Swinburne Got Me Started: A Rhythmic Riddle
The oldest, most decrepit book on my poetry shelf is a collection of Swinburne I found in a used book shop when I was a teenager and my idea of poetry was language that galloped you to beautiful scenic places where love and adventure were abundantly available.
The book, for which I paid $1.00, was falling apart then, and still has not finished. As the Introduction says, “For sheer sensuous delight of singing, the pleasure of beautiful, fragrant words singing together, in a matchless harmony of music, Mr. Swinburne's poetry is unique in the English language.”
The poems were full of blood, sleep, death, but not much action, and a lot of moping about for no good reason. But one immediately caught and held my attention, even though I didn't know what the title meant. Here's the opening of that poem, “Hendecasyllabics,”
What a difference one syllable can make! Here you have fully ELEVEN of them per line instead of the usual ten that result from iambic pentameter. Not only does this poem kick the iamb and rhyme itself out the door, the “Deca” goes along with it, and you end up with a rhythm that turns the poet's word-hoard into a corral of restless stallions, eager to return to the wild. This one poem hooked me for the rest of my life, in a way that none had done before it. Besides, what a way to nail a sunset!
Here again is Swinburne – still sensuous and musical – offering a standard iambic pentameter poem:
The riddle: Can you feel the shift between ten and eleven syllables? Does it matter to you?
Here is an observation by Olivier Messiaen, composer of “Quartet for the end of time,” who could have been writing about poetry:
Swinburne, although scarcely read much today, may have been ahead of his time. I am grateful to
his particular poetic imagination.
“Nature is everywhere – so why even mention it?”
Poets have written a lot about this thing called “Nature.” Recently we have nudged “nature poetry” up a notch by calling it “eco-poetry,” and as such, given it a place the human arsenal of possible ways to fend off the Sixth Extinction. I offer here a wee spectrum of attitudes about what possible practical use “nature poetry” can offer our world. The first is my own wry response to Goldsworthy:
Even Wallace Stevens, who seems to live mainly inside his head, was passionate about the earth. “It's an illusion that we were ever alive,” he says, and his solution is to embrace the illusion head on and declare it to be a good thing – So, he suggests a way to resolve the paradox. If “rock” stands for “ultimate nothingness” then yes, nature covers the rock with flowers and leaves, which are impermanent. But contained within the nothingness of illusion is a cure, which he called “the cure of the ground” – (from “The Rock”):
So, he offers a compromise: the poem is the permanence, with its own “leaves,” and with
Again, I offer a lighter bulwark against nothingness, a flock of tiny birds:
And here is James Stephens in his wonderful fantasy novel The Crock of Gold – The speaker is The Thin Woman of Inis Magrath:
(Try it, next time you've conveniently worked yourself into a rage on a clear night when the moon is out.)
And finally, from native American poet Jennifer Elise Foerster:
*And speaking of abandonment, I am grateful to Erik Muller's recent book A New Text of the World: Ways of Looking at the Poetry of Wallace Stevens for drawing my attention again to Stevens, whom I long ago abandoned.
(Freddy the Pig)
This month I want to reinforce the cliché of Spring. It showed up again this year. We can watch from the sidelines, or jump right in.
In my front-yard garden a couple of Ravens are obviously going through their first year of nest-building. No need to switch on the television, just watch this lordly fowl pulling at a dry twig from a Curly Willow tree – the twig about 4 times his length and built like a bedspring. Nope, it won't disentangle itself from the twisted clot of other twigs, even when Raven turns on the full power of his stocky frame. (Yank! Yank! Wiggle! Wiggle!) Through the binoculars, I swear he looks bewildered. Eventually I watch (her/him) fly off with a much smaller bit sticking out both sides of his beak. Could there be a more efficient way to do this? Tradition be damned.
Here's lordly Greek poet Odysseus Elytis offering his support:
And in the latest issue of Emergence Magazine Jay Griffiths combines literature with science in a detailed rhapsody on the soil beneath and way-beneath our feet. The kind of essay that makes you feel totally nourished:
Don't forget to leave a little offering to Runcina, the Roman goddess of weeding.
Today the subject is "The Soul."
I've always had trouble distinguishing between "soul" and "spirit," and quotes like this can offer some help if this is also an issue for you.
I toss in as an afterthought, a chapter heading from Václav Cílek's To Breathe With Birds :
When I was 14 the world was still humming and burbling with romantic notions about my future:
Shakespearean actress, New York fashion model (I was skinny enough), ballet dancer, veterinarian (specializing in elephants), world traveler (possibly in a balloon?) architect, archaeologist, philosopher. . . .But meanwhile I kept making up (and writing down) my own versions stories about kids my age who had adventures in imaginary countries. And at about the same time --
I began collecting bits and pieces of other people's writings that intrigued me in some way -- lyrics from songs, lines from plays I was acting in, advertisements on billboards, lawn signs, comic books. I scotch-taped hundreds of these into loose-leaf notebooks which somehow survived through my late teens and into early adulthood until finally - -
I realized the decision about my romantic future had already been made for me: I was already exhibiting most of the weird behavior patterns -- I was a writer!
As you know, a huge part of being a writer is reading. Reading, memorizing, and if necessary copying stuff down by hand, balancing your notebook on your knee and pausing frequently to shake the cramp out of your writing hand. Not plagiarism. More like adding new rooms to your Treasure House of Ideas.
So, as an experiment, I offer you this opportunity to share from my rare, whimsical and carefully chosen hoard. Of --- what? Of fragments, segments of poems, comments from over the years, all of them at least trending towards literary, in the hope that you might paste some of them into your own Commonplace Book (physical or virtual). Each of them will be attributed. The ones I authored myself will simply say "me" afterwards. I'll post a new one roughly once a month.
If you feel the urge to respond to or to expand upon one or more of them, please do. At some point, if there's enough interest we could turn this into some sort of group conversation.
I'm calling it "The Poet's Petard," because of course there is a risk involved (heh heh).
So here goes the first one:
(quoted by Martha Grimes in her novel The Blue Last -- she says it was written on the wall of an Irish pub.)