Tag Archives: Coleridge

Poem: “Eight Legs”

Eight Legs

Odin had a spider
In a web above his throne.
“Out!” he said; it came to him.
“And up!” he said; it grew.
“Legs go this way, legs go that!”
The wind began to moan.
Odin touched a spur to Sleipnir,
Through the storm they flew.

This little poem was published in Anima, a magazine of “Poems of Soul and Spirit” which is now, as they say, quiescent (though it continues to publish books). Odin is very much a god of magic, transformation, journeys, knowledge and poetry – as well as of war and death.

To get hold of the Mead of Poetry, which was in three vats guarded in a mountain cave by a giant’s daughter, Odin changed into a snake to get inside the cave; changed into a handsome young man to persuade the giantess to give him three sips in exchange for sleeping with her for three nights; drank each vat in a single sip; and changed into an eagle to fly back to Asgard where the other gods had prepared a big cauldron for the mead. Chased by the angry giant (also in the form of an eagle) and slowed down by all the mead inside him, Odin was so scared that he shitted some of it out as he flew – but he made it to Asgard, and disgorged the bulk of the mead into the cauldron. This is the gift that the gods give when they want to make someone a good poet. And  bad poetry? That’s when you’ve been consuming the stuff Odin shitted out.

Technically, you could discuss whether “Eight Legs” is in flawed trochaics, and whether the line break between the first two lines is in the right place, and so on… But if you read it aloud, I think you’ll find it has strong stresses, weak stresses, and unstressed syllables – or else consider it as quadrisyllabics (one stressed and three unstressed syllables). I would read it as:

Odin had a spider in a web above his throne. (pause)
“Out!” he said; it came to him. “And up!” he said; it grew. (pause)
Legs go this way, legs go that!” The wind began to moan. (pause)
Odin touched a spur to Sleipnir, through the storm they flew.

Not too different from

I had a duck-billed platypus when I was up at Trinity
With whom I soon discovered a remarkable affinity
– Patrick Barrington, The Diplomatic Platypus

or

I am the very model of a modern major-general
– W.S. Gilbert, The Pirates of Penzance

or

Not always was the kangaroo as now we do behold him
– Rudyard Kipling, The Sing-Song of Old Man Kangaroo, in The Just So Stories

Poetry is very close to song; or, song is the bridge between poetry and music. Reading poetry aloud is very important for its appreciation, to bring out its rhythm (and sometimes even musical notes that flow into it naturally). That’s why poetry can be set to music, and why songs are invariably printed out in poem format.

In that context, even the line of spondees in Samuel Coleridge’s “Metrical Feet” has, like all the other lines, four stresses:

Trochee trips from long to short.
From long to long in solemn sort
Slow spondee stalks; strong foot yet ill able
Ever to run with the dactyl trisyllable.
Iambics march from short to long.
With a leap and a bound the swift anapests throng.

… because poetry in its origins (in the preliterate times of both the tribal fire and modern nursery) is designed to be memorised, so it can be chanted or sung or otherwise recited.

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Using form to convince: “Conviction”

Verse has magical powers to engage the minds of its audience and, through that engagement, sway opinions and change attitudes. This is more than the tricks that make it easy to learn verse. It is more than Coleridge’s “Prose: words in their best order; poetry: the best words in the best order.” It is that poets and singers chant, and enchant. The musician chants, the magician chants, if it is well done it creates enchantment. It changes moods, it changes minds. It is used by all religions, all football teams, all angry mobs, and all gentle singers of lullabyes. The fact of the idea being expressed in verse is used as unspoken proof of the idea’s appropriateness.

Chanting

Poetry in motion

In my last post I said that “rhyme can be used to create a sense of inevitability”. Let me explain:

CONVICTION

True verse has a rhythmic twitch
that needs ongoing action.
Rhyme’s an open pattern which
asks for satisfaction.
Give the right words, strong and bright,
and the listener knows “That’s right!”

Conviction carries over, bought
with the words expressed.
The listener believes the thought
because it came well dressed.
Give the right words, strong and bright,
and the listener knows “That’s right!”

In other words, because the words sound right (in meter and in rhyme), our minds are prepared to accept that their meaning is right, their argument is valid. As O’Shaughnessy wrote,

“With wonderful deathless ditties
We build up the world’s great cities
(…)
And three with a new song’s measure
Can trample a kingdom down.”

And that is why Shelley was able to claim that “poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world”. Poets everywhere agree!

Can you *decide* to write a poem? 

Can you decide to write a poem?

Image result for write a poem

Hmmm…

In an odd but interesting book called “Poet’s Choice” that came out in 1962, editors Paul Engle and Joseph Langland asked 100 poets from Robert Frost to Leonard Cohen to name a favourite poem, and provide some insight into their choice. (Some wrote three lines, some three pages.) One of the most extensive answers came from John Wain. Here is an excerpt:

If I write a novel, or a story, or a critical essay, I soon make up my mind as to its merits; I can read it, more or less, as if it had been written by someone else. But I cannot do this with my poems because they are more instinctual; they arrive, from some deep place in my being where forces are at work which I cannot command, though I can thwart and deny them. After a poem has arrived, and been born, I look at it much as one looks at a natural object: I didn’t write it–it happened to me. As a professional writer, I can say, “Today I will write a story,” or some criticism, or a scene for a play, or whatever it may be: but I cannot say, and no one has ever been able to say, “Today I will write poetry.”

Poems, in this understanding, are the closest form of writing to dreams. We may have some control, but not a lot. As Wain points out, we can thwart or deny them when they are available or (if they are part of our will separate from our conscious mind) when they are trying to come. But we cannot consciously create them if they are not available. They are absolutely mood-dependent. In the right mood, Coleridge could knock out the 54 lines of “Kubla Khan” as fast as he could pen them. In the wrong mood, Oscar Wilde could say “I was working on the proof of one of my poems all the morning, and took out a comma. In the afternoon I put it back again.”

So the difference is between deciding to write a poem, and knowing when you can write one. But how and when would you know you could? And can you enhance the chances of it happening? This will be the subject of the next post.

Why “formal” verse?

This blog is dedicated to the proposition that not all poetry is equal – indeed, that not all of it is even poetry. “Poetry” went off the rails in the 20th century for a variety of reasons – accidentally? suicidally? – but it is slowly getting back on track.

Chatterton

“The Death of Chatterton” – the poet died at 17 (it is uncertain whether he committed suicide or took an accidental overdose, trying to cure himself of venereal disease).

“Poetry – the best words in their best order,” said Coleridge. Aristotle says “rhythm, language and harmony,” and that it is the use of harmony that distinguishes poetry from the other language-based forms. “Harmony” again from Thomas Campion, talking of poetry as the “ioyning of words to harmony”. Ezra Pound rewrites Aristotle’s definition as “Poetry is a composition of words set to music”.

This requirement for “rhythm”, “harmony”, “music” is what has been missing from most of what people styled “poetry” through the last 50 years. But it never goes away from popular culture, because it lives in musicals, rock, c&w, rap, the chants of street protests, and the nursery rhymes and lullabyes sung to babies. It never goes away from popular culture, because it is deeply ingrained in all of us, beginning with the heartbeat that surrounds us before we are born.

And rhyme, rhythm, alliteration and other tricks of formal poetry are not just some meaningless style: they are the hooks on which we hang our memory of the exact words. Ask anyone to recite a poem, and it will be a song, a nursery rhyme, or something else with strong formal elements to it. If you want something to be memorable – not in the sense of remembering the experience, but of remembering a text word for word – if it is anything more than a dozen words, it is far, far more easily remembered if it has rhythm and rhyme.

This blog argues that formal elements are essential to poetry. “Free verse” may be insightful, emotional, witty, descriptive (or, often, none of those), but it isn’t poetry. It’s prose.