In which I ponder whilst I wander on trochaic catalectic.
|Newspeak and the language of poetic form
In George Orwell's novel 1984, he describes Newspeak as a language "whose vocabulary gets smaller every year." The purpose for this intentional diminution is to limit inconvenient political conversation by limiting the vocabulary for having such conversations. Orwell posits, and I think correctly, that without the language to describe certain ideas, it is difficult to formulate those ideas, and even more difficult to pass them on.
I would suggest that a similar process has taken place with the language of poetic form. There is an extensive vocabulary built around poetic structure and meters which is fading from the popular lexicon. While there is no totalitarian regime to force this process as in 1984, there is instead a self-interested academic elite which seek to coalesce power within their own purview. The professors and literary journals that make up this elite want to keep poetry as the preserve of the literati, mostly graduates of MFA programs taught by those same professors and literary magazines run by those schools and universities.
Of course, the rudiments of the poetic vacabulary are still taught in primary and secondary schools, but with an increasing sense of disdain and distance. Elementary students may be taught to write their own rhyming poems, but by secondary schools teachers are more likely to teach advanced poetic techniques and vocabulary as if they were historical aids to understanding "the classics," not tools for creation of new poetic works. In undergraduate and graduate programs, the topics of meter and rhyme are often objects of scorn and ridicule. Postmodernism and deconstructionism are used to argue that poetry is essentially meaningless, and structural elements are derided as artificial constraints. In an odd twist on multiculturalism, professors declare that poetry has no meaning if it cannot be translated into any language, thus arguing against any structure built on syllables, meter, rhyming or rhythm.
The result of all this educational denigration is that the extensive poetic vocabulary which was once taught to students is no longer universal among even the well educated. Poetic terms such as iambic and anapestic are dismissed as artifacts of an earlier age, useful only in poetic forensics when dissecting classic literature. More complex terms such as catalectic are often ignored completely.
But what we don't know how to describe, we don't know how to conceptualize. As a liberal arts graduate from Swarthmore College myself, I have experienced this from the inside. My poetic vocabulary has been limited, and has limited my ability not only to create formal poetry, but even to understand it. As I have learned more of the vocabulary and language of traditional poetic forms, I have learned to conceptualize and use structures which I didn't know existed.
My personal quest to learn and understand the language of poetic form started by accident. I have been working on a project for a couple of years in which I have created variations on the theme of "The Road Not Traveled", Robert Frost's iconic poem about making choices. My goal has been to use various forms and mimic various authors in writing these variations.
What I have discovered in the course of this project is that there is an entire vocabulary necessary to understand the techniques and styles employed by various poets. In learning the vocabulary, I have learned the concepts, and it has opened up new dimensions in studying the poems and poets. The depth of my own ignorance on the subject was not apparent until the project was well underway. Much as the citizens in 1984 didn't know what it was that they didn't know, I didn't know how much I was missing even when I read well known poems by classic poets.
For example, when I first attempted to write a variation mimicking Dr. Seuss (Theodor Seuss Geisel), I could only describe the attempt as "Dr. Seuss-like." I had to read examples of his poetry repeatedly to discern the structure I wanted to imitate and to make sure my imitation was reasonably accurate. Later, when I revisited this poem, I decided to take a more systematic approach. I searched for reference material describing Geisel's poetic form and found that he used a very precise format called "anapestic tetrameter". I read the description carefully, looked back at my earlier effort, and immediately saw two places where I had violated the meter.
But what had just happened? I had seen a clear example and followed it, and yet I made what seemed like obvious mistakes afterwards. The reason, as I came to see it, appears to be that knowing the actual definition and seeing an explanation of why and how it works actually expanded my vocabulary, not so much with the words "anapestic tetrameter" as with the concept of this form, how it can be used and what impact it has on the reader.
Were this simple example my only one, it would not be compelling, but my experience was repeated over and over as I tried the various forms and studied the various authors. Some forms I already knew, such as the haiku or sonnet, some were new to me, such as the villanelle, but every author I studied taught me something I had not known, usually with related vocabulary.
A very concrete example of this can be seen in a quick investigation of internal rhyming. A surprising number of the authors I read used internal rhyming, often heavily, but the impact was very different in different forms. For example, look at three verses from three different authors, all of which use internal rhyming, and all to quite different effect:
Edward Lear, excerpt from "The Owl and the Pussycat"
Pussy said to the Owl, 'You elegant fowl!
How charmingly sweet you sing!
O let us be married! too long we have tarried:
But what shall we do for a ring?'
They sailed away, for a year and a day,
To the land where the Bong-tree grows
And there in a wood a Piggy-wig stood
With a ring at the end of his nose,
With a ring at the end of his nose.
Edgar Allen Poe, excerpt from "The Raven"
Once upon a midnight dreary, while I pondered weak and weary,
Over many a quaint and curious volume of forgotten lore,
While I nodded, nearly napping, suddenly there came a tapping,
As of some one gently rapping, rapping at my chamber door.
`'Tis some visitor,' I muttered, `tapping at my chamber door -
Only this, and nothing more.'
J. R. R. Tolkien, excerpt from "The Hobbit"
Far over the Misty Mountains cold,
To dungeons deep and caverns old,
We must away, ere break of day,
To seek our pale enchanted gold.
Each uses internal rhyming, but you could hardly argue that the impact is the same. Lear's rhyming leads to a whimsical, comical verse, aided by nonsense words, of course, but also by a structure that leads to an sing song recitation.
Poe's rhyming leads to an almost dirge-like reading, especially since his internal rhymes also rhyme with his external rhymes, and in subsequent lines. He also uses a neat trick that I still don't have the vocabulary to understand, where he uses internal rhyming in one line followed by rapid repetition in the next, as in "...napping, ...tapping" in one line and then "...rapping, rapping..." in the next. The repetition of the same word quickly sounds like an internal rhyme, but has the effect of a drum beat rather than a lilt.
Tolkien's use of rhyming is far more regular than the other two. In fact, while I have read these verses many, many times in my life, even reciting them on stage in a production at one point, I have never stopped to understand the meter. The rhyme pattern for this poem is aaba ccdc and so on, with a strict iambic tetrameter (four metric feet, so eight syllables) and with a very specific internal rhyme on the third line in which the first two metrical feet rhyme with the second two metrical feet. That may sound like Greek to many readers, but that is exactly my point. Understanding the meter made it relatively easy to mimic for my project, and gave me a whole new understanding of how this highly regular chanting song was written.