in verse # 6 : verse control

It seems like lately every time this post is due, I’m away from home.  In April, it was Pacific Grove; in May, Ithaca; in June, this month right here, yesterday, I was in Rock Creek Hollow.  That’s up in Wyoming.  In April, as I was right near Robinson Jeffers’ home in Carmel-by-the-Sea, I actually had the blog ready early; it just got posted late.  In May, as I was near Alice Fulton’s digs, it took me a little longer to write, but just as I was about to post it, just before midnight, my daughter’s DSL line went down in a thunderstorm.  In my usual fashion I had planned to finish and post this entry on my return yesterday.  I didn’t make it back in time.

I was in Wyoming for Sarah Jane Jones, my mother’s mother’s mother.  She was born on 12 December 1860 in Pembroke, Wales — actually, that’s Penfro in Welsh, deriving its name from the cantref (somewhat like a township in New York) of Penfro.  That name derives, as Wikipedia has it, from the words pen, meaning “head” or “end” and bro, meaning “region,” “country” or “land.”  It was land’s end for Sarah and her family:  they emigrated to Utah in the last year before the completion of the transcontinental railroad, walking and riding to Salt Lake only from the end-of-the-line of the Union Pacific track (which I believe was in South Pass, Wyoming at the time). My mother always assured me that I was eligible for membership in the D.U.P. because Sarah made it across Wyoming before the railroad did.  That would have been in 1868, in her 8th year.  She was not in Rock Creek Hollow with the Willie Company — in fact, the tenth and last handcart company arrived in Salt Lake City before she was born, on September 24th, 1860.  So I wasn’t at Rock Creek celebrating her ordeal, or her rescue.  I was there for her out of curiosity.

I was there as support for our stake’s Youth Conference Trek, wrangling tents and equipment.  But I had come because I knew Sarah.  She was Sarah Jane Jones Lloyd when I knew her, or Grandma Lloydie, living in my Grandma Soderborg’s house.  She died on the 5th of March, 1953, in my 8th year and her 93rd.  I say I knew her; she probably didn’t know me, except as Bessie’s boy.  She was pretty far gone by then, and most of my memories are of a smelly crotchety old woman who had to be helped into the bathroom.  I helped her occasionally.  I remember her funeral and burial, but I had no real sense of who she was, just that she had walked across the plains (in a way) at the age of 7, married John Heber Lloyd, himself of Welsh extraction but born in Salt Lake City on 23 July 1857 and dying there on 30 October 1928 in his 72nd year, leaving Sarah a widow for 25 years.  When she died, her daughter, my grandmother Soderborg, was 68.  And that’s the only way I knew her, as numbers and dates and inferences therefrom, and memories of a sad old woman who had to be helped to the toilet by a rowdy boy who didn’t understand any of that.

So I was in Wyoming staking and raising and dropping and moving tents and thinking about a little Welsh girl who walked across the high plains of Wyoming and into a marriage with a Welsh boy at 19, who bore 6 children, and who died a year older than my mother is now — and considering how much of her history died with her.  And it struck me, not for the first time, how wary I am of wild sex.  By “wild sex” I do not mean the tame, clean, domestic sex of porn, all prettied up and athletic, slick young bodies frolicking — or so I hear.  I do not mean drunken orgies, writhing flesh dribbled on, redolent with vomit.  Nor do I mean sex al fresco, on the rocks, under the stars, out in nature.  That’s all good fun, although this season, in Wyoming at least, the ticks and skeeters and midges would supply the wild and leave the sex up to you, if you dared.  What I was thinking over was sex with a third party involved:  chance, or fate, or God, as in e.e. cummings’s line “open your thighs to fate, world; conceive a man.”  The kind of earnest, eager, fearful sex of a couple trying to conceive, neither one quite comprehending what it means to multiply and replenish.  Having indulged in it, I am frightened of really wild sex.  It is liberating, but it is not pretty.  And the cost is immense, when it results in a child, or in children.

Poems are not children, although some poets try to draw the analogy.  For one thing, they are made, not conceived.  For another, despite the metaphors, they are the result of a single mind wrestling into breath something perhaps at first only dimly apprehended — so that if sex is involved, it’s solitary.  And you never stop tinkering with your own poems — or other people’s, for that matter.  If only Keats had written “Or like Balboa when with eagle eyes / He star’d at the Pacific — and all his men / Look’d at each other with a wild surmise — / Silent, upon a peak in Darien,” and saved himself that ugly adjective – the “stout Cortez” of the original.

The alternative to that metaphor is verse control, and yes, here we are back at Welsh poetry and Rolfe Humphries[i].  In my last post I introduced only the first of the 24 official Welsh meters, cyhydedd fer, although in Humphries’s source[ii] it is listed as 14th.  That source, Gwyn Williams entitles Appendix A of his book “Welsh versification,” dealing with the 24 official meters, and with rhyme, and cynghanedd.  I find it significant that he refers to “versification” rather than “poetry,” for all the reasons I laid out in my first post.  These verse forms represent the grammar of Welsh poetry.  Williams tells us that they were “laid down by Einion Offeiriad and edited by Dafydd Ddu Athro in the fourteenth century” (232) — not inventing forms, but codifying practices begun as much as 800 years earlier.  Williams defines cyhydedd fer as “a rhymed couplet of 8-syllable lines[iii].”  It is not defined as “iambic tetrameter couplets” because the syllable count, not the metric foot, is what makes a line, and the stanzas being described are Welsh, not Greek.  With the exception of listing cyhydedd fer first, Humphries follows Williams’s order in discussing the 24 official meters.  Williams clusters the official measures in three groups:  Englynion, the Cywydd measures, and the Awdl measures.  The first four englynion are Englyn penfyr, Englyn milwr, Englyn unodl union and Englyn unodl crwca.

Englyn penfyr (or short-ended englyn)[iv] is

a stanza of three lines, of ten, seven and seven syllables, with one main rhyme.  One, two or three syllables occur at the end of the first line after the main rhyme … and these are echoed by alliteration or rhyme in syllables in the first half of the second line.

Humphries’s poem illustrating Englyn penfyr begins with these lines:

High over the sea stands a fine stronghold                                                                                 Old, but less old than the long                                                                                                       Beat and boom of ocean song

At its base, where each ninth comber breaks loud                                                                  With proud outcry, flinging foam                                                                                                    At the great grey cliff, the home [....]

Englyn milwr (the soldier’s englyn) “consists of three seven-syllable lines with one rhyme” (Williams, 233), as in these stanzas from Humphries’s “Around Thanksgiving:”

Pure gold, they said in her praise:                                                                                                 So I walk my autumn ways,                                                                                                       Around me a golden haze

From the ground, in leaves, in air —                                                                                             Oh, everywhere, everywhere! —                                                                                                   To save, to spend, and to share.

By the door, with evening light,                                                                                              Westering, lingering late                                                                                                                     Over lane and lawn and lot

The leaves of the lilac hold                                                                                                            The shape of the heart, pure gold,                                                                                                    As if I need to be told,

As if I need reminding,                                                                                                               Toward chill November’s ending,                                                                                                    Of warmth and love abounding.

Notice the cynghanedd in the poem, as with the alliteration in the 3rd stanza.

Englyn unodl union (the straight one-rhymed englyn) “consists of four lines of ten, six, seven and seven syllables respectively, with one main rhyme” — but that rhyme is in the Welsh fashion.  Humphries adds that “as in Englyn penfyr, the first line has one, two or three syllables after the main rhyme, and these are echoed at the beginning of line two.”  In his example, the rhyme is on “ar” in all four lines; the poem is called “Shaft and Wings of the Way It Was Once”:

Luerius, King of the Arverni,                                                                                                  Riding, near or far,                                                                                                                          Had huntsmen, hounds, and harpers                                                                                         Round his silver-mounted car.

Englyn unodl crwca (the crooked one-rhymed englyn) “reverses the arrangement of the previous englyn for the wings come first and the shaft second.”  Humphries clarifies Williams’s statement thus:  “the syllable count of the lines runs seven, seven, ten, six, respectively.  The same principles apply in the echoing of the syllables that follow the main rhyme in the long line.”  His example is entitled “For a wordfarer”:

Speak them slowly, space them so:                                                                                                Say them soft, or sing them low,                                                                                               Words whose way we may not know any more.                                                                       Still, before the days go,

Sing them low, or say them soft.                                                                                                        Such a little while is left                                                                                                                     To counterpoint the soundless drift of Time,                                                                               Let rhyming fall and lift.

Space them so, with lift and fall                                                                                                        Decent in their interval,                                                                                                                 Late, archaic, who could say? — but always                                                                                    Graceful, musical.

The grace of the Welsh verse, its music, is hard to convey in English, although with these verses Humphries comes close.  As we discuss rhyme and cynghanedd, you will see many more kinds of music, and learn of some that can’t be reproduced in English to save us.  Still, we should try.  Or should we?  How, for example, could I talk about the pain of my mother’s senescence in a manner so artificial as these stanza forms seem?  Wouldn’t that kill any emotion, smother it beneath a lace doily, so to speak?  Isn’t our modern American verse well quit of all these restrictions?  Shouldn’t a Mormon poet speak truth to power, not through a burkah but through a bullhorn?  No.  If anything, we should be interested in curious workmanship, more interested than our American contemporaries.  Our verse deserves our greatest effort, because it is a gift we offer others who breathe the same language.

But hold on, I hear you say, isn’t that true of all poems?

Your turn.


[i] And his book Green armor on green ground, published by Charles Scribner’s Sons in 1956.

[ii] An introduction to Welsh poetry, from the beginnings to the sixteenth century, by Gwyn Williams, first published in 1954 by Faber; reprinted New York : Books for Libraries Press, 1970.

[iii] Unless otherwise noted, all the translations and definitions quoted in the following paragraphs are from Williams, whom Humphries follows closely.

[iv] The parenthetical translations are from Williams, found in his Appendix A.

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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3 Responses to in verse # 6 : verse control

  1. Jonathan Langford says:

    Your concluding claim, “Our verse deserves our greatest effort, because it is a gift we offer others who breathe the same language,” makes me wonder: What does it mean, in this case, to “breathe the same language”? Not only in relation to the difficulty of properly appreciating Welsh poetry and poetic forms as non-Welsh speakers, but also in relation to the importance of education, of speaking the language of specific poetic forms in order to be part of the audience to whom they can effectively speak. All forms of literature are genre-based and require a reader’s/audience member’s knowledge of conventions in order to fully appreciate what is being said or performed. It may be, though, that of all the genres, poetry is the most fragile.

    Which leads to the question of why (in our democratic times) we should expend effort on literary forms that are both inherently difficult and discriminatory, separating those who have learned how to interpret their meaning from those who lack such learning. Wouldn’t it be better simply to translate everything into more easily understood forms? Note that I’m not claiming that modern American verse is necessarily more transparent, in that respect, from other verse forms, though it may be more familiar to us. Rather, the question is why we should bother with verse at all, given its restrictions.

    It’s interesting to me in this connection that Nephi, appreciating that Isaiah’s writing couldn’t properly be understood by someone lacking a Jewish literary education, mostly didn’t choose to translate Isaiah’s prophecies into easier-to-understand format, but rather chose instead to try to educate his own people (and ourselves) enough to understand Isaiah at least partly on his own terms. This suggests to me that there may be certain kinds of meaning that simply can’t be communicated in less demanding formats.

    • Dennis Clark says:

      When I first read your comment, Jonathan, I was going to blast off a response, but then I made a fatal error: I thought about what you had said. The more I thought about it, the more complex my answer became. So I decided to undertake it another night. Well, the more I thought about my response, the longer it grew, until it turned into the next post. So you’ll need to read it there, rather than here. Sorry!

  2. I’d have to agree with that, Jonathan. Having studied a little German, I can understand how things can be “lost in translation” from one language to another, and so they must, as well, from one literary format to another. Consider book to film (or play), for example.

    Each format (genre? as in poetry vs fiction vs essay vs drama, etc) has its advantages and disadvantages in what it can communicate and how it communicates. Movies and plays can only imply motivation, where the written version of the same story can provide all kinds of information about motivation, but can not depict other things without “a thousand words.”

    Besides, isn’t that why people study literature the way they do, so they can learn how to peel back the onion layers, and get as much of the different kinds of meaning that may (or may not, for that matter–meaning can come from the audience as well as the author) exist in a work?

    I remember feeling sorry for my fellow high school English class members who complained about having to “analyze a story to death”–not because of their complaints, but because they didn’t appreciate their opportunities. For my part, I loved learning how to do that to stories (and plays and poetry and so on).

    I only wish I could have had more classes like that, but my university education went in a different direction. Oh, well.

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