and for my next trick: poetry

In the library of my late friend Harvey Burt was a volume called The Poet’s Handbook by Clement Wood. I borrowed the book for a while to read and take notes, for it seemed to answer, in a clear, direct way, a question that had long nagged at me: what is poetry exactly, and how does it work?

According to Wood, himself a poet, poetry is language that tends toward rhythm, while prose is language that does not tend toward rhythm. He went on to give pithy accounts of the rhythmical devices of meter and rhyme, along with many examples of their use. I learned the names of the metrical feet and many of the forms of verse, from sonnets to villanelles. In Wood’s view, this is all important knowledge to have, for, again according to Wood, almost everyone has the desire at one point or another to compose verse.

This is certainly true for me: I have had the desire to compose verse, and a few times—very few—I have actually tried it. But I did not know what I was doing. Also, not being much of a reader of poetry, I had very little to guide me.

I had to return that book, which is now in my mother’s library, but at Christmas 2004 Santa saw fit to help me out by bringing a mass-market paperback called The Complete Rhyming Dictionary, also by Clement Wood. Fantastic! For before the actual rhyming dictionary he provides 7 chapters on verse in general, essentially recapping the core material from his earlier Handbook. Somewhere in my readings in November last year I came across a reference by Aristotle to different metrical feet, and I got out Wood’s dictionary to help me out. I was again intrigued and attracted by the idea of being able to express myself in verse.

On Saturday 10 December 2011, this desire finally resulted in action. After my meditation session I felt a desire to write something, and so grabbed a clipboard with blank pages attached and just started writing. later I came back to what I wrote and revised and tweaked, eventually giving it the title “Postmeditation”. Before saying anything more about it, I’ll show you my latest draft (numbered 10):

Postmeditation

I catch the rhododendron watching,
a tree of hands reaching for me,
motionless as the asphalt stripe
of the neighbors’ roof under the marble bowl
of the sky, inverted to dry;
and, I note, with an entourage:
the slim maple behind the pillar,
the yew peeking round the corner,
the crewcut hedge,
the holly cowering against its wall—
a group of strangers grown familiar.
And they leave the talking to you.

Well? What is it? What?

You are still.

I gulp the juice of stillness,
milky-cold anaesthetic,
and it quickens a sprout,
a question too germinal to know,
a green finger poking and crooking
from the invisible coffee humus of my bowel
to the noncommittal light
pouring from the clouds, enshawling us all.

You’ll notice that there is very little rhyme and seemingly not much in the way of metrical regularity to it. I suppose it might come under the category of free verse.

But the rhythmic inspiration was actually one that I learned from Wood, namely so-called accent verse, apparently a versifying device used in English before the language was infiltrated by French and Latin, when poets began to resort to the more Romantic technique of rhyme. English, like its Germanic ancestors, is a language that makes strong use of syllabic stress, and in this way is different from the Romance languages such as French. Therefore rhythm can be generated by regulating the quantity of accent stresses in each line of a poem. In my poem there are, for the most part, four accents per line.

How much poetry have I written since then? None. But you never know where or when the Muse may decide to make me speak. I know that, as and when she does, I would like to have my kit stocked with good tools. Right now I still just have a club, a rock, and a piece of antler—but it’s more than I had before.

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