I first thought of calling this bloggette “re verse,” after the blogmaster proposed “Poetry Corner,” because I intend to write about verse, not poetry. “Poetry” is a quality judgment applied to occurences of verse, and some writers deprecate their works by insisting that “This is just verse, not a poem.” Others make an explicit contrast between “poetry” and “light verse,” as if the former were heavy verse — perhaps analogous to heavy cream in French cuisine: something to admire for its culinary perfection, but partake in moderation for fear of consequences to one’s health. But I find neither distinction helpful.
Verse and its proper counterpart prose are contrasting conventions for representing speech — speech clarified, speech refined. Each can be used in poems, in short or extended narratives, in essays, in dramatic works, in reports, in précis. They are contrasted primarily in rhythm and compactness: prose tends to be looser, with rhythms governed by the paragraph, and using little ornamentation; verse tends to be tighter, with rhythms governed by the line, and using repetition emphatically to maintain structure: devices like rhyme, alliteration, repeating patterns of stressed and unstressed syllables, and, in even the most free of verse, a very tight focus on each word, rather than each sentence.
So I didn’t like the title “Poetry Corner,” but “re verse” was a little cute, even for me. “In verse,” however, wasn’t such an obvious pun, and describes what I hope to do: get into verse. And bring others in, too. Plus, I don’t like being cornered, even though that’s what it takes to make me write. The characteristics of verse in English are not the same as for other languages. Even when we borrow our verse forms — as Chaucer did in employing iambic pentameter — we modify them to the rhythms of English speech. Among other things, those rhythms are governed by a tendency in English speech not to accommodate more than three unstressed syllables between stressed syllables, so that iambic pentameter can neatly reflect the rhythms of such spoken sentences as “I’m going out, to get a loaf of bread.” This stress-syllabic hybrid also helps shape free verse in English — or at least did when first deployed by Whitman, Eliot and Pound.
But there is an older verse form underlying the stress-syllabic prosody we inherited from the royal marriage of French and Anglo-Saxon which resulted in what John McWhorter calls Our magnificent bastard tongue. And it is still alive and compelling, as Simon Armitage’s much-heralded translation of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, published in 2007, demonstrated. That is the four-stress alliterative line. Hailed as an invigorating re-invention of alliterative verse, Armitage’s translation demonstrates the allure of both alliteration and rhyme, and the ability of contemporary English to accommodate both. The poem itself however, dating from roughly 1400, is the product of that marriage, combining in its loose-limbed alliterative stanzas and their strict-footed, rhymed bob-and-wheel endings the Anglo-Saxon and French verse forms brought together in that wedding. I want to take one step back, before the Norman invasion brought French to the marriage bed.
Beowulf is held up as the supreme surviving achievement in Anglo-Saxon verse largely because it is. But it is a marvelous poem in its own right, and derives from an oral tradition of reciting, and sometimes composing, poetry, to an audience, what Frederick Rebsamen calls “a strictly oral tradition of pagan Germanic poetry at a time when there were no manuscripts, when minstrels carried tales in their heads” (xx). Its survival is often attributed to a Christian monk patiently transcribing a magnificent pagan poem that he admired and didn’t want lost — but I think it may have been one of the minstrels who had kept the poem alive, one who realized that his culture was dying and didn’t want the poem to die with it, one who learned how to write in order to save the poem.
I’m not going to talk much about Anglo-Saxon prosody in this posting — that will come later — except to say that this was verse meant to be heard. Armitage called his Sir Gawain “a translation not only for the eye, but for the ear and the voice as well” (ix). And it reads wonderfully out loud. And in fact that’s one of the most important parts of verse in English from the earliest Anglo-Saxon poems to Armitage’s own poems. It is an important element of literacy that we are forfeiting because we have stopped reading poetry out loud. From Beowulf through Shakespeare and on into Paradise lost, The rime of the ancient mariner, Leaves of grass and John Brown’s body, down to Armitage’s translation, poetry has been designed to be heard and spoken. It is from the speaking voice that verse derives its poetry. Reading poetry without moving your lips is like eating without chewing your food — and that goes double for the King James translation of the Bible, which cannot be understood without hearing a voice, even if only your own, reciting. Both the Old Testament in Hebrew and the Authorized Version are artifacts from oral cultures, and much of the Old Testament is itself verse. All of the prophets wrote in verse. You cannot understand Isaiah without reading his poems aloud. And I assert that literacy comes more quickly from reading aloud than from any other practice.
I have been fitfully engaged for the last ten years with Anglo-Saxon prosody in composing a heroic poem about Joseph Smith. The idea for it came to me in graduate school, when I first started studying Beowulf and wondering whether one could successfully write a long poem in contemporary English using its verse-forms. The subject that immediately presented itself to me was Joseph Smith and his adventures as author, husband, city father and politician in a nation that chewed him up and spat him out. I must not have not been very successful, because when the first fit appeared in Irreantum a few years back, Michael Collings, the editor for that issue, could only discern that I was writing in a loose 4-stress line. I’ve been revising since then, re-working the poem, which is now appearing serially and on-line in the ProvoOremWord.
What I’ve found is that it’s very hard to create the alliterative lines but much easier to revise them, very hard to keep contemporary colloquialisms out of the verse but not necessary to avoid them, very hard to capture the narrative but much easier to invent within it.
But hold on, I hear you saying, that’s true of all verse.
Armitage, Simon. Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. London : Faber and Faber, 2007.
Rebsamen, Frederick. Beowulf : an updated verse translation. New York : HarperPerrenial, c2004.
McWhorter, John. Our magnificent bastard tongue : the untold history of English. New York : Gotham, 2008.