™s why:Â Syllabic verse strikes me as a fine opportunity to place particular focus on two concerns:
- Line length
Why make a line of two syllables, or eight, or ten?
What does it do to the pace of the reading of it?
What does it do to the impact of the line?
Enjambment means simply: where you break the line.Â An end-stop is the end of a line which is a complete sentence or clause, a line that ends with some sort of grammatical stopping-point.Â Enjambment is breaking a line somewhere in the middle of a phrase.Â Example:
The Red Wheelbarrow
so much depends
a red wheel
glazed with rain
beside the white
There are many possible rationales for enjambment, far too many to take up here.Â But, as a taste, here is what Mary Oliver says about enjambment:
Whenâ€¦the poet enjambs the lineâ€”turns the line so that a logical phrase is interruptedâ€”it speeds the line for two reasons: curiosity about the missing part of the phrase impels the reader to hurry on, and the reader will hurry twice as fast over the obstacle of a pause because it is there.Â We leap with more energy over a ditch than over no ditch.
[Mary Oliver: A Poetry Handbook.Â NY, NY: Harcourt, Inc. 1994]
Case in point: from â€œThe Shrinking Lonesome Sestinaâ€ by Miller Williams
Enjambments can be used to create a surprise, a misdirection.Â From â€œThe Fish,â€ below:
in and out, illuminating
And from my own â€œHer Spaceâ€:
She hadnâ€™t spoken to me
in a year, sent me an email:
â€œWhen can you cancel
my phone, Iâ€™m getting
my own number.â€Â I live
for these drops of water
torture, telling me sheâ€™s alive--
In the latter example, the surprise enjambment gives you, momentarily, the image of â€œdrops of waterâ€ before giving way to â€œwater torture,â€ emphasizing the oh so sharp two-edged sword of hearing from my daughter and not being able to see her.
There is much, much more to say about line length and enjambment.Â Maybe that will be another column.Â In the meantime, you are going to have to listen to your gut to guide your decisions on how long to make and where to turn each line.Â I daresay thatâ€™s what most of us do anyway, myself included.
Two more examples of syllabic verse.Â Both also have rhymes, but, again, that is not a requirement of the form.
from The Fish
byÂ Marianne Moore
through black jade.
Of the crow-blue mussel-shells, one keeps
adjusting the ash-heaps;
opening and shutting itself like
The barnacles which encrust the side
of the wave, cannot hide
there for the submerged shafts of the
split like spun
glass, move themselves with spotlight swiftness
into the crevicesâ€”
in and out, illuminating
of bodies. The water drives a wedge
of iron through the iron edge
of the cliff; whereupon the stars,
bespattered jelly fish, crabs like green
lilies, and submarine
toadstools, slide each on the other.
Finally, W.D. Snodgrassâ€™ â€œHeartâ€™s Needleâ€Â consists of a series of 10 sections of an indeterminate number of stanzas.Â Within each section, the syllabic structure of each stanza is consistent, but from section to section, the structure varies. Â Do click on the link and take a look. Â It won Snodgrass the Pulitzer Prize.
Write a poem in syllabic verse.Â Rhyming is optional and discouraged for this exercise.
Construct your first (prototype) stanza as you write the first verse.Â Each stanza may have any number of lines.Â Each line may have a different number of syllables.Â Meter and word count are not factors.Â Give thought to the length of each line and what effect it has on the diction (i.e. mood created by the sound) and meaning of your writing.
Now write at least one more verse.Â Make each line have the same number of syllables as the corresponding line in the first verse.
Before you are done, you may want to go back and forth and make adjustments in line length.Â Make sure when youâ€™re finished that each stanza has the same number of syllables in each corresponding line.
While itâ€™s not technically syllabic verseâ€”the syllable counts vary ever so slightlyâ€”â€œThe Red Wheelbarrowâ€ above is the sort of size and scope I would encourage you to take on. Some of you, I know, will want to be more ambitious.
- PutÂ SunWE in the title and tags.
- Share your post with Gather Writing Essential group.
- Indicate in some way which devices or techniques I should be paying attention to. Â (If responding to todayâ€™s, put Syllabic Verse in the title field.)
- This prompt does not turn into a pumpkin a week (or even two) from today.Â If your piece isnâ€™t done in the next week or two, get it in when you can.Â This is supposed to be fun.
- I will comment on every submission and include a link to it in the next column.
- If you would like a little more academic critiqueâ€”but still very friendly and positiveâ€”include the word "rigorous" in your post (e.g. "rigorous critique wanted").
Responses to previous prompts below. Let me know if I missed yours.
byÂ Barbary Chaapel
byÂ Joann B.
byÂ sarah leanne
byÂ Len Maxwell
Â© 2012 Douglas J. Westberg. All Rights Reserved. Â Please share this on Gather.com, and elsewhere on the web by means of a link back to this page, but please do not copy. Â Doug's latest book is The Depressed Guy's Book of Wisdom from Chipmunka Publishing.
Doug's Gather Group is Depression and Creativity, devoted to creative writing about depression and related illnesses, and creative writing as therapy. Â Please consider joining. Â You can read more of Doug's posts there, or here.