Living with the Truth Stranger than Fiction This Is Not About What You Think Milligan and Murphy Making Sense

Wednesday, 2 July 2008

Do you break, jam or snip?

There are no simplistic rules for poets: if there were, any duffer could write poetry. Paul Celan

When I first started writing poetry – much of which was duff – I would structure my poetry in any way that felt right. It was quite arbitrary really. Once I reached seventeen I stopped one day and took a second look at the poem I had just written and asked myself, perhaps not in so many words, "Is there an underlying structure here?" This is what I came up with.


You can't always tell a
dog by the person
pulling its lead;
some dogs are
stray:- they don't wear collars,
and answer no one's

call save that of the Wind.
They're searching for space
in archaic
chasing after the scent
of a bitch called Dream.

Two stanzas of six lines each having the following syllabic structure: 6-5-4-3-6-5. It bothered me a little that the line 'call save that of the Wind.' landed at the start of the second stanza and I did toy with the idea of having one single block of text but I also wanted to highlight the underlying structure of the piece.

When the poem first appeared in print, in a small collection, the editor reformatted the piece as follows:


You can't always tell
a dog
by the person pulling its lead

Some dogs are
they don't wear collars

Answer no one's call
save that of the Wind.

They're searching for space
in archaic tenements

Chasing after the scent
of a bitch called Dream.

Looking back I'm embarrassed by the fact I didn't object and point out what I was trying to do with the piece but I was young and someone wanted to publish me. I'm not sure that either version does justice to the piece to be honest. If she'd turned it into couplets I might be able to live with it. But why did she drop the 'and' in front of 'answer no one's call'? Looks odd.

I can understand a poet wanting to move away from prosaic formatting but should free verse be free of everything? Is there a place for form in free verse?

In "traditional" poetry (I use the term loosely) we expect lines to be units of thought, if not complete sentences then enough of a sentence so as to make some sense on its own:

Shall I compare thee to a summer's day?
Thou art more lovely and more temperate.
Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May,
And summer's lease hath all too short a date.
(Shakespeare, Sonnet 18)

This isn't always the case. In "traditional" poetry, you can categorise line breaks as end stopped lines (like those in the example above), enjambments and caesuras.

End-stopped lines put a clear rhythmic break at the end of each line, often reinforced by a comma or full stop.

Enjambments conversely run into each other and make meaning in conjunction with each other rather than independent units like end stopped lines:

April is the cruellest month, breeding
Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
Memory and desire, stirring
Dull roots with spring rain.
(T S Eliot, The Waste Land)

Caesura is a natural pause or break of which there are three kinds: an initial caesura occurs when a caesura cuts the verse into two unequal parts, the first part being noticeable shorter than the second. A medial caesura occurs when a caesura cuts the line into two almost equal parts and a terminal caesura occurs near the end of the verse. There are also apparently two varieties: masculine (which follows a stressed syllable) and feminine (just fill in the blanks).

There is a feminine medial caesura right after the question mark in the first line of this sonnet by Elizabeth Barrett Browning:

How do I love thee? Let me count the ways.

In 'Stray' we have an example of an initial caesura of the masculine persuasion:

stray:- they don't wear collars,

I'm not really much of a traditionalist though. Line breaks are there, to my mind, to delineate an underlying structure although I accept, in some spheres, a single line can be treated as a unit of thought (although it doesn't have to be a complete sentence) or a pair of lines (as in the closed couplet) or, as in the case of the poet Charles Olson, a unit of breath.

Pound promoted writing with professional competence, Olson championed writing with maximum energy. The energy of the poem is related to and springs from physical energies: specifically:

the HEAD, by way of the EAR, to the SYLLABLE
the HEART, by way of the BREATH, to the LINE.

Olson's philosophy was that instead of counting syllables – "the king and pin of versification" as Olson calls them – and metrical feet (the practice that turns most people away from poetry at an early age) Projective Verse offered the idea of "the breath-line," wherein each line in a poem represents a unit of breath to be spoken or sung. His 1950 essay is an interesting read.

I don't see this as really that different to the poetry of the 1800s. Back then the poem wasn't simply a piece of language that conveyed data; it was meant to be heard the way a song was meant to be sung and was structured accordingly. A stanza was a group of lines set off from the other lines in a poem, the poetic equivalent of a paragraph. In traditional poems, the stanza usually contains a unit of thought, much like a paragraph. The only real difference is that the lines adhere to a predetermined metrical and rhyming standard, e.g. the sonnet.

In a lengthy essay on the poet Creeley, Heather McHugh cites the following poem with its unusual line breaks:


Position is where you put it, where it is, did you, for example, that
large tank there, silvered, with the white church alongside, lift
all that, to what purpose? How heavy the slow
world is with everything put in place. Some
man walks by, a car beside him on the dropped
road, a leaf of yellow colour is going to
fall. It all drops into place. My
face is heavy with the sight. I can feel my eye breaking.

I've heard these called ambiguous line breaks. 'Ambiguous' just means 'can be read more than one way,' so a poet can manipulate the slight pause created by the line break to make readers wait to see which way the poem is going to take them. This is what McHugh has to say about it:

Looked at closely, this poem is an etude in that precise and psycho-prosodical art which keeps a line-break subtle. I say psycho-prosodical because a line can seem calculated to lead a reader toward presumptions which, in the wake of the line break, he will have to relinquish. A poem changes a reader's mind. And one of the ways it does so is through this play of sentence (the unit of thought in English syntax) against line the unit of poetic disposition). Sometimes predisposed, sometimes postdisposed, the trail of anticipations and reconsiderations is, in fact, the meaning of passage: for passage is something we have to navigate, through all its straits and turns. – Heather McHugh, Love and frangibility: An appreciation of Robert Creeley

It's a bit wordy but the bottom line is that the line breaks in this poem have intent. Creeley has something in mind.

If one thinks of the literal root of the word verse, ‘a line, furrow, turning — vertere, to turn. . .’, he will come to a sense of ‘free verse’ as that instance of writing in poetry which ‘turns’ upon an occasion intimate with, in fact, the issue of, its own nature rather than to an abstract decision of ‘form’ taken from a prior instance. — Robert Creeley, A Sense of Measure, p. 48

There are arbitrary rules (e.g. an anglicised haiku with three lines having a syllabic structure of 5-7-5) and there is nature. The question we have to ask is that, since the traditional function of the line break is largely outdated, why hang onto it? Is it simply so your poem looks like poem?

Let's consider this prose poem by James Wight:


These hands are desperate for me to stay alive. They do not want to lose me to the crowd. They know the slightest nudge on the wrong bone will cause me to look around and cry aloud. Therefore the hands grow cool and touch me lightly, lightly and accurately as a gypsy moth laying her larvae down in that foregone place where the tree is naked. It is only when the hands are gone, I will step out of this crowd and walk down the street, dimly aware of the dark infant strangers I carry in my own body. They spin their nests and live on me in their sleep.

In the conclusion to his analysis of this poem, Robert Peake has this to say:

[I]t is because the poem employs the same fundamental unit of thought as prose, and looks like an innocuous paragraph, that a further tension exists between the strangeness of the subject and the shape of the writing. In this way, we have a prose poem that realizes numerous potentials in the form while remaining unmistakably a poem, grounded in metaphor, sprinkled with internal rhyme and repetition, and building in a non-narrative fashion toward a conclusion and after-effect that transcend words. – Robert Peake, James Wright, "On Having My Pocket Picked In Rome"

So, does my old poem work if formatted this way?


You can't always tell a dog by the person pulling its lead. Some dogs are stray; they don't wear collars and answer no one's call save that of the Wind. They're searching for space in archaic tenements, chasing after the scent of a bitch called Dream.

or how about going to the other extreme:


its lead.



To borrow an expression from Ron Silliman, I could argue that the point of the short lines is to cause “the continuing refocus of attention” but to what end is our attention being refocused? It sounds pretentious.

Tim Love quotes Donald Davie in his article The End of the Line in Modern Poetry: "the amateur ... cannot be sure of having poetry at all unless he has the external features of it." I think it's a good point but it immediately raises my hackles. I want to defend my use of line breaks but I'm struggling to.

In this short poem by Lilian Moore she breaks the lines where one would naturally pause:


All day
across the way
on someone’s sill
a geranium glows
red bright
like a
traffic light.

Is this the way I should have gone when I parsed my poem?


You can't always tell a dog
by the person pulling its lead.

Some dogs are stray;
they don't wear collars

and answer no one's call
save that of the Wind.

They're searching for space
in archaic tenements,

chasing after the scent
of a bitch called Dream.

(This was my wife's favourite by the way). It seems right to break the poem into couplets because each pairing covers a unit of thought despite not being a complete sentence. Or we could try triplets:


You can't always tell a dog
by the person pulling its lead.
Some dogs are stray; they don't wear collars

and answer no one's call
save that of the Wind.
They're searching for space

in archaic tenements,
chasing after the scent
of a bitch called Dream.

Nah, I don't like that long line.

I've been writing poetry 'my way' for thirty years. It's not that I'm incapable of change but I found a system that works for me. I try and shy away from expressions like "it felt right" and I'm not one-hundred percent certain why. Ron Silliman cuts to the chase:

It is not that line breaks are not meaningful, but rather that their meaning is not fixed. Like the use of rhyme, sound, metaphor, persona – any element you choose to pick – it depends entirely upon the context, the individual poem.

So, what's he saying then? George M. Wallace interprets for us:

In other words, if I understand him aright, Ron Silliman agrees that there are any number of things that a line break choice can signify, but it really should signify something. – A Fool in the Forest

In his essay, which is worth reading, he talks about what he calls line snipping and in he lists three instances of, what I suppose I'd call, "bad practice":

Line-snipping that serves no apparent purpose can take several forms.

One is the breaking of what is essentially prose … into lines of more or less random length.

Another is the breaking of lines into a reasonably consistent physical length, so that the poem on the page has the sort of foursquare visual quality that is associated with more syllabically formal poetry.

A third questionable use of the break is to cut the line after a very small number of words or syllables, no more than, say, four being allowed to a line.

This blog originated from an expression that Rachel Fox used in a comment recently. She said that she "want[ed] to have different rules for poetry" to distance it from prose. The big question is, how many young poets writing today impose any rules on themselves other than the old standby of "it feels right"?

It's an interesting question and I'm sure some people will have a lot to say about it. Not that I'm trying to be contentious or anything.


Robert said...

Marvin Bell's credo for poetry: "learn the rules, break the rules, make up new rules, break those rules" only works if one starts at the beginning -- with actually learning the rules. Being able to articulate what "feels right" often involves an understanding of meter, syllabic count, and slant rhyme. It may not help much with process (best there to just ingest, rather than analyze), but it can help with understanding why what comes out works.

Rachel Fox said...

Now there's a lot to think about! I'll get back to you with well-thought out responses on the big line questions (maybe) but in the meantime...that Celan quotation...'any duffer'..did you make that up?

Rachel Fox said...

Oh...and another thing...this may well turn into the war of the pedants so can I just say that I was wanting 'different rules for poetry' for me. I wasn't suggesting anyone else should do like me or write like me or even think like me. Having your own style and rules and habits and language...that's all part of it, isn't it? If I'd wanted to follow someone else's line I would have joined the navy or something!

Ani Smith said...

Based on this, I think I'm a natural jammer with a naughty tendency towards snipping. :)

I confess I'm one of those irritating youngsters who 'feel it out'. I promise I'm not trying to hold on to what's left of my youth by writing bad poetry (or am I?) Thing is, poetry is like music to me, and I think I have a good ear for both.

But, I'm trying. I borrowed The Ode Less Travelled by Stephen Fry from a friend. I love him (Stephen Fry, that is... okay, my friend, too) and figured if anything could get me to learn something it would be Mr Fry's lush tones in my head.

It's um... still around. Somewhere.

[P.S. I did agree with your wife's choice of Stray version... that would have been my pick, too.]

Jim Murdoch said...

Good point, well put, Robert. We look at the grand masters of poetry and forget that in their youth they were all quite radical. No one likes to be told what to do, they like to learn for themselves but where would science be if every rocket scientist insisted on redoing every test his predecessors had carried out just to satisfy himself that the legs that held up the shoulders of the giants he was standing on weren't shaky? Okay, so poetry isn't rocket science and much of what's gone on before us has been a fashion thing but the thing about fashions is that a) they are cyclical and b) they follow rules, that's all a fashion is, a set of rules – at what length does a mini become a midi and a midi become a maxi? There are reasons things feel right. Why does the western chromatic musical scale feel right? There's a science behind it. Music is maths, plain and simple. You will not believe the effect realising that had on me. Suddenly harmony made sense. And it's the same with poetry. A limerick works for a reason and great poets are great for a reason.

Rachel, I used to have a girlfriend once who happened to be a member of the debating team and she told me that she never researched anything. She made up facts. No one ever asks you to prove your statistics in a school debate. That appalled me. I researched everything and still do. The quotation is used by Clive James in his book Cultural Amnesia.

My point about rules, at least the kind of rules that exist in poetry, is that they have evolved over a long period of time. We know when a sentence sounds right to our ear. We don't have to break it down into iambs and trochees but they're there. Just as every song you've ever sung can be reduced to sol-fa so can every poem be reduced to DUM da DUM. That cannot be denied. The freest verse still has rhythm. Your style and rules and habits and language and not under fire here. I am not saying there is one right way but some ways are clearly not as right as others.

Feelings, at least my feelings, blow hot and cold like the wind. How I feel about a poem can – and often does – change over a very short period of time. When I was young I used to refuse point blank to revise any poem after a cooling off period because I believed I was being unfaithful to the feelings that went into it. That's the way it felt right at the time so that must be the right way for that poem. It's a point of view and one I've changed. I don't seek to proselytise. I have no cause. People will do what they want to. They always have. I simply think it's a good thing to question ones working practice, to look behind the "it feels right" to see if there's more to our art than we might've thought. Poets don't do defensive well. Back them into a corner and they tend to lash out to protect their babies. This is not an attack. There is no war.

Jim Murdoch said...

Ani, thanks for that. From what I've read, Mr. Fry goes a little too far the other way. I'm sure there is middle ground (why does No Man's Land come to mind?) where there can be a meeting of the old and the new. I see this happening with music. From the 1920s on you weren't considered a serious composer unless you were working with the twelve-tone system but by the early sixties most had begun to tire of it and move back to more tonal compositions.

Experimentation is good. It helps one grow. But, and I've made this point before, experiments can – and do – fail. A lot of the poetry that was produced in the middle of the 20th century (and this goes for art and music as well) was… inaccessible to be polite. Clever it might have been but it was more about the author of the work that his or her viewers/ readers/listeners.

I can see that is changing and that's a good thing. I see a lot of experimentation on the forums but what these newer poets are experimenting with are older forms, sonnets and sestinas and the like. It was only to be expected. What I see coming out of this is an appreciation for structure as a part of poetry. I don't see a reversion to other people's rules but a setting down of new rules. There is beauty in form. It pleases us. We like symmetry. We like to see fluffy bunnies in clouds.

Art Durkee said...

There's no way to codify a set of rules for enjambment, because each poem can demand something different. I realize that's sort of what you're saying, but it needs to be underlined. It is also in part what Olson, Duncan, and Creeley (and Levertov) meant when they talked about "organic form." Letting the form emerge from the poem as it goes along, rather than trying to constrain it into a fixed, known form, is one interpretation of that idea.

The "you've got to learn the rules, then break the rules" argument is often brought up in these discussions. Here's where it fails utterly: Most poets, after they've spent all that time and energy learning the rules, almost never get around to breaking them. The people who successfully break the rules are often the unwashed uneducated, and beginners who start out with a sense of what works, but maybe couldn't tell you why. Learning the rules is about being able to explain what you're doing; but poetry is not carpentry, the edifice is not necessarily going to fall for lack of one nail.

In fact, over-education tends to stifle risk-taking; you see this in ALL the arts. (As Mark Twain once quipped, "I have never let my schooling interfere with my education.") Most poets' most radically-made poems appear in their younger work; it's rare to find a well-trained poet breaking ANY rules, after they've thoroughly learned them. Perhaps that's because it takes so long to learn the rule-set, no one has enough years afterwards in which to unlearn them. Perhaps it's because once they've learned the rules, they're too invested in them—after all, who wants to give up something they've worked so hard on, for so long? Would you?

I was never an English major, thank the gods; There are plenty of labels for grammar and syntax I don't know, or need to know, or care to know. I don't care if I ever write a sonnet; I have written some very good haibun, though. I'm pretty good at doing grammar by ear, without knowing the names of the constructions—I learn languages by ear, too. It engages the same pattern-sorting part of my mind that I use for memorizing music. (I learn language musically, by tone. Native speakers usually tell me my accent is perfect, even if my vocabulary can be weak and unsystematic.) (And I can say with some authority that what feels natural in your native tongue may not even exist in a foreign language. There are no iambs in Japanese; Indonesian verb construction is unlike anything you're familiar with from English or other European languages; if you think sounding a poem is musical, trying hearing it in !Xhosa, one of the South African click-languages.)

When I was in music school, I was a composition major—but, like in writing, they can't actually teach you creativity, they can only teach you craft. I took more music theory than you can imagine, and I never use it. Well, almost never. My job is to write music, not analyze it to justify it. Like several of my composer peers, it took me almost a dozen years to unlearn all that theory and just start writing music again. In fact, my way out was to study music from another culture, and become so immersed in that, that I just didn't use the theory. (And I can say with some authority that the reason a Western diatonic scale "feels right" is because you grew up hearing it; if you had grown up in a culture with other types of scales, those would feel equally "natural" to you, as well.)

The point is: over-learning the rules made for creative constipation that took quite a bit of work to undo. Was it worth it? Decades later, I think it probably was—in terms of a life-experience, but not in terms of my music, which has gone back to being just naturally what it was before school.

Poetry is not a technical craft: it is not a science. People who argue for learning the rules often use the analogy to science—but they ignore the truth that many great scientific discoveries were rule-breaking, intuitive, based on imagination, dreams, and sudden insights that appeared in "Eureka!" moments with no preamble. Scientific breakthrough is as much an art as it is a craft.

Jim Murdoch said...

Art, I was never suggesting that one could try and lay down rules for enjambment. You are quite right there. Nor am I recommending years of study before one puts ones pen to paper. I wrote an enormous amount of poetry not knowing what I was doing and the vast amount of it was dire. Later on I started to read about the newer poets on the block and I realised that imposing restrictions on oneself was a good idea. I never adopted anyone else's rules but I did invent some of my own.

I also disagree with the "you've got to learn the rules, then break the rules" argument. I did what I did but when I looked at it, after becoming aware of the various different approaches to poetry, I started to realise that my poetry was yearning to be structured. And so I started working on it. The amorphous blobs that were my early poems began to grow backbones.

Of course a Western diatonic scale "feels right" to me because I grew up hearing it but I learned to stretch my ears. What was it Ives said to a heckler during a performance of Ruggles' Sun Treader for the first time? "Stand up and use your ears like a man!" or something like that.

I've also never written a sonnet though I keep meaning to have a crack at a haibun. I've also never written a sonata or a passacaglia.

No one paints in the style of Giotto, Raphael or Tintoretto but does that mean we can learn nothing from looking at them? It's naïve to think so. They learned from each other and each pushed the boat out a little further from the shore. The shore is still there and it will always be there.

Robert said...

Jim, while I agree that a limerick works for a (musically scientific) reason, great poets are great for many reasons -- sometimes involving fashions or politics. Frank O'Hara's credo was "you just go on your nerve." And, indeed, he wrote nervy poems that were good precisely because they were different, edgy, and confident -- and seemed to betray so many "rules" of verse -- yet still, for some reason, they were good. Figuring out why a poem works happens afterward. If I set down to write a good poem right now, according to all the rules I learned, it would probably come out bad. But by feeling my way in to things, I start to notice some options emerge. Strangely enough, resisting the conventional choices, exercising negative capability, while still letting all that formal training play out in the background, seems to work best for actually writing.

Art Durkee said...

LOL Thus you make my next point before I had a chance to:

Which is that the best way to learn the craft of poetry, like any poetry, is to do it, make lots of mistakes, learn from them, and improve.

The best advice I've ever heard for beginning poets to learn how improve as poets remains: Read, read, read, read some more, write, read, read more, keep reading, read again, re-read, read. The best apprenticeship in poetry is to read everything, even the bad stuff that's out there.

Rules of grammar be damned: you'll learn those simply by reading a lot, and absorb them as usage without getting hung up on formal guidelines.

I know you know all this, Jim. My argument isn't really with you. I suppose I'm responding in part to all those pedants who keep rehashing the refrain of "learn the rules first," etc. I admit this is a hot-button issue for me, as I've certainly been attacked on it enough times. The thing is, though: while the pedants keep attacking, they never bring their arguments to a satisfactory conclusion, logically. They usually repeat truisms, and if they engage at all in actual dialogue they often end up agreeing with you and me. LOL

Another point I often make in these arguments, which I think bears repeating, is when the pedants argue that I or some other poet is the "exception that proves the rule," their argument fails because there are so many exceptions that prove the rule. After a certain number of exceptions that "prove" the rule, you have to question the rule itself. One or two successful exceptions can bolster their argument—but hundreds? that just undermines their logic.

Sorry to come on strong. The "know the rules first" argument irritates me all the time, because it is so often repeated as if it were a truism, with nothing to back it up, and as though it were gospel truth. In other words, it is an oft-repeated argument that few who repeat it have actually thought very much about.

Art Durkee said...

One other thought:

I remember my composition mentor in music school, William Albright, saying to me once that imposed arbitrary limits on a composition can often provide inspiration. I think that's true in poetry, too, or can be.

For example, one time I wrote a piece for english horn and vibraphone; partly because it had never been done before, and partly because two musicians who were a couple asked me to write a piece for them, that they could play together. Bill Albright helped me figure out how to work within my strict instrumental constraints. There are strict limits on what you can do, if you limit your instrumentation, or your range, or some other factor. Albright's point was that there was often an entire world within the limitations you set, even if they're arbitrary. Sometimes having unlimited freedom is the opposite of inspiring, because it gives you no place to start.

I wonder if that's similar to the imposed restrictions on your poems you were mentioning.

Ken Armstrong said...

I think your poem works quite well in each of the formats except the one which the editor imposed upon it.

'Sign of a good poem perhaps?

I don't like the word 'they're' in it - I don't really know why...

Jim Murdoch said...

Robert, I'm the same as you. I just sit down and write. I never consider the shape of the poem until it's done. Then and only then will I look at the structure of the piece and, nine times out of ten, it pops out at me. Okay, maybe a need to change a word here or there but nothing that affects the content significantly. Structure comes naturally to me but occasionally I write a piece where no amount of fiddling with it will improve it. In those cases I let content win. Content is king.

Art, this really is a red rag as far as you're concerned, isn't it? I think it's the word rule. A rule is a guide that's all. Rules are arbitrary too. That's why I talked about fashion. Poetry has gone through phases like every other art form and there have been poets who have bent their art to what is in vogue and there are those who have doggedly done their own thing. I fall into the do-you-own-thing camp, always have. I think I'm more fashionable now than I used to be. That doesn't mean I've sold out. I just think a lot more people are seeing thing my way. It'll pass.

The musical example is a good one. It's like working with a pentatonic scale – I did one in the Gypsy scale once – it enables you to try a different voice on. And, of course, my set of serial pieces. It's why I get people being attracted to haiku. There's a site I visit occasionally and all they seem to write are etherees for God's sake.

And Ken, actually, do you know something, I think I like the prose poem version best if I'm being really honest. Isn't that odd?

Robert said...

I'm sure most poets have a natural disdain for the word "rules." But as much as I agree that reading and writing are the best ways to learn to write, being conversant in basic principles can be useful. Being able to say, rather than, "I mostly like the way this sounds," something like, "I notice this is mostly in iambics, except for line seven, and it's there that it loses some of its energy and musicality" is useful not only in workshop, but in understanding one's own work from a different angle. If a writer really is a reader moved to emulation, why wouldn't you want to understand as much as possible about what you are emulating?

Jim Murdoch said...

Yes, Robert, well said. It's looking at a successful poem (one that sounds right) and considering what you've done right, not that you'd necessarily try and copy that the next time but once you've made contact with that ... let's call it a feeling ... then you can be aware of it the next time it appears and capitalise on it.

Rachel Fox said...

Hello again
Still too tied up with family daytripping to get to a proper response but just quickly...

-which word in which language was the source for the 'duffer' I wonder (if it was a translation) seems an odd choice. Also anyone can write poetry...we may not like it, we may not think it good...but pretty much everyone can have a go and come up with something (whether they may know many rules or not). And the thing is not many people can build space rockets...or perform heart surgery...or design bridges - arts are different to sciences. Hurray!

- when I talked of a possible 'war of pedants' I wasn't talking about you Jim! (and I'm as pedantic as the next person when it comes to my favourite subjects). I just wanted to put that quotation from me at the end of your post in its context really. I am a bit terrified of being misunderstood. I know...if I used punctuation better...

-I like the 'unit of breath' business. That makes sense to me. I'm sure enjambments are great if you like that sort of thing but there does seem to be a bit of a plague of them...and if you don't write like that you're just wrong and a bit stupid. They just don't appeal to me particularly...not just now anyway...all writers change, go through different phases...maybe I'll get enjambment fever in my fifties or something.

- 'learn the rules, break the rules...'I think I first heard that argument about Picasso and drawing. It is the right route for some artists/writers/musicians but that doesn't mean it is the way for everyone. Some people just do pick up a guitar, teach themselves and write their own marvellous music...never knowing any of those scientific rules that make music work. That doesn't mean their music is any less valid necessarily. Music is the artform I think of most often when pondering this subject but today I was thinking about it in terms of dance. So - yes, some people learn ballet and become ballet dancers...but lots of people never learn anything about any dance discipline and yet some of them can still do a fine dance when they hear music that moves them. So it can be with poetry...there can be rules and you can learn them if you want but you don't HAVE to do that to write a good poem.

The academic way of thinking can choke poetry if it's not careful. I think. But it can do great things too...

Jim Murdoch said...

Rachel, I can't speak for the quality of the translator's efforts but I'm sure he did his best. The man, of course, is entitled to his opinion. Art is certainly different to science but there is also technique to art. In western music there are only a basic number of chords, I through VII. You can rearrange the notes into 1st and 2nd inversions and you can add supplementary notes to colour the flavour of the chords but the basic structure is sound. Now, you can sit down and work out that placing chords in a certain order works, some of them don't feel as if they resolve (what academicians would call an imperfect cadence) and some feel like full stops (perfect and plagal cadences). You can sit with a keyboard or a guitar and work that out for yourself or you can pick up a book and save yourself a lot of time. Anyone can sit at a keyboard and pick out notes but when does what they're doing become music?

This is obviously an emotive subject and this is a part of the point that gets me. So many poets get their own danders up because they think academicians are out to stifle their creativity. I'm certainly not. I just think there's more benefit to looking at what other people have discovered or invented or even just tried and got wrong.

Now, let's say it clearly or all to hear: I am not suggesting for a moment that there is a right way to break up a poem. I'm simply asking, in the same way a kid would ask, why do certain poets break their lines the way they do? I find that a lot of times the answer is, "because it felt right" and I'm not discounting that as an answer any more than a composer who ended his piece of music with a G7 chord followed by a C (assuming the piece is in C major). There's a reason it felt right. We are used to listening to music that revolves around three chords.

Your point about someone picking up a guitar and making music is valid but they're just discovering what others have spent years on before. What's so wrong with being taught? And, yes, there are naturals, the Mozarts and the Picassos, but the rest of us need a bit of help. I will be eternally grateful to Otto Karolyi for his little Penguin book, Introducing Music. It didn't teach me how to write music but it explained that some things worked better than others. The rest I found out by muddling my way through. There is a place for both.

Robert said...

Driving around town, I managed to catch the tail end of a radio piece about teaching physics to animators. It occurs to me that the expressiveness of contemporary poetry is akin to animation -- nearly anything goes. And yet, choosing to make our characters subject to gravity, or giving them the ability to fly, must be a conscious decision that acknowledges gravity as a force, a decision that does something with gravity's existence to further the story or poem. Likewise, some of the most successful poets are those whose work acknowledges the field of poetry as a force -- and whether they chose to remain under the influence of that field, or attempt to fly out of it, their work nonetheless responds. That said, it does not have to be an academic or analytical process. Ingesting and responding, ingesting and responding, is surely one of the best ways to develop as a writer. Getting facile with terms like momentum and inertia gives one access to even more opportunity to learn about the field of influence, even as it can help make instinctive decisions more conscious.

Art Durkee said...

Actually, what bugs me is not the condition of rules, or rule-making, but the insistence of the pedants that everyone MUST know the rules. What they really mean is THEIR rules. Most people who talk about rules are trying to convince you that their rules are the right rules, no matter what they say.

It's not the existence of rules, it's the fact that someone is telling me what to do, how to be, how to think, how to act. In other words, they are trying to put themselves in a parental relationship relative to everyone else—who they basically regard as children.

If someone presented poetic craft as guidelines rather than rules, and acknowledged that they are arbitrary, being what they are because of the accident of history and tradition, then we could talk. But the voices I most often hear state the "you got to know the rules" argument don't even seem able to break out of their own cultural conditioning far enough to realize that the possibility of alternative realities exist. They usually build their case on underlying assumptions about the nature of reality that are local, parochial, and self-serving. I grew up in a foreign country, I speak several languages, and I'll say up front that most poets I've met who argue about this with me don't share that international background. LOL Having a sense of the wider context of world creativity and culture really does change one's perspective.

If just one of these pedants could acknowledge that some poets really don't know the rules before they break them, we could talk about it, and get at the truth. But most of them won't even admit to the possibility. *shrug*

Rachel Fox said...

'A place for both' - exactly. With no one way being automatically better than the other.

As for the 'editor' who reformatted your poem...I think that is outrageous behaviour personally. If an editor doesn't think a poem is right then they just shouldn't include it. They're not high school (or primary school) teachers correcting homework assignments! I get my capital letters at the beginnings of lines 'corrected' sometimes ('changed to fit in with a house style') and I really don't like it. I know the current fashion is not to start every line with a capital but it is my style, my choice. I don't have a long theoretical explanation for it but here are a few components of the looks right to me, I've never been one for fashions in other areas of life, I like a big bold start to every line, I do like a bit of a proclamation (bring out the bugles!). They take the capitals away and it doesn't look like mine any looks kind of wimpy, too well-behaved, too 'yes ma'am you're all with me what you will'! So if someone changes the letters once I question it and then just don't send to that editor again. It's a big old world - there are plenty of others.

As for free verse - I like to try out all kinds of forms....some traditional, some not. It's all using our own personal version of the language in different ways. We're all just working our way towards the best poems we can manage. We won't even necessarily recognise them matter how clever we are (and aren't we all the cleverest kids in the communicating with each other...noisy business...).

p.s.Seeing as you have arranged your poem so many ways...I'm with the wife - couplets work well in this case for me. But it's your decision in the end! We don't have much control in our lives...controlling our lines and breaks and capital letters is something we should be allowed (whether our decisions are wise or foolhardy). I know Sorlil's on holiday but the quote on the top of her page about trying and failing...that's a good one. And's Beckett!

Dave King said...

An awful lot to get hold of there, Jim. Basically I think I am with Rachel: I want to work towards my own rules - and break those. When someone says "stick to the rules" I want to ask "Which ones?" for there are so many sets. As I hinted in my current post, I think I am tending towards the "unit of breath", for example, which is nothing new, having been enshrined in the rules for punctuation in the eighteenth century. (Different rules for different ages, different purpose, different societies.)
Shame you didn't stand up to your first editor, but I think I would have done as you did at a similar stage of my development.
Coincidentally, I came to your post immediately after reading a review by Peter Robinson in which he talks of "how the flaw, the awkward moment" can be what gives a poem its grace and authenticity. But then he asks: "what is there in the awkward, clumsy moment that lets them give a poem grace and authenticity on one occasion, but wrecks it on another?" He also muses that "it is an open question whether faults of technique stick out sore-thumb-fashion more in free or regular verse. I am not suggesting there were faults of technique in your verse! Quite the contrary, for he concludes that; "fine writers transform what could be thought flaws into significant characteristics, giving formal devices unique thematic significances." I whole-heartedly agree with that, which is why I think we should always stick to our guns rather than the rules.

Jim Murdoch said...

Robert, interesting anecdote. It reminds me of something Philip Larkin said during an interview (which I may have quoted on this bog before but no matter).

You mention Auden, Thomas, Yeats, and Hardy as early influences in your introduction to the second edition of The North Ship. What in particular did you learn from your study of these four?

Oh, for Christ’s sake, one doesn’t study poets! You read them, and think, That’s marvellous, how is it done, could I do it? And that’s how you learn. At the end of it you can’t say, That’s Yeats, that’s Auden, because they’ve gone, they’re like scaffolding that’s been taken down. Thomas was a dead end. What effects? Yeats and Auden, the management of lines, the formal distancing of emotion. Hardy, well . . . not to be afraid of the obvious. All those wonderful dicta about poetry—“the poet should touch our hearts by showing his own,” “the poet takes note of nothing that he cannot feel,” “the emotion of all the ages and the thought of his own”—Hardy knew what it was all about.

Art, I know you weren't directing the point about rules to me personally but I'm going to answer it personally. I believe that too many new poets know too little about what's gone on before them. They're too keen to get on with their own stuff that they don't take the time to read anything more than what is being written by their contemporaries. I was one of them and I'm still nowhere near as well read as people reading my blogs might imagine.

I did what Larkin recommended, even though I was oblivious to the existence of the interview at that time, I got books out of the library, all the big names, and I read what they'd written and kept asking myself, Why is this great poetry? I kept looking for books that explained what they were doing but poets are awfully reluctant to explain themselves. A few, like the Imagists, were kind enough to provide a list that the common man could understand but most just waffled on and on without making any sense and I'm afraid, being Scottish (it's part of our heritage), we know when someone's full o' crap. I have no time for pretentiousness.

So, what's a guy to do? I decided to make up my own… guidelines, because they weren't rules. I've never sat down and made a list of them but, let's have a go:

1. A poem should be short, i.e. less than a page
2. A poem should be written in proper English
3. A poem should make sense, i.e. it should mean something
4. A poem should only deal with one thing at a time
5. No subject is taboo
6. Poetic language (metaphors, puns, oxymorons etc.) should be used sparsely
7. Esoteric references should be avoided or explained
8. A poem should be structured
9. A poem's structure is determined by its content
10. A poem's structure should not detract from its content

These are, as I've said, guidelines. Poems that adhere to these please me. But I see no reason to impose these on other people. That said, poems that I come across that don't adhere to these guidelines usually displease me.

Rachel, I was very young when that editor reformatted my poem – we're talking over thirty years ago – but it did leave a bad taste in my mouth mainly because I wasn't asked. Likely I would have agreed because I was so desperate to see the poem in print but I'm not so desperate these days.

I'm actually pleased to see you talk about your reasons for using capitals at the start of each line. This is really what I'm on about, that new poets have reasons behind their actions. Feelings are untrustworthy. You're quite right, the loss of capitals is a fashion thing, as is the abandonment of punctuation, but where you break your lines is another thing completely.

Poetry is language encoded. The reader is required to decode what he finds on the page. To do so he needs to know what the code is. This is why I get so frustrated with E. E. Cummings because I don't know what his rules are. I don't care that he uses non standard punctuation as long as I'm told what means what.

It's like some modern music. I saw a piece by Berio once for the descant recorder which required the performer to do some odd things like not blow into the thing or make noises and to communicate this Berio had devised new notation which was explained at the bottom of the page. Fine, make up your own rules but don't leave the reader in the dark.

I got talking to a guy on Zoetrope a while ago about his use of indents and he very kindly explained how he used them. Basically the indents indicated a breath. Once I saw what he was doing his poems became easier to read. There was more to it than that but the point was he was doing what he was doing for a reason. I was just too thick to decode the thing on my own. And I'm too thick most of the time, or lazy or something. At least with a sonnet you know what to expect and you know if it's a bad sonnet or a good one. It's so much harder to judge a poem these days.

Rachel Fox said...

Oh heck..I've just seen a typo in what I put should read 'now communicating with each other...noisy business' instead of 'no communicating'. Quite a different result!

But it's OK...I'm not the only one...

Interesting guidelines Jim! It says a lot about one stuff like that...what one thinks is important...why one feels like Judi Dench when one talks about what one does (and doesn't do).

I'm going to have a go at doing my own rule-type-things this week. I'm not sure we'll have many in common...maybe 6 (a bit) and 9 (probably most of all).

Jim Murdoch said...

Dave, I like the point Robinson makes about flaws. Very often I've found myself with a couple of awkward lines that, with a bit of work, set off a decent poem. It's like where an artist takes a blob on ink on a page or I've seen it done with a blemish in a wall and they make the odd-looking mark a part of a caricature or something like that.

The point about rules we've pretty much covered but, just like I did above, I think it might not be a bad exercise for a poet to sit down and list what his or her guidelines are. I made my list off the cuff. I'm sure with a bit of time I could refine it but it's not bad.

Freedom usually comes at a price. It's perverse I know. Rules provide structure. Structure is a good thing. I live in one. I feel secure in one.

And Rachel, like I just said to Dave, I think it would be a good thing to sit down and write your own "rules" if just for the exercise.

All this discussion inspired a poem which seems like a decent enough place to leave off these comments to be honest:

The Skeleton of a Poem

da DUM

da da DUM DUM
da da DUM DUM

da DUM

Thursday, 03 July 2008

meander said...

You have such in depth posts and even more insightful comments. One could learn so much here.

As a simple reader, I do like how the editor changed your poem, it is more forceful and reads much better.

Jim Murdoch said...

Thanks for that comment Meander. I'm sure the editor did too.

smallworld reads said...

Really interesting post. I am always very conscious about where I break lines, based solely on where it makes sense to ME. I figure that if it makes sense to me, the reader will get it. It's the ear thing. I hear the break; I break. I see the break on the page and might have to manipulate some.

Jenaisle said...

Editors should refrain as much as possible to "edit" works of art.

Poetry is also a work of art. Where would the uniqueness of each art be, if all the work presented to the editor would comply with his/her knowledge of the proper format?

Creative writing should not be as rigid as formal writing. That is why it is called creative writing.

And poetry is creative writing.

Poets/writers always appreciate it when their original work has still retained its quiddity even after proof reading. I have observed this within the interim of my stint.

Your poem is "snappy" and meaningful. The reader can interpret it several ways. It's simple but has lots to say.

Thanks for sharing.

Dick said...

A fascinating discussion following another fine piece of JM pondering. This breathless note, Jim, will add nothing to the debate. I've cut and pasted everything into Word and - kids + general domestic chaos permitting - I shall read it carefully over the next few days. But, of course, by the time I'm ready for my two bob's worth, the world will have turned and you'll have pondered anew.

Frustrating as ever. But keep them coming, Jim, and I'll have to continue to stumble along in the dust behind!

Jim Murdoch said...

Thanks for the comment Smallworld. Really this is the crux of the whole article, what criteria we use that makes sense to us. I look at so many poems and wonder what was going through the poet's head when he or she laid out their poem. I keep assuming there's a reason and if I look at it long enough the reason will open up to me but it never does and to be honest I never think about it much these days. It's something I work around whereas I believe the line break should be there to assist the reader. Poets have all the punctuation marks available to prosers (even if half of them think they can do without them) AND they have the line break and yet I'm still none the wiser.

It's been said that poetry is not engineering. I have a wife who is both an engineer and a poet, in fact her poems are far more in-you-face poetic than any of mine dripping with metaphors and ambiguity. There are techniques to writing in the exact same way as there are techniques to composing music or carving a statue; these things don't happen by magic. There is engineering at work in poetry. A sentence is a construct containing at least a noun and a verb and even if a poem is not written using standard grammatical structure our brain looks for the sentences within in to try and make sense of it, at least mine does.

You break the lines in your poems where it makes sense to you. I would like to understand that sense. I believe it should be communicable from one poet to another. Remember, a poem – a "machine made out of words" as William Carlos Williams famously called it – is meant to be read by another. Surely we want to make live easy for that reader, or at least not so hard he gives up and picks up a newspaper.

As for editors, Jena, I think it's good for a poet to step back from his work and be made to look at it with fresh eyes. Every single poem that gets included in my canon, at least every poem over the past eleven years, has been rubber-stamped by my wife who has on occasion suggested a rethink of a line here and there, something that I didn't catch because I was caught up in the moment. And that's a good thing as far as I'm concerned.

I have had an editor write to me and suggest a word change before and he was right. I had not said what I meant to say. Oftentimes we talk about our poems as if they were our children but they're not, they're products of our imagination. If I lost my daughter (who has edited herself quite a bit over the years) I'd be devastated. If I lost a poem I'd shrug and write one to fill the gap.

And, talking about kids, John, glad to hear from you. Don't fret for a second. More than most I'd appreciate your feedback on what has turned out to be quite an emotive topic. From the very first poem of yours I read, the one about the fox, I have enjoyed your work thoroughly. It's somewhat ironic that you're a school teacher because your poetry reminds me of school. The teacher would pass between the rows, gown flailing behind her and we'd groan as the sheets containing some poem or other would land on our desks, then she'd read it, then she'd start quizzing us about the piece and I could never understand how there could be the answers to so many questions in one grotty little poem. But there you go.

Please feel free to let me have your two bob's worth whenever you get round to it. Much as I enjoy your work I'm still often at a loss as to why you structure your pieces the way you do. I think, considering how much I have read about poetry over the years, it is the one topic that gets the least attention, certainly as far as modern poetics goes.

Rachel Fox said...

Rules assignment completed and ready for inspection. Sir!
Well...sort of...

Jim Murdoch said...

Thank you for that, Rachel. I'll get to it in few minutes. Remember, I'm old school - you don't get points just for getting your name right or turning up on the right day. And you lose marks for bad spelling, poor punctuation and untidy presentation.

Tommaso Gervasutti said...

I really enjoyed the poem and to me it doesn't seem something written by someone so young, I actually enjoyed the very first version appearing in the post.
Best wishes, Davide

Art Durkee said...

Well, but that's what I said:

Read, read, read, read, read some more, read, write a little, read, read, and read.

That's still the best apprenticeship in poetry ever invented, ands till the best way to learn.

It's funny about pretentiousness, though. It's something that I've been seeing a lot, lately, one poet calling another pretentious. The problem is, that's hard to define, and rather subjective as an assessment. Sometimes it seems that someone accuses me of pretension whenever I express a reasoned, thought-out, logically-consistent opinion. LOL

There has always been an anti-intellectual streak about these sort of discussions about the arts: one opinion has always been "feelings, nothing more than feelings. . . ." and it's an anti-craft, anti-intellectual opinion.

My position has always been that craft is necessary, but it's in the service of the art, and never its master. To restate the problem with the "learn the rules first" position, it tends to create a situation in which craft dominates every other aspect of the art. It's the opposite of the "feelings" position, of course: intellect rather than feelings.

Of course, the real problem is when either of those positions comes to dominate, thereby unbalancing the whole system. One needs craft AND one needs feelings. It's all about balance.

Jim Murdoch said...

Thank you for that, Davide. Stray is a poem I'll always have a soft spot for. It was my 453rd poem. I have a red binder sitting beside me as I write this which contains all my adult poems and it beings with #453. The last one I finished was #998. Once I get to #1000 I think I'll do a blog looking at my development over the years. I'm not sure if I'll pick every hundredth poem or one out of every hundred. We'll have to see.

And, Art, back for more, eh? You know someone is being pretentious in exactly the same way as you know someone is being a dick. It has nothing to do with content and everything to do with presentation. The best criterion to judge would be, I think, if they take themselves too seriously; that's a dead giveaway. I'd like to think that, although cursed with cleverness I'm also willing to extract the Michael from myself whenever possible.

I think your point about craft is well stated and one I agree with. Poetry is as much of a craft as it is an art. Just think of those ghastly office blocks that were thrown up in the sixties and seventies, functional, yes, but such eyesores. This, as I've said before, is why I will probably never write a sonnet in my life because I would have to force my words into an unnatural shape. The poem I am working on at the moment rocks back and forth between two and five syllables. It has no name but that is the shape of that piece – and, so far, I've never had to change a single word to make that shape work. Structure and content in perfect balance. Well, that's the plan. We'll see how good it is when I'm finished with it.

Rachel Fox said...

I think pretentiousness is yet ANOTHER of those pesky areas where it really is largely a matter of taste and the argument will just never end.

I think that you Jim, like me, have humour (particularly British TV humour) as a big part of your background and this means we have a very low tolerance for pretentiousness. I know I am in a continual process of trying to be open-minded about all the arts but it's hard when so, SO often I can see or hear Monty Python or French & Saunders or The Two Ronnies in my head saying 'oh, go on...look how ridiculous that looks/sounds/is'. Overall..if I had to choose...I'd keep the comedy. Boom boom!

Art Durkee said...

You're absolutely spot-on about people taking themselves too seriously. (Surely poets never do that! Ahem.) Rachel is probably also spot=on about the humor, too. Being able to laugh at oneself keeps one humble. Pretension may be an inability to laugh at oneself, but it also contains hints of arrogance and ego-inflation, laced in with the mistaken belief that one has somehow deluded one's audience into buying into it all. The Emperor's New Clothes, indeed. Rephrased, I think pretentiousness is more than self-smug humorlessness, I think it contains the belief that the readers are hicks and rubes, and can be fooled. P.T. Barnum had some words to say about that, though.

I grew up watching the Pythons on late-night public television in Michigan, the only hour they dared air it back then, and the show completely changed my world because it gave me permission to enjoy INTELLIGENT humor. Sorry, but as far as I'm concerned lots of Brit humor is sophomoric. (Which is still better than most US humor, which is just childish.) When I find the rare exception, I never let it go. The Pythons were the first of that type that I discovered in my lifetime. I discovered the Goon Show and Kids in the Hall a bit later. Two of my other favorites remain Tom Lehrer and Anna Russell. Eddy Izzard rocks.

The problem with a lot of humor is that it's desperate, and unintelligent. It talks down, and it brings the level of general smarts in the room down. even smart comedians talk only about the stupid things they've done or seen. Most humor these days, it often seems, is about the put-down or the insult or the jab. The best humor does the opposite, and usually has.

Jim Murdoch said...

Yes Rachel, you're totally right there. I think being Scottish helps too. Put on any airs and graces in any of the schools I went to and you'd get a kicking or, at best, the worst slagging of your life. I remember in secondary school they discovered poor Chinese boy was a ballet dancer. Luckily for him he got shifted to a private school.

And Art, humour is such a fascinating subject. I may need to blog about it one day. The thing one needs to do is root around and find out what's hot and what's not. A lot of the comedy shows I grew up loving, like On the Buses and Love They Neighbour I've seen episodes from years later and the humour is abysmal, sexist and racist in extremis. They the years have not been kind to it.

I'm glad you discovered The Goon Show. So many people think modern humour started with Monty Python's Flying Circus but their acknowledged debt to Spike Milligan is enormous. A lot of Milligan's humour is just plain silly but then a lot of the Python's stuff was too, it's not as if they could do no wrong.

What is frustrating is that we don't always get to hear about what's worth hearing. Our respective countries buy in what they think will bring audiences. Do you realise that apart from a couple of clips on YouTube, all I know of George Carlin's work is his part as 'Rufus' in the Bill and Ted movies?

Izzard is my daughter's favourite comedian and I love him too. I'm glad The Riches has helped him get better known in America, although, like Billy Connolly before him (in Head of the Class) what you're getting there is Izzard-lite. That was all my son-in-law knew of Billy Connolly until I sent him a couple of CDs.

If you like intelligent humour then you should really check out Demetri Martin who won the Perrier Comedy Award in 2003. He has a talent for palindromes.

Robert said...

38 posts over four days ... shame this topic didn't spark much conversation. :)

Glenn Ingersoll said...

As regards knowing "the rules" I am put in mind of a famous analogy by Robert Frost: "Writing free verse is like playing tennis with the net down."

Witty, eh?

But I gradually came to a realization about what bugs me about the analogy, that is, the danger of metaphor. Construct a clever metaphor and one ends up arguing about the metaphor rather than the actual, in this case one argues whether playing tennis without a net is playing tennis as though one were arguing about whether writing free verse is writing verse when in fact, as I am now prepared to trot out, provided anyone gives me the opportunity (or I make one):

"I don't play tennis."

Poetry isn't tennis.

Which is not to say tennis can't be poetry?

Jim Murdoch said...

Thanks for that comment, Glenn, and you're right, we do get caught up in our own cleverness and lose track of what we were on about in the first place. Debate is good but only up to a point.

As for tennis, I pretty much took Saturday and Sunday afternoon off at the weekend and watched the two Wimbledon finals. Yes, poetry in motion, usually around the 120mph mark.

Claire said...

Jim... really interesting. Thanks for linking. I think young writers begin with the "this feels right" mentality and then slowly grow into a voice and style that works, as you have. This was a really interesting insight into that process of growth.

I'm absolutely shocked that an editor reformatted your poem without first seeking your permission. I'd never dream of doing that in my magazine. How bizarre.

Jim Murdoch said...

Thanks for the comment, Claire. It is strange after all these years it still stings.

As for the "feels right" factor...yeah, it took a long time to work that out of my system. The problem is that when I was young I didn't know my own feeling about anything. Why should my poetic sense be refined when none of my others were?

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