Thursday, May 21, 2009

My Soul Round Me Doth Roll

Even Perfection Craves Diversity

Over the years many poets have played with the meter of their poems, trying out different schemes just for the fun of seeing how they work. Some work well, others don't.

For Milton's Paradise Lost, his celebrated blank verse was indubitably the right choice. Throughout the book he sticks very close to the consistent use of the five stressed line, borrowing what has been called "Marlowe's mighy line." It may be Marlowe's, but Milton used it better. This meter rightly bears the name "heroic," and for Milton's epic he could hardly have chosen better.

Shakespeare also, in his plays and sonnets (although not in the 'songs' that he interspersed throughout many of the plays) wrote with a nearly consistent five beat line.

Consistency has its use, and most great English language poems are written with each line bearing the same number of stresses.

But poets are experimenters; they are playful. They crave diversity and challenge. We all do.

We cannot live on caviar and honey as the young David Bowie longed to do. Occasionally we need a change; if we live only on luxurious food we will find that we begin to crave the simplicity of a baked potato or a ham sandwich.

Likewise poets through the years have found that their ears grow weary even with Milton's mighty line and Shakespeare's glorious sonnets. They find that they crave diversity. So time and again they begin to mix things up, to play around. They are experimenting in the kitchen. Sometimes the result is comparable to pouring chocolate syrup on scrambled eggs, an experiment some of us tried when we were young. The results are interesting, but perhaps not worth repeating. But sometimes, sometimes the experiments really work. Sometimes they yeild glorious results. At the very least they offer a different texture to our ears which is something our ears would come to crave if the whole world were written in blank verse.

For the next few posts I intend to post a few of these experiments-in-meter that in my opinion were exceptionally successful.

Francis Thompson had many reasons for writing the following poem. Among them are love and awe for the Cardinal, fear of hell, the need for a paycheck, etc. But I think that one of his motivations was also just the playful desire to see if he could make this intriguing meter work. You tell me whether he succeeded.

To The Dead Cardinal Of Westminster

I will not perturbate
Thy Paradisal state
With praise
Of thy dead days;

To the new-heavened say,
'Spirit, thou wert fine clay':
This do,
Thy praise who knew.

Therefore my spirit clings
Heaven's porter by the wings,
And holds
Its gated golds

Apart, with thee to press
A private business;--
Deign me audience.

Anchorite, who didst dwell
With all the world for cell,
My soul
Round me doth roll

A sequestration bare.
Too far alike we were,
To far

For its burning fruitage I
Do climb the tree o' the sky;
Do prize
Some human eyes.

You smelt the Heaven-blossoms,
And all the sweet embosoms
The dear
Uranian year.

Those Eyes my weak gaze shuns,
Which to the suns are Suns,
Not affray your lid.

The carpet was let down
(With golden moultings strown)
For you
Of the angels' blue.

But I, ex-Paradised,
The shoulder of your Christ
Find high
To lean thereby.

So flaps my helpless sail,
Bellying with neither gale,
Of Heaven
Nor Orcus even.

Life is a coquetry
Of Death, which wearies me,
Too sure
Of the amour;

A tiring-room where I
Death's divers garments try,
Till fit
Some fashion sit.

It seemeth me too much
I do rehearse for such
A mean
And single scene.

The sandy glass hence bear-
Antique remembrancer;
My veins
Do spare its pains.

With secret sympathy
My thoughts repeat in me
The turn o' the worm

Beneath my appointed sod.
The grave is in by blood;
I shake
To winds that take

Its grasses by the top;
The rains thereon that drop
With drip acerb

My subtly answering soul;
The feet across its knoll
Do jar
Me from afar.

As sap foretastes the spring;
As Earth ere blossoming
With far daffodils,

And feels her breast turn sweet
With the unconceived wheat;
So doth
My flesh foreloathe

The abhorred spring of Dis,
With seething presciences
The preparate worm.

I have no thought that I,
When at the last I die,
Shall reach
To gain your speech.

But you, should that be so,
May very well, I know,
May well
To me in hell

With recognising eyes
Look from your Paradise--
'God bless
Thy hopelessness!'

Call, holy soul, O call
The hosts angelical,
And say,--
'See, far away

'Lies one I saw on earth;
One stricken from his birth
With curse
Of destinate verse.

'What place doth He ye serve
For such sad spirit reserve,--
In dark lieu of Heaven:--

'The impitiable Daemon,
Beauty, to adore and dream on,
To be

'Hers, but she never his?
He reapeth miseries;
His wages, woes;

'He lives detached days;
He serveth not for praise;
For gold
He is not sold;

'Deaf is he to world's tongue;
He scorneth for his song
The loud
Shouts of the crowd;

'He asketh not world's eyes;
Not to world's ears he cries;
Shut, if you please";

'He measureth world's pleasure,
World's ease, as Saints might measure;
For hire
Just love entire

'He asks, not grudging pain;
And knows his asking vain,
And cries--
"Love! Love!" and dies,

'In guerdon of long duty,
Unowned by Love or Beauty;
And goes--
Tell, tell, who knows!

'Aliens from Heaven's worth,
Fine beasts who nose i' the earth,
Do there
Reward prepare.

'But are his great desires
Food but for nether fires?
Ah me,
A mystery!

'Can it be his alone,
To find, when all is known,
That what
He solely sought

'Is lost, and thereto lost
All that its seeking cost?
That he
Must finally,

'Through sacrificial tears,
And anchoretic years,
With the sensualist?'

So ask; and if they tell
The secret terrible,
Good friend,
I pray thee send

Some high gold embassage
To teach my unripe age.
Lest my feet walk hell.



John W. May said...

I think the poem is nice, but the truth is I found myself focusing on the meter and movement rather than its message. The images employed and use of grammar, however, produced a trace of envy in me. Someday I’ll write as well as Thompson.

The jagged structure of the poem reminded me of Shadows in the Water by Thomas Traherne. The content of that poem is highly creative, but it took a couple reads to get over the mixed meter. It’s a quick read if you haven’t read it, here’s a link:

Doug P. Baker said...

Wow! That is a very cool poem! No, I was not familiar with it, but I'm glad that you mentioned it. Later I'll read it to my kids and see what they think.

As to the difficulty of working through the meter:

I think that we can compare it in some small measure to the rhythm breaks in jazz music. Tiring of the endless 4/4 and 3/4 time in which most of our old hymns were written, a few musicians wanted to explore the vast complexities that are available by breaking--right in the middle of a score--into a variant rhythm.

When they did, those of us who were not yet in step with what they were doing found ourselves confused. Some said that it wasn't music. Some said that the musicians were playing a big joke on those who listened to them. Others, mostly church people, said that it was demonic (by which they meant that it wasn't as the old hymns had been written).

But slowly our ears began to fleetingly understand what was going on. It wasn't bedlam. It wasn't the destruction of music. And it wasn't demonic. Finally, these days, most of those I know who emphatically love jazz are white pastors.

Fancy that!

Don't get me wrong. I am not insinuating that most poets who have played with rhythm over the years (at least five hundred years) are geniuses in the same realm with those who created jazz. Far from it.

But the similarity to which I wish to point is that just as it took white pastors a long time to catch up with what was going on in the rhythmic fluctuations in jazz, it take all of our ears a little while to catch up with the rhythmic variations that go on in any non-catagorizable poem.

Indeed, until we are initiated (baptized) in the poetic medium, even the sonnet will seem forced. But as Teri so eloquently put it, "Such structure as the sonnet is . . . well . . . freeing."

There is in rhythms--both those that have names and those that do not yet have names--both a limitation and a freedom. The limitation comes from the rules of the rhythm. All that I will post in this series of rhythmic playing will follow rules. The rules are set by the author, but still they will be strict. I don't go much for the total lack of rules.

But the freedom of which Teri speaks, see , can only be found by the poet working in the medium and the reader reading in intentional sympathy with the poet.

The long and the short of it is (too late for short you say?) that variant rhythms take time for us to accustom our selves to but that in the end we will find ourselves to have gained more in beauty than we have lost in time. That is what the white Christian church has found regarding JAZZ in the past hundred years.

And that is what many (not all) will find in the poems that I intend to publish in the next few posts.

I am VERY glad that you found the structure difficult and annoying (may I add that "annoying" word to your assessment?). Poetic resonance takes time. It also takes personal recognition. It may be that some rhythms will never hit home with you. Some will never strike it with me either although their authors believed in them strongly.

In the end it is not the rhythm, or the structure, or the images, or poetics in any way that draw us to a poem. In the very end we may never say what exactly it is. We love one poem. We are bored by another. Intelectuals can go around a month of Sundays trying to figure it all out.

I am not (pray God) one of those. There is much that is not understood, and even more that is not agreed upon, in poetics.

I don't urge you to study.

Not at all.

I urge you to play with the poems you find and see if, with time, they become more intriguing.

If not, no bother. Toss them away. There are many others! So many others we can not count! Our God is in no way shortened if we prefer one of His poems to another!

Neither am I; I am very glad that the first post on this poem was not overly enthusiastic! It adds to the intrigue!

Doug P. Baker said...

BTW, John, you are the most interesting new person I've encountered on the web in about a year! I'm glad to have you around!!!

( I would have put this in the previous post, but BLOGGER would not let me. It said I was too wordy! Fancy that!)