in verse #2 : reading allowed

Aloud is the only way you should read a poem.  If hearing your own voice create the poem isn’t pleasing to you, the poem may not be a bad poem, and you may not be a bad reader, but one thing is certainly true:  you’re out of touch with your tongue.  If you’ve ever watched a baby learn to feed itself, you know that for a while everything goes into its mouth, usually along with a couple of fingers.  Watching that same baby learn to talk reverses the process:  for a while, everything — including those fingers — comes out of the mouth, every possible sound a human larynx can make.  Or tongue can shape.  The ones you share with the baby, the ones you respond with, enter its repertoire, and if the child hears sounds from more than one language, it can learn all the tongues it hears, perfectly grammatically, before ever entering the classroom.  When you read a poem only with your eyes, you are throwing away that capacity to learn. 

Yeah, poetry is a language — and verse is its grammar.  And you can have bad poems, just as you can have poor conversations.  A poem is a conversation between you and the person who wrote the poem, but you can’t take part in it silently.  In fact, you can’t tell whether a poem is bad or not until you hear it, preferably in your own voice.  Like that baby, you are trying out a new combination of sounds, and of words — even with a poem you think you know well from having scanned in its text.  And like that child, you are hoping to hear back some confirmation that you are saying the words right.  And if the poem is a good one, you will.

But just as there can be ungrammatical utterances, there can be ungrammatical poems.  An ungrammatical utterance can speak as effectively as a grammatical one, but only in the mouth of someone who understands the grammar and knows when she’s breaking the rules.  In my last turn I mentioned Frederick Rebsamen’s translation of Beowulf, and I want to return to it in order to talk about the rules of Anglo-Saxon alliterative verse.  As I said then, I am writing a long poem in that prosody, and find some comfort in hearing that I am not the only one finding it difficult.  The first difficulty Rebsamen comments on comes in his introduction:  “Old English was a partially inflected language and a poet could therefore do things with word-order intolerable in Modern English, things that I have ‘corrected’ for the sake of clarity.[i]”  Any speaker of English who tries to learn German, Latin or Russian understands what he means.  English, in shedding its Anglo-Saxon inflections, developed a rigid word-order to compensate for the loss.  So that’s one problem with writing modern English poems in Old-English prosody.

But it’s not the most difficult problem, especially when you’re not translating from Old English.  As Rebsamen says, “Old English poetry has no stanzaic forms and no rhyme … except by accident” (xix).  A line consists of two half-lines, each with two stressed syllables.  The half-lines are separated by a pause in performance.  A line thus has four stressed syllables, with a pause between the second and the third stresses.  But it is not that simple.  “There is no set number of syllables per line,” Rebsamen continues; “in Beowulf a normal line contains between eight and twelve.”  What defines the line is alliteration on the strong stresses of the line, thus:

Then an alien creature   cold wanderer                                                                                      could no longer endure   from his dark exile                                                                               bright bench-laughter   borne to the rafters                                                                                  each night in that hall.   The harp sounded                                                                                      the poet’s clear song.  He sang what he knew. . . .”     (lines 86-90 of the translation).

Note how, in line 86, the alliteration falls on the second and third stresses, “creature” and “cold.”  There is a slight echo of “cold” in “could” on line 87, but it is not emphasized; at least to my ear, the first stressed syllable is “long-”.  But note that it’s the second syllable of “endure” that alliterates with “dark” in the second half-line.  And that’s a second feature of contemporary English that makes it harder to write alliterative verse:  the English vocabulary has so far outgrown its Anglo-Saxon cradle that stresses can fall anywhere in a multi-syllabic word.

Simon Armitage offers a good example from his translation of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.[ii] Quoting from his introduction:  “A line like ‘and retrieves the intestines in time-honoured style’ (1612) might appear not to alliterate at first glance.  But read it out loud, and the repetition of that ‘t’ sound — the tut-tutting, the spit of revulsion, the squirming of the warm, wet tongue as it makes contact with the roof of the mouth — seems to suggest a physical relationship with the action being described.”   (viii)

So when Armitage translates line 1612 — “And has out the hastelettes, as hightly beseemeth[iii]”, or in the orthography used in the manuscript, “And hatȝ out þe hastletteȝ, as hiȝtly besemeȝ[iv]” — he has to change the alliteration from ‘h’ to ‘t’.  Note that two of the three stressed syllables in his line are interior syllables, rather than the leading syllables of the Middle English line.  But the Gawain poet was not working in Old English, but in a language now little-inflected, with a word-order nearly that of our own tongue

Rebsamen explains that “[t]he half-lines are tied together by alliteration of consonants or vowels, any vowel alliterating with any other vowel” (xix), but of course with the vowel having the stress in the word.  Thus “awe” alliterates with “owe” and “eagle,” but not with “awake.”  Moreover, “[t]he first stress of the second half-line, called the ‘head-stave,’ cannot alliterate with the second stress of that half-line, but it must alliterate with one or both stressed syllables of the first half line” (xx).  He also sets forth the importance of primary and secondary stresses in a half-line, noting that the stress patterns include “bunching the two strong stresses at the beginning and then stepping down through secondary to weak, or bunching them both in the middle between weak stresses, or separating the two strong stresses with descending steps through secondary to weak, or approximating the Modern English iambic or trochaic measures.  There are five of these patterns with a variation on one, some of them difficult to achieve in Modern English since secondary stress is not as clear or frequent today. . . .” (xx).  And perhaps that last issue, with secondary stress and weak stress, is the hardest to address.

I know from my own attempts to write about Joseph Smith in Old English verse patterns that it is not easy to deal with the secondary stresses like the initial “could” in line 87 of Rebsamen’s translation above.  I often find, in revising rough stone, rolling waters, that a line has only visual alliteration.  When I speak it, it doesn’t sound right, and I have to work out where the stresses fall before I know why.  Usually it’s because I confused secondary and primary stress in a line.  Conversely, when a line sounds right despite not looking right, I have to study it out before I know why it seems good.  The subject matter is no problem in a poem like that, and I have been more than once saved in moving forward in the narration by having to focus on the demands of alliteration and stress.

In fact, it happens often, when I am out walking, or running, or cutting up a stud, or repairing a chair, or hauling out the trash, that three or four new lines will deliver themselves while I am otherwise engaged.  I capture them, on paper or in a voice memo, and take them home and look into the poem to see where they fit.  I often have to cut out what I thought was pretty good before, to accommodate the new lines.  I build the poem a line at a time.

But hold on, I hear you saying, that’s true of all verse.

Your turn.

[i] Rebsamen, Frederick.  Beowulf : an updated verse translation.  New York : HarperPerennial, 2004.


[ii] Armitage, Simon.  Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.  London : Faber and Faber, 2007.

[iii] Pearl ; Sir Gawain and the Green Knight / edited with an introduction by A. C. Cawley. — London : Dent, 1962. — (Everyman’s library ; no. 346), p. 111.

[iv] Sir Gawain & the Green Knight / edited by J. R. R. Tolkien & E. V. Gordon. — Oxford : Clarendon, 1930, p. 50.

About Dennis Clark

Dennis Clark should have been locked up long ago, but since he was allowed to wed and breed, the cat is out of the bag, the toothpaste is out of the tube, the cat is pawing the toothpaste and you should be careful what you put in your mouth. Put a good poem in your mouth!
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12 Responses to in verse #2 : reading allowed

  1. Jonathan Langford says:

    Various thoughts–

    I’m one of those readers who hears a voice speaking the words in my head as I read (as opposed, say, to picturing a scene). Thus, for me, reading and speaking aloud are not that far from each other. It was many years before I realized that other people don’t read the same way I do.

    You’re right that “rough stone, rolling waters” doesn’t sound right. I don’t understand the patterns well enough to say why.

    I don’t think I had ever considered before the effect of the final stressed syllable in a line never being one of the alliterating syllables. The alliteration holds the line together — but the end of the line is always moving on toward some new point or destination.

    I liked your comment: “I have been more than once saved in moving forward in the narration by having to focus on the demands of alliteration and stress.” None of my efforts at writing verse have ever been very successful, but I have found something very similar in my prose writing (fiction and nonfiction both, and even my commercial writing). Counterintuitive, perhaps, but very real.

    • Dennis says:

      I still contend that hearing the voice in your head is not the same thing as hearing *your* voice with *your* ears creating the poem in real time in the air, in the ear. That connection between language and tongue, lips and learning, is primal, and nearly indissoluble. I tried a few years ago to learn Russian, and what has stuck with me is the sentences and words I drilled orally and aurally, not what I read in texts. I hold that poetry is a separate language, and verse its grammar.

      On the alliterative line, I hadn’t realized that the head stave shouldn’t alliterate in its own half-line. So I’m learning something new in writing for this blog, and forcing myself to review my prejudices. Incidentally, I move my lips while writing, and hear the letters and words in my head, but they still sound different when I read them aloud — and that should be in my own voice. But it isn’t. Reading aloud is re-creating, and change happens.

  2. This is all way over my head, but I find myself wondering if something I remember from reading Steven Pinker’s THE LANGUAGE INSTINCT years ago, might not fit in anyway.

    He pointed out that when, in English, at least, there is a series of vowel sounds, we tend to like it better if those sounds move from the front of the mouth to the back. This works for series like “tic, tac, toe” as well as for verb tenses such as “sing, sang, sung.”

    Could it be that something like “rough stone, rolling waters” goes against that flow from front to back of the mouth (I’m not certain about whether it does or not, I’m just wondering)? And would the first vowel in “waters” be the culprit? (I suggest that vowel because “rough stone rolling” sounds okay to me.)

    At the very least, could it be that this preference for the front to back flow of the vowel sounds, as something is spoken or read out loud, has bearing on what sounds right to the poet?

    • Dennis says:

      That’s a great reference to Pinker, Kathleen. I haven’t read the book, but I have it, so I’ll dig it out. I’ll have to play with it to know if you’re right.

      You may be right about the title, too. But *Rough Stone Rolling* is already taken as a title, so I have to work with what’s left over (I know, I know — I should just steal it back….)

  3. By the way, I “hear” what I’m reading in my head as I read, too.

    • Dennis says:

      Yeah, so do I, but nonetheless that’s not the same thing as reading aloud. Listen to a competent actor read a well-written novel in an audiobook presentation, and you have an entirely different experience from reading the book and hearing it in your head. For me, you can’t really understand, say, *Paradise lost,* without reading it aloud. And you will be a far better reader of it the more you do of that kind of reading.

      I once failed miserably as a Sunday School teacher by insisting that my class of 13- and 14-year-olds read the New Testament aloud. That was all we did for our fifty minutes, read the text aloud. The only success I had was to note that each of the kids wanted his or her turn reading aloud. They didn’t want to be skipped, and I think that was because they were hearing the AV for the first time as language, not just as text.

  4. Darlene says:

    Fascinating stuff. I never knew any of this. It’s given me a new way of trying out my own poetry. I find that when I set myself a (pardon me) crazy goal like this, I end up with fresher, more interesting diction and a better poem–even if I go back and take out the scaffolding later.

    • Dennis says:

      You don’t know the half of the strait-jacket I put on for *rough stone* — but that’s for the critics to discover. My problem with that kind of scaffolding is that, too often, it becomes the poem. But only more writing and longer experimentation will change that.

  5. I have to agree that there is a difference when read aloud. I hadn’t realized that everything Tom Bombadil says in FELLOWSHIP OF THE RING was in meter until I read it aloud.

    But I also recognized that when the THREE MEN IN A BOAT (Jerome K. Jerome) were on their rainy return trip, there was a place when the prose burst into the same meter as that used in HIAWATHA, and I noticed it while reading to myself (not aloud). I had to wonder if Jerome had done similar things in the rest of the book, and I had missed them (because I wasn’t reading the whole thing out loud).

    I figure that I probably noticed the “HIAWATHA meter” because that is such a distinctive (and almost blatant) meter. It would be interesting to know if anyone has gone through and found any other such sections. Or is that one of those “literary criticism” things I know so little about?

    • Dennis Clark says:

      One of these days I’ll have to read “Three men in a boat,” and test the idea that it is written in various meters. The meter of “Hiawatha” was Longfellow’s adaptation of a far older meter, one that Elias Lönnrot adapted for “Kalevala,” the national epic of the Finns he cobbled together from oral poetry and folklore. Longfellow made such an impression because of his skill in using that meter in English, but despite his best efforts, no one today would consider Hiawatha “the American national epic.”
      Longfellow will return to favor one of these days for his skill in verse, but not for his choice of subject matter (somewhat like Kipling).

    • Th. says:


      I’ll have to read it aloud now too (3MinaB). I love that book.

  6. Th. says:


    Michael Collings has written about the use of meter in OSC’s books, notably Ender’s Game.

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