Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Tennyson, the First Stanza of "The Last Tournament"

This is an excerpt from Alfred, Lord Tennyson's The Idylls of the King.

A couple of notes on pronunciation: I had heard from an early age that in the case of Tennyson's long masterwork on Arthurian themes, the word "Idylls" was to be pronounced as if it rhymed with the family that the Reverend Dodson knew in Oxford, the Liddells. And so I carefully became habited to call it. But then I read somewhere (I don't recall where, I won't search for it today) that Hallam said his father pronounced it in the same way as what a car does at a stop light in the United States--i.e., as "idles".

Gawain can be pronounced with the stress on the second syllable, as is most common: "GaWAIN" with the first syllable sounding schwa, OR with the stress on the first syllable, as I did here. Given the place on the line--and that Tennyson was too skilled to not have been able to compose the line elsehow to fit the meter--I expect that, here at least, Gawain was stressed on the first syllable.

Tennyson has fallen from favor. In part rightly so, in part not. As Ezra Pound said, referring to early in his re-working of the poetic diction of English in the 20th Century, "To break the pentameter, that was the first heave". But as a result, we fail now to hear what readers a century and a half ago heard. There is much beauty in much of Tennyson's work. But there is much tedious rumpty-tum, too. Tennyson was the towering figure of the Victorian pentameter that Pound needed to break in Modern poetry. Of all poets, Tennyson was probably, apart from the flocks of bad late Victorian and Edwardian poets that thought they had the aesthetic well in hand, the poet most antithetical to what Pound saw as needing to be done to create a new, Modern, poetry.

In Tennyson's further defense, The Idylls of the King was a long narrative work, and he made it cohere. It was no mean feat, and it is deserving of our 21st-Century attention. [And I had another reason to turn my attention this way recently; an interesting currency to Tennyson in American Modernism that I will discuss elsewhere.] :-)

A "carcanet" is a necklace or jeweled collar. "Fool" means the court jester.

Monday, December 28, 2015

End-of-the-Year Prosody: Setting the Bar for the New Year

A thought in passing:

Poetry should be the most demanding of the ways of writing, not the least. All too often, people think that poetry is a matter of "expressing yourself", and it requires no mastery of any aspect of writing.

That is absurd.

One MUST be able to write a complete, grammatically correct, syntactically appropriate sentence before thinking that one can "write a poem".

The reason poetry is more demanding than prose is that it has the same strictures, but then imposes far more in addition. While adhering to form and metrical pattern, etc., one must write clearly and well.

Writing poorly is not "breaking the mold", it is laxity. Such laxity is not "creative" or "expressive" or "reflective of one's roots". Dialect, ethnic, or regional speech within a poem is appropriate, if it provides the effect one seeks; but if, otherwise, one is not in control, one is not competent. For example, if one is a mechanic but doesn't know how to use the tools in the toolbox or diagnose what needs to be repaired, one is a joke as a mechanic. But in "art", people think things are different.

If one wishes to be good at writing poetry, one needs mastery--not self-expression. Any person's self can be expressed. A poet is not distinguished by feeling, a poet is distinguished by using words to create an effect.

This post is not an apologia for writing passages in unvaried iambic tetrameter, for example, or any other repetitive or "traditional" form. But one needs to be able to do iambic tetrameter--or pentameter, heroic couplets, ottava rima, or sonnets, ballad stanzas, and so on--to learn to control the words within a phrase, a line, a stanza, a poem. Before one can master free form, one needs to master restricted form. Crawling before walking; scales and arpeggios; sketches before oil; etc.

DON'T make the mistake of thinking that Walt Whitman, e.e. cummings, Ezra Pound, William Carlos Williams, Marianne Moore, or Seamus Heaney or Derek Walcott didn't work within form and rule, however "free" their work might seem, and DON'T think that they couldn't turn a well-wrought sentence, complete with correct grammar and appropriate tone, voice, and syntax.

If one can't rhyme perfectly, one can't rhyme competently. If one can't wrestle a form to one's message, one is not a poet. Shakespeare didn't write sonnets because Shakespeare is an old dead white guy and that is just the stuffy way they did things then. Shakespeare wrote sonnets with mastery, and within their artificial form his sonnets speak to us profoundly and affectingly and with powerful authenticity.

People err in thinking that writing well is restrictive and deadening in poetry. Failing to write well, in the end, expresses slack lax ineptitude. Perhaps that is the self that some wish to express; but if that is not the hoped-for result, craft is necessary.

Or, to put it another way:

If you set your sights to the ground, you will hit your target--a very unfortunate success. If you set your sights to the stars, you will fail...but that failure might be glorious.